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Hitler's Willing Executioners

Hitler's Willing Executioners

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Written by Daniel Jonah GoldhagenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

  • Format: eBook, 656 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • On Sale: December 18, 2007
  • Price: $13.99
  • ISBN: 978-0-307-42623-9 (0-307-42623-8)
Also available as a trade paperback.



In thinking about German antisemitism, people have a tendency to make important, unacknowledged assumptions about Germans before and during the Nazi period that bear scrutiny and revision. The assumptions are ones that people would not adopt for investigating a preliterate group in Asia or fourteenth-century Germans, yet which they do for the study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. They can be summed up as follows: Germans were more or less like us or, rather, similar to how we represent ourselves to be: rational, sober children of the Enlightenment, who are not governed by "magical thinking," but rooted in "objective reality." They, like us, were "economic men" who, admittedly, sometimes could be moved by irrational motives, by hatreds, produced by economic frustrations or by some of the enduring human vices like the lust for power or pride. But these are all understandable; as common sources of irrationality, they seem commonsensical to us.

There are reasons to doubt the validity of such assumptions, as an American educator intimately familiar with Nazi schools and youth cautioned in 1941. Nazi schooling, he averred, "produced a generation of human beings in Nazi Germany so different from normal American youth that mere academic comparison seems inane and any sort of evaluation of the Nazi educational system is extremely difficult." So what justifies the prevailing assumptions about the similarity between us and Germans during the Nazi period and before? Should we not take a fresh look and examine whether or not our notions of ourselves held for Germans in 1890, 1925, and 1941? We readily accept that preliterate peoples have believed trees to be animated by good and evil spirits, capable of transforming the material world, that the Aztecs believed human sacrifices were necessary for the sun to rise, that in the middle ages Jews were seen as agents of the Devil, so why can we not believe that many Germans in the twentieth century subscribed to beliefs that appear to us to be palpably absurd, that Germans too were, at least in one realm, prone to "magical thinking"?

Why not approach Germany as an anthropologist would the world of a people about whom little is known? After all, this was a society that produced a cataclysm, the Holocaust, which people did not predict or, with rare exceptions, ever imagine to have been possible. The Holocaust was a radical break with everything known in human history, with all previous forms of political practice. It constituted a set of actions, and an imaginative orientation that was completely at odds with the intellectual foundations of modern western civilization, the Enlightenment, as well as the Christian and secular ethical and behavioral norms that had governed modern western societies. It appears, then, on the face of it, that the study of the society which produced this then unimagined, and unimaginable, event requires us to question our assumptions about that society's similarity to our own. It demands that we examine our belief that it shared the rational economic orientation that guides social scientific and popular images of our society. Such an examination would reveal that much of Germany did roughly mirror our society, but that important realms of German society were fundamentally different. Indeed, the corpus of German antisemitic literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-with its wild and hallucinatory accounts of the nature of Jews, their virtually limitless power, and their responsibility for nearly every harm that has befallen the world-is so divorced from reality that anyone reading it would be hard pressed to conclude that it was anything but the product of the collective scribes of an insane asylum. No aspect of Germany is in greater need of this sort of anthropological reevaluation than is its people's antisemitism.

We know that many societies have existed in which certain cosmological and ontological beliefs were well-nigh universal. Societies have come and gone where everyone believed in God, in witches, in the supernatural, that all foreigners are not human, that an individual's race determines his moral and intellectual qualities, that men are morally superior to women, that Blacks are inferior, or that Jews are evil. The list could go on. There are two different points here. The first is that even if many of these beliefs are now considered to be absurd, people once held them dearly, as articles of faith. Because they did, such beliefs provided them with maps, considered to have been infallible, to the social world, which they used in order to apprehend the contours of the surrounding landscapes, as guides through them and, when necessary, as sources and inspiration for designs to reshape them. Second, and equally important, such beliefs, however reasonable or absurd some of them may be, could be and were subscribed to by the vast majority, if not all of the people in a given society. The beliefs seemed to be so self-evidently true that they formed part of the people's "natural world," of the "natural order" of things. In medieval Christian society, for example, fierce debates over some aspect of Christian theology or doctrine could lead to violent conflict among neighbors; yet the bedrock belief in a God and in the divinity of Jesus that made the people all Christians would, nevertheless, remain uncontested, except by some few on the mental and psychological fringe of society. Beliefs in the existence of God, in the inferiority of Blacks, in the constitutional superiority of men, in the defining quality of race, or in the evil of the Jews have served as axioms of different societies. As axioms, namely as unquestioned norms, they were embedded in the very fabric of different societies' moral orders, no more likely to have been doubted than one of the foundational notions of our own, namely that "freedom" is a good.

Although most societies throughout history have been governed by absurd beliefs at the center of their cosmological and ontological notions of life, which their members have held axiomatically, the starting point for the study of Germany during the Nazi period has generally ruled out the possibility that such a state of affairs then prevailed. More specifically, the assumptions preponderate first that most Germans could not have shared Hitler's general characterization of Jews, presented in Mein Kampf and elsewhere, as being a devilishly cunning, parasitic, malevolent "race" which had harmed the German people greatly, and second that most Germans could not possibly have been so antisemitic as to countenance the Jews' mass extermination. Because this is assumed, the burden of proof has been placed on the people who would assert the opposite. Why?

In light of the obvious possibility, indeed probability, that antisemitism was an axiom of German society during the Nazi period, two reasons suggest that the prevailing interpretive approach towards German antisemitism during the Nazi period should be rejected. Germany during the Nazi period was a country in which government policies, public acts of other sorts, and the public conversation were thoroughly, almost obsessively antisemitic. Even a cursory glance at this society would suggest to the unsophisticated observer, to anyone who takes the evidence of his senses to be real, that the society was rife with antisemitism. Essentially, in Germany during the Nazi period, antisemitism was shouted from the rooftops: "The Jews are our misfortune," we must rid ourselves of them. As interpreters of this society, it is worth taking both the numbing verbal antisemitic barrage-that emanated not only from the top in what was a political dictatorship but also in large quantity from below-and also the discriminatory and violent policies as indications of the character of its members' beliefs. A society that declares antisemitism with the full power of its lungs, with apparent heart and soul, might indeed be antisemitic.

The second reason for adopting a different perspective than the prevailing one regarding German antisemitism is based on an understanding of the development of German society and culture. In the middle ages and the early modern period, without question until the Enlightenment, German society was thoroughly antisemitic. That the Jews were fundamentally different and maleficent (a theme taken up in the next chapter) was at the time an axiom of German and of most of Christian culture. This evaluation of Jews was shared alike by elites and, more importantly, by the common people. Why not assume that such deeply rooted cultural beliefs, that such basic guides to the social and moral order of the world persist, unless it can be shown that they have changed or dissipated?

When conclusive data about the nature of a belief system are lacking, historians and social scientists interested in ascertaining its prevalence and etiology should not project the features of their own society back in time-as students of modern German antisemitism frequently do. They should instead choose a sensible starting point and work forward historically, in order to uncover what actually occurred. If we were to adopt this approach and start in the middle ages, in order to investigate if, where, when, and how Germans abandoned the then culturally ubiquitous antisemitism, our entire orientation towards this issue would change. The questions we would ask, the kinds of phenomena that would count as evidence, and the evaluation of the evidence itself would all be different. It would force us to abandon the assumption that, by and large, Germans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not antisemitic, and instead to demonstrate how they freed themselves of their culture's previously ingrained antisemitism, if indeed they ever did.

If, instead of being guided by the widespread assumption of the Germans' likeness to us, we began our analysis from the opposite, more sensible position, namely that Germans during the Nazi period were generally beholden to the dominant and pervasive antisemitic creed of the time, then it would be impossible to dissuade us of this original position. Virtually no evidence exists to contradict the notion that the intense and ubiquitous public declaration of antisemitism was mirrored in people's private beliefs. Before we would change this view we would demand, in vain, that Germans' professions of dissent from the antisemitic creed be produced, that letters and diaries testifying to a conception of Jews different from the public one be unearthed. We would want reliable testimony that Germans really did look upon the Jews living in their lands as full members of the German and the human community. We would want evidence that Germans opposed and abhorred the myriad anti-Jewish measures, legislation, and persecutions, that they thought it a great crime to incarcerate Jews in concentration camps, to wrest Jews from their homes and communities, and to deport them to horrible fates from the only land that they had ever known. Isolated instances of dissenting individuals would not satisfy. We would want many cases from which it would be justifiable to generalize about significant portions or groups of German society before we would be convinced that our position is wrong. The documentary record does not even come close to meeting such a standard of evidence.

Which starting point is the appropriate one? The one that stands in stark contradiction to the record of public and private utterances and acts? Or the one in consonance with them? The one that assumes that a long-standing cultural orientation evaporated, or the one that demands that the subject be investigated and, before antisemitism is declared to have dissipated, that the process by which it allegedly occurred be demonstrated and explained? So why is the burden of proof not on those who maintain that German society had indeed undergone a transformation and had jettisoned its culturally borne antisemitism? With the assumption of the Germans' similarity to our ideal images of ourselves guiding us, with the assumption of the "normalcy" of the German people, the burden of proof de facto has lain with those who argue that tremendous antisemitism existed in Germany during the Nazi period. Methodologically, this approach is faulty and untenable. It must be abandoned.

My position is that if we knew nothing more than the character of the public discussion and governmental policies in Germany during its Nazi period, and the history of German political and cultural development, and were forced to draw conclusions about the extent of German antisemitism during the Nazi period, we could judiciously opt for believing only that it was widespread in the society, and Nazi-like in quality. Fortunately, we are not compelled to be satisfied with this state of affairs, and therefore are not wholly dependent upon the sensible assumptions that we bring to the study of Germany during the Nazi period. The conclusion that Nazi antisemitism was integral to the beliefs of ordinary Germans (as reasonable as it would be if based solely on the general historical understanding coupled with an analysis of Germany's public record during the Nazi period) finds considerable further empirical and theoretical support. So the belief in the continuation of a general, culturally shared German antisemitism into the twentieth century-which is based in part on the inability of anyone yet to demonstrate that a process producing the diminution and abandonment of antisemitism did indeed ever occur-has another foundation. As the next two chapters show, much positive evidence exists that antisemitism, albeit an antisemitism evolving in content with the changing times, continued to be an axiom of German culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that its regnant version in Germany during its Nazi period was but a more accentuated, intensified, and elaborated form of an already broadly accepted basic model.

A general problem in uncovering lost cultural axioms and cognitive orientations of societies since gone or transformed is that they are often not articulated as clearly, frequently, or loudly as their importance for the life of a given society and its individual members might suggest. In the words of one student of German attitudes during the Nazi period, "to be an anti-Semite in Hitler's Germany was so commonplace as to go practically unnoticed." Notions fundamental to the dominant worldview and operation of a society, precisely because they are taken for granted, often are not expressed in a manner commensurate with their prominence and significance or, when uttered, seen as worthy by others to be noted and recorded.

Look at our own society. It is virtually an unquestioned norm that democracy (however understood) is a good thing, is the desirable form for the organization of politics. It is so unquestioned, and also uncontested in current political parlance and practice, that were we, in the evaluation of the democratic creed in this country, to adopt the approach prevalent among students of German antisemitism, then we might have to conclude that most people are not among its subscribers. We could scour the utterances, both public and private, the letters, and the diaries of Americans, and (social science research on the subject aside) we would find comparatively few professions of their democratic temper. Why? Precisely because the views are uncontested, because they are part of the "common sense" of the society. Obviously, we would find that people participate in the institutions of democracy, just as we would find that Germans massively complied with and enthusiastically lent support in a variety of ways to the antisemitic institutions, legislation, and policies of their country. The Nazi Party, a profoundly antisemitic institution, had over eight million members at its peak. We would find among American politicians and officials professions of democratic sensibility, as we can find incessant declarations-indeed, probably far more-of the antisemitic creed among their German counterparts during and before the Nazi period. We could find expressions of the democratic creed in American books, journal and magazine articles, and newspapers, though, similarly, not nearly as frequently as we could find articulation of antisemitism in Germany of the time. The comparison could go on. The point remains that if we looked at the quality and quantity of private individuals' expressions of their attitudes towards democracy, were we already beholden to the view that Americans gave little allegiance to democratic institutions and notions, then we would be hard pressed to convince ourselves that our preconceived notion is erroneous. And it is precisely because the democratic creed is uncontested, just as (as the next two chapters show) the antisemitic creed was essentially unchallenged in Germany, that far less "evidence" as to the existence and nature of each people's beliefs on the respective subjects rises to the surface. Since the unearthing of lost cultural axioms is problematic-because the nature of the phenomenon means that they remain relatively concealed from view-pains must be taken not to rule out their existence, and not to assume that our cultural axioms have been shared by other peoples. To make this all too common error is to promise a fundamental misunderstanding of the society under study.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpted from Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen Copyright © 1997 by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.