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.
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
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.