Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) pp. 619, cloth $30.00.
There is convincing scientific, historical, and psychological evidence of two basic facts regarding the fate of Jews in Hitler’s Europe. Ignoring them leads to sloppy thinking and worse.
- Adolf Hitler was paranoid (delusional) about the Jews (though he hated and slaughtered millions of others.
- Most of the murderers were “normal” (again clinically speaking), i.e. not psychotic, insane, or in the majority sadistic.
The rest is commentary.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University and author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. In an eight-page report, the Germany embassy in Washington mournfully concluded of the book that, “One has to assume that it will significantly influence the American public’s view of the holocaust—more than other books.” Der Spiegel, Germany’s (and perhaps Europe’s) premier news-magazine, considers the book important enough to already have published three major articles concerning it.’ Rudolf Augstein, Der Spiegel’s publisher, makes a number of major points.
For one, Augstein does not deny that in pre-Hitler Germany significant anti-Semitism existed; that the majority of Germans were pro-Hitler; and that the barbarities took place. He maintains, however, that it is not true that this anti-Semitism was worse than in other coun-tries—Poland comes to mind; so does Henry Kissinger (“The Germans were no more anti-Semitic than others”); so does Odessa, the Soviet port on the Black Sea where my ancestors were born, and where on October 23, 1941, the Romanian army took 19,000 Jews to the square at the harbor, poured gasoline on them, and set them aflame.
The average German cared little about Jews, as of course did the rest of the world—as has been noted, the excuses given for not bombing Auschwitz are lies, the Catholic church never excommunicated the Catholic Hitler, and so on. Walter Laqueur in his highly underestimated The Terrible Secret wrote:
Very few people had an interest in the fate of the Jews. Most individuals faced a great many more important problems. It was an unpleasant topic, speculations were unprofitable, discussions of the fate of the Jews were discouraged. Consideration of this question was put aside, blotted out. . .
And Clive James, in a review of Goldhagen’s book in the New Yorker, wrote: “Why weren’t the Germans themselves seen by the Nazis as being thoroughly biddable from the start? Goldhagen leaves the question untouched because he has no answer.”
Goldhagen never really addresses the ruthless slaughter of the non-Jewish mil-lions. Goldhagen basically ignores Hitler’s role. While there are many reasons why the “Final Solution” happened, it wouldn’t have happened without Hitler. To think otherwise is, at best, a misunderstanding. Hitler was all-powerful, and his decisions became, quite literally, the law. As the American historian Robert Waite points out,
The government could not exist without him. It was he who set the standards for art, music, medicine, and poetry. His whim became national law. He dictated statutes which set forth the religion of household servants, the colors artists could use in painting, the way lobsters were to be cooked in restaurants, and how physics would be taught in the uni-versities. He decided whom Germans might marry, what they could name their children, where they could be buried.
Women had the basic function of producing cannon fodder, given that female emancipation to him was a term invented by the Jewish intellect.
While Goldhagen in an interview with Augstein refers to Hitler as a “paranoid anti-Semite,” he gives no indication that he understands the implications of this mental disorder.’ In Lord Alan Bullock’s perceptive summary:
Hitler’s anti-Semitism bore no relation to facts, it was pure fantasy: to read these pages is to enter the world of the insane, a world peopled by hideous and distorted shadows. The Jew is no longer a human being, he has become a mythi-cal figure, a grimacing, leering devil with infernal powers, the incarnation of evil. . .
Hitler, in short, is a textbook case of paranoia/delusional disorder, or, less technically, was a homicidal maniac who should have been locked up in a padded cell at the outset of his public career. Yet the world put up with him, and he almost did all of us in before the British Broadcasting Company could announce on that day in April 1945, quoting from Shakespeare’s Richard III: “The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead.”
Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesen-thal Center in Israel, notes in the Jerusalem Report:
Goldhagen presents a simple answer to the question which has puzzled experts and laymen alike. All you need to do is equate Germans with Nazis and the riddle of the twentieth-century is solved.
Better yet: all you need to do is equate German anti-Semitism with Hitler’s murderous psychotic paranoia. Goldhagen’s “No Germans, no Holocaust” has to read “No Hitler, no holocaust.”
While these facts should settle any arguments, they probably will not. For as Simon Wiesenthal wrote me (July 1995), supporting my conclusion in Hitler’s Secret (1984):
My fear is that Hitler will continue to remain a mystery and that many more people than are already doing so will try to solve this mystery. Some people probably have a psychological need to be overwhelmed, and this can take many different forms, ranging from adoration to blindness to mania.
So why does Daniel Jonah Goldhagen of prestigious Harvard University write such a book? It can be argued that it has something to do with lucrative sensationalism and that his obfuscation of the real problems constitutes a profound disservice to the murdered as well as the living. The guilty are, first, those who did it; second, those who ordered it done; third, those who made possible its doing; fourth, those who proposed it; fifth, those who justified it; sixth, those who applauded it; seventh, those who profited from it; eighth, those whose job it was to obscure and deny it; ninth, those who knew about it but did nothing; tenth, those who did not know of it but ought to have known. More bluntly, the above—all over the world—have also been referred to as the bastards who gave the orders; the bastards who carried them out; and the bastards who stood by and didn’t give a damn.
Given that civilization means above all an unwillingness to inflict unnecessary pain, Auschwitz and all it stands for is modem civilization’s declaration of bankruptcy.
Our choice then is between accepting these facts or believing our myth of being different from the Eichmanns of the world. That mirage is very tempting. It stands there in front of us like some hallucinatory hologram shimmering with lights and fireworks. We can see in it whatever we want to see, but there is a tunnel waiting at the end of these lights. A monster with a human face is waiting to welcome us there, and to inform us about with whom we have been collaborating.
1. “Der Soziologe als Scharfrichter” (“The Sociologist as Executioner”), Rudolf Augstein, 16/96; “Ein Volk von Dämonen?” (“A People of Demons?”) 21/96; “To dbringende ‘Humaisten’: Was Dachten die Mörder?” (“Deadly `Humanists’: What Did the Murderers Think?”) 33/96, interview. 2. Goldhagen is neither a trained historian nor a clinician; it shows. None of these experts are mentioned in the index of the book (it is bizarre that it has no bibliography either): Alan Bullock, Jerome Bruner, Henry Dicks, Albert Ellis, Milton Erikson, Joachim Fest, Gustave Gilbert, Martin Gilbert, Heinz Hoehne, Eberhard Jaeckel, Douglas Kelley, Helmut Krausnick, Werner Maser, Gitta Sereny, Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), John Toland, Robert Waite, and Simon Wiesenthal. Further, while Goldhagen makes so much of the role of police battalions, the definitive work on them was written by the American historian Christopher Browning (1992), but Goldhagen finds his conclusions “psychologically implausible.” Similarly, referring to Raul Hilberg, he writes: “I disagree with much of his interpretation” (unexplained). The British historian Paul Johnson gives this epitaph to Hitler’s Willing