Hitler's Willing Executioners

by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As a historical research monograph, Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners doesn’t have any main characters per se. Rather, the author focuses on the mass killings of the twentieth century, seeking to examine the historical and social conditions of Nazi Germany that enabled the execution of millions of European Jews. As such, his characters are in reality historical actors, those individuals who knowingly took action that led to the atrocities of the Holocaust. But Goldhagen chooses not to focus on the famous political leaders of Nazi Germany. Men like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, and other Nazi party leaders play a small role in the book. Instead, Goldhagen is more interested in the “ordinary” people who contributed to the Holocaust, a group of people he collectively refers to as “perpetrators” and condemns for their role in the slaughter of the European Jewry. For Goldhagen, two important characteristics defined these perpetrators:

First, perpetrators were “namely, the men and women who in some intimate way knowingly contributed to the slaughter of Jews.”

Second, “These people were overwhelmingly and most importantly Germans.” (Both quotes come from page 6 of the introduction.)

The perpetrators of the Holocaust, who Goldenhagen meticulously describes throughout the rest of the text, included members of the German officer corps, ordinary Wehrmacht foot soldiers, officers and other members of the German “Order Police” (who were responsible for rooting out Jews in hiding and maintaining order in ghettos and worker camps), members of other Police Brigades, SS Party members, German firing squad soldiers, German civilians who bore witness to the final Jewish death marches westward, and others. The unifying characteristic of all of these people is that they were, for the most part, not trained killers. Prior to the Final Solution, they did not have particularly violent personalities, were not strongly committed to ideological radicalism, and did not share any particular condescension toward Jewish people or Judaism in general.

Goldenhagen argues that it was rather Germany’s special history (which is referred to as its Sonderweg in the historiography of twentieth-century Germany) that inculcated a particularly virulent strain of antisemitism in these ordinary people. The intensity of Germany’s mid-century antisemitic worldview, he maintains, was enough to turn otherwise good-natured citizens into merciless killers—willing executioners for Hitler and the Third Reich. German antisemitism produced a discourse among those who were seen as the pure-blooded German Volk (people), in which occurred “the forging of a common set of assumptions and beliefs about Jews, the solidifying of the Jews as a cultural and political symbol, one of decomposition, malignancy, and willful evil, [which] meant that it was well-nigh impossible to discuss Jews except in this frame of reference” (pg. 80). Furthermore, “Change of some sort was seen as necessary, yet the Jews’ nature, because of their ‘race,’ was understood by Germans to be unchangeable, since the prevailing German conception of the Jews posited them to be a race inexorably alien to the Germanic race” (pg. 81). These ideas cut deep into the German national consciousness, leading to the formation of a penetrating and vitriolic antisemitism that gave ordinary people, Goldhagen’s “perpetrators,” the conceptual tools necessary to engage in mass murder.

Thus, these people are the “characters” of Goldenhagen’s work.

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