Hitler's Willing Executioners

by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, explains the historical context that brought about the Nazi party and the Holocaust. Goldhagen argues that nationalism in the centuries proceeding the Holocaust brought about a rampant antisemitism that existed in many everyday Germans.

Goldhagen wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic and ultimately developed that idea into this book. Goldhagen was inspired to write a rebuttal to Christopher Browning's book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning believed that the men of Reserve Unit 101 killed because they were told to, not because of their own hate or desire to kill. Goldhagen theorizes the opposite—that these men were happy to kill because of their innate bias against the Jewish people.

Hitler's Willing Executioners reexamines a few ideas that were considered "facts" by many Holocaust historians ahead of the release of his book: that the antisemitic genocide was invented by the Nazi party, the SS were the only participants in the killings, and the Holocaust was happening behind the scenes and out of the view of the German people.

Goldhagen took a look at German ideologies as far back as the 16th century and found links to antisemitic ideals. His argument stems from the concept that the overall culture in Germany allowed room for a deep hatred and distrust of Jewish people. He focused specifically on the Reserve Unit 101, the same group highlighted in Browning's book. According to Goldhagen, people who refused to kill Jewish people during Hilter's reign were rarely punished, and non-SS soldiers, such as the folks in Unit 101, had the choice of whether or not to participate in the killings and willingly opted-in.

At the heart of Goldhagen's argument is the concept that German citizens in the 1940s were not akin to Americans, British, or other Western people. Westerners tried to interpret the Holocaust as if Germans were just like them, when, according to Goldhagen, they were actually born into a culture with centuries of antisemitism coloring their position in the Western world.

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