Rarely has a book with scholarly pretensions evoked as much popular interest as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s study, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.footnote1 Every important journal of opinion printed one or more reviews within weeks of its release. The New York Times, for instance, featured multiple notices acclaiming Goldhagen’s book as ‘one of those rare new works that merit the appellation landmark’, ‘historic’, and bringing to bear ‘corrosive literary passion’. Although initial reviews were not uniformly positive, once the Goldhagen juggernaut proved unstoppable, even the dissenting voices joined in the chorus of praise. An immediate national best-seller, Hitler’s Willing Executioners was hailed in Time magazine’s year-end issue as the ‘most talked about’ and second best non-fiction book of 1996. Before long, Goldhagen was also an international phenomenon, creating an extraordinary stir in Germany.footnote2
What makes the Goldhagen phenomenon so remarkable is that Hitler’s Willing Executioners is not at all a learned inquiry. Replete with gross misrepresentations of the secondary literature and internal contradictions, Goldhagen’s book
In a seminal study published thirty-five years ago, The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg observed that the perpetrators of the Nazi holocaust were ‘not different in their moral makeup from the rest of the population. . .the machinery of destruction was a remarkable cross-section of the German population.’ These representative Germans, Hilberg went on to say, performed their appointed tasks with astonishing efficiency: ‘No obstruction stopped the German machine of destruction. No moral problem proved insurmountable. When all participating personnel were put to the test, there were very few lingerers and almost no deserters.’ Indeed, an ‘uncomfortably large number of soldiers. . .delighted in death as spectators or as perpetrators.’footnote3
Long before Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s study, it was thus already known that ‘ordinary’ Germans were Hitler’s ‘willing’ and not infrequently cruel ‘executioners’.footnote4 The main distinction of Goldhagen’s study is the
There are no prima facie grounds for dismissing Goldhagen’s thesis. It is not intrinsically racist or otherwise illegitimate. There is no obvious reason why a culture cannot be fanatically consumed by hatred. One may further recall that, Goldhagen’s claims to novelty notwithstanding, his argument is not altogether new. In the immediate aftermath of World War ii, the genesis of the Final Solution was located in a twisted ‘German mind’ or ‘German character’.footnote6 The departure point of much ‘Holocaust scholarship’ is that Germans, nurtured on anti-Semitism, were thirsting for a ‘war against the Jews’. On the eve of Hitler’s ascension to power, wrote Lucy Dawidowicz, Germany was ‘a world intoxicated with hate, driven by paranoia, enemies everywhere, the Jew lurking behind each one.’footnote7 This is also the dominant image of the Nazi extermination among Jews and in popular culture generally.