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.

Unique in the history of Western Europe, the camp was distinct from other parts of society in having its own institutions, organization, rules, and distinctive practices. It was a world of violence and freedom, in which, liberated from law and ethical restraint, Germans transformed their victims into their own images of them. It was a world of torture and barbarism designed to free society from the false morality and bourgeois inhibitions of the past. It was, Goldhagen writes, the apotheosis of the Nazi revolution.

When we consider that, before they were finished, the Nazis had more than ten thousand camps in operation, Goldhagen’s remarks are persuasive. This is also true of what must be described as the most substantial chapters of Goldhagen’s book, in which he discusses the implementation of the genocidal program and deals with the question of who actually killed the Jews. Some writers about Nazi Germany have assumed all too easily that the killing took place conveniently out of sight and was performed for the most part by gas ovens and SS men. Goldhagen, by describing three particular instruments of death, police battalions, work camps, and death marches, shows that this is far from being the case.

The so-called police battalions were formations of the Ordnungspolizei, or Order Police, which had special responsibility for policing occupied territories during the war. Because of their mobile character, the police battalions carried out a number of genocidal activities, which included rounding up Jews and transporting them to work or concentration camps, and often involved shooting and torturing them in their homes, in their beds, or in the streets or the open fields. Goldhagen places some emphasis on the fact that the battalions were not elite organizations; on the contrary, their members were chosen for service haphazardly, received minimal military and ideological training, and were not particularly zealous Nazis. By and large, they were ordinary people, a good average sample of the German lower middle class, with no outstanding characteristics to distinguish them. But they carried out the duties assigned them without complaint and on occasion with enthusiasm, and certainly showed no signs of remorse afterward. Goldhagen quotes a former member of a police battalion who testified in 1960:

I believed the propaganda that all Jews were criminals and subhumans and that they were the cause of Germany’s decline after the First World War. The thought that one should disobey or evade the order to participate in the extermination of the Jews did not therefore enter my mind at all.

It is important to note, Goldhagen argues, that the members of these units were not compelled to take part in the killings. In all of the nine battalions that he studied, commanders had let it be known that anyone who felt that he could not do so would be given other duties, and in each of them there was evidence to indicate that this choice had been exercised without penalty. Yet not very often. Of the 4500 men in the nine battalions, virtually all of them chose to kill and continue to kill, and many went beyond the call of duty by volunteering for improvised search-and-destroy missions. Photographs taken by battalion members during these operations, at Lomazy in Poland, for example, where they herded 1700 Jews together and shot them in August 1942, show them in proud poses and with expressions of satisfaction and accomplishment; and in their off-duty moments, they appear relaxed and happy. Goldhagen mentions a photograph taken at Radzyn in the fall of 1942, a period when Police Battalion 101 was thoroughly engaged in mass killings and deportations. He writes:

It memorializes a group of officers from the battalion staff and First Company sitting outdoors around a long table with the wives of two of the officers, Frau Brand and Frau Wohlauf. They are drinking in what appears to be a convivial atmosphere. Frau Wohlauf, who can be seen displaying a big smile, is evidently having a good time.

Indeed, life in Poland was not unpleasant for the police battalions, with clubs, pubs, and recreation centers, and sporting events as well as movies and concerts and religious services, and, doubtless, love affairs to occupy their time when they were not killing Jews. Perhaps the latter weighed less heavily on their minds than the former. It was simply a job that had to be done, and, after all, as a member of a mobile unit in Lublin said laconically, “The Jew was not acknowledged by us to be a human being.”

The second of the killing agencies discussed here, the work camp, provides an intriguing demonstration of how Nazi ideological obsessions got in the way of logical thinking. As the war proceeded, Germany needed all the productive labor it could find. It was effectively barred from mobilizing female labor, as Albert Speer desired, by the opposition of the Gauleiter, the local administrators who took the line that for the Deutsche Frau und Mutter to be submitted to the rigors of factory work would be demeaning for her and contrary to her proper role in the Volksgemeinschaft. The anti-Jewish policy made available an enormous supply of skilled labor. Far from exploiting this, however, the Nazis operated officially designated work camps as if economic considerations were irrelevant, forcing their Jewish inmates to work at unproductive, repetitive, and demeaning tasks with inadequate food and rest and under constant torture by brutal guards until they collapsed and died.

What, in Nazi eyes, justified this squandering of a potentially valuable resource? Certainly it was the assumption that since the Jews did not deserve to live and, after the outset of the genocidal program, were condemned to die, any work to which they were assigned was merely an interruption in the process of eliminating them. It should, moreover, be made as unpleasant as possible, since the Jews deserved to be punished for their past crimes in any case. Goldhagen writes:

Getting a young, healthy, skilled worker to weave the rope and build the gallows (with bloodied, swollen, stiffened hands and substandard tools) from which he will hang can be seen as an economically rational use of his labor power only by those who want to hang him and who do not care about the loss of his valuable productivity.

Because Nazi minds were incapable of sensing the contradiction in such thinking, work camps like Majdanek had mortality rates that were not significantly lower than those of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps.

The third killing agency was the forced marching of Jews and other victims over long distances, with death in constant attendance on the way or waiting at the end of the road. Goldhagen, who calls the death march “the ambulatory analogue to the cattle car,” has concentrated on the marches that took place in the last phase of the war, when the German cause was hopelessly lost and Allied armies were closing in from every direction. In the winter of 1944, as the Nazis closed their camps and sent their prisoners off through the countryside, in long columns under the guard of Germans and German auxiliaries, these marches were characterized by the same irrationality and cruelty that marked the operation of the work camps. Although logic might have counseled a cessation of brutality against the Jews and either their liberation or their expeditious delivery into Allied hands (and although Heinrich Himmler, seeking to negotiate with the Americans, actually ordered a cessation of the killing), the German guards remained true to their genocidal hatred of the Jews, driving them senselessly through winter landscapes toward goals unknown even to themselves, depriving them of food and water, beating them furiously as they walked and fell, and shooting them when they could no longer stumble on.

They thus demonstrated by their actions that the purpose of the operation was not to arrive anywhere but to kill the marchers. Goldhagen describes the march of a mixed column of Jewish and non-Jewish Polish and Russian women from Helmbrechts in Upper Franconia to Prachatitz on the Czech border, in which the non-Jewish women were treated with some solicitude but the Jews brutalized so horrendously that at least 178 (and perhaps 275) of the 580 who began the fearful trek died before it was over, from either starvation, exhaustion, disease, or beatings and shootings. Although this march was through German territory, no one in the villages they passed sought to intervene on behalf of the Jews.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners comes to us with the publisher’s promise that it will transform our view of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. This seems unlikely, at least for readers who have followed the literature on these subjects. Its principal general conclusions—that a great many Germans wanted to be rid of the Jews long before Hitler came to power, that when the extermination began no one stood up in their defense, and that the number of participants in the killing was much greater than originally supposed—have been reasonably well known for a long time. But some of the specific stories Goldhagen has reconstructed to support these conclusions are particularly telling and horrifying, concentrating as they do on aspects of persecution, such as the forced marches, that seldom have been singled out for attention. Moreover, his reflections on the camp system as a central element of the Nazi revolution are incisive, and his extensive research on the various genocidal agencies should be a model for future scholars working on the Holocaust. It is a pity that the author’s habit of stopping periodically and repeating much that he has said before gives the book a disjointed feel that might easily have been corrected by a good editor.


Anti-Semites fed their hatred of the Jews by thinking of them as an evil sub-community within society, constantly plotting against their Christian neighbors. This was a fantasy, and John V. H. Dippel writes in Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire:

The overriding fact about “Jewish life” during the Weimar era was that there was no such thing. Rather there were half a million individual Jews who were busily building their own lives and pursuing points of view along many different and independent lines. This, after all, was the import of assimilation—not to be defined and restricted by Jewishness, but to be as free as other Germans to find their own values, political affiliations, careers, and stations in life.

If there were as many German anti-Semites committed to eliminating the Jews on the eve of Hitler’s coming to power as Daniel Goldhagen thinks there were, this does not seem to have dawned upon the consciousness of Germany’s Jews. Even after the acceleration of street violence and outrages against Jewish establishments and individuals at the end of 1932 and in the first months of 1933, Jews were reluctant to admit that this would continue or that their lives would be seriously affected by the Nazi seizure of power.

Dippel investigates the reasons for this apparent impercipience and asks why so many Jews who might have escaped the Holocaust by leaving Germany after 1933 did not do so. In general, his answer is that, like other Germans, Jews tended to place the best rather than the worst construction upon Hitler’s Machtübernahme (takeover of power). Politically conservative Jews thought that it would mean an end to the political instability of the last days of the Weimar republic, eliminate the threat of communism, and encourage a return to economic prosperity. Patriotic Jews welcomed the restoration of Germany’s international position, which was one of Hitler’s goals. Those who were troubled by Hitler’s anti-Jewish rhetoric were inclined to believe that the Führer would become more reasonable with time and amenable to a legal solution of the “Jewish question,” perhaps at the expense of the Ostjuden, the more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. In general, Jews found it difficult to believe that the Führer’s threats were really directed at themselves, because they regarded themselves as Germans in every sense and loved their country. In their gloomiest moments, when they thought of what they could do if Hitler really meant what he said, they were prone to a feeling of helplessness, since they could not as Germans imagine starting a new life in a strange land. Whether optimistic or pessimistic about National Socialism, therefore, Jews were more inclined to wait and see than to emigrate.

In telling their story, Dippel has concentrated on the experience of six Jews, all of whom stayed in Germany long after it was safe for them to do so, although in the end all six escaped the fate of hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews who followed their example. These were Richard Willstätter, a Nobel laureate in chemistry; Bella Fromm, the Berlin society columnist; Hans-Joachim Schoeps, a right-wing Jewish youth leader; Robert Weltsch, the Zionist editor of the Berlin newspaper the Jüdische Rundschau; Max Warburg, Germany’s leading Jewish banker; and Leo Baeck, the chief rabbi of Berlin. In their decision to stay in Germany there was a strong element of illusion, but in most cases their behavior was determined also by their identification with German culture and their feeling of responsibility for their fellow Jews.

The most self-defeating form of accommodation sought with the Nazis was that of Schoeps, and the most pathetic that of Willstätter. A conservative nationalist of the most extreme stripe, Schoeps formed a group of like minded friends called the German Vanguard, which set out on the one hand to free German Judaism from its bourgeois and international values and on the other to persuade Germany’s new rulers that they shared their hatred of communism and even democracy and their desire for national renewal. Schoeps sought to establish relations with the Stahlhelm and other veterans groups, without success, and later, in March 1935, when Hitler repudiated the arms clauses of the Versailles Treaty, supported this step in a statement which read:

In this historic moment, when the German Reich restores its military sovereignty, we young German Jews feel compelled to express our satisfaction over this step. Just as our fathers fulfilled their duty to the Fatherland in 1914–1918, so are we, too, prepared today for military service, in loyalty to our motto, “Ready for Germany.”

This offer was rejected, and, adding insult to injury, the Nazi government announced that Jews would be banned from military service. This ended the pretensions of the German Vanguard, and, although Schoeps continued his attempts to inspire a conservative renewal among his fellow Jews, he had long been in the Gestapo’s bad books and was extremely lucky to escape, without money, job prospects, or visa, to Sweden in 1938.

The chemist Willstätter hoped to assure his right to remain in his beloved country, not by calling attention to himself, as Schoeps did, but by cultivating obscurity. By giving up all of his official positions, he convinced himself that he had won a kind of immunity, and he wrote Chaim Weizmann that he was sure, in any case, that anti-Jewish agitation would abate and that he would ride out the storm in his house in Munich, doing private research and cultivating his rose garden. It was only after Kristallnacht that he began to see how terribly mistaken he had been and managed, after one panicky failed attempt to escape that led to his arrest, to get permission to go to Switzerland.

Bella Fromm and Max Warburg remained in Germany because they felt that they could help more vulnerable Jewish acquaintances by doing so. Fromm was a celebrity with many friends in high places, particularly in the diplomatic corps, and they gave her a certain degree of protection, although this, she knew, had limits. She had good antennae and usually knew what the Nazis were going to do before they did it, and what she learned she used to warn potential victims, often giving them financial aid to help them get out of the country. Warburg believed that his bank and his international connections were important for the German economy and that, in Hjalmar Greeley Schacht, the president of the Reichsbank, he had a protector who would not let the Nazis forget it. He, too, used his position of relative security to help others, providing aid for many Jews who were attempting to find a refuge in Palestine.

In Jewish circles in America, he was accused of collaboration with the Nazis, a charge that was only formally true and could be made only for a short period. For Schacht fell out of favor, and Germany moved toward a war economy, and Warburg was forced to turn control of his bank over to Aryans. No longer in a position to help others and himself in grave personal danger, he yielded to the pressure of friends and sailed for America. Fromm’s experience was much the same. After Joachim von Ribbentrop became foreign minister in February 1938, she could no longer expect friends in the ministry or in foreign embassies to protect her and followed Warburg’s example.

On April 1, 1933, after the first Nazi anti-Jewish boycott encountered a lukewarm reception from Berliners, Robert Weltsch was inspired to write an article in his Jüdische Rundschau that became famous as the “Yellow Badge Article.” In it he called upon Jews to wear with pride the emblem that the Nazis forced upon them. Since the boycott had stigmatized the Jews as a distinct group, the Jews should stop camouflaging themselves as Germans and affirm their Jewishness. Anything else would merely confirm their degradation by the Nazis. Until 1938, Weltsch continued to preach in this vein, using his newspaper (toward which the Nazis showed a remarkable degree of tolerance) to attack the obsolete ideal of assimilation and to argue in favor of Zionism. When he finally left Germany in 1938 for Warsaw en route to Palestine, it was with a sense of disappointment and defeat, caused less by his memory of Nazi crimes against his people than by Jewish naiveté and passivity. “It is a bitter recognition that every Zionist brings with him from a European trip,” he wrote after he had reached Palestine. “Jewry has not fought the Nazis in any systematic way.”

Indeed, among those Jews who had elected to remain in Germany after Hitler came to power, the disagreements were greater in 1938 than they had been in 1933, and the animosity between those who clung to the ideal of assimilation and the Zionists, who rejected it, was much more bitter. To seek to bridge the differences and to bring some unity to a people increasingly harassed by the Nazis had been the rationale for Leo Baeck’s refusal to leave Germany. As early as April 1933, this dedicated scholar, whose life, Dippel writes, “embodied the historical symbiosis of German and Jew,” concluded privately that the end of German Jewry had arrived. It was not a truth that he could proclaim, or one that he could allow to deter him from doing everything he could to comfort and hearten those Jews who were unwilling to leave Germany or incapable of doing so.

As head of the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden, the official organization of German Jews, as well as chief rabbi of Berlin, Baeck tried in the years that followed to fulfill his ministry to his people, at the same time staying in contact with the Nazi government in the hope of maintaining at least a modicum of Jewish rights, while preparing young Jews for emigration to Palestine. As the situation worsened, he sought to console those who had no escape by urging them to accept their historical tradition and to take comfort from the memory of the recurrent cycles of persecution and renewal that Jews had experienced through the ages. He was devastated by Kristallnacht, which seemed to mark the end of all hope, but refused to leave the country, as he might have done, telling a friend, “I will go when I am the last Jew alive in Germany.”

In January 1943, almost exactly two hundred years after Moses Mendelssohn had arrived in Berlin from the east and begun to preach the cause of Jewish assimilation, the Gestapo came for Leo Baeck and shipped him off to Theresienstadt. He was not the last Jew still alive in Germany, but during the past twelve months the Nazis had killed 2.7 million European and German Jews, and the genocidal tide was still at the flood. Dippel writes that late in the war Adolf Eichmann visited Theresienstadt and, finding to his dismay that Baeck was still alive, ordered him shot. Through some mix-up, the SS guards murdered a Jew named Beck instead, a mistake that was not corrected and one that enabled the chief rabbi to survive the war.

This Issue

April 18, 1996