‘What was going on at Harvard?’ What the ‘Goldhagen Controversy’ might teach us about ‘skills-based’ approaches to evaluating historical interpretations


Over the last 18 months I have been planning and teaching my department’s new History A-Level coursework module that requires students to explain and evaluate academic historians’ arguments. I have already written elsewhere about how surprised I was that the exam board my department uses had seemed to ignore 20 years’ worth of history-teacher curricular theorisation in recommending that the module be taught through a ‘skills-based’ course where the teaching of content was ‘optional’.[i] Drawing on the work of history teachers I argued that such an approach was unlikely to enable students to satisfactorily explain why historians interpreted the Nazi period the way they did. Using an example from the historiography of Nazism I now want to (speculatively and theoretically) explore why I think the ‘content optional’ approach is similarly unlikely to enable students to move beyond the banal in evaluating the relative merits of academic historians’ arguments.

To provide concrete examples for my students, I have been reading academic reviews and historiographical overviews to try to identify specific criteria by which academic historians of the Nazi regime evaluate their peers’ work. In the course of my reading I came across the academic backlash to Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners and the ensuing ‘Goldhagen Controversy’.[ii] As the title suggests, Goldhagen controversially argued that the main –  indeed only – cause of the Holocaust was what he termed German ‘eliminationist antisemitism’. This uniquely German phenomenon, Goldhagen claimed, had been brewing since the Middle Ages and after 1929 ‘ordinary Germans’ saw in the Nazis an opportunity to unleash their latent hatred and participate in a ‘national project’ to eliminate the Jews.

In some senses, Goldhagen’s book meets certain generic criteria by which one can judge a successful scholarly argument. If we assess the book’s provenance we find that Goldhagen received his PhD from Harvard; his university awarded the dissertation on which the book was based a prestigious prize; and partly due to an unprecedentedly bombastic PR campaign the book became an international bestseller. As part of that campaign esteemed historian Simon Schama’s claims that the book was ‘phenomenal scholarship’; contained ‘unavoidable truths; and ‘will permanently change the debate’ graced the book’s jacket.[iii] If the students’ analyses were to therefore begin and end with determining whether the historian passed the standard-checking protocols of historical scholarship in this instance students might have grounds to evaluate Goldhagen’s book as ‘good’.

This type of generic analysis of the book’s provenance, however, tells us very little about the book’s value as judged by most historians. In fact, despite the initial praise once Nazi specialists began to review the book an ‘avalanche of criticism’ was the result. [iv] As Bernhard Reiger noted, ‘the reaction to the book by professional historians could not have been more devastating’.[v] Some of the more scathing dismissals by leading authorities included: ‘simply a bad book’; ‘worthless as scholarship’; and ‘ahistorical’.[vi]

I have begun to approach this reaction as a type of exemplar of what historians of the Nazi regime think should disqualify a historical argument on that topic. Consider the following (non-exhaustive and not necessarily exclusively-historical) checklist and how from the perspective of his reviewers Goldhagen failed to meet the criteria. In a simplified and decontextualized form, some of these are the type of criteria that might form the basis of an ‘evaluation’ heuristic that teachers may give A-Level students in a ‘skill-based’ course.

  • Generates new knowledge? ✘

Goldhagen ‘contributed little or nothing to a deeper understanding’.[vii]

  • Plausible interpretation based on the known evidence? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument is ‘circular’ and ‘naturally, pure nonsense’.[viii]

  • Avoids factual mistakes? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument contains a ‘disastrous number of empirical errors’.[ix]

  • Avoids overgeneralisation? ✘

Goldhagen ‘generalises from the thinnest sliver of evidence’[x].

  • Avoids cherry-picking evidence to support an a priori hypothesis? ✘

Goldhagen displays a ‘highly selective use of evidence’ to justify an ‘a priori crude generalisation’.[xi]

  • Avoids unnecessary oversimplification? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument is ‘monocausal’; an ‘oversimplification’; and ‘reductionist’.[xii]

  • Displays a strong command of the existing secondary literature? ✘

Goldhagen ‘dismissed previous scholarship’.[xiii]

  • Avoids teleology? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument is ‘determinist’.[xiv]

  • Tries their best to neutralise their moral, ideological, or political agendas? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument is ‘plain and simple demonization’; ‘dogmatic, ideological history into myth’; and a ‘purely moralistic value judgement’.[xv]

I could go on. At this point you might be thinking ‘Hang on. If the book is so poor, how on earth did Goldhagen progress so far up the academic ladder before anyone intervened?’ Well, historians of the Nazi period started to ask exactly the same thing and began to investigate how, in this instance, the usual quality-assurance mechanisms of historical scholarship such as the PhD and peer review could seemingly have so badly malfunctioned. As the distinguished Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer pointed out: ‘just what was going on at Harvard?’[xvi] It was soon revealed that Goldhagen’s doctoral supervisor Stanley Hoffman, while a leading authority in his field, was not an expert on Nazi Germany. Similarly, then Harvard colleague Schama, despite being regarded as one of the finest scholars of his generation, was an expert in early modern Europe.[xvii]

It is reasonable to assume that Hoffman and Schama have probably forgotten more about the disciplinary conventions of history like those summarised in my crude checklist above than I (or the vast majority of my students) can ever reasonably hope to know. Indeed, Schama’s seminal narrative account of the French Revolution Citizens was in some ways designed as a corrective to the overly-abstract and implicitly determinist socio-economic accounts of the Revolution that had become the norm in the 1960s and 1970s.[xviii] Yet this appreciation of how history should operate at a general level and/or within their specialist field  seemingly did not enable them to satisfactorily ‘evaluate’ the merits of Goldhagen’s argument compared to Nazi specialists. Why?

While other suggestions were given, the most common explanation given by the Nazi specialists was that Schama and Hoffman lacked the necessary knowledge of the Nazi period required to activate their disciplinary knowledge. On the one hand, this accusation can be viewed as tribalism: a clear warning to non-specialists to ‘stay off their patch’. The Nazi specialists’ reasoning, however, does seem to at least partially explain the drastically differing character of the non-specialists’ and specialists’ evaluations when we consider that, to varying degrees, all of my criteria above require the evaluator to have an expert knowledge of either;

1) the Nazi regime and/or

2) German and European history prior to 1933 and/or

3) Europe and the wider world beyond Germany 1933-45 and/or

4) the current primary evidence base of the Nazi period and/or

5) the existing state of play of the secondary literature of the Nazi period.

Although they may not have been specialists in the Nazi era compared to the reviewers, it is safe to assume that Hoffman and Schama have far more than a dilettante’s understanding of Germany 1933-45. So if Schama and Hoffman can so badly misread the merits of an historical argument due to lack of contextual knowledge, what hope do my Year 13s have if only equipped with a ‘skills-based course’ where ‘content’ is ‘optional’? [xix]At best, they will be able to recite heuristics and ‘markscheme-ese’. But in terms of real evaluation, a generally-applicable repertoire of ‘skills’ regarding ‘what a good historian does’ seems to only get even the most accomplished historians so far when they have to evaluate the merits a piece of historical scholarship without a critical mass of contextual knowledge.


[i] Carroll, J. E. (2017). ‘From ‘double vision’ to panorama: using history of memory to bridge ‘event space’ when exploring interpretations of Nazi popularity with Year 13’ Teaching History 168 pp.24-36;

For a review of the critique of the ‘skills and knowledge’ dichotomy try Counsell, C. (2011a). History teachers as curriculum makers: professional problem-solving in secondary school history in England. In Schüllerqvist, B. (Ed.) Patterns of Research in Civics, History, Geography and Religious Education (pp.53-88). Karlstad: Karlstad University Press;

Pearson Edexcel (2016) Frequently Asked Questions – Coursework Guidance pp. 3-6 http://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/pdf/A%20Level/ History/2015/teaching-and-learning-materials/Coursework_FAQs_final.pdf

[ii]  Goldhagen, D. J. (1996). Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust London: Abacus

[iii] Wehler, H-U. (1997). ‘The Goldhagen Controversy: Agonising Problems, Scholarly Failure and the Political Dimension’ Germany History 15 (1) pp.88-89

[iv] Rosenfeld, G. D. (1999). ‘The Controversy That Isn’t: The Debate over Daniel J. Goldhagen’s ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’ in Comparative Perspective’ Contemporary European History pp.257-263

[v] Rieger, B. (1997). ‘‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den?’ The German Debate about Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”’ History Workshop Journal 43 pp.227-228

[vi] Kershaw, I. (2015). The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (4th Ed.). London: Bloomsbury. pp.296-299;

Jarausch, K. H. & Geyer, M. (2003). Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories. Oxford: Princeton University Press. p.53

[vii] Kershaw op. cit. pp.296-297

[viii] Kershaw ibid. 301-302; Wehler op.cit. pp.80-85

[ix] Wehler ibid. 85-88

[x] Smith, H. W. (2005). ‘The Vainishing Point of German History: An Essay on Perspective History and Memory 17 (1/2) pp.289

[xi] Kershaw op.cit. 301-302

[xii] Rieger op.cit. pp.227-228;

Stackelberg, R. (2007) The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany. London: Routledge pp.45-46

[xiii] Jarausch & Geyer op.cit. p.53

[xiv] Wehler op. cit. pp.80-85

[xv] Wehler ibid.

[xvi] Wehler ibid. pp.88-89

[xvii] Wehler ibid. 88-89

[xviii] Schama, S. (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf p.xv



2 thoughts on “‘What was going on at Harvard?’ What the ‘Goldhagen Controversy’ might teach us about ‘skills-based’ approaches to evaluating historical interpretations

  1. I’m leaving this omment only beecause you don’t mention Robert Browning’s Ordinary Men (I’m sure you ran across the title in your reading of the other materials)—Browning looked at the exact same materials Goldhagen had and came to much different conclusions. In the update of his book, Browning included an addendum refuting Goldhagen’s conclusions. You’ll definitely want to show this to your students.


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