Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hitler's Willing Executioners, by D. J. Goldhagen: An Overview

In Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, first published in 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen sets out to understand "the actions and mind-set of the tens of thousands of ordinary Germans who . . . became genocidal killers" (p. 4). He begins with a premise that seems obvious enough: to explain why and how the Holocaust occurred, one must explore "the question of what impelled the perpetrators of the Holocaust to kill" (5). He claims that, in the vast literature on the the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, comparatively little has been written on this central question, a neglect he intends to remedy.

Goldhagen, a historian and political scientist at Harvard, emphasizes that it is too simple to say that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Hitler and other Nazi leaders. By definition, all leaders have followers; and without the tens of thousands who willingly followed, the Holocaust would never have occurred. So exactly who were those followers, and what made them tick? Specifically, what were the motivations that led them to not merely execute, but to demean and torture and slaughter, as many Jews as they could? The author reports that in the majority of the previous interpretations of the Holocaust, the motivations of the perpetrators of genocide have been explained along the following lines:

A. They were coerced by the threat of severe punishment or even death.

B. They were blindly following Adolf Hitler, their popular, charismatic leader. Another example of this type of obedience explanation says that people generally obey authority. They are even more likely to obey state authority, and this would be as true of Germans as anyone.

C. They were subjected to high levels of social pressure and expectation.

D. They were petty, callous bureaucrats who were out to make careers and to provide for themselves and their families.

E. Because the Holocaust was carried out by a series of acts that involved different people doing different things, the responsibility for such inhumanity was dispersed. According to this explanation, very few of the thousands of perpetrators, therefore, accepted that they were killing millions of Jews. Under these circumstances, they found it relatively easy to shift the blame.

Goldhagen says that these explanations or rationalizations are mostly, if not entirely, untrue. The fact is, millions of ordinary Germans knew exactly what the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Problem" was. Perhaps as many as 100,000 or more of these people became willing, responsible perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Coupled with this thesis is Goldhagen’s assertion that most of the previous interpreters of the Holocaust have not rightly understood the depth and the character of the antisemitism that motivated its perpetrators. Too often, he says, people have imagined that most Germans living under the Nazi regime were basically like most everyone else. They weren’t. Using anecdotes and statistics from primary sources, Goldhagen paints a portrait of Holocaust perpetrators who had very little of what might be called special exposure to Nazi propaganda. Nor were they a group of young, impressionable, hand-selected, highly-trained soldiers. Only small percentages of them were “SS men” or members of the Nazi party. Instead, the perpetrators were typical Germans, animated by what the author calls an "eliminationist antisemitism," a particular type that led the perpetrators of the Holocaust "to conclude that Jews ought to die" (14, original emphasis).

As Goldhagen attempts to demonstrate, this most-radical and hateful sort of antisemitism pervaded German society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And that, he says, is how and why the Holocaust occurred.


Wade Tannehill said...

This has always been mind-boggling to me, and scary to know what a human society is collectively capable of doing. This will go on my reading list.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Wade.

About Goldhagen's book, it's worth noting that his thesis is regarded by many historians of the Holocaust as an overstatement. Some think that he doesn't place enough emphasis on other factors besides antisemitism. The book made a big splash at the time that it was published (1996) and as a result set the agenda for future discussions of German antisemitism and the Holocaust. But it IS highly controversial.

Wade Tannehill said...

So where would I read his critics, just to balance it out?

Frank Bellizzi said...


You might use, for example, the 1998 (post-Goldhagen) edition of a book by Christopher Browning called Ordinary Men. Browning discusses the lives of the men in the 101st Battalion of the Order Police. They were sort of like reservists or the national guard who became perpetrators of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland. Goldhagen also discusses this group. But Browning sees them and interprets them in a different way. A good contrast between Browning and Goldhagen.