Daniel Goldhagen was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Erich and Norma Goldhagen. He grew up in nearby Newton. His wife Sarah (née Williams) is an architectural historian, and critic for The New Republic magazine.
Erich Goldhagen is a retired Harvard professor and is the father of Daniel Goldhagen. He is a Holocaust survivor who with his family was interned in a Jewish ghetto in Czernowitz (present-day Ukraine). He credits his father as a "model of intellectual sobriety and probity". Goldhagen has written that his "understanding of Nazism and of the Holocaust is firmly indebted" to his father's influence. In 1977, Goldhagen entered Harvard and remained there for some twenty years, first as an undergraduate and graduate student, then as an assistant professor in the Government and Social Studies Department.
During early graduate studies, he attended a lecture by Saul Friedländer, in which he had what he describes as a "lightbulb moment": the functionalism versus intentionalism debate did not address the question, “When Hitler ordered the annihilation of the Jews, why did people execute the order?” Goldhagen wanted to investigate who the German men and women who killed the Jews were and their reasons for killing.
Goldhagen has a son named Gideon, and a daughter named Veronica.
As a graduate student, Goldhagen undertook research in the German archives. The thesis of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust proposes that, during the Holocaust, many killers were ordinary Germans, who killed for having been raised in a profoundly antisemitic culture, and thus were acculturated — "ready and willing" — to execute the Nazi government's genocidal plans.
Goldhagen's first notable work was a book review titled "False Witness" published by The New Republic magazine on April 17, 1989. It was one in a series of hostile reviews of the 1988 book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? by an American-Jewish professor of Princeton University born in Luxembourg, Arno J. Mayer. Goldhagen wrote that “Mayer’s enormous intellectual error” was in ascribing the cause of the Holocaust to anti-Communism, rather than to anti-Semitism, and criticized Prof. Mayer's saying that most massacres of Jews in the USSR, during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 were committed by local peoples (see the Lviv pogroms for more historical background), with little Wehrmacht participation. Goldhagen accused him also of misrepresenting the facts about the Wannsee Conference (1942), which was meant for plotting the genocide of European Jews, not (as Mayer said) merely the resettlement of the Jews. Goldhagen further accused Mayer of obscurantism, of suppressing historical fact, and of being an apologist for Nazi Germany, like Ernst Nolte, for attempting to “de-demonize” National Socialism. Also in 1989, historian Lucy Dawidowicz reviewed Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? in Commentary magazine, and praised Goldhagen's "False Witness" review, identifying him as a rising Holocaust historian who formally rebutted “Mayer's falsification” of history.
In 2003, Goldhagen resigned from Harvard to focus on writing. His work synthesizes four historical elements, kept distinct for analysis; as presented in the books A Moral Reckoning: the Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair (2002) and Worse Than War (2009): (i) description (what happens), (ii) explanation (why it happens), (iii) moral evaluation (judgment), and (iv) prescription (what is to be done?). According to Goldhagen, his Holocaust studies address questions about the political, social, and cultural particulars behind other genocides: “Who did the killing?” “What, despite temporal and cultural differences, do mass killings have in common?”, which yielded Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, about the global nature of genocide, and averting such crimes against humanity.
Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996) posits that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were "willing executioners" in the Holocaust because of a unique and virulent "eliminationist antisemitism" in German identity which developed in the preceding centuries. Goldhagen argued that this "eliminationist antisemitism" was widespread in Germany, that this type of antisemitism was unique to Germany and because of it, ordinary Germans willingly killed Jews. Goldhagen asserted that this mentality grew out of medieval attitudes with a religious basis, but was eventually secularized. Goldhagen's book was meant to be a "thick description" in the manner of Clifford Geertz. As such, to prove his thesis Goldhagen focused on the behavior of ordinary Germans who killed Jews, especially the behavior of the men of Order Police (Orpo) Reserve Battalion 101 in occupied Poland in 1942 to argue ordinary Germans possessed by "eliminationist antisemitism" chose to willingly murder Jews in cruel and sadistic ways. In this, Goldhagen was essentially rehashing much of what had been published before, adding his touch of intentionalist prose to already covered ground. Scholars such as Yehuda Bauer, Otto Kulka, Israel Gutman, among others, asserted long before Goldhagen, the primacy of ideology, radical anti-Semitism, and the corollary of an inimitability exclusive to Germany.
The book, which began as a doctoral dissertation, was written largely as an answer to Christopher Browning's 1992 publication on the Holocaust, Ordinary Men. Much of Goldhagen's book was concerned with the same Order Police Battalion 101 that Browning had studied, though with very different conclusions. Browning’s book recognizes the impact of the unending campaign of anti-Semitic propaganda, but takes other contributing factors into account as well such as: the fear of breaking ranks, career advancement, the concern of not being seen as weak, and the issue of the bureaucracy of a state apparatus. Likewise, Browning asserts that battlefield conditions and peer-bonding imparted their coercion on the behavior of the Germans. Goldhagen does not acknowledge these other variables for their overall influence on the volunteer police battalions and maintains that they acted exclusively of their own volition, motivated intrinsically by putative anti-Semitic eliminationism. These alleged shortfalls nothwithstanding, Goldhagen's book went on to win the American Political Science Association's 1994 Gabriel A. Almond Award in comparative politics and the Democracy Prize of the Journal for German and International Politics, for helping to sharpen public understanding about the past during a period of radical change in Germany. Time magazine reported that it was one of the two most important books of 1996, and The New York Times called it "one of those rare, new works that merit the appellation 'landmark'".
On April 8, 1996, each author participated in a symposium hosted by the United States Holocaust Museum. Here, Daniel Goldhagen further expounded upon his research and understanding of antisemitism and the role that it played in the actions of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. He further defines his understanding of German culture and the inherent antisemitism which this maintained at the time of the Holocaust and for the centuries prior. This presentation was followed by that of Christopher Browning in which he maintained that it was more circumstance, than antisemitism which allowed for the actions of these men.
The book sparked controversy in the press and academic circles. Some historians have characterized its reception as an extension of the Historikerstreit, the German historiographical debate of the 1980s that sought to explain Nazi history. The book was a "publishing phenomenon", achieving fame in both the United States and Germany despite being criticized by some historians, who called it ahistorical and, according to Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, "totally wrong about everything" and "worthless." Due to its alleged "generalizing hypothesis" about Germans, it has been characterized as anti-German. The Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer claims that "Goldhagen stumbles badly," and
Does not seem to be acquainted with some basic developments in German society in the nineteenth century. Certainly, there was what he calls eliminationist antisemitism and its impact increased as the century matured...But antisemitism came in different forms, and Goldhagen puts all antisemitism in the same basket, including the liberal type that wanted to see the Jews disappear by assimilation and conversion...The vast majority of German antisemitics did not wish to abolish formal Jewish emancipation. Goldhagen makes much of the radical antisemitism of the Conservative Party in Germany; but in 1893 it obtained less than 10 percent of the votes, whereas the National Liberals, among whom there were a number of former Jews, were much more numerous. Goldhagen ignores this and makes the counterfactual statement that "conservatives and völkisch nationalists in Germany...formed the vast majority of the population.
By 1912, the Social Democrats, with an explicitly anti-antisemitic program, were the largest party in the German Reichstag, and the Progressives ran very strongly as well...Formally, at least, the Jews had been fully emancipated with the establishment of the German Empire, although they were kept out of certain influential occupations, enjoyed extraordinary prosperity...Germans intermarried with Jews: in the 1930s some 50,000 Jews were living in mixed German-Jewish marriages, so at least 50,000 Germans, and presumably parts of their families, had familial contact with the Jews. Goldhagen himself mentions that a large proportion of the Jewish upper classes in Germany converted to Christianity in the nineteenth century. In a society where eliminationist norms were universal and in which Jews were rejected even after they had converted, or so he argues, the rise of this extreme form of assimilation of Jews would hardly have been possible."
Bauer argues that "Goldhagen's thesis does not work." and charges "...that the anti-German bias of his book, almost a racist bias (however much he may deny it) leads nowhere." The American historian Fritz Stern denounced the book as unscholarly and full of racist Germanophobia. Hilberg summarised the debates, "by the end of 1996, it was clear that in sharp distinction from lay readers, much of the academic world had wiped Goldhagen off the map."
In 2002, Goldhagen published A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, an account of the role of the Catholic Church before, during and after World War II. In the book, Goldhagen acknowledges that individual bishops and priests hid and saved a large number of Jews, but also asserts that others promoted or accepted anti-Semitism before and during the war, and some played a direct role in the persecution of Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.
David Dalin and Joseph Bottum of The Weekly Standard criticized the book, calling it a "misuse of the Holocaust to advance [an] anti-Catholic agenda", and poor scholarship.
Goldhagen noted in an interview with The Atlantic, as well as in the book's introduction, that the title and the first page of the book reveal its purpose as a moral, rather than historical analysis, asserting that he has invited European Church representatives to present their own historical account in discussing morality and reparation.
In Worse than War Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (2009), Goldhagen described Nazism and the Holocaust as "eliminationist assaults." He worked on the book intermittently for a decade, interviewing atrocity perpetrators and victims in Rwanda, Guatemala, Cambodia, Kenya, and the USSR, and politicians, government officers, and private humanitarian organization officers. Goldhagen states that his aim is to help "craft institutions and politics that will save countless lives and also lift the lethal threat under which so many people live”. He concludes that eliminationist assaults are preventable because "the world's non-mass-murdering countries are wealthy and powerful, having prodigious military capabilities (and they can band together)", whereas the perpetrator countries "are overwhelmingly poor and weak."
The book was cinematically adapted, and the documentary film of Worse Than War was first presented in the U.S. in Aspen, Colorado on August 6, 2009 – the sixty-fourth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. In Germany, the documentary was first broadcast by the ARD television network October 18, 2009, and was to be nationally broadcast by the PBS in 2010.
David Rieff, characterizing Goldhagen as a "pro-Israel polemicist and amateur historian", writes that the subtext of what Goldhagen deems "eliminationism" may be his own view of contemporary Islam. Rieff writes that Goldhagen's website states that the author "speaks nationally ... about Political Islam's Offensive, the threat to Israel, Hitler's Willing Executioners, the Globalization of Antisemitism, and more." Rieff questions Goldhagen's equating the "culture of death" of Nazism with that of "political Islam", as well as Goldhagen's conclusion that, in order to prevent "eliminationism", the United Nations should be remade into an interventionist entity focusing on "a devoted international push for democratizing more countries". Adam Jones, who praised this book for its fluid style and commendable passion, concludes however, that the book is undermined by a casual approach to basic research, and by the author's tendency to overreach and overstate his case. The British historian David Elstein accused Goldhagen of manipulating his sources to make a false accusation of genocide against the British during the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s in Kenya. Elstein wrote in his view that the chapter on Kenya left Goldhagen open "...to the charge that he is the kind of scholar who is either unaware of the facts or prefers to exclude those which do not fit his thesis."The Jewish Daily Forward, named to Forward 50, 2002 and 1996
Journal for German and International Politics Triennial Democracy Prize, 1997, with laudatio given by Jürgen Habermas.
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist for Hitler's Willing Executioners, 1996
Time, named Hitler's Willing Executioners one of two best non-fiction books of the year, 1996
American Political Science Association, Gabriel A. Almond Award for the best dissertation in the field of comparative politics, 1994
Harvard University, Sumner Dissertation Prize, 1993
Whiting Fellowship, 1990–1991
Fulbright IIE Grant for Dissertation Research, 1988–1989
Krupp Foundation Fellowship for Dissertation Research, 1988–1989
Center for European Studies Summer Research Grant, 1987
Jacob Javits Fellowship 1996-1988, 1989–1990
Harvard College, Philo Sherman Bennett Thesis Prize, 1982
German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD) Fellowship, 1979–1980
1989: "False Witness", The New Republic, April 17, 1989, Volume 200, No. 16, Issue # 3, pp. 39–44
1996: Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, ISBN 978-0-679-44695-8
2002: A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, ISBN 978-0-375-41434-3
2009: Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault On Humanity, PublicAffairs, New York, ISBN 978-1-58648-769-0
2013: The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism