Controversial Holocaust book sparks German furor over blame

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BONN — Did the German public willingly conspire to help Hitler carry out the Holocaust?

A book that contends they did — American Jewish author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners" — has sold out its first German edition of 40,000 copies in less than a week and prompted a flurry of debate here.

In bookstores across Germany, customers have been confronted by television crews asking buyers of Goldhagen's book why they would purchase a work that is so unflattering toward the German people.

Some said they wanted to know what the world thought of them.

Others said they want to get a chance to develop their own opinions about the book, which has been the subject of much discussion in the German media.

For many German Jews, the book's value lies in the fact that it tells non-Jewish Germans that the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers and was not perpetrated solely by SS officials in the camps.

They point to Goldhagen's suggestion that the persecution began in schools, at the workplace, in stores, at every street corner — that it was committed by millions of "simple" Germans from every walk of life.

A first wave of largely negative criticism surfaced here and in the United States immediately after Goldhagen's book was published in America.

Many German commentators suggested that Goldhagen was merely repeating the "collective guilt" thesis, which is seen here as unfair and even dangerous.

Others criticized the book's research methods.

With the German edition now hitting the market, a new wave of public debate is under way, with almost daily newspaper articles, radio and TV commentaries.

The German weekly Die Zeit drew heavy criticism for publishing excerpts of the book in advance of publication. But other publications soon picked up the story. Another weekly newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, devoted a 20-page cover story to Goldhagen's book.

Der Spiegel attacked Goldhagen's thesis, finding it absurd to believe that every German who lived during the Third Reich was intoxicated with anti-Semitism and so was guilty of complicity in genocide.

Some commentators angrily suggested that the book was not even worth discussing, because it failed to satisfy even the lowest academic standards of research.

But Hans Mommsen, a leading scholar of the Holocaust, disagreed.

"We have to discuss the issues raised by Goldhagen because they are on the minds of so many people, even though the author has clearly failed to prove his thesis scientifically," he said.

Other scholars suggested that the book found such a fertile ground for debate because it came just a year after the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

For many here, this was an opportunity to put an end to what they viewed as an excessive occupation with the Holocaust. For them, Goldhagen was just another annoying gadfly who was confronting the German people with the country's Nazi past.

Josef Joffe, a German Jewish journalist, while favoring a debate on the book, said it should be made clear that Goldhagen was completely wrong.

"If Germans were imbibing anti-Semitism from their earliest infancy," he said, how come "today's Germany is just another normal country among other nations?"