Willing Executioners?

Ralph Zuljan

A picture is worth a thousand words, or as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen puts it in Hitler's Willing Executioners: "Photographic evidence, as the cliché tells us, often conveys more than do many words of testimony" (245). There are some gruesome photos scattered throughout his book, and they are as representative of the spirit behind this work as is the odious linguistic style that permeates this book about German (as opposed to Nazi) involvement in the Holocaust. Goldhagen is readable only when he expresses his heartfelt moral outrage towards the "German" perpetrators of the Nazi genocide of European Jews during World War II. When he attempts to provide an analysis of those feelings, however, Goldhagen retreats into an ivory tower language that covers up his sophistry with syllables. Here is someone who would have benefited from reading George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" before beginning to write.

Goldhagen would like his reader to believe that his "explanation" constitutes a radically new perspective on the Holocaust, but there is nothing very new or radical about his emphasis on the uniqueness of German anti-Semitism (as opposed to American, British, Canadian, French, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, etc., etc., etc.) as the almost exclusive reason for the genocide. This is, in fact, an old argument that found expression in the far more valid indignation towards the Germans expressed by AJP Taylor in The Course of German History first published in 1945. At that time, there was a strong need to argue for the exclusion of Germany from the family of Western civilization (in much the same manner that some still like to exclude Russia) and to reassure the collective that such an event could never have happened here. The immediacy of the Holocaust and the self-righteous perception generated by British and American propaganda demanded such a response. Goldhagen's knee-jerk outrage at what happened is about fifty years too late. The academic community has long since moved on and made the effort to arrive at a more in-depth understanding of the events that produced the Holocaust.

There are two critical works that moved academe away from the initial explanation of the Holocaust as a uniquely German anti-Semitic project -- a perspective that Goldhagen has managed to revive. The first is Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. This insightful work challenged the popular image of key Nazis like Eichmann as evil monsters and offered in its place an image of rather ordinary human beings doing their jobs. There was no need to label Eichmann an anti-Semite or a German in order to understand his behavior and, implicitly, that of other Nazis. Goldhagen utterly misses this important point in a work that he acknowledges only in an end note. The second book is Stanley Milgram's publication of results from his profoundly disturbing psychological experiments in Obedience to Authority. Here can be found the universalization of Arendt's observations about Eichmann. This book tells of ordinary Americans being successfully turned into Nazi-like willing executioners without any of the social and psychological preparation so obviously evident in Nazi Europe. Goldhagen glibly dismisses the significance of Milgram's work as well. For Goldhagen there can be no question of anyone other than Germans possibly perpetrating something like the Holocaust.

To substantiate his claim, Goldhagen produces three case studies (the "Police Battalions" -- which constitutes the bulk of the book, the meaning of "Jewish 'Work'" and the late war "Death Marches"). Throughout, he provides graphic descriptions (and photographs) of the debasement, tortures and deaths that Jews suffered at the hands of the mostly German staff responsible for their fate in these circumstances. Goldhagen makes a powerful appeal to the reader's emotional response to this material and offers nothing more than rhetorical questions to defend his conclusions. "Did these ordinary Germans want to do it?" (213)... "What was the effect of the killing on the killers?" (219)... "Why degrade and torture the Jews and especially these old Jews? Was the extinction of more than a legion of Jews not satisfying enough for these Germans?" (228). In answering the questions he poses, Goldhagen consistently emphasizes what he thinks of as a uniquely German anti-Semitic world view as the underlying reason for their voluntary participation in the Holocaust.

Goldhagen notes that the Germans he uses as examples in his analysis "repeatedly showed initiative in killing and did not shirk their assigned tasks, though they could have without punishment" (238). For Goldhagen the emphasis in writing this is on the theoretical choice to opt out of the killing process and he devotes a great many pages to demonstrating that the perpetrators had this option. It is, however, more revealing to note the term (shirk) he uses to describe what the meaning of opting out would have had for the perpetrators. Not participating would have meant neglecting or avoiding their duty. It would have made them shirkers. They would have been failing their comrades, letting them down, being irresponsible, leaving the dirty work for others. There is a powerful imperative present in Western society to not be a shirker but Goldhagen never manages to notice or acknowledge this compelling research direction apparent in the evidence he compiles.

In fact, most of the material Goldhagen presents supports the kind of conclusions Milgram arrived at twenty-five years earlier, more than they do the conclusions Goldhagen would like to draw. There is no need for a uniquely German version of anti-Semitism to produce the Holocaust. Like it or not (and Goldhagen certainly does not), the Holocaust as an historical event tells us much more about the possibilities inherent in the social organization of Western civilization than it does about German anti-Semitism. The Holocaust could indeed have happened here and the Germans in the last fifty years have had to endure the unfortunate reality that few, if any, of us want to admit that the reflection in the mirror is us.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on December 1, 1999.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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