Hitler's Willing Executioners

by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his book Explaining Hitler, published in 1998, Ron Rosenbaum devotes a chapter to Goldhagen's controversial thesis in his 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners. Goldhagen proposed that by the time of Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Germany's Aryan population was already ready to murder all the Jews. The Holocaust was not simply the attempt to realize the dream of a madman and his henchman, but, in Goldhagen's retelling, transcended Hitler and the Nazis. It boiled up from a particularly German anti-Semitism that went beyond traditional Christian Jew-hating and instead had its seeds in a nineteenth-century "eliminationist anti-Semitism." Germans saw no alternative but to eradicate the Jews, Goldhagen argues, because they saw them as a disease. Hitler was merely a tool in this goal, a "midwife."

As Rosenbaum points out, this thesis flies in the face of the theories of a number of influential scholars who put Hitler at the heart of the Holocaust and saw the Germans as often indifferent to the fate of the Jews. Other scholars put Nazi ideology at the center of the Holocaust and emphasize the work the Nazi Party had to do through propaganda to acclimate the average German to its particularly virulent version of anti-Semitism.

In contrast, Goldhagen contends that the German people actively "wanted" the Holocaust. However, by arguing too narrowly, or as Rosenbaum puts it, focusing "too sharply" on a "single point," Goldhagen, says Rosenbaum and others, lets Hitler and the Nazi Party off the hook, as if their actions didn't matter.

Further, as Rosenbaum points out, scholars took Goldhagen to task for studying only the nineteenth-century German literature of anti-Semitism and not examining similarly virulent—and even arguably worse—anti-Semitism that was present in other European countries.

While Rosenbaum does not agree with Goldhagen that the German people were the primary drivers of the Holocaust, he does give Goldhagen a place of honor in the penultimate chapter of a book that debunks the various "explanations" for Hitler and the Jewish genocide, before moving onto the theory he endorses: Lucy Dawidowicz's argument that Hitler planned the Holocaust from the start (1918) and, further, got the enthusiastic support of a core group through using what we might call "dog whistles" or coded language to communicate this central desire for genocide, all the while relying on this coded or esoteric language to keep his intentions away from the uninitiated until the time was right.

Whether or not Goldhagen is right or wrong to put such a heavy emphasis on the role of the German people in the Holocaust, he raises questions that remain relevant and are well worth considering today: what is the balance between leadership responsibility and collective responsibility for moral outrages in a society? Is it too easy merely to blame the leaders after an atrocity has occurred? Goldhagen's answers might go too far in tarnishing an entire nationality as evil (and, ironically, therefore, replicate what the Nazis did to the Jews) but at some point, every society has to collectively reckon with the evils in its past.

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