A nation minded to murder?

Hitler's Willing Executioners

March 29, 1996

In 1941, Sir Robert Vansittart, former permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, published Black Record: Germans past and present. This was an attack not simply on the Nazi regime and the authoritarian streak in German political culture, but on German history as a whole and the German people in general. "The Brazen Horde," Vansittart wrote, "has not changed down the ages"; "the torturers and assassins and exterminators of the Gestapo" were, he argued, "the lineal descendants" - biologically and intellectually - of all previous generations of Germans. Vansittart had little faith in good Germans, nor did he believe them to be the coerced pawns of a manipulative elite: "There were plenty of ways out for good Germans," he wrote, "but precious few took them."

Fifty-five years later, the appearance of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners heralds a new, scholarly Vansittartism: a collective indictment of the German people's role in the extermination of European Jewry, a role which the author situates not in the extraordinary circumstances of 1933-45, but in the development of an "eliminationist programme" since the 19th century. Yet Goldhagen's work is no mere re-education pamphlet. His formidable array of archival material, some of it new, his detailed engagement with the secondary literature, and the book's origins as a doctoral dissertation at Harvard show that it is intended as a scholarly contribution to the debate on the final solution. It will and should be read not merely by academic historians but by the wider public. It has to be taken seriously.

Goldhagen's aim is to "reconceive" central aspects of the Holocaust. Far from being "inexplicable", he argues, the murder of the Jews was the logical result of a "German national political goal" which had emerged by the end of the 19th century, "prior to the political birth of Hitler". This explains why the German people became not just passive executors of National Socialist racial policy, but willing participants in genocide. Indeed, Goldhagen concludes that these sentiments "moved many thousands of 'ordinary' Germans - and would have moved millions more, had they been appropriately positioned - to slaughter Jews"; this is a sufficiently wide definition of guilt to implicate the vast majority of Germans.

Goldhagen rejects the notion that the perpetrators were feeble automatons or opportunists, motivated by fear, ingrained obedience, misplaced bureaucratic enthusiasm or personal ambition. Instead, he argues that they often exhibited a considerable "moral autonomy" towards the National Socialist regime; these men - and women - were capable of but not willing to refuse genocidal instructions from on high. After all, they frequently not only criticised and obstructed the regime in other matters, but sometimes exercised a spontaneous clemency towards Poles, and even Russians, that they denied to Jews. The Germans - all Germans, with the exception of a tiny minority - were thus "wilful agents, making conscious choices": "ordinary Germans" thus became "willing killers".

The difficulty with Goldhagen's work is an old one: most of what is indisputably true is not new; much of what is new - in scholarly terms - is not true, or at least highly problematic.

The vast amount of secondary literature cited by the author contradicts the notion of a major historiographical hiatus concerning genocidal motivations, or any "under-theorising" of antiSemitism. This would be even more true if one adds the works he did not consult, such as Jonathan Steinberg on Germans, Italians and the Holocaust or Christopher Clark on Jewish converts. Indeed, it is striking how often a statement like "it is generally believed by scholars" is followed by a footnote which shows no such thing, while many of Goldhagen's central arguments - such as the lack of external compulsion towards complicity in genocide or the importance of murder by shooting as well as gas - are referenced by a huge and well-established secondary literature.

On the other hand, much of what Goldhagen has to say is thought-provoking and new, or at least has not been stated with such clarity before. Goldhagen is right, for example, to emphasise - in graphic but necessary detail - the sheer horror of extermination by shooting. Unlike the "cold" and "clinical" gas chambers, this was very "personalised" murder, in which the perpetrator was immediately confronted by his victim - man, woman or child. As the pioneering work of Christopher Browning on these firing squads has shown, the killers were not fanatical Nazis, but "ordinary" family men; moreover, while they were free to request a transfer without fear of reprisal, few of them did so.

Besides, Goldhagen points out, these men did not merely "carry out their duty", they often behaved with a spontaneous and gratuitous brutality. Some of the killers were visited by their families without apparent revulsion and others showed no inhibitions about photographing the humiliation and murder of Jews. Similarly, Goldhagen demonstrates how during the horrific "evacuations" of the camps in the face of the Soviet advance, male and female guards continued to murder and mistreat Jews not merely without orders - for the command structure had largely broken down - and even in defiance of their own best interest - for the war was palpably on the verge of being lost, but even, in at least one instance, in defiance of Himmler's explicit orders.

Finally, it is right to deny that all other comparable groups would have behaved similarly under similar circumstances. We know for a fact that Italian soldiers - for complex reasons, but to their eternal credit - refused to collaborate in the Holocaust. In the light of all this it is difficult to contest Goldhagen's conclusion - as far as these specific and other related subgroups are concerned - that the perpetrators were not merely willing but enthusiastic killers.

None the less, Goldhagen's general thesis about the complicity of the German people as a whole remains flawed, both methodologically and empirically. First of all, the German cup is always half empty, never half full. He quotes Max Warburg's statement in 1931 that Germany had disqualified itself "from the ranks of the civilised peoples (Kulturvolker) and had taken its place among the ranks of the pogrom lands (Pogromlander)", as evidence of the advance of the "eliminationist programme"; it is certainly that, but it is also a striking example of the way in which Nazi policies were perceived by Jews as a radical breach with the past, rather than as part of the continuity of German history. Similarly, the wave of violence and intimidation preceding the election of March 1933 did not, Goldhagen says, "deter voters, but increased the Nazi vote to . . . 43 per cent"; surely it is more remarkable that even after Hitler's takeover of power and after massive manipulation, through propaganda and acts of terror, over half of the German electorate still rejected him.

Second, the way in which Goldhagen abandons "inappropriate and obfuscating labels, like 'Nazis' and 'SS men'" in favour of "Germans" is suspect; he even goes as far as to upbraid the diarist of the Warsaw ghetto, Chaim Kaplan, for referring to "Nazis" - he wrote "Nazis", Goldhagen tells us, but he meant "Germans". The insistence on "Germans" explains the palpable sense of unease exhibited when dealing with Baltic and Ukrainian collaborators: in one striking passage, Goldhagen, after relentless discussion of "the Germans", refers merely to "Ukrainians" (without the definite article) and to "the Germans, together with their Lithuanian henchmen" (ie not "the Lithuanians").

While the book is passionately written and often moving, it is also highly repetitive and obsessive. More importantly perhaps, Goldhagen's attempts to evoke the psychology of the mass murderer occasionally take him well beyond the imaginative scope permitted to serious historians: "The Germans made love in barracks next to enormous privation and incessant cruelty. What did they talk about when their heads rested quietly on their pillows, when they were smoking their cigarettes in those relaxing moments after their physical needs had been met. Did one relate to another accounts of a particularly amusing beating that she or he had administered or observed, of the rush of power that engulfed her when the righteous adrenaline of Jew-beating caused her body to pulse with energy."

Finally, the argument is characterised by obvious sleights of hand. "The makeup of the police battalions," Goldhagen claims, "means that the conclusions drawn about the overall character of the members' actions can, indeed must be, generalised to the German people in general [his italics]. What these ordinary Germans did, also could have been expected of other ordinary Germans." Contrary to Goldhagen's belief the burden of the doubt here rests with him, and while there are some grounds to support his view, the weight of evidence suggests the opposite.

The assumption that the Germans are guilty until proved innocent is not merely legally, but historically suspect. For a start, Goldhagen's picture of the emergence of an "eliminationist programme" in Germany before 1914 overlooks the fact that Germany was in no sense distinctive within the central and eastern European anti-Semitic mainstream; if anything, she was rather progressive, as demonstrated by considerable Jewish immigration from the east into Germany and by the tragic reluctance of many German Jews to flee before it was too late. Moreover, there is no evidence that anti-Semitism played much of a role in electoral behaviour during the rise of Hitler; if anything, as recent studies have shown, Nazi electoral propaganda tended more often than not to play down the party's commitment to anti-Semitism.

Most importantly of all, there is little evidence that "ordinary" Germans - as opposed to the "ordinary men" of the execution squads - either knew of the full extent of the genocidal project, or approved of it. If the Holocaust had been, as Goldhagen claims, a "German national project", then why were the extermination camps set up in Poland, remote if not from the German garrisons and their visiting families, then at least from the major areas of German civilian population. Why were no extermination - as opposed to concentration - camps set up either in the occupied West or in western Germany; why were French, Rhenish, Dutch and other western Jews transported eastwards at such vast trouble? Why were the newsreels of the Warsaw ghetto withdrawn after it became clear that the suffering of the Jews displayed therein induced not contempt but pity among German audiences?

The answer, surely, is that the regime was concerned to conceal the systematic mass extermination of the Jews, in the knowledge that most Germans, for all their ingrained anti-Semitism, would not have approved. The intense secrecy surrounding the conception and execution of the Holocaust is well documented. But perhaps the best commentary on Goldhagen's general thesis was made by Heinrich Himmler in his notorious speech to the gauleiters of October 1943 which - revealingly - the author does not confront: "I ask that you only listen but never speak of what I am saying to you here today . . . You are now informed about the matter of the Jews, and you will keep the knowledge to yourselves. Later perhaps we can consider whether the German people should be told about this. But I think it is better that we - we together - carry for our people the responsibility . . . and then take the secret with us to our graves."

Brendan Simms is a fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

Author - Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
ISBN - 0 316 87942 8
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £20.00
Pages - 622

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