Goldhagen speaks on Holocaust 'executioners'

by Rachel Osterman | 11/23/99 6:00am

Dr. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of the influential book "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," spoke about the role of the ordinary German under the Nazi regime to students and community members at the Roth Center for Jewish Life last night.

Refuting the traditional explanations given by historians for the Holocaust, Goldhagen said that the mass genocide of European Jews and other groups could only be understood through the lens of the ordinary German's attitudes.

Previous explanations reasoned that the perpetrators were coerced, that they were blindly obedient to authority, that they were subjected to extreme social psychological pressure, and that they operated under the mindset of bureaucrats trying to complete their job orders.

However, Goldhagen said it is individual responsibility that caused the violence of that era.

"[The perpetrators] were moral agents ... they had the capacity to know what they were doing, to judge what they were doing according to their values, whatever they were, and that they had the capacity to say no," he said.

It was this emphasis that Goldhagen placed on the role of the individual and the individual's own anti-Semitism that won his 1997 book extensive publicity, acclaim and criticism.

Preceding his book, literature on the Holocaust did not focus on the nature of the perpetrators themselves, he said.

"It seems to me that without knowing who the people are, you can't understand why the Holocaust took place," Goldhagen explained.

Drawing primarily from the testimony of both the perpetrators and survivors, Goldhagen sought to explain why the German people did not object when Hitler gave the order to annihilate the European Jews. His answer to this questions was the ruthlessness of the people themselves.

"Not a single perpetrator who refused to kill Jews was punished," he said. "Many of the men knew they didn't have to do it because their commanders told them so. And yet they did. Any explanation of the Holocaust, must also account for the brutality and cruelty of the killing itself."

One indication of the perpetrators' brutality, Goldhagen said, is evident in the large volume of photographs that Nazi soldiers took in a celebratory effort to memorialize their deeds.

"Killing Jews was so much a part of their lives and so normal that killing operations would be advertised on bulletin boards," he said. "And many of the perpetrators volunteered for the killing operations."

Goldhagen said that the traditional analyses of the Nazi regime do not acknowledge several important factors.

One is that the perpetrators were under no command obligation to carry out executions.

Another is that the Germans were not a blindly obedient people.

Instead, he said, German history is full of examples of the overthrowing of illegitimate power. Goldhagen said it is testimony to the fact that Hitler's power was seen as legitimate that the perpetrators implemented his orders.

Another traditional explanation for the Holocaust with which he disagrees is that of social psychological " or peer " pressure.

"That explanation assumes that the perpetrators didn't want to do it," he said.

Finally, Goldhagen disputed the bureaucratic theory, arguing, "the bureaucratic explanation can be put forward only by people who without understanding of what the men were doing."

Of the controversy surrounding his book, Goldhagen concluded his speech by saying: "What I've told you tonight is deemed by others to be controversial. And I have to say, I'm surprised by that. After all, what I'm saying is that when people kill and mock and torture other people when they know they don't have to.

"That is because they hate the victims and because they think it's right and that's why they do it. But the critics say that when people kill and torture the people when they don't have to, they do it but they don't hate the people. Now which should be the controversial opinion?"