Holocaust Research and Intellectual Freedom

Academic freedom is rarely challenged directly in liberal democracies such as Canada, but there is now an ongoing effort to suppress scholarly writing dealing with the holocaust and to threaten the employment of its authors. This case calls for the defence of human rights

By Mordecai Briemberg | 1998-05-01 12:00:00


In early 1996 Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler's Willing Executioners. The central argument of this book is that for several centuries, the vast majority of ordinary Germans had a homicidal hatred of Jews unique in Europe. According to Goldhagen, what Hitler and his Nazi regime did was "unshackle and thereby activate Germans' pre-existing, pent-up anti-Semitism." It is an "eliminationist mind-set," enduring for hundreds of years and embedded in almost all Germans, that, according to Goldhagen, is central to explaining the holocaust - the particularities of Nazism, or the specific social, political, and economic conjunctures in pre-World War II Germany and Europe. This Ph.D. thesis by a hitherto unheralded and untenured professor has had popular sales of over 500,000 and was a best-seller in 13 countries.

The counterpoint to Goldhagen's popular success has been the unsparingly critical response by acknowledged specialists in German history. Yehuda Bauer, Professor Emeritus of holocaust studies at Hebrew University and director of the Research Institute of Yad Vashem, wrote: "Goldhagen's book has been praised by journalists and public figures, but I have yet to read of a single historian who has publicly expressed agreement. Not one, and that is a very rare unanimity. In my university, this book would never have passed as a Ph.D. dissertation."


Dr Ruth Birn is one of the scholars who criticizes Goldhagen's book. Since 1991 she has been the chief historian employed by Canada's war crimes division of the Department of Justice. Ironically, according to The Boston Globe, it was Birn who directed Goldhagen to the Ludwigsburg archival materials that are the foundation of his thesis. But after reading his book, she concluded that "using Goldhagen's methods of handling evidence one could easily enough find citations from the Ludwigsburg materials to prove the exact opposite of what Goldhagen maintains."

Birn's critique of Goldhagen's use of sources was published in the Cambridge University Press Historical Journal. This journal offered Goldhagen the opportunity for rebuttal. Instead, he had British lawyers send a letter demanding a halt to further publication, inviting compensation for "libels" and asking for a statement in "open court."


Professor Norman Finklestein published his critique of Goldhagen's book in England's New Left Review. Both of Finklestein's parents were survivors of the Nazi death camps. but he disclaims any scholarly expertise in German history. What he does claim is forensic diligence.

Where Birn focused on Goldhagen's use of primary sources, Finklestein focused on Goldhagen's use of secondary sources and on the internal consistency of his reasoning. Finklestein concluded that there is copious misrepresentation of the secondary sources and illogic in his arguments. Further, reflecting on this juxtaposition of scholarly deficiency and enormous popular success, Finklestein concluded his critique with a sketch of the intellectual history of holocaust studies. Therein he advanced a hypothesis that one prominent branch of holocaust studies, to which Goldhagen's work belongs, serves as the ideological appendage to an ongoing justification of Israeli state policies.


Holt, a major New York publisher, has published a volume containing revised versions of both Birn's and Finklestein's articles, titled A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth. The advance response was the reverse of the reception to Goldhagen's book. Some of the most respected historians in the field, including Raul Hilberg, Eric Hobsbawm, Arno Mayer, Christopher Browning, and Ian Kershaw, sent Holt favorable reviews. However, the counterpoint has been a public campaign to block the book's publication and jeopardize the authors' careers and employment.

New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman lobbied Holt, publicly and privately, to drop publication because of Finklestein's "anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli views" (Foxman).

Professor Finklestein's scholarship, including his Princeton Ph.D. research, centers on the ideological character of Zionism and the historical practices of the Israeli state. His major work is Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. Finklestein is being targeted at the very time his rigorous and amply documented critiques of Zionism and historical Israeli state practice are becoming more widely known and respected. Meanwhile, Irving Abella, incoming president of the Canadian Historical Association and past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), pronounced Finklestein "an enemy of the Jewish people" and said that for Dr. Birn to publish with him is "like being published with someone from the Ku Klux Klan" (Canadian Jewish News, Jan. 29). CJC spokesman Bernie Farber decreed Finklestein "loathed and despised by the Jewish community" (Globe and Mail, Jan. 26).

Refusing Intimidation

Without success in pressuring Holt not to publish A Nation on Trial, the Canadian campaign turned to pressuring Dr. Birn. A complaint was launched with the Justice Department to investigate and sanction Dr. Birn for publishing her expanded article. Not only did she refuse to knuckle under but she stated to the Globe and Mail that "the real story for Canadians ... [is] the attempted suppression of fair comment through the exertion of political influence." For this statement she was accused by current CJC president Goldie Hershon of "what some might consider an anti-Semitic canard" (Jewish Post and News, Feb. 5).

Dr. Birn has devoted her professional career to documenting the crimes of Nazism and investigating war criminals. She drew the lessons from the holocaust that we need to build a society where one's thought and deeds, not "ancestry," count. She thought Canada might be such a place when she came here six years ago to work for the war crimes division of Canada's department of justice. Now she finds the fact that she was born German is being used to reinforce the allegation that she is anti-Semitic.

Holocaust historian Michael Marrus, dean of graduate studies at the University of Toronto, calls the attack on Birn "a scandal." He describes her work as "a distinguished contribution." But in general there is public silence from those individuals and organizations who pride themselves as defenders of intellectual freedom in Canada. Are they prepared to consign such topics as Zionism, holocaust scholarship, and explanations for Nazi extermination policies to one political organization for its "official" public account? Will they abandon to public pillory, intimidation, and unemployment those whose scholarship and integrity does not serve that organization's agenda? There have been eloquent voices when persecution comes from proclaimers of other political orthodoxies. Where are you now?

Peace Magazine May-June 1998

Peace Magazine May-June 1998, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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