Vol. 19 No. 2 · 23 January 1997

Psychopaths and Conformists, Adventurers and Moral Cowards

Peter Pulzer

2971 words
Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust 
by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
Little, Brown, 622 pp., £20, March 1996, 0 316 87942 8
Show More
Show More

‘I was only obeying orders.’ It is difficult to pronounce these words in English, except with a comic German accent. They symbolise for most people an unquestioning subordination to authority that is peculiarly German and that seems to offer a simple explanation for the horrors of the 20th century. There is a German word for this, Kadavergehorsam, which the dictionary translates as ‘blind obedience’, but which literally means ‘obedience unto death’. Sometimes this archetypally German conformity has a surreal touch. A Czech colleague once told me that on a research visit to Leipzig he had seen a street-cleaning van sprinkling away during a rainstorm. At that moment, he told me, he realised why there had been two world wars.

Is the Kadavergehorsam explanation adequate? That depends on what we want to know. It may tell us why German soldiers fought on tenaciously even when the war was self-evidently lost, or why economic life continued to function even under severe aerial bombardment. It may explain individual atrocities, such as the shooting of 335 Italians in the Ardeatine Caves in 1944. The commander of this massacre, SS Captain Erich Priebke, recently on trial in Rome, pleaded superior orders. The military court that tried him thought this an adequate excuse.

Blind obedience will, however, not do as an explanation, let alone as an excuse for the Holocaust. The Holocaust is different in kind, even if not necessarily in the number of its victims, from all other mass murders or attempted genocides. Others, whether earlier or later, fall into categories that are, by comparison, comprehensible. They arise either out of tribal wars, however bloody, as in Rwanda-Burundi or Bosnia, or out of colonial conquest, as in Chechnya or, in the 19th century, North America, Australia or parts of Africa. The tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, though each probably caused more deaths than the Third Reich, did not aim at the total physical extermination of entire populations. The same can be said of the deportation and deaths of one and a half million Ottoman Armenians in the First World War, which in other respects is the nearest parallel we have to the Holocaust.

To say all this is not to establish a hierarchy of suffering, nor to downgrade the death and destruction of others, but to identify a problem, the one that Goldhagen sets out to solve. The attempted annihilation of the Jews of Europe was a state-sponsored project with the aim of killing every man, woman and child of the Jewish people in pursuit of an ideological fantasy. There were to be no exceptions, save for purely tactical reasons. To carry out this project, two groups of persons were needed – the initiators and the perpetrators. About the initiators we now know enough. There is no shortage of scholarly biographies of Hitler, Himmler, Goering and Goebbels. We know in great detail the stages by which Jews were discriminated against, deported, ghettoised and finally killed. We know in detail when the labour and extermination camps were constructed and how they were organised. Though there continue to be academic debates on exactly what order went out when and what was the proximate impetus for giving policy priority to the ‘Final Solution’, there is a consensus about the mindset that was a necessary condition for launching the Holocaust. Without an obsessional racial anti-semitism, the ‘Final Solution’ would not have got off the ground. It was necessary to believe not only that individual Jews were inferior or wicked, but that Jews collectively constituted a mortal danger to Germany in particular and the world in general. Himmler could thus describe the extermination of the Jews to an SS assembly in Poznan in October 1943 as ‘a glorious page in our history’. An enterprise of this kind needs a rationalisation, which is why Norman Cohn entitled his classic history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Warrant for Genocide.

What about the perpetrators? Goldhagen makes the valid claim that there has been relatively little scholarly interest in them. True, there are studies of the SS and the Gestapo, but these were a selected and ideologically schooled élite. One expected them to behave as they did: that is what they were for. What has emerged rather more slowly is the extent to which wartime atrocities – not only against Jews – were the work of ordinary soldiers and police auxiliaries: ‘ordinary men’, as Christopher Browning called them in his 1992 study of one battalion of the Ordnungspolizei. Some military commanders opposed the use of their troops for these purposes, but as Christian Streit and others have shown, the Army was deeply implicated in the war against civilians and in the rounding-up and execution of Jews.

Goldhagen points out that probably half the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust were killed by means other than gassing – either as a result of overwork, starvation and brutality or, in the great majority of cases, by shooting. Almost all the Jews in the Soviet Union who fell into German hands, between a million and a million and a quarter, were killed in this way. While historians and the general public have been hypnotised by the mechanical, industrialised mass-killings of the gas-chambers, the individual face-to-face killings that accounted for the other deaths – and that must have involved at least a hundred thousand killers – have been neglected.

Goldhagen focuses on these, asking what motivated them and how they reacted to their tasks. That is the heart of the book, which shows its strength and also its greatest weakness. Its strength lies in Chapters 4 to 9, which relate the beginnings of mass executions in Poland, the campaign of the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union, the ‘Jew hunts’ of the police battalions, the round-ups, often accompanied by quite gratuitous brutality, and finally the individual killings of Jews of all ages, one village and one town at a time. It takes a strong stomach to assimilate not only the details but the sheer unrelenting scale.

So much, then, for the ‘how’; what about the ‘why’? That is where Goldhagen, who has raised important and, to some extent, new questions reveals himself as one of Jakob Burckhardt’s terribles simplificateurs. Instigators and perpetrators have, he argues, the same ideological lineage, ‘eliminationist anti-semitism’. Not only was this extreme form of anti-semitism ‘the defining feature of the Third Reich’, which one would not dispute, not only was it ‘the defining feature of German society in the Nazi period’, which begins to look like an over-simplification, but eliminationist anti-semitism was ‘at the heart of German political culture’ and the fate of the Jews was ‘a direct ... outgrowth of a worldview shared by the vast majority of the German people’.

At this point we need to stop to think. That there is a German anti-semitic tradition going back to the late Middle Ages, that rejection of Jews as equal citizens was exacerbated by doubts about German national identity in the 19th century and by the political humiliations of the early 20th century is common ground. There were more publications relating to the ‘Jewish Question’ in Germany than in any other country. The legal equality guaranteed in 1869 did not gain universal acceptance and social and political discrimination continued. The ease with which legal equality was revoked after 1933 confirms this. Jews remained ‘other’ and anti-semitism of one kind or another became what Shulamith Volkov, in an influential formulation, has called a cultural code.

We still need to ask, however, how widespread this anti-semitism was; even more important, how intense it was; and how it compared with that of other European states. Anyone looking for explosions of anti-semitism at the turn of the century could find them in the Dreyfus Affair, or the Kishinev pogroms of 1903 or the election of Karl Lueger to the mayoralty of Vienna. There were certainly German publicists who engaged in genocidal fantasies before 1914, but does it follow that ‘the view that Jews posed extreme danger to Germany ... and the consequential belief that Jews had to be eliminated from Germany were extremely widespread in German society’? Even after the First World War, when verbal and physical anti-semitism intensified, hostility was not uniform. There was, for instance, a high rate of inter-marriage. In some large cities, like Hamburg and Mannheim, nearly 40 per cent of Jews married Gentile partners, which suggests fairly wide social integration. Jews were elected or appointed to high positions by overwhelmingly non-Jewish constituencies. The painter Max Liebermann became President of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Eugen Fuchs, a prominent Jewish activist, was vice-president of the German Lawyers’ Association and as late as 1930 the banker Carl Melchior was seriously considered as president of the Reichsbank. This does not look like a consensus in favour of elimination.

Similar doubts apply to Goldhagen’s treatment of the popular mood after Hitler came to power. One of the Nazis’ first acts was to suspend civil liberties in general, not just those of Jews. Most of the inmates of the first concentration camp, Dachau, were political opponents rather than racial victims. Public protests were few, whoever the victims were. It was the end of the rule of law, not just the disemancipation of the Jews, that was accepted passively by the bulk of the German population. Passive acceptance, however, is not the same as positive approval. Goldhagen claims that the 1933 purge of Jews in public employment was ‘wildly popular’, that the Nuremberg Laws were ‘very popular’ and that Germans’ reaction to Kristallnacht showed their ‘enthusiasm for the eliminationist enterprise’. Unsubtantiated assertions like these are repeated throughout the book. They are essential to the argument because he recognises only one sufficient cause for the ultimate effect; but that does not make them true.

Historians of Kristallnacht agree that it was a propaganda failure, this being one of the reasons why the Nazi leadership shrouded the ‘Final Solution’ in a cloud of euphemisms and tried to keep it, however unsuccessfully, a secret from the German people. It can be argued that this merely proves that Germans did not object to a post-liberal apartheid for Jews, only to displays of public disorder and vandalism. On the other hand, it might mean that many, possibly most, Germans, while indifferent to the Jews’ second-class citizenship, drew a line at a certain level of ill-treatment. When the wearing of the Star of David was made compulsory in 1941 the US embassy reported ‘almost universal disapproval by the people of Berlin and in some cases ... astonishing manifestations of sympathy with the Jews in public’. Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose genocidal outbursts have been meticulously recorded by John Röhl, said of Kristallnacht that it made him ashamed of being a German. These hesitations become important when we consider another category that forms part of Goldhagen’s evidence, namely opponents of the Nazi regime, even active members of the Resistance, who nevertheless had an unfavourable view of Jews. For him this proves how widespread the ‘eliminationist’ consensus was in Germany. To me it proves the opposite, or at least that there is no one-to-one relationship between traditional anti-semitism and the pursuit of genocide. However reluctant some resisters may have been to face the enormity of the Holocaust, or to guarantee unconditional legal restitution to Jews after the overthrow of Hitler, there can be no doubt that the machinery of death would have been halted within minutes of the success of a coup. If anything, the ambiguities in the resisters’ stance show the gulf between conventional anti-semitism and the Nazis’ racial apotheosis.

That finally brings us to the motivation of the perpetrators. Some were unquestionably anti-semitic fanatics and gloried in their bloodthirstiness. Their statements at the time, their postwar depositions, their letters home and their recorded conversations indicate this. But there were also, as we have seen, persons from traditional conservative-nationalist backgrounds, with conventional prejudices about Jews, who shrank from genocide, and there were those who massacred enthusiastically without apparently having a strongly ideological mentality. Goldhagen denies the significance of this last category, because he assumes the ubiquity of eliminationist anti-semitism, and is unpardonably cavalier with alternative explanations, dismissing them as ‘naive’, ‘erroneous’, ‘faulty’ and ‘untenable’.

One possible alternative, fear of reprisal, is indeed implausible. Goldhagen is right about that. Germans were ordered to massacre, but not coerced into doing so. They were given the chance to opt out and those few who took that option suffered no harm. Beyond that there are several possible explanations that deserve to be taken more seriously. The first is the effect of war. All war cheapens human life, all war brutalises and removes the taboo on violence. This proposition, if valid, is not a total explanation, but it can be a contributory factor. The second is propaganda. Goldhagen gives us plenty of examples of the intense indoctrination the Nazi regime engaged in. No doubt a person to whom anti-semitism was totally repellent would be immune to such propaganda, but it does not follow, as Goldhagen asserts, that the propaganda fell on largely receptive ears. Was Nazi anti-semitism no more than an enhanced version of an existing mindset or was it qualitatively different from what preceded it? Many of the worst atrocities that Goldhagen lists, like the ‘death marches’ on which camp survivors were dragged westwards in the winter of 1944-5, occurred after more than a decade of propaganda.

Perhaps a more salient influence is simply group pressure, combined with absence from home. A century ago Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, delineated the psychological preconditions for the emergence of the ‘blonde brute’:

These men who in their relations with each other find so many new ways of manifesting consideration, self-control, delicacy, loyalty, pride and friendship, these men are in reference to what is outside their circle ... not much better than beasts of prey which have been let loose. There they enjoy freedom from all social control, they feel that in the wilderness they can give vent with impunity to that tension which is produced by enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society, they revert to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant monsters, who perhaps come from a ghastly bout of murder, arson, rape and torture, with bravado and a moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student prank had been played, perfectly convinced that the poets now have an ample theme to sing and celebrate.

This strikes me as being close to much of what Goldhagen describes. At one stage he hints that he, too, saw the personnel of the camps as ‘not hemmed in by bourgeois restraints’, but he does not develop this point.

We can try to test the group-pressure hypothesis in another way. Suppose one of the members of the police battalions had not been sent on a killing mission in Poland, but had been left behind in, say, Hamburg. Suppose he had discovered that a relative or an acquaintance or a colleague was hiding Jews. How would he react? He could go to the Gestapo and denounce the protector. Or he could look the other way. Or, if he thought the authorities were on his tail, he could try to tip off the protector. The second strikes me as the most likely, because it would have accorded most closely with the norms prevailing in Hamburg, as opposed to those in occupied Poland. We certainly cannot assume as self-evident that he would have chosen the first, which we would have to expect if eliminationist anti-semitism were ‘at the heart of German political culture’.

Lastly, there is the question whether, as Goldhagen claims, ordinary Germans instinctively treated Jews worse than any other victims of the Nazi regime. Nazi anti-semitism was part of a wider, racially-based world-view with a distinct hierarchy of undesirability. The further north or west in Europe an oppressed nation, the more it could escape total brutalisation, the further south or east, the more it was likely to be classified as ‘subhuman’. Had Hitler won the war, the fate of Poles or Russians would not have been much better than that of Jews. Of the nearly six million Soviet prisoners of war who fell into German hands, 60 per cent died. That is quite close to ‘eliminationism’. Mass executions of ‘bandits’ or hostages were common throughout occupied Europe. Goldhagen provides one instance in which a German commander executed fewer Poles than the reprisal tariff demanded, but there is no overall evidence that German soldiers were less willing executioners of Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks than of Jews. SS Captain Priebke, indeed, exceeded the reprisal tariff: 330 Italians would have sufficed for 33 German officers killed. There was a difference of scale in the regime’s annihilationist aims, but that need not have affected the mental processes of the individual executioner. Whether he was involved in the total destruction of the Jewish people or the destruction of the entire male population of Lidice, the challenge to his conscience would have been the same.

To propose this by no means exhaustive list of possible motivations is not to present what Goldhagen calls moral alibis. None of them excuses or even extenuates. I offer them because they seem to approximate better to what we know of human behaviour. The great defect of Goldhagen’s approach is that it assumes in his subjects a uniform and internally consistent cognitive framework. It strikes me as more likely that Hitler’s executioners came in all sorts and conditions – psychopaths and conformists, fanatics and opportunists, adventurers and moral cowards. No doubt they lacked civic conscientiousness – that Zivilcourage, the absence of which Germans have so often deplored in their fellow citizens. That may also explain the differential roles of European nations in the Holocaust. In his All or Nothing, Jonathan Steinberg contrasts the German and Italian cultures of complicity to explain why most Jews under Italian rule escaped death. He ends with the devastating line, ‘Nobody obeyed in Italy anyway’ – Zivilcourage, Italian style.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 19 No. 4 · 20 February 1997

Peter Pulzer’s review of D.J. Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (LRB, 23 January) raised several questions I had found myself asking about the book. One theme which emerges from personal accounts of life in Germany between the wars is how coarsened daily life became after 1919. The language of the trenches, one old soldier remarks, was now the ordinary speech of Germany. This seems to indicate that the ‘brutalising process’ had started to happen before the Nazis, before the onset of the Second World War and before anti-semitism had become epidemic. Hitler and his friends often complained about how hard it was to alert the Germans to the ‘Jewish threat’, how the public simply didn’t understand the problem. This doesn’t suggest a universal enthusiasm for their anti-semitism. We’re all aware of what box-office disasters Goebbels’s first anti-semitic films were. The public was disgusted by the crudeness and brutality of his approach and indeed the Nazis learned to disguise the worst of their anti-Jewish activities from the public well before the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland. It is also clear how carefully personnel were selected for the work of killing. Austrians were considered particularly good material. Himmler and other SS idealists believed it took an exceptional type to fulfil the duties of death-squad personnel.

You had to go to great lengths to know nothing at all in Hitler’s Germany, but frightened silence is still not the same as active connivance in murder, especially when no authority accepts that murder is being committed. From the mid-Thirties, Goebbels developed all kinds of systems to ensure civil obedience. By rounding up innocent middle-class professionals – academics, doctors, lawyers, journalists – and savagely beating them, releasing them, imprisoning them again, beating and humiliating them, then releasing them once more, sworn to silence about what they had experienced, the Nazis soon created a passive and exemplary bourgeoisie and any potential protester was pretty clear what would become of him if he made even the mildest complaint. Meanwhile the petit bourgeoisie behaved as it always has. The mass of people continued to enjoy increased stability and wealth and idealised Hitler accordingly. The average German citizen of 1937 had no more interest in uncomfortable actuality than the average TV viewer in modern Dallas or Derby.

I’d guess that roughly the same proportions of sadists and psychopaths, useful for genocidal work, exists in any society and emerges at appropriate times. It’s apparently impossible for an ordinary middle-class person to imagine the deep lust for power at any price, the violent sexualised fantasies and ambitions of that frustrated sadist who could very easily be a neighbour, a colleague or even a spouse. Most of us would prefer to think such people exceptional. Or fictional. Or foreign. I believe that they represent a fairly large percentage of the world’s population. One indication of this is where you have an uncontrolled press of some kind. Over-the-counter sales figures of sadistic pornography should offer a rough indication of the numbers of people who find the infliction of pain and humiliation enjoyable and/or acceptable pastimes. Taking a few other factors into account, we could work out, for instance, what the French market for S&M comics represents in demographic terms. Discover what’s selling off your local top shelf along with Guns and Ammo and Survivalist. Then we’d know how many potential executioners we probably have for neighbours.

Michael Moorcock
Bastrop, Texas

Peter Pulzer offers guarded praise to Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners for raising ‘important and, to some extent, new questions’. The truth is that it is the most pernicious rubbish ever written on the Nazi phenomenon. The one and only question raised is the state of an intellectual culture that takes such ineffable nonsense seriously. Goldhagen argues that fanatical anti-semitism was ubiquitous in pre-Nazi Germany. Yet the SPD forcefully denounced anti-semitism and, as the single largest political party, commanded the allegiance of fully one-third of the electorate by the early 20th century. Goldhagen suggests that only ‘the core of the socialist movement, its intellectuals and leaders’ repudiated anti-semitism, merely a ‘small group’.

The only source he cites, however, is Peter Pulzer’s Jews and the German State, which enters no such stipulation. Indeed, turning to Pulzer’s authoritative companion study, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, we learn that: ‘anti-semitism drew little strength from … the working-class.’ A compelling example of fanatic German anti-semitism cited by Goldhagen is the recurrence of ritual murder accusations: ‘In Germany and the Austrian Empire,’ he reports, citing Pulzer’s The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism, ‘12 such trials took place between 1867 and 1914.’ Turning to the cited page, we discover that Pulzer’s sentence continues: ‘11 of which collapsed although the trials were by jury.’

Goldhagen asserts that ‘the vast majority of the German people … were aware of what their government and their countrymen were doing to the Jews, assented to the measures, and, when the opportunity presented itself, lent their active support to them.’ For ‘far greater empirical support for my positions’, he advises, readers should consult David Bankier’s study, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism. Consider then Bankier’s conclusions. During the first years of Nazi anti-semitic incitement, most Germans (‘large sectors’, ‘the bulk’, ‘sizeable parts’ of public opinion) found ‘the form of persecution abhorrent’, expressed ‘misgivings about the brutal methods employed’, ‘remained on the sidelines’, ‘severely condemned the persecution’.

Norman Finkelstein
Brooklyn, New York

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences