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 …

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