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2005-01-26—Goldhagen—Nazis and exculpation

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2005 blog


Goldhagen provides primer
on how Nazis lie and lie

San Diego Jewish Times, Jan. 26, 2005 

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By Donald H. Harrison

Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,  told a recent San Diego conference on Shoah law and literature that people who were perpetrators of atrocities against the Jews, or who were bystanders during nazi times, have much in common with people today who resist making restitution to families of Jewish victims: “They lie a lot.”

The Harvard University political scientist said that this lying is so ordinary that skilled interrogators even can predict what lies they will hear first, and when those are disproved, what lies they will hear next.

Goldhagen lectured Sunday, Jan. 16, at Congregation Beth Israel during a two-day conference co-sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson School of Law and the Law and Humanities Institute.

For perpetrators, the very first lie—the premier line of defense—is “I wasn’t there,” Goldhagen said.  But if it can be shown that they were in fact present during the time of atrocities, then they say: “I didn’t do it.”  If then it can be shown that they did indeed participate, then they say, ‘I did it as little as possible.” 

Or alternatively, they might say “even though I did it, I was opposed to it—but I had no choice.”  Or, “I did it, but it was only because I didn’t comprehend”—as, for example: “Yes, I participated in the deportations but I didn’t understand what was going to happen to the people.”

In other words, according to Goldhagen, the perpetrators will try to transform themselves into “bystanders”—people who knew what was going on, but did nothing—and thereby take themselves one notch below on the ladder of shame.

Similarly, people who actually were bystanders will lie to make it appear that they didn’t keep silent out of malice toward the Jews or other victimized people.  Their first line of defense is “I didn’t know.”  If it can be shown that they did know, then they will say, “yes, I knew, but I could not do anything.”  Many of them will often add: “I did what I could and I wanted to do more” to help people, to act well.

Lies, lies and more lies, according to Goldhagen.

Today, there are entire groups of people who do not want to acknowledge the roles of their predecessors in the Holocaust—and do not want to make restitution to the families of the victim.  These people, who should be what Goldhagen calls “repairers,” instead try to elude their responsibilities by a variety of means. They might say “I didn’t know that I had the duty” to repair the wrong.  Or “I can’t find the person to whom I owe the repair.” Or “I don’t know who had the bank account.” 

Sometimes these latter-day abettors will attempt to divest themselves of their responsibility by arguing that the wrong was done during wartime, and that there are post-war treaties to be concerned about. Or, they say ‘let’s move on; why bring this up now; it will do more harm than good, and so forth,” Goldhagen said.

To prove a case against a Holocaust miscreant requires prosecutors to show that the person had knowledge of what was going on, that he had opportunity to act in the right way, and that he instead acted malevolently.

Perpetrators, accordingly, try to deny that they had opportunity to take the right action; they say they had no choice but to act in the way that they did; they were compelled to do so.  Bystanders, similarly, say “I couldn’t do anything anyway.”  The defaulting repairer: “I couldn’t find them.”

Goldhagen said all too often people who hear the lies of perpetrators, bystanders and non-repairers unfortunately are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.  They are willing to accept the idea that people did evil only because they were coerced—not because the perpetrators actually wanted to act evilly.

Even more underserved credence is given the defense of the bystanders, according to Goldhagen.  Typical of these defenses are such statements as “the Allies couldn’t do anything because of the war effort, but they wanted to act well,” Goldhagen said.  “The church couldn’t do more… but it wanted to act well. …”

Sometimes perpetrators try to justify their actions in terms of a higher cause.  “I was doing my duty; I had an obligation to obey orders” was one defense trotted out, and rejected, at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.  Bystanders offered similar justifications, according to Goldhagen.  “The Allies said we had to focus our resources on the war.”  Individuals--sometimes justifiably, Goldhagen allowed--said “there was danger for my family.”

Goldhagen  stated that “no one admits freely to having been criminal, evil or venal.”  Even members of death squads who murdered people by the thousands tried to find ways of exculpating themselves.  Uniformed guards would say they had been somewhere else at the time. 

The political scientist posited that when people really have the will to act well, “there are usually indications that they can point to….People who do act well take advantage of small opportunities when they can.”