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Goldhagen book cover

Why were Ordinary Germans so Willing to Killl?

Book Essay on: Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
(New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 634 pages.
UCSB: D804.3.G648 1996

by Corey Teague
March 13, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Corey Teague

I am a senior communication major and history minor who has always been interested in World War II and the role that Germany and Hitler played. I chose to write about Goldhagen's book because I knew that it was controversial and I wanted to know how ordinary Germans committed the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Abstract (back to top)

Hitler's Willing Executioners is a book written about German perpetrators and how willing some were to killing Jews even without direct orders. Goldhagen's main argument is that eliminationist antisemitism was so engrained in German society that when the Nazis took power and ordered the killings of Jews, Germans willingly murdered. The author looks at death marches, police battalions, work camps and German society to support his claim. I agree with Goldhagen's thesis that through the examples that included in his book, it seems that some Germans willingly killed Jews because of the antisemitism that was so prevalent in society. However, I believe that the author dismisses other explanations quickly, such as peer pressure, and promoting self-interest for why these atrocities happened by limiting counter information in his book to make it seem that his claim is the only one that is justified in this situation. Goldhagen's argument is controversial and he reinforces it constantly, which is evident throughout the book.

Essay (back to top)

Why did ordinary Germans willingly kill millions of Jews? This is a question that historians ponder when looking at the Holocaust. Few can understand how a society could allow genocide to happen with very little spoken opposition. Reasons for the eagerness and enthusiasm in which Germans killed Jews are varied. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen dismisses reasons such as peer pressure, fear of punishment, Germans being more willing to follow orders, promoting self-interest, or fragmentation, and instead suggests a different reason in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Goldhagen argues that German society was so engrained with eliminationist antisemitism, that when Nazis took power in 1933, it was justifiable to order the extermination of Jews and the German people would do it willingly. The author takes into account contradictory explanations, and I find that his study into the society, work camps, police battalions and death marches justifies and support his claim. Although I agree with his assessment, he is quick to dismiss other explanations by censoring information to make it seem like his thesis is the only logical approach. This review follows looks at Goldhagen’s justification for his theory on why Germans killed willingly, taking into account different factors and proving the other explanations wrong.

In order to understand the prevalence of antisemitism in German society, Goldhagen looks at the United States and democracy. For the most part, citizens of the United States believe in democracy as an ideology for government, and people do not question it; antisemitism was similarly prevalent in Germany (Goldhagen, 32). Antisemitism existed as far back as the middle ages, and even in the Enlightenment. Jews were seen as fundamentally different and maleficent even if the evaluator had never even seen or met one. Both elites and common people believed this evaluation (Goldhagen, 30). “Jews were identified with and symbolic with anything and everything, which was deemed awry in Germany society” (Goldhagen, 77). Nazis harnessed these strong feelings, which ran through Germany, when they ascended to power in 1933. Nazi leadership guided state policy and it came with unsurprising results. These included extensive legal restrictions against Jews, transformation of Jews into “socially dead” beings, and ultimately society-wide consensus on the need to eliminate Jewish influence from Germany (Goldhagen, 90). German people accepted these measures and this led to more intense antisemitism within society. Readers will notice how antisemitism was nothing new when Nazis came to power and the resulting actions and the Holocaust were Nazis using a society’s beliefs to enact their political agenda.

The brutality in the work camps by Germans against Jews continues to explain Goldhagen’s belief that antisemitism was so strong that it allowed perpetators to commit atrocities. Germans working in the camp had no limitations on what they could do to Jews because the government exempted them from punishment. Some examples of these actions included brutal beatings and public hangings, which terrorized Jews more than the unseen executions (Goldhagen, 296). Not only were Germans able to do what they wanted, they also celebrated certain milestones in Jewish deaths at the camps. One guard, Alfred Dressler, had a ceremony thrown in his honor for killing the fifty-thousandth Jew, which was seen as a production milestone (Goldhagen, 299). Jews in the camps were seen as numbers and dehumanized, and Germans working there continued to brutalize them without regret. Guards destroyed any hope that Jews had in any way that they could imagine because there were very few direct orders given to these men, and their free will dictated what happened to Jews. Germans completely disregarded the usefulness of Jewish work and put a sudden end to irreplaceable and essential production (Goldhagen, 317). Readers will see from this explanation that the work camps could have been utilized more efficiently for the war effort, but German eliminationist antisemitism was so strong that the main productive thing that Jews could be used for was death.

Goldhagen argues that police battalions show how motivations of culprits were deeply rooted in antisemitism and how when faced with killing Poles, their reactions were different. When a Pole killed a German, a police battalion led by Major Trapp was told to take two hundred lives in retribution, however when faced with killing Poles, they only killed 88 and let 122 survive (Goldhagen, 240). The men were shaken up over killing Poles even though this police battalion had already killed 20,000 Jews in the previous two and a half months. Major Trapp even had his men console the women whose husbands had just been killed. In this same police battalion, one of the men refused to kill Jews and he was moved to another division and later promoted (Goldhagen, 240). Goldhagen sees the last statement about an officer refusing to kill as a rare occurrence, and it contradicts his explanation and he passes on it quickly so readers will not be swayed to disagree with his interpretation. This chapter shows that most men in the police battalions were killers who murdered Jews for pleasure. The fact that an officer was able to choose to not kill Jews and was not punished shows how willing most Germans were to kill Jews. When faced with killing Poles, they even disobeyed orders in how many they were supposed to kill, and consoled victims, this never happened when it came to Jewish murders. These men of the police battalion also were proud of the deeds they had done to Jews. Goldhagen even points out that by studying the 101st police battalion that some of these men would bring their wives along with them while killing in public in Poland to show their families what they did. Some wives even participated in a few of these expeditions (Goldhagen, 241). Not only were these men killing willingly and with no remorse, but also they wanted to have their spouses and anyone who was present to witness their actions towards Jews. Killing Jews was commonplace for these men and the people who witnessed it saw it as justified, which again confirms Goldhagen’s belief that antisemitism was so strong in Germans that they would willingly commit these atrocities and even be seen and known doing it. Goldhagen does not include exceptions to his belief that the police battalions killed willingly and that no one refused because it is evidence that would discredit his interpretation. Charles Browning argues that Goldhagen holds a double standard when it comes to the information that he decides to mention in his book that could be damaging to his thesis (Browning, 213).

Death marches are another example the author uses to demonstrate the willingness of “ordinary” antisemitic Germans to punish and murder countless Jews even when ordered to treat them humanely. Near the end of the war while Germany was in negotiations with United States’ troops, Himmler sent out an order that no more Jews should be killed and to treat them well. Upon receiving these orders, many but not all guards did not listen and took Jewish women on death marches and denied food and warm clothing and even killed Jews. The author looks upon this example of disobeying orders and their proceeding actions as their inner desires and therefore their killings of these Jews were done voluntarily. These men did not uniformly act cruelly to all prisoners, German guards treated the few German prisoners well and even had them help guard Jewish women (Goldhagen, 357). Antisemitism was the ingredient for all the punishment and actions because it was not done against all prisoners in German control. During a death march, one Jewish survivor in the book, talked about how some guards would bury Jews who were still showing signs of life, their reasoning was “The more Jews that perish the better! They are anyhow about to die.” Even when Jewish women were mistakenly taken to the hospital for treatment, guards would hunt them down and deny medical care and get them back on the death march (Goldhagen, 360). Readers see that these German guards are examples of voluntarism on their part to inflict pain, suffering, and death on Jews even if meant they were disobeying orders or if they could easily have looked the other way.

Goldhagen’s explanation of the reason that German executioners did these actions is not without competing explanations. The author acknowledges each explanation and dismisses it with previous arguments he made earlier in the book. His thesis continues to be supported while he discredits the other explanations.

Goldhagen can dismiss that the perpetrators operated under external pressure, or they had no choice but to kill, immediately. As previously mentioned about police battalions, Germans had a choice to not kill and it would not lead to punishment. The author looked at tens of thousands of legal investigations and there is no proof that any German or SS man had ever been executed, sent to a concentration camp, or transferred to a military penal unit for refusing to kill (Goldhagen, 379). The knowledge that these men did not have to kill if they did not want to was widespread based on information gathered from different generals and leaders in Germany. Goldhagen ends his contradiction of this explanation by stating, “Germans could say ‘no’ to mass murder. They chose to say ‘yes’(Goldhagen, 381). The author mentions that they chose to say ‘yes’ but does not mention why they did so, by merely saying it without evidence other than antisemitism so readers will assume it to be the truth and that his explanation is the only one that makes sense. Since Goldhagen argues that external pressure did not operate in Germany, this discredits that explanation and supports his explanation that Germans executed Jews willingly.

Another explanation is that German people, in general, are prone to obeying orders, regardless of the content, cannot be sustained according to Goldhagen. Germans fought back against the Weimar Republic. Ordinary citizens and state officials routinely mocked the Weimar republic, and even Germans who were Nazified disobeyed orders that they deemed illegitimate. Generals who willingly exterminated Soviet Jews conspired against Hitler, and even earlier when the guards of death marches killed Jews even when faced with an order from Himmler to not kill (Goldhagen, 382). These examples demonstrate that Germans were not prone to obeying orders if they did find them legitimate but that their actions were based on their own voluntarism and antisemitism. Goldhagen fails to mention other explanations as to why they disobeyed such as having friends who were Jewish or for compassionate reasons because that would only damage his initial claim that it was their antisemitism that made them act accordingly.

Peer pressure is another explanation for the execution of Jews by Germans. Goldhagen refutes this idea by arguing that it is possible that this worked for some but if a German did not want to kill a Jew, he could not be forced to do something against his will by just peer pressure. This argument does not hold much credit since, as previously mentioned, Germans were capable of saying “no” (Goldhagen, 384). Actions of Germans, according to the author, show that some were willing participants as his explanation argues. Goldhagen does not go into much depth about how Germans were capable of saying “no” because it contradicts his argument and therefore, he chooses to censor information that could damage his claim.

Self-interest is argued as an explanation for perpetrators committing the crimes that they did against Jews. Goldhagen contests this argument because most of the men in the police battalions and other perpetrators had no career interests to advance by their involvement in the murders. There is also very little evidence that these men received promotions based on their service in genocide (Goldhagen, 384). These men who murdered Jews did so willingly according to the author, since only a select few received anything in regards to promoting their own self-interest. Goldhagen does not talk about the little evidence that the men received promotions or praise from their killing because he has a double standard for the information he interprets and since it does not fit his hypothesis, he does not include it in the book.

The final explanation that Goldhagen mentions in his book is that the perpetrators’ tasks were so fragmented that they could not understand what they were doing or understand the significance of their actions. Since many Germans killed Jews face to face, it is not plausible to assume that they did not know what they were doing. He also argues that such an alibi is empirically unsustainable because the ability to say “no” without punishment was widespread and most Germans would not have acted otherwise if they had more knowledge (Goldhagen, 385). The author thus dismisses another theory of why the German perpetrators committed the genocide against Jews but only assumes that Germans willingly killed and more information could not have changed that even though there is no evidence to support it.

The atrocities of the Holocaust will never be forgotten and understanding the perpetrators’ motives and willingness to kill helps a reader of Hitler’s Willing Executioners get a better perception of what went on and why. The book takes into account differing views on why these Germans committed these atrocities by looking at specific examples of cruelty and murder of Jews. Genocide is difficult for people to understand since it is not common in many societies. To understand the significance of the past and the antisemitism that existed before Nazis came to power, this book gives readers a different paradigm to analyze the Holocaust and events preceding it. Shining light upon the actions and motives of the perpetrators is an important concept that gets overlooked often in tragedies. Goldhagen’s argument is strong but to consider it to be the only reason for actions of the perpetrators is not likely because an event this monumental cannot be rationalized with one belief. Historians can learn a lot from Goldhagen’s book on the Holocaust that has brought many criticisms, which leads to a closer examination of Germany and its relationship with antisemitism and genocide.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 4/109)

Book Reviews

Alford, Carl Hitler’s Willing Executioners: What Does “Willing” Mean? Theory and Society, Vol. 26, No. 5 (Oct., 1997), pp. 719-738 http://www.jstor.org/stable/658027
This review looks at Goldhagen’s argument and assumes it is common sense and Germans simply wanted to kill Jews and that is the only important thing about the Holocaust. The author of this review also argues how Goldhagen dismissed all over explanations as merely excuses for the willingness of Germans to kill. This review supports my thesis by saying Goldhagen dismisses all other explanations and sheds more light onto the significance and downfall of his thesis.

Bauer, Yehuda On Perpetrators of the Holocaust and the Public Discourse. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 87, no. 3/4 (Jan- Apr., 1997), pp. 343- 350 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1455190
This review looks at the public response of Goldhagen’s book including its commercial success that led to important attention on the main motive of the Holocaust, radical and racist antisemitism. However, Bauer argues the book itself is badly argued and ahistorical and argues that the role of Hitler and the Nazi party as well as timing led to willingness on the part of German perpetrators. This review gives more information in support of my assessment about Goldhagen’s argument and will give me a closer examination of his claims and facts used to support his thesis.

Rieger, Bernard ‘Daniel in the Lions Den?’ The German Debate about Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” History Workshop Journal, No. 43 (Spring, 1997), pp. 226-233 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4289500
This source reviews the book by looking at the debate that exists with Germany in response to Goldhagen’s book. It looks at the negative reactions from Neo-Nazis that wanted the book to include atrocities by Jews and the left-liberal fascination for his thesis. This review gives an idea about how Germans felt about the book and how his thesis is supported or dismissed depending on political beliefs that provides me with a glimpse of German society today in the context of the book.

Web Sites

Friedman, John, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (May 3, 2001), http://www.thenation.com/doc/20010521/friedman
This website looks at Hitler’s willing executioners as American companies that supported Nazi Germany. It is an important website because it spreads blame instead of being on only Germans, but also onto American corporations who supported Nazis who killed Jews.

Kenyon, “The Psychology of Nazi Perpetrators (archive.org: May 2003, last revised Sep. 2006), http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Suydam/INDS231/Naziperp.htm
This website looks at the two main explanations for the actions of the perpetrators in the Holocaust. It breaks down specific factors and takes quotes from books in establishing an outline for understanding Nazi perpetrators. This website is valuable because it compares different sources and factors for the actions of murders in Nazi Germany.

Wikipedia, “Nazism” (accessed March 8, 2009), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazism#Antisemitism
This website gives an overview of Nazism and antisemitism in the party. It looks at the rise of power of Nazis and how antisemitism was involved. This website gives further detail into how Nazis took power and the ideology and policies behind their actions.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Death Marches” (archive.org: April 2003, last revised Jan. 2008) http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005162
This website gives an overview of death marches that occurred under Nazi leadership. It includes personal stories as well as the many reasons for why the marches occurred. This website is important because it gives a good overview of death marches and references related books, articles, and links.
Books and Articles

Browning, Christopher, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion and the Final Solution in Poland. (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), 308 pages. UCSB: D804.3.B77 1998
This book looks at police battalion 101 in Nazi Germany. The author argues that ordinary enlisted men acted willingly to cleanse Poland of Jews. This book is related to Goldhagen because Goldhagen wrote his book in response to Browning’s and argued that Browning’s book had no scholarly value at all.

Gellately, Robert, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 406 pages. UCSB: DD256.6.G45 2001
This book looks at how much ordinary Germans really knew about the atrocities during the Nazi regime. The author argues that most German citizens knew what the Nazis were doing but decided to continue to support the Reich till the end. It is an important book in comparison to Goldhagen because it builds upon his notion that Germans knew what was going on and still chose to say ‘yes’.
Hist 133b essays by Dan Schneiderman and Eric Schnaubelt

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/23/09; last updated: 4/19/09
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