[ An End to Intolerance (Volume 5 -- June 1997) ]

Book Review
Hitler's Willing Executioners

Aaron Bronfman
Cold Spring Harbor High School
New York, USA

In Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, Goldhagen attempts to explain what could have motivated the German people to abet the murder of six million European Jews. His central thesis is that the perpetrators of genocide in Nazi Germany were not a small group of SS zealots but hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans who killed with the acquiescence of millions more.

One of his most convincing examples is that of Police Battalion 101. Due to manpower shortages during the war, the police battalions could not be composed only of fanatical Nazis or impressionable youth; instead, they recruited a representative sample of German society. Members came from all occupations, and the proportions of Nazi-Party and SS members approximated those in Germany as a whole. Goldhagen describes in gruesome detail the actions of these men, which often involved explicitly targeting children and the elderly, who could not work in the camps. The murders, however, were not forced upon the battalion, as revealed by the members' testimony. In Police Battalion 101, the choice to opt out of the murders was offered both before the first killings and after. Out of 550 men, only twelve declined to take part, and they were not harmed in any way.

The haunting question is what could have compelled the members of Police Battalion 101 and other German institutions to such voluntary cruelty. Goldhagen disproves the five conventional explanations for the perpetrators' actions. The theory that the perpetrators were forced by authorities is disproved by testimony from the police battalions and the astounding fact that there is not one verified case of anyone's being sent to a concentration camp or killed for not obeying an execution order, despite the extensive efforts of the Nuremberg defense.

A second theory, supported by psychology experiments, is that people, or Germans in particular, will instinctively obey orders that come from a source perceived to be legitimate. This is disproved by a remarkable action taken by one of the commanders in Police Battalion 101. He, upon receiving an order that his men sign a declaration obligating them not to steal, sent a written refusal to his superiors. He felt his honor impugned and refused to obey an order he believed was wrong, although his men had already killed tens of thousands of Jews. The third explanation amounts to "peer pressure," which could only work if a majority of Germans favored the genocide. The remaining two are career advancement, which was not a factor for most of the working-class soldiers, and lack of comprehension of Hitler's Final Solution, which certainly cannot be applied to face-to-face murderers.

Goldhagen presents his own explanation, namely that an "eliminationist antisemitism" had been present in Germany since the Crusades. He maintains that antisemitism was not being continually refuted and readopted, but that, although it remained latent at some time, it was always present. He stresses the differences between the dominant beliefs in Germany about the various persecuted groups; the Jews were thought to be willfully malignant and bent on destroying Germany, while the Slavs were considered simply inferior. His theory explains the wide discrepancy in monthly death rates among groups in the work camps (e.g. 100% for Jews and 4% for Poles) and is the only explanation that creates a tenable motive for the perpetrators' actions. Overall, Hitler's Willing Executioners presents a coherent, well-supported argument that ordinary Germans, motivated by an eliminationist antisemitism, knowingly and willingly took part in the Holocaust.

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