Hitler's Willing Executioners, Part II

Guest: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Title: “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,”
Part II
VTR: 7/9/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard, and the author, most recently, of the enormously compelling study of Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust published by Knopf.

Now, let’ s pick up where we left off last time. Professor Goldhagen, I was just going to read something from the Time Magazine review and commentary on your extraordinary book. Here at the end, John Elson wrote, “the nineteenth century English writer, Lord Acton, believed that historians should be hanging judges, exercising their right to condemn the sins of the past. By this stern standard, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has done his job with a pen in one hand, a noose in the other.” Now, when we spoke on the telephone and I invited you here to The Open Mind, you made the point to me when I said, “let’s do a second program on the writing of history,” that you don’t consider yourself a historian. But this is, this book is a history of very important parts, and this commentary is one that I would ask you to comment on in turn.

GOLDHAGEN: Well, what I said was that I am not by discipline a historian. I’m a political scientist by training, and I wanted to make that clear. Of course, this is a work of history, and I have done all the work that a historian would do in the archives and so on in order to produce this book. This final comment has a nice flourish to it. I’m not sure how meaningful it is. It doesn’t take much to condemn the deeds, which I describe in this book, the genocidal slaughter of the Jewish people. I imagine most people who are watching and most who read the book share in the condemnation. And so one doesn’t have to be or not be a hanging judge in order to look on this material with such condemnation. However, I disagree that it is our job, when writing about the past, first and foremost to render judgment, moral evaluations of the people involved. In fact, if you read the book — well, you have read the book — when one reads the book you’ll see that I don’t engage in explicit moral evaluation of the people.

HEFFNER: You don’t need to.

GOLDHAGEN: I don’t need to, but my job…

HEFFNER: The deeds you report…

GOLDHAGEN: But my job, my job is to unearth the facts and to explain the actions of these people, to explain what happened. And that is the thrust of the book. I make this point particularly forcefully because some critics, particularly in Germany, have charged me with the charge of saying that the Germans are collectively guilty, that I am charging the Germans with collective guilt, which is something that raises a red flag in Germany. And, in fact, I never say any such thing. I don’t talk about guilt or innocence, moral guilt or moral innocence; I leave it for every reader to judge as he or she sees fit. And I think that’s really the right approach to this material. Of course, I condemn the deeds. And, of course, most people do. But the complex evaluations of different people positioned and doing different things during this period is left for each person to decide for him or herself.

HEFFNER: Now, if I could do an imitation, I would, and say, “just a minute, please.” As a reader, you’ve sat down, I’m sure, and read large sections of your book, long after the writing. Do you not come away from this extraordinary volume with thoughts of collective guilt?

GOLDHAGEN: No. Collective guilt is, I think, an indefensible notion. People are guilty… when we talk about guilt here, we mean it in a legal sense. They are guilty only for deeds, which they themselves committed. For the deeds. For the actions. For the thing that we would bring charges against people. What people thought or believed, what they, in their hearts, supported, or what they might have done if they had been in another position, is to be evaluated by each person individually, just as we would evaluate neighbors of ours who have thoughts that we believe to be reprehensible, but who have not themselves committed crimes. I’m saying in the book that in Germany far more individuals are guilty of crimes, or were guilty of crimes, both in the slaughter of Jews, and also in the many other crimes that were committed against non-Jews during this period. Millions of non-Jews were enslaved, and the German economy, with millions of Germans participating in the enslavement and exploitation and often brutalization of these non-Jewish slaves. I’m saying individual guilt is far more widespread than people have recognized. But the only people who are guilty are those who committed crimes. It has nothing to do with collective guilt.

HEFFNER: So that the “ordinary German” of your title really refers to the fact that they were simply ordinary people.

GOLDHAGEN: They were ordinary…

HEFFNER: As you tote up the crimes that were committed, the executions that were carried out, are you saying, “gee, these executioners, these particular individuals, were just ordinary people?”

GOLDHAGEN: They were ordinary people. As I show, when you look at their backgrounds, they came from all walks of life, all social classes, all educational backgrounds, different religious denominations, all parts of Germany, and a very large number of them were not in the SS, and of the policemen I’ve studied, 96 percent of them in one unit were not in the SS, and the vast majority were not in the Nazi Party. So they were ordinary in the sense that they came from all walks of German life, that they formed some representative sample of German society. That’s all I mean by it.

HEFFNER: And you want to say that, that’s all you mean by it. Because I think that, for me, who applauds your book, and for those who condemn it, equally, the concept of “ordinary Germans,” I think, carries a much greater weight along other lines. Not just that those 100,000, 200,000, however many you may list in the police, in the citizen police, whom you describe so well here in their actions, it wasn’t just that they were ordinary Germans, but there is an implication – at least as I read it, and, I think, as many of your critics do — that you’re saying, “scratch a German, and this is what you will ordinarily find.”

GOLDHAGEN: Oh, yes, I need to… you are right to point out… when I say “ordinary Germans,” I’m not referring merely to those who were in the institution of killing, but also to Germans, civilian Germans in German society who generally lent their support to this regime and its policies, and who did not speak out against them. Of course, these ordinary Germans are included. What I’m not saying is that there is some — what you may have been implying a moment ago — that there is some timeless quality to Germans – “scratch a German today and you’ll find a Hitlerian anti-Semite” — by no means. I’m writing about the Germans of the time, and also about Germany before the Nazi period as well I write about. But, as we talked about on the last show, not about Germans after the war. Germany is a very different country today.

HEFFNER: Do you think there is, what I’ve said about the interpretation of this notion of ordinary Germans, the word “ordinary” appears so many times, that that’s not totally an unfair interpretation on the part of your critics? Inaccurate perhaps, but not unfair.

GOLDHAGEN: Well, what part are you pointing to now?

HEFFNER: That what you have implied here is something closer to “Scratch an ordinary German, and that’s what you find.”

GOLDHAGEN: There’s no attempt at mere implication in this book. I say quite clearly that the views, which motivated the Nazi leadership to exterminate European Jewry were generally shared in German society in the 1930s. There’s no implication here. I say it quite clearly, I demonstrate it in the book, that these views, a kind of virulent, eliminationist anti-Semitism which suggests that people in Jewish power had to be eliminated even in the most radical of ways if Germany were to be secure and prosper, that this was the common sense of German society. So I’m not implying anything. That’s clear.

HEFFNER: All right. Then, if you say that and say it as clearly as you’ve said it and as clearly as I’ve read it…


HEFFNER: …in your book, why do you back away from the notion of national guilt?

GOLDHAGEN: Because, as I said a moment ago…

HEFFNER: You have to commit an act.

GOLDHAGEN: …you have to commit an act to be guilty. If you want to look back at people who were anti-Semites, but who committed no crimes, and condemn them for their views, that’s your privilege. Just as you might look upon someone in American society today who has racist views, and condemn the person for his views. But what is a person guilty of? Are you going to say he’s guilty?

HEFFNER: Well, to use a phrase that we’ve been using in American life so much lately, an unindicted co-conspirator. I mean, you certainly at least make me feel that most Germans, ordinary Germans, were perhaps unindicted because perhaps you cannot write with certainty, as you do write with certainty about the specific brutality, the specific brutal acts that you describe in your book about specific individuals, perhaps you can’t do that for the entire nation, but there is a sense that Germany is an unindicted co-conspirator as a nation. Unfair?

GOLDHAGEN: Two different responses. One is, as I said, you’re a reader, you can draw your own judgments. It’s fine with me. And we can have long discussions about how to evaluate, how you or I or anyone else might evaluate people of the kind that we just described, who never did anything. The second point is that there were exceptions in Germany. This is why we can’t talk about Germans in toto or Germany as a nation without qualification, because there were Germans who resisted, there were Germans who departed from the standard views of Jews, and we have to recognize that. And so the vast majority of Germans shared these views. Many, many individual Germans committed crimes against Jews and non-Jews. They should all be condemned. They are all guilty of the crimes they committed if, indeed, they committed them.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you have said that the views were so extreme, it wasn’t just, “we don’t like Jews. We share the notion that they should be exterminated.”


HEFFNER: That takes us a giant step beyond where I think you want to leave it at this particular moment. Your book doesn’t leave it that way. Your book certainly, at least for this reader, who applauds your book, and for those many critics who do not applaud it, carries with it the notion of national guilt, the guilt that comes with applauding that feeling that we must exterminate the Jews.

GOLDHAGEN: I condemn, as you do, the anti-Semitism that exists in Germany, but the book does not put forward the notion of national guilt. And I don’t, as I just said, believe in it. And I don’t think that it can be defended conceptually, at least in the way that you’ve put it.

HEFFNER: Well, let me see if I… there was something that I quoted at the beginning, ah, yes, the beginning of the first program. “The conclusion of this book is that anti-Semitism moved many thousands of ordinary Germans, and would have moved millions more had they been appropriately positioned, to slaughter Jews.”

GOLDHAGEN: It’s just a conclusion. There are two conclusions there. Anti-Semitism moved the killers, and since the killers, as I show in the book, form a representative sample of German society, at least of adult males and their age cohort, that we can generalize to other Germans and know what, in all likelihood, they would have done in the same position. It’s a statement of, it’s a social-scientific inference based on the same principle that all public opinion polling is based on. If you have a representative sample, you can generalize to the larger population.

HEFFNER: Now, I know when we leave this studio somebody’s going to say to me, Daphne Doelger will say to me, “why were you pushing this nice, young man, implying that he was saying something that he says he wasn’t saying?” And I guess you feel that a lot of other people are doing that, that they’re pushing you into admitting that you’ve said something that you haven’t said, because that’s what we get from reading the book.

GOLDHAGEN: Well, there are many who have been imputing to me all kinds of views which I don’t hold and which I’ve never uttered. And the unfortunate consequence of this is diverting attention away from the central issues, which are…

HEFFNER: What do you see as the central issue?

GOLDHAGEN: The central issue is how do we explain how this regime could induce Germans by the tens of thousand, by the hundreds of thousand, to participate in the persecution and then even in the extermination of the Jews? This is the central issue. Why did ordinary people lend themselves to brutal persecution and systematic killing of other people?

HEFFNER: Okay, why?

GOLDHAGEN: And they did so because they shared a view of the world, which led them to believe that the killing of the Jews was right and necessary. Just as historically in many other societies’ ideas, beliefs have moved people to commit deeds, which we abhor. This also happened in Germany in the thirties and the forties. But these are the issues. And there are many other issues attendant to this central question which can be discussed at great length, and, you know, and people, reasonable people can disagree about how to interpret some of the facts. But to the extent that others are talking about collective guilt, are saying that, well, there’s really nothing new in the book, are diverting attention away from everything but the core historical issue, they’re doing a disservice.

HEFFNER: But, you see, there’s no way in the world, it seems to me, that anyone can say there’s nothing new in the book. I mean, for those of us who have emphasized Hitler and Goring and Goebbels and the others who have talked about the leadership, who have talked about economic chaos in the Weimar Republic, who have talked about the debts, who have talked about the Treaty of Versailles and the limitations it placed upon Germany, et cetera, none of that comes close to the material that you have illumined here in this book. None of it does. There is so much that’s new here. But you seem now to be backing away from the consequences, the intellectual consequences of what you have uncovered.

GOLDHAGEN: I don’t think at all. I simply take issue with the notion that the book is about moral evaluation. If we got off that subject. It’s not. It’s about historical explanation. I attempt to uncover all kinds of many new things about the perpetrators, to tell it as it was, often from their own perspective, and then to explain why they acted as they did, and then to set their actions within a broader interpretation both of the Holocaust and of Nazi Germany. I’m a social scientist; my job is to explain, not to judge.

HEFFNER: Extermination. Would you say that what you have uncovered would indicate to you that most Germans would, if not participate in — though so many did — would not decry the extermination of the Jews?

GOLDHAGEN: Most Germans in 1942?

HEFFNER: Yeah, I’ll grant you that we can argue about today at another time, as we have. (Laughter)

GOLDHAGEN: Uh huh. No. I mean, I don’t think at all, and there’s very little evidence to suggest that they would. You know, there’s an image of Nazi Germany…

HEFFNER: I don’t want to leave us with a double negative. You’re saying…

GOLDHAGEN: Most Germans did not decry. Most Germans, some reluctantly, to the extent that they knew about it, gave their support to the extermination of the Jews, as far as we know. I mean, most people didn’t speak out on the subject. What we do know is that there was an enormous amount of dissent expressed in Nazi Germany against a whole range, a wide range of governmental policies. The image of German society as a totalitarian society like the Stalinist Soviet Union is false. There was an enormous amount of dissent expressed, openly expressed by Germans, which the regime did not punish. Despite this vast record of dissent, which the regime itself collected and has been published, we have virtually no principal dissent against the persecutions of the thirties, which were utterly radical, known to everyone, and based upon the same anti-Semitic model of Jews that led to the exterminations of the forties, or against the exterminations themselves, which millions of Germans knew about. It’s a myth that nobody in Germany knew about it. Millions knew. So the question is, why do we have a vast record of dissent against a whole range of policies, religious policies, economic policies, even the treatment of non-Jewish slave laborers, but not against the persecution or extermination of the Jews? The obvious answer, and the right answer, is that Germans didn’t disapprove of what was happening.

HEFFNER: And you say that that has nothing to do with collective guilt?

GOLDHAGEN: You know, we’ve talked about this issue.

HEFFNER: I know.

GOLDHAGEN: I use the term “guilt” in a legal sense. Only for crimes.

HEFFNER: What euphemism? What other word could we use? Let’s say I understand, guilt means you’re judged guilty by…

GOLDHAGEN: For a crime that you as an individual have committed.


GOLDHAGEN: Or have abetted.

HEFFNER: What word would you… you know what I mean.

GOLDHAGEN: Responsibility?

HEFFNER: Okay, responsibility.

GOLDHAGEN: Responsibility. Again, I would say… we have semantic discussions here.

HEFFNER: I don’t think so.

GOLDHAGEN: I would shy away from the term “collective.” Widespread individual responsibility.

HEFFNER: Okay. Widespread. You don’t mean…

GOLDHAGEN: Widespread. Millions and millions of Germans have some kind of responsibility for either what they did or for what they didn’t do. Every individual is responsible for his own acts.

HEFFNER: We’re not just talking about Hitler and his group; we’re talking about millions upon millions upon millions of ordinary Germans.

GOLDHAGEN: Who lived during that period who could have done otherwise, could have spoken out, could have organized themselves in defense of their Jewish neighbors. They organized themselves in defense of other things they valued, but not in defense of their Jewish neighbors. And we’re talking about the perpetrators in particular, the killers and the others who contributed directly to the killing of Jews, were located very differently, many of whom could have refused. You know, in the history of the Holocaust, never was a single German perpetrator himself ever killed, sent to a concentration camp, jailed or punished in any serious way for refusing to kill Jews. And many knew they didn’t have to kill. Every person made choices. We can evaluate what… we first need to uncover the patterns of choices, explain them. And then, if we want to, we can evaluate them however we want to.

HEFFNER: Your sense of what it means to be a human being, threatened, undermined, strengthened, fostered by the researches you did, the coming to understand that an ordinary German would invite his wife to watch the brutality that was taking place? What did that research do to you?

GOLDHAGEN: In some sense, I think… let me get at your question in this way: Sometimes I think that my conclusions are really very unstartling. I’m really, in some sense, surprised that so many people find them to be such a revelation. It’s common sense what I’ve written. The common sense that one should have knowing what the history of humanity — which, in some ways, is a tale of brutality and slaughter — and common sense knowing just superficially what was done to Jews by Germans and others during the Nazi period. What I’m saying here is that, in doing the specific research for this book and writing it, it didn’t really change my view of human beings. If you know human history, most societies have been slave societies. Slaves in many societies have been treated abysmally. Not necessarily killed, but treated abysmally. There have been many mass slaughters historically. The Holocaust is different, has important differences, is singular in some ways. But everything that was done, or at least most things that were done in the Holocaust, have been done in other societies at other times. So it’s not a great revelation in this sense. It’s only a great revelation, what I’ve written, against the backdrop of how this period has been written about and how it’s been portrayed, both in the popular media and by other scholars.

HEFFNER: What you just said, how does that position you in relation to Hannah Arent’s approach to the Holocaust, the banality of it?

GOLDHAGEN: Hannah Arent said that Eichmann was not an anti-Semite, and that he acted as a good bureaucrat would, carrying out his duties as good bureaucrats do, with no particular attitude towards them. And that’s simply nonsense. It’s not true about Eichmann; Eichmann was clearly an anti-Semite. After the war he boasted about his killing of the Jews. And Hannah Arent leaves this out of her book. And it’s clearly also false about at least the vast majority of the perpetrators, who were anything but bureaucrats; they were ordinary guys, often, who were drafted into these police units and told to shoot people at point-blank range, and who, in their every action, in their own testimony after the war, have indicated that they believed that what they were doing was right. One of the perpetrators said, after the war, in his testimony, speaking for himself and all of his brethren, “the Jew was not acknowledged by us to be a human being.” This is why they killed; not because they were bureaucrats carrying out their duties, but because they had views of Jews and views of the world which moved them.

HEFFNER: Do you have room for the concept of banality in your analysis?

GOLDHAGEN: You know, it’s such a… because Hannah Arent used it as she did, it has all kinds of connotations. You know, most criminals, most mass murderers are rather, often are banal people. And the deeds, in some sense, in the long sweep of history, can be seen as banal. It depends what we’re talking about. It’s a term I don’t use because it’s a loaded term…

HEFFNER: It’s loaded.

GOLDHAGEN: …and I don’t quite know what different people mean by it when they say it. I’m willing to say that these were ordinary people, as we’ve talked about, who did horrific things. And I think that really sums it up.

HEFFNER: But I don’t want — we have a minute or so left — I don’t want to leave our discussion if it seems to you to be inappropriate, unfair to leave with the impression that what you’re saying is, “Oh, hell, if you’re a student of human history, you know that this has gone on.” You’re saying something more about the Holocaust, aren’t you?

GOLDHAGEN: Well, sure. This is the event of Western history that people look upon as being perhaps the greatest evil, as many will call it, the greatest evil of Western history. So clearly it focuses our attention in ways that other events haven’t. And it rightly should. I mean, there are many things that are different about it. And because we know so much about it, because we have such detailed records, it really can bring to light the great brutality that people are capable of, that they willingly perpetrate upon others. So, sure, it does shock us, it does, as I said, focus our attention on the dark side of the human soul and the capacities of humans. I meant merely to say before that the rest of history also has many examples that do not lead us to think ennobling thoughts about human beings, and that’s all I meant to say.

HEFFNER: Professor Goldhagen, thank you so much for joining me today. I don’t think that anyone will enjoy Hitler’s Willing Executioners, but they will enjoy reading you, and becoming aware of the incredible research that you have done about Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Thank you for joining me again today.

GOLDHAGEN: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your own thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $4 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

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