Germany and the Jews: Like It or Not, New Books on the Holocaust Still Have to Reckon with 'Hitler's Willing Executioners'

By Gates, David | Newsweek, March 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Germany and the Jews: Like It or Not, New Books on the Holocaust Still Have to Reckon with 'Hitler's Willing Executioners'


Gates, David, Newsweek


For better or worse, nothing's been ordinary in Holocaust studies since 1996, when the young Harvard professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published "Hitler's Willing Executioners"--and even "ordinary" has become a fighting word. His subtitle, "Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," was a direct challenge to the influential "Ordinary Men" (1992) by the University of North Carolina's Christopher R. Browning. Browning had argued that such factors as peer pressure, careerism and unquestioning conformity led large numbers of everyday people to participate in murdering the Jews of Europe. Goldhagen, on the other hand, blamed a long German tradition of "eliminationist" anti-Semitism--in his view, a uniquely German pathology. Scholars continue to disagree about Goldhagen's methodology and conclusions, but since his book was a best seller in both the United States and Germany, new books about the Holocaust seem obliged to take account of his thesis--and even a survivor's diary written before Goldhagen was born now seems to have retroactive relevance to the issues he raised.

One scholar's blurb on the jacket of Eric A. Johnson's Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans (636 pages. Basic. $35) says the book makes "a complete hash of Goldhagen's thesis." Johnson himself, a historian at Central Michigan University, disagrees with Goldhagen more respectfully, though just as firmly, on the prevalence and uniqueness of German anti-Semitism, and actually credits him (and Browning) for emphasizing that hundreds of thousands of "ordinary" Germans participated in the Holocaust--and were free to opt out. He shows that the Gestapo was no all-seeing Orwellian presence terrorizing citizens into compliance. Only 1 percent of non-Jews were ever investigated; most Germans' experience of the Third Reich was "entirely unlike that of [the Nazis'] targeted enemies." In this context, Johnson says, Germans' silence about the Holocaust--which many knew about--was "deplorable" but "in some ways understandable... More than from active anti-Semitism, the silence resulted from a lack of moral concern about the fate of those... perceived as outsiders and from a tradition of obsequious submission to authority."

Jay Y. Gonen's forthcoming The Roots of Nazi Psychology (240 pages. …

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