Germans show democratic spirit to accuser supreme

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The nation branded as a bunch of congenital mass murderers has lavished praise upon its accuser. Daniel Goldhagen, the Harvard sociologist and author of Hitler's Willing Executioners - Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, was due to receive Germany's prestigious Democracy Prize here last night.

"I am only a messenger," the 38-year-old academic said yesterday. The message is that pre-war Germany was infused with "virulent, eliminationist anti-Semitism". The Final Solution, he argued, enjoyed broad support and was carried out by ordinary Germans.

For this insight, Mr Goldhagen was pilloried by historians in Israel and Germany, but rewarded in sales. The German translation, which came out last summer, has been on the non-fiction best-seller list ever since - perhaps the ultimate proof of the marketing world's adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The book itself was turgid, repetitive and shamelessly subjective, written by the son of a Holocaust survivor seemingly bent on revenge. But even Mr Goldhagen's most savage detractors conceded that he had based his study on documents previously ignored. These did indicate that far more people had been involved in the murder of Jews than Germans would care to admit.

Mr Goldhagen confronted his critics at a series of public debates last year. The soft-spoken American, communicating in English, always appeared to be on the defensive and admitted that "I skirted over some of this history a little too quickly". His opponents also gave ground and his work provoked a debate about a subject Germans cannot discuss enough, cleansing public life of some of the half-truths and bare-faced lies to which a minority, especially among the older generation, still try to cling.

The bitterness of last year gone, Mr Goldhagen is now full of praise for today's Germans. "The Federal Republic shows something incredibly positive - that society can remake itself," he said yesterday before receiving the pounds 4,100 prize in recognition of the "impulse" he gave to the Holocaust debate.