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Goldhagen in Germany

When the translation of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners was published in Germany in late August, the first printing immediately sold out; within the next few weeks, more than 130,000 copies of Hitlers willige Vollstrecker had been shipped to the bookstores. When the author himself appeared in Germany in September, his promotion tour turned into a “triumphal procession,” as the weekly Die Zeit called it. Goldhagen traveled from Hamburg to Berlin, from there to Frankfurt, and then to Munich—with a small army of reporters and cameramen begging for yet another interview, coaxing him to take part in yet another talk show.

For ten days, it was virtually impossible to open a newspaper or turn on a TV set without confronting a flattering image of the youngish Harvard political scientist (“He looks like Tom Hanks”). Essentially, what he had told the Germans in 600 pages (700 in translation) is this: The Shoah could only have happened in Germany because you—in your Third Reich incarnation—were the way you were. You did it because you alone among the nations were driven by an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” which became complicit in annihilation when the time was ripe.

One might think that the grim verdict would have been enough to turn off the heirs of Hitler and drive them into a boycott, whether sullen or aggressive. The first public discussion in Hamburg attracted six hundred onlookers; the last one, in Munich, forced the organizers to switch from a medium-sized theater to a symphony hall with 2,500 seats because tickets ($10 apiece) had sold out within a couple of days. Yet when the book was first published in the US last spring, the reactions of both German press commentators and historians was so hostile that it was almost bizarre. The contrast between the experts’ contempt in the spring and the public’s unexpected eagerness to hear Goldhagen’s case in the autumn deserves more attention than it has had so far.


Hitler’s Willing Executioners is an original, indeed, brilliant contribution to the mountain of literature on the Holocaust that has been produced over the last fifty years. Its chief merit is its shift in perspective. Whereas much of the previous writing on the subject concentrated on the victims or on the machinery of destruction, Goldhagen concentrates on the killers and their accomplices. Not on the “desk murderers” like Eichmann and Himmler, but on the “ordinary Germans” of the subtitle. He is mainly concerned not with elite SS men but with simple, lower-middle-class folks—the members of the Ordnungspolizei (“order police”) who moved in behind the Wehrmacht, rounding up and slaughtering Jews with gusto. These were also the guards of the “death marches” who went on murdering their prisoners even though the war was already lost, even though Himmler, hoping to mollify the allies, in April 1945 had ordered a stop to the slaughter.

These case studies chill the blood. Why would ordinary people kill with enthusiasm, especially, as Goldhagen argues persuasively, when they did not have to? Why did they continue to kill even after Himmler told them to stop? Goldhagen’s case studies deepen the mystery. The standard view of the Holocaust is that of a literally dehumanized murder machine—much like a modern car assembly line in which a relatively small number of inspectors and mechanics supervise an army of robots that carries out precision slaughter full time, twenty-four hours a day. We think of an industry of death, ordered by Hitler, designed by Himmler, and executed by Eichmann with the help of a conspiratorial band of SS fanatics—and far away from their own people, in occupied Eastern Europe.

It wasn’t so, Goldhagen argues for 600 pages. Up to half a million Germans may have been involved—in the main, apparently normal people like you and me. How could they turn into willing executioners? How could they torture and humiliate their Jewish victims, when, as Goldhagen also shows, refusing to do so would have cost them little or nothing? This is the mystery he sets out to solve. His answer can be put briefly: they could do so because they were Germans, because German culture was pervaded with a peculiar “eliminationist” variant of anti-Semitism that imbued “ordinary Germans” with the conviction that mass murder would be right and just. Without that almost universal complicity, the Holocaust could not have happened.

We have to turn back to Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour film Shoah for a similar verdict. There, too, we are confronted with “ordinary Germans”—petty officials, train engineers, policemen—who manned and maintained the machinery of death. But the evidence of the film is anecdotal, visual, while Goldhagen’s is systematic and rigorous, with almost 200 pages of footnotes and masses of original research. As such, Hitler’s Willing Executioners has already changed the terms of our understanding. And as the furious debate around the world shows, future research will hardly be able to ignore Goldhagen’s findings and conclusions.


The German critics did not wait for the German edition. Hardly had the book come out in the US when more than a dozen pundits and historians pounced on Hitler’s Willing Executioners as if in a feeding frenzy.1 First of all, the assailants did not argue against the theory and the facts. Instead, the attack was relentlessly ad hominem, charging the author with malign intentions or insinuating that his origins (as the son of a Holocaust survivor) had led him to indict German culture as a whole. Another line was to pan the book as unoriginal, sensationalist, and worthless. A third was to depict it, though obliquely, as an American-Jewish plot against present-day Germany, as an attempt to recycle past guilt in order to stigmatize the Germans forever.

The relatively young German historian Norbert Frei, born in 1955, launched his attack by saying: “If you want to find an audience in the over-competitive media market of the Nineties, you need a bombastic shtick.” As we read on, we learn that the “historical-empirical yield” of the book is meager, that a big chunk is based on “secondary literature,” that it offers “few novelties” for those in the know. The message to the public is simple: the book is worthless, sensationalist drivel by a young Harvard punk out to make a name for himself.

Or take Frei’s elder, Eberhard Jäckel, born in 1929, and one of the most respected scholars of the Holocaust in Germany. Jäckel said that Goldhagen’s book was “poor,” a “failure in toto”; it did not measure up “even to mediocre standards”; it was “riddled with errors”; it was “simply bad”; it represented a “relapse into the most primitive of stereotypes.” Though frequently invited to do so, Jäckel refused to take part in any of the public panel discussions. During the German Historians’ Congress in Munich in September, he declared that the book was “unter Niveau” (in effect, beneath notice), hence not worthy of debate. (The Congress did not put the Goldhagen book on its official program, but in response to criticism in the press, a special panel was hastily arranged.)

Jäckel’s colleague Hans Mommsen criticized the book as falling short of the current “state of the art” in Holocaust research; Johannes Heil, an associate of the Berlin Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, thought that Goldhagen’s theories were “naive” and not “worthy of a fight.” The well-known columnist and politician Peter Glotz deplored the “artificial debates” over the book. Rudolf Augstein, the publisher of Der Spiegel, said that book was “pure nonsense.”

One can imagine the resentment of scholars who have worked hard for decades on the history of the Third Reich without getting anything like the attention given to Goldhagen. But deeper forces than professional vanity also seemed at work. The message of the early reviews could be summed up as “Don’t Read This Book.” And this set a pattern: preemptive dismissal not very different from that by a Vatican cardinal in charge of the Index. Secular historians, of course, can’t stamp one another’s books verboten; they just call them “unoriginal” or “banal.” Reviewing the reviews, the German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler concluded: “With irritating speed and spectacular self-assurance, which often helps to conceal ignorance on matters of substance, a consensual defensive reaction against the book has set in.”


It is true that Goldhagen’s book is vulnerable in several respects.2 How can an historian indict an entire culture? How do you prove that “eliminationist anti-Semitism” is the factor that explains most of what happened? What about the many other variables—the unique role of Hitler, the overwhelming impact of Nazi totalitarianism, etc.—previous scholars have used to construct multicausal explanations?

Goldhagen has argued beyond the bounds of simple logic. Reaching back to Martin Luther and his murderous tirades against the Jews, Goldhagen then moves forward again, describing a profoundly anti-Semitic German culture as the principal explanation of the Holocaust. As he travels across the centuries, he collapses a great many possible explanations of human history into one huge explanation that falls flat even when examined by an intelligent layman. If German culture was indeed the all-powerful, all-pervasive force that turned perfectly “ordinary Germans” into monsters, where is that force today? One might think that so potent and enduring a cultural tendency wouldn’t just vanish from the face of the German earth.

Yet disappear it did after 1945, and for a reason. The political system had changed. Imposed under the guns of the victors, liberal democracy sank surprisingly strong roots in West Germany. Today, Germany is an ordinary member of the community of nations, with only a tiny right-wing party and with as much (or as little) racism as in France, Belgium, or Italy. If culture can be so deeply affected by changing conditions, anti-Semitism could not plausibly serve as the overwhelmingly influential cause of the Holocaust that Goldhagen would like it to be. If Truman and McCloy and Adenauer could prevail in Germany after 1945, there must be more to German history than Luther’s poisonous seed.

How can something (“culture”) be a prime and deeply rooted cause if it is so quickly overwhelmed by other factors? Goldhagen’s premise crumbles even more when it is examined with respect to the history of anti-Semitism in other countries. Anti-Semitism in Russia, let alone its Austrian variant, was at times as “eliminationist” in some of its expressed forms as it was in Germany. Britain, which tolerated murderous pogroms in the Middle Ages, was judenrein for 400 years, and so was Spain after 1492. Yet the total physical extermination of the Holocaust was a strictly German project, and other factors beyond a nationally shared antipathy to the Jews must have been involved in it.

Goldenhagen has also fallen into the oldest social-science trap of them all: the confusion of different levels of analysis. Having earlier reasoned forward from the attitudes of the Germans to their behavior—saying, in effect, “Only because of their anti-Semitism did ordinary Germans turn into mass murderers”—he then reasons backward from the conduct of the Germans to their culture in a grand circular argument.

  1. 1

    For a score of German reviews, including a few semi-positive ones, see Julius H. Schoeps, editor, Ein Volk von Mördern? Dokumentation zur Goldhagen-Kontroverse um die Rolle der Deutschen im Holocaust (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1996). Most subsequent citations are taken from this collection.

  2. 2

    Three critical reviews in the US were by Clive James, “Blaming the Germans,” The New Yorker, April 22, 1996; Omer Bartov, “Ordinary Monsters,” The New Republic, April 29, 1996; and Robert Wistrich, “Helping Hitler,” Commentary, July, 1966.

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