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How Hell Worked

Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Knopf, 622 pp., $30.00

Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire: Why So Many German Jews Made the Tragic Decision to Remain in Nazi Germany

by John VH Dippel
BasicBooks, 384 pp., $26.00

In 1743, when Moses Mendelssohn, the son of a Torah scribe in Dessau, came to Berlin, penniless and unable to speak German properly, there were 333 Jewish families resident in the city numbering in all fewer than two thousand persons. The Jews were an underprivileged minority tolerated only because of their economic usefulness. Their rights of residence and movement were restricted, and they were subject to expulsion at the caprice of local authorities. They were excluded from public service; they could not belong to guilds; they were forbidden to engage in certain trades; and they were taxed mercilessly and on every possible occasion—when traveling, when marrying, when buying a house; they were taxed for the right to remain in the city, taxed whenever they left it, taxed for the privilege of being excluded from the armed services, and for much else. And always they were suspected of nefarious practices and secret crimes against the German majority.

Mendelssohn, who overcame formidable difficulties in order to learn the language and other skills he needed to pursue a career of scholarship, and who became a friend of Lessing and Nicolai and a philosopher whose stature was widely recognized in Europe, was inclined to believe that the Jews were in part responsible for their own isolation and that they should try to escape from it by accepting German culture as their own and by freeing their religion from outworn rituals and working for its acceptance as a denomination similar to others. He himself made his home a meeting place for intellectuals, distinguished foreign visitors, and the Berlin upper class in the hope that he could demonstrate that the Jews were not an exotic people but Germans who had the same interests as other enlightened members of German society. And he was a friend and associate of Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, whose widely read treatise On the Civic Improvement of the Jews (1781) called upon German governments to give the Jews the same rights that they guaranteed to other subgroups in society.

Thanks to the energy of these pioneers, the idea of assimilation proved persuasive to leaders of the growing Jewish community, who were inspired also, as Mendelssohn and Dohm had been, by the Enlightenment’s optimistic belief in the capacity of reason to solve all of society’s problems and by Wilhelm von Humboldt’s idea of Bildung (self-improvement) as the key to social acceptance. In the two centuries that followed, the average Jew, baptized or unbaptized, became German in his dress and manners, his virtues and vices, and his patriotic pride in his country. But this availed him nothing, merely adding new fuel to the country’s deep-smoldering anti-Semitism. The ultimate response to the Jewish hope of assimilation was the Holocaust.


In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen takes a fresh look at the nature of German anti-Semitism. He examines the way in which its nineteenth-century development provided the Nazis with a society so imbued with hateful notions of the Jews that it was ready and willing to be mobilized for the most extreme measures against them, and to support the agencies and the perpetrators of the killing that followed. His work is animated by his belief that, in our judgment of the Nazi period, we have been misled by the assumption that the average Germans of that time disapproved of the actions taken in their name and, insofar as they participated in them, did so because they were terrorized by the Nazis or out of an exaggerated sense of obedience or because of social pressure. On the contrary, he insists, the vast majority of Germans shared Hitler’s anti-Semitism and willingly participated in its brutal implementation.

The first section of the book—which deals with pre-Nazi anti-Semitism—suffers from the fact that the author’s intent, as he explains late in the volume, “is primarily explanatory and theoretical. Narrative and description…are here subordinate to the explanatory goals.” It consists of two chapters, the first of which is a rather heavy-handed and repetitive “framework for analysis.” Here the important, if not entirely original, points are made that opinions held of Jews do not necessarily bear any relationship to their actual behavior; that in a society in which anti-Semitism has long been endemic, it will have latent and manifest phases, depending on circumstances, but will not disappear; and that the degree to which a people is obsessed with the Jewish presence is a reliable indication of the social danger of anti-Semitism. These conditions clearly obtained in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany.

In a subsequent chapter, “The Evolution of Eliminationist Antisemitism in Modern Germany,” Goldhagen discusses in very general terms the content of medieval Christian anti-Semitism, which was the source of so many of the wild fancies that Germans, and other Europeans, entertained about Jewish machinations against Christians and their church; he goes on to show how these evolved in a more secular age into images of the Jews as parasites in a society to which they contributed nothing except corruption and decay. The Jews were seen to be adverse to any productive work but skilled in financial manipulation and intrigue, malevolent and powerful, and organized as a secret force within society, all of whose ills they fomented. These imputed characteristics became all the more accepted with the new emphasis, at the end of the nineteenth century, on the concept of race and its application to the Jews, which came as a crushing blow to the cause of assimilation. Goldhagen writes:

So a contemporaneous, interrelated fusion of Judaism with a newly conceived belief in Jews as a nation on the one hand, and Christianity with Germanness on the other, bespoke the creation of a virtually insuperable cognitive and consequent social barrier for Jews to overcome were they ever to be accepted as Germans.

There is a lack of specificity about Goldhagen’s description of this process. It might have been useful to point out that it was the very exclusion of the Jews from so many productive trades that gave a spurious validity to the charge that they preferred occupations in which there was a premium set on sharp practice; and some mention might have been made of the financial crash of 1873, which, because of the real though exaggerated culpability of some Jewish banking firms, created the atmosphere in which the new racial anti-Semitism flourished. Goldhagen is less interested in describing the historical evolution of anti-Semitism (he has, for instance, little to say about the first three quarters of the nineteenth century or about regional differences) than he is in arguing that the post-1875 image of the Jew logically called for his elimination from society, although, as he writes,

What “elimination”—in the sense of successfully ridding Germany of Jewishness—meant, and the manner in which it was to be done, was unclear or hazy to many, and found no consensus during the period of modern German anti-semitism. But the necessity of the elimination of Jewishness was clear to all. It followed from the conception of the Jews as alien invaders of the German body social.

Goldhagen believes that the prevailing tendency in what he calls eliminationist anti-Semitism was toward extermination, that it was “pregnant with murder,” although he adds that “the only matter that cannot be ascertained is, broadly held though this view of Jews was, how many Germans subscribed to it in 1900, 1920, 1933, or 1941.”

Nor, of course, can it be said with any assurance how firmly those who spoke violently about Jews believed in their own rhetoric. How many of those who fretted over the numbers of Jews they encountered at fashionable social gatherings were, in fact, as ambivalent as the novelist Theodor Fontane? In 1881, after an evening at the theater in which two thirds of the audience was Jewish, he wrote worriedly, “…in time the state and the legislative process will have to help, or things will come to a sorry pass,”1 only to admit, in a letter to his daughter in June 1890, that whenever he compared a social evening in a cultivated circle that was predominantly Christian to one in a similar group that was predominantly Jewish, he could not help but note how superior the latter was in cultivation, animation, and interest, adding, “With sorrow I grow increasingly out of my antisemitism, not because I want to, but because I must.”2 Again, how many members of the Conservative Party who voted for the Tivoli Program of December 1892—“We combat the widely obtruding and decomposing Jewish influence on our popular life”—were thinking of anything remotely resembling the extermination of the Jews?

Perhaps such considerations miss the point, and the important thing is that, in the last years of the nineteenth century and even more so during the turbulent years of the Weimar Republic, the Jewish question was under such intense discussion that it had become a national obsession, and that Goldhagen is not exaggerating when he writes that a racial anti-Semitism, unusually violent in its imagery and tending toward violence, was

extremely widespread in all social classes and sectors of German society, for it was deeply embedded in German cultural and political life and conversation, as well as integrated into the moral structure of society.

And that being so, after he assumed power in January 1933, Adolf Hitler could count on widespread sympathy and support when he began to implement his anti-Jewish program.

Hitler had, of course, never disguised his intention of cleansing Germany of the Jews and eliminating the threat of Jewry wherever it was to be found. This could not be accomplished until the beginning of the Russian campaign created the conditions and space, particularly in Poland, that would facilitate wholesale liquidation. Meanwhile, he followed a program of increasingly radical measures, which included verbal and physical attacks on the Jews and progressively severe legal restrictions designed to deprive them of their livelihood and civil rights and to transform them into what Goldhagen calls “socially dead” beings. The striking thing about the elaboration of this program is that it elicited no significant protests from the German universities or churches, from the civil service or the courts, or from the general public. Even critics of other aspects of Nazi policy were strangely quiescent before outrages like Reichskristallnacht in November 1938. The Nazis were able, therefore, in the years before the outbreak of the war, to draw up their plans for the extermination of the Jews without any fear of the kind of popular opposition that disrupted the euthanasia program of 1939,3 and to organize the system of camps that would be the central feature of the program of genocide.

Indeed, if the Holocaust was the defining action of the Nazi regime, Goldhagen regards the camp—a generic term for concentration camps, extermination camps, detention facilities, work camps, transit camps, and ghettos—as its largest institutional creation,

not just because of the enormous number of installations, not just because of the millions of people who suffered within its confines, not just because of the vast numbers of Germans and German minions who worked for and in these camps, but also because it constituted an entirely new subsystem of society.

  1. 1

    Theodor Fontane, Tagebücher 1866–1882, 1884–1898, edited by Gottfried Erler (Berlin: Aufbau, 1995), p. 78.

  2. 2

    Theodor Fontane, Briefe, IV. Band (1890–1898), edited by Otto Drude and Helmuth Nürnberger (Munich: Hanser, 1982), p. 49.

  3. 3

    See my article “Under an Evil Star,” in The New York Review of Books, October 5, 1995, pp. 27–28.

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