Hitler's Willing Executioners

by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen argues that ordinary Germans before and during the Second World War were complicit in killing millions of Jewish people even if they did not actively participate in the killing. He attributes this complicity largely to anti-Semitism that had become pervasive in Germany by that time. In addition, ordinary people were not willing to challenge the state, which worked actively to create and sustain an atmosphere of fear. If we cannot understand how such ordinary people were encouraged to partake in unspeakable acts, Goldhagen asserts, then we will not comprehend the Holocaust. Until his book, he notes, analysis of the perpetrators was relatively lacking compared to other dimensions of Nazism and the war more generally.

Little is known of who the perpetrators were, the details of their actions, the circumstances of many of their deeds, let alone their motivations. . . . The study of the men and women who collectively gave life to the inert institutional forms, who peopled the institutions of genocidal killing must be set at the focus of scholarship on the Holocaust.

Goldhagen locates antisemitism at the heart of the motivations for most of the individuals’ actions. He shows that public discourse support anti-Semitism and notes that evidence to the contrary—that Germans were not anti-Semitic—is lacking. Instead, the evidence for anti-Semitism as commonplace is abundant.

The conclusion that Nazi antisemitism was integral to the beliefs of ordinary Germans finds considerable empirical and theoretical support . . . [M]uch positive evidence exists that antisemitism, albeit . . . evolving in content with the changing times, continued to be an axiom of German culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries . . .

Much of the evidence for his position comes from testimonies of members of Police Battalions in the Order Police; these were men who did participate in murdering Jewish prisoners. Goldhagen points out that battalion members were largely “inauspicious,” lacking military background or ideological zeal; some had been declared unfit for military service. Further, once assigned to the battalions, they received substandard training in tactics and little ideological indoctrination. The author emphasizes,

Police battalions were not “Nazi” institutions. Their men were not particularly Nazified in any significant sense save that they were, loosely speaking, representative of the Nazified German society.

Additional evidence comes from survivors, especially from the Soviet Union where the battalions were especially active. As the Nazis advanced into the Soviet Union, taking over the Baltic states, the battalions were often in charge of rounding up and killing Jews. The author quotes one survivor of the takeover of the city of Bialystok, which the soldiers had captured without any battles. The commander had ordered his men to round up the city’s Jews, which they did in part by indiscriminately firing throughout the city as soon as they emerged from their vehicles.

the soldiers . . . without any sensible cause, shot up the entire city, apparently also in order to frighten the people. The incessant shooting was utterly horrible. They shot blindly . . . into houses and windows, without regard for whether they hit anyone.

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