National Character, Collective Guilt, and Original Sin - the Goldhagen Controversy
Cohen, Edmund D., Free Inquiry
Early in 1996, a young Harvard Government and Social Studies teacher published his dissertation. Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen(1) was touted as a groundbreaking work, shedding startling new light on the role of ordinary Germans in the mass murder of the Jews of Europe.(2) It received ecstatically favorable initial reviews. The cover kudos included review snippets from several major daily newspapers and an imprimatur from Elie Wiesel.
In early spring, longer reviews by experts in the field portraying the book as significantly flawed but still worthwhile began to appear.(3) Numerous feature stories recounted devastating criticism Goldhagen's book was subjected to by senior Holocaust experts and the German press.(4) More and more the book came to be portrayed as fundamentally flawed and misleading, the product of its author's visceral personal hatred for the Germans.(5)
What was it about this book that so beguiled a major publisher and many early readers, and kept it on the New York Times hardback best-seller list for eleven weeks? What does it take to keep discussion about a topic so fraught with emotion as the Holocaust sober and reasoned? Is it possible that reluctance to deal forth-rightly with the significance of the Christian religion in the formation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust - no less on his critics' part than on Goldhagen's - did more to bring about this sad spectacle than first appears?
If nothing else, Hitler's Willing Executioners ably tells the specific historical events Goldhagen studied in detail. Its central focus is Police Battalion 101. Police battalions were elements of the so-called Order Police (Ordnungspolizei). These were actually light-duty military outfits composed of recruits who were overage or otherwise not considered fit for regular army duty. Men with extensive Nazi Party connections were unlikely to be found in these unprestigious police battalions.
Police Battalion 101, like many others, was assigned to rounding up, deporting, and sometimes killing Polish Jews. From the written records and correspondence, Goldhagen demonstrates that members of police battalions could opt out of killing civilians without prejudice to themselves. Few did. Instead, they generally outdid what was ordered in their cruelty and brutality. Goldhagen correctly points out that refusal by Germans within the uniformed services to brutalize Jews during World War II as well as punishment for such refusal were all but nonexistent. For those confronted with the assignment of killing defenseless Jews, the typical response was to rationalize that killing to be justified and then go on to develop actual enthusiasm for the gruesome task. However, by no account were persons directly involved in perpetrating the Holocaust more than a fraction of a percent of the German population.(6)
Other aspects of the Holocaust Goldhagen tells well include the distorted concept of work arising from Nazi doctrine about the Jews. From all other types of internees, the Nazis sought to extract economically valuable work adding to the war effort. Amelioration of living conditions and rations just enough to allow the internees to be productive workers was the usual result. But even at times when need to supply the war was most pressing, the Nazis put Jewish prisoners to performing pointless busy work, meant only to increase the suffering and degradation preceding their deaths. Also, Goldhagen documents how the SS conducted Jewish prisoners on long, circuitous death marches for no conceivable rational purpose. The German officials' delusional and irrational hatred for the Jews is illustrated by example after example.
The problem with Goldhagen's book is in his interpretation and analysis - his extrapolation of the attitudes of Nazi officialdom to the German public at large - not his documentation of specific events. Goldhagen begins by declaring it his mission to dispel purported widespread misconceptions about the Holocaust:
This revision calls for us to acknowledge what has for so long been generally denied or obscured by academic and non-academic interpreters alike: Germans' antisemitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust . …