Structure and agency in the holocaust: Daniel J. goldhagen and his critics

History and Theory 37 (2):194–219 (1998)

A striking aspect of the so-called "Goldhagen debate" has been the bifurcated reception Hitler's Willing Executioners has received: the enthusiastic welcome of journalists and the public was as warm as the impatient dismissal of most historians was cool. This article seeks to transcend the current impasse by analyzing the underlying issues of Holocaust research at stake here. It argues that a "deep structure" necessarily characterizes the historiography of the Holocaust, comprising a tension between its positioning in "universalism" and "particularism" narratives. While the former conceptualizes the Holocaust as an abstract human tragedy and explains its occurrence in terms of processes common to modern societies, the latter casts its analysis in ethnic and national categories: the Holocaust as an exclusively German and Jewish affair. These narratives possess important implications for the balance of structure and human agency in the explanation of the Holocaust: where the universalism narrative emphasizes the role of impersonal structures in mediating human action, the particularism narrative highlights the agency of human actors. Although historical accounts usually combine these narratives, recent research on the Holocaust tends in the universalist direction, and this bears on the sensitive issue of responsibility for the Holocaust by problematizing the common-sense notion of the perpetrators' intention and responsibility. Goldhagen is responding to this trend, but by retreating to the particularism narrative and employing an inadequate definition of intention, he fails to move the debate forward. It is time to rethink the concept of intention in relation to events like the Holocaust
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DOI 10.1111/0018-2656.00049
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Hearts of Darkness: 'Perpetrator History' and Why There is No Why.Paul Roth - 2004 - History of the Human Sciences 17 (2-3):211-251.
Ordinary Men: Genocide, Determinism, Agency, and Moral Culpability.Nigel Pleasants - 2018 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 48 (1):3-32.
The Concept of Learning From the Study of the Holocaust.Nigel Pleasants - 2004 - History of the Human Sciences 17 (2-3):187-210.

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