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The Holocaust: the Reason Why?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1996
Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. By David Jonah Goldhagen. Knopf.$30.00.

In 1971, Erich Goldhagen, now a faculty member of Harvard’s Divinity School, published an expose of Albert Speer, demolishing the claim of Hitler’s war production chief that he had been unaware of the Holocaust. The same author was at the time preparing a book on The Genocidal Mind. That project does not appear to have been completed, but now, a quarter century later, Goldhagen’s son, Daniel, has published a compendious tome, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, designed “to explain why the Holocaust occurred” and “why it could occur.” The book claims that “ordinary Germans” embraced “a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die,” a thesis that, according to the author, “stands in contradiction to the existing literature,” and was first suggested to him by his father.

Young Goldhagen leads off by establishing anti-Semitism as a “corollary of Christianity” and then plunges abruptly into a review of Jewish life in 19th- and early 20th-century Germany, when—he informs us—the vast majority of Germans hated and despised Jews, and the harassed minority “found virtually no defenders in German society.” Chapter Four goes on to recapitulate the dismal and disgraceful history of discrimination and segregation from 1933 to 1941.Next, the author explains that a policy of extermination was not adopted until 1941, by which time Germany had attacked all of its neighbors and had abandoned all hope of a reconciliation with Britain, both developments removing any restraint hitherto imposed by foreign policy considerations.

At this point Hitler’s Willing Executioners turns from a mere recapitulation of secondary works to findings derived from archival sources that have not been explored by other scholars in the field. Goldhagen’s description of the “willing killers”—members of police battalions, cadres of work and concentration camps, as well as voluntary civilian participants in the slaughter—rests on extensive research in the archives of the Ludwigsburg office prosecuting National Socialist crimes, as well as on prosecutorial archives in Munich and Hamburg.

During the perusal of this testimony, the author discovered that the number “of actual perpetrators [of the Holocaust] was enormous,” though unaccountably burying the actual figures in one of many discursive footnotes that needlessly complicate the reading of his book. More important, he subjects the members of several police battalions, including 101—focus of an earlier monograph by Christopher Browning—to a manifold analysis. These ruminations reveal that they were mostly men in their 30’s, unsuitable for combat duty, who constituted a representative cross section of German society. Few of them belonged to the SS, only a minority carried party membership cards, and two thirds had no political or ideological affiliation whatsoever. These men were indeed “ordinary Germans,” not specially selected fanatics. Some of the mass murderers were churchgoers who attended communion as well as confession. The few that could not stomach this butchery were excused and transferred to other duties. Refusal to kill was never punished.

Additionally horrifying and well documented is Goldhagen’s account of the death marches from territories about to fall into Allied hands. Here he marshalls more evidence revealing how starving Jews were driven from abandoned campsites by trigger-happy tormentors as late as the last week of the war when its outcome was no longer in doubt, and when Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, had actually forbidden the shooting of any more Jews. The author concludes, therefore, that “to the very end, the ordinary Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust willfully, faithfully, and zealously slaughtered Jews,” even in the face of orders to desist.

How does one account for such inhuman behavior? Goldhagen really does not tell us. The 80 pages that follow the graphic and soul-wrenching description of the death marches discuss what he considers to be spurious explanations. The author reminds us that the killers were not compelled to kill. He adds the significant anomaly that Nazis had a long record of resistance to legitimate authority, accumulated during the Weimar years, and that generals, who willingly contributed to the extinction of Soviet Jews had, nonetheless, “conspired against Hitler.” The grim chronicler also eliminates peer and organizational pressures, as well as career ambitions as motivating forces, informing us that “most of the men of the police battalions, as well as many other perpetrators, had no bureaucratic or career interests to advance by their involvement.” In contrast to Christopher Browning, he denies that the killers had to overcome moral scruples before pulling the trigger. Instead, he maintains, these executioners were governed by “as profound a hatred as one people has likely ever harbored for another,” because in Germany racial anti-Semitism was a sufficient cause of Jewish extermination: “Whatever the antisemitic traditions were in other European countries, it was only in Germany that an openly and rabidly antisemitic movement came to power.”

Goldhagen, therefore, like William Shirer—the author of the most popular American history of Nazi Germany before him—sees in Hitler’s regime a kind of summa of modern German history. To many a student of German anti-Semitism that may sound plausible enough, of course, because that subject, by its very nature, omits any accounting of Germans who harbored no anti-Jewish bias or who actively opposed public rancor against the numerically small Jewish presence in their country. To be sure, throughout modern history Judeophobia never disappeared from German political and social life, but that troublesome record fails to explain why Jewish emancipation nevertheless progressed throughout the 19th century and why its tenets became the law of the land in 1867, and remained so until Hitler’s rise to power.

Thus historians preoccupied with German hostility to Jews habitually quote Heinrich von Treitschke’s diatribes against the Jews, without recording the indignant objections his views elicited from such eminent fellow-historians as Theodor Mommsen and Johann Gustav Droysen, as well as from a host of other prominent Germans, ranging from Emperor Frederick III to Friedrich Nietzsche. They likewise overlook that Treitschke hated the British as much as he despised the Jews. The anti-Semitologists’ absorption with one issue, furthermore, often ignores other significant evidence. For instance, the article on “Jews” in the eighth edition of Meyer’s popular Encyclopedia, published in 1905, reminded readers that the self-sacrifice and “heroic courage” of Jewish Germans during the Napoleonic wars demonstrated their fitness for German citizenship, and concluded that, except for Russia, the persecution of Jews was in the 20th century confined to “Asian and African despotism.”

Similarly, students of anti-Semitism have not asked why the immigration to the United States of Jewish Germans practically ceased in 1860, and why 95 percent of Jewish migration to this country during the decade before World War I came from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Rumania. More Jews left Great Britain during that time than left Germany. Simultaneously, non-Jewish migration from Germany reached record heights, more than 99 percent of it gentile. Such figures challenge Goldhagen’s contention that Jews in Germany were social outcasts.

The author also misrepresents the political influence wielded by groups in Germany that remained persistently immune to Judeophobia. In one sentence he confines anti anti-Semitism to Socialists and a “politically ineffective” left liberal elite. That description excludes the Catholic Center Party which always kept its distance from Jew hatred and actually courted Jewish voters in the final years of the Weimar Republic. It also fails to tell the unwary reader that “Socialists” constituted the largest political party in imperial Germany on the eve of 1914—when three anti-Semites in the Reichstag represented less than one percent of the national vote—and does not account for the fact that the Social Democratic Party continued to constitute the largest single contingent in parliament from 1919 to 1930.(Needless to say, the author also fails to mention that French Socialists displayed no such immunity to anti-Jewish prejudice.)

As indicated before, Goldhagen rejects a Europe-wide analysis of anti-Semitism, because, in his opinion, the German-led Holocaust history implies that eliminationist intolerance has been confined to one country. Before we embrace that questionable conclusion, we must remember that pograms continued after World War II in Poland, and call to mind countless disturbing anecdotal evidences of anti-Semitism: such as a French officer and a Dutch housewife who both recorded in 1945 their gratitude that Hitler had rid their countries of so many Jews. Relevant in that connection are the persistent deniers of the Holocaust, inside and outside of Germany. We Americans should not forget our own history that includes troublesome chapters of racial and ethnic violence, a solid phalanx of anti-Semitic intellectuals such as Henry Adams, T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Wolfe, and segregated housing, whose buyers were assured they would not have to live next door to Jews (or African-Americans, of course). Above all, discrimination and extermination continue throughout the world. While Germans must live with their history, so must the rest of the world ponder its sins of commission.

In the shadow of that universal warning Goldhagen’s book has, of course, a part to play. In addition to its factual contributions to our knowledge of the Holocaust, it illuminates the continuing agony of the survivors. Hitler’s Willing Helpers bears witness to the author’s torment; it is also his touching declaration of loyalty to a father who experienced some of the terrors that continue to permeate the consciousness of his son. As this reviewer visualizes this young scholar working in the Ludwigsburg, Hamburg, and Munich archives, day after day, turning page after page of some of the most gruesome records of evil perpetrated in our violent century, he is awed by young Goldhagen’s capacity to endure the hammer blows of horrifying recapitulations. The resulting book exhibits a multitude of imperfections and fails to achieve its purpose, but its contributions to our knowledge also reaffirm our determination to remember that none of us is safe, either from the temptation to become a murderer or from the fate of becoming a victim.


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