HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel J. Goldhagen

This book caused quite a sensation when it appeared a few years ago. In his analysis of the almost total destruction of European Jews by Hitler’s Nazi regime, an event known universally as the Holocaust, author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen articulated a startling thesis: many thousands of those who carried out the terrible “Final Solution” were not brainwashed ideologues but simply common representatives of a an entire nation that had embraced anti-Semitism as the cultural and social norm. Yes, he admits, SS and Nazi party members ran the camps and staffed the killing machines at Auschwitz and at so many other terrible places. Over the years they’ve received a great deal of attention. Yes, they were the leaders, the most visible, and perhaps the most fanatical of Hitler’s executioners.

The SS and their Nazi superiors were simply chips off of a larger German block. They’re only part of the picture. “Ordinary” Germans , thousands of people representative of a broad spectrum of German society, also became willing and enthusiastic supporters of and participants in, genocide. They did so because they, like their Nazi leaders, and most Germans of that generation, believed that Jews were a problem. Nazi leaders, regardless of their popularity, had finally come up with a solution to that problem. Goldhagen is adamant: the typical German during the Nazi era was thoroughly anti-Semitic. They embraced genocide and murder because they firmly believed that humiliating, torturing, starving, and finally killing Jews was the right thing to do.

Naturally, this analysis was controversial. This book has garnered great critical acclaim and numerous awards. But Mr. Goldhagen has his critics.

This is to be expected. In our time many Germans remain in a profound state of denial about the beliefs and attitudes of Germans during the Nazi era. Just after the war they were quick to distance themselves from Nazis and SS, from those on the dock at Nuremburg with the assertion that those people did not represent “ordinary” Germans. It was common for Americans and British in the postwar occupation to hear the locals talk about Nazis and the SS almost as if they had been agents of some other nation. The ordinary German, people like us, they told their conquerors, not only did not really know of the genocide occurring in the occupied nations other than by way of idle rumor, but ordinary decent Germans had no significant part in it. When they did, unfortunately, find themselves involved in genocide, ordinary Germans, they asserted over and over again, did so only because they had no choice. Like the defendants at Nuremberg) they were only following orders. The average German did not fret about a “Jewish Problem”, they insisted, that was a Nazi obsession. After the war, American authorities had a hard time getting anyone to admit that they had been members of the Nazi party. Hitler’s National Socialist Party, a group that had had a nearly eight million person membership at its height, seemed to have disappeared.

For many years this explanation has sufficed, not only for most modern Germans, but also for many Americans. The German people, it is widely believed, were simply manipulated, abused, and used by fanatical Nazis and their bizarre, bewitching Fuhrer. Anti-Semitism was mostly a Nazi invention, a thing embraced by ordinary Germans only for a brief, but tragic period of time. If the German people had really known of the terrible things being done to the Jews, they would have put a stop to it. Gosh, the ordinary German of the Nazi era was not so different from the average American. Or Englishman, etc.etc, They were just regular folks doing the best they could in a bad situation. And they paid dearly for their “mistakes.” So it is believed.

Mr. Goldhagen will have none of this. The Holocaust occurred , he contends, not just because the Nazis and the SS wanted it, but because the German people as a whole, a people with a long history of anti-Semitism, wanted it as well. They were in it together-up to their eyeballs. It was a joint effort. And when it came to exterminating Jews, ordinary Germans didn’t just look the other way, they did their part. And did so with great enthusiasm.

Goldhagen’s verdict is harsh: as to the Holocaust, few Germans of that generation can plead ignorance or innocence. The truly ignorant? Very, very few.. The truly innocent, those who had not embraced anti-Semitic views, but resisted Nazi ideology as well as Nazi power? Also few and far between. It is well known that many resisted the Nazi regime, especially late in the war when it became obvious that Germany was losing, but throughout the long, terrible drama, only a precious few protested Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. It is now astonishing to discover that even among Hitler’s most vocal and bitter critics, a “Jewish problem” was universally acknowledged.

The Nazi program, Goldhagen insists, was a German program. And vice versa. The two cannot be separated. When the murders are described, he identifies the murderers again and again not as Nazis but as “Germans.” He uses the word “Nazi” only when necessary. The Holocaust was a German national effort, not merely the enterprise of a fringe, special interest group. Yes, there were also collaboraters, local helpers in the occupied areas where the murders occurred, but they were minor characters in what was essentially a German drama.
The best evidence for his thesis is found in the work of the German police battalions in Poland. In chapters 7 and 8 Goldhagen gives us the story of battalion 101 from the Hamburg area, a critical examination both of their deeds and their motives. German police battalions (500-600 men) were NOT elite units but collections of local police quickly formed into military type units, put on trains and sent to the occupied zones to await further orders. Unlike the SS, they were given NO ideological training. Their superiors, it seems, were confident “special training” was not needed. The average policeman was older than the average German soldier (36.5 years old) Their backgrounds were the backgrounds of typical Germans. Most had wives and children. Though they had participated in rounding up German Jews in Hamburg and putting them on Eastbound trains, their duties in Hamburg prior to 6/42 had been “the normal, unremarkable duties of policemen.” (p. 204) These policemen, Godlhagen insists, were themselves unremarkable, ordinary Germans, “the man next door”, unlikely candidates for mass murder.

All this changed in the Summer of ‘42 when Battalion 101 arrived in the Lublin District of occupied Poland. The Holocaust was in its opening stages as they arrived. Jews were being rounded up and sent to the Warsaw and other urban ghettos. Deportations to death camps were just around the corner. But German authorities in Poland knew that they didn’t have them all. Across the countryside, in the woods and small towns, tens of thousands of Jews were avoiding the orders to leave home and head to the larger ghettos. Shorthanded, the military occupation forces needed help. From the Fatherland, the local police were sent over. They would locate these uncooperative Jews and deal with them.

And so they did. Sometime in late June or early July, (the postwar testimony was uncertain of the exact date) these police arrived in the village of Jozefow. As soon as they got out of their trucks, Major Trapp, the battalion commander, assembled his men and informed them of what was expected of them, that they would be shooting Jews. After going through the details of the operation the Major made a remarkable offer: those who were not “up to the task” would be allowed to avoid it. They would be assigned to other duties. A dozen men stepped forward, wanting no direct part in the gruesome business. Only a dozen out of approximately five hundred.
The next day the German police of battalion 101 began driving the Jews of Jozefow from their homes. Those who did not cooperate were shot on the spot. Jewish patients in a local hospital were shot in their beds. After sorting the able bodied men from the others and sending them elsewhere, the police transported hundreds of Jews, those who had survived the initial roundup, to assembly areas just outside town. One by one, old men, women, and children were taken into the woods, ordered to lie down and shot in the head. When the policemen returned to get their next victim, they were usually covered in human gore.

There was nothing impersonal about it. Each policeman was able to look his victims full in the face and hear their cries of anguish, their pleas for mercy before he killed them. “In this personalized, individual manner, each of the men who took part in the shooting generally killed between five and ten Jews, most of whom were elderly, women and children.” (p. 218) The victims lay on the ground unburied. They were not forced to undress nor were they searched for valuables and robbed. This sort of thing would come later.

Some of the victims that day were Jewish refugees from Germany. Many begged for their lives in a language and even in accents familiar to these policemen from Hamburg. One was a veteran of the First World War. None of this made any difference. They died alongside the Polish Jews. In the view of these “ordinary Germans”, a Jew was a Jew and needed to be exterminated.

Goldhagen is firm in one very important detail: the postwar transcripts from several participants in this grisly business,(men not aware of the party line) all agree that NO retribution was visited upon those who wanted no part in the killing, or upon those who wanted out of the business after having participated in it. In this way, most of the officers and NCO’s demonstrated a certain solicitude for the feelings of their men. They realized that they had pulled their men into a new moral universe, and that some of them simply didn’t have the stomach for it. They understood that these were not the sort of duties these policemen had signed on for when they had entered the police force. How touching.

Not long after this, on August 19, the battalion carried out a similar operation in the nearby town of Lomazy. Many of those ( the testimony reveals) who had been revolted and disgusted by what they had done in Jozefow, found a bit easier this time. A generous distribution of alcohol that evening helped. Some even took photographs of Jews assembled on an athletic field shortly before their execution (pp.224-225) Another photo shows Jews digging a mass grave (p. 226) On that day, battalion 101 murdered an estimated 1600 Jews at Lomazy.
Furthermore, it seems that many of the policeman enjoyed making their victims suffer for awhile before their execution. Forced to disrobe to the waist, many were badly sunburned as they died. Some of the old men were forced to undress completely and crawl toward their newly dug graves as the policemen beat them with clubs before shooting them. Hundreds of Jews were forced to watch in horror before they too, were shot. One can only surmise, Goldhagen insists, that these “ordinary Germans” were beginning to enjoy their work. Some of it was great fun. In candid photos taken after the massacre, the men seem in good spirits, almost as if they were on vacation.

Goldhagen concludes: “The years killing culminated in the November 1943 immense slaughter in Majdanek and Poniatowa..all told the men in Police Battalion 101( before returning home)participated in killing operations in which they, alone or together with others, shot or deported to their deaths well over eighty thousand Jews.” (p.233) The post-war testimony of various members of battalion 101 is simply staggering. They performed so many missions against their Jewish “enemies” in the Polish countryside that they lost count. Furthermore, if they suffered any casualties as they went after their Jewish enemies, they don’t mention it. Dangerous, courageous work indeed.

The Jewish community of Poland, numbering approximately three million, in 1939, was mostly eradicated. At the war’s end, less than a hundred thousand remained. German police battalions, ordinary men with no special ideological orientation, men with wives and children of their own back in Hamburg and other German communities, played a major role in accomplishing this, without a doubt, one of the most successful genocides in human history.

Though many of them were clearly haunted by their deeds in later years, men of the German Police Battalions, (#101 was but one of many) Goldhagen insists, willingly and enthusiastically participated in genocide not because they were forced to do so but because they thought it the right and proper thing to do. Their anti-Semitic view of things, their empathy with Nazi ideology, was a typical, not an atypical German view. The Jew was the enemy, they believed, and the good patriotic German did what had to be done to rid Europe of this enemy. Only when this was accomplished could Germany achieve its destiny and live in peace and prosperity.
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(more to come- an examination of the late war death marches and what they tell us of the typical German anti-Semitic impulse)

1 Comment

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One response to “HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel J. Goldhagen

  1. Dave Lavell

    Chilling stuff, Jim…

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