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In the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen uses primary and secondary sources. Goldhagen traces origin & scrutinizes essence of anti-Semitism from its origins over 1,000 years ago, manifest in non-Jewish Christian civilization at beginning of the Crusades (Jews characterized as non-Christian Christ killers); throughout the Middle Ages into early modern Europe. He gives a clear insight of how Jews were tortured describing every gruesome detail. Though Goldhagen utilizes many original sources, some sources seem to come from his head. For example: The author titled the book Hitler’s “Willing” Executioners assuming that all Nazi’s were enthusiastic to kill Jews. It seems as though he carefully gathered all the information he could find about the Holocaust to make this piece of art into such a great novel. He allows the reader to comprehend how he fells personally about different situations mentioned throughout the book. Though he states his opinion on several occurrences throughout the book, he backs them up with credible facts.
Hitler’s Willing Executioners is well written, easy to read and clearly defined. The issue is not the fact that the Germans were anti-Semitic, but rather that any human or group of humans could turn against a group of people so vehemently and so horribly. The vocabulary is somewhat easy to comprehend. Goldhagen's thesis, which he rides awfully hard, is that ordinary Germans were quite likely to be anti-Semitic because anti-Semitism, abetted by the Nazi high command, so thoroughly pervaded German culture. Goldhagen's account is centered on events in World War II and does not, foreground his thesis.
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In 1941, Adolph Hitler's Germany began to kill the entire Jewish population under its physical control, some seven million men, women and children, and by 1944 had largely finished the job, having successfully murdered approximately six million people. That the government of a civilized nation could not only undertake but successfully conclude such a nightmarish policy without encountering significant domestic social opposition, particularly in a country as politically literate as was Germany, is one of the great puzzles of twentieth century European history wanted.
The consideration of Judaism as a corollary of Christianity is imperative to understand the inherent anti-Semitic nature of Germany. Jews and their faith were seen as an affront to Christianity. If the Jews, the people of God , shunned the promised messiah, then something was awry. Either the Jews were right, and Jesus was a false prophet, or the Christians were right, and the Jews had been led astray. This theological impasse provided the initial antagonism between the two religions. However, the “Christians conceived of their religion as superseding Judaism. Therefore, Jews...ought to disappear from the Earth.” Goldhagen continues his historical evolution of anti-Semitism alluding to the concept of Jews as “Christ-killers”, as minions of Satan, as usurers and as malevolent and corrosive members of society. It was these church inspired misconceptions of the Jews which would be ultimately responsible for the anti-Semitic fervor of the ordinary German Volk.
The existing explanations for the ease with which the Nazis conducted their hellish program are varied, but to a greater or lesser degree almost all scholarly and popular interpretations of the Holocaust incorporate among their premises that it was aberrational, covert and uniquely efficient. The slaughter is said to have expressed the will of a small circle of lunatic Nazi and not the will of the German people, who were antisemetic but not murderously so. It is said that the killing was conducted out of the sight of the nation and with industrial efficiency by a relatively small number of people insane with ideology. The effect of these premises is to make the Holocaust a political and not a social event, with the happy consequence that responsibility for it rests squarely on a small number of identifiable political and military operatives and not on the German nation as a whole.
Germans killed Jews in a variety of ways, although the notorious extermination camps in Poland consumed at least half the victims. Police battalions, auxiliary military units used to maintain order in occupied territory behind the lines shot Jews by the hundreds of thousands. Personnel attached to the police battalions were periodically rotated home, and so knowledge of the killing was widespread within Germany. A number of the troops took commemorative photographs of the shootings. Contrary to the popular image, most of the men pulling the trigger were not highly indoctrinated SS race warriors. They were instead German men not physically suited for front-line duty, men in their 30s and 40s who ended up in police battalions because the duty was less rigorous than combat duty.
Goldhagen documents repeated instances in which unit commanders offered their men the opportunity to opt out of the killing but finds few soldiers who accepted the offer. Those who did almost always told postwar interrogators that they did so because of the gore factor: their spirits were willing, their stomachs weak. None, so far as the record shows, suffered significant punishment as a result of their decision. Some fundamental change in the nature of Jews or in their position in Germany was necessary and urgent. With the rise of the NSDAP, a systematic persecution of Jews began, with the full support from the State. With the adoption of the Nuremberg Laws in September of 1935, this state sanction stripped the Jews of German citizenship and forbade them from marrying German citizens. The systematic removal of Jews from German society had begun. Additionally, Goldhagen relates German complicity during Kristalnacht. This German complicity culminates in the forced relocation of the remaining German Jews to camps throughout the German and Polish countryside to await the Final Solution.
The Nazis’ Assault on the Jews began and was greatly intense. Its Character and Evolution With the dawn of the Nazi Party, the eliminationist ideology was inherent, but the way to attain the systematic removal of the Jew from Germany was still unclear. The German policies would have to: 1) Turn the Jews into “socially dead” beings, and 2) Remove the Jew as thoroughly and permanently from social and from physical contact with the German people. To attain the desired affect, the German government instituted these polices and measures: Verbal Assault 2) Physical Assault 3) Legal measures to isolate the Jew 4) Driving them to emigrate 5) Forced deportation and “resettlement” 6) Physical separation in the Ghettos 7) Killing by starvation and disease 8) Slave Labor as a surrogate for death 9) Genocide by mass shooting, gassing, etc. 10)Death marches Chapter 5: The Agents and Machinery of Destruction In this chapter, Goldhagen attempts to define a perpetrator of genocidal killing. He arrives at the connotation, that a perpetrator is anyone that worked in an institution of genocidal killing, all those that took the lives of Jews , all those that facilitated the murder of Jews, including those church officials that identified persons as Jew or non-Jew, the Schreibtischtater (the “desk murderer) that established the transport schedules, all railroad workers that sent the trains to their ominous destinations, and the indictment continues.
Lives, Killings, and Motives This is the author’s attempt to understand the actions of battalion members when they were not engaged in activities of genocide. the men enjoyed times of leisure spent swimming, playing tennis and reading. Their personal involvement in the slaughtering of thousands of Jews apparently did not deter them from enjoying their free time. The killers were not robotic killing machines, but independent individuals that were allowed to discuss and consider the horrors which they perpetrated. Later in the chapter, Goldhagen lists a number of killing operations, and the reported numbers of victims. The battalions were given a lot of operational freedom when ordered to clear a Ghetto or when on Search and Destroy missions seeking runaway Jews. The men were allowed to complete their missions as they saw fit. Many of these men, however, saw fit to torment their victims before deporting them to the Death Camps or dispatching the Jews themselves. The men would often require their victims to remain motionless for hours in the hot sun. If a movement was detected, the perpetrator would be quickly dealt with.
The Sources and Patterns of Jewish “Work” During the Nazi Period Here, Goldhagen attempts to answer the perplexing question of why the Germans put Jews to work. Did the Germans employ the Jews for some rational, economic purpose? According to Goldhagen the answer is no. Goldhagen believes the Germans employed Jews because prior to the Nazis’ rise to power, the Jews were seen as a race of parasites, living off the work of Germans. Hitler simply wanted to see the Jews work. It was an achievement in itself, regardless of the worth of the product, Jewish work was to be done for its own sake. Even while in the midst of a severe labor shortage, Nazi Germany did not mobilize it incarcerated Jewish population. Instead, the Germans utilized French and Polish POWs to supplement the shortage. In the Jewish work camps, the prisoners were often instructed to Build walls, only to demolish them at the end of the day. Even when employed in munitions factories, assisting the Nazi war machine, Jews were not safe. On November 3-4, 1943, over 43,000 Jews were shot during Operation Harvest Festival.
Life in the “work camps” was cruel. This “work” camp had a mortality rate surpassed by only Auschwitz and the other four extermination camps. Death in Majdanek was caused by gassings or shootings, or by starvation and disease. According to Goldhagen, the fatality rate was 100%. Although a “work” camp, Majdanek’s inmates were subjected to unproductive work. The inmates would be ordered to fill a sack with rocks, carry it across the room, empty it, and then do it again. The purpose of Majdanek was devoted to tormenting and killing its inmates. Such atrocities occurred at other work camps such as Lipowa. Jews were not the only detainees at these camps. Poles were also employed at these camps, however, the Polish mortality rate per month was less than 5%, while the Jewish mortality rate was 100%. The “work” camps were just as effective genocidal institutions as their sister extermination camps.
The Deadly Way The long distance marching of Jews began at the beginning of the war and continued until its conclusion. Most of the marches occurred during the final year of the war. The final phase of the war required the Germans to either move the prisoners or lose them to the advancing armies. The purpose of these of the march was to dispose of the Jewish prisoners. This chapter has several eye-witness accounts of these genocidal marches. Special attention is given to the 195 mile long Helmbrechts Death March. The march composed of 580 Jewish prisoners and 590 non-Jewish prisoners. The 22 day march claimed the life of around 275 Jews, while the non-Jew fatality rate was Zero.“What sense did the death march make?” We can assume Dorr (the camp commander) was under standing orders to avoid capture. His orders directed him to move the prisoners to Dachau, however Dachau had already been captured by the Americans, so Dorr instead marched to Austria. Goldhagen, again, recounts the details of the Helbrechts Death March. The women guards are spoken of being particularly harsh upon the prisoners. Goldhagen also relays the story of Germany’s final death march, Sandbostel. To the very end, the ordinary German willfully, faithfully and zealously slaughtered Jews. The Germans did so even when they were risking capture. The Death Marches were not a misnomer; the entire manner in which they were carried out by the Germans suggested to the Jews they intended death.
The German anti-Jewish policy had always been an expression of eliminationist anti-Semitism. For an entire society to kill another large group of people, the ethical and emotional constraints that would normally inhibit the adoption of such a radical measure, must be lifted. Something profound must occur that would allow an entire society to become mass murderers. However, some perpetrators took pride in their accomplishments. If they had indeed disproved of the genocide, then why would they take photos of them triumphantly standing over the bodies of their victims? The fact is, the complicity of the ordinary German is contingent upon the belief that all of Germany wished to rid itself of the Jewish Problem. Eliminationist Anti-Semitism as Genocidal Motivation German political culture had evolved to the point where an enormous number of ordinary, representative Germans became Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The rabid anti-Semitism which was ingrained in German society, allowed an eliminationist ideology to take hold, and become a state sanctioned goal. On occasion after occasion, some Germans took pride in their genocidal activities.
This book is a great read, and is a wonderful contribution to the literature of the Holocaust but not one of the best. It has one tragic flaw, however, in that Goldhagen's assumption is being taken as absolute fact. Certainly connections can be drawn between the masses in Germany and the rise of Nazism, but to claim that all masses were willing, even eager, to accept the anti-Semitism of National Socialism is a stretch. Certainly Nazism appealed to many ordinary Germans, but people must be able to distinguish between the party and it's horrendous effects. This is an interesting book, and a good read for anyone serious in the study of history, but it is dangerous to automatically assume what Goldhagen proposes is true. There is a difference between willingly accepting the National Socialist Party and eagerly participating in mass genocide. Readers willing to critically analyze Goldhagen's arguments will love this book. Others will simply come away with the wrong message and a completely unrealistic view of Germany at the start of the Second World War.