Ordinary Men Or Willing Executioners Essay Research

Ordinary Men Or Willing Executioners Essay, Research Paper

The arguments of Christopher Browning and Daniel John Goldhagen contrast greatly based on the underlining meaning of the Holocaust to ordinary Germans. Why did ordinary citizens participate in the process of mass murder? Christopher Browning examines the history of a battalion of the Order Police who participated in mass shootings and deportations. He debunks the idea that these ordinary men were simply coerced to kill but stops short of Goldhagen’s simplistic thesis. Browning uncovers the fact that Major Trapp offered at one time to excuse anyone from the task of killing who was “not up to it.” Despite this offer, most of the men chose to kill anyway. Browning’s traces how these murderers gradually became less “squeamish” about the killing process and delves into explanations of how and why people could behave in such a manner.

Goldhagen’s book however, has the merit of opening up a new perspective on ways of viewing the Holocaust, and it is the first to raise crucial questions about the extent to which eliminationist anti-Semitism was present among the German population as a whole. Using extensive testimonies from the perpetrators themselves, it offers a chilling insight into the mental and cognitive structures of hundreds of Germans directly involved in the killing operations. Anti-Semitism plays a primary factor in the argument from Goldhagen, as it is within his belief that anti-Semitism “more or less governed the ideational life of civil society” in pre-Nazi Germany . Goldhagen stated that a

“Demonological anti-Semitism, of the virulent racial variety, was the common structure of the perpetrators’ cognition of the German society in general. The German perpetrators… were assenting mass executioners, men and women who, true to their own eliminationist anti-Semitic beliefs, faithful to their cultural anti-Semitic credo, considered the slaughter to be just.”

Though his statements seem quite harsh in content, they are not completely unjust for there is no obvious reason why a culture cannot be fanatically consumed by hatred. Goldhagen argues that for centuries, nearly every German was possessed of a homicidal animus towards Jews and thus 80 to 90 percent of Germans would have relished in the occasion to eliminate Jews. (Goldhagen dissents from Christopher Browning’s estimates that 10-20 percent of the German police battalions refused to kill Jews as ’stretching the evidence ). It is one of Goldhagen’s central arguments that the police battalions were prototypical of the murderous German mind-set. Goldhagen’s true distinction from Browning is to argue that German anti- Semitism was not only a significant but rather it was the sufficient condition for perpetrating the extermination of the Jews. Goldhagen observes that if it was not for “Hitler’s moral authority”, the “vast majority of Germans never would have contemplated” the genocide against the Jews. He also argues that by the time Hitler came to power, the model of Jews that was the basis of his anti-Semitism was shared by the vast majority of Germans. To rebuttal his claim I must ask that if anti-Semitism was true to not only the Germans but also the other European countries then why didn’t a massive scale anti-Semitism movement come into play elsewhere? It is true that Goldhagen believes “Had there not been an economic depression in Germany, then the Nazi’s, in all likelihood, would never have to come to power.” However, this statement simply requires a question that if the Germans were fanatically anti-Semitists then why did they have to wait an economic depression to attain power and act out their anti-Semitist beliefs?

Anti-Semitism, according to Goldhagen, was symptomatic of a much deeper German dissatisfaction. It served the Germans as a “moral rationale” for releasing “destructive and ferocious passions that are usually tamed and curbed by civilization”. Goldhagen uses the testimonies from the Reserve Battalion 101 as evidence to assert his claims on the anti-Semitic nature of the Germans. He tends to use much of the same evidence that Browning used but he, in trying to prove his point, neglected to use some the vital information that Browning used to assert his own claims, thus selecting only the relevant information. Goldhagen uses numbers to give an idea of the make-up of the men, there age, status, and participation in the Nazi regime. While pointing out the ages of these men serving in the Reserve Battalion 101, he makes a significant claim that these men were mostly over the age of 30 and thus are “not the wide-eyed youngsters ready to believe whatever they were told.” “These were mature men who had life experience, who had families and children. The overwhelming majority of them had reached adulthood before the Nazis ascended to power. They had known other political dispensation, had lived in other ideological climates.” This argument deems relevant to Goldhagen’s claims and quite frightening but what about the status of these men. Mostly from the lower middle class and that of the lower class these men were not from the good universities, if one at all and they were probably very concerned with making sure that their families were taken care of. If you look at the fact that most of these men were of the lower middle and lower class, they were most likely used to succumbing to someone else’s orders of a higher status. If they did not obey and work then what would happen to their families. Goldhagen’s argument based on the Reserve Battalion 101 is that these men were ordinary Germans, had no problems doing their duty for the Nazi Regime, and were proud of it. Browning on the other hand tends to argue, by using the testimonies of the men of Reserve Battalion 101, that these men were ‘ordinary’ and not fanatical anti-Semites. Browning believes that these men, or at least most of them, succumbed to peer pressure, obeyed their orders, and hoped to advance themselves. When looking at Goldhagen’s statistics the largest groups of men were employees at a lower or intermediate level (pg207). Though Goldhagen has made a clear and valid point that these men were not boys it is important to also look at their status in society.

It is of common knowledge that the largest group of people to suffer in the Holocaust was the Jews, but what about other victims? In Goldhagen’s novel the explanation of the protests against the Euthanasia program are clearly described as Germans upset only because these victims were Germans but deemed ‘Life unworthy of life’. The Euthanasia program saw “German physicians take the lives of more than seventy thousand people”. Here Goldhagen has a very valid point but it does not convince me that the Germans have a strong history of anti-Semitism. These protests, show that the “(1) Germans recognized the slaughter to be wrong, (2) expressed their views about it, (3) openly protested for an end to the killing, (4) suffered no retribution for having expressed their views and for pressing their demands, and (5) succeeding in producing a formal cessation of the killing program, saving German lives.” As Goldhagen’s view is a valid, one I must wonder about the awareness factor. These Germans protested because their loved ones were being killed and they were clearly aware of their deaths. As it is clearly known, the extent the Jews being killed was not so clear for it was not so close to home and even as a Nazi, the chain of events were very spread out so the full magnitude of the horrors were not so evident. I am sure that some knew and were anti-Semites but can Goldhagen make such a large claim to an entire population?

What about the people who helped the Nazi’s, who were not German? According to Goldhagen, “Germans stood up for Poles” and when seventy-eight out of three hundred Poles were to be killed to set an example Trapp was remembered as being “very shaken after this action. He even wept. He was what one would call a fine human being and I deem it impossible that it was he who had ordered the shooting of the hostages.” This event, according to Goldhagen, illustrates the juxtapositions the Germans and in this specific case the Reserve Battalion 101, had toward the Poles, for they indeed did kill them but spared more then they were ordered to. This clearly exemplifies to Goldhagen a very disturbing view that they could kill Jews by the thousands at a time but to kill seventy-eight Poles was a tragedy. The way I see it, the Germans were not fighting against the Poles, it would have been like killing the United States killing British soldiers when they were fighting against the Germans. In war, there is always an enemy and, in a twisted point of view, the Germans believed that their enemies were the Jews. This again does not prove to me that these men were ‘ordinary Germans’ and ‘fanatic anti-Semites’. According to Browning the “German police quite naturally had considerable contact with Poles who collaborated in the Final Solution and helped them track down Jews… Often unwilling to make accusatory statements about their comrades or to be truthful about themselves, these men must have found considerable psychological relief in sharing blame with the Poles.” Browning continues on to explain how the Poles helped the Germans either by showing them were the Jews were hiding, “ The residential district was searched again. In many cases with the aid of the Poles” , or just bringing them flasks of alcohol to ease their troubles. What seems to trouble me about Goldhagen’s view, is based on his assertion that ‘Ordinary Germans’ were zealously anti-Semites but then why would the Poles be so willing to help, for they were not Germans, so thus cannot necessarily contain the same German hatred and anti-Semitism that Goldhagen deems so obvious and prevalent.

Goldhagen clearly believes that the men of the Reserve Battalion 101 had every chance to leave or refuse to act. According to Browning yes, that choice was there but how many would openly speak of this is another factor. Browning believes that under the great amount of pressure it is unlikely that many men who would have wanted to speak out would, though some did. Goldhagen spends a considerable amount of time addressing the photographs taken of the Reserve Battalion 101. In the many photos it is clearly obvious that the men are smiling or having an enjoyable time and this, “openness about their genocidal slaughtering-making it available to the view of so many other German men and women who happened to be stationed in Poland…. These Germans’ willingness to make an extensive photographic record of their deeds, including their killing operations, in which they appear with cheerful and proud demeanors as men entirely comfortable with their environment.” Goldhagen’s argument has a very clear point considering the content of these photographs but what Browning questions is the extent to which these men really knew what they were doing. Did they know the how many Jews were being killed?

Goldhagen also delves into the extent that these men talked of their activities. Some men say that they were ordered not to speak of what they had done while others do not recall any such claim and thus did speak of it. Goldhagen sees the men who were so openly speaking of such horrid events as truly believing in the killings of the Jews. One of Goldhagen’s most “significant and revealing actions of the men of Police Battalion 101 are, on the one hand, the men’s incessant volunteering to kill and, on the other, the failure of the men to avail themselves of the opportunities to avoid killing.” While Browning believes that these men where ‘ordinary’ men Goldhagen’s assertions on these matter seem quite able to show that at least in some examples these men where proud of their doings.

“ The opportunities given to the men to avoid killing have already been touched up upon. In addition to the en who chose not to kill, the recalcitrant lieutenant served as a powerful example to the entire battalion that the men could refuse to kill without suffering tangible hardships. Furthermore, from the battalion commander down to its non-commissioned officers, those in command positions showed understanding for the disinclination that their subordinates might have had in performing their unsavory tasks. As one of the men puts it when discussing Trapp’s initial offer, ‘it did not take special courage for someone to step forward’.”

It is of my belief that these ‘ordinary’ men were of a combination of both Browning and Goldhagen’s views. I do believe that a country can have underlining anti-Semitism and though it might not be obvious, it is part of their heritage. My main comparison is of the African Americans in the United States. There was a large part of American history devoted to the denial of blacks as citizens, denial to vote, denial that they are human. There was a time when signs were posted, like the ones in Germany, to ban blacks from a neighborhood. Then what about the lynching and the photographs in the American archives were people are smiling or the use of these photographs as postcards to send to family members who were unable to ‘enjoy’ such a ‘wonderful occasion’ as killing a race of people. Today those events do not happen but there is very strong underlining racism that still exists. Thus, I do believe, like Goldhagen, that there can be undertones in a society to have hatred for another group unlike the majority. I am sure Goldhagen would then point out that America did not kill in the same extent as the Germans nor did Americans try to spread this belief. This then brings me back to the statement Goldhagen used that without “Hitler’s moral authority”, the “vast majority of Germans never would have contemplated” the genocide against the Jews and “Had there not been an economic depression in Germany, then the Nazi’s, in all likelihood, would never have to come to power.” America did not have economic depression while a man as Hitler was in power, but is it completely conceivable that a similar even could have happened in the United States, we did kill tens of thousands of African Americans.

In a depressing manor, I do believe that people can do horrible things, we are animals, but I cannot single out the Germans to be as horrible as Goldhagen has made them out to be. His argument is a good one, but my grandfather, my grandmother, my father, my aunt, my uncle, my cousin, etc. etc. are not deeply routed fanatic Anti-Semites. During the war my grandfather did not willingly want to kill and actually escaped from a British prison and instead of going back, to join the fight of the Nazi Regime (which in Goldhagen’s view he would have done) he went home and hid in is own home. He was found by Soviet men in his home and taken to Siberia, because he was too young, in their point of view, to not be a member of the Nazi party. This is a man that Goldhagen cannot say is a fanatic anti-Semite and because of his own story to me I cannot deem the entire German population to be Goldhagen’s ‘ordinary Germans’.

It is not an easy debate and will probably never be one but I would hope that someone could see that we cannot say something about an entire population. We would have to look at each member individually and then I am sure that we would find that some were those ‘ordinary men’, that Browning believed and some were the ‘ordinary Germans’ that Goldhagen believed in.


Browning, Christopher R., Ordinary Men. Harper Perennial,New York, 1993

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Random House, Inc. New York, 1996


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