Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Alfred A. Knopf
There was a hair-raising catchphrase going around in Germany just before the Nazis came to power: Besser ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende. Better an end with terror than terror without end. Along with Nazi sympathizers who had been backing Hitler’s chances for years, ordinary citizens with no taste for ideological politics had reached the point of insecurity where they were ready to let the Nazis in. The Nazis had caused such havoc in the streets that it was thought that only they could put a stop to it. They did, but the order they restored was theirs. When it was over, after twelve short years of the promised thousand, the memory lingered, a long nightmare about what once was real. It lingers still, causing night sweats. A cool head is hard to keep. Proof of that is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s new book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, provocatively subtitled ‘Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust’. Hailed in the publisher’s preliminary hype by no less an authority than the redoubtable Simon Schama as ‘the fruit of phenomenal scholarship and absolute integrity’, it is a book to be welcomed, but hard to welcome warmly. It advances knowledge while subtracting from wisdom, and whether the one step forward is worth the two steps back is a nice question. Does pinning the Holocaust on what amounts to a German ‘national character’ make sense? I don’t think it does, and in the light of the disturbingly favourable press endorsement that Goldhagen has already been getting, it becomes a matter of some urgency to say why.
The phenomenal scholarship can be safely conceded: Schama and comparable authorities are unlikely to be wrong about that. Tunnelling long and deep into hitherto only loosely disturbed archives, Goldhagen has surfaced with persuasive evidence that the Holocaust, far from being, as we have been encouraged to think, characteristically the work of cold-blooded technocrats dispassionately organizing mass disappearance on an industrial basis, was on the contrary the enthusiastically pursued contact sport of otherwise ordinary citizens, drawn from all walks of life, who were united in the unflagging enjoyment with which they inflicted every possible form of suffering on their powerless victims. In a constellation of more than ten thousand camps, the typical camp was not an impersonally efficient death factory: it was a torture garden, with its administrative personnel delightedly indulging themselves in a holiday packaged by Hieronymous Bosch. Our post-Hannah Arendt imaginations are haunted by the wrong figure: for every owl-eyed, mild-mannered penpusher clinically shuffling the euphemistic paperwork of oblivion, there were a hundred noisily dedicated louts revelling in the bloodbath. The gas chambers, our enduring shared symbol of the catastrophe, were in fact anomalous: most of those annihilated did not die suddenly and surprised as the result of a deception, but only after protracted humiliations and torments to whose devising their persecutors devoted inexhaustible creative zeal. Far from needing to have their scruples overcome by distancing mechanisms that would alienate them from their task, their killers were happily married to the job from the first day to the last. The more grotesque the cruelty, the more they liked it. They couldn’t get enough of it. Right up until the last lights went out on the Third Reich, long after the destruction made any sense at all even by their demented standards, they went on having the time of their lives through dispensing hideous deaths to the helpless.
The book concludes, in short, that there is no point making a mystery of how a few Germans were talked into it when there were so many of them who could scarcely be talked out of it. Since we have undoubtedly spent too much time wrestling with the supposedly complex metaphysics of how an industrious drone like Eichmann could be induced to despatch millions to their deaths sight unseen, and not half enough time figuring how thousands of otherwise healthy men and women were mad keen to work extra hours hands-on just for the pleasure of hounding their fellow human beings beyond the point of despair, this conclusion, though it is nowhere near as new and revolutionary as Goldhagen and his supporters think it is, is undoubtedly a useful one to reach.
Unfortunately Goldhagen reaches it in a style disfigured by rampant sociologese and with a retributive impetus that carries him far beyond his proper objective. It would have been enough to prove that what he calls ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’ was far more wide-spread among the German people than it has suited their heirs, or us, to believe. But he wants to blame the whole population, and not just for prejudice but for their participation, actual or potential, in mass murder. He is ready to concede that there were exceptions, but doesn’t think they count. He thinks it would be more informative, and more just, to stop fooling ourselves by holding the Nazis responsible for the slaughter, and simply call the perpetrators ‘the Germans’. Didn’t we call the soldiers who fought in Vietnam ‘the Americans’?
Well, yes – but we didn’t blame ‘the Americans’ for the atrocities committed there, or, if we did, we knew that we were talking short-hand, and that the reality was more complicated. No doubt many of the soldiers involved had a ready-to-go prejudice against the Vietnamese, but without the ill-judged, and even criminal, initiatives of their government it would have remained a prejudice. What needed examining was not simply the soldiers’ contempt for alien life-forms but the government policies that had put the troops in a position which allowed their contempt to express itself as mass murder. Much of the examining was done by Americans at the time, sometimes in the face of persecution by their own government, but never without the hope of getting a hearing from the American people. So it would make little sense, except as an ad hoc rhetorical device, to say that it was the natural outcome of the American cultural heritage to burn down peasant huts in Vietnam. Putting up Pizza Huts would have been just as natural. And it makes no sense whatsoever to call the perpetrators of the Holocaust ‘the Germans’ if by that is meant that the German victims of Nazism – including many Jews who went on regarding themselves as Germans to the end of the line – somehow weren’t Germans at all. That’s what the Nazis thought, and to echo their hare-brained typology is to concede them their victory. Nothing, of course, could be further from Goldhagen’s intention, but his loose language has led him into it.
The Nazis didn’t just allow a lethal expression of vengeful fantasy; they rewarded it. They deprived a readily identifiable minority of German citizens of their citizenship, declared open season on them, honoured anyone who attacked them, punished anyone who helped them, and educated a generation to believe that its long-harboured family prejudices had the status of a sacred mission. To puzzle over the extent of the cruelty that was thus unleashed is essentially naïve. To marvel at it, however, is inevitable, and pity help us if we ever become blasé about the diabolical landscape whose contours not even Goldhagen’s prose can obscure, for all his unintentional mastery of verbal camouflage. In a passage like the following – by no means atypical – it would be nice to think that anger had deflected him from a natural style, but all the evidence suggests that this is his natural style.
Because there were other peoples who did not treat Jews as Germans did and because, as I have shown, it is clear that the actions of the German perpetrators cannot be explained by non-cognitive structural features, when investigating different (national) groups of perpetrators, it is necessary to eschew explanations that in a reductionist fashion attribute complex and highly variable actions to structural factors or allegedly universalistic social psychological processes; the task, then, is to specify what combination of cognitive and situational factors brought the perpetrators, whatever their identities were, to contribute to the Holocaust in all the ways that they did.
A sentence like that can just about be unscrambled in the context of the author’s attention-losing terminology, but the context is no picnic to be caught up in for 500-plus pages, and the general effect is to make a vital dose of medicine almost impossible to swallow. This book has all the signs off having begun as a dissertation and it makes you wonder what America’s brighter young historians are reading in a general way about their subject before they are issued with their miner’s lamps and lowered into the archives. Clearly they aren’t reading much in high school, but isn’t there some spare time on campus to get acquainted with the works of, say, Lewis Namier and find out what an English sentence is supposed to do? If only jargon were Goldhagen’s sole affliction, things would not be so bad, because what he must mean can quite often be arrived at by sanforizing the verbiage. A ‘cognitive model of ontology’ is probably your view of the world, or what you believe to be true; and ‘ideational formation’ is almost certainly an idea; when people ‘conceptualize’ we can guess he means that they think; when they ‘enunciate’ we can guess he means that they say; and if something ‘was immanent in the structure of cognition’ we can guess it was something that everybody thought.
But along with the jargon come the solecisms, and some of those leave guesswork limping. Goldhagen employs the verb ‘brutalize’ many times, and gets it wrong every time except once. Until recently, when the wrong meaning took over, no respectable writer employed that verb to mean anything else except to turn someone into a brute. Nobody except the semi-literate supposed that it meant to be brutal to someone. Our author does suppose that on all occasions, except when, to show that he is aware the word is being used incorrectly, he employs inverted commas on the only occasion when he uses it correctly. But a modern historian can possibly get away with inadvertently suggesting that he has never read a book written by a historian with a classical education. It is harder to get away with providing evidence that he has never read a book of history emanating from, or merely written about, the classical world. Throughout his treatise, Goldhagen copies the increasingly popular misuse of the verb ‘decimate’ to mean kill nearly everybody. Julius Caesar was not the only author in ancient times to make it clear that the word means kill one in ten. When Goldhagen repeatedly talks about some group of Jews being decimated, all the reader can think is: if only the death-toll had been as small as that.
Still, we know what he must mean, and no disapproval of Goldhagen’s style can stave off discussion of the story he has to tell with it. In the long run he mines his own narrative for implications that are not always warranted and are sometimes tendentious, but there is no way round some of his initial propositions. From the archives he brings back three main narrative strands that will make anyone think again who ever thought that the men in the black uniforms did all the dirty work and that any culpability accruing to anyone else was through not wanting to know. The mobile police battalions who conducted so many of the mass shootings in the East were drawn from run-of-the-pavement Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) and many of them were not even Nazi Party members, just ordinary Joes who had been drafted into the police because they didn’t meet the physical requirements for the army, let alone the SS elite formations. So far we have tended, in the always sketchy mental pictures we make of these things, to put most of the mass shootings down to the Einsatzgruppen, SS outfits detailed by Himmler specifically for the task of pursuing Hitler’s cherished new type of war, the war of biological extermination. Goldhagen is right to insist that this common misapprehension badly needs to be modified. (Here, as elsewhere, he could have gone further with his own case: the Einsatzgruppen themselves were a fairly motley crew, as Gitta Sereny, in her recent biography of Albert Speer, has incidentally pointed out while pursuing the subject of just how one of the best-informed men in Germany managed to maintain his vaunted ignorance for so long: if, indeed, he did.) The police battalions tortured and killed with an enthusiasm outstripping even the Einsatzgruppen, whose leaders reported many instances of nervous breakdown and alcoholism in the ranks, whereas the police seem to have thrived physically and mentally from the whole business, sometimes even bringing their wives in by train to share the sport. The few that did request to be relieved of their duties were granted a dispensation without penalty. Goldhagen draws the fair inference that all who stayed on the job were effectively volunteers. Very few among the innocent people they shot into mass graves were spared the most vile imaginable preliminary tortures. The standard scenario in a mass shooting was to assemble the victims first in the town centre, keep them there for a long time, terrorize them with beatings and arbitrarily selective individual deaths, and thus make sure the survivors were already half dead with thirst and fear before flogging them all the way to the disposal site, where they often had to dig their own pit before being shot into it. It was thought normal to kill children in front of their desperate mothers before granting the mothers the release of a bullet. The cruelty knew no limits but it didn’t put new recruits off. If anything, it turned them on: granted, which the author does not grant, they needed any turning on in the first place.
Had these operations been truly mechanical, there would have been none of this perverted creativity. If Goldhagen’s limitations as a writer mercifully ensure that he can’t evoke the wilful cruelty in its full vividness, he is right to emphasize it, although wrong to suppose that it has not been emphasized before. The cruelties are everywhere described in the best book yet written on the subject, Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust, which strangely is nowhere referred to or even mentioned in Goldhagen’s effort. Raoul Hilberg’s monumental The Destruction of the European Jews is elbowed out of the way with the assurance that though it deals well with the victims it says little about the perpetrators, but Gilbert, who says a lot about the perpetrators, doesn’t get a look in even as an unacknowledged crib, as far as I can tell. (For a work of this importance, the absence of a bibliography is a truly sensational publishing development. What next: an index on request?) It is a lot to ask of a young historian who has spent a good proportion of his reading life submerged in the primary sources that he should keep up with the secondary sources too, but Gilbert’s book, with its wealth of personal accounts, is a primary source, quite apart from doing a lot to presage Goldhagen’s boldly declared intention of showing that the detached modern industrial mentality had little to do with the matter, and that most of those who died were killed in a frenzy. But Goldhagen’s well backed-up insistence that a good number of the perpetrators were not Nazi ideologues but common or garden German citizens is a genuine contribution, although whether it leads to a genuine historical insight is the question that lingers.
The second main story is about the ‘work’ that the Jews who were not granted the mercy of a comparatively quick death were forced to do until they succumbed to its rigours. It is Goldhagen who puts the inverted commas around the word ‘work’ and this time he is right, because it was the wrong word. Real work produces something. ‘Work’ produced little except death in agony. Non-Jewish slave labourers from the occupied countries were all held in varying degrees of deprivation but at least they had some chance of survival. For the Jewish slaves, ‘work’ really meant murder, slow but sure. Here is further confirmation, if it were needed (he overestimates the need, because the sad fact is already well established throughout the literature of the subject) that the Nazi policy on the exploitation of Jewish labour was too irrational even to be ruthless. A ruthless policy would have employed the Jews for their talents and qualifications, concentrated their assigned tasks on the war effort, kept them healthy while they laboured, and killed them afterwards. Nazi policy was to starve, beat and torture them up to and including the point of death even in those comparatively few cases when the job they had been assigned to might have helped win the war, or anyway stave off defeat for a little longer. The Krupp armaments factories in Essen were typical in that the Jewish workers were given hell (Alfred Krupp, who might have faced the rope if he had ever admitted knowledge of the workers tortured in the basement of his own office block, lived to be measured for a new Porsche every year), but atypical in that the Jews were actually employed in doing something useful. The more usual scenario involved lifting something heavy, carrying it somewhere else, putting it down, and carrying back something just like it, with beatings all the way if you dropped it. What the something was was immaterial: a big rock would do fine. These were Sisyphean tasks, except that not even Sisyphus had to run the gauntlet. Tracing well the long-standing strain in German anti-Semitism which held that Jews were parasites and had never done any labour, Goldhagen argues persuasively that this form of punishment was meant to remind them of this supposed fact before they died: to make them die of the realization. Here is a hint of what his book might have been – he is really getting somewhere when he traces this kind of self-defeating irrationality on the Nazis’ part to an ideal: perhaps their only ideal. It was a mad ideal, but its sincerity was proved by the price they paid for it. At all costs, even at the cost of their losing the war, they pursued their self-imposed ‘task’ of massacring people who had not only done them no harm but might well have done them some good – of wasting them.
Many of the top Nazis were opportunists. In the end, Goering would probably have forgotten all about the Jews if he could have done a deal; Himmler did try to do a deal on that very basis; and Goebbels, though he was a raving anti-Semite until the very end, was nothing like that at the beginning. During his student career he respected his Jewish professors, and seems to have taken up anti-Semitism with an eye to the main chance. He got into it the way Himmler and Goering were ready to get out of it, because even his fanaticism was a power-play. But for Hitler it was not so. According to him, Jews had never done anything useful for Germany and never could. It was a belief bound to result in his eventual military defeat, even if he had conquered all Europe and Britain with it; because in the long run he would have come up against the atomic bomb, developed in America mainly by the very scientists he had driven out of Europe. On the vital part played in German science by Jews he could never listen to reason. Max Planck protested in 1933 about what the new exclusion laws would do to the universities. In view of his great prestige he was granted an audience with the Führer. Planck hardly got a chance to open his mouth. Hitler regaled him with a three-quarters-of-an-hour lecture about mathematics, which Planck later called one of the stupidest things he had ever heard in his life. The pure uselessness of all Jews, the expiation they owed for their parasitism, was at the centre of Hitler’s purposes until the last hour, and the same was true of all who shared his lethal convictions.
This bleak truth is brought out sharply by the third and main strand in Goldhagen’s book, which deals with the death marches in the closing stage of the war, when the camps in the East were threatened with being overrun. The war was all but lost, yet the Nazis went on diverting scarce resources into tormenting helpless civilians. The survivors were already starving when they set out from the Eastern camps, and as they were herded on foot towards camps in the Third Reich their guards, who might conceivably have gained credit after the imminent capitulation by behaving mercifully, behaved worse than ever. They starved their charges until they could hardly walk and then tortured them for not walking faster. This behaviour seems beyond comprehension, and, indeed, it is – but it does make a horrible sort of sense if we accept that for the Nazis the war against the Jews was the one that really mattered.
Goldhagen’s account of the death marches gives too much weight to the fact that these horrors continued even after Himmler issued instructions that the Jews should be kept alive. (‘Perhaps it’s time,’ he famously said to a Jewish representative in 1945, ‘for us Germans and you Jews to bury the hatchet.’) Goldhagen doesn’t consider that the guards, both men and women, were facing a return to powerlessness and were thus unlikely to relinquish their shred of omnipotence while they still had it. He prefers to contend that the killings went on because the people in general were in the grip of a force more powerful than Nazi orders: eliminationist anti-Semitism. To him, nothing but a theory in the perpetrator’s mind – in this case, the Germans’ view that the Jews were subhuman and thus beyond compassion – can explain gratuitous cruelty. But recent history had shown that people can become addicted to torturing their fellow human beings while feeling no sense of racial superiority to them, or even while feeling that no particular purpose is being served by the torture. In some of the Latin-American dictatorships, torturers who had quickly extracted all the relevant information often went on with the treatment, simply to see what the victim could be reduced to, especially if the victim was a woman. To construct a political theory that explains such behaviour is tempting, but finally you are faced with the possibility that the capacity to do these things has no necessary connection with politics – and the truly dreadful possibility that it might have some connection with sexual desire, in which case we had better hope that we are talking about nurture rather than nature. A genetic propensity would put us all in it: Original Sin with a vengeance.
The price for holding to the conviction about the all-pervasiveness of murderous anti-Semitism among the Germans is the obligation to account for every instance of those who showed mercy. In his discussion of Kristallnacht, Goldhagen quotes a Gestapo report (obviously composed by a factotum not yet fully in synch with the Führer’s vision) as saying that by far the greater part of the German population ‘does not understand the senseless individual acts of violence and terror.’ Why shouldn’t the people have understood, if their anti-Semitism was as eliminationist as Goldhagen says it was? Later, talking about one of Police Battalion 309’s operations in Bialystok, he mentions a ‘German army officer appalled by the licentious killing of unarmed civilians’, and he dismisses a conscience-stricken Major Trapp, who, having been ordered to carry out a mass killing, was heard to exclaim, ‘My God! Why must I do this?’ Were these men eliminationist anti-Semites, too? We could afford to consider their cases without any danger of lapsing into the by now discredited notion that the Wehrmacht was not implicated. Finally, during a reflection on the Helmbrechts death march, Goldhagen mentions that some of the guards behaved with a touch of humanity. He doesn’t make enough of his own observation that they were the older guards – ‘Germans…old enough to have been bred not only on Nazi culture.’
For Goldhagen, prejudice is the sole enemy. Other scholars, such as Raul Hilberg in his Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, have tried to show how Germans overcame their inhibitions to kill Jews. Goldhagen’s monolithic thesis is that there were no inhibitions in the first place. But we need to make a distinction between Germany’s undeniably noxious anti-Semitic inheritance – an age-old dream of purity, prurient as all such dreams – and the way the Nazi government, using every means of bribery, propaganda, social pressure and violent coercion in its power, turned that dream into a living nightmare. Goldhagen slides past the point, and the result is a crippling injury to the otherwise considerable worth of his book. He could, in fact, have gone further in establishing how early the Final Solution got rolling. Gilbert does a better job of showing that it was, in effect, under way after the invasion of Poland, where thousands of Jews were murdered and the rest herded into the ghettos. Goldhagen quotes some of Heydrich’s September 21, 1939, order about forming the ghettos but omits the most revealing clause, in which Heydrich ordered that the ghettos be established near railheads. That can have meant only one thing. In May of 1941, Goering sent a memo from the Central Office of Emigration in Berlin ordering that no more Jews be allowed to leave the occupied territories. That, too, can have meant only one thing. Hannah Arendt was not wrong when she said about Nazi Germany in its early stages that only a madman could guess what would happen next. In 1936, Heinrich Mann (Thomas’s older brother) published an essay predicting the whole event, simply on the basis of the Nuremberg laws and what had already happened in the first concentration camps. But his was a very rare case, perhaps made possible by artistic insight. It needed sympathy with the Devil to take the Nazis at their word; good people rarely know that much about evil. But well in advance of the Holocaust’s official starting date there were plenty of bad people who didn’t need to be told about mass extermination before they got the picture.
Here Goldhagen, in his unquenchable ire, provides a useful corrective to those commentators who persist in extending the benefit of the doubt to opportunists like Albert Speer. Gitta Sereny’s book is a masterpiece of wide-ranging sympathy, but she wanders too near naïveté when she worries at the non-subject of when Speer knew about what his terrible friends had in mind and whether he had actually read Mein Kampf. In 1936, a popular album about Hitler carried an article under Speer’s name which quoted Mein Kampf by the chunk: of course Speer had read it, and of course he knew about the Final Solution from the hour it got under way. The top Nazis didn’t conceal these things from one another. They did, however, conceal these things from the German people. Why was that? There is something to Goldhagen’s contention that the people found out anyway – that eventually everyone knew at least something. But why, if they were so receptive to the idea, weren’t the people immediately told everything? Surely the answer is that Hitler shared the Gestapo’s suspicion about the ability of the people to think ‘correctly’ on the subject.
He certainly had his doubts before he came to power. In the election of 1930, which won the Nazis their entrée into the political system, the Jewish issue was scarcely mentioned. And later, when the Third Reich began its expansion into other countries, in all too many cases a significant part of the local populations could be relied on to do the very thing that Goldhagen accuses the Germans of – to start translating their anti-Semitism into a roundup the moment the whistle blew. In the Baltic countries, in the Ukraine, and in Romania and Yugoslavia, the results were horrendous from the outset. A more civilized-sounding but even more sinister case was France, where the Vichy regime exceeded the SS’s requirements for lists of Jewish men, and handed over lists of women and children as well – the preliminary to the mass deportations from Drancy, which proceeded with no opposition to speak of. Why weren’t the Germans themselves seen by the Nazis as being thoroughly biddable from the start?
Goldhagen leaves the question untouched because he has no answer. He is so certain of the entire German population’s active collaboration – or, at the very least, it’s approving compliance – in the Holocaust that he underplays the Nazi state’s powers of coercion through violence, something that no previous authority on the subject has managed to do. He overemphasizes the idea that the German people weren’t completely powerless to shape Nazi policies; he cites, for example, the widespread public condemnation of the policy that resulted in the euthanizing of physically and mentally handicapped Germans. The practice was stopped, but in that case people were protesting the treatment of their own loved ones, and the Jews were not their loved ones. There could easily have been more protests on behalf of the Jews if the penalty for protesting had not been severe and well known.
Goldhagen qualifies the bravery of the Protestant minister and Nazi opponent Martin Niemöller by pointing out – correctly, alas – that he was an anti-Semite. But he doesn’t mention the case of a Swabian pastor who after Kristallnacht told his congregation that the Nazi assault on the Jews would bring divine punishment. The Nazis beat him to a pulp, threw him onto the roof of a shed, smashed up his vicarage, and sent him to prison. And what about the Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg, who, after the burning of the synagogues, closed each of his evening services with a prayer for the Jews? When he protested the deportations, he was put on a train himself – to Dachau. These men were made examples of to discourage others. They were made to pay for their crime.
Because it was a crime – the biggest one a non-Jewish German could commit. In Berlin (always the city whose population Hitler most distrusted), some non-Jewish German wives managed to secure the release of their Jewish husbands from concentration camps, but that scarcely proves that a mass protest would have been successful, or even, in the long run, tolerated without reprisal. The penalties for helping Jews got worse in direct proportion to the sanctions imposed against them, and everyone knew what the supreme penalty was: forms of capital punishment under the Nazis included the axe and the guillotine. (The axe was brought back from the museum because it was medieval.) Both the Protestant and the Catholic Church knuckled under to the Nazis with a suspicious alacrity in which rampant anti-Semitism was undoubtedly a factor, but the general failure of rank-and-file priests and ministers to bear individual witness has to be put down at least partly to the risks they would have run if they had done so. (Later on, when the Germans occupied Italy after the Badoglio government signed an armistice with the Allies, and the extreme anti-Jewish measures that Mussolini had stopped short of were put into effect, the roundup was a comparative failure, partly because the priests and nuns behaved so well. But they had not spent years with the threat of the concentration camp and the axe hanging over them.) In Germany, everyone knew that hiding or helping Jews was an unpardonable crime, which would be punished as severely as an attack on Hitler’s life, because it was an attack on Hitler’s life. Why, Goldhagen asks, did the population not rise up? The answer is obvious: because you had to be a hero to do so.
Eventually, of course, a small but significant segment of the German people did rise up, because they were heroes. About the various resistance groups of the pre-war years Goldhagen has little to say, and about the participants in the attempt on Hitler’s life of July 20, 1944, he concludes that they were mostly anti-Semitic and that their rebellion against the Nazi regime was not motivated chiefly by its treatment of the Jews. But from Joachim Fest’s 1994 Staatsstreich (Coup d’État) we know that Axel von dem Bussche-Streithorst, who was twenty-four at the time of the plot, turned against Hitler after witnessing a mass shooting of thousands of Jews at the Dubno airfield, in the Ukraine, and that Ulrich-Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld was turned towards resistance after seeing what the Einsatzgruppen were up to in Poland. There are further such examples in the Lexikon des Widerstandes 1933-1945, an honour roll of those who rebelled, and in a 1986 collection of essays by various historians entitled Der Widerstand Gegen den Nationalsozialismus (The Resistance Against National Socialism). The latter volume includes a list of the twenty July plotters who, after the plot failed, told the Gestapo during their interrogation that the reason for their rebellion was the treatment of the Jews. There are several names you would expect: Julius Leber, Dietrich Bonhöffer, Adolf Reichwein, and Carl Goerdeler – men who had been scheming to get rid of Hitler even during the years of his success. But then there are names that smack of the Almanach de Gotha: Alexander and Berthold Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, Hans von Dohnanyi, Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke… There is no reason to think that these Hochadel sons were necessarily liberal. Some of them came from archconservative families, and no doubt a good number had grown up with anti-Semitism hanging around the house like heavy curtains. Most of them were career officers who had relished the chance to rebuild the German Army; some even nursed the hopelessly romantic idea that after Hitler was killed Grossdeutschland might remain intact to go on fighting beside the Western Allies against the Soviet Union. But about the sincerity of their disgust at what happened to the Jews there can be no doubt. Though it could scarcely have made things easier for them, they told the Gestapo about it, thereby testifying to the sacrificial element in an enterprise that may have failed as a plot but succeeded as a ceremony – the ceremony of innocence which the Nazis had always been so keen to drown.
The plot was already a ceremony before it was launched. The experienced Henning von Tresckow, who had been in on several attempts before, was well aware that it might fail but told his fellow conspirators that it should go ahead anyway, coute que coute. Claus Graf von Stauffenberg’s famous last words Es lebe das geheime Deutschland have turned out to be not quite so romantically foolish as they sounded at the time. If there never was a secret Germany, the July plotters at least provided a sacred moment, and the Germans of today are right to cherish it. As for the aristocracy, though even the bravery of its flower could not offset the way that it helped to sabotage the Weimar Republic, at least it regained its honour, in preparation for its retirement from the political stage. Since then the aristocracy has served Germany well in all walks of life – the Gräfin Dornhoff, active proprietress of Die Zeit, one of the great newspapers of the world, would be an asset to any nation – but it has paid democracy the belated compliment of a decent reticence. Churchill, the instinctive opponent of Hitler and all his works, always thought that Prussia was the nerve centre of German bestiality. He was wrong about that. Hans Frank, outstanding even among Gauleiters for his epic savagery, was closer to the truth. Many of the July plotters had a background in the famously snobbish Prussian Ninth Infantry regiment, of which Frank himself was a reservist. Just before his own hanging at Nuremberg, Frank said that the Ninth’s officers had never understood Antisemitismus der spezifisches Nazi-Art (anti-Semitism of the specific Nazi type). They had been unsound on the Jewish question.
How many of the German population were unsound on the Jewish question we can never now know. Probably there were fewer than we would like to think, but almost certainly there were more than Goldhagen allows. However many there were, there was not a lot they could do if they didn’t want to get hurt. After the Nazis finally came to absolute power, the build-up to the annihilation of the Jews moved stage by stage, always with the occasional lull that allowed people to think the madness might be over. Certainly there were a lot of Jews who wanted to think that, and who can blame them? Seizing the chance to emigrate meant leaving behind everything they had. Some of them – especially the baptized and those who no longer practised their faith – never stopped thinking of themselves as Germans, believing, correctly, that the regime which criminalized them was a criminal regime. They thought Germany would get its senses back. They would scarcely have done so if they had thought that there were no non-Jewish Germans who thought the same.
From the year the Nazis took power right up until Kristallnacht in November 1938, the legal deprivations and persecutions looked selective, as if there might be some viable limit beyond which they would not go. After Kristallnacht, it became clearer that an all-inclusive, no-holds-barred pogrom was under way, but by then it was too late. It was too late for everyone, non-Jewish Germans included. But really it had always been too late, ever since the Nazis rewrote the laws so that their full apparatus of terror could be legally directed against anyone who disagreed with them. Is it any wonder that so many of those who retained their citizenship turned their backs on the pariahs from whom it had been stripped? When one Communist shot a stormtrooper, eleven Communists were immediately decapitated in reprisal.
Everyone knew things like that. Those were the first things that every German in the Nazi era ever knew – a fact worth remembering when we confidently assume that they all must have known about the last thing, the Holocaust. It can be remarkable what you don’t find out when you are afraid for just yourself, let alone for your family. All you have to do is look away. And the Nazis made very sure, even when Hitler was tumultuously popular in the flush of his diplomatic and military successes, that failure to join in the exultant unanimity would not pass unnoticed. Even if you lay low, you still had to stick your right hand in the air. Max Weber defined the state as that organization holding the monopoly of legalized violence. The Nazi state overfulfilled his definition by finding new forms of violence to make legal. Probably Goldhagen realizes all that. But he doesn’t say much about it, because he has a bigger, better idea that leaves the Nazis looking like last minute walk-ons in the closing scene of Götterdämmerung: spear-carriers in Valhalla.
Here we have to turn to his account of the growth of German anti-Semitism, which means that we have to turn back to the beginning of the book. His thesis would have gone better at the end, as a speculative afterthought, but he puts it at the front because it contains the premise that for him explains everything. Since most of it is written in the brain-curdling jargon which he later partly lets drop when he gets to the Holocaust itself, this glutinous treatise would make for a slow start even if it were consistent. But the reader is continually stymied by what is left out or glossed over. An artist in the firm grip of his own brush, Goldhagen slap-happily paints a picture of anti-Semitism pervading all levels of society, without explaining how it failed to pervade the members of the political class who contrived to grant citizenship to the Jews. Beginning early in the nineteenth century, the process of emancipation moved through the German States, culminating in 1869, with citizenship for every Jew in the North German Confederation. (The laws were carried over into the Kaiserreich after German unification, in 1871.) Even in the tolerant Austria-Hungary of Emperor Franz Josef, citizenship for Jews had some strings attached, whereas in Germany civil rights for Jews remained on the books until the Nazis rewrote them. Not even in the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a choleric anti-Semite by the end, were people of Jewish background deprived of their rights. They undoubtedly had trouble exercising them – prejudice was indeed everywhere, in varying degrees – but that doesn’t alter the fact that they were granted them.
Perhaps those nineteenth-century politicians were thorough anti-Semites, and merely stopped short of trying to put their prejudice into law. President Truman freely used the word ‘nigger’ among his Southern friends, but when some returning black GIs were beaten up he made the first move in the chain of legislation that eventually led (under President Johnson, who was not without prejudice, either) to voter registration by blacks in the South. There have always been people with prejudice who have nevertheless served justice, whether out of a supervening idealism, out of expediency, or out of a simple wish not to be thought provincial by more sophisticated peers. In other words, there is prejudice and there is prejudice. But Goldhagen wants all the grades of anti-Semitism, from the enthusiasm of nutty pamphleteers down to the stultifying, self-protective distaste of the Kleinbürgertum at their pokey dinner tables, to add up to just one thing: the eliminationist fervour that led to extermination as soon as it got its chance.
Until recent times, one of Germany’s recurring troubles was that it was more integrated culturally than it was politically. A case can be made for the Jews not having been integrated at all into the political structure, although you would have to eliminate a towering figure like Walther Rathenau – which is exactly what some of the Nazi Party’s forerunners did. But from the time of Goethe up until the Anschluss the Jews were, at least in part, integrated into the culture; they made a contribution whose like had not been seen in Europe since Alfonso IX founded the University of Salamanca. Though they often aroused envy and spite among non-Jewish rivals, they aroused admiration in at least equal measure. Kant said that if the Muse of Philosophy could choose an ideal language, it would choose the language of Moses Mendelssohn. Goethe said that the Jewish contribution was vital. Nietzsche ranked the Jew Heine as the most important German poet after Goethe. The novelist Theodor Fontane, who started out as an anti-Semite, gave up on the idea when he realized that the Jewish bourgeoisie was a more cultivated audience than the aristocracy, which he had tried in vain to enlighten. Even the dreadful Wagner was ambivalent on the subject: when Thomas Mann’s Jewish father-in-law left Germany after the Nazis came to power, all he took with him were Wagner’s letters of thanks for his having helped to build the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.
Which brings us to Thomas Mann. Here one is forced to wonder if whoever gave Goldhagen high marks for his thesis ever showed it to a literary colleague. As evidence of the all-pervading nature of eliminationist anti-Semitism, Goldhagen has the audacity to rope in, without qualification or explanation, a remark by Thomas Mann. Well, there is a grain of truth in it. In 1933, when Mann had already begun his long exile, he did indeed confide to his diary that it was a pity the new regime should include him along with some of the undesirable Jewish elements it was dealing with. But against this grain of truth there is a whole silo of contrary evidence. Thomas Mann had always disliked what he saw as the rootless Jewish cosmopolitanism (shades of his beloved Wagner there) that criticized because it couldn’t create, and thus gave rise to a bugbear like Alfred Kerr. Mann the Nobel Prize-winning eminence, the new Goethe, the walking cultural icon, had a bad tendency, quite normal among writers even at their most successful, to take praise as his due and anything less as sabotage. He thought, with some justification, that the annoyingly clever Kerr was on his case. But for Jews who, in his opinion, did create, Mann had nothing but admiration. He had it in the first years of the century, when his conservatism was still as hidebound as the snobbery he was never to overcome: his two early encomiums for Arthur Schnitzler are models of generosity. He had scores of friendships among the Jewish cultural figures of the emigration and maintained them throughout the Nazi era, often at the expense of his time, effort and exchequer. For Bruno Walter, it was always open house chez Mann, because Mann honoured Walter as the incarnation of the Germany that mattered, just as he despised Hitler as its exterminating angel. Even to allow the possibility of our inferring that Mann might have thought otherwise is to perpetrate a truly stunning libel, and one can only hope that the excuse for it is ignorance.
Nowadays it has become fashionable to mock Mann’s supposed equivocation vis-à-vis the Nazi regime in its first years, because of the time that passed before he publically condemned it. At the time, his own children were angry with him for the same reason. We have to remember that his prestige, worldly goods and most appreciative reading public were all locked up in Germany; that he was deeply rooted in its complex society; and that at his age he did not fancy leading the very kind of rootless cosmopolitan life for which he had condemned men like Kerr. But his 1933-34 diaries (which one can safely recommend Goldhagen to read whole so that he will not in future run the risk of quoting a misleading fragment from a secondary source) reveal unmistakably, and over and over, that he loathed the bestiality of the new regime from its first hour. All Mann’s Tagebüche, through the Thirties and the war years – and hurry the day when the whole fascinating corpus is properly translated – show that he never wavered in his utter disgust at what the Nazis had done to his country. As for his opinion of what they were doing to the most defenceless people in it, he went public about that in his 1936 essay on anti-Semitism, in which he definitively penetrated, and devastatingly parodied, the unconscious logic of the Nazi mentality: ‘I might be nothing, but at least I am not a Jew.’
Historical research has by now established beyond question that the Nazi Party was principally financed not by the great capitalists of Brecht’s imagination but by the Kleinleute – the little people. Reduced to despair by inflation and by the Depression, they assigned their hopes and their few spare pennies to the cause of the man they thought might rescue them from nothingness. He did, too – so triumphantly that they didn’t suspect until the eleventh hour that he was leading them into a nothingness even more complete than the one they had come from. The Holocaust would have been unimaginable without the Nazi Party; the Nazi Party would have been unimaginable without Hitler; and Hitler’s rise to power would have been unimaginable without the unique circumstances that brought the Weimar Republic to ruin. To hear Goldhagen tell it, mass murder was all set to go: a century-long buildup of eliminationist anti-Semitism simply had to express itself. But the moment when a historian says that something had to happen is the moment when he stops writing history and starts predicting the past.
After the Second World War, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor began publishing a series of books and articles which added up to the contention that Hitler’s regime was the inevitable consequence of Germany’s border problem, and that his depredations in the East were just a harsh version of what any German in his position would have been obliged to do anyway. Hitler’s war, Taylor argued, brought Europe back to ‘reality’, out of its liberal illusions. Then, in 1951, the German historian Golo Mann – one of Thomas Mann’s three sons – made a survey of Taylor’s historical writings, and took them apart. He accused Taylor of predicting the past. The Weimar Republic, Mann pointed out, had been no liberal illusion and might have survived if extraordinary circumstances hadn’t conspired to undermine it. German nationalism was not a demon that always strode armed through the land – it was in the minds of men, and could have stayed there. This confrontation between the frivolously clever Taylor and the deeply engaged Golo Mann was a portent of the intellectual conflict that blew up in Germany more than thirty years later, when the learned historian Ernst Nolte foolishly went to print with an opinion that sounded like one of Taylor’s brainwaves cast in more turgid prose: he stated that Nazi Germany, by attacking Russia, had simply got into the Cold War early, and that Nazi extermination camps had been the inevitable consequence of tangling with an enemy who was up to the same sort of thing. This time, there were plenty of German historians and commentators ready to oppose such views, because by now the perverse urge to marginalize the Nazis had penetrated the academic world, and had been identified as a trend that needed to be stopped. Younger historians who had looked up to Nolte hastened to distance themselves from him; the glamorous Michael Stürmer, in his virtuoso summary of modern German history Die Grenzen der Macht (The Limits of Power), consigned Nolte’s theory to a dismissive passing reference. Stürmer also wrote a sentence about Hitler that is unfortunately likely to remain all too true: ‘Even today, the history of Hitler is largely the history of how he has been underestimated.’
Why is this so? Strangely, anti-Semitism has probably played a part. We tend to think of him as an idiot because the central tenet of his ideology was idiotic – and idiotic, of course, it transparently is. Anti-Semitism is a world view through a pinhole: as scientists say about a bad theory, it is not even wrong. Nietzsche tried to tell Wagner that it was beneath contempt. Sartre was right for once when he said that through anti-Semitism any halfwit could become a member of an élite. But, as the case of Wagner proves, a man can have this poisonous bee in his bonnet and still be a creative genius. Hitler was a destructive genius, whose evil gifts not only beggar description but invite denial, because we find it more comfortable to believe that their consequences were produced by historical forces than to believe that he was a historical force. Or perhaps we just lack the vocabulary. Not many of us, in a secular age, are willing to concede that, in the form of Hitler, Satan visited the Earth, recruited an army of sinners, and fought and won a battle against God. We would rather talk the language of pseudoscience, which at least seems to bring such cataclysmic events to order. But all that such language can do is shift the focus of attention down to the broad mass of the German people, which is what Goldhagen has done, in a way that, at least in part, lets Hitler off the hook – and unintentionally reinforces his central belief that it was the destiny of the Jewish race to be expelled from the Volk as an inimical presence.
Hannah Arendt, in her long, courageous, and much misunderstood career, had her weak moments. In her popular Eichmann in Jerusalem (first published serially in this magazine) she undoubtedly pushed her useful notion of the detached desk worker too far. But she was resoundingly right when she refused to grant the Nazis the power of their fait accompli. She declined to suppose, as Hitler had supposed, that there really was some international collectivity called the Jews. Echoing the fourth count of the Nuremberg indictment, she called the Holocaust a crime against humanity.
The Jews were the overwhelming majority among Hitler’s victims, but he also killed all the Gypsies and homosexuals he could find. He let two and a half million Russian POWs perish, most of them from the gradually applied technique of deprivation. The novelist Josepf Roth, drinking himself to death in Paris before the war, said that Hitler probably had the Christians in his sights too. We can never now trace the source of Hitler’s passion for revenge, but we can be reasonably certain that there would have been no satisfying it had he lived. Sooner or later, he would have got around to everybody. Hitler was the culprit who gave all the other culprits their chance. To concentrate exclusively on the prejudice called anti-Semitism – to concentrate even on his anti-Semitism – is another way of underestimating him.
At the end of this bloodstained century, which has topped by ten times Tamburlaine’s wall of skulls, lime, and living men, the last thing we want to believe is that it all happened on a whim. In the Soviet Union, the liquidation of bourgeois elements began under Lenin. By the time Stalin took power, there were no bourgeois elements left. He went on finding them. He found them even within the Communist Party. They didn’t exist. They never had existed. He killed them anyway. Eventually, he killed more people than Hitler, and it was all for nothing. Far from building socialism, he ensured its ruin. His onslaught had nothing to do with social analysis, about which he knew no more than he did about biology. Unless you believe in Original Sin, there is almost no meaning that can be attached to his behaviour, except to say that he was working out his personal problems.
In China Mao Zedong went to war against the evil landlords and the imperialist spies. Neither group actually existed. The death toll of his countrymen exceeded the totals achieved by Hitler and Stalin combined. They all died for nothing. Dying innocent, they have their eternal dignity, but there are no profundities to be plumbed in their collective extinction except the adamantine fact of human evil. In Cambodia, Pol Pot encouraged the persecution, torture, and murder of everyone who wore glasses – but enough. A country, no matter how cultured, either respects the rights of all its citizens or is not civilized. The answer to the nagging conundrum of how a civilized country like Germany could produce the Holocaust is that Germany ceased to be civilized from the moment Hitler came to power. It had been before, and it has been since – a fact that might secure for Goldhagen’s book, when it is published there, a considered reception, despite its contents. I look forward to reading the German critical press, especially if one of the reviewers is Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Of Jewish background (his book about his upbringing in the Warsaw ghetto is a minor masterpiece), Reich-Ranicki is one of the most brilliant critical writers in the world. I know just where I want to read his piece: in my favourite café on the Oranienburger Strasse, just along from the meticulously restored synagogue, whose golden dome is a landmark for the district. Two armed guards stand at the door, but this time in its defence – a reminder of what Germany once did not only to others but to itself, and need not have done if democracy had held together.
A shorter version first appeared in the New Yorker, 22 April, 1996