Hitler's Willing Executioners

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Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
AuthorDaniel Goldhagen
CountryUnited States
SubjectThe Holocaust
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media typePrint
Dewey Decimal940.5318
LC ClassD804.3 .G648
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Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
AuthorDaniel Goldhagen
CountryUnited States
SubjectThe Holocaust
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media typePrint
Dewey Decimal940.5318
LC ClassD804.3 .G648

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) is a book by American writer Daniel Goldhagen that argues that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were as the title indicates "willing executioners" in the Holocaust because of a unique and virulent "eliminationist antisemitism" in the German identity, which had developed in the preceding centuries. Goldhagen argued that this "eliminationist antisemitism" was the cornerstone of German national identity, that this type of antisemitism was unique to Germany and because of it, ordinary Germans killed Jews willingly and happily. Goldhagen asserted that this special mentality grew out of medieval attitudes from a religious basis, but was eventually secularized.

Goldhagen's book stoked controversy and debate, in Germany and the United States. Some historians have characterized its reception as an extension of the Historikerstreit, the German historiographical debate of the 1980s that sought to explain Nazi history. The book was a "publishing phenomenon",[1] achieving fame in both the United States and Germany, despite its "mostly scathing" reception among historians,[2] who were unusually vocal in condemning it as ahistorical and, in the words of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, "totally wrong about everything" and "worthless".[3][4]

The book, which began as a Harvard doctoral dissertation, was written largely as an answer to Christopher Browning's 1992 book Ordinary Men Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Much of Goldhagen's book is concerned with the same reserve battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei, during which Goldhagen attacks every aspect of Browning's book. Goldhagen had already indicated his opposition to Browning's thesis in a review of Ordinary Men in the July 13, 1992 edition of The New Republic titled "The Evil of Banality".

Hitler's Willing Executioners won the American Political Science Association's 1994 Gabriel A. Almond Award in comparative politics and the Democracy Prize of the Journal for German and International Politics. The Journal asserted that the debate fostered by Goldhagen's book helped sharpen public understanding about the past during a period of radical change in Germany.[5]

The Evil of Banality[edit]

In 1992, the American historian Christopher Browning published a book titled Ordinary Men about Reserve Police Battalion 101, which had been used to massacre and round up Jews for deportation to the Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland in 1942. The conclusion of the book, which was much influenced by the experiments of Stanley Milgram, was that the men of Unit 101 were not demons or Nazi fanatics but ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg, who had been drafted but found unfit for military duty. In some cases, these men were ordered to round up Jews and if there was not enough room for them on the trains, to shoot them. In other, more chilling cases, they were ordered to merely kill a specified number of Jews in a given town or area. The commander of the unit gave his men the choice of opting out of this duty if they found it too unpleasant; the majority chose not to exercise that option, resulting in fewer than 15 men out of a battalion of 500 opting out of their grisly duties.[6] Browning argued that the men of Unit 101 killed out of a basic obedience to authority and peer pressure, not blood-lust or primal hatred. While the specifics of this book deal with killings performed by otherwise average men, the general implication of the book is that when placed in a coherent group setting, most people will adhere to the commands given, even if they find the actions morally reprehensible. Additionally the book demonstrates that ordinary people will more than likely follow orders, even those they might personally question, when they perceive these orders as originating from an authority, a hypothesis also studied in the Milgram Experiment.

In his review of Ordinary Men in July 1992, Goldhagen started out favorably:

For a start, it exposes as a myth a dominant conception about the Holocaust, namely that the killers were all SS men, the most ardent votaries of the Nazi creed. The emphasis on the opportunities that the men of this police battalion had to avoid their task of mass murder is a singularly important feature of this study. More generally, Browning makes a crucial point that has been made before, but continues to escape many, that not once in the history of the Holocaust was a German killed, sent to a concentration camp, or punished in any serious way for refusing to kill Jews.[7]

Goldhagen went to argue:

Still, for all its virtues, for all the author's considerable ability as a historian, this book fails in its central interpretation.[7]

Goldhagen accused Browning of manufacturing his evidence "out of thin air", and stated his view that "for the vast majority of the perpetrators a monocausal explanation does suffice", namely that they killed Jews because they had always wanted to kill Jews.[8] Goldhagen went on to state:

Browning does discuss the volunteerism—which was in fact so frequently exhibited in the battalion—but fails to give it adequate attention. For example, one of the killers who excused himself while the first killing operation was under way admits to having later volunteered for subsequent ones. The man is discussed, yet this fact about his later conduct remains unmentioned, although its significance is substantial....

Much more evidence exists in the testimony of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101—some of it already contained in this book, though in need of reinterpretation—to suggest that this was not a group of men who inwardly opposed the mass murder of Jews.

It is the singular conception of the Jews and not, as Browning tepidly puts it, mere "negative stereotypes" that contributed to these men's willingness voluntarily to hunt Jewish mothers and their infants hiding in remote forests and fields. To a great extent, this book reduces the Germans' singular and deeply rooted, racist antisemitism to little more than one manifestation of a common social psychological phenomenon. It reduces the mass slaughter of the Jews to a phenomenon that belongs in the normal continuum of ("race") war.

The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were not ordinary "men," but ordinary members of an extraordinary political culture, the culture of Nazi Germany, which was possessed of a hallucinatory, lethal view of the Jews. That view was the mainspring of what was, in essence, voluntary barbarism.[9]

Goldhagen stated that he would write a book that would rebut Ordinary Men and Browning's thesis, and prove instead that it was the murderous antisemitic nature of German culture that led the men of Reserve Battalion 101 to murder Jews.

Goldhagen's thesis[edit]

Goldhagen argued that Germans possessed a unique form of antisemitism, which he called "eliminationist antisemitism", which developed over centuries prior to the 20th century. Goldhagen contends:

The German perpetrators of the Holocaust treated Jews in all the brutal and lethal ways that they did because, by and large, they believed that what they were doing was right and necessary. Second, that there was long existing, virulent antisemitism in German society that led to the desire on the part of the vast majority of Germans to eliminate Jews somehow from German society. Third, that any explanation of the Holocaust must address and specify the causal relationship between antisemitism in Germany and the persecution and extermination of the Jews which so many ordinary Germans contributed to and supported.[10]

Goldhagen charged that every other book written on the Holocaust was flawed by the fact that historians had treated Germans in the Third Reich as "more or less like us" and wrongly believed that "their sensibilities had remotely approximated our own".[11] Instead, Goldhagen argued that historians' should examine ordinary Germans in the Nazi period as in the same way as they treated the Aztecs who believed in the necessity of human sacrifice to appease the gods and ensure that the sun would rise every day.[12] Goldhagen stated that he based his thesis on the assumption that Germans were not a "normal" Western people influenced by the values of the Enlightenment, but instead he would use an anthropological approach that would treat the Germans the same way that an anthropologist would in describing preindustrial people who believed in absurd things such as trees having magical powers.[13]

Title page of Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies. Wittenberg, 1543. Goldhagen used Luther's book to argue for the deep-rooted unique "eliminationist" antisemitism of German culture.

Goldhagen's book was meant to be an anthropological "thick description" in the manner of Clifford Geertz.[14] Goldhagen argued that there the violent antisemitic "cultural axiom" held by Martin Luther in the 16th century and expressed in his 1543 book On the Jews and Their Lies were the same as those held by Adolf Hitler in the 20th century.[15] Goldhagen argued that such was the ferocity of German "eliminationist antisemitism" that long before 1933 that the situation in Germany had been "pregnant with murder", that as regarding the Jews things had been "pregnant with murder" since the mid-19th century and that all Hitler did was merely unleash the deeply rooted murderous "elminationist antisemitism" that had brooding within the German people since Luther's time, if not earlier.[16]

Hitler's Willing Executioners marked a revisionist challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy surrounding the question of German public opinion and the Final Solution.[17] The British historian Sir Ian Kershaw, a leading expert in the social history of the Third Reich claimed:

The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.[18][19]

By this, Kershaw meant the progress leading up to Auschwitz was motivated by antisemitism of the most vicious kind held by the Nazi elite, but it took place in a context where the majority of German public opinion was completely indifferent to what was happening.[20] In several articles and books, most notably his 1983 book Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, Kershaw argued that most Germans were at a minimum at least vaguely aware of the Holocaust, but could have cared less about what their government was doing to the Jews.[21] Though differing in many details about German public opinion from Kershaw, arguing that the term "passive complicity" is a better one than "indifference", the Israeli historian Otto Dov Kulka, the American historian Aron Rodrigue, and the Israeli historian David Bankier have largely agreed with Kershaw that there was a difference in opinion about the Jews between the Nazi "true believers" and the wider German public, whose views towards Jews seemed to have expressed more of a dislike rather than hatred of Jews.[20] Goldhagen by contrast declared the term "indifference" to be unacceptable, and instead contended that the vast majority of Germans were active antisemitics who wanted to kill Jews in the most "pitiless" and "callous" manner possible.[22]

As such, to prove his thesis Goldhagen focused on the behavior of ordinary Germans who killed Jews, especially the behavior of the men of Order Police Reserve Battalion 101 in Poland in 1942 to argue ordinary Germans possessed by "eliminationist antisemitism" chose to willingly murder Jews.[23] The 450 or so men of Battalion 101 were mostly middle-aged, working-class men from Hamburg who showed little interest in National Socialism and who had no special training to prepare them for genocide.[24] Despite their very different interpretations of Battalion 101, both Browning and Goldhagen have argued that the men of the unit were a cross-sample of ordinary Germans.[24]

Using Geertz's anthropological methods, Goldhagen argued by studying the men of Battalion 101 one could engage in a "thick description" of the German "eliminationist antisemitic" culture.[25] Contra Browning, Goldhagen argued that the men of Battalion 101 were not reluctant killers, but instead willingly murdered Polish Jews in the most cruel and sadistic manner possible, that "brutality and cruelty" were central to the ethos of Battalion 101.[26] In its turn, the "culture of cruelty" in Battalion 101 was linked by Goldhagen to the culture of "eliminationist antisemitism".[27] Goldhagen noted that the officers in charge of Battalion 101 led by Major Wilhem Trapp allowed the men to excuse themselves from killing if they found too it unpleasant, and Goldhagen used the fact that the vast majority of the men of Battalion 101 did not excuse themselves to argue that this proved the murderous antisemitic nature of German culture.[28] Goldhagen argued for the specific antisemitic nature of the Battalion 101's violence by noting that in 1942 the battalion was ordered to shoot 200 Gentile Poles, and instead shot 78 Polish Catholics while shooting 180 Polish Jews later that same day.[29] Goldhagen used this incident to argue the men of Battalion 101 were reluctant to kill Polish Catholics, but only too willing to murder Polish Jews.[29] Goldhagen wrote the men of Battalion 101 felt "joy and triumph" after torturing and murdering Jews.[30] Goldhagen used antisemitic statements by Cardinal Adolf Bertram as typical of what he called the Roman Catholic Church's support for genocide.[31] Goldhagen was later to expand on what he sees as the Catholic Church's institutional anti-semitism and support for the Nazi regime in Hitler's Willing Executioners's sequel, 2002's A Moral Reckoning. Goldhagen argued that it "strains credibility" to imagine that "ordinary Danes or Italians" could have acted as he claimed ordinary Germans did during the Holocaust to prove that "eliminationist" anti-Semitism was uniquely German.[32]


What some commentators termed "The Goldhagen Affair"[33] began in late 1996, when Goldhagen visited Berlin to participate in debate on television and in lecture halls before capacity crowds, on a book tour.[34][35] Although Hitler's Willing Executioners was sharply criticized in Germany at its debut,[36] the intense public interest in the book secured the author much celebrity among Germans, so much so that Harold Marcuse characterizes him as "the darling of the German public".[37] Many media voices noted that, while the book launched passionate national discussion about the Holocaust,[38] this discussion was carried out civilly and respectfully. Goldhagen's book tour became, in the opinion of some German media voices, "a triumphant march", as "the open-mindedness that Goldhagen encountered in the land of the perpetrators" was "gratifying" and something of which Germans ought to be proud, even in the context of a book which sought, according to some critics, to "erase the distinction between Germans and Nazis".[33]

Goldhagen was awarded the Democracy Prize in 1997 by the German Journal for German and International Politics, which asserted that "because of the penetrating quality and the moral power of his presentation, Daniel Goldhagen has greatly stirred the consciousness of the German public." The laudatio, awarded for the first time since 1990, was given by Jürgen Habermas and Jan Philipp Reemtsma.[35][39] Elie Wiesel praised the work as something every German schoolchild should read.[40]

Debate about Goldhagen's theory has been intense.[41] Detractors have contended that the book is "profoundly flawed"[42] or "bad history".[43] Some historians have criticized or simply dismissed the text, citing among other deficiencies Goldhagen's "neglect of decades of research in favour of his own preconceptions", which he proceeds to articulate in an "intemperate, emotional, and accusatory tone".[44] In a 1997 interview, the German historian Hans Mommsen said about Goldhagen:

Goldhagen does not understand much about the antisemitic movements in the nineteenth century. He only addresses the impact antisemitism had on the masses in Germany, especially in the Weimar period, which is quite problematic.... He [Goldhagen] did not say that explicitly, but he construes a unilinear continuity of German antisemitism from the medieval period onwards, and he argues that Hitler was the result of German antisemitism. This, however, and similar suggestions are quite wrong, because Hitler's seizure of power was not due to any significant impact of his antisemitic propaganda at that time. Obviously, antisemitism did not play a significant role in the election campaigns between September 1930 and November 1932. Goldhagen just ignores this crucial phenomenon. Besides that, Goldhagen, while talking all the time about German antisemitism, omits the specific impact of the völkisch antisemitism as proclaimed by Houston Stuart Chamberlain and the Richard Wagner movement which directly influenced Hitler as well as the Nazi party. He does not have any understanding of the diversities within German antisemitism, and he does not know very much about the internal structure of the Third Reich either. For instance, he claims that the Jews lost their German citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws, while actually this was due to Hans Globke's collaboration with Martin Bormann in changing the citizenship legislation late in 1938.[45]

The "diversities" of German anti-semitism Mommsen spoken of were defined by him in the same interview as:

One should differentiate between the cultural antisemitism symptomatic of the German conservatives — found especially in the German officer corps and the high civil administration — and mainly directed against the Eastern Jews on the one hand, and völkisch antisemitism on the other. The conservative variety functions, as Shulamit Volkov has pointed out, as something of a "cultural code". This variety of German antisemitism later on played a significant role insofar as it prevented the functional elite from distancing itself from the repercussions of racial antisemitism. Thus, there was almost no relevant protest against the Jewish persecution on the part of the generals or the leading groups within the Reich government. This is especially true with respect to Hitler's proclamation of the "racial annihilation war" against the Soviet Union.

Besides conservative antisemitism, there existed in Germany a rather silent anti-Judaism within the Catholic Church, which had a certain impact on immunising the Catholic population against the escalating persecution. The famous protest of the Catholic Church against the euthanasia program was, therefore, not accompanied by any protest against the Holocaust.

The third and most vitriolic variety of antisemitism in Germany (and elsewhere) is the so-called völkisch antisemitism or racism, and this is the foremost advocate of using violence.[45]

The Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer wrote about Goldhagen:

Here Goldhagen stumbles badly. He does not seem to be acquainted with some basic developments in German society in the nineteenth century. Certainly, there was what he calls eliminationist antisemitism and its impact increased as the century matured.... But antisemitism came in different forms, and Goldhagen puts all antisemitism in the same basket, including the liberal type that wanted to see the Jews disappear by assimilation and conversion.... The vast majority of German antisemitics did not wish to abolish formal Jewish emancipation. Goldhagen makes much of the radical antisemitism of the Conservative Party in Germany; but in 1893 it obtained less than 10 percent of the votes, whereas the National Liberals, among whom there were a number of former Jews, were much more numerous. Goldhagen ignores this and makes the counterfactual statement that "conservatives and völkish nationalists in Germany ... formed the vast majority of the population". By 1912, the Social Democrats, with an explicitly anti-antisemitic program, were the largest party in the German Reichstag, and the Progressives ran very strongly as well.... Formally, at least, the Jews had been fully emancipated with the establishment of the German Empire, although they were kept out of certain influential occupations, enjoyed extraordinary prosperity.... Germans intermarried with Jews: in the 1930s some 50,000 Jews were living in mixed German-Jewish marriages, so at least 50,000 Germans, and presumably parts of their families, had familial contact with the Jews. Goldhagen himself mentions that a large proportion of the Jewish upper classes in Germany converted to Christianity in the nineteenth century. In a society where eliminationist norms were universal and in which Jews were rejected even after they had converted, or so he argues, the rise of this extreme form of assimilation of Jews would hardly have been possible.[46]

Bauer argued:

There simply was no general murderous, racist antisemitic norm in Germany in the nineteenth century. There was a strong and growing antisemitic influence among the elites, but even here it is difficult to speak of unanimity.... But to speak of an eliminitionist norm is wrong. Goldhagen's thesis does not work.[47]

Bauer wrote that Goldhagen's thesis about an murderous antisemitic culture applied better to Romania than to Germany, and murderous anti-Semitism was not confided to Germany as Goldhagen had claimed.[48] Bauer wrote of the main parties of the Weimar Coalition that dominated German politics until 1930, the leftist SDP and the liberal DDP were opposed to anti-Semitism while the right-of-the-centre Catholic Zentrum was "moderately" antisemitic.[49] Bauer wrote of the major pre-1930 political parties, the only party that could be described as a radically antisemitic was the conservative German National People's Party, who Bauer called "... the party of the traditional, often radical anti-Semitic elites..." who were "... a definite minority" while the NSDAP won only 2.6% of the vote in the Reichstag elections in May 1928.[49] Bauer charged that it was the Great Depression, not an alleged culture of murderous anti-Semitism that allowed the NSDAP to make its electoral breakthrough in the Reichstag elections of September 1930.[49] Bauer wrote about the Goldhagen-Browning debate:

Goldhagen has an argument with Christopher R. Browning over what percentage of Germans were potentially or actually willing to participate in the genocide. Browning believes that the percentage of policemen examined who were opposed to murder was 10 to 20 percent: Goldhagen says 10 percent of the German population was opposed. In either case, the statement that the vast majority of the German population were willing to be recruited for the murder of Jews stands. This has been said time and time again by historians, Yisrael Gutman and myself included, and Goldhagen's disregard for the fact that he is not the first to say so is neither here nor there. The point is that he is right.

The real question, then is this: If, in 1933, the Nazis and their radically but not murderously antisemitic allies were supported by some 43 percent of the electorate, non-Nazi parties by 57 percent, including outspoken opponents of Nazis who either anti-antisemitic or only moderately anti-Jewish..., how did it happen that by 1940-1941 the overwhelming majority of Germans became a reservoir of willing murderers of Jews? That is the problem. Goldhagen's discussion about norms that did not exist is useless.[50]

Despite having a generally critical view of Goldhagen, Bauer wrote that the final chapters of Hitler's Willing Executioners dealing with the death marches were "... the best part of the book. Little is new in the overall description, but the details and the way he analyzes the attitude of the murderers is powerful and convincing".[51] Finally Bauer charged "... that the anti-German bias of his book, almost a racist bias (however much he may deny it) leads nowhere".[51]

Christopher Browning wrote in response to Goldhagen's criticism of him in 1998:

The problems with the design are manifold. For the second comparison to adequately support his argument, Goldhagen must prove not only that Germans treated Jewish and non-Jewish victims differently (on which virtually all historians' agree), but also that the different treatment is to be explained fundamentally by the antisemitic motivation of the vast majority of the perpetrators and not by other possible motivations, such as compliance with different government policies for different victim groups. The second and third case studies of Hitler's Willing Executioners are aimed at meeting the burden of proof on these two points. Goldhagen argues that the case of the Lipowa and Flughafen Jewish labor camps in Lublin demonstrates that in contrast to other victims, only Jewish labor was treated murderously by the Germans without regard for and indeed counter to economic rationality. And the Helmbrechts death march case, he argues, demonstrates that Jews were killed even when orders have been given to keep them alive, and hence the driving motive for the killing was not compliance to government policy or obedience to orders, but the deep personal hatred of the perpetrators for their Jewish victims that had been inculcated by German culture....

Bringing wider attention to the death marches is one of the redeeming merits of Goldhagen's book, but his attempt to generalize from the one case of the Helmbrechts death march is unpersuasive. His powerful description of this horrific event must not obscure the fact that in terms of proof of a widespread eagerness to kill Jews even contrary to orders, he has established neither its representativeness for other death marches nor that the same phenomenon did not occur in Germans' treatment of other victims. And even in his own case Goldhagen admits that the guards had to prevent the local German population from providing food and lodging and German soldiers from providing medical care to the Jews without ever considering whether these other Germans were not just as typical of German society at large as the murderous death march guards. Indeed, the stark difference in the behavior of these different groups of Germans would suggest the importance of situational and institutional factors that he dismisses....

Goldhagen is indeed correct that in the long run the murderous treatment of Soviet POWs did change while the murderous treatment of Jewish labor, except in minor ways, did not. But this simply indicates that, despite institutional inertia and the initial persistence of murderous patterns of behavior toward Soviet POWs, compliance with government policy ultimately prevailed in both cases. It does not demonstrate, as Goldhagen suggests that the fate of Slavs, such as Soviet POWs and Jews differed primarily because of different culturally induced attitudes toward the two sets of victims. The Germans presided over the death of some 2 million Soviet POWs in the first nine months of the war [against the Soviet Union]-far more than the number of Jewish victims up to that point. The death rate in these POW camps far exceeded the death rates in the German created ghettos prior to the Final Solution. The fact that the Nazi regime changed its policy to murder all Jews and changed its policy not to starve all Soviet POWs is more a measure of the ideology, priorities and obsessions of Hitler and the Nazi leadership than of the attitudes of German society. The staggering fatality rate of Soviet POWs in the first months suggest above all the regime's capacity to harness ordinary Germans to murder limitless numbers of Soviet POWs if that had remained the goal.[52]

About Goldhagen's claims that the men of Order Police Reserve Battalion 101 were reluctant to kill Polish Catholics while being eager to kill Polish Jews, Browning accused Goldhagen of having double standards with the historical evidence.[53] Browning wrote:

Moreover, this double standard in the selection of evidence can also be seen in Goldhagen's analysis of the men's motives. The failure of the policemen to opt out at Talcyn is not construed as evidence of a desire to kill Poles while not opting out at Józefów is cited as evidence that they "wanted to be genocidal executioners" of the Jews. Nothing more than "momentary" visceral weakness is seen in the mountain of testimony about the men's distress at Józefów, while the statement of a single witness at Talcyn is cited as valid evidence of the men's "obvious distaste and reluctance" to kill Poles.

The double standard concerning Jewish and Polish victims can be seen in yet another way. Goldhagen cites numerous instances of gratuitous and voluntaristic killing of Jews as relevant to assessing the attitudes of the killers. But he omits a similar case of gratuitous, voluntaristic killing by Reserve Police Battalion 101 when the victims were Poles. A German police official was reported killed in the village of Niezdów, whereupon policemen about to visit the cinema in Opole were sent to carry out a reprisal action. Only elderly Poles, mostly women, remained in the village, as the younger Poles had all fled. Word came, moreover, that the ambushed German policeman had been only wounded, not killed. Nonetheless, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 shot all the elderly Poles and set the village on fire before returning to the cinema for an evening of casual and relaxing entertainment. There is not much evidence of "obvious distaste and reluctance" to kill Poles to be seen in this episode. Would Goldhagen have omitted this incident if the victims had been Jews and an anti-Semitic motivation could have easily been inferred?[54]

About the long-term origins of the Holocaust, Browning argued that by the end of the 19th century, anti-semitism was widely accepted by most German conservatives and:

By the turn of the century a German anti-Semitism increasingly racial in nature had become an integral part of the conservative platform and penetrated deeply into the universities. It had become more politicized and instutionalized than in the western democracies of France, Britain and the United States. But this does not mean that late nineteenth-century German anti-Semitism dominated either politics or ideational life. The conservatives and the single-issue antisemitic parties together constituted a minority. While majorities could be found in the Prussian Landtag to pass discriminatory legislation against Catholics in the 1870s and the Reichstag against socialists in the 1880s [Browning is referring to the Kulturkampf and the Anti-Socialist Laws here], the emancipation of Germany's Jews, who constituted less than 1 percent of the population and were scarcely capable of defending themselves against a Germany united in hostile obsession against them, was not revoked.[55]

Browning argued that virtually all German conservatives supported the Nazi regime's antisemitic laws of 1933-34 (and the few who did object like President Hindenburg only objected to the inclusion of Jewish war veterans in the antisemitic laws that they otherwise supported), but that left to their own devices, would not have gone further, and that for all their fierce anti-Semitism, German conservatives would had not engaged in genocide.[56] However, at the same time, Browning contended that the long prior to 1933 anti-semitism of German conservative elites in the military and the bureaucracy meant that they made few objections, moral or otherwise to the Nazi/völkisch antisemitism.[56] Browning was echoing the conclusions of the German conservative historian Andreas Hillgruber who once presented at a historians' conference in 1984 a counter-factual scenario whereby, had it been a coalition of the German National People's Party and the Stahlhelm that took power in 1933 without the NSDAP, all the antisemitic laws in Germany that were passed between 1933 and 1938 would still have been passed, but there would have been no Holocaust.[57]

Concerning Order Police Reserve Battalion 101, the Australian historian Inga Clendinnen wrote that Goldhagen's picture of Major Trapp, the unit's commander as an antisemitic fanatic was "far-fetched" and "... there is no indication, on that first day or later that he found the murdering of Jewish civilians a congenial task".[58] Clendinnean wrote that Goldhagen's attempt to "... blame the Nazis' extreme and gratuitous savagery" on the Germans was "unpersuasive", and the pogroms that killed thousands of Jews committed by Lithuanian mobs in the summer of 1941 shortly after the arrival of German troops suggested murderous anti-Semitism was not unique to Germany.[59] About the actions of Battalion 101, Clendinnean declared:

Sequence matters. Goldhagen argues that because many ordinary Germans came in time to committ mass murder readily, they had always been ready to do so. He concludes that thereforth any and all Germans must had been ready to become killers. He dismisses the possible influence of intervening experience-the fear of partisan attack, absence from home, the vulnerabilites of the individual in a garrison situation and subjected to extreme internal and external pressures-as trival.

By contrast, Browning is concerned with process and alert for influences shaping the group sensibility. Through close attention to to temporal sequence he traces what looks like a process of "education" during that first brutal day, when a revulsion against killing civilians was overcome by a generalised notion of "duty" to one's country and one's comrades rather than by the invocation of a particular ideology.[60]

Clendinnean ended her essay by stating she found Browning's account of Battalion 101 to be the more believable.[61]

The Israeli historian Omer Bartov wrote that to accept Goldhagen's thesis would also have to mean accepting that the entire German Jewish community were "downright stupid" from the mid-19th century onwards because it is otherwise impossible to explain why they chose to remain in Germany if the people were so murderously hostile or why so German Jews wanted to assimilate into an "eliminationist anti-Semitic" culture.[62] In a 1996 review in First Things, the American Catholic priest Father Richard John Neuhaus took issue with Goldhagen's claim that the Catholic and Lutheran churches in Germany were genocidal towards the Jews, arguing that there was a difference between Christian and Nazi anti-Semitism.[63] Neuhas argued that Goldhagen was wrong to claim that Luther had created a legacy of intense, genocidal anti-Semitism within Lutheranism, stating that if was the case then why did so many people in solidly Lutheran Denmark act to protect the Danish Jewish minority from deportation to the death camps in 1943.[63] The Canadian historian Peter Hoffmann accused Goldhagen of maligning Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, arguing that Goldhagen had taken wildly of context the list of Jewish doctors forbidden to practice that Goerdeler as Lord Mayor of Leipzig had issued in April 1935. Hoffmann contended that what happened was that on April 9, 1935, the Deputy Mayor of Leipzig, the National Socialist Rudolf Haake, in defiance of the existing antisemitic laws, banned all Jewish doctors from participating in public health insurance, and advised all municipal employees not to consult Jewish doctors.[64] In response, the Landesverband Mitteldeutschland des Centralvereins deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens e. V (Middle German Regional Association of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith) complained to Goerdeler about Haake's actions, and asked him to enforce the existing antisemitic laws, which at least allowed some Jewish doctors to practice.[64] On 11 April 1935, Goerdeler ordered the end of Haake's boycott, and provided a list of "non-Aryan" physicians permitted to operate under the existing laws, and those who were excluded.[65]

Others have contended that, despite the book's "undeniable flaws", it "served to refocus the debate on the question of German national responsibility and guilt", in the context of a reemergence of a German political right, which may have sought to "relativize" or "normalize" Nazi history.[66]

Goldhagen's assertion that the almost all Germans "wanted to be genocidal executioners" has been viewed with skepticism by most historians, a skepticism ranging from dismissal as "not valid social science" to a condemnation, in the words of the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, as "patent nonsense".[1][67][68] Common complaints suggest that Goldhagen's primary hypothesis is either "oversimplified",[69] or represents "a bizarre inversion of the Nazi view of the Jews" turned back upon the Germans.[2] One German commentator suggested that Goldhagen's book "pushes us again and again headfirst into the nasty anti-Semitic mud. This is his revenge...."[70] Eberhard Jäckel wrote a very hostile book review in the Die Zeit newspaper in May 1996 that called Hitler's Willing Executioners "simply a bad book".[71] The British historian Sir Ian Kershaw wrote that he fully agreed with Jäckel on the merits of Hitler's Willing Executioners".[71] Kershaw wrote in 2000 that Goldhagen's book would "... occupy only a limited place in the unfolding, vast historiography of such a crucially important topic-probably at best as a challenge to historians to qualify or counter his 'broad-brush' generalisations".[72]

In 1996, the American historian David Schoenbaum wrote a highly critical book review in the National Review of Hitler's Willing Executioners where he charged Goldhagen with grossly simplifying the question of the degree and virulence of German Antisemitism, and of only selecting evidence that supported his thesis.[73]:54–5 Furthermore, Schoenbaum complained that Goldhagen did not take a comparative approach with Germany placed in isolation, thereby falsely implying that Germans and Germans alone were the only nation that saw widespread anti-semitism.[73]:55 Finally, Schoenbaum argued that Goldhagen failed to explain why the anti-Jewish boycott of April 1, 1933 was relatively ineffective or why the Kristallnacht needed to be organized by the Nazis as opposed to being a spontaneous expression of German popular anti-semitism.[73]:56 Using an example from his family history, Schoenbaum wrote his mother in law, a Polish Jew who lived in Germany between 1928–47 never considered the National Socialists and the Germans synonymous, and expressed regret that Goldhagen could not see the same.[73]:56

Hitler's Willing Executioners also drew controversy with the publication of two critical articles: "Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 'Crazy' Thesis", by the American political science professor Norman Finkelstein and initially published in the UK political journal New Left Review,[74] and "Historiographical review: Revising the Holocaust", written by the Canadian historian Ruth Bettina Birn and initially published in the Historical Journal of Cambridge.[2] These articles were later published as the book A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth.[2] In response to their book, Goldhagen sought a retraction and apology from Birn, threatening at one point to sue her for libel and according to Salon declaring Finkelstein "a supporter of Hamas".[2] The force of the counterattacks against Birn and Finkelstein from Goldhagen's supporters was described by Israeli journalist Tom Segev as "bordering on cultural terrorism . . . The Jewish establishment has embraced Goldhagen as if he were Mr Holocaust himself . . . All this is absurd, because the criticism of Goldhagen is backed up so well."[75]

The Austrian-born American historian Raul Hilberg has stated that Goldhagen is "totally wrong about everything. Totally wrong. Exceptionally wrong."[3] Hilberg also wrote in an open letter on the eve of the book launch at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that "The book is advertised as something that will change our thinking. It can do nothing of the sort. To me it is worthless, all the hype by the publisher notwithstanding".[4] Yehuda Bauer was similarly condemnatory, questioning how an institute such as Harvard could award a doctorate for a work which so "slipped through the filter of critical scholarly assessment".[76] Bauer also suggested that Goldhagen lacked familiarity with sources not in English or German, which thereby excluded research from Polish and Israeli sources writing in Hebrew, among others, all of whom had produced important research in the subject that would require a more subtle analysis. Bauer also argued that these linguistic limitations substantially impaired Goldhagen from undertaking broader comparative research into European antisemitism, which would have demanded further refinements to his analysis.

Goldhagen replied to his critics in an article Motives, Causes, and Alibis: A Reply to My Critics:

What is striking among some of those who have criticized my book — against whom so many people in Germany are openly reacting — is that much of what they have written and said has either a tenuous relationship to the book's contents or is patently false. Some of the outright falsehoods include: that little is new in the book; that it puts forward a monocausal and deterministic explanation of the Holocaust, holding it to have been the inevitable outcome of German history; that its argument is ahistorical; and that it makes an "essentialist," "racist" or ethnic argument about Germans. None of these is true.[77]

Accusations of racism[edit]

Several critics have characterized Goldhagen's text as adopting Nazi concepts of identity, and utilizing them to slur Germans.[2] David North wrote,

If all these elements of diverse social strata are to be lumped together as "ordinary Germans," it simply means that the concept of "ordinariness" does not reflect the internal antagonisms and conflicts of German society as it existed in 1933. What Goldhagen, therefore, offers his readers is not a scientific examination of German society as it really was constituted in 1933, but rather—and it is unpleasant to say this—an idealized portrait of a homogeneous society that uncritically substantiates the Nazi myth of a unified German Volk, defined by race and blood.

Having chosen this concept of the "ordinary German" as the basis of his entire analysis, Goldhagen is compelled to exclude from his book anything or anyone that might call into question the validity of this stereotype. His reply to the Nazi specter of der ewige Jude, the eternal Jew, as the relentless enemy of the German people is the specter of der ewige Deutsche, the eternal German, the relentless and unchanging enemy of the Jewish people.[78]

Hilburg wrote that "Goldhagen has left us with the image of a medieval-like incubus, a demon latent in the German mind ... waiting for the opportunity for the chance to strike out".[79] The American columnist D. D. Guttenplan wrote that Goldhagen's "pornographic reveries" about Germans fantasizing during sex about the murder of Jews were essentially racist, and that the only difference between Goldhagen's claims of an "elminationist" culture and those of Meir Kahane was that Goldhagen's targets were the Germans, and whereas Kahane's targets were the Arabs.[79] Guttenplan charged that Goldhagen's remarks about the deaths of 3 million Soviet POWs in German custody in World War II as "incidental" to the Holocaust were both morally callous and factually wrong, stating that the first people gassed at Auschwitz in August 1941 were Soviet POWs.[80] Influenced by the thesis about the Jews and Soviets as equal victims of the Holocaust presented in the American historian Arno J. Mayer's 1988 book Why Did Not the Heavens Not Darken? Guttenplan argued that Nazi theories about "Judo-Bolshevism" as a demonic, sinister force threatening Germanic civilization made for a more complex explanation for the Holocaust than the Goldhagen thesis about an "elminationist anti-Semitic" culture, and that Goldhagen had no interest in or sympathy for the millions of Soviet POWs whom the Germans killed or allowed to stave to death.[81]

Goldhagen has asserted that there is no racist or ethnic argument about Germans in his text. Some of his critics are agreed with him that his thesis is "not intrinsically racist", including Ruth Bettina Birn and Norman Finkelstein.[82]

Popular response[edit]

When the English edition of Hitler's Willing Executioners was published in March 1996, numerous German reviews ensued. In April 1996, before the book had appeared in German translation, Der Spiegel ran a cover story on Hitler's Willing Executioners under the title "Ein Volk Von Dämonen?" ("People of the Devil?") [83] The phrase ein volk von Dämonen was often used by the Nazis to describe Jews, and the title was meant by Rudolf Augstein and the editors of Der Spiegel to suggest a moral equivalence between the Nazi view of Jews and Goldhagen's view of Germans.[83] The most widely read German weekly newspaper Die Zeit published an eight-part series of opinions of the book before its German publication in August 1996. Goldhagen arrived in Germany in September 1996 for a book tour, and appeared on several television talk shows, as well as a number of sold-out panel discussions.[67][84]

The overwhelming majority of American scholars have dismissed the book as racist, unscholarly and irresponsible. It had a "mostly scathing" reception among historians,[2][85][86][87] who were vocal in condemning it as ahistorical.[88] "[W]hy does this book, so lacking in factual content and logical rigour, demand so much attention?" Raul Hilberg wondered.[89] The pre-eminent Jewish-American historian Fritz Stern denounced the book as unscholarly and full of racist Germanophobia.[90] Hilberg summarised the debates: "by the end of 1996, it was clear that in sharp distinction from lay readers, much of the academic world had wiped Goldhagen off the map."[91]

Steve Crawshaw writes that although the German readership was keenly aware of certain "professional failings" in Goldhagen's book,

[T]hese perceived professional failings proved almost irrelevant. Instead, Goldhagen became a bellwether of German readiness to confront the past. The accuracy of his work was, in this context, of secondary importance. Millions of Germans who wished to acknowledge the (undeniable and well-documented) fact that ordinary Germans participated in the Holocaust welcomed his work; his suggestion that Germans were predestined killers was accepted as part of the uncomfortable package. Goldhagen's book was treated as a way of ensuring that Germany came to terms with its past.[1]

Crawshaw further asserts that the book's critics were partly historians "weary" of Goldhagen's "methodological flaws", but also those who were reluctant to concede that ordinary Germans bore responsibility for the crimes of Nazi Germany.[1] In Germany, the leftist general public's insistence on further penitence prevailed, according to most observers.[69] American historian Gordon A. Craig and Der Spiegel have argued that whatever the book's flaws, it should be welcomed because it will reinvigorate the debate on the Holocaust and stimulate new scholarship.[92]

Interview with Ron Rosebaum[edit]

In May 1996, Goldhagen was interviewed about Hitler's Willing Executioners by the American journalist Ron Rosenbaum. When Rosebaum asked Goldhagen about scholarly literature that contends that Austrian anti-Semitism was far more virulent and violent than German anti-Semitism, and if the fact that Hitler was an Austrian had any effect on his thesis, Goldhagen replied:

There were regional variations in anti-Semitism even within Germany. But Hitler's exemplified and brought to an apotheosis the particular form of eliminationist anti-Semitism that came to the fore in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Whatever the variations, I think Austrian and German anti-Semitism can be seen of a piece, where there was a central model of Jews and a view that they needed to be eliminated.[93]

Goldhagen went on to state about theories that seek to explain the Holocaust as due to some flaw in Hitler's personality:

I'm not persuaded by the arguments of the psychohistorians. You understand Hitler better by seeing him as bred in a particular culture where these kinds of notions about Jews were quite common. That tells us why he become an anti-Semitic better than looking at aspects of his personal biography. Now if you want to understand how he became as murderous as he did and why he took these ideas to their-in some sense-logical and most fatal conclusions, the of course we need to plumb the depths of psychology, and that is not my forte.[93]

To which Rosenbaum stated in reply:

What you're saying, then is that psychohistorians are forever searching for some disorder, some trauma or abnormality as the source of Hitler's anti-Semitism, when in fact to be an anti-Semitic don't require a departure from the norm, it was the norm.[93]

In response, Goldhagen answered:

Clearly there was something more than that driving Hitler on because it was not just the Jews. There were many other people he killed. He was a man who leaped to murder to solve social problems biologically, by extirpating them. Of course, this is in accord with his view of the world, his racism, his social Darwinism, the general biologism with which he viewed the world. And so I agree with your point that it doesn't require a psychological malformation. But this doesn't of course rule out the possibility that in Hitler's case there was something else driving him.[94]

Rosenbaum inquired about Goldhagen's "pregnant with murder" metaphor, which suggested that the Shoah was something inevitable that would have happened without Hitler and Milton Himmelfarb's famous formulation "No Hitler, no Holocaust", asking "It invites a characterization of Hitler as a mere midwife, doesn't it?" Goldhagen stated in response:

The analogy's imperfect. It implies the baby comes without the need for the midwife. But "No Hitler, No Holocaust!"[95]

To which, Rosenbaum asked "So you would agree with Himmelfarb's argument?"[95] Goldhagen replied:

Or if not Hitler, someone like Hitler. If the Nazis had never taken power, there would not have been a Hitler. Had there not been a depression in Germany, then in all likelihood the Nazis wouldn't have come to power. The anti-Semitism would have remained a potential, in the sense of the killing form. It required a state. hatred do not issue in systematic violence unless they're organized by governments At most, they will produce ethnic violence, pogroms. Hitler was a very powerful leader, and he certainly deepened and widened the existing current of anti-Semitism in Germany, further legitimizing that, and brought people with him.[95]

When Rosenbaum asked Goldhagen about Richard Levy's 1975 book The Downfall of the Anti-Semitic Political Parties in Imperial Germany which traced the decline of the völkisch parties in the early 20th century until they were all but wiped in the 1912 Reichstag election, Goldhagen replied that voting for or against the wildly antisemitic völkisch parties had noting to do with antisemitic feeling, and that people could still hate Jews without voting for the völkisch parties.[96] In response to this thesis, Rosenbaum stated that he would had found it more believable if Goldhagen not used the meteoric rise in the late 19th century of the völkisch parties in Hitler's Willing Executioners as an example of antisemitic feeling, charging that Goldhagen was attempting to have it both ways.[96]

Middle East[edit]

In 2006, the American columnist Jonah Goldberg argued that "Goldhagen's thesis was overstated but fundamentally accurate. There was something unique to Germany that made its fascism genocidal. Around the globe there have been dozens of self-declared fascist movements (and a good deal more that go by different labels), and few of them have embraced Nazi-style genocide. Indeed, fascist Spain was a haven for Jews during the Holocaust".[97] However, Goldberg went to state that Goldhagen was mistaken in believing that "eliminationist antisemitism" was unique to Germany, and Goldberg charged "eliminationist antisemitism" was just as much of modern Palestinian culture as it was of 19th-20th-century German culture, and that in all essentials Hamas today was just as genocidal as the NSDAP had been.[97] In 2011, in an apparent reference to Hitler's Willing Executioners, the American columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran were all "eliminationist anti-Semites".[98] From a different angle, the American political scientist Norman Finkelstein charged that the book was Zionist propaganda meant to promote the image of a Gentile world forever committed to the destruction of the Jews, thus justifying the existence of Israel, and as such, Goldhagen's book was more concerned with the politics of the Near East and excusing what Finkelstein claimed was Israel's poor human rights record rather than European history.[99] In turn during a review of A Nation On Trial, the American journalist Max Frankel wrote that Finkelstein's anti-Zionist politics had led him to "get so far afield from the Goldhagen thesis that it is a relief to reach the critique by Ruth Bettina Birn".[100]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

Popular response[edit]

External links[edit]

Critical analyses[edit]