Holocaust and Genocide Scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen debates his work with Josef Korbel School professors at a packed discussion.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a Harvard-education academic known for his contentious beliefs about the Holocaust, staunchly stood his ground in front of a panel of University of Denver professors earlier this week.
Goldhagen wrote Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which argues that ordinary Germans were "ready and willing" to kill Jews during the Holocaust because there was something inherently anti-Semitic in German culture. The book has been published in 15 languages, and was named by Time Magazine as one of the best non-fiction works in 1996.
The reviews, however, weren't all favorable.
"It was a powerfully different way of looking at the Holocaust, which is why there was such a vast outpouring of written and verbal response-- much of it laudatory, much of it condemnatory," Goldhagen said. "I wrote a book on what many people considered the crime of the century, which many people had settled views upon, and turned your notions around 180 degrees. It put Germans in a very bad light; Hitler killed Jews because they believed it was the right thing to do? That shocked the academic world."
Reacting to the premise of his first book, Goldhagen clarified that he never intended to blame all of the people of a country or state for a genocide, and that the only people guilty in a legal sense were those who actually committed the crimes. It was not his intention, he said, to blame people for a mass murder because of their fundamental identity.
The scholar also discussed his most recent work Worse Than War, which states that more people die from genocide than from war. The work has also been controversial because it concludes with a plea for democratic states to play a major role in intervening to stop genocide and criticizes their previous history of inaction. The argument, however, has not been generally accepted as other scholars point to the poor record of democracies initiating their own genocides.
"Democracies have the physical capability and the moral reasoning to stop genocide, yet there has not been enough external intervention," Goldhagen said. "People have a great capacity to influence their leaders-- particularly in democracies. In fact, go back to Germany for a moment. The Nazi regime was not a totalitarian regime; the regime systematically backed down when it met with resistance from ordinary Germans. All of us should start calling on our political leaders to be accountable."
Instead of delivering a lecture in the traditional sense, Goldhagen responded to questions posed by a panel of professors, including Alan Gilbert and Arthur Gilbert from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and Lisa Conant, char of the Political Science department. Of the 150 people in attendance, many included former students of Professor Art Gilbert's Genocide and the Human Condition course, in which Goldhagen's ideas are thoroughly dissected.
"I have been teaching genocide for about 30 years, and that's because of you," Gilbert said, addressing Goldhagen. "You provide me with the material that fills my classes."
Erica Rosenfield, a second-year International Studies student, was equally enthusiastic about meeting a scholar she had cited numerous times.
"It was exciting to hear Dr. Goldhagen in person, given that his work was central to Professor Gilbert's genocide class," she said. "One of the main debates in our class was whether or not democracies can effectively prevent genocide and it was interesting to hear Dr. Goldhagen engage this controversial discussion."
The lively debate soon moved to issues regarding Israel and political Islam, but Goldhagen repeatedly reinforced his core message.
"Isn't it the obligation of the Jews to oppose genocide because of the Holocaust?" he said. "Yes, but it is the obligation of everyone. The moral duty is no different because of identity. This is a universal moral: the duty to prevent innocent people from being killed. No moral reasoning can justify killing children."
Alan Gilbert, who frequently challenged Goldhagen's theses during the discussion, found common ground on this last point as well, saying it was impossible to make Hitler not evil.
"The fact is, if people are committing genocide, you don't get off from that," Gilbert said. "No one will look at it and say, oh, that's a good thing."
-Nirvana Bhatia, MA candidate in International Human Rights
Josef Korbel School of International Studies