March 23 1997
Historian Ruth Bettina Birn, an expert on the sources used by Daniel Goldhagen to write his world bestseller on World War Two-era Germans, challenges his selective use of evidence against 'ordinary Germans':
Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, has become an international event. Enthusiastic reviews have poured from the presses in many countries. It is hard to think of a large academic book that has had such a reception and even harder to explain why.
Goldhagen's thesis is that Germany was permeated by a particularly vicious anti-semitism, whose aim was the elimination of the Jews. This viral strain, he asserts, "resided ultimately in the heart of German political culture, in Germany itself". Medieval anti-semitism was "integral to German culture" and, by the end of the 19th century, "eliminationist anti-semitism" dominated the German political scene. In the Weimar republic, it grew yet more virulent before Hitler came to power. The Nazi machine merely turned this ideology into a reality.
When the Nazis' genocidal program was implemented along with the attack on the Soviet Union, claims Goldhagen, it was supported by the general German population, by the "ordinary Germans" a key phrase of the book who became "willing executioners". They had no need for special orders or pressures because they believed the Jews were "ultimately fit only to suffer and die".
The term "ordinary Germans" is used everywhere. Concentration camp guards are ordinary Germans; all perpetrators are ordinary Germans. That it is nothing but an empty label is shown by the phrase "ordinary Germans in the SS and the [Nazi] party".
Goldhagen started out with some fundamentally disturbing questions. Why do we believe that Germans are like us? Why assume the "normalcy of the German people"? Examples of his own particular image of the Germans abound: the German is "generally brutal and murderous in the use of other peoples" and is "a member of an extraordinary, lethal political culture" whose cruelties stand out "in the long annals of human barbarism".
Most of the book's reviewers are not familiar with Goldhagen's sources. In fact, he uses historical documents only to a limited extent, and for the most part relies on ones from German post-war investigation of Nazi crimes, which are mainly to be found in Ludwigsburg, Germany. Among them are a number of "daily orders" issued by the "commander of the order police" in Lublin, Poland, in the years from 1942 to 1944, which communicate everyday events such as guard duties, sports events and movies or whatever the commander wants to be made public.
Goldhagen weaves a web of fantasy around these orders about the "more conventional type of German cultural life" after the "slaughtering of unnamed Jews by the thousands". He speculates on such questions as "how many of the killers discussed their genocidal activities" with their wives and girlfriends. Goldhagen has not a shred of evidence to rely on here. Everything is written in the "if" style used in bad historical novels.
Another example is his discription of a German officer in Poland taking his new bride to a ghetto clearing and mass execution, angering many members of his police battalion. The officer's superior, a Major Trapp, reprimanded him publicly. Goldhagen interprets this merely as a "sense of chivalry" and concern for the woman's welfare because she was pregnant. Later on in the book, the whole incident is generalised as a representation of the fact that perpetrators routinely shared their murderous experiences with their wives.
Expressions of shame and disapproval, if not rejected out of hand, are discredited by Goldhagen as mere expressions of "visceral disgust", not "ethical or principled opposition". Using Goldhagen's method of handling evidence, one could easily find enough citations from the Ludwigsburg material to prove the exact opposite.
Goldhagen used the activities of another police battalion to illustrate his theory that the Germans killed "any Jew they discovered" with neither "prompting nor permission". As proof, he recounts a number of killings which are contained in the investigation report of a German prosecutor. A reading of this report in full reveals that the activities of the police battalion mirrored the course of German occupation policy: they killed Jews and Russians in Lithuania and Russia; and Jews and Poles in Poland. The report does not support Goldhagen's interpretation that priority was given to the killing of Jews and that "every German was inquisitor, judge and executioner".
Goldhagen maintains the battalion knew of the planned destruction of the Jews before its entry into the Soviet Union. Consequently, "these Germans could finally unleash themselves upon the Jews" when they entered Bialystock in 1941 in what he calls "the emblematic killing operation of the formal genocide". The Jewish quarters were searched, accompanied by many acts of cruelty; and Jews were herded into the marketplace, forced into the synagogue and burnt alive.
Goldhagen emphasises the importance of the extermination order, but while some former members of the battalion confirm its existence, others give differing statements, among them the clerk through whose hands the order would have had to pass. One battalion member changes his story radically and speaks of an order to kill all Jews in his final statement only, the one which Goldhagen relies upon. This should arouse the suspicion of a researcher. Closer scrutiny reveals the likely reason for the change of story to be a defence strategy.
What happened in Bialystock appears to be in the nature of a pogrom, caused by a group of officers who, through their closeness to the SS, were ideologically zealous. This is corroborated by two men from the rank and file, who say that they were hustled into the action before they knew what was happening to them. One describes how he was disgusted by the burning alive of defenceless people.
While Goldhagen speaks only of "the Germans", the perpetrators in this case can be identified. Of the 14 main perpetrators who stood trial, 13 were career police officers; one had come via the Waffen-SS; eight were party members.
One of the two company leaders had been involved after the first world war with right-wing groups such as the Freikorps, while the other was an SS member in 1933. They can hardly be described as "ordinary Germans". Individual witness statements are treated with similar selectiveness.
Goldhagen cites the account of one witness who describes how a person was beaten to death in Russia merely because the name Abraham appeared on his papers. This incident was mentioned on page two of the statement; on pages three and four, the sexually sadistic murder of a young girl by one of the officers is described in graphic detail. Goldhagen makes no reference to it. The victim was not Jewish.
Goldhagen's claim that German anti-semitism was unique can be made only by comparing it with other forms of anti-semitism. If one claims that only Jews were treated in a special way, one has to analyse the treatment of other victims.
His theory of the motivation of perpetrators is also flawed by the absence of any comparison between Germans and non-Germans. The contribution of non-Germans to policing eastern Europe was substantial and involved crimes. Did their behaviour differ? And if so, in what way?
A classic example of non-Germans who fit the picture Goldhagen wants to paint of Germans is the Arajs Kommando, a group of Latvian men whose killing actions were extremely gruesome. They literally waded in blood, got drunk during the killing and afterwards participated in large celebrations. All of them were volunteers and free to leave at any time. Admittedly the Arajs Kommando is an extreme case, but it is by no means an isolated one.
By denying the possibility that the crimes committed during the Holocaust are within the scope of human behaviour, he places these crimes and its perpetrators outside the realm of human possibility open to others. Only the Germans could have behaved as they did; nobody else. Their behaviour is "unfathomable" and, as a consequence, cannot be repeated by someone else. Absurdly, after drawing such a sinister picture, he claims the Germans changed drastically after the war as a result of American re-education efforts.
(A longer version of this article appears in the Cambridge Historical Journal )
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