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 …
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