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Bernard von Bothmer Understanding the Holocaust: Hannah Arendt, Christopher Browning, and Daniel Goldhagen I.

Introduction The debate over the essential shape, character, and origins of the Holocaust has been one of the most contentious scholarly disagreements of the past half-century. It is one that continues to produce enormously innovative scholarship. How is one to explain the Holocaust? Among the many questions one need to ask are: Did the atrocities result from decisions made by Hitler, or did they stem from beliefs held among Germans? Would there have been a Holocaust if Hitler were not Germanys leader. Was his goal extermination or emigration? Were the death camps uniquely German? Was the murder of six million Jews part of a policy that was planned before the start of the World War II, or did the rationale behind these murders evolve only as the war progressed? As Ian Kerhsaw has eloquently asked: Was the systematic extermination of European Jewry the direct realization of Hitlers ideologically motivated design for destruction, which, after various stages in an exorable process of development, he set into operation through a written or, more likely, verbal Fuhrer Order sometime in 1941? Or did the Final Solution emerge piecemeal, and without any command of Hitler, as an imperative result of the system of cumulative radicalization in the Third Reich?1

Two formulations have been used to explain the Holocaust. One, which can be loosely called the intentionalist approach, focuses on Hitlers policy towards the Jews, specifically his goals and his ability to achieve his intentions. Oftentimes called the Hitlerism approach, these scholars argue that the Holocaust occurred because of a specific and long-planned out program.

Intentionalists see a consistent direction in Hitlers policies and contend that Hitlers plan for these atrocities pre-dates the war. The Final Solution, this school hypothesizes, was the primary element of Hitlers entire policy, from the very beginning of his life in politics. Thus, they believe, there is a direct connection between anti-Semitism, Nazism, and the Holocaust. As Milton Himmelfarb succinctly summarized: No Hitler, No Holocaust.2 Others believe in what scholars refer to as the functionalist or structuralist approach to explaining the Holocaust. Disparaged by detractors as revisionist, these historians stress structures and elements that affected the policy of the Third Reich. According to this school of thought, the Holocaust emerged from a disorganized bureaucracy and from a general sense of confusion towards the Jews, and that Hitler basically made up the plan to exterminate the Jews as he went along. Unlike the intentionalists, the functionalists do not see a systematic plan. Instead, they portray the Nazi leadership as split into different factions. Mass genocide was not considered or planned out before 1941, they contend, and the policy of exterminating the Jews only came about as the war was proceeding. Another approach has attempted to transcend these two interpretations. Recently, a more radical theory has emerged, that the Holocaust occurred because of the virulent antiSemitism of the German people. The historian of the Holocaust must thus struggle with a variety of explanatory theories. These differences are important ones, as they help understand the nature of Nazi policy. The problem of explaining the Holocaust is part of the wider problem of how the Nazi regime functioned, in particular of how decisions were arrived at and implemented in the Nazi state, writes Kershaw. The central issue remains, therefore, how Nazi hatred of the Jews became translated into the process of government, and what precise role Hitler played in this process.3

Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 102. 2 Milton Himmelfarb, No Hitler, No Holocaust. Commentary (March, 1984), p. 37. 3 Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 94. 2

Eminent scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Christopher Browning, and Daniel Goldhagen have addressed Kershaws central issue. The debates among them, especially the heated exchange that took place between Browning and Goldhagen during the 1990s, help put the policies of Hitlers Third Reich into clearer focus. It can be concluded from an analysis of each of these historians that there is no single explanation of exactly why the Holocaust occurred. Neither scholar alone offers a complete answer, as each of their approaches has their respective strengths and weaknesses. Rather, the interplay of a variety of factors, especially the nature of the totalitarian regime under Hitler as described by Arendt and the psychological pressures of conformity as argued by Browning, worked together in conjunction with Germanys history of anti-Semitism as portrayed by Goldhagen to produce the horror that was the Holocaust. To attribute the Holocaust to either purely intentionalist or functionalist causes is deny the complexity of the conditions that led to the murder of six million European Jews. II. Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil Much of the recent scholarship on the Holocaust was ignited by the firestorm set off by Hannah Arendts 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Until recently there was little interest in the Holocaust, a term that itself, as opposed to genocide, only began to be widely used (at first by Jewish scholars) during the 1960s. The Eichmann trial, and Arendts controversial book on it, produced a torrent of interest in the Holocaust, inaugurating a steady flow of scholarship on the period that shows little signs of abating. Arendts work is thus a logical starting point by which to examine how scholars have treated the Holocaust. Arendt, a German-Jewish political philosopher and World War II refugee most noted for her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, which described the nightmare societies created by Hitler and Stalin, was sent to Jerusalem as a reporter for the New Yorker to cover the

trial. Her account was initially published in a series of five articles that appeared in the magazine in February and March of 1963. In 1961, Israeli Special Forces had captured Eichmann in Argentina. In April of that year, his trial began in Jerusalem. After 14 weeks, he was convicted of crimes against both the Jewish people and against humanity, as well as of war crimes and of membership in criminal organizations. He was tried under the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950, which gave the death penalty to a person found guilty of these crimes. He was hanged in May of 1962, after an unsuccessful appeal attempt. For the prosecution, Eichmann became a symbol of a problem larger than any single man. As Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said on the eve of the trial, It is not an individual that is in the dock at this historic trial, and not the Nazi regime alone, but antiSemitism throughout history.4 The prosecution wished to expose the world to the horrors that could occur when an ideology such as anti-Semitism was given legitimacy by the state. This case was built upon what the Jews had suffered, Arendt writes, not on what Eichmann had done.5 The trial was highly controversial, but all agreed that Eichmann was directly involved in transporting Jews to the death camps. Eichmann himself did not kill a single person. With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do, he said on the stand. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a nonJew; I just did not do it.6 But in following orders he aided the process by which Jews were killed. Who then was ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews, Eichmann or the German state? Arendts text is most concerned with providing a portrait of Eichmann, and in so doing she arrives at the most unsettling conclusion that ordinary people can contribute to acts of extraordinary evil. To her Eichmann is, above all, a man without any conscience. He

4 5

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, Viking Press, 1963), p. 19. Ibid., p. 6. 6 Ibid., p. 22. 4

remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and with the most meticulous care.7 Throughout the book, Arendt is critical of both Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion as well as Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor. Eichmann, she emphasizes, was not insane, noting that he was declared by a psychiatrist to be quite normal. Though pointing out that under the conditions of the Third Reich only exceptions could be expected to react normally, one of Arendts central theses is that the judges were reluctant to admit that an average, normal person, neither feeble minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong.8 Eichmann is also portrayed as a man completely void of the powers of introspection. He had no ideas of his own, and only wanted to advance his career. To Arendt, Eichmann was a company man, a typical bureaucrat especially eager to be promoted, decidedly not a fanatic eager to kill Jews. He held no firm ideology of his own, and, according to Arendt, did not share the scientific racism of his superiors. Eichmann is described as a man who thrived on order and on membership in organizations. For example, the end of the war was significant to him because, as he recounted, I now sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult in brief, a life never known before lay before me.9 Eichmann said on the stand that Officialese is my only language, and Arendt concludes that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a clich.10 Noting his penchant for using trite expressions, the same stock phrases and self-invented clichs, Arendt writes that the longer one listened to him,

7 8

Ibid., p. 25. Ibid., p. 26. 9 Ibid., p. 32. 5

the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.11 After hearing Eichmanns final statement, Arendt observes that This horrible gift for consoling himself with clichs did not leave him on the hour of his death.12 What is most haunting is the sheer indifference of Eichmann. When Eichmann joined the Nazi Party, he did not know the Party doctrine, nor had he ever read Mein Kampf. What most concerned him was his profound dissatisfaction with his life as a traveling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company. From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, Arendt explains, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well could start from scratch and still make a career.13 Eichmann is presented in a far more subdued fashion by Arendt than he was by the prosecution. Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, she notes, everybody could see that this man was not a monster, but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was not a clown.14 Eichmann emphasized with great drama that the one thing he had learned in life was that one should not take an oath and then declared that he would like to testify under oath. He said that the worst thing he could do would be to plead for mercy,15 and then, after consulting his counsel, proceeded to submit a handwritten account that pleaded for mercy. Arendt also recounts numerous examples of Eichmanns poor memory. Though he failed to remember being sent to Bratislava to discuss the program to deport Jews from Slovakia, he remembers clearly that Sano Mach, the Minister of the interior in the German-established Slovakian puppet government, had invited Eichmann to go bowling.
10 11

Ibid., p. 48. Ibid., p. 49. 12 Ibid., p. 55. 13 Ibid., p. 33. 14 Ibid., p. 54. 15 Ibid., p. 55. 6

What is most frightening to Arendt is the idea that people would cooperate so willingly with the Nazi regime, and she is struck by the eagerness with which Eichmann gave up the use of his own faculties of criticism and self-thought. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all, she writes. And this diligence was in no way criminal; he certainly never would have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.16 Eichmann represents something new, an ordinary man under the command of a regime that practiced genocide. Were the Holocaust the work of evil men, the tragedy might be understandable. But Arendt attempts to show that the prosecution against Eichmann was incorrect, as Eichmann was not the monster he was portrayed to be. To her this makes the Holocaust even more frightening: The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of justice, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels that this new type of criminalcommits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.17

Arendts work sparked enormous controversy, in part because of the way she portrayed Jewish involvement in the Holocaust. Were Jews themselves responsible for much of the organization of the Final Solution? Many accused her of blaming the victim. Arendt was influenced by Raul Hilbergs thesis that Hitler depended on Jewish cooperation with the Nazis, which he believes came from a tradition of passivity. Arendt emphasizes Jewish compliance in

Ibid., p. 287. 7

much of the atrocities that the Nazis committed. Without Jewish help in administrative and police work the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower,18 she writes. Though recognizing the fact Jews did not have any territory, weapons, government, army or even government in exile to help them, Arendt remarks that the whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare organizations on both the local and the international level. Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis.19 Arendts work suggests that anti-Semitism alone does not account for the horrors of the Holocaust. A variety of other factors, including bureaucratic ones, she implies, were also responsible. As a result, Arendts portrayal makes one realize how easily another Holocaust could occur. The lesson here is that this could happen again and that the victims could be other groups as well. Eichmann in Jerusalem is a brilliant and haunting examination of the Holocaust, but it also contains shortcomings that serve to raise several questions about the overall quality of Arendts scholarship. For one, she does not always cite her sources. The absence of footnotes adds an element of confusion for the reader. Furthermore, the text leaves important questions unanswered. For example, much of Arendts book is concerned with comparing the treatment of Jews across different countries. For example, she discusses how Danes were able to save their Jews by shipping them to Sweden. But why exactly was the Final Solution more successful in some countries than in others? Arendt never gives a completely satisfactory answer to this question. Questions could also be raised about the nature of the legal proceedings themselves. Was Eichmanns trial really a trial, or just a show to justify Israels actions? One comes away

17 18

Ibid., p. 276. Ibid., p. 117. 19 Ibid., p. 125. 8

from her account with tremendous insight into Eichmanns character as well as the devastating nature of the psychological impact of the Third Reich, but there is little discussion of the issues concerning the legality of the trial itself. Most important are the questions raised by Arendts portrait of Eichmann. Was Arendt taking the side of the defendant, as some critics accused her of doing? Did Eichmann dupe Arendt? Could not one make the argument that Eichmann really knew what he was doing all along? Could it not be demonstrated that Eichmann chose not to make choices? Were these proven to be true, it would severely put into question one of the texts central theses. In the end, it is rather unclear whether Arendt is an intentionalist or a structuralist. Regarding the former, central to her analysis is the role of the state in the Holocaust and how it influenced individuals minds. Her text demonstrates that Eichmann was the distorted person he was because of the pervasive influence of the state. A society of virtuous citizens could easily recreate another Holocaust were the state to gain the same level of power and influence as did the Third Reich. Clearly, without Hitler, one would not have had the totalitarian state that produced the climate of such uncritical thinking in which Eichmann functioned. Here one sees the central importance of Hitler. But her analysis also demonstrates that decisions were made during the course of the war that accelerated the program to murder European Jews. Here one sees an evolving plan, one that could not have been said to exist during the 1930s despite the creation of a totalitarian state under Hitlers ruthless leadership. Furthermore, to Arendt, the Holocaust could only have occurred if the German people had consented to the Third Reichs demands. To Arendt, Eichmann is clearly guilty, but he also could only have done what he did with the help of other people. Eichmanns own actions show how easily regular Germans went about the task of killing Jews. Eichmann, after all, though non-ideological and clearly not an ardent Nazi willingly went about organizing the transport of Jews to their deaths. Arendts work thus establishes a

framework by which to examine two other interpretations of the Holocaust. III. Brownings Ordinary Men What about all the other Eichmanns in Germany? Were all Germans who participated in the killing of Jews Nazis? What exactly transformed Germans into killers? These questions are central to the work of Christopher Browning, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His 1992 book Ordinary Men Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, examined 500 German men recruited into police battalions to clear the ghettos of Jews in 1942 and 1943. During this time, under the direction of their commander, Major Trapp, they shot at least 38,000 Poles and deported over 45,000 Poles to the death camps at Treblinka. In the 1960s, investigators interviewed 210 of these soldiers. Brownings work is derived from the testimonies of 125 of them. As a result of these testimonies, several were indicted on crimes against humanity, serving prison sentences. This proved to be one of the few times that former German soldiers were indicted following the war. Thus instead of examining the victims of the Holocaust, Brownings work studies the outlook of the killers. But unlike Eichmann, who was high up in the Nazi bureaucracy, Browning looks at the actions of lower level soldiers, simple ordinary men. Who were they? About 25 percent were members of the Nazi party, and less than 4 percent members of the SS. They tended to be older than the average German soldier, were from the lower-middle class, came mostly from Hamburg, and had little education. They did not know what they would be asked to do once they joined the battalion. Many joined because they would not have to join the army and could thus be near their wives and children. Noting that in March 1942 some 75 to 80 percent of all the victims of the Holocaust were alive, while 30 to 25 percent had perished, but that by February 1943 the percentages were exactly the reverse, Browning concludes that The German attack on the Jews in Poland


was not a gradual or incremental program stretched over a long period of time, but a veritable blitzkrieg, a massive offensive requiring the mobilization of large numbers of shock troops.20 Unlike Eichmann, and unlike Nazis who worked at desk jobs, these ordinary troops pulled the trigger themselves. These men were not desk murderers who could take refuge in distance, routine, and bureaucratic euphemisms that veiled the reality of mass murder, he writes. These men saw their victims face to face.21 The question that guides Browning is How did these men first become mass murderers?22 Brownings book investigates, and dismisses, a variety of possible answers. One obvious explanation is the battalions war experiences. But Browning stresses that the battalion never saw combat in the war, which discredits the hypothesis that the men became hardened killers as a result of the war. Wartime brutalization through prior combat was not an immediate experience directly influencing the policemans behavior at Jozefow, he argues. Once the killing began, however, the men became increasingly brutalized. (B)rutalization was not the cause but the effect of these mens actions.23 Another area to explore is the battalions background. But Browning quickly discredits this explanation, too. After investigating their pasts, he concludes that These men would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers on behalf of the Nazi vision of a racial utopia free of Jews.24 He returns to this point when he later writes that by age, geographical origin, and social background, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were least likely to be considered apt material out of which to mold future mass killers.25 This is a constant theme that runs throughout the book. Reserve Police Battalion was not sent to Lublin to murder Jews because it was composed of men specially selected or deemed particularly suited for the task, he points out. On the contrary, the battalion was the dregs of the manpower pool

Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, HarperCollins, 1992), p. xv. 21 Ibid., p. 36. 22 Ibid., p. 37. 23 Ibid., p. 161. 24 Ibid., p. 48. 11

available at that stage of the war.26 Might there be the explanation that men inclined to participate in such violence were the same men that chose to join the battalion? After a lengthy analysis, Browning concludes that Self-selection on the basis of personality traits, in short, offers little to explain the behavior of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101.27 The battalions men were in a far different situation than Eichmann. Browning describes in vivid detail how the killings were anything but remote and distant. As one member recalled, through the point-blank shot that was thus required, the bullet struck the head of the victim at such a trajectory that often the entire skull or at least the entire rear skullcap was torn off, and blood, bone splinters, and brains sprayed everywhere and besmirched the shooters.28 Physical memories of the atrocities they had committed literally stuck to them. And the acknowledgement of this reality greatly influenced how the commanders organized the work, Browning notes. The psychological alleviation necessary to integrate Reserve Police Battalion 101 into the killing process was to be achieved through a twofold division of labor, he writes. The bulk of the killing was to be removed to the extermination camp, and the worst of the onthe-spot dirty work was to be assigned to the Trawnikis.29 Clearly, Major Trapp was worried about the effect such brutality would have on his men. Were the men free to make their own decisions? Trapp, at first, told the soldiers that they did not have to participate, and between 10 and 20% chose not to. After explaining the battalions murderous assignment, he (Trapp) made his extraordinary offer: any of the older men who did not feel up to the task that lay before them could step out.30 Major Trapp was troubled by the brutality he was witnessing, as he later confided to his driver that If this Jewish business

25 26

Ibid., p. 164. Ibid., p. 165. 27 Ibid., p. 169. 28 Ibid., p. 64. 29 Ibid., p. 77. 30 Ibid., p. 57. 12

is ever avenged on earth, then have mercy on us Germans.31 Perhaps because of Trapps doubts about the validity of such an exercise, the choice to participate was soon rescinded. Can one then claim that the men were forced to obey orders? Browning dismisses this explanation as well. Regarding the theory that their behavior was the result of the authoritarian political culture of the Nazis, which among other things created a climate where orders had to be obeyed, Browning concludes that in the past forty-five years no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment.32 Browning also challenges other explanations. Regarding the effect of Nazi educational materials, namely propaganda and indoctrinating material, Browning contends that the material was too dull and pedantic to inspire killings, writing that the prose may have put readers to sleep; it certainly did not turn them into killers.33 Browning argues that ideological indoctrination alone did not cause the men to do what they did, and that the killing of Jews cannot be explained by brutal exhortations to kill partisans and suspects.34 Though Browning admits that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, like the rest of German society, were immersed in a deluge of racist and anti-Semitic propaganda, he stresses, in contrast to Goldhagens thesis (discussed later) that much of the indoctrination material was clearly not targeted at older reservists and in some cases was highly inappropriate or irrelevant to them.35 And directly contradicting Arendt, Browning goes on to say that one would have to be quite convinced of the manipulative powers of indoctrination to believe that any of this material could have deprived the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 of independent thought.36 How, then, were these men transformed into cold-hearted killers? According to Browning, it was because of pressures to conform to the group and because of the mens
31 32

Ibid., p. 58. Ibid., p. 170. 33 Ibid., p. 179. 34 Ibid., p. 183. 35 Ibid., p. 184. 36 Ibid., p. 184. 13

tendency to obey authority. Here Browning uses results from two famous psychology experiments. In the Zimbardo study men were placed in a fabricated prison setting as both guards and prisoners. This experiment showed that people begin to believe in their powers and tend to cruelly exploit others who they control. The guards soon began abusing the prisoners. Browning concludes that Zimbardos spectrum of guard behavior bears an uncanny resemblance to the groupings that emerged within Reserve Police Battalion 101.37 In the Milgram study, subjects were asked under orders from a doctor to shock a patient in an adjoining room. Soon, subjects become oblivious to the patients pain. Browning concludes that many of Milgrams insights find graphic confirmation in the behavior and testimony of Reserve Police Battalion 101.38 For example, during the so-called Jew Hunt, he points out how only a minority of nonconformists managed to preserve a beleaguered sphere of moral autonomy that emboldened them to employ patterns of behavior and stratagems of evasion that kept them from becoming killers at all.39 In both experiments individuals were reluctant to deviate from group behavior. Thus the vital factor for Browning that most accounted for their behavior was conformity to the group, as they faced a situation where to break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behavior, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot.40 Browning does not imply that group conformity excuses what took place in Poland. Those who killed cannot be absolved by the notion that anyone in the same situation would have done as they did, he writes. Human responsibility is ultimately an individual matter. But he stresses that these men could have been any group of 500 men. Rather than expressing some inherent form of particularly German sentiment, Browning emphasizes that these soldiers were not much different from him. Brownings main lesson is that people anywhere could become just as horrific and cruel as the members of Reserve

37 38

Ibid., p. 168. Ibid., p. 174. 39 Ibid., p. 127. 14

Police Battalion 101. Everywhere society conditions people to accept authority, he writes in the texts final pages, Everywhere people seek career advancement. As a result, Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?41 How do Brownings conclusions contrast with those of Arendt? Both share many common concerns. For one, both are indebted to Raul Hilbergs The Destruction of the European Jews. Browning read Arendt while in graduate school, and, while recovering from hepatitis, also read Hilbergs monumental work in its entirety. His book is dedicated to Hilberg, and Arendt has also been quite open about her admiration for Hilberg. But Arendt and Browning differ in an important way, too. Are these battalion members really ordinary men? As Arendts book emphasizes, it was almost impossible to be normal when one lived under the conditions of the Third Reich. Though Ordinary Men is an extremely powerful and gripping text, one gets a sense of incompleteness from Brownings account. How exactly could these men have become such killers? Brownings work begs the obvious question: what role exactly did virulent anti-Semitism play in the mens behavior? His text appears to ascribe causes other than anti-Semitism for their actions. Often, anti-Semitism was noticeably absent from any analysis of the mens crimes, he notes. Regarding the interviews from the 1960s, for example, Browning writes that In terms of motivation and consciousness, the most glaring omission in the interrogations is any discussion of anti-Semitism.42 Furthermore, in Brownings formulation anti-Semitism is a sentiment that deals more with race than with religion. However, in his conclusion, Browning also argues that The dichotomy of racially superior Germans and racially inferior Jews, central to Nazi ideology, could easily merge with

40 41

Ibid., p. 184. Ibid., p. 189. 42 Ibid., p. 73. 15

the image of a beleaguered Germany surrounded by warring enemies. As a result, Nothing helped the Nazis to wage a race war so much as the war itself.43 But where specifically did this notion of German racial superiority come from? Can it be traced to a certain period in German history? Browning clearly favors the functionalist approach, arguing that the Holocaust emerged as the war proceeded rather than being planned out well in advance. But would other men have become such killers if they were placed in the same situation as Reserve Police Battalion 101? IV. Goldhagens Ordinary Germans One way to answer this question is to look at Daniel Goldhagens 1996 Hitlers Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. One of the most controversial books in European history in the past decade, as well as one of the most heavily publicized books in the mass media by its publisher, Goldhagens text is a tour de force that boldly challenges almost all of the existing literature on the Holocaust. Explaining why the Holocaust occurred requires a radical revision of what has until now been written, he writes in his introduction. This book is that revision.44 Goldhagen examines nearly every aspect of German society and looks at not only police battalions, as Browning did, but also the death camps and the death marches. He concludes that, given the inherent anti-Semitic nature of the German people, the Holocaust was inevitable. Goldhagens analysis stresses the concept of eliminationist antisemitism, which he argues developed in Germany since the mid 19th century. Hitlers message of virulent antiSemitism resonated with the German people, he contends, precisely because of their longstanding belief in such ideas. These feeling were not produced by Hitler but were instead deeply meshed into the German psyche. Hitlers role is important to Goldhagen, not because he shaped

43 44

Ibid., p. 186. Daniel Goldhagen, Hitlers Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust .(New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), p. 9. 16

public opinion, but because he was able to bring to the surface sentiments already shared by the German public. As Goldhagen states in his introduction: Germans antisemitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust. They were the central causal agent not only of Hitlers decision to annihilate European Jewry (which is accepted by many) but also of the perpetrators willingness to kill and brutalize Jews(A)ntisemitism moved many thousands of ordinary Germans and would have moved millions more, had they been appropriately positioned to slaughter Jews.45

Goldhagen discounts almost every single excuse imaginable for the behavior of Germans towards the Jews. These killings were not due, he suggests, to either economic conditions, to the influence of totalitarianism, or to social psychology. The attacks upon Jews during these first years of Nazi governance of Germany was so widespread and broad-based that it would be grievously wrong to attribute them solely to the toughs of the SA, as if the wider German public had no influence over, or part in, the violence.46 Nor were Germanys leaders the cause of the horrors inflicted upon the Jews, according to Goldhagen. The notion that Germany during the Nazi period was an ordinary, normal society which had the misfortune to have been governed by evil and ruthless rulers who, using the institutions of modern societies, moved people to commit acts that they abhorred, is in its essence false.47 German anti-Semitism, rather than Nazi anti-Semitism, he suggests, caused the Holocaust. Goldhagen is particularly critical of the psychological argument for why the Holocaust occurred. Because it is indisputable that not all people in similar structural situations either as guards in a camp or as executors of other genocidal orders did act or would have acted as the

45 46

Ibid., p. 9. Ibid., p. 95. 47 Ibid., p. 460. 17

Germans did, universal psychological and social factors could not possibly have moved the perpetrators to act as they did.48 These were not merely Nazi policies, he argues, but uniquely German attitudes. The eliminationist antisemitism, with its hurricane-force potential, resided ultimately in the heart of German political culture, in German society itself.49 Goldhagens Germany did not have a dramatic break with the past in 1933. Germany was different from other countries, he emphasizes, as antisemitism in Germany was, for many, like mothers milk, part of the Durkheimian collective unconscious.50 Goldhagen concludes that Germans were not forced to do the killing that they did, as there would have been a Holocaust even without Hitler. The road to Auschwitz was not twisted, he writes. Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich easily enlisted ordinary Germans by the tens of thousands, who built and paved it with an immense dedication born of great hatred for the Jews whom they drove down that road.51 The Germans did not merely take orders, he argues, but eagerly participated in the killings. At no point during the Nazi period, he concludes, did significant portions, or even identifiable minorities, of the German people express either dissent from the dominant elaboration of the nature of Jews or principled disapproval of the eliminationist goals and measures that the German government and so many Germans pursued.52 Nor were they simply brainwashed. When it came to Jews, Germans from the lowest of ranks to Hitler himself understood what they with their actions were seeking to accomplish, he concludes. And they did so willingly. To the very end, he writes, the ordinary Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust willfully, faithfully, and zealously slaughtered Jews.53 Goldhagen is quite critical of Hilbergs interpretation of the Holocaust,54 and his analysis also differs from Arendts in a number of crucial ways. Arendt stresses how totalitarianism destroys the private as well as the public realm, creating a society of robots. But
48 49

Ibid., p. 390. Ibid., p. 428. 50 Ibid., p. 89. 51 Ibid., p. 425. 52 Ibid., p. 430. 53 Ibid., p. 371. 18

Goldhagen emphasizes that Contrary to Arendts assertions, the perpetrators [of the Holocaust] were not such lonely, atomized beings.55 Goldhagen stresses this throughout, writing later in the text that Even the routine orders that were circulated by the various institutional commandersconvey that these genocidal executioners were not the clichd, atomized individuals that they are often asserted to have been and that virtually all people today probably conceive them to have been.56 Most important, whereas in Arendts analysis it is bureaucrats such as Eichmann who were responsible for the Holocaust, in Goldhagens it is a movement that began at the bottom and moved to the top of the Nazi hierarchy. Above all, Goldhagens ordinary Germans are portrayed much differently than Brownings ordinary men. Goldhagen devotes an entire chapter to the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. Whereas Browning suggests that they could have been any soldiers, Goldhagen says that they could only have been German soldiers. Browning tries to be understanding of the soldiers, but Goldhagen clearly does not. Brownings scholarship is detached, non-judgmental, and reads more like a lawyers brief, but Goldhagens prose is emotional, highly charged, and accusatory. While Browning seeks to understand, Goldhagen attempts to indict an entire nation. He argues that the members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could be said to be representative of the German population as a whole, as the group were not an unusually Nazified lot of German society. Overwhelmingly (they) consisted of ordinary Germans of both kinds those that were in the Party, and especially, those that were not.57 Goldhagen sees the members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 as representing the anti-Semitism of the entire German nation. Whereas Browning uses psychological explanations such as conformity to explain the mens behavior, Goldhagen argues that the men killed so freely because they did not see Jews as members of the human race. To Goldhagen, photographs of the battalion reveal that It is difficult to see in the photographs men who viewed the killing to be a crime, while their poetry

54 55

Ibid., p. 385, p. 581n27, and p. 582n35. Ibid., p. 580n23. 56 Ibid., p. 264. 19

shows that these Germans were celebrating, not curing, the names of the men who repeatedly sent them to kill Jews.58 He views the battalion as assenting mass executioners, men and women who, true to their own eliminationist anti-Semitic beliefs, faithful to their cultural antiSemitic credo, considered the slaughter to be just.59 Goldhagen argues that Browning relies too much on the soldiers own account of their actions and that his desire to understand the members of the battalion causes him, from a moral standpoint, to excuse their actions. By relying on the perpetrators testimony, he claims, Browning ignores the victims views. Thus, the unsubstantiated, self-exculpating claims of the battalion men to opposition, reluctance, and refusalpermeate Ordinary Men and, since Browning appears to have generally accepted them uncritically, they inform and therefore substantially impair his understanding of the battalion.60 Though Hitlers Willing Executioners is a provocative book, one sure to provoke debate for years to come, it is also deeply flawed. First, there is first the issue of literary style. Whereas Arendt and Brownings works are compact and tightly woven, Goldhagens suffers from needless repetition and, quite surprisingly, poor editing. How many times must the author insist upon using the term ordinary Germans? Often it reads like the Ph.D. dissertation that it originally was. Furthermore, Goldhagens essential thesis contains several major problems. His argument is frequently too narrow. The book does not cover the range of German feelings towards the Jews before the Nazis took power. Furthermore, his reliance upon anti-Semitism as his principle explanatory variable ignores the fact that the Nazis also killed others besides Jews, such as Russians, gypsies, and the mentally handicapped. Yet in other areas Goldhagen paints with too broad brush, as it is almost impossible to come to a single conclusion about an entire country. Thus Goldhagens conclusion that Germans were all inherently violently anti-Semitic is itself quite suspect. For example, how often did

57 58

Ibid., p. 208. Ibid., p. 247. 59 Ibid., p. 393. 20

German civilians who were not part of the Nazis kill Jews before the war? Was the killing of Jews a part of Nazi policy in 1933? Exporting Jews from Germany is much different than annihilating them. And if one to draw all-encompassing conclusions from a single group could not one also make the argument that resisters to the Nazis, rather than supporters of them, were representative of the German people as a whole? Goldhagens work also frequently makes broad assumptions. Is silence the same as complicity? Goldhagen believes that it is. He also underplays the role that totalitarianism played in Germany, as he does not give enough emphasis, as Arendt does, to the political environment that the Nazis created, and the punishment that would come upon those who questioned their policies, and on the sheer political, social, and economic power of the Nazi regime. Too often, his argument is simply illogical. If there were rising anti-Semitism in Germany, why then did the Jews remain attached to German society? And could not antiSemitism also flourish in an environment where many people were not anti-Semitic? And how could Germans have had choices, if so many of them believed so strongly in the tenets of antiSemitism? And if Germans were all anti-Semitic, how does one explain the rapid decline on antiSemitism once the war was over? If these feelings were so imbedded in the German psyche, stretching back well over a century, it is completely implausible to suggest that these sentiments could be immediately contained, despite the best intentions of the American denazification and reeducation programs of the late 1940s. Most important why did Hitler keep his plans about the Jews so secret? If antiSemitism existed to the extent that Goldhagen says it did, one would have assumed that Hitler would have more openly exploited such sentiments, for no other reason than political gain. Why, then, was the killing done so clandestinely? Goldhagens text also tends to downplay the crucial role that Hitler played in the Final Solution. Would there have been a Holocaust without Hitler? One could argue that anti-Semitism was at the very core of Hitlers outlook towards the world. In

Ibid., p. 534n. 21

many ways Goldhagens argument excuses Hitler and his regime, because it implies that there could have been a Holocaust even without him. Finally, and most glaringly, Goldhagens book is flawed because it does not undertake a deep comparison with other Western societies at the time. Goldhagen shows no little regard for the complexities of European society. What about anti-Semitism in other countries? The Dreyfuss affair clearly demonstrated prejudice equal to if not surpassing that seen in Germany. And the Russian pogroms were as violent as much of German behavior. Furthermore, Goldhagen gives little attention to anti-Semitism in either Poland or Austria. After all, many other European countries also killed Jews. But despite these flaws, Goldhagen does raise several interesting observations. First, he is most perceptive to question both the accuracy and Brownings interpretation of the battalion members testimony from the 1960s. How much can we trust not only the accuracy of their recollections but also the honesty of their testimony? After all, it was a crime in West Germany in the 1960s to commit violence because of racism. And second, despite the many problems with Goldhagens analysis, the fact remains that the Nazis grandiose plans could not have succeeded without some measure of deep popular support. This is an important conclusion that deserves wider attention. Furthermore, there is the obvious question: if the men of the battalion were from another country, would they have necessarily acted exactly the same way towards the Jews? The answer is clearly no. Italians, for example, did not treat Jews with such cruelty, despite Mussolinis urging, and the Danes saved their Jews. Then what conditions made the Germans act as they did? As Goldhagen wrote, after the books publication in response to a very critical review by Browning, The refusal or the unwillingness of others to [deport and kill Jews]


demonstrates that the Germans were not ordinary men, but that there was something particular about them, which is what must be investigated and specified.61 And perhaps Goldhagen is not even purely an intentionalist, as in the texts final pages he stresses the interaction between these two schools of thought, writing that The symbiosis between Hitlers passionately held and pursued aim of extinguishing Jewish power by whatever means and the German peoples racial eliminationalist view of Jews together produced the conditions and the drive to undertake the eliminationist policies of the 1930s and 1940s.62 Goldhagens thesis is not as clear-cut as both his supporters and detractors make it out to be. V. Conclusion All three of these works indirectly address the question of whether we need to fear the possibility of another Holocaust. In the end, Goldhagens conclusions are strangely less disturbing than those of either Arendt or Browning, for he clearly views the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101 as unique to Germans. Arendt and Browning, however, suggest that another Holocaust could easily occur again, due to either men losing their capacity to think for themselves, as demonstrated by Eichmann, or through men succumbing to the enormous pressures of conformity, as suggested by Brownings interpretation of the actions of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. Yet if a nation as refined, sophisticated, and technologically advanced as Germany could have within it the seeds of such horror, as Goldhagen infers, there will thus also exist the possibility for barbarity in every modern nation-state. The conclusions of all three of these historians - Arendts lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil,63 how Brownings ordinary men and Goldhagens ordinary Germans became ruthless killers - are most sobering.


Daniel Goldhagen, Ordinary Men or Ordinary Germans, in Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck, eds., The Holocaust and History The Known, the Disputed, and the Reexamined (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998), p. 305. 62 Daniel Goldhagen, Hitlers Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), p. 447. 63 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, Viking Press, 1963), p. 252. 23

Why did the Holocaust happen? All three viewpoints, the intentionalist one, attributing the Holocaust solely to Hitler; the functionalist approach, arguing that the decision to exterminate the Jews only evolved as the war was being fought; or the Goldhagen thesis, that the German people willingly embraced the Holocaust, are by themselves limiting. What is needed is a balance between all three. Perhaps the best interpretation is Brownings moderate functionalism, which argues that Hitler had not decided on the Final Solution as the culmination of any long-held or premeditated plan, but that he had indeed made a series of key decisions in 1941 that ordained the mass murder of European Jews.64 History is never as black and white as historians make it out to be. Arendt perceptively points out that Eichmann was far from the monster he was portrayed as by the prosecution, yet one can never know the extent to which his own feelings towards sending Jews to their deaths played a role in his actions. And while Browning is correct to stress the role of conformity in explaining the battalions actions, one must also take into account the extensive history of German anti-Semitism. And though Goldhagen emphasizes the role that everyday Germans played in creating the conditions that lead to the Holocaust, one must also continue to keep in mind the indisputable fact that virulent anti-Semitism was at the very core of Hitlers world view and colored almost every political and military decision he made. As the leader of the Third Reich, one cannot dispute that Hitler exerted enormous influence on the direction of the country. As Michael Marrus has noted, Hitler had an intense hatred of Jews, and Hitler was the principle driving force of antisemitism in the Nazi movement from the earliest period. Thus, in the Third Reich, antisemitism was central because Hitler determined that it should be so.65 The debate over the Holocaust has produced much thought-provoking scholarship. Highly emotional, it is an area of European history that is bound to become even more controversial in the years ahead. And sadly, the 20th century has given humankind ample horrors


Christopher Browning, The Path to Genocide Essays on Launching the Final Solution (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 88. 65 Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History (New York, Penguin Group, 1987), p. 17-18. 24

by which to test the theories of Arendt, Browning, and Goldhagen. The Turkish Armenian genocide, Stalins liquidation programs and purges, Vietnams My Lai Massacre, Pol Pots Cambodian genocide, the Hutus violence towards the Tutsis in Rwanda, and recent events in the former Yugoslavia have all contributed to the notion that the last century has been one of horror. Let us hope that this new century makes the need for such scholarship unnecessary.


Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (New York, Viking Press, 1963) Berenbaum, Michael, and Peck, Abraham J., eds. The Holocaust and History The Known, the Disputed, and the Reexamined. (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998)


Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. (New York, HarperCollins, 1992) __________________. The Path to Genocide Essays on Launching the Final Solution. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992) Goldhagen, Daniel. Hitlers Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000) Marrus, Michael R. The Holocaust in History. (New York, Penguin Group, 1987)