Date:         Mon, 8 Apr 1996 12:04:12 -0500
Reply-To:     H-NET List on German History 
Sender:       H-NET List on German History 
From:         H-GERMAN EDITOR Dan Rogers 
Subject:      Goldhagen's _Hitler's Willing Executioners_

Submitted by:   Eric D. Weitz 

     Having now read Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's *Hitler's Willing
Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust*, I would like to take up
our moderator's request for a discussion.  At the outset, I have to say
that I found the book immensely problematic.  It is, to be sure,
powerfully argued, and the author incorporates a great deal of
enlightening (and gruesome) detail on the activities of police battalions
and on the death marches.  Nonetheless, his unceasing claim that he has
uncovered new and overlooked evidence is largely hyperbolic, and in places
he parodies the interpretations of other scholars, such as those of
Christopher Browning and Hans Mommsen.

     More troubling, however, is the argument itself.  In brief, Goldhagen
claims that the Holocaust occurred because "ordinary" Germans were
willing, indeed joyful, perpetrators.  They firmly believed that the
elimination of Jews was justified and necessary, and gleefully exacted
their absurd antisemitic beliefs by not just killing Jews, but brutally
tormenting them on the way to their deaths.  Hitler's own extreme racial
antisemitism resonated with the views of the population at large.  Both
committed Nazis and ordinary Germans shared a "cognitive model" that had
demonized Jews for decades and centuries.

     On the face of it, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about
this argument.  Yet it is cast in such an overarching fashion that the
impact is:  1) to depict Germany's political culture in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries as devoid of any contestations, any fractures; 2) to
position the Holocaust as the inevitable outcome of German history; and 3)
to diminish drastically the significance of Nazi persecutions of groups
other than the Jews.

     The first quarter of the book provides a history of German
antisemitism, with the greatest attention devoted to the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries.  Historians will probably have a sense of deja
vu reading this, since it resurrects the interpretive framework that many
of us learned when we first encountered German history as undergraduate
and graduate students.  Unrelentingly, Goldhagen claims that antisemitism
became the common language of Germany's political culture.  Certainly,
antisemitism was prevalent, even among those groups and individuals
formally opposed to it.  Yet the author gives no currency whatsoever to
countering views.  It is an easy matter to find antisemitic expressions
even from social democrats, but the reader never is confronted with the
numerous efforts to counter antisemitism on the part of liberals,
socialists, and communists.  Even if these seem tragically insufficient to
a post-1945 audience, they at least indicate that the matter of
antisemitism--along with so much else--was *contested* in Germany.
Moreover, the entire investigative field of German antisemitism can only
be advanced, it seems to me, through systematic comparative studies.  The
author *asserts* that Germany was far more antisemitic than any other
European (or at least western European) country, but amasses no evidence
to support his claim.  Admittedly, this is a difficult matter to assess,
but I, for one, find the claim specious given the prevalence of
antisemitism elsewhere.

     To Goldhagen, Germany was an antisemitic monolith, and the lay public
that knows little of German history will assume upon reading his book that
Germany had a rather effortless and peaceable course of development toward
1933.  However historians today may differ in their accounts of the
seizure of power, few, if any, would claim that Hitler's assumption of the
chancellorship was inevitable.  Goldhagen never, of course, quite says
this, yet the entire logic of his book leads to that conclusion:  the Nazi
regime and the Holocaust were the logical fulfillment of the
"eliminationist antisemitism" that provided the "common sense" of German
society.  The very truncated analysis of the *Machtergreifung*--slightly
over one page in a book that runs to 622 pages--is itself indicative of
Goldhagen's belief in the inevitability of the Holocaust.

     Finally, to perhaps the most difficult and always emotionally-laden
issue:  the place of the genocide of the Jews in the program of Nazism.
Goldhagen, as should be clear, argues for the absolute centrality of the
Holocaust to the Third Reich. Germans brutally and murderously persecuted
Jews because they wanted to, because they believed their actions were just
and correct.  Those actions defined the nature of Nazism and of German
society in general.  I would not for a moment dispute the centrality of
antisemitism and genocide to Nazism; Germans, as Goldhagen says, murdered
"Jews qua Jews."  However, one can accept that position and *still
recognize* that the systematic murder of Jews was the most humanly
destructive *element* of the larger Nazi project of biological and social
engineering designed to create a racial utopia.  That is the general
conclusion that I, for one, take from all the important work that has
appeared in the last ten or fifteen years on so-called euthanasia,
compulsory sterilization, the gendered aspects of the regime generally,
and so-called asocials.  Goldhagen knows some of this literature, but more
striking are the omissions in his citations.  Despite a few disclaimers
here and there, his ultimate effort is to create the impression that only
Jews were the victims of deliberately brutal persecution.  Readers should
consult his Appendix 2, where he schematizes German (again, not just Nazi)
views toward Jews, the handicapped, and Slavs.  His notations about the
attitudes and policies toward the handicapped are quite wrong, even
outrageous. He implies that the handicapped were not subject to intense
and deliberate suffering and that they were a mere annoyance.  Yet their
elimination was as central to the Nazi project as was the annihilation of
the Jews.  But to admit that is to understand that the horrific genocide
of the Jews cannot be fully understood unless Nazi antisemitism is placed
in the larger context of racialized thinking.

     Goldhagen's book is, in many ways, a throwback to earlier
interpretive frameworks.  It fails to engage many of the most important
conclusions from recent historical work and provides a superficial account
of German society and politics.  Ironically, for a book that claims to use
"political culture"--in this case, of antisemitism--as the central
analytical tool, it fails to comprehend the way *specific regimes* shape
specific political cultures.  Powerfully written and argued, Goldhagen's
book will set the terms of debate, which is unfortunate.  Perhaps there is
a lesson here for historians and our relative inability to reach a wider

Eric D. Weitz
History Department
St. Olaf College