Browning and Goldhagen. Worlds Apart?

This was the real blog entry I wanted to get down today, but felt it appropriate to let you in on why I got around to this train of thought. Food poisoning plays awful tricks with the mind, which, on top of my self-pity and low moans of pain, seemed to take away any desire to do anything which would be deemed regular behaviour for a Sunday. I wrote about the Lithuanian government’s attempts to sanitise its countrymen’s involvement in the mass killings which took place right across that territory in 1941 and I thought back to my Open University Degree papers of 2007 and the set text, Christopher Browning’s 1992 book “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”. In it, for those of you who haven’t had the chance to read, this eminent US historian documents the activities of the Battalion behind the lines of advancing German troops in Eastern Poland in and after July 1941. In it, he attempts to offer an explanation of what happened and why. This, in itself, I have found to be one of the most difficult tasks ever to face a historian. For there is no simple, single solution to the question. There were hundreds of thousands of so-called ordinary Germans actively involved in the Holocaust machine, from the secretaries who processed the paperwork, to the local officials who directed forces to round up local Jews, to the rail authorities who transported them to their places of execution and the rest, which I do not intend to document here.

Yet no sooner was the ink dry on Browning’s book, than Daniel Jonah Goldhagen wrote “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, a very pointed, fascinating view of the whole of Germany at that time. I found both books riveting, though Goldhagen’s rather turgid, repetitive style detracted from what he was trying to say. It was, in a sense, an attempt to refute Browning’s assertion that ordinary Germans were not all bad. There was a lot of anger in the book, understandably, but that anger was directed far too much at Browning and not at the Germans themselves, millions of whom escaped the gallows and most certainly any form of justice after the war. The complicity of the US government is in no doubt in this, (see my previous entry about Operation Paperclip), and perhaps it was that which angered Goldhagen so much.

Why don’t historians ever agree? There is often their own, sometimes small minded prejudice which can get in the way, or more often a rigid political standpoint from which they will not be deviated. Surely they couldn’t both be right? After all, are they not both attempting to fit the facts around their own views, instead of trying to get to the truth, or is that something which is far closer to my own experiences of the past decade, (you know who you are!) The truth hurts. A lot. Sometimes, it fits our own Weltanschauung, sometimes it doesn’t, but we should all be big enough to see the other man’s point of view. Historians often make the most scurrilous criticisms of each other, doubting historical accuracy being one of the favourites, yet there is so much evidence available to support them both. What we must never do is to silence the discussion, nor allow the sanitisation and covering up of what was very clearly the most despicable regime of all time.

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