At least on some level, this book is the modern equivalent of Worlds of Collision. Entertaining, compulsively readable, and gut-wrenching all at once, it makes a compelling case that the atrocities of the Holocaust stemmed from a strain of eliminationaist anti-Semitism in the German psyche going back to the medieval Rintfleisch pogroms. It quickly hit the bestseller lists, made multiple best of the year lists, and Goldhagen, who’d written the first draft of the book as his doctoral thesis, suddenly found himself a celebrity.
Alas, the acclaim was not to last. For despite all the acclaim from mainstream reviewers, serious magazines, and popular history buffs, Hitler’s Willing Executioners was so relentless in its insistence that there was just something about Germans that made them hate Jews and want to kill every last one, there really truly was, close readers began to notice that Goldhagen had left a lot out. And, just like with Velikovsky fifty years earlier, experts who had spent their entire careers analyzing the Final Solution began to read it...and were not nearly as impressed as the New York Times critic who hailed the book as “a landmark.”
Soon one bad review appeared in a historical review, and then another, and another. In short order Holocaust experts and World War II historians were writing that the book was so riddled with errors, so biased, had left so much of the story out, that it became evident the book was basically worthless for anyone trying to figure out why an allegedly civilized, cultured nation had turned on a tiny minority and all but obliterated it. Legendary Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg was particularly scathing, calling the book
"[T]otally wrong about everything. Totally wrong. Exceptionally wrong,"
while luminaries such as Hans Mommsen, Inga Clendinnen, and Yehuda Bauer charged that Goldhagen had mischaracterized several historical figures, misinterpreted or outright ignored a great deal of archival evidence, and largely failed to reconcile this alleged inborn eliminationist streak with the fact that prior to 1933, Germany enjoyed a long and deserved reputation as one of the most tolerant, enlightened, progressive nations in the world when it came to its treatment of its Jewish citizens. More than one pointed out that some of the most distinguished scientific, political, and cultural figures in modern Germany history, from Albert Einstein to Heinrich Heine to Felix Mendelssohn, were Jewish, and that openly anti-Semitic parties like the NSDAP were considered fringe at best until the Great Depression shredded the economy.
Worse, historians accused Goldhagen of either ignoring or downplaying the significant role that Austrians played in the Holocaust, even though Austria itself had been forcibly incorporated into the Reich after an internal coup. Austria’s anti-Semitism ran much, much deeper than Germany’s — Hitler’s role model Karl Luger had become Vienna’s mayor largely thanks to anti-Semitic populist rants — and the post-Anschluss treatment of Austria's Jews was a literal orgy of violence that surpassed anything in Germany proper until Kristallnacht. Hitler himself was Austrian, as were Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann and SS leader Ernst Kaltenbrunner, while Ahnenerbe leader Heinrich Himmler was born in Bavaria, which is culturally much closer to Austria than to the rest of the old German states.
Goldhagen did his best to defend himself against charges of poor scholarship and anti-German bias, and for a time he succeeded. Ultimately, though, the blowback was so fierce that he gave up on academia completely despite excellent sales and a slew of awards. Some of his later works, most notably 2013’s The Devil That Never Dies, have sounded the alarm about the rise of anti-Semitism in the early 21st century, but his critics charged that the same flaws they had found in Hitler’s Willing Executioners - misinterpretation, dicey scholarship, anti-German bias — were still evident in his later work. His career has quietly petered out over the last decade, and it’s a real shame. Goldhagen may not be a particularly careful scholar but he’s an intelligent man and a decent writer, and it would be interesting to see his take on the last few years.
Fortunately for the history-minded, there’s another book, less famous but far, far more carefully researched and argued, that considers the same question from a different angle. Instead of claiming that there is something inherently anti-Semitic in the German mindset, however, this book (and several others by the same author) draws on primary source documents, most hidden for over a century, to argue that the roots of the eliminationist rhetoric that led to the gas chambers was not inborn hatred, but something far more problematic: the deliberate and knowing weaponization of religion to persecute a tiny minority.
Kertzer’s primary focus is 19th and early 20th century Italian history, with a special concentration on the papal response to the Risorgimento and the incorporation of the old Papal States into the new new Kingdom of Italy (spoiler: the Popes were not happy at all). His earlier works include National Book Award Finalist The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the harrowing tale of how a young Jewish boy was literally torn from his parents’ arms and raised a Catholic because a servant claimed to have baptized him during a childhood illness, and he won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and the American Historical Society award for best book on Italian history for The Pope and Mussolini, a splendid look at Il Duce and his Vatican counterpart, Pius XI. Anything he’s written is well worth reading, especially for history-minded readers, although I confess that 1984’s Family Life in Central Italy, 1880–1910: Sharecropping, Wage Labor and Coresidence sounds a bit dry if you aren’t, y’know, heavily into reading about Italian peasant farmers.
The Popes Against the Jews is a real stand-out even for Kertzer. Based on extensive research in the Vatican archives, it was written at least in part as a response to John Paul II’s call for the Vatican to re-examine its own history of anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution as a way to atone for its role in the Holocaust. Kertzer was disappointed but not surprised to see that, regardless of JPII’s good intentions, the result was a report that all but exonerated the Roman Catholic Church of any responsibility for the horrors of the Nazi genocide. Kertzer’s earlier work indicated otherwise, and he drew upon primary sources such as papal letters, official documents and reports, and church-sanctioned newspapers and magazines throughout Catholic Europe to suss out the truth.
The result is readable, tightly argued, and ultimately horrifying. Far from the Church attempting to succor the Jews of Catholic Europe during what William L. Shirer called “The Nightmare Years,” Kertzer’s research drew him to the inescapable conclusion that not only did not Church do little to stop the Nazis, the Church and its Popes were responsible for priming Roman Catholics to hate European Jews for their greed, their stubborn refusal to accept the Messiahship of Jesus, and their insistence on keeping their own religion, customs, and language no matter where they lived. Worse, Pope after Pope supported writers, “scholars,” and whole religious orders in promulgating the most bloodcurdling smears against Jewry, from the Rothschild plot to destroy Christian civilization to the vicious blood libel that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood in religious rituals.
If that weren’t enough, over a century’s worth of Popes and Vatican officials not only promoted murderous falsehoods, to a man they stated, both privately and publicly, that it was the Jews’ own fault for treating Christians badly. This blatant victim-blaming held that since Jews were greedy, rich, and intent on stomping poor pious Christians into the dust Just Because, the Church was morally compelled to force Jews back into the filthy, cramped, overcrowded ghettos that the Enlightenment had abolished to — are you sitting down? You really should be — protect Christians from their evil, Christ-hating ways.
This book is not an easy read. I had to put it aside several times simply to calm down, especially after reading about how the Vatican took Rothschild money when the its finances ran low while simultaneously stoking the Dreyfus Affair in France, or how it fed anti-Semitic rants straight out of the Middle Ages to French and Italian newspapers run by the Assumptionist and Jesuit orders. For all that individual priests (including the young JPII) worked to hide Jews or smuggle them to safety during the Holocaust, the Church as a whole had spent most of its history promoting the very lies that fueled the gas chambers.
Like I said, this isn’t easy to read. But it’s a very, very necessary book, especially in a world where “patriots” shoot old people in grocery stores, gun down Shabbat worshippers at the foot of the bimah, and revive the Great Replacement Theory. I urge you to do so, or pick up anything else by David Kertzer. You’ll be glad you did.
Have you read anything by David Kertzer? Daniel Goldhagen? Are you afraid to do so? Are there other books on this subject I should have mentioned? Please share in the comments….
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