In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful. . .
John Stuart Mill
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
Genocide was immanent in the conversation of German society. It was immanent in its language and emotion. It was immanent in the structure of cognition.
Hitler’s Willing Executioners, p. 449
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
[A] demonological anti-Semitism, of the virulent racial variety, was the common structure of the perpetrators’ cognition and of German society in general. The German perpetrators. . .were assenting mass executioners, men and women who, true to their own eliminationist anti-Semitic beliefs, faithful to their cultural anti-Semitic credo, considered the slaughter to be just. (hwe, pp. 392–3)