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Fri Feb 1, 2013, 04:08 AM

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

Daniel Goldhagen
634pp
Vintage: 1996
$18

Holocaust literature, of course, presents a number of problems. What should one hope to learn from the study? It is entirely unclear whether we should try to "understand" the thinking of the most ardent perpetrators. There may also be the danger of falling into a kind of thrilled fascination with the horror of it all, a possibility sometimes described as pornographic obsession. But surely the victims have earned a right for their voices to be heard. And there is an argument to be made that we today have inherited some obligation to examine the mechanisms and social psychology and politics of that murderous industry, it being our duty to ensure no such events occur again.

The subtitle "Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" suggests that Goldhagen's book may provide useful insights here. And the book begins very promisingly, with the story of a police battalion commander who indignantly refused to ask his company to sign a pledge not to steal from the local Poles, on the grounds that the request insulted the honor of the moral men under his command -- the irony being that the commander and his men were perfectly willing to engage in genocidal actions. The story illustrates a well-known moral inconsistency of many holocaust perpetrators, and perhaps more importantly points to their self-righteousness, suggesting that the following text will shed some important light on that dreadful time

Unfortunately, the promise is not fulfilled: a surprising amount of the text is merely polemical. Goldhagen's thesis can be summarized simply: the holocaust was the work of ordinary Germans, and they were motivated by a long-ingrained cultural anti-Semitism. There is, of course, some truth to both of these assertions. The industrial scale extermination operations required enormous coordination and quite substantial numbers of collaborators. Nor is there any question that a widespread rabid anti-Semitism was involved.

But Goldhagen's polemic obscures important features of the catastrophe, and the heavy ratio of polemic to evidence prevents the exposure of important and informative detail. Having stated his simple thesis, Goldhagen defends it by arguing against adding to it any social psychological or political mechanisms that might have contributed to the catastrophe. Goldhagen does not believe than anyone was coerced into cooperating with the extermination, nor does he believe that (say) the Milgram experiment can shed any light on those times. He dismisses such possibilities almost by rhetoric alone, as if convinced that they are only ever mentioned to exonerate the perpetrators

In the service of his simple thesis, Goldhagen first fails to examine the history of German anti-Semitism, a story not as clear over the centuries as Goldhagen's portrayal might suggest. Amos Elon's The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933 (Picador: 2002) might be a useful antidote here. More importantly, Goldhagen appears to have little or no understanding of the sudden changes that occurred after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933: political opposition was banned; opponents disappeared overnight into concentration camps; the Hitler salute soon became mandatory. With the Nazis in control of all the organs of modern propaganda -- radio, cinema, newspapers -- those who refused to subscribe to the totalization were isolated and very often brutally intimidated, while the Nazis engaged in political and propaganda maneuvers intended to win hearts and minds

The resulting moral collapse is likely to have taken many forms. Many people do not like to make waves and so avoid moral controversies, even when they know better. Here, for example, is a story from the American South in the early civil rights era, told by a very civilized professor at Harvard Medical School:

... A woman screamed that a man had smashed her watch and stepped on her glasses. Before I saw that she was a slender middle-aged Negro woman, that he was a young athletic white man, I felt .. sympathy and horror ... I also knew for a moment that I would not be easily able to go to the woman's aid. In another flash, I realized I could justify my reluctance: it was a racial incident ... I simply wanted to go away, and I did ... I am not now very proud of those minutes. Yet if I forgot them, I would be even more ashamed ...


Many people do what they're told, or do what they believe is expected of them, especially if consequences such as job loss loom if they fail to obey: in the Nazi era, there were a number of frightened Germans who made their hearts small and kept their heads down, deciding not to notice exactly what was happening around them or what "service" their jobs might actually render to the Reich

Goldhagen misses all of this and more. His dedication to his simple thesis, and his unwillingness to look in closer detail at the complexities, unfortunately produce a book from which we can learn almost nothing practical about how to ensure that this never happens again

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Reply Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Original post)
struggle4progress Feb 2013 OP
Neoma Feb 2013 #1
arthritisR_US Feb 2013 #2
Democracyinkind Feb 2013 #3
Neoma Feb 2013 #4
Democracyinkind Feb 2013 #5
Neoma Feb 2013 #6
grillo7 Apr 2013 #7

Response to struggle4progress (Original post)

Fri Feb 1, 2013, 06:11 PM

1. Yeah, I have that book somewhere...

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Response to Neoma (Reply #1)

Sat Feb 2, 2013, 11:47 AM

2. I read the book many years ago and disagree

with much of the OP.

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Response to struggle4progress (Original post)

Mon Feb 11, 2013, 03:41 AM

3. Personally, I don't know any book that is more vilified among historians.


Rightly so, I might add. Simply bad history, badly written.

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Response to Democracyinkind (Reply #3)

Mon Feb 11, 2013, 11:18 PM

4. Really?

How do you get to know that kind of stuff?

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Response to Neoma (Reply #4)

Tue Feb 12, 2013, 05:24 AM

5. Depends.

My first assertion is based on all those conference lunches, book opening buffets, etc., that I had to attend over the years. Bring up Goldhagen at such a venue and you're guaranteed to have fun. Additionally, I was already living in Europe when the book came out. Naturally, it was a bit more controversial here. My coming of age coincided with the Goldhagen wars, I therefore remember them vividly, I also quite disticntly remember it being the first time that I'd perceive this diffuse wish within me to actually know about that stuff; I remember that that was one of the first times that I'd actually wished I had an opinion of my own.

As to the second part, about the writing, I should have left that out. Among the many things to criticize in Goldhagen's book, language is about the last thing I really care about. The main criticism is methodological. My boss used to cite Goldhagen and another book... called, "other losses" as examples of what happens when historians don't give a crap about methodology. Other losses is that 80ish book (can't remember the author) about how the Americans allegedly starved millions of German POW's after the Second World War (which is simply not true).

That would be my answer, then. Though I'm not completely sure that you were serious in asking - I'm surely no zealot or anything like that (arguing for the truth, which in this case is anti-Goldhagen, can make for some strange bedfellows - that Goldhagen wrote a piss poor book was about the only assesment I shared with the holocaust deniers that I loved to engage back then.)

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Response to Democracyinkind (Reply #5)

Tue Feb 12, 2013, 11:09 AM

6. I don't generally have the chance to talk to people about what I read.

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Response to struggle4progress (Original post)

Fri Apr 5, 2013, 04:02 PM

7. I mostly disagree with Goldhagen...

I think the debate does shed light on how widespread anti-Semitism was at the time, and I think there are some interesting aspects of this that are generally overlooked in more traditional approaches. There was indeed a lot of civilian complicity. That said, I remember finding moments where the author unknowingly contradicted his own thesis. I don't think it was a simple as Goldhagen lays it out. We've seen this kind of thing play out all over the world, whereas Goldhagen wants to attribute something specific to Germany and Germans in his indictment. I think it more generally speaks to the potential dark hearts of men and women everywhere.

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