Email this page to a friend
SUBSCRIBE to Peace Matters
The book is Hitlers Willing Executioners (Abacus 1996). Its author is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a young Harvard academic and son of a Romanian Jew who escaped the Holocaust; his doctoral dissertation, The Nazi Executioners: A Study Of Their Behaviour And the Causation of Genocide, won him a prestigious award.
Early in 1996 his paper, revised and retitled, was published in America; the German language edition followed a few months later. In both countries it rapidly became a best-seller, and its author a celebrity.
The public, buying the book in thousands, thought it brilliant, profound, shocking, moving, explosive. Academics, however, found this often pernicious book deeply flawed and full of unsubstantiated assertions, an incoherent, hateful and dishonest tract by a man of breathtaking arrogance. Whatever had he said? To summarise:
The Holocaust has been exhaustively studied, but there has been relatively little scrutiny of the ordinary people who took part, directly or indirectly, in bringing it about.
Up to half the victims were killed not in the gas chambers but by forced labour, brutality, and (the majority) shooting, involving at least 100,000 killers.
Research provides testimony and evidence that these thousands of ordinary Germans, recruited from all walks of society mainly into police battalions, eagerly took part in the genocide : they executed Jews willingly and voluntarily, often having humiliated and abused them first. They were not forced into killing, and were not punished if they declined.
This willingness was made possible by the conviction, endorsed by the government, that to be antisemitic was right. Furthermore, the German culture of antisemitism was peculiarly entrenched, particularly virulent, and essentially eliminationist: the Jews were an active force for evil, and as such had to be removed.
ost readers agree that the documentary evidence (including photographs) which Daniel Goldhagen provides, giving details of mass executions, the brutal work camps, and the inhumane death marches, is deeply shocking and disturbing.
But it is the argument drawn from this material that sparked what one historian called the Goldhagen phenomenon and the strength of feeling that has gone with it.
The Holocaust was the product not only of Nazi rule and Hitlers dictatorship, but also of a specifically German antisemitic mindset in ordinary individuals
To Americans, the suggestion that only the Germans, and only the Germans then, could have created the horror of the Holocaust, seemed to remove the worrying perception that all mankind was implicated in it. The book also, as one critic noticed, taps into a deep vein of anti-Germanism, as well as into a growing resistance in the US to providing the culpable with excuses for their crimes.
In Germany, the received line had been that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were tragically coerced by a few crazed ideologues who had mistakenly been voted to power. Goldhagens view seemed to offer contemporary Germans some release from the burden of that guilt. Hidden deep within German culture, says a journalist who observed Goldhagens triumphant publicity tour, is not exterminationist antisemitism but a sense of biblical justice. Hidden deep within Goldhagens text is a small-print note acknowledging that, as post-war Germans became democrats and essentially were re-educated, the public culture of antisemitism dissipated, as absurd beliefs can do. Encouraged by Daniel Goldhagens angle on it, modern Germans began to feel that they could come to terms with the past, by recognising that responsibility lay only with their forebears, not with them.
Or so the enthusiasm of lay responses has been interpreted. Why have the academics been so unkind? They claim, with some justification, that Goldhagen fails to provide convincing evidence when he disagrees with respected Holocaust historians; often he simply says that they are wrong. He is cavalier with evidence that doesnt support his view. He has not, the professors say, presented his thesis as a scholar should.
Instead, he has written it with passion and anger. He has written with an obsessive determination to make a point. He raises questions with the ring of rhetoric, not the disinterestedness of research. His book has the bulk of a scholarly work; but it does not read like a scholarly work. What it does evoke is a dedicated barrister on a landmark case. The flavour of adversarial courtroom drama gives this important, terrifying book its emotional excitement; and, for the academics, an intellectual impropriety.
The Goldhagen phenomenon demonstrates a polarisation that is significant. There are the academic and religious institutions which quietly, painfully, ritually preserve and protect the chronicles and analyses of the Shoah. There are also ordinary people, who have still to find ways of relating the Shoah, and genocides like it, to their own imaginations, their own experiences, and their own agendas. Its in their our hands that the seeds of war and violence lie.
burden of responsibility
His critics are correct in saying that Daniel Goldhagen doesnt show much interest in other factors contributing to the Shoah such as the fact that it took place during a war. All war cheapens life, all war brutalises and removes the taboo on violence, remarks the distinguished Jewish historian Peter Pulzer. In the midst of such a war, men who were not soldiers found it not only easy but right to create their own front line, their own surrogate enemy.
Propaganda is another factor. In London recently a former Hitler youth member and soldier (but not a Holocaust perpetrator) took part in a student conference on the Nazi regime. Asked about the final solution he said, You must remember that there was a struggle between ourselves and the Jews. Another panellist demanded, Just a minute: what struggle? sadly aware that many ordinary Germans shared the Wehrmacht veterans delusion. They believed they were engaged in a struggle with a great enemy. Propaganda works.
There are other influences: group pressure; group solidarity; fear and hatred; the effects of being isolated, in a state of hostility, far from the civilising influences of home. Jews werent the only group to perish: huge numbers of non-Jews were murdered, not only gypsies, vagrants, and the victims of euthanasia programmes, but also three and a half million Soviet prisoners. Camps like Dachau were originally set up to subdue people whose offence was simply to oppose Nazism. There are other things than eliminationist antisemitism to look for in the mindset of any individual executioner. (Who were the willing executioners who disposed of 50 million for Stalin? What motivated each of them?)
Wherever the burdens of guilt and responsibility rest, whatever the imperatives of judgement or forgiveness, there remains the unforgiving evidence. Millions of people were killed in the second world war; six million of them were unarmed civilian Jews. This is what people have done to one another. This is what they can do, are doing, now. All over the world professional soldiers continue training to fight and kill. All over the world, ordinary people in states of war find themselves able to kill, too. As you read this sentence, someone somewhere is executing someone else; has the attitude of mind and the brutality to do it and live with having done it; may do it again.
In many radical movements, left and right, those who seek social change portray themselves as more than human, while they portray their enemies as less than human or as fundamentally other than human....Of course there are strategic and other reasons for speaking in these ways. Acknowledgement that, for example, members of the Nazi party were also human beings may complicate and in that way undermine our effort to capture what the Holocaust was all about. Those are the recent words of an American scholar. He means to explain how and why it is that people can, regrettably, dehumanise their enemies; but that word our could, to some minds, suggest not a warning but an invitation. Potentially sinister mindsets can put down roots anywhere.
An American reader remarked on the proportion of 100,000 killers (Goldhagens suggested figure) to the total German population in 1933. What would happen, he wondered, if comparable conditions arose in America, with an extremist government able to subvert conventional safeguards, gain unlimited coercive power, and undertake to eliminate an entire group of citizens? Could such a regime recruit 400,000 willing killers? Only a very sanguine view of American society could support a confident No. And if this did happen, would many of us be able to match the courage of the resisters? Conscientiously he answered his own question. I cannot confidently say that I could.
The writer Michael Moorcock, discussing Goldhagens book, wrote: Id guess that roughly the same proportion of sadists and psychopaths, useful for genocidal work, exists in any society and emerges at appropriate times....I believe they represent a fairly large proportion of the worlds population. One indication of this is where you have an uncontrolled press of some kind. Over-the-counter sales figures of sadistic pornography should offer a rough indication of the numbers of people who find the infliction of pain and humiliation acceptable....Discover whats selling off your top shelf along with Guns & Ammo and Survivalist. Then wed know how many potential executioners we probably have for neighbours.
It seems it isnt enough to rebuke or punish. It isnt enough to teach civilisation and ethics. It isnt enough to advocate non-violence, or say that killing people is wrong. What is left? A lesson, perhaps, from Daniel Goldhagens detailed accounts of the ordinary people who effected the Holocaust: to be constantly on the alert for any set of circumstances (such as, for example, existed in 1930s Germany) in the development of which people may become willing to let go of their humanity and their civilisation.
to Poland we came
As Daniel Goldhagen arrived in Germany at the start of his publicity tour, the German soccer team was playing away in Poland.
A group of shaven-headed supporters followed them. Carrying banners saying Schindlers Jews, we greet you, they began rioting before the game had even started. They chanted (English approximation): To Poland we came, cause Jews we wanna tame . All this was broadcast on German TV, live from Zabrze stadium.
Zabrze is, give or take a few twists in the road, less than thirty miles from Auschwitz.