The Propagander ™ FAQ

Is the Sonderweg a Viable Theory?

Sonderweg is a historiography concept which, in its modern form, postulates that the Holocaust could only have happened in Germany because that country followed a "special path" (Sonderweg) separate from other nations and unique in its particulars. The theory claims that the anti-Semitism of the Germans was so deeply embedded in their culture and institutions that all Hitler had to do was open the floodgates and the Genocide would come pouring out. It is the most popular version of one side of the Historikerstreit debate of the 1980's (a good overview of this very interesting controversy can be found in the highly recommended TBP volume Forever in the Shadow of Hitler?).

The most infamous conceptualization of this Thesis is found in Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Goldhagen is the wrong-headed son of a Holocaust survivor, and the best-selling initiator of the modern version of the Sonderweg controversy. He is rightfully one of the most controversial of all of the Holocaust scholars, and I personally find his ideas simplistic, dishonest, and dangerous.

The contrast between the contents of the book, and the cover blurbs proclaiming it to "finally" be "The Answer" as to Why the Holocaust Occurred, is immense. These cover blurbs are overblown, they are false assertions not at all "proven" by the text.

It nevertheless was a giant best-seller in Germany because it tended to put the blame for the Holocaust on a group of elite German intellectuals engaged in "Aristocratically directed social regeneration", and it downplayed the baser and universal human emotions responsible for such horrific manifestations of hate. It is a "pat answer" of the worst kind, and leaves the German people as a whole blameless. They were merely a victim of their culture and really didn't know any better. It is what they were 'taught'.

If this supposition were true, it would follow that nations that are inclined to Genocide would have certain basic cultural traits in common. However, one is hard-pressed to find these commonalities between, for example, Cambodia and Germany, or Serbia and Rwanda. Among the many omissions in Goldhagen's book is the obvious fact that when Hitler expanded his Holocaust beyond Germany's borders, the Czechs, Ukrainians, Latvians, Poles, Slavs, French, Lithuanians, etc., were more than willing to participate in the killing, often with more gleeful enthusiasm than the Germans themselves. Did they also travel this same "special path"? The truth is that ALL nations have gotten where they are by a "special path," one unique to them.

Goldhagen's thesis is that the German people were predisposed to engage in "eliminationist anti-Semitism" by the sum total of their culture. He rambles on for chapter after chapter, detailing everything from the Brothers Grimm, Wagner, and Nietzsche to the shape of German churches to "explain" why the German people were "primed for Genocide." (Perhaps a scholar versed in Cambodian or Rwandan culture could educate us concerning the Nietzsche's and Wagner's of those respective countries?)

Goldhagen's methodology is to cherry-pick only those aspects of German literature that support his Thesis, while ignoring everything that would tend to illustrate the traditional humanitarian strain of German philosophy. The full truth is that for every Richard Wagner there is an Albert Schweitzer, and for every Nietzsche there is a Goethe. Ignoring one side and emphasizing the other is an entirely one-sided and dishonest exercise. One could perform the same sort of "examination" of any of the worlds cultures, and by selective utilization of unrepresentative sampling, "prove" any predisposition one set out to prove.

The problem with Goldhagen's hypothesis of eliminationist antisemitism as an ingrained element of German culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that it is clearly false. The monster to which he seeks to draw our attention simply is not there. You cannot draw the inference from the literature, the art or the politics of those years that the "common sense" of the people was that the Jews ought to be driven out or killed. Jews in the German-speaking lands experienced the era from the Napoleonic Wars to the rise of Hitler as a time of fairly steady progress in attaining civil liberties and full participation in social and economic life. -John J. Reilly

I am not denying that an examination of a peoples culture is useful for deep background, or that the cultural context of thoughts and movements within a society are not a contributing factor. I do, however, object to the claim that this cultural background is the major causitory factor in subsequent events, and that the existence of this cultural basis somehow mitigates guilt for criminal acts. It is especially specious to claim that this formulation of cultural predisposition is the single "Answer" to Why the Holocaust Happened.

Goldhagen has convinced himself, and he attempts--with exhaustive research and every ounce of literary eloquence at his disposal--to convince us, that this deep background is "The Answer." This is akin to claiming that examining the background of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting reveals all we need to know about the cause and effect of The Last Supper. In the end, it is popular apologist literature aimed at undiscerning Germans and designed to provide them undeserved surcease from unwanted guilt, as well as to sell books for a hack writer of limited intellectual ability.

Conclusion: It is not a viable theory.
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