Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329

One of the themes of Hitler's Willing Executioners is the longstanding anti-Semitism that characterized German culture and that the Nazis did not create but that they channeled. Goldhagen believes that anti-Semitism permeated German society and characterized every aspect of it. Even before Jews were systematically killed, they were systematically excluded from the economic and social life of the country, he writes. This exclusion occurred in the broad society, and ordinary Germans were aware of it, condoned it, and supported it. Germans, for example, supported Jewish exclusion from professions even before the extermination of Jews began.

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In addition, Goldhagen states that hundreds of thousands of Germans were involved in the extermination of Jews (8). He traces the development of anti-Semitism in Europe and specifically in Germany from the early days of the church and states that anti-Semitism characterized German culture. He also traces the addition of the pseudo-scientific nature of race, and the idea of Jews as a race, that evolved in the 19th century. The "Jewish Problem," the idea that Jews were a problem and were the cause of everything that went wrong in Germany, was well established before the Nazi era.

Goldhagen digs into the identity of the perpetrators of the Jewish extermination. He believes that the exterminators themselves were aware of their own actions and were not coerced into committing them, as has been suggested by other writers. Instead, they participated willingly in the extermination. He looks at police battalions, work camps, and death marches as examples of the actions of perpetrators who were ordinary Germans. A related theme is that the act of deporting and killing Jews during the Nazi regime was carried out not just by the SS but by ordinary Germans who were not members of the SS or Nazi leadership. At the end of the war, the SS leader, Himmler, asked the Germans to stop their extermination of Jews, but they did not stop. Goldhagen believes that ordinary Germans were willing to keep killing.

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