Monday, November 29, 2010

My book review on

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the HolocaustHitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book really has pissed people off. Goldhagen takes a very different view of Germans, Nazi or not, who actively helped in brutalizing and murdering Jews. He claims they weren't forced to do it, but chose to. They were not automatons blindly following orders, rather their particular brand of Jew hatred made them willing exterminators of people who had no power.

He does acknowledge other victims of Nazism, but this book is about German anti-semitism and Jews. That is a long enough story. Many critics fault him for not discussing Gypsies and homosexuals, but who has? Probably the same despising of "the Other" that underlies Jew hatred also explains these victims. In any event, he never pretends to be discussing anything except Jew hatred. The history of it in Germany is well-known as is the form it took. Moreover, as he shows, none of the other groups targeted by the Nazis were treated with anything approaching the cruelty towards Jews from infancy on.

Now that I've finished, here is my final assessment:

When the German soldiers who were tried at Nuremburg after World War II said they weren’t guilty because they were “following orders,” I and millions of others believed them. If that were true, then were they guilty? After all, even in America, soldiers had to follow orders.

Later, when the horrors that Stalin visited upon the Russians became known, I understood that was the result of a dictatorship. Since the American Press also called Hitler a dictator, I assumed that Germans, like Russians, had no say in what their government did. As an American, my cognitive model of a dictator was that of a totalitarian government, one in which people had no freedom of choice at all. Indeed, based I now realize on the Stalinist model, I presumed that Germans who protested Hitler’s policies would be imprisoned. Worse, I thought was that their families would be harmed. Just recently I said to a friend, not Jewish, who made a remark about the German people, “Well, Barnaby, I’d like to think I’d have helped out Jews, but if they would punish my family, I don’t think I would have.

Most Americans thought that Stalin’s rule and Hitler’s were pretty much the same: blind obedience or else. However, Daniel Goldhagen shows convincingly that living under Hitler was quite different from living under Stalin, especially if you weren’t Jewish. Hitler wasn’t a dictator as Stalin was. He was voted into office by Germans, who were weary of the democracy that was forced on them after their defeat in 1918. The vote for Hitler was not a slim plurality and it was not a vote by lowlifes and thugs. Germans of all classes not only voted for Hitler, and, as Goldhagen argues, they agreed wholeheartedly with the need to exterminate all the Jews in the world. Goldhagen proves that this idea was rampant in Germany from the early 19th century on. When Nazi troops marched into Austria, the cultured Viennese cheered with glee and immediately dragged the assimilated Austrian Jews out in the streets and made them scrub sidewalks while wearing their finest dress-up clothes. Meanwhile the oh so cultured Aryans laughed and enjoyed the show. No, Hitler wasn’t foisted on these people.

Moreover, Germans could and did protest Hitler’s policies and get them changed. Goldhagen presents data from German records that prove this. Three examples suffice. One was Hitler’s policy of killing mental defectives. The Churches and the people protested and the so-called euthanasia was stopped. Second, when husbands of Aryan women were rounded up for deportation to death camps, the women demonstrated in the streets, even confronting the Gestapo—and their husbands were released and spent the rest of the war in Germany in their homes with their wives. Third, when Poles were brought in as forced laborers, Germans were ordered not to fraternize with them as they were inferior Slavs. However, the Germans refused to obey, and, after a while, the restrictions were lifted.

The most compelling evidence that the author provides is that which shows how much both soldiers and citizens enjoyed what they were doing to Jews. He relies not only on eye witness accounts, but German records and even pictures that they took.

Goldhagen doesn’t specifically mention Now Dwor, Poland, my grandfather’s home town, but in researching my family history website,,/ I came across a vivid account of what happened there at . If you click on it, you’ll find what a source for hilarity the Jews provided the German soldiers with for five unbelievable, but apparently rollicking years for the cultured Aryans. What delights even the German officers thought up for amusement! These delights involved the most degrading, cruel, foul, and depraved tortures I have ever heard of. This site lends even more credence to Goldhagen’s claims.

In sum, I found Hitler’s Willing Executioners a solidly researched book, based upon the records that the Nazis themselves kept, as well as his careful research into German anti-Semitism.

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