by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
PublicAffairs, 2009, 658 pp., $29.95
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, then an assistant professor of political science at Harvard, published in 1996 a remarkably successful book that created a sensation in Holocaust studies, and indeed in the larger world of the understanding of the Holocaust. The title alone suggested the reason for the sensation: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Ordinary Germans, not only Nazis and SS-troopers, were necessary to carry out the Holocaust, Goldhagen argued. As against more subtle and complex explanations of the Holocaust, Goldhagen’s was simple and direct: Germans were anti-Semitic, apparently more so than other Europeans; this went way back in German history; and when Hitler gave them the opportunity to express their anti-Semitism, many were willing to do so even to the point of murdering Jewish children or burning great numbers of Jews to death in synagogues.
Among the great number of analysts of the Holocaust, Goldhagen was one of the few to label the killers “Germans” rather than SS men or Nazis, which itself was startling. He attacked common efforts aimed one way or another at the exculpation of these crimes, such as that Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship forced people to participate in killing Jews to avoid being severely punished or killed themselves. No one, he pointed out, was ever punished for refusing to participate in the killing of Jews. One important study of a German police unit on the Eastern Front, he noted, showed that those who preferred not to be involved were simply given other tasks.
Goldhagen was not kind to other interpreters of the Holocaust, even some of the best known. He dismissed Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil”, which reduced the perpetrators to clerks carrying out their bureaucratic duty, something one stereotypically expects from Germans. No, the perpetrators enjoyed their work, were gleeful, took pride in it, snapped photographs for the relatives at home, went beyond their killing duty to mock and dehumanize their victims.
The impact of the book was greater in Germany—where it appeared in translation the year of its publication (it was translated into all major European languages very rapidly)—than in the United States. Originally roundly criticized by leading German scholars of the Holocaust (as it was by some American and Israeli scholarly authorities) and in the German press, opinion rapidly turned around when the German translation arrived. Goldhagen himself appeared in Germany at major public events with critical German scholars. Thousands attended, and they seemed more sympathetic to Goldhagen than to the established scholars. At a meeting in Berlin, one observer reported,it became clear that the harder Goldhagen is...