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

Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
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's review
Nov 29, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: non-fiction
Recommended for: Anyone

My rating is a split verdict: the author has an interesting yet poorly written argument; neither element should be decisive in convincing potential readers to take up the book or ignore it. Goldhagen steps into a niche not normally espoused.

It’s a shame such a provocative theme got taken up by so limited a talent. The text is really just 483 pages, including three appendices, plus 130 pages of often important notes that readers will want to consult. Most of these notes should have been folded into the text, but okay. I used two bookmarks.

Both the author and his editor ought to be detained by the first English professor who catches them and given a stern lecture. The basic fault in the text is the failure to render an academic thesis in accessible prose. The less annoying fault is that such a loaded subject needs understatement, yet the author resorts to exclamation points and italics.

Now to the subject. Nobody wants to hold today’s Germans collectively guilty of a crime and in turn victimize them, so discussing the role of Germans in the Holocaust has been tricky. Standard accounts explain the annihilation with little reference to the perpetrators. I often wondered why Jews were never put to work at a time when Germany had a labor shortage of several million and the outcome of the war hung in the balance. Something didn’t add up.

This is the niche Goldhagen steps into. The author’s claim is that the Holocaust was common knowledge to Germans, wildly popular and based on a hatred radically unlike that found in all other times and places. He argues with a persuasive methodology. He looks at three things: police batallions, work camps, and the death marches in the Spring of 1945. Why he chooses these comes clear in the reading. The study of these aspects of the extermination supports his thesis.

Many people reject this idea. The event is so horrific that people now simply can’t bring themselves to think it could have enjoyed widespread support. But Goldhagen can be wrong only if his methodology is mistaken. So we might ask what his methods really prove about the actual source of anti-Semitism. What about the socialists? Socialism in Germany did not imply any sense of brotherhood with Jews, the author claims. Their nationalist turn at the start of World War I seems to bear him out.

Communists, who did disavow anti-Semitism, garnered about a sixth of 1932 vote. But although Goldhagen may be mistaken in hinting that up to 95% of Germans were anti-Semitic, a figure closer to 85% scarcely disposes of the problem. Nor does a 1946 survey of German attitudes, in which up to 80% of Germans espoused anti-Semitic beliefs, even after seeing the consequences. How is that?

We forget the grip that race theory had on the West in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the impetus given it by an early misreading of Darwin. The milieu was made worse by the volkisch substratum of German culture in the century before Hitler. The historian George Mosse describes the transmogrification of race by the German writer Wilhelm Riehl:

Above all there was the Jew, who by his very nature was restless. Although the Jew belonged to a Volk, it occupied no specific territory and was consequently doomed to rootlessness. These elements of the population dominated the large cities, which they had erected, according to Riehl, in their own image to represent their particular landscape. However, this was an artificial domain, and in contrast to serene rootedness, everything it contained, including the inhabitants, was in continuous motion. The big city and the proletariat seemed to fuse into an ominous colossus which was endangering the realm of the Volk …

This came decades before Nazism. The author argues that this view became received wisdom throughout German society. The sheer ferocity of the extermination stemmed from a terror of Jews, seen as an evil, diabolically clever race. But even this was not enough to bring on the Holocaust, which, Goldhagen tells us, required that two other rather unlikely events transpire as well. His argument for this confluence of three factors is his unique contribution to Holocaust studies.

The book’s characterization of Germans matches Anthony Beevor’s historical account, The Fall of Berlin 1945. The defeated Germans, Beevor notes, complained that Allied tactics had brought communism deep into Europe and America’s entry into the war was gratuitous. Beevor cites these among several examples of what he calls “the fatal tendency to confuse cause and effect” by which Germans reasoned. The same pattern comes across in Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

To pin responsibility on the German people as individuals has a sexy cachet in today's culture of total self-responsibility. The confluence of factors by which the author explains the Holocaust, however, does not involve the personal attitudes of Germans and actually throws into doubt the relevance of his methodology in establishing cause.

What the author ignores is the social aspect of the Holocaust, its status as the product of a particular socioeconomic structure. Goldhagen's quest to tag individuals for their actions deflects attention from the context in which fascism arose and neglects the fact that it came to power only over the dead bodies of thousands of Germans. The author takes dishonest advantage of the fact that the aforementioned communists, the main obstacle to anti-Semitism, were exterminated in the process that led to the Holocaust. No, dead men tell no tales; nor does Goldhagen speak for them.

The author notes Germany’s formal disavowal of anti-Semitism. Compare Germany’s accounting of its crimes with Japan’s and one is impressed by how hard it is for any nation to admit to such a wrong. Better yet, compare it to the United States, which, 100 years after slavery, still nurtured dreams of ridding itself of blacks. Even Northern abolitionists before the Civil War were almost universally racist. The inferiority of blacks was taken as fact, a kind of volkisch Americana. All these ideas have their source in social systems that foster the notion that people are manifestly unequal -- and should be treated so.

The effort of Germans to redeem the past sets an example for people in all countries. We might even consider this the bookend to the Holocaust insofar as it, too, has been a particularly German project. People and cultures do change, and modern Germany, at least until recently, has shown us those conditions can change for the better. But the return of militarism in Germany and, with it, historical falsification by the likes of Jorg Barberowski at Humboldt University, throws attention once again not on individuals, but on the nature and function of German capitalism.


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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 16, 2011 – Finished Reading
November 29, 2011 – Shelved
December 21, 2011 – Shelved as: non-fiction

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