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"The Road to Extermination"

The author argues that ordinary Germans believed Jews 'ought to die.'


review of: HITLER'S WILLING EXECUTIONERS: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Illustrated. 622 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf $30 By V. R. Berghahn

V. R. Berghahn teaches European history at Brown University. His most recent book, "Imperial Germany, 1871-1914," was published last year.


WRITING earlier this year on the occasion of the 51st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp, Renate Lasker-Harpprecht, herself a survivor of that hell on earth and of a subsequent "death march" to Bergen-Belsen observed that what happened there "and at other places of murder will remain Incomprehensible " even "to those few who escaped the selections" at the ramp to the gas chambers.

There may have been times when students of the Holocaust thought they were getting a handle on the incomprehensible; yet the more detailed the evidence that continues to emerge, the more difficult it seems to be to comprehend it. To some extent this sense of defeat may be due to the evolution of research on this subject. Early scholarship tended to be preoccupied with the top decision makers, with Hitler, Himmler or Heydrich and with the bureaucratic structures of a terror regime that organized mass murder. There followed in the 1960's and 70's, a wave of work on the victims. The rise of a "history from below," but also the discovery of new materials, finally turned research fully from the major war criminals toward rank-and-file perpetrators.

It is at this grass-roots level that we are facing the most daunting task. To be sure, studies of the German Army had revealed years ago that the war of Iooting and extermination that began in 1939 in Poland and reached a crescendo after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 had not been the work of just a few SS units. Hundreds of thousands of "ordinary" German soldiers became involved, as perpetrators and bystanders, in an incredible orgy of violence against civilians and P.O.W.'s. Well over four million Soviet prisoners -- depicted as "subhumans" by Nazi propaganda -- disappeared were shot or were deliberately left to die in Wehrmacht custody under horrific open-air conditions. We may never know the number of men, women and children of all ages killed as "hostages" and "saboteurs." The trail of blood and tears that the Germans left behind particularly in the whole of Eastern Europe, still defies our imagination (hardened as it may be by the pictures from Bosnia or Rwanda), even before we contemplate the systematic murder of six million Jews from all over Europe.

It has also long been accepted that outside the Wehrmacht many thousands of Germans became, directly or indirectly, involved in implementing the "final solution of the Jewish question." But only recently with the evaluation of the killing sprees of ordinary police battalions, first by Raul Hilberg and Christopher Browning and now by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, have we been given a close-up picture of the Holocaust that occurred outside the factories of death.

In "Hitler's Willing Executioners," Mr. Goldhagen, an assistant professor of government and social studies at Harvard University, shows in hair-raising detail how tens of thousands of Jews were shot in the neck by German policemen who apparently came from respectable social backgrounds, had no criminal records and had shown no fanatical loyalty to the Nazi movement. Many of them were family men who in 1941 and 1942, led whimpering 12-year-olds and sobbing elderly women from their villages in eastern Poland into the surrounding forests and murdered them one by one before tossing them into makeshift mass graves.

It has been known for some time that no draftee refusing such murderous duty had much to fear from his superiors. The worst that could happen was to be sent off to front-line duty. But Mr. Goldhagen demonstrates more than this: the men of at least one of these police units were given the choice by their commander, himself in tears over his orders, to opt out. And yet, with few exceptions, they joined in as executioners. Some found their grisly assignment difficult, but the documents that the author cites do not tell of nervous breakdowns.

As he relates this and other stories from the files and from the postwar interrogations of these men, Mr. Goldhagen constantly asks the reader to consider the implications of these events. With few exceptions, he takes all previous scholarship to task, contending that even the most eminent students of the Holocaust have been much too timid to give a really tough answer to the question of German culpability. Insisting that we need "a radical revision of what has until now been written, "he demands "a reexamination of the character and development of anti-Semitism in Germany" and "a reconsideration indeed a reconceiving of the character of German society during the Nazi period and before."

Mr. Goldhagen concedes that his ambitious enterprise presents a complex task, that his history of German anti-Semitism is obviously not meant to be definitive in the sense of fully substantiating "every assertion" and giving all" the qualifications and nuances." Still, the basic thrust of his exploration of "ordinary" perpetrators is unambiguous: they were motivated by a peculiar type of anti-Semitism that had taken root from the 19th century onward and was extremely widespread in German society. This anti-Semitism rested in the "belief that the Jews had to be *eliminated* from Germany." In the 20th century it merely took leaders like Hitler and propitious circumstances, such as finally arrived in 1941, for this "eliminationist" hatred toturn "exterminationist." At that point not only Hitler but also those ordinary anti-Semitic executioners and by implication all ordinary Germans had concluded "that the Jews *ought to die*."

While many interested lay readers will hardly bat an eye at this statement because this has been their view of the Germans all along, Mr. Goldhagen knows that his arguments will generate controversy within the community of scholars. Occasionally he therefore appears to be hedging his bets. For instance, he writes rather cautiously: The fate of the Jews may have been a direct,which does not, however, mean an inexorable, outgrowth of a world view shared by the vast majority of the German people. There are also passages when it is easy to get confused over whether he is talking about "perpetrators," "Nazis," "Germans," or "*the* Germans."

Ultimately, though, the author leaves no doubt that he wants to collapse previous analytical distinctions among these categories. In his view, the vast majority of the Germans were "eliminationist" anti-Semites who became potential "exterminatlonists" under Nazism. With photo- graphs as well as text, Mr. Goldhagen depicts the extreme cruelty that the perpetrators often surrounded by grinning bystanders displayed when they beat and humiliated their Jewish victims. Further evidence for his argument is provided by the westward death marches of camp inmates in 1945: the guards were no longer under orders but they continued to be brutal killers to the bitter end.

Mr. Goldhagen's attack on most earlier scholarship is also all indirect criticism of German Jews, who, before and after 1933, are said to have been too blind to recognize the virulence and depth of this anti-Semitism in their "beloved homeland," and who have frequently been given a hard time by their co-religionists, especially in the United States. The author is particularly skeptical of universalizing psychoanalytical approaches that see the potential for evil in all of us. And he dismisses scholars who have invoked the effects of the "barbarization of warfare" in the 20th century as an explanation for Nazi brutality.

To be sure, Mr. Goldhagen does not believe that the Germans had eliminationist hatred in their evil genes. In hiscase study of killer policemen and elsewhere, he presents a political-cultural argument and he says he believes that the camps dotting the map became emblematic of a world that the Germans, inspired by their Fuhrer, had begun to build.

It is at this point, however, if not long before that the reader begins to wonder about the conceptual puzzles that pervade this book. For example, Mr. Goldhagen reports that the small German state of Hesse had "at least 606" of these camps; he adds that the Third Reich ran them as "terror institutions" and that "everyone knew of the horrific fate that awaited those who by reason of their deeds or identities," were condemned to them.

But the implications of this statement have already been undermined by the author's earlier analysis of the Nazi regime. Although he correctly described the regime as "both dictatorial and consensual" 40 pages before, he went on to define dictatorial simply as meaning that "no formal mechanisms—such as elections—existed to check Hitler's power or to remove him from office." It may be that living in the United States in the 1990's we have all become a bit naive about totalitarian dictatorships; but playing down the true character of the Third Reich in this way enables Mr. Goldhagen to sustain his subsequent argument that the number of non- Jewish anti-Nazis inside and outside the camps was minuscule, and that most of those Germans were as eliminationist as the rest of the population.

Since so much of the author's argument hinges on the evolution of this eliminationism into its exterminationist variant, it is no less odd to find a mere five pages on the history of the Weimar Repubik and the 14 years immediately preceding Hitler's takeover in 1933. How is this drastic short cut to be justified in light of all we know about this highly complex period, except that it helps Mr. Goldhagen to preserve the tidiness of his hypothesis? Was there really no space in this voluminous and in places repetitive book to present at least some of the very sophisticated analyses that are now available on who voted for whom and above all, why?

STILL, whatever one's uneasiness about the narrative strategies, gaps and inconsistencies of this study (it was inspired by a consuming passion), its publication is to be welcomed. At a time when some German historians and politicians are working strenuously to stress the so-called normality modern Germany's development, here we are being offered more than 600 pages of argument from the opposite point of view, reiterating and, indeed, relentlessly hammering home the notion that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were potential mass murderers of Europe's Jews. Just as Hannah Arendt's controversial book "Eichmann In Jerusalem" led to detailed and corrective work on the predicament of Jewish victims and their leaders, this book will stimulate fresh research on what Mr. Goldhagen has put at the center of his analysis, but Is so vague about: the sociology and mentality of "Hitler's willing executioners."

What is likely to emerge from this research is a more clearly contoured spectrum of grays between the author's panorama in pitch-black and the white-wash pictures to be found in some German history books. This Is the "gray band" that Primo Levi, another survivor of Auschwitz, once argued "radiates out from regimes based on terror and obsequiousness," affecting not only victims as well as perpetrators but also, we might add those of their contemporaries who were neither. No doubt the future picture will be more differentiated than the one painted in Mr. Goldhagen's tour de force. But whether the Holocaust will be more comprehensible than it is to Renate Lasker-Harpprecht and, at a deeply human level to the rest of us today, I dare not predict.


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