Hitler's Willing Executioners: A Review

By Patrick Quinn quinn@interedge.com

Hitler's Willing Executioners:
Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Alfred A. Knopf (619 pp/$30)

In 1941, Adolf Hitler's Germany began to kill the entire Jewish population under its physical control, some seven million men, women and children, and by 1944 had largely finished the job, having successfully murdered approximately six million people. That the government of a civilized nation could not only undertake but successfully conclude such a nightmarish policy without encountering significant domestic social opposition, particularly in a country as politically literate as was Germany, is one of the great puzzles of twentieth century European history. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has solved it. He has the temerity to suggest in this remarkable book that the Germans killed the Jews because the Germans wanted to.

The existing explanations for the ease with which the Nazis conducted their hellish program are varied, but to a greater or lesser degree almost all scholarly and popular interpretations of the Holocaust incorporate among their premises that it was aberrational, covert and uniquely efficient. The slaughter is said to have expressed the will of a small circle of lunatic Nazi and not the will of the German people, who were antisemetic but not murderously so. It is said that the killing was conducted out of the sight of the nation and with industrial efficiency by a relatively small number of people insane with ideology. The effect of these premises is to make the Holocaust a political and not a social event, with the happy consequence that responsibility for it rests squarely on a small number of identifiable political and military operatives and not on the German nation as a whole.

In the years since the war a great deal of intellectual firepower has been devoted to examining these premises, and and hopeful scholars have found some evidence in support for each of them. Goldhagen, an assistant professor government and social studies at Harvard, will have none of it.

"Hitler's Willing Executioners" is a 620-page scholarly triumph written with white-hot rage and is the most important public reassessment of German social responsibility for the Holocaust since the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. Goldhagen crushes the conventional interpretation under an avalanche of documentary data and argues that the destruction of European Jewry was a predictable consequence of Germany's widespread and virulently homocidal antisemitism, which was a fixture of the German social landscape long before the fall of the Weimar Republic. He concedes the industrial nature of the killing but suggests that, like all industrial activities, it involved a great many people rather than just a few, and that those people should be viewed primarily not as Nazi robots but as ordinary German men and women. Goldhagen acknowledges that the regime did not especially publicize the killings, and so some Germans when they arrived in the East were surprised to find that their country was making good on its many threats to "solve the Jewish problem," but he demonstrates that once over that surprise most Germans assigned to the killing went at the work with enthusiasm.

Germans killed Jews in a variety of ways, although the notorious extermination camps in Poland consumed at least half the victims. That leaves two or three millions of prior murders uncommitted--simply the scale of the homicide always gives pause--and Hitler's Willing Executioners focusses on three mechanisms that operated in concert with the extermination camps: mass shootings by police battalions, "work" camps and death marches. Police battalions, auxiliary military units used to maintain order in occupied territory behind the lines, shot Jews by the hundreds of thousands; Goldhagen demonstrates that they were manned for the most part by utterly ordinary Germans who thought the shootings a difficult but unexceptional part of their duties. Personnel attached to the police battalions were periodically rotated home, and so knowledge of the killing was widespread within Germany. A number of the troops took commemorative photographs of the shootings. Contrary to the popular image, most of the men pulling the trigger were not highly indoctrinated SS race warriors. They were instead German men not physically suited for front-line duty, men in their 30s and 40s who ended up in police battalions because the duty was less rigorous than combat duty.

Goldhagen documents repeated instances in which unit commanders offered their men the opportunity to opt out of the killing but finds few soldiers who accepted the offer. Those who did almost always told postwar interrogators that they did so because of the gore factor: their spirits were willing, their stomachs weak. None, so far as the record shows, suffered significant punishment as a result of their decision.

There were only a handful of true extermination camps, but National Socialist Germany built thousands of camps and killed Jews in many of them. (In an interesting aside, Goldhagen argues that "the camp" is perhaps the Nazis' greatest social achievement, the single institution which best expressed all that was truly unique in National Socialist political philosophy. Goldhagen does not spend much time on this fascinating thesis; one hopes he will return to it at a later date.) As with the police battalions, available information on the guards in most of the camps does not provide evidence that they were a notably unrepresentative selection of the general body of German men and women in arms.

Goldhagen examines the management practices within the so-called "work camps," where prisoners were at least nominally expected to perform labor useful to the Reich. Non-Jewish prisoners often did so and were valued accordingly. The work camp at Mauthausen produced armaments that by the autumn of 1943 were vital to the German war effort, and so by November-December of that year the camp's monthly mortality rate for all non-Jewish prisoners had dropped to below three percent. The monthly mortality rate for Jewish prisoners during the same period was 100 percent.

Goldhagen closes his fiery indictment with an immensely valuable examination of the schizophrenic forced marches inflicted upon camp inmates in the closing days of the war. He again finds overwhelming evidence of vile behavior practiced programmatically by everyday Germans, behavior that was in many cases not directed from any higher authority, behavior that can only be called, in the argot of the social sciences, "voluntarism": With the Red Army only a few kilometers away and in the absence of any direction from a superior military authority, ordinary Germans marched helpless Jews around the countryside for no visible reason whatsoever until the Jews died.

Goldhagen's book is not perfect. For the acknowledged purpose of delimiting his argument (and to keep his manuscript at a manageable length), he does not discuss in detail the antisemitism or barbarous behavior of the many non-German national groups who tripped over one another in their rush to join the killing. That list is long, and ranges from Slavic military auxiliaries who slaughtered Jews despite the fact that they themselves were regarded by Germans as "subhuman" to those elements of French society that shamefully collaborated in the collection and deportation of French Jews. His focus leads him to treat the odious antisemitism of central Europe, a feature of that region's society for centuries before the Nazis, as an largely German phenomenon, and doubtless he will be hard-used by critics as a result.

Goldhagen is quite correct in asserting, however, that only in Germany did this hallucinatory mass antisemitism become sufficiently ingrained in the body of the population so as to constitute the foundations of a large-scale and obviously popular program of political action by the national government. The lethal litany of anti-Jewish laws and public pronouncements that characterized Nazi governance during the 1930s--a period often overshadowed by the horrors that followed--were enthusiastically adopted by the mass of the German people. Goldhagen calls the attendant just-short-of-murderous mindset "eliminationist antisemitism," and points out that had the Germans not killed a single Jew after 1939 their government of the 1930s would nonetheless be remembered as the most antisemitic in history. Following the onset of war and the invasion of the Soviet Union, this eliminationist antisemitism became exterminatory antisemitism, with dolorous consequences that still reverberate a half-century later.

This is a book that demands and will receive the attention of the scholarly community. Goldhagen's aim is simple enough. He asks his colleagues to drop their tortured explanations intended to exculpate the mass of the German people and instead to simply "believe the evidence of their own senses." One wonders if they will.

Patrick Quinn is a novelist. Portions of this review originally appeared in the Wichita Eagle.