From International Socialism 2:77, December 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
London 1997, £7.99
This best selling book has been hailed in a number of reviews as one of the definitive works on the Holocaust. From the Sunday Times which called it ‘a profound, analytical and graphic book’ to the Austrian paper Die Presse which agreed that ‘this book is a masterpiece’, it has been acclaimed as path-breaking. Exceptional praise indeed when one considers the quality of other works on the Holocaust from, for example, Primo Levi, Martin Gilbert, Tim Mason, Elie Wiesel, Lucy Dawidowicz. The Holocaust is a crucial event in world history and an area of continuing historical research. Such research should be history in the grandest sense of the word, guiding opposition to its reoccurrence. This book unfortunately does not do this; indeed its conclusions make it harder to combat fascism and racism.
Goldhagen’s work deals with the issue of the complicity of ‘ordinary’ Germans in the Holocaust. He claims that it is incorrect to blame the Nazis because ordinary Germans were the perpetrators of the genocide. In particular, he argues that there was unique, endemic and genocidal anti-semitic attitudes amongst the mass of the population and that there was a complete lack of any opposition to anti-semitism in Germany. In addition, Goldhagen argues that there was complicity by virtually all Germans, who knew about and supported the extermination policies with gusto and fervour and, indeed, went much further on occasion in terms of cruelty and murder than even the Nazi leadership wanted.
The evidence for these conclusions is developed by looking at the areas where police battalions operated in Poland and the USSR, the work camps and the death marches at the end of the war. Goldhagen himself claims that his work challenges the whole basis of Marxism, because he challenges the materialist conception of history. However, his attempt to explain the Holocaust in terms of the primacy of some centuries long anti-semitic ideas in ordinary Germans’ heads would, given his eclectic use of the evidence, be easily dismissed were it not for the accolades given to the work and the dangers it might lead to in practice. In particular, the book gives succour to the ideas of Zionism which also argues that anti-semitism is endemic and can only be dealt with by Jews having their own state and emigrating to it. I shall return to this at the end of the review.
Like all good half truths there are elements, but only elements, of truth in some of his assertions. Yes, it was in Germany that the genocidal policies were planned and adopted; yes, opposition to Nazi anti-semitic policies was muted, but only, it should be noted, after the Nazis were in power; yes, some Germans did enter into the extermination process with fervour. But the overall work of some 800 pages hides and distorts more than it outlines.
There are, however, some good aspects to this book. It exposes the ideas of the Holocaust deniers, who claim that the Holocaust never happened or was a ‘detail’ in history. Goldhagen shows how brutal the process was; the evidence painfully warns against the barbarism of Nazism. It is also made plain how clear the Nazi leadership was in its venture. Goldhagen pinpoints elements in Nazi thought and speeches which highlight the planned nature of the Holocaust, a strategy initially for making the German Jews ‘socially dead’, forcing emigration in the 1930s and leading to actual extermination in the 1940s as the German army conquered the areas of eastern Europe containing the bulk of European Jewry. He further pinpoints the irrationality of the Holocaust when viewed from either the economic standpoint of the shortage of labour afflicting the German economy during the war or the military standpoint of the needs of the army. Such irrationalities only make sense in terms of the Nazi determination to wage two wars simultaneously – against the Allies and against the Jews.
Much of what is outlined above is not new and has been well chronicled in many other works. Goldhagen develops an argument that has been in vogue since the war itself. During the summer of 1945 pictures of Bergen-Belsen were hung as posters all over Germany with ‘You Are Guilty’ on them. Some historians agreed that the Germans shared a collective guilt, outlining major anti-semitic and militaristic tendencies that they saw running through German society.  Further, there is nothing new about Goldhagen’s contention about the ‘ordinariness’ of many Germans involved in the genocide. It is well known that those bureaucrats who organised trains to take the Jews to the camps, designed crematoria, developed gas for killing people or worked out the logistics of the operation were not rabid anti-semitic lunatics but were ‘ordinary’ Germans caught up in extraordinary events that they either did not fully understand, were frightened to oppose or genuinely supported. It is Nazism that put them in these positions. Even when dealing with Nazi SS officers, what often strikes is their ‘ordinariness’. 
However, it is what Goldhagen excludes from his 800 pages that makes his conclusions so dangerous. Evidence which does not suit his general thesis is not allowed to make an appearance, making the work eclectic and on occasion downright misleading. Firstly, Goldhagen makes great play of a famous photograph showing Jews being marched off by the police and Brownshirts to concentration camps following the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938. The local population are shown standing watching. Goldhagen argues that this shows general public support for the Nazi anti-semitic policies as these Germans did not organise opposition to their Jewish neighbours being taken away.
In reality the picture proves nothing of the kind; the watching Germans are not cheering, most are looking sullenly on and, of course, the very people who would have attempted to lead opposition, the political community activists, had been arrested and put into concentration camps. Indeed the left parties and trade union activists were the first targets of the Nazis in 1933, who understood the scaring effects of removing political opposition. Just one example to show this. The German Communist Party (KPD) was the subject of severe repression from the first moments of the new Nazi regime. After the Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933, over 10,000 KPD members or supporters were immediately arrested before the party was even officially banned.  By the end of 1933 over 130,000 had been arrested and thrown into concentration camps and 2,500 murdered.  During the Kristallnacht terror round-ups people knew that opposition led to the concentration camps, so it is no surprise that there was little active opposition. Yet there was resistance. According to a Gestapo summary 162,734 people were being held in ‘protective custody’ for political reasons in April 1939; a further 225,000 had been sentenced to prison terms of just under three years. Between 1933 and 1945 more than 3 million Germans had been in concentration camps or prison for political reasons; tens of thousands were executed or died from mistreatment.  This was what could happen if you opposed the regime on central issues. But it also shows the opposition to Nazi politics. Goebbel’s paper, Der Angriff, summed up the regime’s terror against its anti-racist opponents: ‘Criticism is permitted only to those who are not afraid of getting into a concentration camp.’  Goldhagen makes absolutely no mention of these key factors.
Secondly, looking at Kristallnacht, evidence suggests that there was not widespread support for the pogroms and, indeed, despite the repression, many ordinary Germans showed their opposition in some form or other. Here is just a tiny fraction of it. The German Socialist Party (SPD) reports showed that in many cases there was opposition to the pogroms.  This is backed up by police and government reports.  The US consul in Leipzig claimed that the Nazis had to command the ‘horrified spectators’ to spit and jeer at the Jews.  A Jewish eyewitness reported that people were ‘crying while watching from behind their curtains’.  Although not unanimous, the level of opposition was sufficient to be considered serious by the regime. Ian Kershaw, in his study of attitudes in Bavaria, found no evidence at all of widespread support for the Nazi pogroms, nor evidence of any significant involvement by the local population in the pogroms.  Although described as the cradle of Nazism and the base of the Nazi movement for many years, between 15,000 and 20,000 Bavarians were interned for political reasons, mainly in concentration camps, in 1933 alone.  It is not surprising that there was not widespread opposition to the Nazi pogroms if a trip to Dachau awaited. It is true to say that some entered into the pogroms with gusto, but to leave out the evidence I have cited misleads as to the nature of the events.  All this evidence is ignored by Goldhagen.
Thirdly, on a related theme, there is absolutely no mention in Goldhagen’s entire 800 pages of the opposition to the Nazis before they came to power in 1933. If the Germans were so endemically anti-semitic, why were millions of them members of, or voting for, left parties which had many Jewish members and did not have anti-semitic policies, in particular the KPD and SPD. Why were tens of thousands of Germans in concentration camps for general political opposition to the Nazis? Indeed, had these two large working class parties been able to work together then the Nazis might have been stopped. In the November 1932 election, the last one before the Nazis were in government, the Nazis got 33 percent of the vote, the KPD and the SPD took 37 percent together. The KPD even held its vote more or less together, despite Nazi terror, when 4,800,000 voted for it in the Reichstag election of March 1933. These facts undermine Goldhagen’s thesis of endemic German anti-semitism and therefore do not get a mention. It must be noted that Goldhagen is not alone in this lack of understanding of the importance of how the Nazis could be stopped. The recent TV series The Nazis: A Warning from History disappointingly made no mention of the failure of the SPD and KPD to work together, despite the involvement of eminent historian Ian Kershaw as consultant.
Fourthly, Goldhagen does not mention the opposition that did exist to the anti-semitic policies of the regime. He shows how there was institutional and popular opposition to the euthanasia programme but there is evidence, apart from that above on Kristallnacht, of Germans helping Jews, despite the promise of harsh punishments to anyone caught so doing. Indeed, ordinary Germans seem to have been much less anti-semitic than institutions such as the church. One brief example: as late as 1942, there were still 131,000 Jews in Germany, mainly in Berlin and Frankfurt, and well over 1,000 Jews surfaced in Berlin at the end of the war. It is surely inconceivable that these Jews could have survived without help and support from ordinary Germans. There are numerous examples of Germans helping and supporting Jews. The Nazis recognised this. Himmler fumed because every German has his ‘decent Jew’.  The official Völkischer Beobachter raged against ordinary Germans: ‘As soon as you have three educated Germans debating the Jewish question, two will almost certainly know at least one “thoroughly decent Jew”.’  The Nazis themselves knew that their Jewish policies were not universally popular. This is ignored by Goldhagen.
Fifthly, and linked to this, Goldhagen also claims that most Germans knew about the extermination policy of the government and by and large supported it. This is by no means certain. There is a mass of evidence that the Nazis were determined to keep it secret, even developing names such as ‘resettlement policy’, ‘cleansing actions’, ‘final solution’, ‘transfer’, ‘special treatment’ and so on to ensure that the population as a whole were unaware. Amongst many examples of the Nazi leadership exhorting secrecy and deception in this area, Himmler’s personal secretary, in a note to the Inspector for Statistics on 10 April 1943, made it clear that Himmler’s orders were ‘that no mention be made of the “special treatment of the Jews”. It must be called “transportation of the Jews towards the Russian East”.’  Even the term ‘special treatment’ was seen as too explicit. Himmler was clearly worried that if the facts got out, there would be the potential for mass opposition. Indeed, even Der Sturmer, the most fanatical and pro-genocide of the Nazi publications, was stopped from publishing details of murders of Jews.  By ignoring all this evidence, Goldhagen does not have to explain why the Nazi leadership thought it necessary to engage in subterfuge if the entire population was won to their genocidal policies. What seems clear is that the Nazis were keen to keep the extermination camps and policy secret, whilst ensuring that the knowledge of the concentration camps was widespread, ensuring limited opposition to their policies. Walter Lacquer, in his attempt to examine the evidence as to what ordinary Germans knew, comes to the conclusion that many knew that something was probably going on but knew little of the detail as ‘it was an unpleasant topic, speculation was unprofitable, discussion of the fate of the Jews was discouraged’.  Primo Levi, the Italian Auschwitz survivor and celebrated author, believed that some Germans had an imprecise idea of what was going on, some had a limited knowledge but that most were guilty, a worst, of not trying to find out.  None of this is discussed by Goldhagen.
Sixthly, Goldhagen insists that only the Germans could have carried out the Holocaust, that this genocide was a peculiarly German phenomenon. Yet the evidence points much more towards Primo Levi’s conclusion that ‘it happened, therefore it can happen again ... it can happen, and it can happen everywhere’.  If Goldhagen is correct, fascist parties coming to power today would be unlikely to find genocidal anti-semitism deeply ingrained amongst the population and so would not carry out similar policies to the Nazis. Therefore, when we point out the links between Nazi genocidal policies in the 1930s and 1940s and the policies of today’s fascists we are mistaken. Norman Finkelstein shows that Goldhagen invents a theory of ‘eliminationist anti-semitism’, which was part of a spectrum leading to ‘exterminationist anti-semitism’ and thus Germans who had any aspect of dislike towards Jews were on a train inexoribly leading them to approve of Auschwitz. Finkelstein points out that this theory is not only theoretically flawed but dangerous.  Evidence shows that Goldhagen’s endemic, eliminationist, exterminationist analysis of German society is deeply flawed. When modern anti-semitism is examined historically, then pre-Nazi Germany was not at the centre of attacks on Jewry. Just two (from many) examples. Firstly, the main area of pogroms was the Russian Empire, not Germany, and the main example of institutional anti-semitism was the Dreyfus Affair in France, not Germany. Secondly, when it came to slaughtering Jews, the reactionary anti-Bolshevik Russian ‘White’ generals of 1917–21, backed to the hilt by Western governments, were vicious anti-semites. Indeed, Yudenich and Denikin’s armies in the civil war slaughtered 100,000 Jews in the Ukraine alone in 1919, a rate of extermination unsurpassed by the Nazis until the 1940s. Had they beaten the Bolsheviks militarily there is no doubt that they would have murdered all Jews in their control, as they were, at that time, the leading propagandists of the Bolshevik/Jewish world conspiracy. Even in the late 1930s sections of the World Zionist Organisation, predicting disaster for European Jewry, thought that Polish anti-semitism was the most dangerous, not German. This is all ignored by Goldhagen.
Finally, apart from the fact that the scholarship is eclectic and evidence is distorted, there is a disturbing trend in the work. The book justifies and upholds ultra-Zionism. The attacks made on Norman Finkelstein, a left wing US historian, for daring to challenge the basis of the book and argue about the dangers of it are themselves interesting. Finkelstein places Goldhagen’s thesis firmly in the Zionist camp, claiming that:
[in Goldhagen’s] ultra-Zionist lens ... not only can Gentiles do no good but Jews can do no evil ... The Jewish state is accordingly immunised from legitimate censure of its policies ... even aggression and torture constitutes legitimate self defence. Is it any wonder that many Jews – in particular apologists for Israel – warmed to Goldhagen’s thesis? 
After this review of his work, Goldhagen claimed that Finkelstein was ‘a notorious anti-Zionist ideologue and conspiracy theorist’ whose critique was full of ‘falsifications and straight fabrications’.  Yet the questions posed by Finkelstein and others raised in this review have not been answered by Goldhagen. His book does justify Zionism. Reading his work I was reminded of the arguments of the founders of Zionism. Leo Pinsker claimed that anti-semitism was ‘like a psychic affliction, it is hereditary and as a disease has been incurable for 2,000 years’.  Theodor Herzl maintained that he ‘recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-semitism’.  These Zionists would have welcomed Goldhagen’s book because it justifies their insistence on the need for a Jewish homeland, as opposed to Jewish involvement in anti-fascist activities wherever they find themselves.
It can be tempting when dealing with contentions such as Goldhagen’s to bend the stick too far and thus, for example, suggest that there was no anti-semitism in Germany. This would be patent nonsense. Some ‘ordinary’ Germans did do horrific things. What we should realise from this horrific period is the potential for genocide that fascism has at it racist core. Rosa Luxemburg argued that capitalism in crisis could lead either to barbarism or socialism. We now know what that barbarism looks like. We have a duty to ensure that such horrors are never again allowed to develop.
1. J. Godart, preface to L. Poliakov, L’Etoile Jaune (Paris 1949), p. 11; K.D. Bracher, The German Dictatorship (New York 1970), p. 370; O.D. Kulka and A. Rodrigue, The German Population and the Jews in the Third Reich, Yad Vashem Studies 16 (1984), pp. 434–435.
2. For example, here is Leonard Cohen on Adolf Eichmann:
3. A. Merson, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany (London 1985), p. 32.
4. B. Fowkes, Communism in Germany under the Weimar Republic (London 1984), p. 171.
5. G. Almond, The German Resistance Movement, Current History 10 (1946), pp. 409–527.
6. D. Leuner, When Compassion was a Crime (London 1966), p. 31.
7. K. Behnken (ed.), Deutschland-Berichte der Sozialdemokratischen Partie Deutschlands (SOPADE) 1934–40, vol. 5 (Frankfurt 1980), pp. 1205, 1352.
8. D. Peukart, Inside Nazi Germany (London 1987), pp. 59–60.
9. M. Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (London 1986), p. 70.
11. I. Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933–1945 (Oxford 1983).
12. M. Marrus, The Holocaust in History (London 1987), p. 91.
13. For more on the misleading and eclectic nature of the evidence on this crucial area of support for anti-semitism, see N. Finkelstein and D. Jonah, Goldhagen’s “Crazy” Thesis, New Left Review 224 (July/August 1997).
14. L. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews (London 1987), pp. 191–192.
15. D. Leuner, op. cit., p. 29.
16. M. Gilbert, op. cit., p. 319.
17. W. Lacquer, The Terrible Secret (London 1980), pp. 30–31.
18. Ibid., p. 201.
19. P. Levi, The Author’s Answers to his Readers’ Questions, afterword to If this is a Man (London 1987), pp. 382–386.
20. P. Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (London 1988), p. 167.
21. N. Finkelstein and D. Jonah, op. cit., pp. 44–46.
22. Ibid., p. 85.
23. The Guardian, 23 August 1997, p. 14.
24. L. Pinsker, Auto-Emancipation (New York 1948), p. 33.
25. T. Hertzl, The Diaries of Theodor Hertzl (London 1958), p. 6.
Last updated on 17.4.2012