Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

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Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

Synopsis – Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a work that may change our understanding of the Holocaust and of Germany during the Nazi period. Daniel Goldhagen has revisited a question that history has come to treat as settled, and his researches have led him to the inescapable conclusion that none of the established answers holds true. Drawing on materials either unexplored or neglected by previous scholars, Goldhagen presents new evidence to show that many beliefs about the killers are fallacies. They were not primarily SS men or Nazi Party members, but perfectly ordinary Germans from all walks of life, men who brutalized and murdered Jews both willingly and zealously. “They acted as they did because of a widespread, profound, unquestioned, and virulent anti-Semitism that led them to regard the Jews as a demonic enemy whose extermination was not only necessary but also just.”1 The author proposes to show that the phenomenon of German anti-Semitism was already deep-rooted and pervasive in German society before Hitler came to power, and that there was a widely shared view that the Jews ought to be eliminated in some way from German society. When Hitler chose mass extermination as the only final solution, he was easily able to enlist vast numbers of Germans to carry it out.

About the Author - Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University and an Associate of Harvard's Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. His doctoral dissertation, which is the basis for his book "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," was awarded the American Political Science Association's 1994 Gabriel A. Almond Award for the best dissertation in the field of comparative politics.2

Summary - For the extermination of the Jews to occur, four principal things were necessary:

1. The Nazis - that is, the leadership, specifically Hitler - had to decide to undertake the extermination.

2. They had to gain control over the Jews, namely over the territory in which they resided. 3. They had to organize the extermination and devote to it sufficient resources.

4. They had to induce a large number of people to carry out the killings.

The vast literature on Nazism and the Holocaust treats in great depth the first three elements, the focus of this book, is t...

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...lity and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say "no."

It is my belief that the author presents a very controversial view of the causes and implementation of the Holocaust. The root of the controversy is his contention that the German people, as a society, are responsible for the attempted extermination of the Jews. According to Mr. Goldhagen, in the eyes of the Germans, the Jews as nothing more than a cancer that must be removed in order to cure the ills of their nation. In the book Mr. Goldhagen has gone to great extents to prove his views. However, “…his theories will probably remain a point of contention with historians for years to come.”4 The brutality and horror that is described throughout the book is, at times, overwhelming. To realize that one group of people can treat their fellow man with such heartlessness and savagery in what we call a civilized world is almost beyond comprehension.


1. Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Book Jacket, 1996

2. Patterns of Prejudice, Erich Goldhagen, 1978, 12, No.1, 1-16

3. First Things, Richard John Neuhaus, August/September 1996, 36-41

4. U.S. News & World Report, David Gergen, May 24, 1996
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