Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

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Overview

This groundbreaking international bestseller lays to rest many myths about the Holocaust: that Germans were ignorant of the mass destruction of Jews, that the killers were all SS men, and that those who slaughtered Jews did so reluctantly. Hitler's Willing Executioners provides conclusive evidence that the extermination of European Jewry engaged the energies and enthusiasm of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans. Goldhagen reconstructs the climate of "eliminationist anti-Semitism" that made Hitler's pursuit of ...
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Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

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Overview

This groundbreaking international bestseller lays to rest many myths about the Holocaust: that Germans were ignorant of the mass destruction of Jews, that the killers were all SS men, and that those who slaughtered Jews did so reluctantly. Hitler's Willing Executioners provides conclusive evidence that the extermination of European Jewry engaged the energies and enthusiasm of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans. Goldhagen reconstructs the climate of "eliminationist anti-Semitism" that made Hitler's pursuit of his genocidal goals possible and the radical persecution of the Jews during the 1930s popular. Drawing on a wealth of unused archival materials, principally the testimony of the killers themselves, Goldhagen takes us into the killing fields where Germans voluntarily hunted Jews like animals, tortured them wantonly, and then posed cheerfully for snapshots with their victims. From mobile killing units, to the camps, to the death marches, Goldhagen shows how ordinary Germans, nurtured in a society where Jews were seen as unalterable evil and dangerous, willingly followed their beliefs to their logical conclusion.

"Hitler's Willing Executioner's is an original, indeed brilliant contribution to the...literature on the Holocaust."--New York Review of Books

"The most important book ever published about the Holocaust...Eloquently written, meticulously documented, impassioned...A model of moral and scholarly integrity."--Philadelphia Inquirer

A work of the utmost importance--as authoritative as it is explosive--Hitler's Willing Executioners will fundamentally change our perception of the Holocaust and of Germany in the Nazi period. Goldhagen reaches conclusions that are both uncompromising and savage, rejecting as inadequate the conventional historical explanations for how an entire country could allow the Holocaust to happen, and gives the first detailed, broad-ranging account of the actual killers of the Jews. 31 photos.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Goldhagen's gripping and shocking landmark study transforms our understanding of the Holocaust. Refuting the widespread notion that those who carried out the genocide of Jews were primarily SS men or Nazi party members, he demonstrates that the perpetrators-those who staffed and oversaw the concentration camps, slave labor camps, genocidal army units, police battalions, ghettos, death marches-were, for the most part, ordinary German men and women: merchants, civil servants, academics, farmers, students, managers, skilled and unskilled workers. Rejecting the conventional view that the killers were slavishly carrying out orders under coercion, Goldhagen, assistant professor of government at Harvard, uses hitherto untapped primary sources, including the testimonies of the perpetrators themselves, to show that they killed Jews willingly, approvingly, even zealously. Hitler's genocidal program of a "Final Solution" found ready accomplices in these ordinary Germans who, as Goldhagen persuasively argues, had absorbed a virulent, "eliminationist" anti-Semitism, prevalent as far back as the 18th century, which demonized the Jews and called for their expulsion or physical annihilation. Furthermore, his research reveals that a large proportion of the killers were told by their commanders that they could disobey orders to kill, without fear of retribution-yet they slaughtered Jews anyway. By his careful estimate, hundreds of thousands of Germans were directly involved in the mass murder, and millions more knew of the ongoing genocide. Among the 30 photographs are snapshots taken by the murderers of themselves and their victims. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Though scholarly, this work, originally a Ph.D. thesis, promises to have a wide influence. Goldhagen (government, Harvard) endeavors to show that the common apologia for the Germans-that Hitler "brainwashed" them-is nonsense and that most Germans gave their active assent to genocide. An ordinary German commander, for example, might feel himself bound by a strict code of conduct yet not be at all averse to murdering Jews. The book ends with a detailed notes section and an appendix that explains the correct methodology for studying the Nazi period. Like Raul Hilberg's great Destruction of the European Jews, Goldhagen's work is a landmark in Holocaust studies. It does not supersede any of the standard histories of the Holocaust by Hilberg, Dawidowicz, Levin, Gilbert, and others simply because its primary aim is not to describe events but to explore and explain motivation. In so doing it provides a fuller understanding of the Holocaust. The work will be the subject of an international symposium held at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on April 8. Highly recommended for most libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/95.]-Paul Kaplan, Lake Villa District Lib., Ill.
Salon
Henchmen did it. That's the common understanding of who perpetrated the 12-year Holocaust, during which six million European Jews were killed. "Hitler's henchmen"-- small bands of chiseled thugs in brown shirts, or elite wearers of the SS insignia. We emerge from a Leni Reifenstal film half convinced that it was a case of mass hypnotism, the mesmerization of a nation by endless rows of soldiers, columns of light, and the artful use of the millennium's most potent logo. It wasámadness, and surely that degree of craziness has to be vigorously imposed on a people, right? In his new book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen argues powerfully against this conclusion -- and indicts the entire German nation in the process.

How could it have happened, is, of course, the crucial question. We tend to think, Goldhagen says, that Germany was a sane, modern nation, and that great coercion and a manufactured climate of fear must have been necessary to perpetrate evil on this mass scale. But Goldhagen argues convincingly that Germans could and did protest what they considered to be violent excesses on the part of their rulers: for example, the Nazi's euthanasia project, which was suspended after organized protests. The mentally ill and physically deformed targeted by that program were the Germans' own people; the Jews decidedly were not. The increasing degradation of the Jews, Goldhagen argues, provoked no sizable dissent because, as Hitler cunningly realized, anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in the vast majority of Germans to a degree not found in other modern nations. This enculturated anti-Semitism was, he says, "the mainspring of the Holocaust." The Nazis applied no significant force in order to bring about the Holocaust because "knowing that ordinary Germans shared their convictions, (they) had no need to do so.... The annihilation of the Jews made sense to them."

Goldhagen focuses on the rarely studied lives of thousands of ordinary people who rounded up, tortured, starved and finally killed their former neighbors. And he notes that the standard focus on the few factory-like extermination camps like Auschwitz, while understandable, draws us away from the fact that most of the killing of the Holocaust was a matter of one person clubbing or shooting another.

Hitler's Willing Executioners is a densely written work that reads like the doctoral dissertation it originally was (Goldhagen is an assistant professor at Harvard). But, more importantly, it is a deeply resonant book that will forever change the way we view one of the century's central events. This book will be talked -- and argued -- about for years to come, much like Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. And this new twist on the "banality of evil" concept is what's most chilling. It's not just that Germany's vicious leaders were average men under the surface that proves so disturbing; it's that so many average human beings became such uncomplaining murderers. --Edward Neuert

Kirkus Reviews
An explosive work that shatters many of the assumptions and commonly accepted myths concerning the Holocaust.

Goldhagen (Government and Social Studies/Harvard) offers irrefutable proof that will force us to reconsider our previous understanding of the Nazis' genocidal project. Traditional explorations tended to accept at face value the usual defenses offered by the Germans: Either they did not know of the genocide or they were compelled to participate against their will. In this exhaustively documented and richly researched work, Goldhagen documents conclusively that the people who actively participated in the extermination program were indeed "ordinary Germans," neither fanatical Nazis nor members of the dreaded SS. By carefully studying the personnel of the death camps and police battalions, the author reveals that they were not forced to participate, nor were they brainwashed by the Nazi regime. One of the book's many virtues is that it insists on placing antisemitism in a larger context; it permeated all segments of German society, including the proletariat, the professions, and the churches. Goldhagen thus offers a new conceptual framework for thinking about the Holocaust. Its documentation will make refutation nearly impossible. Further strengthening his case, Goldhagen focuses on hitherto neglected aspects of the Holocaust: the police battalions and the death marches that occurred toward the end of the war. Both aspects support his thesis that the genocidal plans of the Nazis found an eagerly receptive audience in Germany. By comparing Nazi policies toward Jews, Slavs, and the infirm (the Euthanasia Program was denounced and resisted by the Germans), we can more clearly see and understand the enormity of the crime and the complicity of "ordinary Germans."

A profoundly revolutionary work that demands a reexamination of the central moral problem of the 20th century.

From Barnes & Noble
In this exploration of German society from 1933 to 1945, the author reveals the depth, range, and virulence of its ingrained anti-Semitism and shows how ordinary Germans believed extermination of the Jews to be both necessary and just. Controversial and thought-provoking, here is an important addition to the library of Holocaust literature. "The most important book ever published about the Holocaust..."--Philadelphia Inquirer. Black-and-white photos.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679772682
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/18/1997
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 634
  • Sales rank: 159,807
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Meet the Author

 
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is an Associate of Harvard University's Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.  His doctoral dissertation, which is the basis for the book, was awarded the American Political Science Association's 1994 Gabriel A. Almond Award for the best dissertation in the field of comparative politics.  After publication of this book in Germany, in 1997 Daniel Johan Goldhagen won the highly prestigious Democracy Prize.  He is the author of A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair.

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Read an Excerpt

1

RECASTING THE VIEW OF ANTISEMITISM: A FRAMEWORK FOR ANALYSIS

In thinking about German antisemitism, people have a tendency to make important, unacknowledged assumptions about Germans before and during the Nazi period that bear scrutiny and revision. The assumptions are ones that people would not adopt for investigating a preliterate group in Asia or fourteenth-century Germans, yet which they do for the study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. They can be summed up as follows: Germans were more or less like us or, rather, similar to how we represent ourselves to be: rational, sober children of the Enlightenment, who are not governed by "magical thinking," but rooted in "objective reality." They, like us, were "economic men" who, admittedly, sometimes could be moved by irrational motives, by hatreds, produced by economic frustrations or by some of the enduring human vices like the lust for power or pride. But these are all understandable; as common sources of irrationality, they seem commonsensical to us.

There are reasons to doubt the validity of such assumptions, as an American educator intimately familiar with Nazi schools and youth cautioned in 1941. Nazi schooling, he averred, "produced a generation of human beings in Nazi Germany so different from normal American youth that mere academic comparison seems inane and any sort of evaluation of the Nazi educational system is extremely difficult." So what justifies the prevailing assumptions about the similarity between us and Germans during the Nazi period and before? Should we not take a fresh look and examine whether or not our notions of ourselves held for Germans in 1890, 1925, and 1941? We readily accept that preliterate peoples have believed trees to be animated by good and evil spirits, capable of transforming the material world, that the Aztecs believed human sacrifices were necessary for the sun to rise, that in the middle ages Jews were seen as agents of the Devil, so why can we not believe that many Germans in the twentieth century subscribed to beliefs that appear to us to be palpably absurd, that Germans too were, at least in one realm, prone to "magical thinking"?

Why not approach Germany as an anthropologist would the world of a people about whom little is known? After all, this was a society that produced a cataclysm, the Holocaust, which people did not predict or, with rare exceptions, ever imagine to have been possible. The Holocaust was a radical break with everything known in human history, with all previous forms of political practice. It constituted a set of actions, and an imaginative orientation that was completely at odds with the intellectual foundations of modern western civilization, the Enlightenment, as well as the Christian and secular ethical and behavioral norms that had governed modern western societies. It appears, then, on the face of it, that the study of the society which produced this then unimagined, and unimaginable, event requires us to question our assumptions about that society's similarity to our own. It demands that we examine our belief that it shared the rational economic orientation that guides social scientific and popular images of our society. Such an examination would reveal that much of Germany did roughly mirror our society, but that important realms of German society were fundamentally different. Indeed, the corpus of German antisemitic literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-with its wild and hallucinatory accounts of the nature of Jews, their virtually limitless power, and their responsibility for nearly every harm that has befallen the world-is so divorced from reality that anyone reading it would be hard pressed to conclude that it was anything but the product of the collective scribes of an insane asylum. No aspect of Germany is in greater need of this sort of anthropological reevaluation than is its people's antisemitism.

We know that many societies have existed in which certain cosmological and ontological beliefs were well-nigh universal. Societies have come and gone where everyone believed in God, in witches, in the supernatural, that all foreigners are not human, that an individual's race determines his moral and intellectual qualities, that men are morally superior to women, that Blacks are inferior, or that Jews are evil. The list could go on. There are two different points here. The first is that even if many of these beliefs are now considered to be absurd, people once held them dearly, as articles of faith. Because they did, such beliefs provided them with maps, considered to have been infallible, to the social world, which they used in order to apprehend the contours of the surrounding landscapes, as guides through them and, when necessary, as sources and inspiration for designs to reshape them. Second, and equally important, such beliefs, however reasonable or absurd some of them may be, could be and were subscribed to by the vast majority, if not all of the people in a given society. The beliefs seemed to be so self-evidently true that they formed part of the people's "natural world," of the "natural order" of things. In medieval Christian society, for example, fierce debates over some aspect of Christian theology or doctrine could lead to violent conflict among neighbors; yet the bedrock belief in a God and in the divinity of Jesus that made the people all Christians would, nevertheless, remain uncontested, except by some few on the mental and psychological fringe of society. Beliefs in the existence of God, in the inferiority of Blacks, in the constitutional superiority of men, in the defining quality of race, or in the evil of the Jews have served as axioms of different societies. As axioms, namely as unquestioned norms, they were embedded in the very fabric of different societies' moral orders, no more likely to have been doubted than one of the foundational notions of our own, namely that "freedom" is a good.

Although most societies throughout history have been governed by absurd beliefs at the center of their cosmological and ontological notions of life, which their members have held axiomatically, the starting point for the study of Germany during the Nazi period has generally ruled out the possibility that such a state of affairs then prevailed. More specifically, the assumptions preponderate first that most Germans could not have shared Hitler's general characterization of Jews, presented in Mein Kampf and elsewhere, as being a devilishly cunning, parasitic, malevolent "race" which had harmed the German people greatly, and second that most Germans could not possibly have been so antisemitic as to countenance the Jews' mass extermination. Because this is assumed, the burden of proof has been placed on the people who would assert the opposite. Why?

In light of the obvious possibility, indeed probability, that antisemitism was an axiom of German society during the Nazi period, two reasons suggest that the prevailing interpretive approach towards German antisemitism during the Nazi period should be rejected. Germany during the Nazi period was a country in which government policies, public acts of other sorts, and the public conversation were thoroughly, almost obsessively antisemitic. Even a cursory glance at this society would suggest to the unsophisticated observer, to anyone who takes the evidence of his senses to be real, that the society was rife with antisemitism. Essentially, in Germany during the Nazi period, antisemitism was shouted from the rooftops: "The Jews are our misfortune," we must rid ourselves of them. As interpreters of this society, it is worth taking both the numbing verbal antisemitic barrage-that emanated not only from the top in what was a political dictatorship but also in large quantity from below-and also the discriminatory and violent policies as indications of the character of its members' beliefs. A society that declares antisemitism with the full power of its lungs, with apparent heart and soul, might indeed be antisemitic.

The second reason for adopting a different perspective than the prevailing one regarding German antisemitism is based on an understanding of the development of German society and culture. In the middle ages and the early modern period, without question until the Enlightenment, German society was thoroughly antisemitic. That the Jews were fundamentally different and maleficent (a theme taken up in the next chapter) was at the time an axiom of German and of most of Christian culture. This evaluation of Jews was shared alike by elites and, more importantly, by the common people. Why not assume that such deeply rooted cultural beliefs, that such basic guides to the social and moral order of the world persist, unless it can be shown that they have changed or dissipated?

When conclusive data about the nature of a belief system are lacking, historians and social scientists interested in ascertaining its prevalence and etiology should not project the features of their own society back in time-as students of modern German antisemitism frequently do. They should instead choose a sensible starting point and work forward historically, in order to uncover what actually occurred. If we were to adopt this approach and start in the middle ages, in order to investigate if, where, when, and how Germans abandoned the then culturally ubiquitous antisemitism, our entire orientation towards this issue would change. The questions we would ask, the kinds of phenomena that would count as evidence, and the evaluation of the evidence itself would all be different. It would force us to abandon the assumption that, by and large, Germans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not antisemitic, and instead to demonstrate how they freed themselves of their culture's previously ingrained antisemitism, if indeed they ever did.

If, instead of being guided by the widespread assumption of the Germans' likeness to us, we began our analysis from the opposite, more sensible position, namely that Germans during the Nazi period were generally beholden to the dominant and pervasive antisemitic creed of the time, then it would be impossible to dissuade us of this original position. Virtually no evidence exists to contradict the notion that the intense and ubiquitous public declaration of antisemitism was mirrored in people's private beliefs. Before we would change this view we would demand, in vain, that Germans' professions of dissent from the antisemitic creed be produced, that letters and diaries testifying to a conception of Jews different from the public one be unearthed. We would want reliable testimony that Germans really did look upon the Jews living in their lands as full members of the German and the human community. We would want evidence that Germans opposed and abhorred the myriad anti-Jewish measures, legislation, and persecutions, that they thought it a great crime to incarcerate Jews in concentration camps, to wrest Jews from their homes and communities, and to deport them to horrible fates from the only land that they had ever known. Isolated instances of dissenting individuals would not satisfy. We would want many cases from which it would be justifiable to generalize about significant portions or groups of German society before we would be convinced that our position is wrong. The documentary record does not even come close to meeting such a standard of evidence.

Which starting point is the appropriate one? The one that stands in stark contradiction to the record of public and private utterances and acts? Or the one in consonance with them? The one that assumes that a long-standing cultural orientation evaporated, or the one that demands that the subject be investigated and, before antisemitism is declared to have dissipated, that the process by which it allegedly occurred be demonstrated and explained? So why is the burden of proof not on those who maintain that German society had indeed undergone a transformation and had jettisoned its culturally borne antisemitism? With the assumption of the Germans' similarity to our ideal images of ourselves guiding us, with the assumption of the "normalcy" of the German people, the burden of proof de facto has lain with those who argue that tremendous antisemitism existed in Germany during the Nazi period. Methodologically, this approach is faulty and untenable. It must be abandoned.

My position is that if we knew nothing more than the character of the public discussion and governmental policies in Germany during its Nazi period, and the history of German political and cultural development, and were forced to draw conclusions about the extent of German antisemitism during the Nazi period, we could judiciously opt for believing only that it was widespread in the society, and Nazi-like in quality. Fortunately, we are not compelled to be satisfied with this state of affairs, and therefore are not wholly dependent upon the sensible assumptions that we bring to the study of Germany during the Nazi period. The conclusion that Nazi antisemitism was integral to the beliefs of ordinary Germans (as reasonable as it would be if based solely on the general historical understanding coupled with an analysis of Germany's public record during the Nazi period) finds considerable further empirical and theoretical support. So the belief in the continuation of a general, culturally shared German antisemitism into the twentieth century-which is based in part on the inability of anyone yet to demonstrate that a process producing the diminution and abandonment of antisemitism did indeed ever occur-has another foundation. As the next two chapters show, much positive evidence exists that antisemitism, albeit an antisemitism evolving in content with the changing times, continued to be an axiom of German culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that its regnant version in Germany during its Nazi period was but a more accentuated, intensified, and elaborated form of an already broadly accepted basic model.

A general problem in uncovering lost cultural axioms and cognitive orientations of societies since gone or transformed is that they are often not articulated as clearly, frequently, or loudly as their importance for the life of a given society and its individual members might suggest. In the words of one student of German attitudes during the Nazi period, "to be an anti-Semite in Hitler's Germany was so commonplace as to go practically unnoticed." Notions fundamental to the dominant worldview and operation of a society, precisely because they are taken for granted, often are not expressed in a manner commensurate with their prominence and significance or, when uttered, seen as worthy by others to be noted and recorded.

Look at our own society. It is virtually an unquestioned norm that democracy (however understood) is a good thing, is the desirable form for the organization of politics. It is so unquestioned, and also uncontested in current political parlance and practice, that were we, in the evaluation of the democratic creed in this country, to adopt the approach prevalent among students of German antisemitism, then we might have to conclude that most people are not among its subscribers. We could scour the utterances, both public and private, the letters, and the diaries of Americans, and (social science research on the subject aside) we would find comparatively few professions of their democratic temper. Why? Precisely because the views are uncontested, because they are part of the "common sense" of the society. Obviously, we would find that people participate in the institutions of democracy, just as we would find that Germans massively complied with and enthusiastically lent support in a variety of ways to the antisemitic institutions, legislation, and policies of their country. The Nazi Party, a profoundly antisemitic institution, had over eight million members at its peak. We would find among American politicians and officials professions of democratic sensibility, as we can find incessant declarations-indeed, probably far more-of the antisemitic creed among their German counterparts during and before the Nazi period. We could find expressions of the democratic creed in American books, journal and magazine articles, and newspapers, though, similarly, not nearly as frequently as we could find articulation of antisemitism in Germany of the time. The comparison could go on. The point remains that if we looked at the quality and quantity of private individuals' expressions of their attitudes towards democracy, were we already beholden to the view that Americans gave little allegiance to democratic institutions and notions, then we would be hard pressed to convince ourselves that our preconceived notion is erroneous. And it is precisely because the democratic creed is uncontested, just as (as the next two chapters show) the antisemitic creed was essentially unchallenged in Germany, that far less "evidence" as to the existence and nature of each people's beliefs on the respective subjects rises to the surface. Since the unearthing of lost cultural axioms is problematic-because the nature of the phenomenon means that they remain relatively concealed from view-pains must be taken not to rule out their existence, and not to assume that our cultural axioms have been shared by other peoples. To make this all too common error is to promise a fundamental misunderstanding of the society under study.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : Reconceiving Central Aspects of the Holocaust 3
Ch. 1 Recasting the View of Antisemitism : A Framework for Analysis 27
Ch. 2 The Evolution of Eliminationist Antisemitism in Modern Germany 49
Ch. 3 Eliminationist Antisemitism: The "Common Sense" of German Society During the Nazi Period 80
Ch. 4 The Nazis' Assault on the Jews: Its Character and Evolution 131
Ch. 5 The Agents and Machinery of Destruction 164
Ch. 6 Police Battalions: Agents of Genocide 181
Ch. 7 Police Battalion 101: The Men's Deeds 203
Ch. 8 Police Battalion 101: Assessing the Men's Motives 239
Ch. 9 Police Battalions: Lives, Killings, and Motives 263
Ch. 10 The Sources and Pattern of Jewish "Work" During the Nazi Period 283
Ch. 11 Life in the "Work" Camps 293
Ch. 12 Work and Death 317
Ch. 13 The Deadly Way 327
Ch. 14 Marching to What End? 355
Ch. 15 Explaining the Perpetrators' Actions : Assessing and Competing Explanations 375
Ch. 16 Eliminationist Antisemitism as Genocidal Motivation 416
Epilogue: The Nazi German Revolution 455
Appendix 1: A Note on Method 463
Appendix 2: Schematization of the Dominant Beliefs in Germany about Jews, the Mentally Ill, and Slavs 469
Pseudonyms 472
Abbreviations 473
Notes 475
Acknowledgments 603
Index 605
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Reading Group Guide

1. What differences, if any, does Daniel Goldhagen establish between "Germans" and "Nazis"? How does his handling of the two terms depart from traditional use?

2. Goldhagen sets out to refute the "Jews as scapegoats" theory with which many social scientists have explained antisemitism in the Weimar Republic. Can you explain this theory? Does it make sense to you? Does Goldhagen succeed in fully discrediting this theory?

3. How, according to Goldhagen, did the very nature of German antisemitism change during the course of the nineteenth century? What new elements entered into this prejudice?

4. For half a century people have wondered how the Holocaust could have taken place in a "civilized" country. The critic Ludwig Lewisohn has called the Nazi movement a "Revolt Against Civilization"; Clive James, writing about Goldhagen's book in The New Yorker, stated his belief that "Germany ceased to be civilized from the moment Hitler came to power." Just how civilized, or uncivilized, was prewar and wartime Germany?

5. In her memoir, which is quoted by Goldhagen, Melita Maschmann recalls that during the 1930s "one could have anti-semitic opinions without this interfering in one's personal relations with individual Jews" [p. 89]. Though this fact might seem to indicate a vestige of tolerance, Maschmann denies that that was so. Can you explain this denial? Do you agree with her position?

6. What do the words "pacification" and "resettlement" really mean, according to the Nazi lexicon? What other euphemisms can you find in this account? Why, if eliminationist antisemitism was universal, do you think that such euphemisms were necessary?

7. On page 169, Goldhagen compares the condition of Jews in the Third Reich with that of American slaves. Do you agree with his conclusions?

8. The Germans, in Goldhagen's view, were not amoral but acted in accordance with a specific system of morality peculiar to their culture. For example, he writes, ""all policies of putting Jews to work were imbued with a symbolic and moral dimension" [p. 285]. How would you define and explain this "moral" system?

9. Pastor Walter Höchstädter compared the Holocaust with medieval witch-hunts. How do the two phenomena compare? What is "magical thinking," and how did the Germans manifest it?

10. "Prejudice is a manifestation of people's (individual and collective) search for meaning" [p. 39], writes Goldhagen. Can you explain this statement? How does it apply to the German prejudice against the Jews? How might it apply to other varieties of prejudice, either racial or religious?

11. As qualified by Goldhagen, how did the Germans' image of Jews differ from that of "subhuman" races like Slavs? Can you describe the Nazis' system of racial hierarchy? How did the Jews fit into this hierarchy, and what made their position different from that of any other race?

12. In what substantive ways did the Holocaust differ from other twentieth-century incidences of genocide, such as the Cambodian killings under Pol Pot, the Turkish massacres of Armenians, the mutual atrocities between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or the mass killings in Bosnia? Were the differences a matter of ideology, of history, or of something else?

13. The twentieth-century Holocaust was not the first instance of widespread persecution and execution of the Jews; such practices were prominent features of the Crusades and the Inquisition, for example. In what ways did the actions and prejudices of the twentieth-century perpetrators differ from those of their medieval predecessors?

14. Why do you think that other European nations, such as Denmark, Italy, Russia or France, failed to develop a deeply antisemitic philosophy to the same extent that Germany did? Why did these other countries show little inclination to join Germany in the genocide? What, historically, might have contributed to making these countries different?

15. Goldhagen has called Germany "the great success of the postwar era," not so much because of its economic miracle but because of "the remaking of German culture...they have reeducated themselves, in part by drawing appropriate conclusions from their country's Nazi past." Assuming that Goldhagen's theory about the deep cultural roots of German antisemitism is correct, do you believe that it is possible for the country to remake itself so speedily? Might latent antisemitism not resurface in propitious circumstances, as it did under Hitler?

16. After reading Hitler's Willing Executioners, do you feel that the Holocaust was a uniquely German phenomenon, or do you believe that it could happen anywhere, given the appropriate circumstances?

17. What thesis did Goldhagen set out to prove with this book? Did he succeed in proving it? By the end of the book, has he persuaded you that earlier theories, like Stanley Milgram's "obedience experiment" or Hannah Arendt's idea of "the banality of evil," are insufficient for explaining the Holocaust?

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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2003

    Biased reading

    I was very curious about this book since my history teacher had told me that ALL Germans new about Hitler and stood behind him and that ALL Germans are anti-semites. I was very dissappointed with this book for several reasons. 1) The author is biased in his entire research. There is NOT ONE mentioning of all the resistance movements against Hitler initiated by 'regular Germans' that were not Jews such as Adam v. Trott zu Solz who had planned the assassination of Hitler but unfortunately did not succeed. Many Germans helped Jewish people and hid them knowing that they too would be killed by fellow Germans if they were found out. 2) My own grandmother was killed in Auschwitz because she was a gypsy. Her husband still had to serve in the German army, otherwise they would have killed his children. It was not his choice to participate in this war and 3) When boats with Jewish people who fled Germany arrived on the shores of the US, why did the US send many of them back instead of embracing them? However, I do not deny that many Germans new about the killing and some of the 'perpetrators' probably enjoyed torturing innocent people. But this is also true for people who particpated in witch hunts and enjoyed torturing and raping innocent women. Atrocities like the Holocaust were not only committed in Germany but also in the US were thousands of native Americans died in the 'trail of tears' and no doubt, had Americans had the opportunity to kill them in concentration camps, some of them probably would have done so. Native Americans, just like Jews, were viewed as vermins. What about Stalin's death camps? Millions were killed and nobody cared. War brings out the worst in every person. I do not agree with the author that 'ordinary people' in other countries would not participate in killing others or in the same manner than Germans did.

    11 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2000

    an unobjective, emotional view of history

    If you want a book to read that will disturb you as to the crimes man can do to fellow man then look no further. But as far as understanding the causes of the Holocaust and the details of it's meaning, I have to agree with Christopher Browning and state that Goldhagen misses the mark. Unfortunately, his 'broad brush' condemnation of the German people as a whole is backed by neither sound historical methods nor a deep thinking brain. To show how a number of cowardly criminals behaved behind the lines in the east hardly can justify indicting a whole nation as being 'willing executioners'. But it does take the advent of books like this to make one appreciate the better books by better historians.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2002

    Power subject, but poor research and use of sources.

    The Holocaust was perhaps the most tragic and horrible set of events in the 20th Century. In this search for causes, the author has written a wonderful book that unfortunately lacks academic credibility. The author's research appears to have been rather limited due in large part to the fact that he could not interact with German source material since it has been revealed he cannot read German. It would be like doing research on the American Indian Wars in French. Not reading the primary source language is a tragic flaw that researchers must avoid. Unfortunately, I cannot recomend this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2001

    A Different Look

    I must admit this book was a little zealous and over-reacting in its message, but it did make me rethink the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust. Too many books today take the hatred of Jews as starting from Hilter and going down. Too many depersonalize it and pretend as if the German people were just crushed by the Nazi party and could not stop them. This book allows you to look at the Holocaust from the perspective of the ordinary German people who had personalities and wills of their own and who did contribute to the persecution of the Jews.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2010

    Review

    The book is fine, just what I needed for my research.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2003

    A depiction of still not-so-dormant European anti-Semitism

    In the past year, European sympathy with the Arab cause and resentment of Israeli incursions against the Palestinians in general and against Yassir Arafat in particular have demonstrated that the derogatory and supposedly discredited views of Jews and Judaism held by the Nazis still lie just beneath the surface of political correctness. In order to combat such persistent bigotry, it is useful if appalling to keep in mind Professor Goldhagen's succinct account of such prejudices. The Nazis, he reminds us, viewed Jews as parasitic work shirkers who lived off others' labor, and who, like Shylock, lent money at usurious rates; as hypermaterialistic, dishonest, and thievish amassers of wealth stolen from the Volk (Michael Milken is believed by many present-day Germans to exemplify this characteristic); and as scheming evildoers who stirred up trouble and internecine strife within otherwise harmonious communities. Even the forged libel entitled "The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion" retains currency in certain European and middle-eastern circles. The prevalence of such views in Nazi Germany made willing collaborators of ordinary Germans, and Professor Goldhagen has performed a valuable service in providing painstaking scholarly documentation of this inarguable historical phenomenon.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2001

    German Christians Evolve into Executioners?

    Goldhagen states one of his underlying premises is the history of German Christianity was extremely anti-Semitic. Even if this is accepted as true, I was disappointed to be unable to read why, in Goldhagen's opinion, the Christian anti-Semitism found in Germany resulted in the Holocaust, rather than in another Christian country. Goldhagen focuses on the twentieth century when he analyzes German anti-Semitism. He mentions the influence of Martin Luther in passing, but never shows the reader the chronological progression of the German anti-Semitism, beginning with Martin Luther's influence, and ending with the Holocaust. However, it is well-organized, thought-provoking, and is an excellent book for discussion and debate. Recommended!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 17, 2011

    great!

    a perfect read..... enough said

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Historic Nonsense

    Mr. Goldhagen's work should be considered, yet heavily scrutinized. He makes broad assumptions of the German population that can be easily discredited by numerous other sources. A good read, but often frustrating when you know the facts

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2003

    Great Book With Powerful Evidence

    Goldhagen's evidence supports his claim that ordinary Germans voluntarily slaughtered Jewish victims during the holocaust (the Germans were not provoked into torturing the victims).

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2001

    History with a scholarly wallop

    You cannot but be impressed, totally, by the sheer PERSISTENCE and DEPTH of this book. It is magnificent in its detail and scope, and utterly readable throughout.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 29, 2013

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    Posted November 17, 2010

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