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Review: Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
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Reviewed by
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). 622 pp.

Driven by a publisher’s hype without precedent for a book that claims scholarly standing, the noise whirling around Hitler’s Willing Executioners in recent months has almost drowned out discussion of far worthier items. In fact, the field of Holocaust publications has burgeoned enormously in the last decade. So, too, has the volume of fine studies related to the Shoah in some fashion: antisemitism, dictatorship, genocide, resistance to Naziism, the German church struggle (Kirchenkampf), individual or group rescuers, postwar occupation policies in a defeated Germany, an emerging Christian-Jewish dialogue, and Jewish-German and German-Israeli relations. The Goldhagen book deals a sharp blow to healing the world. The record of heroic resistance, with a dozen assassinations attempted from 1938 on, also belongs to any fair survey of “the Germans,” but by a certain meanness of spirit, the book narrows perspectives and undermines attention to the most serious philosophical and historical questions to be raised in connection with the Holocaust. By spotlighting selective evidence, it appears to speak in behalf of Jewish interest but in fact expresses a counter-productive sectarianism.

Unfortunately, few of the many books of quality and scientific balance that have appeared this year will get even a small percentage of the public attention accorded the Goldhagen book in America and Europe. A substantial work like Wolfgang Benz and Walter H. Pehle (eds.), Encyclopedia of German Resistance to the Nazi Movement (Continuum, 368 pages)—which in its volume and breadth proves Goldhagen wrong in many respects—will be noticed only by specialists. Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance, by the distinguished historian Joachim Fest (English edition, Metropolitan Books, 408 pages), will receive no attention comparable to the Goldhagen tract, due to the public notice its hype has evoked.

The problem with Hitler’s Willing Executioners lies not in how the specialists will react to it. They have already reacted, and virtually without exception historians and Holocaust scholars have rejected the book. (The in-house dissertation committee at Harvard University and the 1994 Gabriel Almond Award committee of the American Political Science Association unfortunately did otherwise, reminding this reviewer unpleasantly of the easygoing ways of the academics who published, without careful monitoring, the scientific spoof of Alan Sobol of New York University.)

Some of the major criticisms are scientific: Goldhagen’s use of evidence is selective. He leaves “the Germans” standing in isolation by ignoring the documents on the antisemitic behavior of the Austrians, Ukrainians, Balts, French, Poles and so on. Further he makes the murderers [End Page 190] representative of “the Germans” by ignoring the documents about internal opposition and anti-Nazi martyrs.

The subtitle, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, evokes an earlier and much more careful study by Christopher Browning: Ordinary Men (HarperCollins, 1992). In fact, Browning’s research on “Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” is one of the three studies upon which Goldhagen heavily depends, although he expends a remarkable number of footnotes on Browning’s work, some quite lengthy, to position himself as an independent voice. Anyone who reads either Browning or the sources which he unearthed will soon see that the members of the reserve battalion from Hamburg were not at all a cross-section of “the Germans,” as Goldhagen’s sweeping generalizations imply and support for his monochromatic portrayal of “the Germans” requires.

Reading Goldhagen reminds this reviewer of a remark, perhaps apocryphal, attributed to a great Harvard professor. It is told of Thomas Reed Powell, an authority on Constitutional law, that he burst out once in class in response to a student’s query about precedents in a case: “Precedents? Precedents, hell . . . ! The thing to do is make up your mind and then go find the precedents!” Perhaps Goldhagen, the young teacher of political science, took this tale to be serious rather than ironic. Certainly, he has one overriding idea to put across. He ignores materials that don’t fit his thesis and exaggerates the weight of other data that he thinks serve his purpose.