Psychopaths and Conformists, Adventurers and Moral Cowards

Peter Pulzer

  • 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.

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