Even as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book about the role the average German played in the Holocaust was making its way to store shelves people were eager to talk about it.
He already had been booked for an international Holocaust symposium in Washington. There were interview requests from all over the country. People were leaving more than a dozen reactions a day on his voice mail at Harvard University.
That is because “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” (Knopf, $30) takes a relatively new approach on a much-covered subject by focusing on the killers rather than victims. And Goldhagen hands up an original, far-reaching and disquieting indictment.
Early reaction to Goldhagen’s book has included comments that he seems unusually impassioned for an academic, even angry, as his book goes further than other major historical treatments in accusing the average German of complicity in the Holocaust. But he insists he was guided throughout the project by a professional detachment.
“People ascribe emotions to me in writing this that are really foreign to me,” he said. “When you describe horrific things, you are certainly going to sound very impassioned.
“There has been a good deal of fine research and writing on the Holocaust, but the attention on the killing has obscured some of the other things that need to be said,” Goldhagen, a 36-year-old assistant professor of political science at Harvard, said in a recent interview.
His main points that counter prevailing opinion are that those who killed the Jews were not just special troops following orders out of blind faith and fear; that ordinary Germans knew what was going on and that the killers largely were drawn from among them; and that they killed with a special relish and initiatives of torture and humiliation, fully believing Jews were demons who needed to be exterminated.
Goldhagen contends the Holocaust was born of a virulent racism peculiar to Germany.
“Whatever the anti-Semitic traditions were in other European countries, it was only in Germany that an openly and rabidly anti-Semitic movement came to power - indeed was elected to power - that was bent upon turning anti-Semitic fantasy into state-organized genocidal slaughter,” writes Goldhagen, whose father, a Holocaust survivor, recently retired from Harvard after teaching a course on the Holocaust for 25 years.
Goldhagen adds that terms such as “Nazis” and “SS men” tend to obfuscate what happened during the Holocaust: “The most appropriate, indeed the only appropriate general proper name for the Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust is ‘Germans.”’
The killing was organized by Nazi zealots from the SS and its Einsatzgruppen, but much of it was carried out by the more loosely formed affiliates of the Order Police, especially its police battalions, Goldhagen says.
Ordinary Germans also were among the thousands of support groups, such as the civil servants working in occupied countries like Poland, where the Germans set up 399 ghettos and where more than 2 million Jews were killed. In addition, they worked at the more than 10,000 types of German camps such as Auschwitz, which, along with its satellite camps, had 7,000 guards.
And they took part all around Germany in Kristallnacht, the night of violence against the Jews in 1938 that turned the country from talk of ridding the country of Jews to the beginnings of a wholesale slaughter.
“How did the German people react? In small towns, the SA men were greeted by many willing locals who availed themselves of the opportunity to join the assault on the Jews,” Goldhagen writes.
His indictment is underlined by a position that a peculiarly German eliminationist racism was at the root of the horrors committed under Hitler. It is a broad, arguable position that is sure to stir some of the strongest debate about his book, which comes out in Germany late this summer.
“Had the Nazis been faced with a German populace who saw Jews as ordinary human beings, and German Jews as their brothers and sisters, then it is hard to imagine that the Nazis would have proceeded, or would have been able to proceed, with the extermination of the Jews,” he writes.
Among some of the supporting material Goldhagen found in his years of research, including 15 months reading German investigation reports, is a lack of evidence any German ever was put to death for failing to carry out executions. He also found that few people exercised their option, when given, to be reassigned from a killing troop.
Among the longer subjects he explores to support his argument is the Helmbrechts death march, which takes its name from a women’s satellite camp of Flossenburg.
It is a terrifying tale of one of the camps evacuated as liberating armies were approaching only weeks before the end of the war. The leaders of the march, which meandered all around the countryside, could have just given it up, and were even told to do so by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS.
But they kept going - kept beating, starving and shooting the emaciated women. The women guards, who averaged about 28 years old, were said to be the most vicious of all. Some of the most chilling passages are in the detached way they describe to investigators their method of operation.