Psychopaths and Conformists, Adventurers and Moral Cowards
- Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Little, Brown, 622 pp, £20.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 316 87942 8
‘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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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.
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’.
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