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-by Jean Bethke Elshtain

How German Was the Holocaust?

Nazism spooks and fascinates us. Do a bit of television grazing any night of any week and sooner or later you are bound to happen on an advertisement for yet another video series on the "Monsters That Ran the Third Reich," replete with scenes from Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda masterwork, Triumph of the Will, with SS marching, Hitler ranting, women running into the street to toss bouquets at the Fuhrer. It is, therefore, important to be reminded that this packaging of Nazi kitsch, a kind of domestication of Nazism, is itself a morbid sign of the times. We are fascinated. But do we have a moral compass with which to guide us through the tortured maze that is Central Europe at mid-century? The books on Nazism run to the thousands, many specifically on those genocidal policies given the name "the Holocaust." Modest, reputable scholars of modern German history continue to profess a deep perplexity about how all this might have happened in precisely the way that it did. No single explanation suffices. There are many factors, many partial explanations. But eventually one seems to be peering over the edge into a hideous abyss at the Nazi phenomenon-and, one might add, though many do not, at the systematic Soviet extermination of the kulaks, with the body count in this instance going as high, in some estimates, as 10 million or more.

The Christian scholar must, or should, introduce the problem of human evil-and it would be human evil-and attempt to show the ways in which systematic and well-organized murder is, alas, an immanent possibility in human affairs given the right set of circumstances. But it is precisely this explanation that Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and John Weiss deny in the interest of promoting simplistic and, one might have hoped, outdated explanations positing an essentialist German taint. These are big books with small ideas.

Here is how the arguments work, beginning with Weiss's book, the weaker of the two. (Doris Bergen's book is a welcome exception, and I will ...

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