Book Review:Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel J. Goldhagen


The Holocaust has become a symbol of absolute evil among Western historians. This is because the Holocaust was perpetrated by what was arguably the most technologically and culturally advanced country of Europe at that time. That Germany then could systematically execute six million innocent and helpless Jews is both horrifying and incomprehensible. To be sure, scholars researching this episode have made considerable progress with increasing access to hitherto forbidden archives. We now know in great details the whole machinery of death deployed by the Third Reich that implemented the program of genocide. It is strange though, that despite all these new details, scholars are not any nearer in agreeing on an explanation for the causes of the genocide.

Undoubtedly, there are profound difficulties in attempting to fathom the human heart enmeshed with irrational evil on the scale of the Holocaust. It is also likely that scholars have wrongly directed their research on secondary issues. Past studies which concentrated on the operational details of the factories of death and the inhuman treatment of the victims have yielded limited insights. This calls for a new and bold approach to a recalcitrant intellectual problem by shifting the focus from the victims and the institutions to the killers themselves.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners may be likened as a bomb thrown into the historians’ playground, unleashing pandemonium all around. The young scholar from Harvard University proposes to clear the academic debris with a bulldozer. Goldhagen pours scorn on the historians of the Holocaust, branding them as failures precisely because of their inadequate reading of anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, the established scholars have not stood idle in the face of Goldhagen’s audacious challenge. This has resulted in an intense debate with acrimonious exchanges in the press and in numerous conferences. Even Jewish scholars find themselves split over the controversy. The distinguished rabbi, Jacob Neusner, denounced the book as evidence of “the very corrupt character of intellectual life in Harvard University.”

Goldhagen’s book is indeed a ponderous and somewhat repetitive tome of more than 630 pages, including ith 125 pages of footnotes. Nevertheless, his disturbing narration of the brutality of the Germans against the Jews sweeps the reader along. The account is a riveting experience. Goldhagen is not just telling tales. The stories are meticulously documented and set in the context of a clear and comprehensive interpretative framework which illuminates the complex levels of motivation that turned ‘ordinary Germans’ into barbaric murderers.

Goldhagen states his thesis with forceful clarity: “My explanation – which is new to the scholarly literature on the perpetrators – is that the perpetrators, ‘ordinary Germans,’ were animated by antisemitism, by a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die. . . . Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say ‘no’.”

Goldhagen argues that under Hitler all Germans were imbued with an irrational hatred of the Jews whom they perceived as wily and dangerous subversives who sought to dominate Germany. The threat posed by such vermins (since Jews were even worse than the ‘sub-human’ Slavs) could only be eliminated by physical killing. Goldhagen argues that such ‘eliminationist’ anti-Semitism penetrated every strata of German society, from the courts to the church. Hence the indictment at the end of the book, “The inescapable truth is that, regarding Jews, German political culture had evolved to the point where an enormous number of ordinary, representative Germans became – and most of the rest of their fellow Germans were fit to be – Hitler’s willing executioners.”

Goldhagen marshals every possible evidence to buttress his case. The killers were “human beings who lived ‘thick’ lives, not the thin, one dimensional ones.” For example, the killers continued to enjoy Beethoven music and Wagnerian theatre in between killing times. Goldhagen claims that “It can be said with certitude that never in the history of the Holocaust was a German, SS man or otherwise, killed, sent to a concentration camp, jailed or punished in any serious way for refusing to kill Jews.” The real killers were not fanatical Nazis from the infamous SS. On the contrary, they were ‘ordinary Germans’ drafted into police battalions. Goldhagen can only conclude that their genocidal instincts were direct manifestations of deep intellectual and emotional roots in “the German culture of cruelty”. Indeed, Hitler did not force the Germans to carry out the barbarous killings. He only gave them the institutional apparatus with which to execute the Jews and this they did with enthusiasm.

Goldhagen’s blunt thesis has naturally elicited from the majority of the Holocaust historians strong objections, including charges of gross misrepresentations of secondary literature and internal contradictions. Norman Finkelstein, along with Ruth Bettina Birn, the world famous authority on the German SS, have questioned Goldhagen’s handling of the historical sources. Significantly, it was Birn who alerted Goldhagen to the very documents which form the basis of Goldhagen’s thesis.

I am in no position to verify the primary sources underlying the criticisms. But where I can fault Goldhagen is in his obvious misrepresentation of the church in Nazi Germany. Many German Christians were undoubtedly guilty of shameful attitudes towards the Jews. But it is a different matter to suggest that the church also supported ‘eliminationist’ anti-Semitism. Goldhagen was relying on outdated research when he named John Chrysostom as the paramount influence of the Christian attitude to the Jews. Chrysostom wrote in the context of bitter conflict between a precarious Christian minority threatened by a more powerful Jewish community in his time. In my judgment, Augustine, who was more moderate, would be a more appropriate authority. An even more glaring error is found in Goldhagen’s charge that the eminent theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany were themselves infected with an obsession over the ‘Jewish problem’. My own reading of their primary writings tells a different story. Obviously, Goldhagen is twisting the evidence to fit a preconceived thesis. He even ignores the price paid by Bonhoeffer for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed following a personal order from Hitler. In the light of such flagrant distortions by Goldhagen I feel the charges by Birn and Finkelstein may well be true.

In contrast to the harsh criticisms from the academia, Goldhagen has garnered a deep and widespread reception from the ‘average reader’. In this regard, Goldhagen must be given credit for a down to earth reading of the Holocaust with his insistence on focusing on the beliefs and choices of the killers which render them responsible for their own evil. His contention that the killers were ‘ordinary Germans’ forces every reader to ponder over the grim possibility that he himself is equally capable of such evil. This means we cannot differentiate ourselves by imagining that the Germans were extra-ordinary and dehumanized killers that there is no semblance between them and us.

Goldhagen’s thesis belies the naive optimism of secular humanists. Hence, the vehement response from the liberal scholars who dominate the Western universities. I am reminded of another study by Scott Peck in his book, People of the Lie. Peck’s frightening case studies, amongst them the My Lai massacre, demonstrates that many evil people are not swarthy thugs hiding around dark street corners. On the contrary, they are often ‘decent people’ in suits and ties holding highly regarded professions. Goldhagen’s study has unwittingly confirmed G. K. Chesterton’s dictum that the one historically verified doctrine is the doctrine of original sin. We are reminded of Dostoevsky’s forceful words, “The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses.”

Goldhagen has probably underestimated the effectiveness of the State in coercing ‘ordinary’ people to do things that are against their conscience. He seems to assume that no one is forced to act unless he is physically punished. It is understandable for someone living in a sheltered environment like Harvard to think like this. But for many of us in the Third World, a mere word from an excessively powerful Executive is enough to cause panic. We should not be too quick to sit in judgment over ‘ordinary Germans’ who cooperated with the Nazi rulers in committing mass murder. The fact is, sheer political and military power often induce individuals into easy compliance. Some citizens would submit reluctantly to orders, but alas, given the waywardness and self-interests of the human heart, many have proven to be enthusiastic perpetrators of senseless murder.

The Holocaust may seem too remote an event to persuade current optimists who rule out that ordinary people are capable of great evil. If so they should take a hard look at recent tragic events in Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda or, close to home, Indonesia. ‘Eliminationist’ ideology, particular that which portions out citizen rights and political participation based on race and religion, remains an ever present menace to civilized societies. To be sure, none of us in our saner moment would ever condone any genocidal killing. But can we ignore the fact that ethnic-nationalism and religion based politics share similar roots with German ‘eliminationist’ anti-Semitism? Perhaps we should consider more seriously ways of discarding such elements from our political culture.

Goldhagen’s study on the Holocaust presents us with a dire warning. Was it not the case that the Germans had too quickly yielded excessive power to the Nazis in the first place? Furthermore, the Nazis could consolidate their power only because of the indifference of ordinary Germans to the increasing violation of human rights in their society. As Martin Niemoller, testified “when Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then, Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church – and there was nobody left to be concerned.”

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