In the bloodstained history of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust stands out for the comprehensive character of its goal and the systematic and organized nature of its execution. For the first time, all Jews were to be killed—every last Jewish man, woman, and child in Nazi-occupied Europe. They were to be killed, moreover, not for what they believed, not for their communal practices or their political opinions, but for the mere fact that they were Jews.
How could this have been? Fifty years later, there is still no consensus about the causes of this shattering event. Nor is there any agreement about why, of all the countries infected by anti-Semitism, Germany should have been the one where the Holocaust was conceived; or about whether and how much the German populace at large knew of what was going on; or about how many people were implicated in the actual killings.
A sensational new book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen,1 now claims to provide a fresh approach and new answers to these weighty and perplexing questions. Its publication a few months ago was greeted by extravagant praise in the op-ed columns of major American newspapers; it became the occasion for an international symposium at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and it created a furor in Germany even before being translated and put on sale there. Though it has not fared so well at the hands of reviewers—indeed, it has been very harshly treated by professional scholars—the book has become a best-seller and appears to have touched a chord in a market already surfeited with works about the Nazis and the Holocaust.
Hitler’s Willing Executioners consists of two interrelated parts. The first is an account of the role and character of anti-Semitism in modern Germany history. Goldhagen, who is an assistant professor of government at Harvard (and the son of a Holocaust survivor who has also taught at Harvard), maintains here that anti-Semitism was a deep-rooted, ineradicable part of German culture, a mind-set that had literally infected millions of Germans long before the rise of Hitler. A demonic image of the Jew, he writes, had come to permeate German officialdom, the Christian churches, the entire educational system, the masses, and even many of those who resisted Hitler on political grounds. Without the special virulence of this anti-Semitism, which Goldhagen boldly characterizes as “eliminationist,” Hitler could never have come to power, and millions of Germans would never have participated in or gone along with the mass murder of Jews.
In the second part of the book, which draws on files from postwar legal investigations by West German authorities, Goldhagen sketches a portrait of the killers themselves. His account differs from earlier ones mainly in his assertion that the murderers were motivated primarily by anti-Semitism, and in his insistence on the voluntary character of their actions.
Thus, according to Goldhagen, the Germans who executed Jews were not exclusively SS killers or a select group of Nazi fanatics, but rather people who came from all walks of life: “ordinary Germans,” motivated by the same anti-Semitic beliefs that inspired Hitler. He quotes one such “willing executioner,” a member of a police battalion, who explained after the war:
It did not at all occur to me that these orders could be unjust. . . . I was then of the conviction that the Jews were not innocent but guilty. I believed the propaganda that all Jews were criminal and subhumans, and that they were the cause of Germany’s decline after the First World War.
The member of another police unit declared to his interrogators: “The Jew was not acknowledged by us to be a human being.”
As Goldhagen notes, the Germans who killed Jews could have refused to do so without being punished in any serious way. Despite this, there was never any shortage of volunteers for execution squads. Not only that, but the killers acted with extraordinary enthusiasm, often taking photographs of their revolting handiwork and sometimes even inviting their girlfriends and wives along to witness their deeds. The passages in which Goldhagen documents the sheer cruelty of these ordinary Germans and the pride they apparently exhibited in their work are among the more shocking and compelling sections in his book. He estimates that at least 100,000 such people—and possibly far more—were engaged on a daily basis in these bestial acts.
Goldhagen’s argument raises many questions, not least on account of the radical form in which it is presented: cast as a relentless indictment of Germans as a whole, it offers an interpretation of the Holocaust in which anti-Semitism is the sole motivating factor. The book is written, moreover, in an angry, polemical style, contains little in the way of doubt, nuance, or qualification, and is marred by endless repetitions of its key points, a tone of scarcely concealed self-gratulation, and pointlessly disparaging remarks about previous scholarship on the Holocaust. Perhaps most damaging of all, the book is fundamentally ahistorical in its method.
Nevertheless, Goldhagen’s thesis deserves careful evaluation. In commenting on the earlier portions of the book—concerning the development of anti-Semitism in modern Germany—it is particularly useful, I think, to compare his treatment with that of another recent work which has been undeservedly neglected by reviewers: Ideology of Death, by John Weiss.2 Weiss, the son of an Austrian-born Catholic, teaches at the City University of New York. His book is a narrative history of ideas, tracing the influence of anti-Jewish stereotypes on German and Austrian society from the early 19th century to their gory climax in the Third Reich.
Like Goldhagen, Weiss believes that the culture of racist anti-Semitism in Germany led to a deeply entrenched, endemic hatred which had crystallized long before the advent of Hitler and which largely explains the singularity of the Holocaust. Weiss’s account, however, is not confined to Germany but extends to the neighboring Habsburg monarchy. Developments there, completely ignored by Goldhagen, are important for a number of reasons.
For one thing, anti-Semitism in the pre-Hitler era was undoubtedly much more intense in Austria than in Germany. Between 1897 and 1914, Vienna was ruled by the Christian Social party, whose leader, the immensely popular Karl Lueger, was a kind of role model for the young Hitler. Though Weiss somewhat exaggeratedly describes Lueger as a “fascist,” he is right to point out how the experience of Vienna clearly demonstrated the way in which anti-Semitic demagogy could be manipulated to great political effect. In the 1911 elections to the Austrian parliament, two-thirds of Austrian Germans voted for parties that included anti-Semitism in their platforms. There was nothing remotely comparable to this in imperial Germany.
One can, in fact, make a plausible case that Austria, not Germany, was the crucible of Nazi-style anti-Semitism. It was, after all, in the decaying, multiethnic Habsburg monarchy that Adolf Hitler picked up the mix of uncompromising anti-Semitism, Social Darwinism, and permanent race-war which he would later apply in a defeated Germany. Indeed, so intense was the hatred of Jews in Vienna that local and German Nazis there after 1938 complained that the public supported them only for that reason.
The special Austrian role in the Holocaust itself also deserves mention (although it gets us a bit ahead of our story). As Weiss observes, proportionately twice as many Austrians joined the Nazi party as Germans, and Austrians, though a mere 8 percent of the population of greater Germany after the 1938 Anschluss, made up 14 percent of the SS, 40 percent of the staff of the death camps, and 70 percent of Adolf Eichmann’s staff. A significant number of prime movers in the “Final Solution” were themselves Austrians, including Hitler, Eichmann, Ernst Kaltenbrunner (head of the Reich Main Security Office), Odilo Globocnik (in charge of the death camps in Poland), and others.
How deeply, by contrast, did anti-Semitism run in pre-Hitler Germany? Goldhagen writes as if the “vast majority” of Germans after 1850 were obsessed with nothing but the elimination of Jews from their society. Weiss, although he too overstates the case, at least has the virtue of being more precise. In particular, he reminds us, the Prussian establishment was riddled with anti-Semitism well before 1914, and the German Conservative party had incorporated some key anti-Jewish demands into its political program by the early 1890’s. Weiss also does a good job of showing how both traditional Christian prejudice and the new völkisch racism had become rooted in the popular mind in those decades of rapid industrialization. Most importantly, he relates anti-Semitism to broader currents: the authoritarianism of German cultural, economic, and political elites; the failure of Enlightenment ideas to pierce the bedrock of popular prejudice against Jews; and, above all, the weakness of German and Austrian liberalism.
Yet, as Weiss also acknowledges (and Goldhagen does not), already by the turn of the century the most powerful mass party in Germany was the Social Democrats; in other words, millions of Germans had not been captured by völkisch and anti-Semitic ideology. In reality, the anti-Semitic political parties remained remarkably weak in Germany until World War I, their parliamentary representatives never accounting for more than 2 percent of all the deputies elected since the 1880’s. Germany continued to be a state based on the rule of law, and even Kaiser Wilhelm II, a rabid anti-Semite, rejected any idea of disenfranchising or banishing the Jews.
None of this is to deny that imperial Germany was the home of a peculiar type of anti-Semitism, one which did significantly influence students, intellectuals, militant pan-Germans, lower-middle-class groups, and white-collar workers. But in any ranking of anti-Semitism in the pre-1914 era, Germany must be put some distance behind not only Austria but several other European countries. Since its unification in 1870, Germany had experienced nothing comparable to the anti-Semitic paroxysm during the Dreyfus Affair in France, Lueger’s electoral triumphs in Vienna, the systematic persecution of Jews in Romania, or the devastating pogroms in czarist Russia, then universally seen as the greatest persecutor of the Jews.
Nor would anti-Semitism be the only or even necessarily the most important factor in the rise of National Socialism. Both Weiss and Goldhagen underplay or miss the disastrous impact of the mass carnage in World War I, not to mention the traumatic impact of German military defeat and of the victory of Communism in Russia. In the reasonably stable world of prewar Wilhelmine Germany or Habsburg Austria, a desperado like Hitler would surely have remained a bohemian misfit. After 1919, in a society which had become dislocated and profoundly disoriented, things were quite different.
A growing resentment of Jews was one large element in the chaos of the Weimar years. And of course it remains true that for the Nazis themselves, all issues were ultimately linked to race purity. Alongside the slogan Deutschland erwache! (“Germany awake”) came Judah verrecke! (“Perish Judah”), the most sinister and insistent of all Nazi refrains. Weiss is quite correct to say that no German after 1930 could seriously claim ignorance of the fact that the Nazi party, should it come to power, was determined to exact a terrible toll from the Jewish population. Still, a substantial body of research indicates that other factors were probably more decisive than anti-Semitism in motivating Germans to vote for the Nazi party; they included the fear engendered by Bolshevism, economic chaos, political instability, and simple German nationalism, as well as the Nazis’ skillful manipulation of Hitler’s image as Germany’s savior.
So much, then, for Goldhagen’s distorted view of pre-Holocaust German history, and his vague and undocumented attribution of “eliminationist” anti-Jewishness to every segment of German society without exception. If anti-Semitism really were as powerful as Goldhagen postulates, one would be at a loss to explain the history of Jewish economic success in Germany, or the dazzling role played by Jews in reshaping German and Austrian culture, or their participation in radical politics, or, for that matter, the extent of Jewish assimilation and patriotism. Having read Goldhagen’s version of this history, one would indeed be bewildered to learn that after 1870 Jews had been emancipated and given civil rights in the newly united German Reich, or that all over the world Jews looked up to Germany, with reason, as an enlightened society.
Hitler’s Willing Executioners improves when Goldhagen arrives at the Nazi era, though virtually everything he writes there about Nazi ideology and the demonization of the Jews is thoroughly familiar and has been far better treated by a long line of distinguished historians from George Mosse to Lucy S. Dawidowicz (to whom Goldhagen gives little if any credit for their toil). But once again he grossly overestimates the congruence between the latent anti-Semitism of many Germans and the fanatical racism of Hitler and the leading Nazis. Yes, religious prejudice proved quite enough to lead the Christian churches and many ordinary Germans to accept Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy and, appallingly, to acquiesce in the Holocaust; but there is still no conclusive evidence that Hitler’s more dynamic style of hatred ever possessed the mass of ordinary Germans.
How, then, are we to explain the behavior of the police battalions, or what happened in the so-called “work camps,” or the horrible cruelties of the death marches at the end of the war? Here is where Goldhagen provides hard evidence in support of his main thesis about “ordinary Germans,” and where he is at his best.
In focusing on the police battalions, whose primary purpose was to maintain security in occupied areas, and whose members were very haphazardly chosen and had minimal ideological and military training, Goldhagen has certainly added to our knowledge of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. His is by no means the first recounting of the killing of naked Jewish women and children in the streets, fields, and ditches, but in describing these events in chilling and relentlessly graphic detail, Goldhagen amply makes his point that we are dealing here with “assenting mass executioners.” Not only did members of the police battalions choose not to opt out of the role of killers when they could have done so, they appear to have had few if any moral scruples about their actions.
But Goldhagen’s analysis of why they behaved as they did still fails to convince. The key to his explanation is that these were ordinary Germans; I supply the emphasis to distinguish his argument from that of the American historian Christopher R. Browning, who in 1992 published an important book on these same police battalions under the title Ordinary Men3 Goldhagen virtually ignores Browning in the body of his text, but carries on a running war with him in his footnotes, accusing Browning of deliberately ignoring documents, of uncritically accepting the testimony of the killers in postwar investigations, and of minimizing the role of anti-Semitism.
Goldhagen’s polemics here sometimes border on the scandalous. In the first place, Browning clearly preceded Goldhagen in demonstrating that the executioners were not under compulsion, that they were not driven by careerism, and that, contrary to their later self-serving assertions, theirs was not a case of fearful deference to authority. Browning also shows that, by and large, the killers were not of an especially violent disposition, nor had they undergone a particularly rigorous racist indoctrination. At the same time, he definitely acknowledges that they had been immersed, like the rest of German society after 1933, in a deluge of anti-Semitic propaganda, and had therefore internalized in a general way the Nazi stereotype of the Jews as the inveterate enemy of Germany.
Unlike Goldhagen, however, Browning takes into account a range of other factors as well: the impact of peer pressure and conformity; the siege mentality induced by war; the diminution of personal responsibility that characterized life under the Nazi regime; the fear of appearing less than “tough” in the eyes of comrades; and the “acclimatization” to killing, which eventually turned it into a routine. Though he may give insufficient weight to the climate of fanatical anti-Semitism in which the police battalions carried out their atrocities, Browning’s explanation seems to me in the end more illuminating than the one offered by Goldhagen.
Where Goldhagen does excel is in showing just how enthusiastic were the men of the police battalions: rather than remaining silent, or being depressed about their gruesome task, they actually celebrated their so-called “Jew-hunts.” Similarly, Jews interned in “work camps” were humiliated, tortured, and killed in defiance of any rational, utilitarian goal. So, too, in the death marches at the end of the war, the German guards (both men and women) exhibited gratuitous cruelty, preferring to abuse and shoot Jews even though defeat was staring them in the face and self-interest should have led them to behave in a more humane manner.
But none of this proves Goldhagen’s thesis that the killers killed because they were Germans, or that their actions were representative of a “vast majority” hell-bent on destroying the Jews. Anti-Semitism alone can no more fully explain such revolting and self-defeating cruelty than it can fully account for the massacres carried out by the German Army, the SS, and the Einsatzgruppen—the mobile killing units used on the Eastern Front—or, finally, the assembly-line murder of the gas chambers. Although anti-Semitism was certainly decisive for the Nazi leadership, Goldhagen has simply not presented a persuasive case that it was what primarily or exclusively motivated ordinary Germans.
In a curious and probably unintended way, Goldhagen’s book blurs what was distinctive about the Holocaust. By diverting our attention from the millions done to death by desk-murderers, SS units, and Wehrmacht soldiers, and focusing instead on the relatively small numbers killed by police battalions or guards on death marches, Goldhagen brings to the fore precisely those features—brutality, sadism, killing for sport—that are not particularly unique to the Holocaust but rather part of the endless catalogue of human cruelty through the ages. The fact that the Holocaust represented industrialized killing on a mass scale, ordered by a powerful state in the grip of a mad hatred, somehow gets lost; and yet it is, after all, the key fact.
Popular myths about national character are remarkably tenacious, and there is clearly an appetite for material that feeds them. In particular, if the commercial success of Goldhagen’s book is any indication, the notion that all Germans are carriers of a unique racist and anti-Semitic virus is clearly attractive to many. That is why it is important to note that Goldhagen himself does not fully subscribe to such a view of national character. In an interview, he reminded his interlocutor that since the war, Germans have turned into model democrats, and are now “just like us.” He did not stop to wonder how this demonstrable truth affects his thesis; in fact, it makes it even less tenable.
And yet I do not want to leave a misimpression. Despite its manifest deficiencies, Hitler’s Willing Executioners has virtues which should not be overlooked. Together with John Weiss’s book, it offers a corrective to the self-serving view of some Germans today that the Holocaust was simply an aberration in German history, carried out by Hitler and the more fanatical elements in the Nazi party and the SS with the help of soulless bureaucrats. In this connection, Weiss tellingly mentions the flood of denunciations of Jews from ordinary Germans which can be found in Gestapo files. He also discerningly points out that while German citizens openly dissented from specific Nazi policies they disliked—the euthanasia program, the removal of crucifixes from schools, Nazi party corruption, etc.—they were virtually silent about the treatment of the Jews; this was true from the first anti-Jewish legislation up to and including the Holocaust, which, contrary to postwar denials, Germans did indeed know about. This argument is of course made with even greater force and relish by Goldhagen and seems, in fact, indisputable.
More, Hitler’s Willing Executioners demonstrates conclusively that ordinary Germans did participate actively in the killings, and were not simply coerced. It reminds us of the sheer brutality of the slaughter, which was certainly far from the “banal” phenomenon described by certain scholars ever since Hannah Arendt popularized that thesis. Finally, both Weiss and Goldhagen provide an important counterweight to the tendency in some recent historical writing on the Holocaust to downplay the role of anti-Semitism itself. Though that subject ultimately requires a much more subtle and searching analysis, both of these works are incontestably right to point to the power of a tradition without which Nazism could never have succeeded.
The “vast majority of Germans” were not “willing executioners.” It is a sufficient and an everlasting disgrace that many were—and that most never actively protested Hitler’s murderous intentions or his policies, while there was still time.
1 Knopf, 622 pp., $30.00
2 Ivan R. Dee, 427 pp., $29.95.
3 The full title is Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. For a discussion of it, see “What the Holocaust Does Not Teach” by Edward Alexander, COMMENTARY, February 1993.