Hitler`S Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans And The Holocaust Essay, Research Paper
Title: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
1996 622p. $30.00
Author: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf , Inc.
Synopsis – Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a work that may change our understanding of the Holocaust and of Germany during the Nazi period. Daniel Goldhagen has revisited a question that history has come to treat as settled, and his researches have led him to the inescapable conclusion that none of the established answers holds true. Drawing on materials either unexplored or neglected by previous scholars, Goldhagen presents new evidence to show that many beliefs about the killers are fallacies. They were not primarily SS men or Nazi Party members, but perfectly ordinary Germans from all walks of life, men who brutalized and murdered Jews both willingly and zealously. “They acted as they did because of a widespread, profound, unquestioned, and virulent anti-Semitism that led them to regard the Jews as a demonic enemy whose extermination was not only necessary but also just.”1 The author proposes to show that the phenomenon of German anti-Semitism was already deep-rooted and pervasive in German society before Hitler came to power, and that there was a widely shared view that the Jews ought to be eliminated in some way from German society. When Hitler chose mass extermination as the only final solution, he was easily able to enlist vast numbers of Germans to carry it out.
About the Author – Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University and an Associate of Harvard’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. His doctoral dissertation, which is the basis for his book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” was awarded the American Political Science Association’s 1994 Gabriel A. Almond Award for the best dissertation in the field of comparative politics.2
Summary – For the extermination of the Jews to occur, four principal things were necessary:
1.The Nazis – that is, the leadership, specifically Hitler – had to decide to undertake the extermination.
2. They had to gain control over the Jews, namely over the territory in which they resided.
3. They had to organize the extermination and devote to it sufficient resources.
4. They had to induce a large number of people to carry out the killings.
The vast literature on Nazism and the Holocaust treats in great depth the first three elements, the focus of this book, is the last element. Until recently, virtually no research has been done on the perpetrators, save on the leaders of the Nazi regime. In the last few years, some publications have appeared that treats one group or another, yet the state of our knowledge about the perpetrators remains incomplete. We know little about many of the institutions of killing, little about many aspects of the perpetration of the genocide, and still less about the perpetrators themselves. As a consequence, popular and scholarly myths and misconceptions about the perpetrators abound, including the following. It is commonly believed that the Germans slaughtered Jews by and large in the gas chambers, and that without gas chambers, modern means of transportation, and efficient bureaucracies, the Germans would have been unable to kill millions of Jews. The belief persists that somehow only technology made horror on this scale possible. It is generally believed that gas chambers, because of their efficiency, were a necessary instrument for the genocidal slaughter, and that the Germans chose to construct the gas chambers in the first place because they needed more efficient means of killing the Jews. It has been generally believed that the perpetrators were primarily, overwhelmingly SS men, the most devoted and brutal Nazis. It has been held that had a German refused to kill Jews, then he himself would have been killed, sent to a concentration camp, or severely punished. All of these views, views that fundamentally shape people’s understanding of the Holocaust, have been believed as though they were self-evident truths. They have been virtual articles of faith, have substituted for knowledge, and have distorted the way in which this period is understood.
The absence of attention to the perpetrators is surprising for a host of reasons, only one of which is the existence of a now over-ten-year-long debate about the genesis of the initiation of the Holocaust, which has come to be called by the misnomer the “intentionalist-functionalist”2 debate. For better or worse, this debate has become the organizing debate for much of the scholarship on the Holocaust. The limited character of our knowledge of this period is highlighted by the simple fact the number of people who were perpetrators is unknown. No estimate of any kind exists of the number of people who knowingly contributed to the genocidal killing in some intimate way. Scholars who discuss them, inexplicably, neither attempt such an estimate nor point out that this, a topic of such great significance, is an important gap in our knowledge. Depending on the number and identity of the Germans who contributed to the genocidal slaughter, different sorts of questions, inquiries, and bodies of theory might be appropriate or necessary in order to explain it.
One explanation argues for external compulsion: the perpetrators were coerced. They were left, by the threat of punishment, with no choice but to follow orders. After all, they were part of military or police-like institutions, institutions with a strict chain of command, demanding subordinate compliance to orders, which should have punished insubordination severely, perhaps with death. Put a gun to anyone’s head, so goes the thinking, and he will shoot others to save himself.
A second explanation conceives of the perpetrators as having been blind followers of orders. A common proposition exists, namely that people obey authority, with a variety of accounts of why this is so. The notion that authority, particularly state authority, tends to elicit obedience merits consideration.
A third explanation holds the perpetrators to have been subject to tremendous social psychological pressure, placed upon each one by his comrades and/or by the expectations that accompany the institutional roles that individuals occupy. It is extremely difficult for individuals to resist pressures to conform, pressures which can lead individuals to participate in acts which they on their own would not do, indeed would abhor. And a variety of psychological mechanisms are available for such people to rationalize their actions.
A fourth explanation sees the perpetrators as having been petty bureaucrats, or soulless technocrats, who pursued their self-interest or their technocratic goals and tasks with callous disregard for the victims.
A fifth explanation asserts that because tasks were so fragmented, the perpetrators could not understand what the real nature of their actions was; they could not comprehend that their small assignments were actually part of a global extermination program. Each of these conventional explanations may sound plausible, and some of them obviously contain some truth, so what is wrong with them?
The conventional explanations assume a neutral or condemnatory attitude on the part of the perpetrators towards their actions. They therefore premise their interpretations on the assumption that it must be shown how people can be brought to commit acts to which they would not inwardly assent, acts which they would not agree are necessary or just. They either ignore, deny, or radically minimize the importance of Nazi and perhaps the perpetrators’ ideology, moral values, and conception of the victims, for contributing to the perpetrators’ willingness to kill. The explanations treat them as if they had been people lacking a moral sense, lacking the ability to make decisions and take stances. They do not conceive of the actors as human agents, as people with wills, but as beings moved solely by external forces. The conventional explanations have two other major conceptual failings. They do not sufficiently recognize the extraordinary nature of the deed: the mass killing of people. They assume and imply that inducing people to kill human beings is fundamentally no different from getting them to do any other unwanted or distasteful task. Also, none of the conventional explanations deems the identity of the victims to have mattered. The conventional explanations imply that the perpetrators would have treated any other group of intended victims in exactly the same way. That the victims were Jews – according to the logic of these explanations – is irrelevant.
The author maintains that any explanation that fails to acknowledge the actors’ capacity to know and to judge, that fails to emphasize the autonomous motivating force of Nazi ideology, particularly its central component of anti-Semitism, cannot possibly succeed in telling us much about why the perpetrators acted as they did. Any explanation that ignores either the particular nature of the perpetrators’ actions – the systematic, large-scale killing and brutalizing of people – or the identity of the victims is inadequate for a host of reasons.
According to the author, the perpetrators, “ordinary Germans”3 were driven by a particular type of anti-Semitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die. The perpetrators’ beliefs, their particular brand of anti-Semitism was a significant and indispensable source of their actions and must be at the center of any explanation of them. Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say “no.”
It is my belief that the author presents a very controversial view of the causes and implementation of the Holocaust. The root of the controversy is his contention that the German people, as a society, are responsible for the attempted extermination of the Jews. According to Mr. Goldhagen, in the eyes of the Germans, the Jews as nothing more than a cancer that must be removed in order to cure the ills of their nation. In the book Mr. Goldhagen has gone to great extents to prove his views. However, “…his theories will probably remain a point of contention with historians for years to come.”4 The brutality and horror that is described throughout the book is, at times, overwhelming. To realize that one group of people can treat their fellow man with such heartlessness and savagery in what we call a civilized world is almost beyond comprehension.
1. Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Book Jacket, 1996
2. Patterns of Prejudice, Erich Goldhagen, 1978, 12, No.1, 1-16
3. First Things, Richard John Neuhaus, August/September 1996, 36-41
4. U.S. News & World Report, David Gergen, May 24, 1996