Gergen, editor at large of "U.S. News & World Report"
engages Daniel Goldhagen, professor of government at Harvard
University and author of the controversial book Hitler's
Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Dr. Goldhagen, the
publication of your book has caused a passionate storm on
both sides of the Atlantic, some rising to praise you,
others to protest and condemn. Tell us, for starters, what
you think is new about the book.
GOLDHAGEN, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Well, there are
many things that people believe about the Holocaust which
need to be revised. First of all, there are many more people
involved in the extermination of Jews, many more Germans
involved than people commonly believe and understand. The
minimum estimate that I've come up with--and this is a
minimum--is 100,000 people. In fact, the number was probably
They were perpetrators.
GOLDHAGEN: Perpetrators, people who killed Jews, who
deported them to their deaths, who manned the concentration
camps and the ghettos. The second thing is that many of
these people were ordinary Germans, ordinary in every sense
of the term. They came in all walks of German life, all
social backgrounds, all professionals, all educational
levels, different religions, and many of them were not in
the SS. They were not the most frenzied followers of the
Nazi regime. And a third thing that should be at the center
of any analysis of the Holocaust is that many of the killers
knew that they did not have to kill. In the history of the
Holocaust, never was a German perpetrator ever killed, sent
to a concentration camp, jailed, or punished in any serious
way for refusing to kill Jews. It actually never happened.
It's a historical fact. And many of the men, themselves,
knew they didn't have to kill because their commanders told
them they didn't have to.
Right. This breaks away from the conventional explanation
which is essentially that Hitler and the Nazis, the zealots
in the Nazi Party both inspired and directed the Holocaust
and that to the extent that other Germans participated, the
ordinary Germans participated, they did so under duress.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, of course, Hitler and the Nazi Party were
instrumental for the initiation and commission of the
Holocaust. Without the Nazis, there would have never been a
Holocaust in Germany; however, they came to power in a
country which was already virulently anti-semitic, and so,
therefore, they were easily able to mobilize ordinary
Germans first in the persecutions of the 30's, the radical
persecution of the Jews in the 30's, and then in the
extermination of the 40's.
GOLDHAGEN: And it's the voluntary--the volunteerism of the
killing operations which actually show that it wasn't that
difficult to induce ordinary Germans to kill Jews, to
slaughter Jewish men, women, and children.
But that's what's knew about it. You're arguing it was not
under duress. It was voluntary, and it much more massive.
There were far more ordinary Germans involved in this than
people have acknowledged in the past.
GOLDHAGEN: Most of the existing theories about them are
social psychological theories of one kind or another that
assume that the people did not believe that the killing was
right and they try to explain how people who were opposed to
it could be brought to kill. It seems to me, and what I
argue in the book, that the evidence--and there was an
enormous amount of evidence to support this--is that they
actually--the perpetrators shared a Hitlerian image of Jews.
They were virulent anti-semites who didn't need to be
induced to kill through some kind of pressure but who killed
One of the examples that you had that I found compelling was
the group of entertainers who came to entertain the troops,
GOLDHAGEN: There was an SRO group of musicians and poets of
the spoken word who were with a particular police battalion
in Poland. They were just there to entertain them. They
found out one day that there would be a killing operation
the next day and upon learning about this, they begged--this
is the testimony of one of the killers--they begged to be
allowed to take part in the executions and, indeed, they
were allowed to man the execution squad the next day. These
were people who had no formal responsibilities for the
killings, who--ordinary Germans who, themselves, hated Jews
so much that they wanted to kill them. And they shot Jews at
point blank range.
Yeah. I also found the photographs quite striking because
there was--the volume of photographs showing the various
kinds of torture and in some cases showing German soldiers
or German police battalion, ordinary Germans, as you call
them, smiling, but also there's this one photograph of a
German holding a rifle with a lone woman embracing her
child, and he's about to shoot both of them clearly. And
that picture was taken, he sent it back to his family.
GOLDHAGEN: Mm-hmm. Well, one of the reasons we have so many
photographs of the Holocaust or the reason that we have so
many photographs is because the Germans took them. This
enormous photographic record was produced by them, and they
didn't take the photographs to indict themselves or to
indict their countrymen. They took them in order to
memorialize their deeds, quite obviously. In one police
battalion, the photographs were hung in the headquarters,
and anyone could order copies of them as if they were--as if
people--as people would order copies of their favorite
snapshots on a vacation or on a safari. And the photographs
are really revealing. As you mentioned, they sometimes show
the Germans standing in a lordly manner, smiling, with the
Jews in a degraded position, Jews whom they are about to
kill. These were--the photographs are a telling tale of
Tell me this. Were there not Germans who disagreed, who, in
fact, tried to protest during the 30's and were essentially
shut down, they were treated brutally, in some cases
deported or sent to the camps, themselves, if they protested
these kind of activities?
GOLDHAGEN: There were, of course, many German opponents of
the regime, and even some Germans who--who dissented from
the prevailing anti-semitic image of Jews and Germany, and
who opposed the killing, of course; however, they were
clearly a small minority. In Nazi Germany, there is a vast
record of dissent against a whole range of policies,
economic policies, religious policies, the treatment of
slave labor, for example. And despite this vast record of
dissent against many of the regime's policies, we have
almost no principal dissent against the treatment of the
Jews in the 30's and the dominant anti-semitic image that
was put forward, let alone the killing. And so that shows
that Germans actually had independent views, and they could
GOLDHAGEN: --but they didn't against the persecution of the
Why do you think other historians--many, many historians
have looked at the Holocaust. Many have come to different
conclusions. Why do you think they have come to very
different conclusions looking similar evidence?
GOLDHAGEN: Well, in fact, there's been very little written
about the perpetrators. Until recently, you could read the
vast literature on the Holocaust and you would learn almost
nothing about the foot soldiers in the war against the Jews,
the people who actually killed them and deported them and
manned the camps. And so I think that the conclusions drawn
have been drawn without a sufficient evidentiary basis about
the people who were the killers. Until you understand these
people, their backgrounds, their lives as killers and why
they killed, you can't possibly explain the Holocaust.
What I find, Dr. Goldhagen, in looking at the various
reviews that have been written on both sides of the Atlantic
is that you have won many people over to your point of view
about who did the killing, the ordinary Germans, and the
fact it was volunteeristic, that many of your critics say
that you cast a powerful new light on something that needs
to be better understood. So the who seems to be widely
accepted. What I find has caused a great deal of controversy
is why, what led people to do this. Now tell me first of all
what your explanation is.
GOLDHAGEN: When you look at the details of their actions,
including the immense cruelty they perpetrated upon the
victims, including the photographs they took, including the
celebrations they had after killing operations, including
that many of them had their wives and girlfriends with them
and many other things, it seems that there's no way to
explain why they did what they did except for that they
believed it was right that they were anti-semites. And also,
there's testimony from them on this point. As one of the
killers said, a man from a police battalion, speaking for
himself and all of his comrades, and this is a direct
quotation, "The Jew was not considered by us to be a human
being." There's testimony on this point. Now, these people
were bred in a society which was virulently anti-semitic,
where anti-semitism, a view of Jews which held them to be
different from Germans, different because of the biology
conceptualized in terms of race, evil, and powerful, this
was a common sense of German society even before Hitler came
Well, there's a review coming, for example, in "T'Kum," the
Jewish publication, that says, in fact, that in the 19th
century Germany that Jews were getting ambiguous signals
that they were excluded from much of the economic activity
of the country, but they were more culturally integrated,
and that Jews in Eastern Europe looked upon Germany as a
magnet, a place they wanted to go live, so that that
reviewer at least felt that you overstated the case of how
much anti-semitism existed in Germany and then connected
with that another Clive James of the "New Yorker" writes,
you know, you make Hitler look too small in this. Hitler and
the Nazis, as he says, in some ways look like walk-ons in
the final act of "Gotterdammerung," you know, the sort of
spear carriers in Valhalla.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, I haven't read the "T'Kum" piece yet. It
hasn't come out. The German Jewish community was in many
ways a prosperous community, but it exists, but its
prosperity existed side by side with virulent anti-semitism,
which was, which was part and parcel of the common culture.
There was an enormous outpouring, for example of
anti-semitic literature, pamphleteering, and so on in the
19th century, and even parties in Germany which developed,
which were devoted exclusively to anti-semitism, communities
have prospered side by side with great hatred towards them.
And this hatred simmered beneath the surface under political
conditions which would not allow it to emerge. But when the
Nazis came to power, it was easy for them to activate it.
Hitler is not just a walk-on. Clive James, if he's
attributing this to me, it's not entirely--it's not true at
all. I'd simply--this is not a book about Hitler. It's not a
book about the Nazi leadership. It's a book about ordinary
Germans, and that's why I focused on them.
You look at other genocides. After all, Stalin killed more
people in the Soviet Union than Hitler killed Jews, and Mao
Tse Tung killed more than Stalin and Hitler put together.
You look at Cambodia, you look at Bosnia. There is something
in the human psyche that goes beyond the Germans.
That, that too many of us made--you know--
GOLDHAGEN: This is not about the human psyche. This is about
the belief that exists in a society or that people believe
that, that animate people and which lead them to act. In all
these other situations there was also great hatred of the
victims of a different kind. They didn't hate Jews, but in
Rwanda, the Hutus who slaughtered Tutsis hated tutsis.
GOLDHAGEN: And so in this sense the perpetrators of the
Holocaust is--exemplifies certain general processes that are
at work and other genocides as well.
But doesn't it excuse the rest of us as human beings from
what we ought to be thinking about with regard to this? And
I found very compelling, for example, your quote from Moby
Dick, the line about Ahab that you had--several
sentences--the line about Ahab, that "he piled upon the
whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate
felt by his whole race from Adam down, and then as if his
chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon
it." Don't you worry about whether there's an Ahab in a lot
GOLDHAGEN: But, you see, I don't think we're letting people
off the hook in the sense that--in this sense. In fact, I'm
saying that there are hatreds that exist in every society. I
mean, one can generalize. They simmer beneath the surface.
They can be very quickly activated. Not all hatreds are the
same as anti-semitism was in Germany, and that we should be
very vigilant against, for example, against public figures
articulating what are otherwise private hatreds, because
when they're articulated publicly, the politicians reinforce
these hatreds, they sustain them, they legitimize them and
form the basis for an ideology. So, in fact, I think we
should be very vigilant, and that we should be on guard
against this in our society and in other societies. I just
have a different analysis of what the problem is. It's not
some diffuse murderousness that exists within us towards any
arbitrarily selected group but what we have to be on guard
against are particular hatreds that exist in society against
particular groups. That's where I differ.
I understand. You're clearly causing a continuing storm. We
thank you for being with us.
GOLDHAGEN: Thank you for having me.
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