HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS: ORDINARY GERMANS AND THE HOLOCAUST
By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Knopf, 622pages, $39.95)
From time to time, a book appears that—for better or worse—is overtaken by the debate that it provokes. In the case of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, that impassioned dialogue is for the better. The fascinating but flawed book unrelentingly hammers away at the notion that the Holocaust’s unspeakable cruelties were voluntarily—and joyously—performed by ordinary Germans primed for the task of genocide by a long-standing “eliminationist” strain of anti-Semitism within their culture. The praise and condemnation lobbed at the 600-page volume since its appearance earlier this spring have guaranteed its place, if not in academia, then in the on-
going transatlantic discussion about Germany’s confrontation with its past.
The commotion over the book began with several fawning Amer»ican reviews—The New York Times tagged it a “landmark”—which accepted the author’s and publisher’s claim that Goldhagen’s arguments were “revolutionary” in Holocaust studies. Critics in Germany, where the book will not appear until August, immediately lashed out against a return to the canard of collective German guilt—among them several thinkers from the leading weeklies Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, publications that cannot be accused of being apologists for German history.
Eminent historians, including the University of Toronto’s Michael Marrus, whom Goldhagen cites in his broad-brush dismissal of prior scholarship, jumped in to dethrone the author. Internet chat lines (keyword Goldhagen) have sprung up linking North American professors with Euro-
peans, as well as Jews with Holocaust deniers. Early this month, Goldhagen withdrew from a New York University Holocaust symposium, concerned that media renditions of his views, prior to the book’s publication in Germany, would further distort the debate in that country.
Hitler’s Willing Executioners is the expansion of a prize-winning doctoral dissertation by Goldhagen, a 36-year-old professor of government and social studies at Harvard. The author ambitiously states that he has for the first time disproved prevailing myths that the horror was perpetrated by a minority of Nazi henchmen and others who either did not know the full extent of
what was going on or feared retribution if they failed to follow orders. These arguments are not as new as the author claims. What is new is Goldhagen’s desire to alter the direction of Holocaust research. He begins by chastising his colleagues for an obsession with the machinery of the Nazi genocide (from train schedules to gas chambers) while ignoring the motivation of the human beings who oiled it. The framework of study, he argues, must shift to those
who actually murdered, in order to unlock the mystery of how the nation that produced Beethoven and Goethe sank to such depths. Those killers, he shows with ample evidence, were not highly committed Nazis, but ordinary Germans whose pre-existing worldview had rendered Jews “socially dead” before they were physically exterminated.
Armed with 141 pages of footnotes, Goldhagen challenges the modern relativism that maintains the Holocaust could have happened anywhere. His main goal is to turn away from morally mitigating explanations of the Holocaust (the German economy, the numbing power of totalitarian regimes, Nazism’s organizational structure, Hitler’s charisma). In so doing, he has brought an American neoconservative agenda to the discussion of the Nazi genocide—seeking to replace the psychology of victimization with the ethos of responsibility. When applied to Nazi Germany this is a refreshing approach. Prior scholarship, he implies, has abetted the view that otherwise rational Germans were somehow bewitched for 12 years by a magician named Hitler. “Everyone is ready to believe perpetrators of other mass slaughters wanted to do it,” Goldhagen said in a recent newspaper interview. “Only with Germans do we say they were obedient to authority. There is a reluctance to believe that people who are core members of Western civilization would do such a thing.”
The Goldhagen fracas mirrors the socalled Historikerstreit (historians’ debate) of the 1980s, which divided German intellectuals on whether the Holocaust was unique in history. And the current eruption is timely, given the post-Cold War German impulse to put the Nazi years to rest. North American readers, unfamiliar with the twists and turns of that internal debate, could easily dismiss the current German reaction to Goldhagen’s book as part of a denial syndrome. And yet, the past few decades have seen copious probes of Nazism, including a groundbreaking exhibition last year in Hamburg outlining the complicity of the Wehrmacht, the regular German army.
Goldhagen is not alone in believing it was no accident that the Holocaust was a German—not a Dutch or Italian or Czech—
project. And he is not the first to probe the process of dehumanizing the Jews. Nor do those familiar with Holocaust literature—least of all postwar Germans—still believe average Germans had no idea Jews were being murdered. But his catchall thesis of pervasive anti-Semitism is startlingly simplistic: all Germans were potential monsters just waiting for the chance to act on their deepest anti-Jewish desires. The book contains lapses in logic and errors of omission, chief among them no treatment of anti-Semitism in other parts of Europe.
Goldhagen has produced a powerful case study of German anti-Semitism. But
ultimately the author’s one-note requiem falls flat, leaving a crucial question unanswered: what was it about Germany’s prewar culture beyond anti-Semitism that turned its version of Jew hatred to genocide? The bulk of Holocaust scholarship points to a confluence of forces. In rejecting that body of work, Goldhagen—the son of a Holocaust survivor—may have ensured that his book’s main contribution comes on the level of popular culture, prodding both Germans and outsiders to continue to soul-search about this unprecedented mass murder.
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