Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Part I

VTR Date: July 9, 1996

Guest: Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the subject of our program today is the enormously compelling and seemingly quite controversial study published by Alfred A. Knopf entitled Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. It’s author, and my guest today, is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University.

As his book’s coda, Professor Goldhagen quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America. He writes, “no man can struggle with advantage against the spirit of his age and country. And however powerful a man may be, it is hard for him to make his contemporaries share feelings and ideas which run counter to the general run of their hopes and desires.”

As his book’s subject, Professor Goldhagen posits, “understanding the actions and mindset of the tens of thousands of ordinary Germans who became genocidal killers.”

And, as his book’s conclusion, Professor Goldhagen writes, quite intriguingly, that “anti-Semitism moved many thousands of ordinary Germans, and would have moved millions more had they been appropriately positioned, to slaughter Jews. Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social- psychological pressure, not invariable psychological propensities, but ideas about Jews that were pervasive in Germany and had been for decades induced Germans to kill unarmed, defenseless Jewish men, women and children by the thousands, systematically and without pity.”

Simply put, Professor Goldhagen writes, “the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality, and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say no.”

So I would now ask my guest, in the light of all this, he describes the opposition to his book that has surfaced. How can we explain it, that opposition among Jews and among others. Professor Goldhagen, it astonishes me that there has been this much controversy about your book. And I wonder how you explain it. How you describe it, and how do you explain it?

GOLDHAGEN: It’s hard for me to explain why the book has been deemed so controversial. It seems to me the position I’m taking should be the non-controversial one. I’m saying that when people who are uncoerced, kill, torture, mock, degrade other people, they do it because they think it’s right, because in some sense they want to. Those who are saying that my book is wrong are saying that when people kill, torture, degrade and mock other people, uncoerced, they do it because they don’t believe it’s right. And they do it despite not wanting to do it. Which position should be the controversial position? But differently, when people think of any other mass-slaughter genocide, whether the recent mass slaughter in Rwanda, the killings in the former Yugoslavia, people naturally assume that the killers believed that what they were doing was right and just. The only genocide that I know of where people say that the killers did not want to do what they did, but they believed that what they were doing was wrong, is the Holocaust. And they say this only about the German perpetrators. Quite odd. I’m saying that in this respect the German perpetrators were like the perpetrators of other mass slaughters.

HEFFNER: But now I have to assume that you make an assumption about why. Why? Why do they react this way to this book?

GOLDHAGEN: I must say I’m actually not interested so much in talking about other people’s motives. Many people, in writing about my book, have been discussing my motives, particularly the Germans. Many of the German critics have imputed all kinds of motives to me.

HEFFNER: What kinds of motives?

GOLDHAGEN: Motives about my attitudes towards Germans, motives related to my background, that I’m Jewish, that my father is a survivor of the Holocaust. And I maintain, I have consistently maintained, that we should not be discussing the identities of scholars or their alleged, imputed motivations; we should be discussing the historical material, the evidence, our methods, our interpretive framework, and how we reasoned to our conclusions. And, in fact, I have laid all these things out extremely clearly in the book precisely so that people could take issue with every aspect of my study and with every step of my reasoning. So that’s what we should be talking about; the evidence, and the conclusions, and the arguments.


HEFFNER: But that’s not what has been talked about among your most extreme critics.

GOLDHAGEN: Well that’s true. But we should say, I should say, of course, that many others have written about the book’ s findings and it conclusions and have assessed them, some positively, some less positively, in a sober, scholarly-like manner. You really need to put the questions to those who are using, who are invoking impermissible arguments about me and the book as to why they’re doing so. I can’ t tell you.

HEFFNER: You say “impermissible arguments.”


HEFFNER: Motivation.

GOLDHAGEN: About my alleged motivations, about my background, about my identity. It is irrelevant, all these are irrelevant to the study.

HEFFNER: And yet, when you quote Tocqueville — and I was intrigued with that — I wondered whether Tocqueville couldn’t be used, this selection couldn’t be used in the sense against the position that you take. “No man can struggle with advantage against the spirit of his age and country.” Isn’t that, couldn’t that be interpreted in a way as an apology, in a sense, an explanation, for what the Germans did?

GOLDHAGEN: I must say that when I chose this for the epigram of the book, it never occurred to me that some people might read it in this way. It comes from a section of Democracy in America on why great revolutions will no longer occur. And it’s really about leadership. This is about Hitler. And what it says is that no man, Hitler, no matter how powerful he is, can move people against their hopes and desires. And that is part of the argument of the book, that Hitler, as powerful a figure as he was, as charismatic as he was, could never have accomplished this had there not been tens of thousands, indeed, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans who were willing to help him.

HEFFNER: But, of course, I had the feeling of an intense irony here. Many years ago I edited Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in a paperback edition. And whenever I see Tocqueville quoted I take it very, very seriously. And I thought to myself, “is this meant to be exculpatory?” And that, no, it didn’t fit with the book at all.

GOLDHAGEN: No, no. But it wasn’t meant in that way.

HEFFNER: I understand.

GOLDHAGEN: It’s about Hitler’s incapacity to have moved Germans against their hopes and desires. So, in no sense is it exculpatory.

HEFFNER: Okay, let’s then, as you’ve suggested anyway, that motives should be set aside. Couldn’t it be — let’s not take it from this section, let’s not consider this section where it comes — it’s a statement. You took it out of context. Here it is. Isn’t there a truth to this in terms of the larger question of whether indeed the Germans, the ordinary German, was an executioner?

GOLDHAGEN: Well, there are two issues here. If you’ll notice, if we stick with Tocqueville (and I’m happy to, for a moment), that it’s in the singular, “no man,” not “No people,” but “No man can struggle against.” I don’t have the quotation in front of me exactly. And individual Germans, of course, in Germany, could have done little to have prevented what happened. But if millions of Germans had been opposed to the persecution of the Jews in the 1930’s, a very radical persecution in which Jews were stripped of their citizenship, in which they were forbidden to marry non-Jews, in which they were subjected to the most intensive campaign of verbal violence in Western history, if ordinary Germans by the millions had been opposed to this, then they could have done something in unison. And, as I said, had they been opposed to Hitler, as they were on other issues, the regime would have been hard pressed to have carried out what it did. And may not have even attempted it.

Now, the second issue is, to the perpetrators themselves, what individual German perpetrators could have done. And as I show in the book, they were offered the option, many of them, to exempt themselves from the killing, by their own commanders. Every individual made choices about how to treat Jews, even the individuals who were in institutions of killing. They didn’t have to struggle against the spirit of the age, to stay with the Tocqueville quotation for a moment; they were just given the option, “if you’re not up to this, we’ll give you other duties.” And very few of them accepted this option, accepted the opportunity to exempt themselves from what was gruesome slaughter. And so the question remains: Why, uncoerced, would people choose to kill, often at point-blank range, men, women and children, often shooting children at point-blank range?

HEFFNER: Now, you make the point that they had free will. You make the point about choice rather strongly. Was it as simple as all that? Choice: kill or not kill, participate in those police activities or not.


GOLDHAGEN: I think it ultimately was. We have to remember what they’re being asked to do. And if someone thought that this was wrong, if someone thought this was a crime, indeed, one of the greatest crimes of human history, the psychological and emotional impetus to exempt himself from this would have been great. Some of the descriptions in the book of what it was like to kill someone else are so hair-raising that some people have told me they have trouble reading them. Which gives some indication of how much pressure there would have been upon these individuals not to do it if they’d actually been there. They weren’t just reading these descriptions; they were creating the scenes which are described in the book. Often, I should add, by the men themselves. The book uses their own testimony.


GOLDHAGEN: So the pressure would have been enormous to get out of it. So, in this sense, I think it really was a simple choice. But more importantly, even if I would grant you that maybe it was more complicated, there are many other things the perpetrators did, which I detail in the book, which indicates that they were engaged, that they were assenting, that they were willing executioners. The cruelty which they perpetrate upon the victims. Whether you believe that someone should be killed or not, if you’re given an order to do so, you don’t have to torture the person, you don’t have to beat the person, you don’t have to mock the person first. And this was a constituency to the Holocaust. So this shows that there weren’t merely executioners who somehow couldn’t remove themselves from the killing because they were in the unit, but that they liked what they did in some sense, that they believed it was right, that they were, as I said, engaged in what they were doing.

HEFFNER: You object to the notion that critics, favorable or negative, those who offer criticisms of and critical analysis of the book, that they become involved in extraneous matters.


HEFFNER: Would you consider it extraneous if I ask you, having done the researches, the massive researches that you have done… and your descriptions are harrowing. I can understand when you say there are those who have to put the book down because it becomes so overwhelming to think of human beings doing to other human beings what these ordinary Germans did. What are the implications, or what have the implications been, in your own life, for your own thinking, about Germany and Germans after 1945?

GOLDHAGEN: Oh, I do not consider this to be an extraneous question. Germany is a markedly changed country. Germany, as we know, has had an economic miracle. The Federal Republic of Germany I’m speaking of. It has also had a political-cultural miracle as well. It’s been the great success story of the postwar period. In the last 50 years, Germans have re-made their society according to democratic values, have remade their political culture. And with generational replacement, with new generations being taught new, universalistic values, essentially all people are created equal, instead of the previous values which divided the world into a hierarchy of races differently abled and differently valued, we’ve seen a sea change in values and beliefs in Germany to the point where Germans today are, by and large, genuine democrats, and share the same general orientation and cultural ethos that others in Western countries do, with all the exceptions in Germany and exceptions elsewhere. And so, Germany is… Oh I should add also that antiemitism has also declined enormously in Germany and been transformed in nature. There are few in Germans today who look upon Jews and see devils in human form instead of human beings.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “transformed in nature?”

GOLDHAGEN: I mean that… well, we only have one term, “anti-Semitism,” to, describe an enormously wide range of complexes of beliefs about Jews. So the term “anti-Semitism” applies to those who harbor the garden-variety stereotypes that we know from American culture, that Jews are stingy and they’re clannish and this kind of thing, to, and the term also applies to someone like Hitler, who believed that the Jews needed to be exterminated. And so, while many Germans shared a Hitlerian image of Jews in the 30’s and 40’s, today, to the extent that Germans are anti-Semitic, they, by and large, share views that are more akin to the garden-variety stereotypes that we know from American society.

HEFFNER: You’ll forgive me, but I find that such a strange position to take. First, you take me through these many hundreds of pages of documenting for me that ordinary Germans participated in enormous numbers, without being forced to, in the most horrendous brutalizing extermination that we’ve experienced.



HEFFNER: And then what happened? 1945…

GOLDHAGEN: Was a scissora.

HEFFNER: You can’t do that to me! {Laughter}

GOLDHAGEN: No, no. But you should be happy that I can. This transformation is reflected, first of all, in the survey data. Surveys of German attitudes toward Jews in 1946 done by the American Occupation Authority show that they were rabidly anti-Semitic. And there have been consistent surveys done. And we have seen a demonstrable decline in anti-Semitism. So the data reflects this. But it’s not just the data that suggest this. But when you think about the ways in which people’s values and beliefs are developed, young people’s, you can see how this makes sense.

The beliefs that Germans had about Jews were completely artificial: Jews are not human beings, Jews are responsible for all the evil in the world, et cetera, et cetera. What you read in Mien Kampf. Without social and institutional support of the kind that existed in the 30’ s and before, it was very hard for Germans to retain views that had no accord with reality, particularly when the whole world was saying to a conquered, pulverized, and occupied Germany, “what you have done is the greatest evil in human history, and the beliefs that you had are evil.” And so this was the beginning of a re-examination and a stripping-away of these hallucinatory views about Jews.

HEFFNER: But then you yourself are putting emphasis upon the support system for anti-Semitism that was Adolf Hitler and his cronies.

GOLDHAGEN: And that existed before Hitler ever came to power as well. I mean, as I show in the book, already in the Nineteenth Century, major institutions put forward and propagated notions of Jews which were very similar to what the Nazis believed.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I think it was the Clive James piece in the New Yorker that led me, suddenly I had the feeling… and I made a note here, just in the very first page of this criticism of your book, Blaming the Germans, though it’s filled with high praise in many ways, I made a note to myself, “he doesn’t like what Daniel Johan Goldhagen discovers.” He doesn’t like it . He’s made uncomfortable by what you say about prewar Germans. Ordinary Germans.

GOLDHAGEN: Ordinary Germans.

HEFFNER: And I have the sense now that you don’t want to feel that way about postwar ordinary Germans. How could such a sea change take place given the incredible exterministic…

GOLDHAGEN: It’s very simple. Take a young German born in 1960, let’s say, brought up in the Federal Republic of Germany, a democratic society, taught in an educational system which teaches democratic, universalist values, part now of really part of a Western community that has certain shared view of the Holocaust, Jews, et cetera, and this person is brought up never exposed to anti-Semitism in a public forum. You know, anti-Semitic utterances have been illegal in Germany since the founding of the Federal Republic. You cannot make an anti-Semitic statement in public. You can be prosecuted for it. It is surprising that in such a transformed society with this educational system — that young people in Germany would grow up without harboring the demonic views of Jews which, as I said, had no accord with reality, but which were common in Germany before?

HEFFNER: This is a wonderful statement then of the malleability…


HEFFNER: …of human nature.

GOLDHAGEN: No, that is, of course, true. Some critics have said that I’m making an argument about German national character, or some critics have even said I’m making a racist argument about Germans, a genetic, biological argument, which is nonsense. Anybody who reads the book will see that the argument is about political cultures, beliefs and values, which can be transformed. Not overnight, but gradually. Fifty years is a long time. And so, yes, this is an optimistic, an optimistic development. And we should all note this, that we can remake ourselves individually and as communities in a society, the things that we, the beliefs that we share, which, of course, will inform very much how we act.

HEFFNER: You know, when I was reading the book, I wondered, “could Goldhagen really believe this?” Could he be that much of a believer in the malleability of human nature, that you can mold it, shape it?” You say 50 years is a long time. You know that 50 years is not a long time.

GOLDHAGEN: It is and it isn’t. From our own history we know this. Look at the American South.

HEFFNER: Yes, I was thinking of the American South.

GOLDHAGEN: Look at the American South. In 1950, the vast majority of whites in the American South believed that segregation was right, natural, important, necessary. I doubt — you may disagree — I doubt that most, whatever the beliefs of, whatever the prejudicial beliefs of whites in the American South may still be, however many there are, I doubt that very many Southerners would argue that segregation, that re-segregation of Southern society would be a right and necessary thing. They, I mean, I don’t think that… I think the vast majority of Southerners would look upon it with abhorrence. And this is not a very long time. It’s a radical change.


HEFFNER: The other day, I was watching, if you’ll forgive me, I was watching The Open Mind in a reprise that we were doing to celebrate the program’s fortieth anniversary, and watching the program with Kenneth Clark done a decade ago in which I ask him about his level of pessimism or his level of optimism. He said something very interesting. He said, “I m not optimistic. I don’t think there’s been so much of a change in racial attitudes. But I think the quality of those attitudes is different. And I think that’s really all that we could hope for,” says Professor Clark, “that there be less violence associated with the racism that is still endemic in this country.” But you really feel there has been even more of a sea change.

GOLDHAGEN: Well, I’m not trying to say that there still isn’t an enormous amount of racism in this country; I’m pointing to one specific and crucial feature of what was the legal, political, and cultural character of Southern society in 1950, let’s say, which has been, as I said, radically, I mean, demonstrably and undeniably transformed. And I really doubt, as I said, that many Southerners, many white Southerners, would try to justify segregation today.

HEFFNER: More to the point, in Germany, you feel that there has been that kind of…

GOLDHAGEN: For the vast majority of Germans, yes.

HEFFNER: Has the notion of “ordinary German,” has that been what’s, do you believe that what has been the catching point here?

GOLDHAGEN: There has been, despite this vast literature on the Holocaust, almost nothing written about the people who were the killers, about the perpetrators. Very few books. When I started this study in the mid-80’s, you could have read the entire literature and learned almost nothing about them. And I’ve come along and written a detailed book about these people and given a broader interpretation of the Holocaust based on what I’ve learned about them, which is that these people believed that what they were doing was right, ordinary Germans did this, and that one has to understand the historical development of anti-Semitism in Germany to explain this. And this goes against much of the literature on the Holocaust, and calls into question many of the things that others have said, and also is discomforting for many people, whether they be Germans or non-Germans, Jews or non-Jews, the notion that ordinary people would willfully, willingly do these sorts of things. And so it’s not just that they were ordinary, but also the conclusion about their motivation, about what moved them, that I think many people find disturbing.

HEFFNER: And you posit therefore the capacity of human beings, men who put their pants on one leg at a time, who look like all the rest of us, who we can identify with ourselves, to commit these kinds of acts.

GOLDHAGEN: As I said, when people look at other mass slaughters and genocides, people have no difficulty believing this, believing that the Hutus who slaughtered Tutsis in Rwanda did so because they wanted to, because they thought it was right. Why do we find it so difficult to believe about Germans?

HEFFNER: Well that’s the question I started off asking you. Now, you must have some clue to that.

GOLDHAGEN: I think, in part, it has something to do with some of the models that have been put forward about Nazi Germany which have diverted attention away from the individuals onto abstract structures, onto the leadership. All kinds of cliches have been mouthed about it, obedience to authority, banality of evil, conformism, et cetera, et cetera. And so these cliches have created, or these theories have created a certain attitude and mindset about the period which have led people to draw these conclusions.

I also think that it is difficult, perhaps, for people to believe, for at least, for people to believe that people who are more like us, at least how most of us conceive of ourselves to be, part of Western European society — of course, not everyone in this country comes from that society, but this is the public ethos of America — that people like us could do such things. It’s easy to believe that Africans would do such things, for many people, but not civilized Europeans. As it’s always said, how could this happen in the land of Goethe and Kant?

HEFFNER: That, in a sense, explains the fact that most of the criticism, all of the criticism that I’ve seen, comes from people whose heritage is very close to that of the Germans about whom you write. Yes? No?

GOLDHAGEN: You know, again, I haven’t paid that much attention to it.

HEFFNER: You don’t want to generalize.

GOLDHAGEN: I’m going to beg the question, because, you know, I don’t want to talk about people’s backgrounds in this way.

HEFFNER: What’s the reception in Germany, in the one minute we have left?


GOLDHAGEN: The book is being published in August in Germany. And prior to its publication there has been a furious outpouring of debate and also criticism of the book, which does take me by surprise. I mean, there is a national debate — if you want to call it that — about the book. Much of it critical, though some of it quite sensible and favorable. And when the book comes out in Germany, shortly thereafter I’ll be going to Germany for a book tour where I’ll be discussing the book in public forum with other scholars, and I’m quite confident that there are many in Germany who will read the book, when they actually can get their hands on it, and take it very seriously.

HEFFNER: Well, Professor Goldhagen, I’m delighted that you were willing to come and join me today. I hope that you’ll stay where you are so that we can do a second program, a follow-up. One of the things I want to ask you about has to do with the criticism of you that’s leveled really at your publisher for the kinds of promotion, the kind of publicity that’s been given to this book, seemingly to me an irrational criticism, but one that I think we have to deal with. So stay where you are. Thank you very much for joining me today, Daniel Goldhagen.

GOLDHAGEN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next week also. And if you’d like to share your 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.”