Of Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

Regardless of the consequences, Wolfgang Hoffmann simply could not bring himself to sign the paper in front of him. It was a declaration that German soldiers would conduct themselves in accordance with the established rules of war and it had been sent to Hoffmann, a company commander in Police Battalion 101, and his fellow officers while they were on duty in Poland in the early 1940s. Citing his own sense of honor as well as his firm belief that his men's moral behavior and conduct "[derived] from their own free will and is not caused by a craving for advantages or fear of punishment," Captain Hoffmann, offering the regrets of a German officer, refused to follow the order of his battalion commander to sign the declaration.This incident, cited by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in the introduction to his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, is extremely significant to the book's central contentions. Capt. Hoffmann, as Goldhagen describes him in the book's very first sentence, "was a zealous executioner of Jews." At the time of his rather gallant act of insubordination, which speaks so highly of his own sense of honor and duty, Hoffmann and his men were engaged in the daily slaughter of Jews. Hoffmann refused to sign the declaration not to steal or plunder because such a declaration seemed to him to constitute an insult to the "decent German soldier" he considered himself and each of his men to be. Yet these same decent German soldiers were then serving their country by blowing out the brains of as many Jewish babies, young girls, boys, women and men as they could get their hands on. And, of course, being the dedicated, resourceful German soldiers that they were, they managed to get their hands on enormous numbers of Jews.Until recently, there has not been much widespread discussion about the question of who bears primary responsibility for the Holocaust. "Adolf Hitler" is the credited response, his principal henchmen being Nazi apparachniks like Himmler and death-coddling sadists like Eichmann. They were abetted, in what has been the standard account of the Holocaust, by an evil cadre of SS officers, camp commanders and other personnel who received orders to carry out the massive, merciless extermination of Jews -- and obediently fulfilled those orders.Now, however, in the wake of the extraordinary impact of Hitler's Willing Executioners, by 37- year-old Harvard-based political scientist Goldhagen, discussions are taking place not only in this country and in Israel, as might be expected, but also in Germany, where the German translation of Hitler's Willing Executioners became a runaway best-seller immediately upon its publication there last August and where its boyish-looking author, himself the son of a Harvard scholar who survived the Holocaust, has been accorded such an overwhelming and warmly positive reception by the German public, during Goldhagen's recent visit there for a series of lectures and debates, that observers were at a loss for comparisons. (Writing in the New York Times, Amos Elon compared the warmth of the public response to something that might have been generated by a Michael Jackson tour.)The huge positive reaction by Germans to Goldhagen's book is all the more surprising considering the book's subtitle, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which is precisely the issue at the center of its investigations. What Goldhagen purports to prove, to the great distress of not a few scholars who have devoted their careers to studying the Holocaust, is that many more Germans than previously thought took part in the killing of Jews. Moreover, Goldhagen argues, these newly identified perpetrators of the Nazis' genocidal program against the Jews were not elite SS men, but "ordinary" soldiers and "policemen" who carried out with energy, efficiency--and great enthusiasm--their mandate to kill Jews. In fact, as Goldhagen shows, far from recoiling from the presumably abhorrent order to take, in the most vicious manner, the lives of innocent men, women and children by the hundreds of thousands, these "ordinary Germans" in some cases actually defied orders from the highest level to stop killing Jews after it became apparent that the war was lost.These are shocking revelations, but not as shocking as is another -- and the most controversial -- of Goldhagen's arguments. The day-in, day-out devotion to genocide on the part of those "ordinary" perpetrators, Goldhagen concludes, directly reflected the view, firmly established in German society long before the rise of Hitler and held in common by virtually every non-Jewish German of the era, that, in fact, elimination of the Jews was a desirable thing. Such is the message that Daniel Goldhagen has delivered and the German public--with passion, with gratitude--has received.A Child of Ten Asks "Why?"To understand more about that reaction and what it means, it is first necessary to understand Goldhagen's long-standing concern with another basic question about the Holocaust, namely, the question of why it occurred. It is a question that has haunted the young scholar ever since his first tour of Germany. I refer not to the headline-making trip Goldhagen took this fall, but to an even more formative stay during his childhood."We lived in Germany when I was a child," he told EN by phone earlier this week. "My father [recently retired Harvard Divinity School professor Eric Goldhagen] was doing research ...and discussion of the Holocaust was a part of my mental landscape from a time when I can first remember being aware of serious matters. What deeply impressed me was my father's approach to this material. The discussion of it in my home was not one of 'telling a tale of woe' -- though, of course, it is that. But the purpose of [the discussion] was always clear: to try to understand and explain what had happened. I don't know if a 10-year-old can have an analytical attitude towards things ...but I've always had a purpose to analyze and explain this material."Flash forward a decade-and-a-half to Goldhagen's graduate school years, to the time he attended a seminar on one of the central issues in the field of Holocaust studies, something academics call the "intentionalist/functionalist" debate, centering on the critical questions of who gave the order to kill Jews, when, exactly, the order was given and under what circumstances was the order taken?"I realized," says Goldhagen, "that the question 'when that order was given, why was it carried out?' ...didn't seem to be a concern. The assumption seemed to be -- and this characterized the literature in general -- that, when an order was given, it was just naturally carried out, just as you would turn on the switch on a machine and it would roll forward. At that time, in 1983 or '84, you could have read the entire literature on the Holocaust and you would have learned almost nothing about the people who were the killers. About their identities, about the details of the circumstances of their deeds, about their lives as killers, and so forth. So, at that point, I began to look into the issue."As a result of what he found, Holocaust studies will never be the same. And that's just fine with Goldhagen. Not that he wishes to be the cause of mental anguish to contemporary Germans, Holocaust survivors or anyone else. On the contrary, he is certain that his book has had and will continue to have precisely the opposite effect on people. He is, however, quite content to be the cause of disturbing traditional notions about the Holocaust. He also agrees with a suggestion that his book's ability to do that very thing stems to some extent from one of its central ironies. In seeking to discover what made these murderers tick, Goldhagen has restored our sense of their humanity."Until now, there has been a robotic image of the perpetrators and of Germans in general, which has wrested from them their humanity," he says. "I don't mean that they were humane ...but, I treat them as agents, as people who were the authors of their own actions ...and this is when they were most fundamentally human. Now, because of their views of the world, they chose, as human beings, to commit deeds which we abhor -- to kill others, to torture them, to take pleasure in it, etc. This is the sad ...but this is one of the sides of being human."However, Goldhagen's decision to offer readers this unprecedented, intimate look at the men who pulled the triggers and pushed the levers of the Nazi murdering machine is not based on a desire to be "fair" to history's most accomplished killers of Jews."In this way, you restore the humanity of both the perpetrators and the victims," says Goldhagen of his method of analyzing the Holocaust. "Because, in order to provide an explanation, you have to account for why these people, the perpetrators, would do what they did to human beings. Not just to some 'objects.' The prevailing theory ...that they would follow orders to break rocks or something [with no more or less concern] as they would follow orders to kill other people ...doesn't recognize the humanity of the victims."It is Goldhagen's method as much as his message which has turned the academic discipline of Holocaust studies on its head."My book is told, to an enormous extent, in the words of the killers," Goldhagen points out. "The portrait drawn of them is the one they've more or less drawn themselves." Goldhagen has broken new ground by his application, virtually unprecedented in the field of Holocaust studies, of a voluminous source of relevant information -- the post-war testimony and trial records of men like Wolfgang Hoffmann, much of it becoming available to Western scholars only since the fall of Eastern Europe's post-war Communist regimes. By taking stock of these resources, Goldhagen reveals more clearly than ever before the dimensions of Germans' direct participation in the Holocaust. There were, Goldhagen concludes, more than 19,000 men in the 38 police battalions in which men such as Capt. Hoffmann served so conscientiously as genocidal slaughterers. Meanwhile, three SS brigades under Himmler's direct command, about 25,000 men, were busily killing Jews in the Soviet Union. And, as Goldhagen writes, "unknown thousands of other Germans contributed to the genocide ...as railroad officials; army soldiers; police and other security forces who deported Jews ...; and the many who contributed to the slaughter of Jewish slave laborers working under them in production facilities." One archival resource Goldhagen consulted, a collection of official court documents in the East German city of Ludwigsburg, contains a catalogue listing the individual members of various institutions involved or suspected of involvement in Nazi crimes (including but not limited to crimes against Jews). Goldhagen found more than 333,000 entries in the Ludwigsburg catalogue.As keen as Goldhagen was to learn of the scope of these Germans' involvement in the Holocaust, he was perhaps even more interested in gleaning what he could of their psychology and belief systems."One of the things that is so striking when you delve into the details of this ...is the extraordinary zeal of the perpetrators--at all levels--the zeal with which they pursued the death of the Jews, often to the detriment of the war effort." In order to explain this kind of puzzling and appalling contradiction, Goldhagen says, "you have to look to their beliefs about Jews, their beliefs about the rightness of this, and obviously this gets us to their anti-Semitic view of the world, their hallucinatory images of Jews."How, Goldhagen sought to understand, could someone like Wolfgang Hoffmann, a "good German soldier" who seems to have possessed such strong notions of honor, duty and camaraderie, take a young Jewish girl by the hand, lead her into the woods, cause her, once there, to lie face-down upon the ground, then place his boot on her back and shoot her through the head? More pointedly still, how could Hoffmann and his thousands of comrades take such actions against little girls--or boys, or women, or men or any human being--again, and again and again? As Goldhagen notes in the book, at least some of these men would have had to overcome the sense-memory of taking a stroll in the woods with their own little daughters or sons. Yet, again and again, they pulled the trigger--enthusiastically. Goldhagen's book asks us to consider the implications of the many "souvenir" photos contained in the archival sources, photos of Germans grinning broadly as they humiliate and degrade their Jewish captives--shortly before butchering them. It seems undeniable that such photos were meant to survive the war and, many years later, to kindle fond memories.Why, Goldhagen asked himself? How could this be? And he felt certain that there were many others who shared his desire for better information about Germany's worst chapter.The Truth Has To Be Told"There are so many people in Germany who really are sick of the myths and the lies that have been current in Germany about the war," Goldhagen says in response to a question about why he and his book received such a warm reception in Germany, both from the general public and from the country's leading humanities scholars, who have awarded Hitler's Willing Executioners their coveted and rarely conferred Democracy Prize. In contemporary Germany, says Goldhagen, "when someone comes along and says, 'you know, this is really not true,' people say, 'we want the truth, the truth has to be told about these things.'"An important condition for establishing that truth, Goldhagen decided, was to make apparent the full implications of an age-old lie. He does so in a chapter in Hitler's Willing Executioners that even some of Goldhagen's "friendly" colleagues in the field of Holocaust scholarship criticize. They suggest -- as does a recent article by Abraham Peck of the American Jewish Archives at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College -- that Goldhagen may be theorizing too widely on the basis of historical data that may be too narrow to support Goldhagen's sweeping claims for the role of anti-Semitism in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Germany.Nevertheless, Peck believes that Hitler's Willing Executioners is an enormously important book. Moreover, he and many other Holocaust scholars agree with one of Goldhagen's central contentions: "European anti-Semitism is a corollary of Christianity." Nor would they disagree with Goldhagen's assessment of early Christian theologians like John Chrysostom, who argued that the very existence of the practices and beliefs of Jews (or "Christ-killers," as Chrysostom often referred to them) constituted an insufferable implied negation of Christian faith--and should, therefore, be eliminated.Goldhagen concisely chronicles (too concisely, some say) the influence of church-based anti- Semitism to the point where it combines with the Nazis' radical, state-sponsored "interpretation" of the clergy's long-cherished desire to make Germany Judenrein (free of Jews). Goldhagen quotes a leading Protestant bishop, Martin Sasse of Thuringia, who was inspired by the events of Kristallnacht to publish a compendium of Martin Luther's anti-Semitic vitriol, which he prefaced with his delighted observation that, "On November 10, 1938, on Luther's birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany."There is also agreement between Peck and Goldhagen that, in the decades before Hitler came to power, the rise of "Volkish" nationalism had subsumed all the most potent aspects of what Goldhagen terms German "eliminationist anti-Semitism"--including the church-based "hallucinatory" notions of Jews as agents of the devil, actively working to bring destruction to Germany. To this, the nationalist fervor added a powerful new "eliminationist" concept, namely that Jews constituted a distinct, and distinctly inferior, race. By the early 1920s, these scholars agree, expressions of the need to eliminate Jews from German society were the norm, not the exception. The stage had been set for a Hitler. But even in these circumstances, Goldhagen insists, only a Hitler could have brought about the Holocaust. In his book, Goldhagen emphasizes that the Nazis were the first pro-actively anti-Semitic political entity ever to come to power in a major country.Goldhagen, who has been asked more than once to react to the remarks of a well-known local Hitler apologist who also happens to own the Cincinnati Reds baseball franchise, won't. But he does characterize as "nonsense" the "rosy picture some would have" of Hitler and the Nazi period."Hitler and the Nazis were bringing about the most radical and anti-human revolution in Western history," Goldhagen says. "The Nazis denied that there was a human race, and they were setting about to create a world where there would be masters and slaves. This is the society they were creating. And once the war began, it became clear that this was their aspiration from the beginning. From the moment they took power in 1932, they began a radical persecution of the Jews." Even if Hitler's regime had fallen in 1939, before the systematic killing of Jews had begun, Goldhagen believes, we would look back at the Nazi actions in stripping German Jews of their citizenship, property and civil rights "as one of the great outrages of Western history." "They were creating a world which denied the most fundamental tenet of the Enlightenment, upon which our own country is founded, which is that all people are created equal, that all people are deserving of equal moral respect. There was nothing good about Hitler or Nazism," Goldhagen says, "and this regime or society that they were forging was rotten from the beginning."So, Marge Schott may not want to hear what Daniel Goldhagen has to say, but many in Germany do. And Goldhagen thinks he knows why."There has been in the Federal Republic of Germany this sort of nagging unease, sometimes articulated, sometimes not articulated: 'What is wrong with our people? Why did we do this? Are we prone to doing these things? Are we prone to falling prey to a Hitler?' There are all these theories that the Germans obey authority, that there is this authoritarian streak in the culture or what have you. My book shows that it has nothing to do with any 'eternal German quality.' This is not about the 'national German character.' This is about the beliefs and values that people had about the world. The book says, 'if you don't share these beliefs, if you're not an anti-Semite who believes that Jews are responsible for much of the ills that have befallen Germany and the world, then this is not about you.'" And, says Goldhagen, while anti-Semitism still exists in Germany as well as elsewhere, Germans today "live in a democratic society, which is as different from Nazi Germany as the U.S. is different from it." It is primarily that fact, he believes, that enables contemporary Germans, rather than becoming enraged by his book, to draw a measure of relief from it."It's a relief which they should have," says Goldhagen, "because it's true."

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