Commentary Magazine


Ordinary Germans

To the Editor:

I think Robert S. Wistrich’s article, “Helping Hitler” [July], suffers from the same faults as the book he discusses, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Though both the article and the book make some valid points, I found them both simplistic, overdrawn, and unconvincing.

The burden of Goldhagen’s book is that Hitler, in recruiting German labor for the project of destroying Europe’s Jews, had at his disposal an entire population so depraved by years of inbred anti-Semitism as to constitute a giant gang of natural-born killers. According to this thesis, under Hitler even “ordinary” Germans (meaning Germans not connected with the SS or with other major Nazi institutions) were everywhere available as willing instruments of genocide. Those who got the opportunity to murder Jews, by being drafted into Ordnungspolizei battalions, for example, went about their work with gleeful and relentless savagery until the very day of Germany’s surrender. After that, Goldhagen explained in an interview in the New York Times, the Germans made it illegal to express anti-Semitic sentiments in public and embraced the principle of liberal democracy. . . .

Mr. Wistrich takes this argument and stands it on its head. If the Germans of today, are, as Goldhagen claims, “like us” (which Mr. Wistrich accepts as a “demonstrable truth”), how, he asks, could all Germans be “carriers of a unique racist and anti-Semitic virus” which only 50 years ago laid waste to Jewish Europe? The answer to this riddle, Mr. Wistrich reveals, is that even under Hitler . . . most Germans were “infected” with a relatively mild, though distasteful, form of anti-Semitism whose symptoms included a tendency to acquiesce in all of Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws, to betray one’s Jewish neighbors to the Gestapo, and to tolerate the Holocaust without complaint, but which did not by itself induce the urge to torture, humiliate, and murder innocent people personally.

As for the ordinary Germans who figure so prominently in Goldhagen’s book—the “willing executioners” whose workaday routine it was to shoot out the brains of helpless men, women, and children in front of open pits—even they were motivated less by hatred of the Jews (although they operated in a “climate of fanatical anti-Semitism” and had “internalized in a general way the Nazi stereotype of the Jews as the inveterate enemy of Germany”) than by such things as “peer pressure” and “the fear of appearing less than ‘tough’ in the eyes of comrades.” Nor, Mr. Wistrich reminds us, are the atrocities committed by these men especially remarkable when looked at in the proper context: they are, after all, simply “part of the endless catalogue of human cruelty through the ages.”. . .

What is actually distinctive about the Holocaust according to this analysis is not the killings per se, . . . but the unprecedented scale on which they were conducted—on orders from the Nazi government. . . .

In the end, therefore, the disagreement boils down to this: were Hitler’s executioners following a kind of primal impulse when they massacred their Jewish victims, or were they just following orders? Either way the results were lethal, and (with due respect to Messrs. Goldhagen and Wistrich) the really basic question, in my view, still stands: were there flaws in German culture and society some 50 years ago which made it possible for Hitler and the Holocaust to happen? If so, what were they, and when did they get fixed?

Herb Meritt
New Providence, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

I found Robert S. Wistrich’s article excellent, but I would like to emphasize here just how dangerous Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book is.

In arguing that the German people as a whole are inherently, and perhaps irredeemably, evil, Goldhagen moves the study of the Holocaust toward three untenable positions.

First, he reduces the culpability of Hitler and his henchmen to that of mere instruments of a nation’s criminal motive. If the German people are ultimately responsible, then Hitler was just a politician who gave the people what they wanted. The modern world’s tendency to transfer responsibility from individuals to abstractions has exacted too high a price for us to permit this to happen with the Nazis.

Second, . . . if one accepts the notion of criminal ethnic groups rather than criminal individuals, as Goldhagen does, then Hitler’s crime lay in persecuting the wrong ethnic group, not in the act of persecution itself.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by assuming that German culture was uniquely disposed toward genocide, Goldhagen contributes to a false sense of security, because if only Germany could produce a Hitler, then all we must do is keep our eye on Germany. But the world is never so simple or so safe. Without in any way diminishing the singular horror of the Holocaust, it is not hard to envision its occurrence elsewhere, against either Jews or other ethnic groups. . . .

At this late remove, it is hard to say what Germans knew or did not know about the Holocaust. . . . I suspect that most Germans were not aware of the Holocaust because they did not want to know. They knew that Jews did not have a happy fate, but they did not inquire further because it did not involve them personally. In their willingness to ignore unpleasant facts, the Germans were sadly exhibiting a human, not a Germanic, failing. This does not of course excuse the Germans, . . . but the focus of Holocaust studies must be on how genocide can occur even in a country as enlightened as Germany, not how Germany is a special kind of evil nation.

There is another aspect of the German character which bears mention. Of all the modern dictatorships and police states, only Germany produced an organized resistance movement composed of the nation’s elite. Other nations have produced the occasional ruling class dissenter (such as Andrei Sakharov) or mass protests of disaffected outsiders (such as at Tiananmen Square), but none has had such a large number of the ruling class abandon secure positions to make a principled stand. Despite Goldhagen’s book, I remain convinced that an Adolf Hitler could appear in any country. I am not so sure that the same could be said for a Ludwig Beck or a Claus von Stauffenberg.

Thomas F. Berner
New York City

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To the Editor:

Robert S. Wistrich puts the views of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in perspective when he states: “The ‘vast majority of Germans’ were not ‘willing executioners.’ It is a sufficient and an everlasting disgrace that many were.” True. But it is a “sufficient and everlasting disgrace” not only that many Germans did not protest but that the entire Western world did not.

As early as January 1933, the group of German clergymen and theologians centered around Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller was actively protesting against the Nazis both in Germany and internationally. In the summer of 1935, Pastor Niemoeller sent a circular letter from Berlin’s influential Jesus Christus Kirche protesting the Gestapo’s attempts to enforce conformity in the church. In 1936 the conflicting views dividing the German Confessional Church were openly discussed and the Church publicly split. In March of that year, Niemoeller’s arrest “caused a tremendous stir both inside and outside Germany,” as the historian J.S. Conway has noted. By November, over 700 pastors had been arrested. Yet world-wide, only the Swedish Lutheran church continued to support the independence of German churches. . .

The point is that world leaders as well as religious leaders knew what was happening in Germany. Therefore, it appears to me that Mr. Wistrich’s judgment should be applied to the entire democratic world of the 30′s. . . .

Douglas H. Schewe
Madison, Wisconsin

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To the Editor:

Although Robert S. Wistrich dwells on John Weiss’s Ideology of Death, he neglects to point out Weiss’s salient contribution which, in addition to an analysis of Germans and anti-Semitism, is an analysis of the relations between Germans and Slavs in the Habsburg empire, which had a profound effect on the history of Europe . . . up to the end of World War II. For the Germans, the Slavs were “subhumans,” an “inferior race” that was to be annihilated, as were the Jews. . . .

The Sudetenland had been part of the Habsburg empire but was awarded to Czechoslovakia in 1919 as part of the post-World War I settlements. On becoming citizens of Czechoslovakia, the 3.5 million Sudeten Germans received guarantees that they could maintain their identity. But they refused to cooperate and actively engaged in attempts to destroy the republic. Why? Because they had lost their dominance over the “inferior race” in whose republic they now found themselves. The Sudeten Germans were anti-Semitic and pan-Germanic, and hated the Czechs racially. (“Jews, Czechs, and Dogs Not Allowed” said the posted signs of German merchants and landlords.). . .

By 1938, the Sudeten Germans had succeeded in destroying Czechoslovakia by force and they willingly joined Hitler’s Reich so that they could participate in the slaughter all over Europe. The killing of both Jews and Czechs in Czechoslovakia was done by both the Reich Germans . . . and the Sudeten Germans, represented and led by the most efficient murderer of the Czechs, Karl-Hermann Frank (who was executed on the gallows in 1945). . . .

As to the conclusion of Mr. Wistrich and other scholars that the “vast majority of Germans” were not “willing executioners”: just a few paragraphs before he states this, Mr. Wistrich writes of “. . . massacres carried out by the German Army, the SS, and the Einsatzgruppen, . . . the assembly-line murder of the gas chambers. . . .” To this we have to add the “good Germans” who kept Hitler’s murderous war machinery oiled; the “good Germans” who sent their fourteen- and fifteen-year-old children to defend the “Fatherland” which was already crumbling all around them while Hitler was cowering in his bunker in Berlin; the Germans who were still murdering Czech children and women on May 8 and 9, 1945 when the war was officially over.

The mystery goes on: who were all these perpetrators? The butlers?

Stanley Kasparek
Cedar Grove, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Of the many reviews of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioner’s, Robert S. Wistrich’s seems to me to be the most objective and articulate. . . .

Arnold Schutzberg
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Robert S. Wistrich writes:

Herb Meritt seems to have completely misread the points which I made in my critique of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book. I did not say that German anti-Semitism was mild but argued that it was not particularly unique, and notably less virulent before 1933 than in a number of other European countries. Contrary to Mr. Meritt’s claim, I specifically emphasized that ordinary Germans were not simply obeying orders, and I agreed with Goldhagen’s point that they had choices. My objection was to the argument that they killed because they were Germans and solely because of anti-Semitism. As for German behavior since 1945, does Mr. Meritt seriously believe that it confirms the idea of a uniquely powerful culture of racist anti-Semitism, endemic to the Germans?

Thomas F. Berner is quite right, I think, to emphasize the dangers of believing that criminality can be assigned to entire ethnic groups and that the problems raised by the Holocaust derive only from flaws in German society and culture. Understanding is not much advanced by depicting the vast majority of Germans as monsters (as Goldhagen does in his book) whose evil desires were merely liberated by Hitler and the Nazis. But I cannot agree that only Germany produced an organized resistance composed of the nation’s elite. True, many of those who rebelled in 1944 were from the aristocracy or career officers. But this resistance occurred much more belatedly than it did elsewhere, lacked popular support, and was only marginally influenced by the Holocaust.

Douglas H. Schewe is, of course, correct that the Western world did not do as much as it could have done in acting against Nazi persecution of the Jews, but neither of the two books I reviewed was about that issue, which has been dealt with extensively by others. Mr. Schewe mentions Martin Niemoeller’s protests against conformity in the German Protestant Church, but omits the fact that Niemoeller was an anti-Semite. For all his courageous opposition to the regime, Niemoeller’s words and actions until 1938 were laced with hostility to the Jews, whom he accused of living under a curse because “they brought the Christ of God to the Cross.”

Stanley Kasparek appears to be primarily concerned with the fate of the Czech people and the guilt of the Sudeten Germans. This was not the concern of either Goldhagen or Weiss; and rightly so, since it is marginal to the overall story of the Holocaust It was not the Sudeten Germans who destroyed prewar Czechoslovakia but Hitler, with the collusion of the Western powers. The Slavs, contrary to Mr. Kasparek’s assertion, were not earmarked for extermination, though some Slav peoples were depicted as “inferior.” Their fate was to serve as helots in the Greater Germanic Reich but not to be slaughtered down to the last man, woman, and child simply because of their race. The most terrible German crimes against Slavs were those perpetrated against Soviet POW’s and Polish civilians. By comparison, Czech suffering—while not to be disparaged—was on a far smaller scale and not remotely comparable to that of the Jews.

Finally, with regard to the German perpetrators of mass murder, their crimes speak for themselves and have been exhaustively documented. But as the 20th century has all too tragically demonstrated, the capacity for evil is almost limitless and is not confined to one particular people.

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