Matt's Reviews > Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
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it was ok
bookshelves: world-war-ii, nazis, holocaust

Everyone knows it’s hard to get published. There are a lot of authors and a lot of books, and it’s difficult to stand out among the sea of words. It’s a bit easier for memoirists, who can rely on shabby childhoods and drug addictions. For a historian, it’s a bit trickier. One tactic is the micro-history: find yourself a historical footnote, and then elevate it to the turning point of mankind. For example, an ambitious historian could write about the hula-hoop, and how it brought about détente between America and the Soviet Union. (Don’t steal my idea!)

There is another route you can take, a road less traveled. It’s perilous, and might make it difficult for you to travel in the future, but it will get you noticed (and in publishing, there is no such thing as bad attention). What do you do? Simple. Make a shocking statement that insults at least 80 million people but that is at least half-defensible.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen nails this principle in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. It’s why his presumably-turgid Harvard dissertation was repackaged into a best-selling book that most buyers probably found impossible to read.

Probably the most popular notion to come out of the Holocaust is Hannah Arendt’s famous conception of the “banality of evil.” The phrase, while it has a certain pseudo-intellectual ring, is shallow, clichéd, and specious. Moreover, it was derived from Arendt’s observations of Adolf Eichmann, who was fighting for his life in a Jerusalem courtroom, and thereby willing to say anything. Still, there are certain aspects of the Holocaust that might qualify as banal. After all, it never would have occurred without lawyers, accountants and engineers (and IBM!), who managed to tabulate, round-up, and transport millions of Jews. Presumably, many of these people never saw the awful end result of their work.

Goldhagen doesn’t believe in this H&R Block explanation of the Holocaust. He does not accept that it was somehow diffused enough that most perpetrators didn't know what they were doing, or to what ends. Of course, you probably already figured that out, after having read the title.

Suffice it to say, Hitler’s Willing Executioners has a different way of explaining the Holocaust. First, Goldhagen broadens the typical indictment of “the Nazis” to include the whole of the German people. He does not lay blame simply with the tens of thousands of einsatzgruppen who shot Jews in Russia, or the camp guards who manned the wire at Auschwitz and Treblinka. Rather, he casts his net over virtually all Germans, from the SS officer delivering a coup de grace with his Luger to the German stationmaster who helped the trains run on time to the German inhabitant of Dachau, who lived within sight of a concentration camp.

Secondly, Goldhagen posits that the Holocaust occurred because of Germany’s unique brand of anti-Semitism (he terms this “eliminationist anti-Semitism”).

It is this second point that provides the thrust of Goldhagen’s book. There are dozens of explanations as to why the Holocaust occurred: the magnetic sway of Hitler; Germanic obedience to authority; various social and psychological pressures; the alleged exigencies of the war. Goldhagen finds these explanations unconvincing (as though any explanation could possibly suffice).

To Goldhagen, the justification for the Holocaust begins and ends with German anti-Semitism. He spends roughly the first half of the book, in terms of total pages, trying to explain the nature of this mindset. It is this portion of the book that will likely try the patience of most readers. As I mentioned above, Hitler’s Willing Executioners began life as a PhD dissertation. If you’ve ever read a dissertation, you know that clarity is not the foremost concern; getting a PhD is. Goldhagen’s writing, especially in these early sections, is quite frankly, awful. It is dry, turgid, overly technical, awkwardly phrased, and freighted with fancy Harvard words. (Goldhagen uses the word “phenomenological” so often it started to lose meaning for me).

A discussion about German anti-Semitism is not inherently complex. It’s not, after all, particle physics or fractal geometry. Goldhagen, though, has a particular way of obfuscating the obvious, of hiding his meaning in a tangle of clauses. He uses entire paragraphs to extol meanings better accomplished with a single sentence. The denseness of his writing comes across as uncertainty, as though he’s trying to hide the flaws in his arguments by making his arguments incomprehensible.

What you should get out of this section, when all is said and done, is the proposition that the anti-Semitic, eliminationist mindset of the Germans caused the Holocaust.

The next part of the book is devoted to proving this hypothesis. Goldhagen does this by way of three case studies: (1) the Police Battalions; (2) the “work” camps; and (3) the death marches. These sections are a bit more manageable in terms of ease of comprehension. I’m guessing that most of the changes in the dissertation-to-book transformation took place here. While Goldhagen avowedly eschews any type of narrative, he does pepper the proceedings with enough first-hand accounts to keep a reader at least mildly interested. (At the very least, it reminds you that humans were involved in the Holocaust. This is important to remember, because Hitler’s Willing Executioners could have been written by a supercomputer).

Goldhagen does not set out (or make any attempt) to tell the story of the Holocaust. Instead, he enters the realm of social-science to try to prove a point. To do so, he relies heavily on the case study method, in which you do an in-depth study of a single group.

The first of these groups are the Police Battalions, specifically, Police Battalion 101. The men of these Battalions were involved in “actions” on the Eastern Front, in which they followed in the wake of the fast-advancing Wehrmacht, rounded up Jews, and shot them in the thousands.

Goldhagen spends a lot of time in this section critiquing the work of Christopher Browning, who wrote Ordinary Men about Police Battalion 101. Browning’s thesis, which Goldhagen disputes, is that the Germans of Battalion 101 were not fanatical Nazis, but “ordinary” guys who were very obedient to authority (think Stanley Milgram’s Yale experiments).

I didn't care for Goldhagen’s attacks on Browning. First off, he comes across as a douche (I suppose this really isn’t a substantive criticism). Goldhagen seems just like your typical grad student: young and callow, piggybacking off another’s hard work. It’s hard to come up with an original idea, and quite easy to find flaws. Browning built a sandcastle; Goldhagen, wearing a blazer and turtleneck and walking his labradoodle, saw Browning’s sandcastle and kicked it over.

More pertinently, Goldhagen’s critique of Browning is logically and factually unpersuasive. Goldhagen wants so much to find empirical support for his arguments, but while he’s talking empiricism, he’s relying on anecdotes. For instance, Goldhagen makes a huge deal over the fact that a couple soldiers in Battalion 101 asked for, and were allowed, to avoid taking part in the shootings of Jews. Goldhagen points to this as proof that the Nazis didn't have to follow orders to shoot Jews. Of course, this never takes into account Browning’s arguments regarding obedience, peer pressure, or the stages of violent brutalization. How does Goldhagen get around this? He dismisses Browning’s arguments by writing I dismiss these arguments. Literally. He simply writes off Browning in favor of his own precious, monocausal idea: that age-old, all-pervading German anti-Semitism answers all Holocaust questions.

The sections on the “work” camps and the death marches are similar to the discussion about Police Battalion 101. In each, Goldhagen isolates a discrete group of Holocaust perpetrators and attempts to show that their actions were predicated upon eliminationist anti-Semitism. These sections share the same problems that I noted above. Simply put, Goldhagen can’t prove his point to any degree of certainty. Unfortunately for the historian, the Nazis did not do exit interviews with the SS, the Police Battalions, or the camp guards. This leaves Goldhagen casting about for concrete conclusions based on flimsy bits of evidence such as social class, profession, and Nazi party affiliation.

In many ways, a book like this lives and dies based on the strength of its argument. After all, its incendiary revelations (“Everything you know is wrong!”) is its raison d’être. And that’s fair. If your book purports to be a landmark restructuring of the Holocaust story, you better be ready to back this up. On this level, I found the book to be an utter failure. I wasn’t convinced by Goldhagen; I wasn’t even moved.

I’m aware that actual scholars (as opposed to me) have criticized Goldhagen’s research, or lack thereof. However, that doesn’t matter to me, since I am not a leading authority of 19th century German anti-Semitism (I apologize if I’ve been giving off that misleading vibe). I don’t know how accurately Goldhagen presents the reality of Germanic anti-Semitism. All I know is that there were dozens of times throughout the book when a thought-bubble formed over my head; inside that thought bubble was a question mark.

First and foremost, while Goldhagen goes to great lengths to show that anti-Semitism was a necessary condition to the Holocaust, he falls woefully short trying to prove it was sufficient. From a common sense standpoint, it makes no sense that an otherwise ordinary German could be convinced to kill, and kill brutally, simply because he or she holds anti-Semitic beliefs. There has to be a lot more: peer pressure; social pressure; professional pressure; psychological brutalization (that is, training in violence); obedience to authority; a belief in the ultimate goals. You also need a regime in which this action is not only tolerated, but demanded. In other words, you need the perverted genius of an Adolf Hitler, who, despite the book’s title, never makes an appearance.

It may seem like a dodge, but the explanation for the Holocaust isn’t any one thing; it’s a combination of a lot of things. (And this combination of things is different for each person who participated). The only proof I have of this is that anti-Semitism goes back to the time of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, yet the Holocaust did not occur until the mid-20th century. If Goldhagen is right, and anti-Semitism is both necessary and sufficient for the Holocaust, then the Holocaust should have occurred much earlier. But it did not. Accordingly, there must have been a confluence (anti-Semitism plus Versailles plus the Depression plus Hitler plus the failure of Weimar plus an authoritarian regime plus…well, you get the picture), rather than a sole cause. (Besides, many other genocides have occurred without the aid of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic mindset alone, at least to me, does not explain anything except that Germans hated Jews. Which I sort of figured out without Goldhagen’s assistance).

Even if Goldhagen had convinced me of the worth of his assertions, it wouldn’t have done a lot to improve my opinion of his book. This is due to a startling lack of readability. Hitler’s Willing Executioners seems almost intentionally graceless and ponderous, as though the only way to write about the Holocaust is through cement-like prose. Goldhagen has taken as his subject one of the world’s great tales of human suffering. What’s more, he professes to know this. At one point, he emphasizes the brutality of the Holocaust, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of physical destruction: spattered blood, torn flesh, shattered bones. His writing, however, does not support his own declamations. In short, Hitler’s Willing Executioners would have benefited greatly from an infusion of humanity.
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Reading Progress

January 17, 2011 – Started Reading
January 17, 2011 – Shelved
January 24, 2011 – Finished Reading
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: world-war-ii
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: nazis
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: holocaust

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Esteban (last edited Jan 17, 2011 01:14PM) (new)

Esteban del Mal Looking forward to your review of this.

Did you read in the news that the West German police were aware of Eichmann's location years before the Israelis captured him? Also, you might enjoy 'Frontsoldaten' which examines the attitudes of your run-of-the-mill Wehrmacht grunt in WWII (turns out they were into eugenics too).

Matt Esteban wrote: "Looking forward to your review of this.

Did you read in the news that the West German police were aware of Eichmann's location years before the Israelis captured him? Also, you might enjoy 'Fro..."

This is my third crack at this. I finally broke through the dissertation-speak of the first couple chapters...

Thanks for the article! After all this Holocaust reading, I think I need a book on Nazi Hunters. I need to believe that some of them paid for their sins.

message 4: by AC (new)

AC Great review, as always, Matt.
I tried reading this once (unsuccessfully, obviously), and even though I'm not at all sympathetic to Browning's approach:,
I also found G's book ponderous and pretentious. Try Gitta Sereny, though... (if you haven't).

message 5: by AC (new)

AC I *really* should correct the typos in a review where I accuse someone else of dyslexia, however...

message 6: by Larry (new) - added it

Larry Bassett I have just started the book and may have to retract what I say when I have read the whole 650 pages. Isn't Goldhagen researching and writing about way more than just the Holocaust? Maybe this book only covers that genocide, but his more recent book Worse Than War ranges much further. Is the new book helping anyone understand the first book better? The Holocaust was a specific case of eliminationism, one that many people have studied exhaustively. But there is a bigger picture that might help us understand how things like this happen again and again.

Matt Larry wrote: "I have just started the book and may have to retract what I say when I have read the whole 650 pages. Isn't Goldhagen researching and writing about way more than just the Holocaust? Maybe this book..."


Hitler's Willing Executioners deals exclusively with the Holocaust. Indeed, it deals with very narrow aspects of the Holocaust, namely "eliminationist antisemitism," which is Goldhagen's term for the German mindset; the Police Battalions (specifically Battalion 101); and the work camps.

I can't speak to Goldhagen's later works. Frankly, after Executioners, I'm not likely to seek out his other books.

message 8: by Larry (new) - added it

Larry Bassett Sorry, I am confusing Executioners with the more recent Worse Than War. I am hoping that some of the massive research on the Holocaust will be able to help us understand the many genocides we have seen since the Holocaust and prevent the ones that are undoubtedly in our future. I guess I will have to read the book about Battalion 101 too.

Did you see the PBS documentary last year based on Worse than War? It is online and is worth viewing I think. I am slogging through the ponderous book and found the film engaging at a more basic level.

Matt Larry wrote: "Sorry, I am confusing Executioners with the more recent Worse Than War. I am hoping that some of the massive research on the Holocaust will be able to help us understand the many genocides we have ..."

Thanks for the tip on the PBS doc! I'm interested in Goldhagen's theories, even if I don't always agree with him. The problem (at least in my opinion) is that he falls short translating those ideas onto the page.

message 10: by Larry (new) - added it

Larry Bassett I am still struggling through Worse Than War and had the idea that I would also read Hitler's Willing Executioners next. But I may not have that much stamina. I attribute the complexity of Goldhagen's writing to the complexity of the task he has undertaken. In trying to be thorough and exacting and exhaustive, Goldhagen is often exhausting. In self-defense I find that I sometimes have to resort to skimming. I would like to differentiate that from simply zoning out and coasting through the pages.

I agree with some of your observations in this review. They are still true in Worse Than War. I guess people on GR who read Hitler's Willing Executioners mostly decided to skip his more recent book. I have not decided if I want to reject, but I am sure I have experienced the exhaustion.

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