Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
Knopf, 622 pages, $30
It must be a heady experience. The son of a distinguished Holocaust scholar at Harvard turns his doctoral dissertation, which won the 1994 award of the American Political Science Association, into a book published and lavishly promoted by one of our most prestigious houses. With the help of effusive praise from noted academics and journalists, it promptly makes its way up the New York Times best-seller list. Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard says that Hitler’s Willing Executioners is truly revolutionary, and Simon Schama of Harvard declares that this astonishing, disturbing, and riveting book, the fruit of phenomenal scholarship and absolute integrity, will permanently change the debate on the Holocaust. A. M. Rosenthal writes in the Times that reading the book was for him a formative experience comparable to his first visit to Auschwitz at the end of the war. The book quickly became the subject of academic symposia and television chatters. As they say in the book business, a launch can’t get much more spectacular than this.
Not everybody, however, has been so enthusiastic about Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s revisionist history of the Holocaust. In fact, it has been subjected to sharp, even withering, criticism by other Holocaust scholars. Before addressing the book and its critics, it is worth noting what is at stake in the controversy sparked by Goldhagen. Scholarly reputations are at stake, to be sure, but this is much more than another spat among academic specialists. The Holocaust is, as I have written elsewhere, our only culturally available icon of absolute evil.
One may argue that it should not be that. After all, just in this century there was Stalin, who killed many more people than Hitler, and Mao, who killed more than both of them combined. But they are disputed icons of evil, since they have had, and still do have, their ideological apologists, while Hitler, except for certified kooks, has not. In addition, Stalin, Mao, and the likes of Pol Pot are foreign and exotic. They are not part of our cultural story, while the horrific deeds of the Third Reich were perpetrated at the heart”some would say the apex”of Western civilization. The Germans were and are very much like us.
That is the chief reason why the Holocaust has been the subject of books, articles, novels, films, and plays beyond numbering. In coming to understand the Holocaust, it is said, we come to understand ourselves and our capacity for evil. Daniel Goldhagen, however, would have us believe that the Germans are not like us. The Germans are like nobody else except the Germans. Whatever his intention, he joins the Holocaust revisionists and deniers in inviting us to believe that we can forget it.
In the many challenges raised to the argument of Hitler’s Willing Executioners , there has been a puzzling neglect of religion’s part in creating German anti-Semitism, and of the role of the churches in the Third Reich. This despite the fact that Goldhagen repeatedly returns to the subject of religion and the churches. (In fact, the book is outrageously repetitious, making one wonder whether Knopf, too, has dispensed with the service of editors.) Goldhagen insists on how important it is for us to focus on the Christian churches when trying to understand the nature of anti-Semitism in Germany during the Nazi period. And not only during the Nazi period, as we shall see.
The consensus among Holocaust scholars seems to be that Goldhagen has not come up with any new findings of significance. He has reworked familiar material to serve his argumentative purposes and, according to his much-irritated academic colleagues, has greatly exaggerated the importance of a few less-familiar documents. His argument, tediously repeated in 468 pages of text and more than a 120 pages of notes, can be simply stated. From at least the early nineteenth century, the German people were possessed by eliminationist anti-Semitism. With almost no exceptions, Germans wanted to eliminate Jews from Germany, and maybe from the world. Hitler was nothing new. He merely provided Germans with the means to achieve their goal through exterminationist anti-Semitism. Germans did not have to be persuaded or coerced to participate in carrying out the Holocaust. They were ready, willing, and indeed eager to take part in this long-desired enterprise.
Goldhagen dismisses Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, with its depiction of Eichmann and other bloodless bureaucrats efficiently running the machinery of death. Just the opposite was the case, he says. The killing of Jews was a popular undertaking, almost a national sport. Hitler gave people the opportunity to do what they had wanted to do all along. Ordinary Germans revelled in the bloodbath of exterminating six million Jews. The subtitle is Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust . Goldhagen usefully highlights documents showing that some of those who did the actual killing did take pleasure and pride in their work. Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning studied the same documents and wrote a book called Ordinary Men . No, contends Goldhagen, they were not ordinary men, they were ordinary Germans. It is a German thing. You wouldn’t understand.
Goldhagen’s thesis denies rational access to the Holocaust. He compares German anti-Semitism with Captain Ahab, who was possessed by the irrational passion to avenge himself against Moby Dick. He quotes Melville: All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonism of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. As with Ahab and the whale, so with Germans and the Jews.
In a typical assertion, Goldhagen says of the battalions that slaughtered Jews by the thousands on the death marches: The conclusions drawn about the overall character of the members’ actions can, indeed must, be generalized to the German people in general . What these ordinary Germans did also could have been expected of other ordinary Germans. (Emphasis his.) A long book closes with this sentence: The inescapable truth is that, regarding Jews, German political culture had evolved to the point where an enormous number of ordinary, representative Germans became”and most of the rest of their fellow Germans were fit to be”Hitler’s willing executioners. This is collective guilt on a grand scale. His most of the rest includes just about everybody, for Goldhagen is loath to acknowledge any exceptions at all.
An alternative reading of those not-so-far-away events is offered by Clive James, writing in the New Yorker : The Nazis didn’t just allow a lethal expression of vengeful fantasy; they rewarded it. They deprived a readily identifiable minority of German citizens of their citizenship, declared open season on them, honored anyone who attacked them, punished anyone who helped them, and educated a generation to believe its long-harbored family prejudices had the status of a sacred mission. To puzzle over the extent of the cruelty that was thus unleashed is essentially naive. To marvel at it, however, is inevitable, and pity help us if we ever become blase about the diabolical landscape whose contours Goldhagen redraws.
The criticisms of the Goldhagen thesis fall into several categories: He misrepresents the pre-Nazi history of Germany, as well as the attitudes and actions of non-Germans during the Holocaust; he ignores the realities that prevented effective German resistance to Hitler’s diabolical plan; he promotes a deterministic view of history; he inadvertently absolves Hitler and the Nazis of their crimes; and he nullifies the moral significance of the Holocaust for subsequent history.
Critics point out that Goldhagen’s claim about the long-standing anti-Semitic obsession of Germany makes inexplicable the fact that, beginning in the early nineteenth century, Germany was ahead of some other European nations in granting full citizenship rights to Jews. For a very long time, Germany was thought to be a peculiarly hospitable and secure place for Jews. Writing in the New Republic , Omer Bartov observes, If we are to accept Goldhagen’s version, German Jews were either blind or downright stupid, since the writing was on the wall for one hundred years and their whole existence was an illusion. Even in the early years of the Nazi era, Hannah Arendt wrote, only a madman could have predicted what was coming. Goldhagen cites a few people who did early on predict something like the Holocaust, and in hindsight they seem prescient. At the time, however, they were thought to be hysterical, and with good reason. Historians write by hindsight and thus can, if so inclined, posture as very superior to those caught in the confusions of living in the present. Daniel Goldhagen is so inclined.
Clive James emphasizes that, if the eliminationist anti-Semitism of the Germans made them so eager to embrace the exterminationist anti-Semitism of the Nazis, it is hard to explain why Hitler and his henchmen thought it necessary to hide their plans from the German people. Only under wartime conditions of secrecy and absolute control did the exterminationist machinery of the Holocaust go into action. It is only, writes James, Goldhagen’s unquenchable ire against the German people that explains his overlooking such obvious evidence against his thesis. The answer to the nagging conundrum of how a civilized country like Germany could produce the Holocaust, says James, is that Germany ceased to be civilized from the moment Hitler came to power. It had been before, and it has been since. That is the argument conveyed in the title of a famous Commentary article by Milton Himmelfarb, No Hitler, No Holocaust. Anti-Semitism, said Himmelfarb, was a necessary but not a sufficient cause of the Holocaust. Hitler’s final solution required Hitler.
If some accounts of the Holocaust have downplayed the enthusiasm with which some Germans participated in Hitler’s plan and the number of Germans who were aware of what was happening, critics allow that the Goldhagen book, for all its exaggeration, may help correct that error. But his reckless charge of collective national guilt, they say, is a much greater error. Many Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, and others showed equal enthusiasm for the killing of Jews, and the very civilized French of the Vichy regime over-filled their quotas in rounding up Jews for extermination. Under extraordinary circumstances, ordinary men, whether German or not, will do extraordinarily evil things. Goldhagen’s thesis, says James, lets Hitler off the hook”and unintentionally reinforces his central belief that it was the destiny of the Jewish race to be expelled from the Volk as an inimical presence.
In language not often found in the pages of the New Yorker , James says that we cannot understand the Holocaust without reference to original sin. Not many of us, in a secular age, are willing to concede that, in the form of Hitler, Satan visited the Earth, recruited an army of sinners, and fought and won a battle against God. We would rather talk the language of pseudoscience, which at least seems to bring such cataclysmic events to order. It is easier and more comforting to blame the German people and their peculiar cultural deformation.
Bartov is concerned that Goldhagen not only lets Hitler off the hook but lets us off the hook. He makes it unnecessary to ask hard questions about ourselves. What was there (or is there) in our culture that made the concept of transforming humanity by means of eugenic and racial cleansing seem so practical and rational? The brutality and sadism on which Goldhagen fixes the reader’s attention are not qualitatively different from what has happened in other genocides. Bartov writes, Goldhagen undermines his own claim regarding the uniqueness of the Holocaust, for his book completely misses precisely those aspects of the genocide which have made it stand out as unprecedented even in the bloodiest century humanity has seen; and by doing so it fails to demonstrate any understanding for the profound and continuing relevance of the industrial killing perfected by the Nazis for our own societies.
In short, Goldhagen tells us what we want to hear. They did it because they are so completely unlike us. In this view, the utter singularity of German anti-Semitism made the Holocaust inevitable. But, observes James, the moment when a historian says that something had to happen is the moment when he stops writing history and starts predicting the past. If Goldhagen is right about the uniquely German cause of the Holocaust, the rest of us need never again say, Never again!
As mentioned earlier, Goldhagen puts Christianity and the German churches at the heart of his story. The underlying need to think ill of Jews, to hate them, to derive meaning from this emotional stance, Goldhagen writes, is woven into the fabric of Christianity itself. Without a doubt, the definition of the moral order as a Christian one makes anti-Semitism essential to the foundational Christian cause. The usual Christian suspects are invoked, including John Chrysostom’s fourth-century rants against the Jews, but Goldhagen appears to be entirely unaware of scholarship such as Robert L. Wilken’s John Chrysostom and the Jews , which demonstrates that at that time in the empire Christian minorities were frequently in reaction to what they perceived as threats from the much more established Jewish community. Never mind. In Goldhagen’s view, Chrysostom was writing speeches for Josef Goebbels.
Similarly, Goldhagen uncritically buys into the William Shirer ( The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich ) version of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism and its responsibility for the Holocaust. Luther said some scandalous things about Jews, but he was not the principled and passionate anti-Semitic hero that the Nazis made him out to be, which was the portrayal embraced by Shirer and now perpetuated by Goldhagen. He is apparently unfamiliar with works such as Uwe Siemon-Netto’s The Fabricated Luther: The Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth , which present a more complex understanding both of Luther’s views and the exploitation of Luther by the Nazis. Emil Fackenheim has written that we must not grant Hitler posthumous victories. That is precisely what Goldhagen does in agreeing with the Nazis that Christianity in general and Lutheranism in particular are of necessity anti-Semitic.
Moreover, the author fails to appreciate that all the other nations of Europe were equally the heirs of the Christian legacy that, he says, is the irredeemable carrier of the anti-Semitic disease, yet only Germany seems to have contracted it. In fact, the other nations were more unequivocally Christian since, while the Nazis exploited for propaganda purposes whatever they could find of anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition, National Socialism itself was stridently anti-Christian, appealing to the pagan myths of Aryan superiority against a Christianity fatally corrupted by its Jewish origins. Also striking is Goldhagen’s repeated and unfavorable contrast of Germany with the Scandinavian countries, and yet they were every bit as Lutheran as Protestant Germany. Here, as at so many other points, Goldhagen’s argument, upon closer examination, crumbles into incoherence.
Goldhagen says flatly, The churches welcomed the Nazis’ ascendancy to power. They were, he says, conservative institutions that hoped Hitler would free them from the confusions of the Weimar Republic and from the Socialist and Communist parties which threatened to rob the churches of their power and influence. In his unquenchable ire, he lets nothing get in the way of his indictment of Germany and Christianity. His notes cite a few secondary sources on the churches during this period, but his account is untouched by the more nuanced judgments of, for instance, Guenter Lewy’s writing on Catholicism under the Nazis. Nowhere in Goldhagen do we find reference to authoritative texts such as Klaus Scholder’s The Churches and the Third Reich . Some Protestant theologians of a progressive stripe did in the 1920s develop a political theology that was sympathetic to the Nazis, but in judging what they and others did in that period Scholder offers the salutary caution that we should remember that they still had Hitler to come, while we have him behind us.
Goldhagen rightly deplores the fact that during the Nazi period the churches, Catholic and Protestant, did not officially condemn the extermination program or stand up for the rights of Jews. Christians in Germany have been reproaching themselves for that for fifty years. They do not need to be informed of the fact by a bright young American academic who had not yet been born into his privileged existence at the time when religious leaders living under a ruthless and totalitarian tyranny failed to muster the courage to be martyrs. Nobody then doubted for a moment that the penalty for doing what Goldhagen says they should have done was imprisonment and death. Goldhagen’s claim that everybody knew what Hitler had in mind and later knew about the extermination underway is unsupported by evidence. His egregious and self-righteous condemnation of those who did know but failed to be heroes is indecent, while his vaunted scholarship that ignores the actual circumstances of the churches at the time can only be described as shoddy.
It is simply not true to say that the churches welcomed the ascendancy of the Nazis. A very small minority of Protestant pastors did welcome the ascendancy, identifying with the German Christian movement by which Hitler planned to take over the Protestant church and, later, the Catholic. That is what the church leaders feared, and they reacted with a confused alarm that soon led Hitler to postpone his grandiose ecclesiastical ambitions to a more convenient time. Those who protested the treatment of Jews were put on no uncertain notice. For instance, already in 1934, on the eve of the announced boycott of Jewish businesses, clergy and anyone else who expressed disagreement were told by the regime: The government of national revolution does not exist in a vacuum. It represents the creative German Volk . Anyone who attacks it, attacks Germany! Anyone who slanders it, slanders the nation!
Then and later, the persecution of Jews was very much on the mind of many church leaders. It is no excuse but it is the fact that they had much else on their minds as well. Catholic and Protestant leaders were in a state of panic, faced by a regime that threatened to destroy the independence of the churches by taking over their schools, youth organizations, finances, and means of communication. Klaus Scholder is no apologist for the churches’ complicity, if only by their silence, in the persecution and, later, the extermination of Jews. But already in the first year of Hitler’s dictatorship the pattern was set: It seemed all the more inconceivable to issue a statement against the persecution of the Jews when a conflict with the state was looming in the sphere of church politics, and in no circumstances did anyone want to be exposed on two fronts at the same time. We who have Hitler behind us can condemn that decision. They could not believe what was to come. Their strategy was not noble, it was not heroic, it was not right. It is, alas, very understandable.
Daniel Goldhagen, the relentless prosecutor, is not interested in understanding. Worse, he brazenly trims the evidence to fit his case. Repeatedly he points to a 1941 statement (when any hint of public resistance to Hitler had been brutally crushed) in which seven regional Protestant churches declared the Jews to be incapable of being saved by baptism, owing to their racial constitution. That is not what the statement said. The source he cites makes clear that the statement said that baptism could not change the biological and legal status of Jews. He is right in asserting that many church leaders shamefully distanced themselves also from Jews who were their baptized brothers and sisters in Christ, but it is preposterous to claim that the churches taught that Jews could not be saved or that their being baptized was sacramentally ineffectual. Goldhagen’s determination to convict all Germans, combined with his manifest ignorance of Christian teaching, results in blunders that would severely embarrass a more conscientious scholar.
For Goldhagen anti-Semitism is everything, which makes one of the most striking oddities of the book its hopeless confusion about what constitutes anti-Semitism. The one thing for sure, repeated many times over, is that anti-Semitism is utterly irrational. No doubt there is a strong element of irrationality in such prejudice, but in Goldhagen’s theory there is absolutely no rational access to the phenomenon, just as there is no rational access to Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick. Paradoxically, it turns out that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews. Anti-Semitism draws fundamentally on cultural sources that are independent of the Jews’ nature and actions. It makes little sense to discuss the real nature of a bigotry’s object . . . . To do so would surely be to muddle the understanding of prejudice”in this case, of anti-Semitism. Put differently, Jews in Germany were nonexistent except as the object of hatred on the part of non-Jews.
This astonishing theory explains the complete absence of any discussion of the actual history of Jews in Germany, including the Weimar Republic that was the prelude to the Nazi ascendancy. A chronicler as favorable to the Jews as Paul Johnson ( A History of the Jews ) discusses the ways in which Hitler was able to exploit the perceived cultural dominance of Jews in the Weimar period. The Weimar Republic was born of defeat, indissolubly linked with defeat, and, in the minds of most Germans, associated with Jews, the Judenrepublik . From beginning to end it was a millstone round the Jewish neck. It is not true, as the deeply anti-Christian George Steiner boasts, that Weimar and indeed the sensibilities of modernity were the creation of Jews and homosexuals, but Hitler was able to exploit the perception of Jewish responsibility for defeatism and decadence because the perception was there to be exploited, and was not entirely unrelated to reality.
Johnson denies that Jews were culturally dominant, but”in theater, film, publishing, and the arts generally”Jews were influential all out of proportion to their number (about 1 percent of the German population), and the influence was overwhelmingly on the side of the anti-bourgeois leftist intelligentsia. From the start, says Johnson, the media violence from the left played into the hands of anti-Semites. The journal Weltbuhne aroused enormous controversy because of its deliberate attacks on everything right-thinking Germans held dear. One of its leading figures, Kurt Tucholsky, wrote, There is no secret of the German army which I would not hand over readily to a foreign power, and suggested that all right-thinking (that is, left-thinking) Jews agreed with him.
There is a huge literature on the role of Jews in Weimar by scholars such as Istvan Deak, Harold Poor, and Walter Laqueur. These writers are not blaming the victim when they note the ways in which the victimizer was able to exploit the reality and exaggerated perception of Jews in Weimar. Yet the actual history of this period is entirely absent from Goldhagen’s book. That is explained by his curious theory that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews. But in the absence of history it is impossible to explain the rise of Hitler.
Goldhagen for the prosecution is remorseless. Anti-Semitism explains everything and everybody was anti-Semitic. German society, both in the first and the second half of the nineteenth century, was axiomatically anti-Semitic. Axiomatic as in self-evident. No evidence is needed. Only an anti-Semite would question the axiom, therefore to question the axiom is to prove it. We are told that those who thought Jews were different thereby proved that they were anti-Semitic, whereas those who denied that Jews were different thereby proved that they, too, were anti-Semitic. Although he does not say so, it would seem that even Jews who urged the suppression of difference in order to assimilate, as well as Jews who insisted that Jews should be different, were anti-Semites. Goldhagen expresses particular scorn for philo-Semites who were anti-Semitic because they denied that they were anti-Semites. This is incoherence of a high order.
It is not only incoherent; it is vulgar and mean-spirited. Karl Barth was perhaps the greatest Protestant theologian of this century. He wrote powerfully about the divinely ordered bond between Christians and Jews and was a leading spirit of the Confessing Church that boldly resisted Hitler. Goldhagen observes that Barth once confessed in a very private letter to a friend that in personal encounters with living Jews . . . I have always, so long as I can remember, had to suppress a totally irrational aversion. Barth knew the aversion was both irrational and sinful. He fought against it and, according to those who knew him, overcame it. None of this matters to Goldhagen, who, on the basis of one line in a private letter, demands conviction: Karl Barth was also an anti-Semite.
The man is without shame. He acknowledges that ethical objections to genocide were most prominent among members of the religious leadership. And prominent among those who protested was Theophil Wurm, president of the Protestant church in Wurttemberg. As late as the end of 1943 he risked the wrath of the regime by writing on behalf of the Jews to one of the top Nazis. He said that he and like-minded church leaders were not motivated by any philo-Semitic inclinations, but simply by religious and ethical feelings. Aha! Goldhagen pounces on this as proof that Wurm, too, subscribed to the regnant demonizing conception of Jewry. In trying to influence a regime whose most fundamental dogma was anti-Semitism, Wurm should presumably have declared himself a philo-Semite!
Among those who resisted Hitler, there is no more morally luminous a figure than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who rescued Jews and was executed on the direct orders of the Fuehrer in April 1945. It is too much to expect that the unquenchable ire of Daniel Goldhagen would spare Bonhoeffer. In 1943, he reports with vindictive glee, Bonhoeffer was part of a group that drew up a document including a discussion of the Jewish problem. Although it explicitly condemned the genocide, says Goldhagen, the document’s debt to eliminationist anti-Semitism is unmistakable. The evidence, of course, is that Bonhoeffer and others thought there was a Jewish problem.
In a country where, according to Goldhagen, Jews were for centuries the obsessional centerpiece of cultural consciousness, and that had now produced a government that was butchering Jews by the millions, there was no Jewish problem. Elsewhere Goldhagen contends that anyone who spoke about the Jewish question convicted himself as an anti-Semite. But of course: it is axiomatic that Germans are anti-Semites. In Goldhagen’s telling, there was no Jewish question; there was only the question of the irrational hatred of Jews.
In page after vindictive page, Goldhagen attacks and attacks again until every figure of supposed integrity is caught up in the categorical net of Hitler’s willing executioners. Never mind the vast literature on the resistance, on the thousands of heroic rescuers of Jews, on the righteous Gentiles honored at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. If they were German, they were anti-Semites. Anti-Semitism, Goldhagen declares, is Germany’s permanent condition, only its expression varies from time to time.
So what about today’s Germany? The answer is buried 118 pages into the footnotes, where we are told that although Germany continues to this day to remain infected by anti-Semitism, Germans became democrats as it became ever more difficult for them to maintain a demonized image of Jews, even if many Germans continued not to like Jews. And then this: That absurd beliefs can rapidly dissipate is well known. Where does that leave the entire argument of the book that anti-Semitism is axiomatic and the permanent condition of Germans? It is stretching charity to conclude, on the basis of a footnote on page 594, that at the end of his project Daniel Goldhagen abandoned his absurd beliefs and irrational hatred of Germans. That would have required rewriting his doctoral dissertation from scratch.
Contra Goldhagen, as long as there are Jews, there will be a Jewish question. And St. Paul suggests (Romans 9-11) that there will be Jews until the End Time. The great Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) insisted that the Jew remains a permanent question, an anomaly, this stranger who resists the continued attempts to assimilate him to a nation’s own idealization. A Jew who considered and rejected conversion, Rosenzweig wrote, Before God, then, Jew and Christian both labor at the same task. He cannot dispense with either. He has set enmity between the two for all time and withal has most intimately bound each to each . . . . Thus both of us, they as much as we, we as much as they, are creatures precisely for the reason that we do not see the whole truth. Just for this we remain within the boundaries of mortality. Just for this”we remain ( bleiben wir ).
After Hitler and because of Hitler, six million fewer Jews remained. In the fifty years since, many Christians and some Jews have come to understand much more deeply the sources of what Rosenzweig terms the enmity and the bond between us. The Jewish question remains because, thank God, Jews remain. In America, too, there are anti-Semites who propose solutions, if not a final solution, to the Jewish question. They are and, please God, will continue to be a fringe phenomenon. Much more important, we in America, Jews and Christians, have the singular responsibility and opportunity to work out a way of remaining together in mutual respect and unquestioned security. For that common task we receive no help whatever from the incoherent, hateful, and dishonest tract that is Hitler’s Willing Executioners .
Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things .