Black Elk and the Lakota Sun Dance fascinate outsiders who approach traditional Native America. Black Elk was the Lakota visionary who shared his experience of the nineteenth-century traditional world with John Neilhardt in 1931 and related Lakota sacred rituals to Joseph Brown in 1948-49. Black Elk has become familiar and, perhaps, somewhat domesticated for the modern reader by way of Neilhardt's Black Elk Speaks (1931) and Brown's The Sacred Pipe (1953). The Lakota Sun Dance, banned by the federal government in 1883, has undergone an exceptional revival in the past thirty years, and this reappearance confronts the modern outsider with a disorienting counterpoint to late twentieth-century modernity. Clyde Holler, a philosophy of religion professor, aims to connect Black Elk with the contemporary revival of the Sun Dance so that both are comfortably assimilated by those of us who belong to the dominant culture of European America.
Holler's book extends his previous work on Black Elk in which he argued that the real Black Elk was not a nineteenth-century traditional Indian, but a creative theologian influenced by Catholic Christianity. In this book he hopes to show that Black Elk is the principal shaper of the contemporary Sun Dance. This would seem to represent proof for his thesis that Black Elk continually acted as an agent of adaptive change for his people, so that they would survive in modern circumstances. Also, such a critical link with the vital Sun Dance of today would seem to justify Holler's claim that Black Elk is "the greatest religious thinker yet produced by native North America" (201) and the Lakota's "greatest wicasa wakan," (223) usually translated as "holy man."
Holler's thesis and his claims are seriously problematic and demand careful comment after first taking account of the benefits Black Elk's Religion brings the reader. One asset is Holler's sharp and insightful commentary on other recent interpretive treatments of Black Elk, including Raymond DeMallie (1984), Julian Rice (1991), Michael Steltenkamp (1993), and Paul Steinmetz (revised edition 1990). Inasmuch as Holler has been one of John Neilhardt's most vociferous critics, claiming that Black Elk Speaks is a literary creation (Holler, 1984) and referring to it derisively as "Neihardt's novel," it is not surprising to find him accusing DeMallie of being "among the ranks of the misguided defenders of Neihardt's faithfulness to Black Elk's message" (8). He also calls DeMallie to task for his ambivalence about whether Black Elk had ever been a sincere convert to Christianity or if his Catholicism was a matter of expediency.
Although Holler faults Julian Rice because, like the anthropologists of the Franz Boas school, he presupposes "an ideal Lakota world" (28) -- which gives rise to "savage anthropology" -- Rice is given credit for illuminating "the old Lakota mental world" (28). Nevertheless, Holler asserts, "Rice clearly errs in estimating Black Elk's Christianity as superficial and insincere"(37).
Holler feels the most kinship with the Catholic critics Steltenkamp and Steinmetz, since they are in substantial agreement that Black Elk's Catholicism was sincere and that it fundamentally influenced his "rethinking" of Lakota tradition. "In stark contrast to DeMallie," writes Holler, "Steltenkamp presents Black Elk essentially as a progressive Catholic convert who never looked back" (12). Holler lauds "Steltenkamp's stress on Black Elk as. . . . an active creator of his people's present"(13), but he confesses that Steltenkamp fails to engage "with the work of other scholars and with source material that does not support his case" (12). Holler acknowledges that Steltenkamp's argument relies primarily on interviews with Black Elk's daughter, Lucy Looks Twice, which took place in 1973, and that he "misrepresents Looks Twice's point of view as unbiased" (15). Although faulting Steltenkamp for "overemphasis on Black Elk's Catholicism" (22) and "overstatements" (23), Holler stoutly praises his work as a "vigorous corrective to uncritical interpretations of Black Elk" (23).
Steinmetz is known for introducing the Lakota sacred pipe into Catholic ritual and for schematizing Lakota Catholicism as Ecumenist I and Ecumenist II: the former sees Christianity and Lakota religious traditions as separate and distinct while honoring or even practicing both; the latter sees Lakota traditional religion as fulfilled by Christianity. Holler notes that Steinmetz claimed in his 1980 book that Black Elk was an Ecumenist II by virtue of an unconscious integration of the two traditions, but in his revised edition of 1990 he asserts that Black Elk consciously held the Ecumenist II position. Holler argues convincingly that the evidence shows Black Elk clearly fits Steinmetz's Ecumenist I position, and that Steinmetz has improperly claimed Black Elk for the Ecumenist II position (36).
Holler's treatment of the Sun Dance has both virtues and faults. The reader will appreciate his thorough survey of the extant (written) accounts of the Lakota Sun Dance between 1866 and the present. Included are descriptions of the "classic" Sun Dance prior to the 1883 ban, an account of the institution of the ban by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, evidence regarding clandestine continuance of the Sun Dance during the years of the ban, and a tracking of the revival of the Sun Dance beginning in the 1950s. Holler provides a valuable summary of the changes, such as the forty-eight-hour (two days and two nights) dance of the early 1880s versus the four-day (with no night dancing) dance of the 1980s. Aside from Holler's claim that Black Elk has influenced changes in the contemporary dance, he acknowledges that "the continuity in the dance is remarkable, particularly given the long hiatus in its public performance imposed by the ban" (199). Among the continuities, Holler notes that "The dancers still wear skirts, blow whistles, and carry sage. Piercing continues, and sacrifice is still the essence of the dance. Flesh offerings are still made in solidarity with the pledgers"(199).
Holler's concerted attempt to claim that the form of the contemporary Sun Dance derives primarily from the influence of Black Elk founders on the weakness of evidence for such a connection and the necessity for a series of highly speculative hypotheses which seriously beg the question. All depends, for example, on Holler's claim that Black Elk's account of the Sun Dance found in Brown's The Sacred Pipe was on Black Elk's part an intentional modern adaptation of the Sun Dance rather than an idealized account by a man named Kablaya who received it in a vision. Holler would have us believe that Kablaya is a "story-telling device" which "allows Black Elk to speak directly to his contemporaries, enabling him to be prescriptive without discussing or criticizing actual dances" (141). Holler goes on to claim that "The themes and emphases of his dance are clearly a response to his own times," in which he is following a Catholic model of "a seven-rite ritual complex" (141). Several of Holler's points in this regard deserve thoughtful consideration to see whether they would be persuasive within an overall assessment of the rites in The Sacred Pipe and the degree to which that text can be taken as a trustworthy representation of Black Elk's words. However, Holler's enthusiastic conclusion that "The Sun Dance presented in The Sacred Pipe is thus primarily a product of Black Elk's religious imagination, a traditionalist Sun Dance for his own time, described imaginatively as literature or story rather than performed as ritual" (141-42), needs to be tempered with the reminder that Lakota Sun Dances were never the product of "religious imagination" in the form of some holy man's reflective "response to his own times," but always conformed to an actual vision received by the holy man. Holler is in danger of interpreting Black Elk in Holler's own "philosopher of religion" image.
The same objection stands against Holler's further claim that The Sacred Pipe actually influenced the Lakota holy men of the 1950s and '60s, since it implies that holy men are influenced by a sort of history-of-ideas process instead of by their own sacred visions. Holler himself reiterates throughout the book that the most constant factor accepted by all interpreters is that no two Sun Dances are alike because they are always governed by a holy man's vision. Furthermore, Holler simply has no evidence that holy men in this period were in any way familiar with The Sacred Pipe. In fact, Holler does not have any information about the holy men of the post-Black Elk period except for Frank Fools Crow, and that material is largely dependent upon the unexamined quality of Thomas Mails's reporting. Even in the case of Fools Crow, who was at least acquainted with Black Elk, Holler is unable to cite any specific linkage to the Sun Dance in The Sacred Pipe.
Holler is eventually driven by his argument to claim that "it is simply impossible to imagine him [Fools Crow] writing a book like The Sacred Pipboth of these assumptions.
The standard contemporary Sun Dance is a four-day ceremony without night dancing, but in The Sacred Pipe a thirty-six-hour day-night-day dance is described. Also, Holler stresses that Black Elk's ideal Sun Dance omits individually oriented pledges by the dancers such as seeking power for healing and emphasizes instead pledges directed toward communal well-being, which Holler calls "a new type of pledge" (199), although he lamely admits that this latter theme "was always latent in the dance" (199). Any personal acquaintance with contemporary Lakota Sun Dances will straightway show that individual concern for healing and for strength to deal with personal problems is an omnipresent feature without any sense of competition with the goal of promoting the welfare of the whole community. Holler's effort to make such distinctions is misplaced and reflects his minimal exposure to actual Sun Dances, actual sun dancers, and actual holy men. The evidence to which he points suggests a conclusion opposite his own, since the absence of individually oriented pledges in the Sun Dance found in The Sacred Pipe registers its difference from the Sun Dance of today.
The evidence is also against Holler's thesis in his associating Black Elk with today's Sun Dance by way of Fools Crow, whom he describes as "the most influential interpreter of the Black Elk tradition" (164). The reader should recall that "the Black Elk tradition" is Holler's thesis rather than a reality already attested to; he attempts to give it reality largely by attaching it to Fools Crow. Indeed, Holler's own description of Fools Crow indicates that Fools Crow had been conducting Sun Dances continuously since 1929, which scarcely suggests that he was primarily instructed by The Sacred Pipe published in 1953. The single point held in common between the two holy men is that they were both practicing Catholics while retaining traditional Lakota understandings.
Fools Crow is linked to the history of the clandestine Sun Dances under the ban, and it is possible that "the strongest contemporary link to these dances is probably the dance associated with Frank Fools Crow and held at Three Mile Creek near Kyle" (151), but there were many other holy men and their social history is not examined here. Holler attended the last two days of this particular dance in 1983. Though he would like the reader to think that this Sun Dance represents the living proof of "the Black Elk tradition," he is unable to cite any of its history. He appears completely unaware that this Sun Dance had been under the powerful direction of a holy man (and, formerly, Episcopalian lay leader) named Dawson Has No Horse until his death in 1982, and that James DuBray, who was functioning as "intercessor" in 1983, was Has No Horse's brother-in-law. Fools Crow himself no longer played an active role, although he had been Has No Horse's mentor. The critical factor, however, is that Has No Horse's leadership of this Sun Dance was dominated by his receiving direct instruction from a "spirit man" named Canunpa Gluha Mani, whom Has No Horse first encountered at a Sun Dance in 1974. It was under Has No Horse's leadership that this dance was moved from Porcupine to the location near Kyle where Holler visited it.
Holler is completely uninformed about the kinship relations, community groupings, and factionalism present in this Sun Dance, and he was disoriented enough to place the road accessing the encampment to the south rather than to the east of the dance circle. If he were better informed about the actualities of this Sun Dance, he would have been aware of the presiding influence over this dance of Has No Horse's widow Emily, and would know that in 1992 Has No Horse's son Sidney parted company with the Sun Dance at Kyle and initiated a Sun Dance on the family compound at Wakpamni Lake, which is always scheduled so as to include night dancing on the full moon in July. In doing this Sidney Has No Horse was not promoting "the Black Elk tradition." He was carrying out the time-honored practice of Lakota holy men in following his own visions, along with the oral instruction handed on by his father and the assisting presence of his mother.
Still, there is something more deeply wrong in Holler's book than far-fetched hypotheses and paucity of supporting evidence. These are merely symptoms of a deeper fault, the presumption that a scholar who has mastered textual documents, but has little awareness of oral culture and virtually no lived experience with Lakota people, is entitled to impose his own culturally derived meanings upon Lakota realities and expect this process to be taken seriously. Holler is not alone in this; his apparent unconsciousness of the impropriety of this sort of scholarship is possible because it represents, too often, the norm for scholarship on Native peoples in North America. Edward Said's Orientalism appeared nearly twenty years ago, seriously impacting Middle Eastern studies, and sophisticated movements in postcolonial understanding have permanently changed scholarship regarding Africa and South Asia, but in North America university presses still favor scholarship with the colonizing attitude represented by Holler's book. Therefore, it is urgent that we be clear about its faults in this regard.
In his preface Holler claims his approach is that of an objective observer with no particular political agenda, but he also refers to Native North America as representing "technologically primitive cultures," and reports that "the 'other' we find in the world religions is not so decisively other as the other we find in native North America" (xviii). Although contemporary Lakota sun dancers are no more "technologically primitive" than Holler, it is important to him to view them as being "other" and the phrase "technologically primitive" gives a clear signal about the cultural intentions hidden beneath the neutral-sounding methodology Holler claims for himself, e.g., insider-outsider perspectives (xii) and "old fashioned understanding of scholarly objectivity" (xvi). The "other" which is "technologically primitive" is an "other" which "we find," and the "we" who do the finding are, presumably, technologically sophisticated. The opposition here is the familiar one of civilized and savage, and in the political and economic realities of the conquering, colonizing, and dispossessing of Native peoples of North America by European peoples the functional polarity became and remains, in some respects, that of oppressor and oppressed, of dominant culture and subjugated culture. The banning of the Lakota Sun Dance is one of the infamous instances in which the relation between the dominating "we" and the disempowered "other" was played out, in an act which Holler concedes was a form of "cultural genocide" (113). Holler engages in no self-reflection about his own positional participation in the disparities of this cultural divide; instead, he dresses himself in the innocuous innocence of the "we" in "we find," which belies the privilege of the conquering colonizer to make the "other" into an object of inquiry and to control its meaning by being in charge of all the terms and definitions..
The ugliness of the we-other thinking reveals itself in Holler's more than incidental usage of the pejorative term "torture" as an alternative for the word "piercing," which is universally employed by Lakota people to describe in English the central sacrificial act of the Sun Dance ritual. Other verbal slips like "savage past" (181) and "warpath" (104) signal that the author is treating his project with the nineteenth-century mentality of the "white settler" still operative in some part of his psyche.
More serious than his terminology is Holler's penchant for construing the meaning of Lakota realities to fit European-American concepts. The concept of change is central to Holler's fundamental thesis that Black Elk is an intellectual hero, a creative agent of change who assisted his people's adaptation to modernity. Holler congratulates himself for reversing the Boasian view which saw change as negatively impacting Native peoples creating in the vanishing Indian stereotype. One of the corollaries to his thesis is Holler's claim that banning the Sun Dance retarded rather than promoted "religious adaptation."
Holler's underlying assumption is that "meaningful change" would be produced by encounter with Christianity and European American culture. What is desirable from Holler's perspective is that Lakota tradition modernize, and he praises Black Elk for providing precisely that modernizing leadership.
To Holler, change is benign, even beneficial. "Meaningful change" for the Lakota would be, in Holler's mind, adaptation to progress. There are really two kinds of change here; the painful, horrific, and genocidal change required of the Lakota, and the evolutionary, progressive, and inevitable change of European America. Whereas one change is adaptive, the other is considered civilizationally normative. Holler presumes that the reality of matters is as "we" say it is; he provides no reflexive critique of the normativeness of his own European American worldview. His Christianity is that normative referent to which Lakota traditionalists must adapt, rather than a Christianity undergoing its own adaptive changes to an American context and to Native sacrality. Holler's concept of change functions as a covert presumption of assimilation to the dominant system on the part of Lakota people and tradition; underlying the apparent exoticism of their contemporary Sun Dance is Black Elk's presumed Catholic modernism, which represents a grand intellectual achievement.
There undoubtedly is change occurring within Lakota tradition, and if Holler were interested in it he would have talked to Lakota sun dancers and holy men to find out about it. Instead, he presumes to tell them and us what it really is in terms of "the Black Elk tradition," which he has discovered by reading texts of other-than-Lakota authors and by astute hypotheses and construals of meaning from a Eurocentric viewpoint. At every Sun Dance I have attended I have heard affirmations of world perspectives decidedly in conflict with Newtonian physics and Kantian metaphysics and also keen and critical comments on modern culture, but I have yet to hear the sort of modernist commentary which Holler has formulated as "the Black Elk tradition."
Finally, one must doubt whether Black Elk himself would recognize "the Black Elk tradition." Holler's Black Elk resembles the construction of a noble savage for the modern era, a holy man who routinely demythologizes his visions in a sophisticated European-American fashion. Holler introjects conceptual dichotomies from the dominant culture, such as power versus truth (213) and literal versus symbolic (214), to set the stage for asserting that Black Elk was no literalist, but continuously modified his vision to suit the evolution of his understanding and changing circumstances. "The vision is filled with symbols and there is no reason to assume that Black Elk did not realize that they were symbols" (215). Statements such as this complete the process of constructing Black Elk in Holler's own projected image and demonstrate how far from Lakota reality the self-image is. What Holler praises in Black Elk is not his vision of the sacred at age nine, but his creative intellect which makes him "so much more than simply a boy who fell sick and dreamed of heaven" (221). From this we might conclude that Holler seriously misunderstands the Lakota view of visions, and in his misunderstanding perceives no impropriety in assuming the prerogative of anointing Black Elk as the modern savior of the Lakota people, nor anything amiss in categorizing this man as a "religious thinker." The reader needs to consider that the Lakota people may be expected to have their own processes for selecting heroic leaders and may not yet have converted the category of sacred visionary into "religious thinker."
When Holler writes that Black Elk's "vision has been the major shaper of the Lakota religious present" (186), it is clear that he does not mean a shamanic encounter with spirits, but rather a creative intellectual process, as when he writes that, in contrast to traditional holy men, "Black Elk's innovation in The Sacred Pipe is clearly conscious, and it takes place on a more self-consciously theological level" (185). Clyde Holler can choose not to take Lakota visions with ultimate seriousness, but it suggests cultural imperialism for him to claim that Lakota holy men who are worthy of praise are those who interpret their visions according to the reality rules of European-American religion. Surely the tide will soon turn, and no longer will it be taken as acceptable in the world of scholarship to write a supposedly definitive book about Black Elk and the Lakota Sun Dance without any evidence of having consulted with actual Lakota holy men, sun dancers, or tribal elders.
Like many people, I was surprised when Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners spent twelve weeks on the New York Times bestseller list last year. I knew little about the book itself; but I thought it unusual for a revised doctoral dissertation to be welcomed so enthusiastically by the reading public. Now that I have read Goldhagen's book, I am more surprised than ever. To state it bluntly, Hitler's Willing Executioners is not reader-friendly. Its sheer mass and length (over 600 pages, including more than 125 pages of endnotes) make it a daunting text. Further diminishing its accessibility are longish, poorly organized chapters and prose that is occasionally tortuous and often repetitive. Given these flaws, how does one account for the unprecedented commercial success Hitler's Willing Executioners has enjoyed?
This question can not be answered simply by referring to the book's subject matter, for not every book that deals with the Holocaust becomes a bestseller. Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews is an interesting case in point. In his autobiography, published in 1996 as The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996), Hilberg details the extraordinarily long and dispiriting process which led to the publication of The Destruction of the European Jews in 1961. Securing approval to undertake graduate research on Holocaust perpetrators, contracting a publisher once the dissertation was completed, and locating an appreciative readership were arduous tasks. Today Hilberg's book regarded as a milestone in the history of Holocaust scholarship. Yet it was eight years before it found a publisher, and much longer before the author's contribution to understanding the Shoah was widely acknowledged.
Thus, the sensation surrounding the appearance of Hitler's Willing Executioners indicates that much has changed in the forty years since Hilberg completed his study of the Nazi Final Solution. First, the willingness of American readers to purchase and read scholarly books devoted to the Holocaust seems to have developed considerably since the 1950s. Furthermore, today more than ever a book's fate hinges on its publisher's marketing efforts and the attention it can garner in the pages of influential magazines. Accordingly, some credit for the success of Hitler's Willing Executioners must go to Alfred A. Knopf and to the positive press the book received in such journals as The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Review of Books, and The Christian Century.
However, one thing that has not changed in forty years is the reaction provoked by an audacious young author who challenges views that have gained acceptance in the scholarly world. In Hitler's Willing Executioners Daniel Goldhagen assumes the role of provocateur by depicting analyses of Holocaust perpetrators published before his own as narrow, superficial, and distorting. In fact, he seems to regard "conventional explanations" as significant only inasmuch as they illuminate the dark alleys and dead-ends of historical investigation. In Goldhagen's view, "popular and scholarly myths and misconceptions about the perpetrators abound," and he clears these from his path with the subtlety of a bulldozer. "This account of antisemitism is wrong" (43) is a typical preface to one of these clearing actions.
Established scholars can not be expected to stand idly by as the academic landscape is rearranged. Indeed, scholarly vilification of Goldhagen's book has lagged only slightly behind popular celebration. The 1997 gatherings of The American Academy of Religion and the Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches featured sessions devoted to Hitler's Willing Executioners. And within a year of the book's original publication two volumes of scholarly critique have appeared, one in Germany (Julius H. Schoeps, ed., Ein Volk von Modern? Die Dokumentation zur Goldhagen-Kontroverse um die Rolle der Deutschen im Holocause [Hamburg: Hoffman and Campe Verlag, 1996]), and the other in the United States. Hyping the Holocaust: Scholars Answer Goldhagen, a product of the 1997 Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, is a fairly complete catalog of scholarly resistance to Hitler's Willing Executioners and its author. In the preface by editor Franklin H. Littell, Goldhagen's book is called a "diatribe in academic format," "a bad book, [that is] prejudiced and repetitious" and based on inaccurate sources, a work that displays self-righteousness and "dismissive arrogance. . . . toward the life work of more mature and careful researchers."
The contributors to Hyping the Holocaust ably follow Littell's lead. Hubert G. Locke charges that Goldhagen's work presumptuously "scorns much of a half-century of painstaking research and study. . ." Furthermore, it suffers from a "tendency toward bombast," is based on scant documentary evidence and asserts grand conclusions where the evidence is weakest, ignores data that does not support its argument, and is "as racist toward Germans as it accuses Germans. . . . as having been toward Jews." According to Peter Hoffman, Goldhagen is fond of "blanket statements" and "reiterative verbiage" and displays ignorance of subjects he claims to understand. Erich Geldbach writes that the book is reductionist, unoriginal, and self-aggrandizing. According to Wolfgang Gerlach, Goldhagen satanizes the Germans and uses a pamphleteering style that arouses the feelings more than the understanding. Herbert Hirsch contends that Goldhagen constructs a straw-man argument by simplifying and caricaturing the views of established scholars, while elevating "his own argument to the point of self-promotion." Richard V. Pierard writes that Goldhagen's "has set back the cause of Jewish-Christian reconciliation." Eberhard Jäckel finds Goldhagen's a "thoroughly inadequate, disappointing dissertation" that is full of errors and out of touch with the latest scholarship. The crescendo of denunciation in Hyping the Holocaust is reached by Jacob Neusner, who charges that Goldhagen's book is racist, hate-the-Hun propaganda masquerading as serious scholarship. It indicates, Neusner opines, "the very corrupt character of intellectual life at Harvard University." About the best these authors are willing to say of Hitler's Willing Executioners is that it "achieves some penetrating phrases" (Jäckel, 163).
Goldhagen's publisher promised that Hitler's Willing Executioners would provoke intense debate. Unfortunately, however, to this point genuine debate has been silenced by the celebratory cant of the book's champions on one hand and the vilifications of its enemies on the other. In Hyping the Holocaust -- and in many of the reviews that have appeared over the last year -- a sober evaluation of Goldhagen's thesis has given way to attacks on his scholarly etiquette, his personal motives, his university, and even his doctoral committee.
Two real issues have been touched on in the Goldhagen debate thus far; and a third is likely to dominate the debate in the future. One is the value of previous scholarly interpretations of the Holocaust's perpetrators. According to Goldhagen, analyses of the Holocaust not only have overemphasized the role of Nazi true believers, they also have focused too narrowly on the death installations and mobile killing units. As a result, they have tended to overlook the thousands of ordinary Germans in police battalions, in work camps, and on death marches who brutalized and murdered Jews "face to face." Particularly misleading in Goldhagen's view are studies that highlight the depersonalized, bureaucratic character of the Final Solution. In contrast, the perpetrators he describes had no bureaucratic interests to advance by their involvement (384). Nor were they "desk murderers"; rather, their cruelty was "personal, direct and immediate" (386). In general, Goldhagen contends, the killing of Jews by Germans was not "coldly uninvolved," but "wrathful, preceded and attended by cruelty, degradation, mockery and Mephistophelean laughter" (398).
Goldhagen avers that conventional explanations of the Holocaust are unsatisfactory because they cannot account for the initiative, cruelty, and zeal of the ordinary Germans who took part. Nor do they explain why these men and women ignored opportunities to avoid killing or to ameliorate Jewish suffering. Finally, by positing the existence of universal human traits, conventional explanations neglect the identities of both Jewish victims and German perpetrators. By doing so, Goldhagen contends, they deny rather than acknowledge the perpetrators' humanity. Understandably, the first wave of reaction to Hitler's Willing Executioners has been in large part a response to his blanket dismissal of these "conventional explanations." But beyond the instinctive defense of turf and reputation lies a real issue: has Goldhagen hit on a dimension of the Holocaust that has been understudied by scholars?
A second issue that has fueled the Goldhagen debate is the author's resuscitation of the "German character" explanation for the Holocaust, a view that is implicitly confirmed throughout Hitler's Willing Executioners -- in the author's proclivity for referring to perpetrators as "the Germans," and in statements such as ". . . . Germans were fundamentally antisemitic" (63), and "because the perpetrators of the Holocaust were Germany's representative citizens, this book is about Germany during the Nazi period and before, its people and its culture" (456). Understandably the wind of this particular controversy has blown most fiercely in Europe.
In my opinion, however, once the storm begins to subside, the crux of the "Goldhagen debate" among serious scholars will be located in the author's contention that the participation of Germans in the Final Solution can be accounted for on the basis of a single motivational factor. For some time now, Holocaust researchers have shared Goldhagen's concern to understand the genocidal activities of "ordinary" perpetrators who were neither Nazi ideologues nor members of Hitler's inner circle. However, unlike Goldhagen, previous scholars (for example, Christopher Browning and Robert Jay Lifton) have chosen to study relatively homogeneous groups of perpetrators whose members share a professional identity or war-time experience. Moreover, each has advanced a variety of explanations for the participation of their "ordinary men."
For Goldhagen, the "cultural cognitive model" that informed German society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provides a sufficient cause for German participation in the Holocaust. In my opinion, this claim will be the lightning rod for the ongoing debate over the significance of Hitler's Willing Executioners.
Since the scholarly response to Hitler's Willing Executioners has been almost universally negative, any explanation for the book's commercial success must try to account for its appeal among "average" readers. Though the reasons for a book's popularity are not easy to ascertain, this appeal seems to be rooted in Goldhagen's common-sense approach to his subject; that is, his insistence that the Holocaust resulted from the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of willing individuals. This straightforward exposition has several advantages in reaching a wide readership. It is comprehensible to nonscholars; it is more emotionally satisfying than approaches that focus on bloodless abstractions such as "the Nazi bureaucratic machine"; and it appears to cut through obfuscating scholarly verbiage. For readers in this country, furthermore, Goldhagen's assessment of the social consequences of prejudicial thinking appears to have found resonance in the American imagination, where racism and social strife are firmly linked.
What is the common sense argument Goldhagen advances in Hitler's Willing Executioners? Early in the book Goldhagen makes it explicit:
While Goldhagen's thesis is clear from the outset, its implications come to light only gradually as the author analyzes evidence of, and discounts conflicting explanations for, the Nazi Final Solution. As readers proceed, they discern the building blocks for Goldhagen's interpretation of German participation in the Holocaust:
To substantiate these propositions, Goldhagen treats in turn the ordinary German men and women who served in police battalions, who were assigned to "work" camps, and who conducted Jews on death marches at the war's end. He decided to study these groups, Goldhagen tells us, because each has been insufficiently discussed in previous studies of the Holocaust and "because they provide a difficult test for [his] explanation" (376).
In the first case, Goldhagen analyzes in detail the wartime activities of several police battalions (primarily 65, 309, and 101). He concludes that the Order Police, despite its haphazard and nonelite composition, "was as integral to the commission of the Holocaust as the Einsatzgruppen and the SS were" (181). Goldhagen devotes two chapters to assessing the war-time career of Police Battalion 101, noting that its members repeatedly volunteered to murder Jews, though all the evidence indicates they could have avoided killing duty without serious repercussions. Goldhagen concludes that "not only did virtually all the men of this battalion kill, but they killed with dedication and zeal. . . ." (262).
Goldhagen stresses that the ordinary men who served in these police battalions should be regarded as broadly representative of German society, and that "the conclusions drawn about the overall character of the members' actions can, indeed must be generalized to the German people in general. What these ordinary Germans did also could have been expected of other ordinary Germans" (402, italics in original). Thus, the fact that these ordinary Germans became willing and brutal murderers who displayed striking initiative in carrying out the Final Solution speaks volumes about German society as a whole during the 1930s and 40s.
Other reviewers have noted Goldhagen's discussion of the death marches and its contribution toward elucidating this little-known aspect of the Holocaust. Yet Goldhagen's assessment of the guards who led these marches could be applied to members of the Order Police as well. He writes, for example, that the guards who supervised the Helmbrechts death march "were mainly non-SS, not clearly distinguishable from some haphazardly selected group of Germans. . . The Jews [on the march] were not being guarded by people any more ideologized, any more in the grip of eliminationist antisemitism, than was the norm in Germany at the time" (363). Goldhagen stresses that, notwithstanding the chaos reigning in the German ranks by war's end, these guards "generally acted in adherence to the basic, genocidal tenets of the German ethos during its Nazi period" (365).
As building blocks in the superstructure of Goldhagen's thesis, these arguments have simultaneously attracted fans and incensed rival scholars. But there is one thing on which all readers can agree: Goldhagen is dedicated to understanding the part average Germans played in the Final Solution. While he acknowledges that "Hitler and the Nazis were obviously the driving force behind the persecution and eventual slaughter of Jewry," Goldhagen insists that "the German people's own prior antisemitism created the necessary enabling condition for the [Nazis'] eliminationist program to unfold. . . . (448).
As we have seen, the Goldhagen debate has raged mainly around contested points of historical interpretation. But Hitler's Willing Executioners also raises religious issues for readers willing to consider them. One is the role of the will in human behavior. Goldhagen discounts explanations of the Holocaust that "do not conceive of the actors as human agents, as people with wills, but as beings moved solely by external forces. . . ." (13). But the "model of choice" he utilizes to interpret German atrocities as "acts of voluntarism" not only displaces rival explanations of the perpetrators' behavior, but also resurrects age-old theological questions: What is the will? Is it free? Is it naturally tuned to seek good or evil? These questions do not interest Goldhagen the historian, but they lurk behind his text and are ready to seize the thoughtful reader.
Another matter of interest for religious readers is the book's message that during the Nazi era "belief governed action." Toward the end of Hitler's Willing Executioners, Goldhagen makes explicit what he has implied throughout: In the Holocaust certain beliefs associated with the European antisemitic tradition became "the necessary cause of. . . . widespread, frequent, thorough, and unmerciful brutality toward the Jews. . ." (396). As religious readers study passages in which Goldhagen details "the moral bankruptcy of the German churches" (e.g., 107ff; 434ff), they will be forced to wrestle with the pernicious potential of faith to affect the security and survival of real persons.
Finally, religious readers will likely notice one of the book's historical weaknesses. In Part I of Hitler's Willing Executioners Goldhagen constructs a background for his description of modern German antisemitism by sketching a portrait of Christian Jew-hatred in the centuries prior to the Holocaust. But the picture he draws is distorted. Part of the problem is Goldhagen's reliance on dated sources; he cites Joshua Trachtenberg, Malcolm Hay, and James Parkes, but fails to mention more recent interpreters of religious antisemitism such as John Gager, Rosemary Ruether, Gavin Langmuir, or Hyam Maccoby. Most problematic, however, is Goldhagen's failure to reproduce the church's historic ambivalence vis-ā-vis the Jew, a characteristic it did not share with Nazism. Given that Goldhagen locates the font of the church's theology of the Jew in John Chrysostom rather than in Augustine (whom he does not mention), it is no wonder he does not depict this ambivalence. But its absence leads him to exaggerate the link between Christian Jew-hatred and eliminationist antisemitism, a flaw that in turn distorts his view of the connection between religious and racial forms of Jew-hatred.
On the book's dust jacket, the publisher of Hitler's Willing Executioners promises that it "will change the way that this greatest horror of the twentieth century is understood." This remains to be seen. What is certain is that the book has temporarily placed individual German perpetrators at the center of scholarly and popular debate about the Holocaust. In doing so, it has provided a corrective to approaches that diminish personal and cultural cognition in order to highlight the roles of technology, bureaucracy, and modernity itself.
Nevertheless, in my view Daniel Goldhagen has brought us no closer to a single explanation of the Holocaust than did Raul Hilberg in 1961. While he sheds light on the cognitive world that underlay the perpetrators' murderous acts, the work of Hilberg and others continues to elucidate the social and administrative dimensions of the perpetrators' universe. In combination with existing perspectives, Goldhagen's book lends our picture of the Holocaust new clarity. Nevertheless, a few regions of this composite portrait remain obscure.
One is the role of gender in accounting for the actions of the mostly male perpetrators of the Shoah. Disappointingly, Goldhagen does not view the construction of masculinity any more seriously than have previous historians of the Holocaust (some of whom, incidentally, are women). For example, in his lengthy discussion of Police Battalion 101 Goldhagen considers virtually every dimension of the men's identity -- their age, social class, party membership, degree of Nazification, marital and family status -- except the one all of them shared: masculine gender. Despite the growing influence of gender studies in the humanities and in some analyses of the Holocaust, Goldhagen simply disregards the evidence -- much of it in the perpetrators' own accounts of their actions -- that patterns of male socialization were behind the killers' obsessive need to "harden" themselves through the brutalization of noncombatants and their decisions to murder innocent civilians rather than risk being viewed as "cowards" by their peers and superiors.
This lacuna is not the book's only flaw, but it reflects Hitler's Willing Executioners' overall contribution to understanding the Holocaust: While Goldhagen has rendered an important service to students of the Shoah, his book neither makes previous studies obsolete nor obviates the need for further research on the Holocaust's perpetrators.
STEPHEN R. HAYNES
In the "culture wars" raging in America, surely one of the most contested items is the role (or lack thereof) of religion in public education. Warren A. Nord, director of the Program in the Humanities and Human Values at the University of North Carolina, has written an extraordinarily insightful and useful book on the subject. He lays out his agenda in a series of questions:
Nord sets out in a systematic way to answer them. One can hardly imagine a more comprehensive treatment of the subject.
After he explains that Western culture and American public education have been completely secularized, Nord argues for the inclusion of religion in the textbooks and curricular offerings of public secondary schools and undergraduate collegiate programs. His theme is that modernity -- a combination of science and technology, economic and political liberalism, pluralism and individuality -- is hostile to religion. He convincingly argues that the textbook (and corresponding curricular) omission of religion amounts to indoctrination of students, which is neither educationally sound nor constitutionally permissible. "To ignore religious points of view in any text or any course in which religiously contested opinions are at issue is to denigrate those alternatives" (168). That amounts to indoctrination.
The solution he proposes is to teach religion in public education. He makes this case, not as a religious apologist, but on secular grounds: "A liberal education should initiate students into a self-conscious search for better, more reasonable, more humane ways of thinking and acting; it liberates students from parochialism by enabling them to see and feel the world in new ways. . . A liberal education is an invitation to a conversation" (200-201).
For an education to fit this model, religion must be part of the conversation: "Perhaps no discipline has more potential for fulfilling the task of liberal education than religious studies, for it is our religious traditions that now provide a true adversarial culture to the dominant secular intellectual movement of the last several hundred years. If we want to provide students with critical perspective on the basic assumptions of modernity -- and postmodernity -- religion is the place to begin" (319).
More "separationist" than "accommodationist" in his understanding of the separation of church and state, he argues for "neutral separationism": religious matters must not be excluded from public education if government is to be truly neutral toward religion and nonreligion. After he makes this argument, he elaborates it in chapters focusing on the specific issues of evolution and economics, religious studies, religion and moral education, and vouchers.
Nord's argument is disquieting to several assumptions. Secularists and/or scientists will be uncomfortable with the assertion that they wear cultural blinders; not only does their worldview discredit and devalue religion, but by ignoring it in the educational process is, in reality, hostile to religion. Timid educators and textbook publishers have damaged public education and, consequently, American culture by excluding religion because it is controversial and might damage book sales. Religious conservatives will be displeased with Nord's insistence that introducing religion to public education is not a step toward a "Christian America," but toward broad and multicultural understanding: neutrality does not mean just evenhandedness among Christian groups, but neutrality in the treatment of all religions and between religion and nonreligion. On vouchers, Nord argues that the principle of neutrality means that the state must make available the opportunity to attend religious schools to people financially unable to do so on their own; but his strong preference is that public schools get it right on education about religion, thereby eliminating the demand for vouchers.
This is a marvelous book, carefully and fully documented. Nord has read widely in history, philosophy, science, education, and constitutional law. He is thorough in his argumentation, but never obscure or unclear. Religion and American Education is mandatory reading for all educators, religious leaders, politicians, opinion-makers, or anyone else who is concerned with the quality