Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

More About Hitler’s Willing Executioners

VTR Date: October 30, 1996

Guest: Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah


Guest: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Title: “More About Hitler’s Willing Executioners”
VTR: 10/30/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And some months back we discussed a Harvard University professor’s totally compelling and quite controversial book entitled “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”. Its subject: understanding the actions and mindset of the tens of thousands of ordinary Germans who became genocidal killers. Its conclusion: that anti-semitism moved many thousands of ordinary Germans, and would’ve 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 ordinary Germans to kill unarmed, defenseless Jewish men, women and children by the thousands, systematically and without pity. 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.

Well, political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen wrote this extraordinary study, and when we spoke here there were no reservations about his presentation of ordinary Germans’ eliminationist anti-semitism as basic to their often zealous actions as Hitler’s willing executioners. But Professor Goldhagen told us that he was soon to face his German readers on their own turf, and promised to report back on their reactions, and, in turn, on his own. Indeed, from Hamburg, Germany, in September 1996, Reuters reported Professor Goldhagen as “unexpectedly agreeing his hard-hitting work had flaws.” And on Reuters television he said, “I skirted over some of this history a little too quickly. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect upon the book, I think one thing I would devote more attention to and integrate into the analysis is the effect of the First World War in radicalizing German society.”

Reuters also reported that several of the 400 Germans in the audience said they were disappointed that Goldhagen, who has vehemently defended his book and blasted his German critics in print, simply agreed with some key objections when discussing them in person.

So let me now ask Professor Goldhagen whether we here need share that disappointment with those Germans.

GOLDHAGEN: Well, the first thing to be said was that the Reuters report was a thorough misrepresentation of what actually happened in Hamburg.


GOLDHAGEN: The headlines in Germany were, “Goldhagen defends his book”, and this Reuters correspondent, who, when he interviewed me for Reuters television was thoroughly hostile, was arguing with me even though he admitted he had only read portions of the book, put out a report in which he twisted my words and presented it in some, in, as I said, a thoroughly misleading way.

In no sense did I take back my book. In fact, I defended its thesis. What I did say is that if I had written the many other books that people were asking me to have written, if I had written an entire book on anti-semitism, or if I had written an entire book on the Nazi revolution, then I would have added more things, amplified on certain points, incorporated other things into the analysis. But I adamantly said that evening, and many times since then in Germany, that none of this, including a further discussion of the First World War, would’ve changed my argument in any way.

HEFFNER: Wishful thinking on the part of the Reuters person?

GOLDHAGEN: More than wishful thinking. As I said, the German media, which covered my trip extensively, had headlines again and again about how I was defending my thesis, and, by the way, convincing many Germans of my point of view.

HEFFNER: Tell us about that, “Convincing many Germans.”

GOLDHAGEN: The trip to Germany lasted 12 days. And it included many interviews with the media. The cornerstones, the many cornerstones of the trip were, however, six panel discussions which took part before large audiences, and which, many of which were also televised nationally and regionally. And it became clear early in the trip, really a few days into the trip, after the Hamburg discussion where, by the way, the audience clapped, and they clapped again and again overwhelmingly for the points I made, not for the points of my opponents, it became clear that many in Germany were being won over to the book, to the discussion, against the wisdom of the opinion-makers in Germany. And so the story of the trip became not just, “Is this book right? How much of it is new? Are the conclusions valid?”, but “Why is the German public accepting the book, embracing it in a discussion which the book has produced?”

HEFFNER: What’s your answer to that question?

GOLDHAGEN: The book…

HEFFNER: I know it’s most persuasive.

GOLDHAGEN: No, that’s not… Independent of whether people agree with my conclusions are not, there are certain things the book does which I think people in Germany recognize are necessary. The first is that it shifts the focus of attention away from abstract institutions and structure — the Nazi party, the SS, the terror apparatus — which is where the attention has been on the Holocaust, back to the human beings who were involved, to the people, who they were, what they did. It puts a human face on the perpetration of the Holocaust, which has been absent in Germany until now. So that’s one thing.

It also tells people a great deal about these perpetrators, and about Germany of the time, provides them information that has been absent from the discussion in Germany. It further explores what has been the dominant myth in postwar Germany, namely, that Germans and Nazis were two separate groups, beings apart, with a group of people called Nazis decreasing with every passing year.

And finally, and finally, it provokes a discussion of these issues. Or, most importantly, it provokes a discussion of these issues that people in Germany consider to be long overdue, necessary, and, whether they accept my conclusions or not — that’s the point, not all people do, of course — will produce good. It will only produce more understanding. The opinion leaders in Germany saw that they wanted to quash the discussion, and Germans made it clear, so many at least, that they want these issues finally to be discussed.

HEFFNER: You know, my experience since we did our programs together and they went on the air to very considerable response from the audience, my observation has been that there have been a great many Jews who escaped from Germany who are rather hostile to your book. This may not be numerically so, it may not be statistically so, but there are a number of those people. And I’ve been trying to understand that opposition. You must’ve faced it.

GOLDHAGEN: My experience is that many more Jews, many more survivors, both from Germany and from other countries, have been thoroughly supportive of the book, and have said to me really quite frequently and almost in these words, “Thank you for writing the book that finally accords with our experience, the book that we’ve been waiting for 50 years.” Really, many have said this.

HEFFNER: I don’t mean to say or to imply that masses of people, survivors, have called me and said or written me and said, “My goodness, this is just not true.” I don’t mean that. But, to me, I would have thought to a person there would be the kind of reaction that you describe. And yet there hasn’t been that unanimity.

GOLDHAGEN: Right. Well, of course, I never say in the book that every German shared this anti-semitic perspective, only that the vast majority of Germans did. There were German Jews who had friends, non-Jewish friends in Germany, who lived in certain pockets of German society where there was not this hostility to them and to Jews. And so it may well be. And I can’t speak with any certainty about people whom I don’t know, of course, but it may well be that their own personal experience in their immediate circle seems to stand at odds with the general character of German society of the time. That may be at the root of it. But, as I said, there are so many German Jews who substantiate and support what I’ve said.

HEFFNER: I rather thought that perhaps the question or the matter of the theory of denial entered into this. A strange thing to say. Denial, after all these years. Denial after our knowledge of six million Jews slaughtered. And yet, denial of Germans’, ordinary Germans’ involvement as you have described it. Do you think there’s something to that?

GOLDHAGEN: Well, there’s no doubt that there are many in Germany and elsewhere who don’t want to acknowledge the truth of this period. It’s a very…

HEFFNER: I mean even among the victims.

GOLDHAGEN: And even among some Jews from Germany who would like to believe that the society was a far more hospitable place than it was for them. After all, they were very much attached to this country, and it’s far more comforting for people to believe that Hitler and the band of Nazis terrorized the society or turned it around against itself and against its people than to believe that many of the people who made up the society shared these views. It may well be. I’m hesitant to make these kinds of blanket statements and to psychologize about people whom I haven’t met.

HEFFNER: I understand.

GOLDHAGEN: But there’s no doubt that this kind of mechanism may come into play.

HEFFNER: And, well, I appreciate your unwillingness to hypothesize about the motives of people you have not met. But to me it brings back a question that is ancient now, about the attitudes of many Jews in Germany as Hitler came to power. And I’m saying it too. It was Hitler who came to power, as his ideas or the ideas he expressed in “Mein Kampf” came to be embraced and acted upon by ordinary Germans. The unwillingness on the part of many people to recognize what was happening and to get out.

GOLDHAGEN: But so many did.

HEFFNER: So many got out.

GOLDHAGEN: Right. So many recognized that Germany was becoming an intolerable place to live, that their livelihoods and perhaps lives were certainly threatened, and they left Germany. And certainly after Kristallnacht in November 1938, the overwhelming majority of Jews who were there would have liked to have left, though they couldn’t leave because it was hard to get entrance visas. One has to remember though that however bad the Nazis were — and Jews realized immediately that this was a terrible regime for them — that it’s not easy to leave one’s homeland, a homeland to which German Jews were very much attached. It’s very difficult to pick up, to cut all one’s ties, to make a new life in a country where one might not even know the language. And so we should have a little more sympathy, I think, for the predicament that many German Jews found themselves in when the Nazis came to power.

HEFFNER: Oh, I don’t think it’s a matter of having either sympathy or hostilities…

GOLDHAGEN: No, I meant “sympathy” in the sense of, or empathy rather, to try to put ourselves in their situation, understand how difficult it really was.

HEFFNER: What is the situation as you discovered it in Germany among Jews living in Germany, in terms of your book?

GOLDHAGEN: Well, I had a fair amount, though not extensive, contact with Jews in Germany. And they expressed enormous satisfaction and happiness that the book had been written, that finally these issues were going to be discussed in Germany, focused on in the way that they had not been before. And they were also, the ones I came into contact with, thrilled that so much attention was on the book. When I was in Germany, this was the talk of the country for a two-week period. National television, endless articles in newspapers, radio, television reports, man-on-the-street interviews, the whole range of media coverage that you can imagine took place. This is what people were talking about, as the journalists themselves would tell me when they interviewed me.

HEFFNER: Well, I want to ask you… I don’t want to beat a dead horse. But I was pleased enormously, personally because I think the book is so great and you are such a fine political scientist and, if you don’t mind, historian. But there are quotations here from you, and I assume that they are not inaccurate. You can tell me that they are. “Now that I’ve had some time to reflect upon the book, I think one thing I would devote more attention to…” and that’s not repudiating your thesis “…one thing I would devote more attention to and integrate into the analysis is the effect of the First World War in radicalizing German Society.” I presume you said it.

GOLDHAGEN: Sure, but…

HEFFNER: Expand upon that, if you would.

GOLDHAGEN: When you write a book that covers a long period of history, you have to make all kinds of choices about what to describe and what not to describe. And I think that, and there are certain parts of German history which I couldn’t describe as fully as one might. And when I say here that I would integrate it into the analysis, that’s precisely it. It would be integrated into the existing analysis. The First World War was a scissora for European society and for German society. And the enormous number of deaths, the brutality of the war, this opened up, this led to a kind of radicalization of German society, an unloosening of inhibitions which made the Nazis’ assent to power, and then what they did, easier to come about. And so that’s what I mean by this was a society which had already suffered a great trauma. It made violence a more normal part of life, more thinkable for people to undertake. And so this made the Nazi task somewhat easier. It wasn’t, as I said, it would only be integrated in the analysis. It should have been discussed. It may have been discussed more if I had written, instead of a 600-page book, certainly if I had written a thousand-page book or an 800-page book. But that’s all I mean by it.

HEFFNER: Now, one of the sticking points in our conversations when you were here before had to do with my — and I shouldn’t, as a host — my, I won’t call it insistence, but my pressing the notion of what you then rejected, and you characterized it as a notion of “national guilt”, and wanted to disassociate yourself totally from that. And I find it a little bit difficult to, and thought about it a lot since we spoke at this table some months back, not to see what you have written as an assertion, when you talk about “ordinary Germans,” you’re talking about Germans then, that what was done was done to such a much greater extent than we have understood before or wanted to understand before by ordinary Germans. How does this not add up to, not your statement, “They were guilty,” but to a statement, a factual statement of national, a nation’s responsibility, a people’s responsibility for what happened? Help me on that.

GOLDHAGEN: So your insistence continues here. The term “guilt” means, “guilt for a crime that was committed.” When we talk about guilt it has a legal thrust to it. It’s not a moral, a sense of the moral conscience being activated. And the only people who can be deemed to be guilty are those who as individuals committed crimes. We no more hold, we should no more hold Germans of the time guilty for things they may have believed or even believed to be right to be done than we hold people today guilty for harboring thoughts which we find reprehensible. And so, in this sense, we cannot speak of collective guilt or a whole nation being guilty, we can only speak of individual guilt. And people can disagree on this, but this is my view.

Now, what we may say is that there is some national responsibility in Germany for making amends to the victims as best as can be done, for coming to terms for facing this past, for changing their society in ways in which they have done to a great extent, and ways so that this cannot reoccur. And so there is a certain kind of national responsibility, but that’s different from saying people or the whole nation is guilty.

HEFFNER: Why do you become legalistic at this point? Why… Yeah, go ahead.

GOLDHAGEN: Because this is what the thrust of the notion of guilt means, I think, when it is being used, and particularly in the German context, because in Germany the subject of collective guilt has been bandied about ever since the war ended, immediately after the end of the war. And it’s really understood in this legal sense that people are guilty. So it’s not for me to redefine words. I use it in the sense that the term is really, the real force of the term.

HEFFNER: If I were wiser, my vocabulary larger, sure, I could pick some words out and ask whether you would accept them. And I wonder whether you have thought, if you reject the notion of collective guilt because you say that is a specific, it involves a specific constellation of facts and ideas. Guilt, guilt by legal terms. What would you say? What phrase would you use, what would you use to describe in the old South, let’s say, in our own country, attitudes toward chattel slavery, though we know that a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of whites in the old South owned slaves. Yet it was a slaveocracy.

GOLDHAGEN: Right. I think it’s a good comparison. Because it poses the issue in terms that are quite comprehensible, that get away from the specific history of the Holocaust. The truth is, I’m not a moral philosopher. And in this book I don’t express explicitly issues of guilt and innocence. For the German edition, actually, I wrote a new foreword to address this issue because it had become such a topic of discussion in Germany before the book came out, in which I laid out my views which are essentially, and I essentially wrote what I just said here about individual guilt, how people cannot be deemed guilty merely because of their membership in a community, which is what “collective guilt” means. And I don’t, I’m not a moral philosopher. Whether we talk about the American South before the Civil War, or about Nazi Germany, what I understand to be the most useful task is to try to understand what people believed, what they supported and what they did, and why they did so.

HEFFNER: Why do you say you’re not a moral philosopher? What does it mean?

GOLDHAGEN: Well, it means that I’m not professionally engaged in trying to understand how we assess the morality of other people.

HEFFNER: Oh, Hell’s bells. You’re the son of a survivor, you’re a college professor…

GOLDHAGEN: No, but that’s not to say that I don’t have my views on the subject, but just it is not my professional competence. My professional competence is to be a social scientist, to work like a historian, to try to explain why things happen.

HEFFNER: And if I shut the book…


HEFFNER: …and said, “Let’s not talk about this book for a moment, let’s just talk person to person,” where would you come out?

GOLDHAGEN: I would say that Germans of the time, the views they had of Jews, which I’ve described here, holding them to be evil and necessary to eliminate in one way or another, that these were reprehensible views. These were reprehensible views, and they issued, in the persons of many people, in deeds that we would call evil deeds. What kind of moral categories we apply to that, it’s quite clear it’s reprehensible. Are they guilty? Of what?

HEFFNER: Well, are they collectively, were they collectively involved? I’ll eliminate the word “guilty.” And I’ll tell you why I ask. You as a political scientist, I’m sure, would be sympathetic, not just empathetic, to this point of view. For the future, for the Twentieth Century, for the post-Civil War period, we needed to know what we were dealing with in terms of Southern attitudes, using that. We need to know now, 50 years, not a very long time, we need to know now with whom we are dealing.

GOLDHAGEN: Yes, but what we need to know is who has done what and why they did it.

HEFFNER: You tell me ordinary Germans did this.

GOLDHAGEN: Ordinary Germans did it, and they did it because they were mobilized by the state, but their motivation was primarily one of inner assent. They believed it was right to do. That’s what we need to know. And we need to know why these people came to hold these views. And we need to understand all the processes, so that if we want to try to work to prevent such things, and not just things like the Holocaust, but other forms of harm that people do to other people because of the prejudices they hold, then we can learn from this. The moral categories are not, the moral evaluation of this sort, are people guilty or not, don’t help in this enterprise.

HEFFNER: There was a fascinating piece that William F. Buckley wrote in the National Review talking about the book and about the response to it. And if I remember correctly, at the very end (and if I could I’d dig it out right now) he said, “If what you’re writing is correct, God help us, because if we can then move that to”, he didn’t say the old South, “to Bosnia, can move that capacity of ordinary human beings to act as these ordinary Germans acted, then perhaps we’re in more trouble than we believe.” And you, as a political scientist, I would think you would want to know, forget the word “guilt” because…

GOLDHAGEN: But that’s what I’m saying, forget it. But I disagree with Buckley here. I don’t think it’s all that easy to inculcate these kinds of views into people and to have, and then to be able to move them to commit mass murder and to do all the other things which the German perpetrators did.

HEFFNER: It has to be there.

GOLDHAGEN: It has to develop over some period of time through complex processes. It’s not something… In fact, the “God help us” should be if a dictatorship could come to power and turn all people around so that the people who had no prior enmity towards others would be willing to do these things. That is the really, that’s the more fearful prospect.

HEFFNER: Well, maybe the more fearful question would be, and let me ask you with just a couple minutes left: Where do you think the ordinary German is today in terms of this constellation of feelings, attitudes, hates?

GOLDHAGEN: Germany today is a very different society from what it was in 1945 or 1933. It’s been substantially, almost completely transformed, one could say, politically and culturally. It’s a genuine democracy. Anti-semitism has declined and been transformed in character. Few hold Nazi-like views of Jews. This is explicable, actually, using the same framework I used to explain the rise in anti-semitism, by understanding that people derive their views of the world mainly from what they learn in society, what can be called the “public conversation,” which in the post-war period has been democratic, universalistic. There’ve been no public images of Jews institutionally supported which hold them to be evil. So people have been transformed in their views of Jews. And we know this from the survey data. And one of the reasons the book has been so well received in Germany, and really it’s being bought, it’s being read, it’s being discussed, is because so many Germans look upon the past the way you and I look upon the past.

HEFFNER: As the past? Period?

GOLDHAGEN: As the past? No, it still has ramifications for their society. But they want to know about this past. And so many in Germany, particularly the younger people, who can be called the “grandchildren of the perpetrators,” they can say, “This was then. It’s about our heritage, but it’s not about us. We are different.” And they’re right. The young people are right to say they are different, it’s not about them. And so they really want to learn about what happened.

HEFFNER: I don’t know why I, as an old man, should be quite as pessimistic about all this. But maybe, particularly sitting here with you whose father’s family experienced what you are writing about here. Yet I’m not as sanguine, if that’s the right word, as you are. But I do know that when the book is published in Japan and you go there you’ve got to come back again and talk about its reception there.

GOLDHAGEN: I’d be delighted to.

HEFFNER: Professor Goldhagen, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

GOLDHAGEN: Thanks for asking, for having me back.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

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

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.