Begin with a young Harvard professor of government who is as bright as he is brash and whose ways with words are as pretentious as they are perplexing. Take his doctoral dissertation and turn it into a book whose methodology, tone, and content intentionally collide with judgments of the major scholars in the field. Promote the book in ways that propel it to international best-seller status and hurl its largely unknown author into media spotlights. Such ingredients are bound to cause a stir. Focus them on a topic charged with intense feeling and profound implications—the Holocaust, the annihilation of the European Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators—and the resulting controversy will come to a boil. So it has been with Daniel Goldhagen and Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
Even when they are about immensely important subjects such as the Holocaust, 600-page history books rarely get the attention that Goldhagen’s has received. Repeatedly finding his research at odds with their own, most Holocaust scholars in the United States, Europe, and Israel do not give Goldhagen marks to match the high sales figures this his book has enjoyed. For mainly good reasons, the leading scholars whom Goldhagen vies to supplant take his methodology to be suspect, the tone of his writing to be arrogant and disdainful of even the best work in Holocaust studies, and his research results to be either far less original than Goldhagen claims or perniciously incorrect to the point of being destructive because they reignite undeserved prejudices against Germans and Jews alike.
What did Goldhagen say—and how did he say it—to provoke such critical reactions, which, ironically, call even greater attention to his book? Note, first, that Hitler’s Willing Executioners was preceded, even scooped, by the work of Christopher Browning, a distinguished historian who published a 1992 work that has already achieved classic status in Holocaust studies. Browning called his book Ordinary Men. It analyzed the postwar judicial interrogations of 210 members of Reserve Police Battalion 101, a 500-man killing squadron of the German Order Police that was responsible for 83,000 Jewish deaths in Poland during the Final Solution.
Goldhagen targeted Browning’s book when he chose Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust as the subtitle for Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Having probed the same archival material about Reserve Police Battalion 101 that Browning had investigated, Goldhagen believed that Browning mishandled and misinterpreted the data. Specifically, Goldhagen contended that Browning underestimated the extent and depth of antisemitism in Germany and played down its tenacious grip and deadly influence on the German people. Furthermore, Goldhagen charged that Browning wrongly advanced a universalistic perspective about the Holocaust. In Goldhagen’s judgment, that outlook inadequately explained the killing behavior of the men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 by taking conformity to peer pressure, blind acceptance of current political norms, and careerism to be among its chief motivational causes.
Browning’s interpretation did stress that the reserve policemen, German though they were and antisemitic though they may have been, were of special significance because they were also very ordinary human beings. He maintained that the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 should cause, at the very least, discomfort for men and women everywhere. For as post-Holocaust history shows, people in other times and places—people like us—are also capable of complicity in genocide. Goldhagen was not impressed, let alone persuaded. He found fault with Browning’s book because it missed what he regarded as the essential point about the Holocaust: Only the deep-seated racist antisemitism that infested the German people could motivate, and thus account for, the behavior of particular Germans who committed the atrocities that advanced the Final Solution.
Making his case, however, obliged Goldhagen to do more than disagree with Browning’s interpretation of the archival records about Reserve Police Battalion 101. He would have to show, first, that “Germans’ antisemitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust,” a claim that required him not only to trace the history of German antisemitism but also to document how that history involved authority and power fatal enough to account for the Holocaust’s vast destruction. In addition, Goldhagen’s case would hinge on demonstrating that “ordinary Germans”—not just rabidly antisemitic Nazis who had the political power to define social reality and to dominate a German population that might be more ambivalent about the so-called Jewish question—either willingly engaged in the slaughter or were so willing to let it go forward that they would have become active killers if called upon to do so. In short, Goldhagen had to show that the Holocaust, contrary to Browning’s “ordinary men” hypothesis, was essentially the willful act of “ordinary Germans,” who were much more lethally antisemitic than previous scholarship admitted.
To establish these positions, Goldhagen’s book argues in two directions that govern its organization. Beginning with the history of German antisemitism, Goldhagen aims to...
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