In This Review

Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, 601 pp

A challenging, powerfully argued, and morally passionate account of the extermination of the Jews by Nazi Germany. Goldhagen has done prodigious research in order to find out who the ‘willing executioners’ were and what they did. The result is overwhelming and devastating, not only because of the detailed account of the crimes, but also because the author shows that tens of thousands of ordinary Germans -- not just the SS or Nazis -- took part in the Holocaust, and because he systematically and convincingly dismisses such standard explanations as the habit of obedience, coercion, and group pressure. He shows that those who refused to become murderers were given the opportunity to opt out of the massacres and were not punished. The only convincing explanation is ideology: it is anti-Semitism that drove ordinary Germany to unspeakable murders. Goldhagen provides the reader with massive evidence of both the depth and scope of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and the degree to which it impregnated the political culture before Hitler. That part of his book is likely to be the most controversial. Goldhagen will probably be attacked for indicting a whole society. But nowhere does he deny that ‘eliminationism’ became ‘exterminationism’ because of the deliberate, systematic policies of Hitler and the Nazis, nor does he argue that every German was an eliminationist, nor does he say that a society cannot, by confronting its crimes, extirpate its worst prejudices and overcome its past. But those who believe that people are motivated only by self-interest will find his conclusion hard to accept, since it might oblige them to change their truncated view of human nature. It will not be possible to write about the Holocaust without taking into account the findings of this extraordinary book. In later works, the author may want to compare German anti-Semitism with that of France, Britain, or Russia to reinforce his point about its unique ‘eliminationist’ virulence in Germany.