I have yet to read “Hitler’s Willing
Executioners," but its basic premise... that nearly every German was to
be blamed for the Holocaust... did not sit well with me. Taking the humanity
away from a race of people and boiling the issue down to simplistic black hats
and white hats certainly strikes a familiar chord.
The following are reactions to issues raised in reviews
of the book; then there is a very thought-provoking article by a German who
laments no matter what Germany does, his nation will always be held to a bad
light. (He needn't feel too bad; it is worse to be condemned for a crime that
did not take place and almost always get held to a bad light... like the
Turks.) The points he raises about the omnipresent "Nazi" stereotype
can be appreciated by any Turkish person whose image is normally skewered in
of an American Jew
The New York Times Book Review Letters, May 5, 1996
To the Editor:
As an American Jew who lived in Germany throughout the last half of the 1950’s, both as
a Fulbright scholar and as a military translator, and who has researched and written about
the Nazi period regularly over the last 40 years, I would like to reply to V. R. Berghahn’s
adroit review of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (April
14). It seems to me that some kind of further response is in order to Mr. Goldhagen’s
thesis that “the ‘vast majority’ of the Germans were ‘eliminationist’
anti-Semites who became potential ‘exterminationists’ under Nazism.”
Nobody with experience in Central Europe could possibly deny that anti-Semitism was and
remains virulent throughout the area. Nevertheless, Mr. Goldhagen’s ant’s-eye view of
German society during World War II reflects a very limited sense of the character of the
complex, multilayered culture that Germany had become by 1914. In fact, a hundred years
after Napoleon emptied out the ghettos, the Jews of Germany were finally arriving at
legitimate citizenship. Such Jews as the industrialist Walther Rathenau were personally
close to the Kaiser and emerged as key figures in the Weimar Republic. By the early 30’s
it was the outspoken anti-Semitism of the Nazis that was cutting into their electoral
appeal, and Hitler was forced to tone it down to hold on to the 30-pIus percent of the
vote that represented his high-water mark.
After the Nazis came into power in 1933, their imposition of anti-Jewish programs was
gradualistic, which was what kept so many prominent Jews from deserting Germany. Even
early Nazi backers like Fritz Thyssen resisted the back-alley hatemongering of the more
extreme Nazi leaders. A study of the SS documents that dealt with Kristallnacht, in 1938,
makes plain that the party activists were unable to arouse the citizenry to pillage Jewish
shops, and so sent Gestapo officials in mufti to ravage the stores and synagogues. Once
the Final Solution was under way, every euphemism imaginable came into play to disguise
the nature of the disposal process. Letters and documents of all sorts throughout the
period among the principal planners are very emphatic as to the importance of concealing
the true purpose of the eastern camps from the population at large.
This is certainly not to say that by 1939 the years of saturation propaganda, along with
the traditional widespread distaste for Jews and fear of the new waves of Slavic Jews who
had poured into the unstable Weimar Republic, did not predispose millions of street
Germans to go along, with exterminationist policies. But it is a gross misreading of the
tragedy of the period to maintain, as Mr. Goldhagen does, in Mr. Berghahn’s summation,
that “the vast majority of ordinary Germans were potential mass murderers of Europe’s
Jews,” and fell to the task with eagerness. To proceed on such an assumption is to
trivialize the feelings and efforts of millions of Germans on whom the extent of the evil
only very gradually dawned, and who did what they could — often at the risk of their own
lives — to ameliorate the nightmare.
“An Epidemic of Hatred”
Holdwater adds: Not
having read the book, I don't know whether the author of “Hitler’s Willing
Executioners” alluded to the Armenian "Genocide"... but you could bet
the Armenian experience would be referred to, when such a genocide-related book
would be discussed. Here is a reaction to one such inevitable example.
March 31, 1996
Ms. Nina King
The Editor, Book World
The Washington Post
Mr. Paul Johnson’s book review on “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” is
offensive to me and to Turks, Turkish Americans, and friends of Turks and Turkey. He
perpetuates the misinformation that the only people who died during and around 1915
in the Ottoman Empire were Armenians. Prof. Justin McCarthy of the University of
Louisville in his book named “Muslims and Minorities: the population of Ottoman
Empire at the end of the Empire” documented that two and a half million Turks and
Muslims died during the same period. Also, Mr. Johnson fails to mention that many
“small nations” that Stalin carried out genocide against were Turkic and Muslim
people. The Turkish community wrote a sufficient number of letters to the Washington
Post over the years about this subject. This disrespect to the memory of two and a
half million Turks and Muslims, as if they were not human beings, is very
insensitive. I hope you will write that Turks died too, because justice for all is
common decency all over the world, and especially in the United States.
Very truly yours,
Tamer Acikalin, M.D.
Assembly of Turkish American Associations
|If everyone is to blame for Hitler, then no one is.
If everyone is to blame for Hitler, then no one is.
For Germans, Guilt Isn’t Enough
December 5, 1996
By Peter Schneider
Among the foreign countries that Americans know, I’ve noticed that
my native Germany is named more often than many.
When I moved to Washington this fall, I was struck by the omnipresence of things German on
television. But this distinction is no honor. Almost all the images and stories on
television draw on those 12 years when Germans perpetrated a crime the monstrous
uniqueness of which only idiots question.
Most Germans I know in America have tried to act as un-German as possible. First, you
avoid the vocabulary of the “Hollywood German” — commands like “Komm her!” or
“Halt!” or “Achtung!” even when your child is about to step into the Street at a
dangerous intersection. You avoid first names like Fritz or Hans, and if your last name is
Reich, you pronounce it American-style: “Rike!” You try not to seem earnest or
profound; you show some humor even if you’ve none to spare. You try not to be pedantic.
Above all, you attempt to become the exception to the rule — the good German, the German
struggling with his past, the German who feels guilt, the German who shuns patriotism and
rejects a unified Germany. This holds true as well for many, if not the majority, of young
Germans at home. Sometimes it seems that the German who tries to be the exception has
become the rule.
Alas, all these heroic efforts have proved fruitless. Turn on your TV set on almost any
evening in America, and on one of the many cable channels you will likely find a German.
He is blond; sometimes, he is incredibly handsome. But he has these cold blue eyes, wears
a brown or black uniform, clicks his heels and shouts:
“Right away, Herr Kommandant!”
That’s Hollywood. But this stereotype is more troublesome when the Nazi past becomes the
only thing that defines today’s Germany and holds its people captive.
In a recent column in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen touched on
how some in the German Government apparently discriminate against Scientologists who seek
civil service posts. I won’t take issue with the undemocratic way in which certain
German Government ministers dealt with the group: These officials were criticized in
But then Mr. Cohen goes further. Even as he says he does not believe that all Germans are
innately evil, he brings up the idea by referring to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book, “Hitler’s
“Goldhagen has revived the notion,” Mr. Cohen writes, “that there is something
indelibly spooky about Germans — a gene in the culture that outsiders cannot detect and
that gets passed from generation to generation.”
Does every German
have to fear that, no matter what we say or do, we are secretly disposed, deep down
inside, to persecute minorities?
Having read this, I confess I immediately wanted to
have myself tested for this gene. Does every German have to fear that, no matter
what we say or do, we are secretly disposed, deep down inside, to persecute
minorities? And can we conclude that all non-Germans are by contrast comparatively
immune to such impulses?
Mr. Goldhagen’s book has unquestionable merits. Through his powerful descriptions,
he made It known that hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” Germans willingly
participated in the genocide. But in the process, he also reinforced a stereotype
that we had almost shed: that German culture had over time thought of the Holocaust
as a kind of “national project.” Or to put it more directly: That long before
they admitted it, most Germans were covert Nazis (and could become Nazis again).
This notion strikes me as “enlightened” prejudice, if such a thing were
possible. In any case, it’s completely unsubstantiated. Even if it could be
substantiated, I would dispute it with all my might. If a whole civilization is
responsible for genocide, it hardly makes sense to try individuals for the crimes
they are personally responsible for — the murderers and torturers are only doing
what anyone would do. In contrast to his own stated intentions, Mr. Goldhagen relies
on the thesis of collective guilt, which paints all cats gray and leaves little
distinction between collaborators and decent people.
It may at first seem surprising that Mr. Goldhagen’s book has had more success in
Germany than any other country. Some may see in it a cause for hope, a sign of
redemption. I find it disturbing. What does it mean that thousands of young Germans
have embraced a man who says to them: Let’s be blunt! When we talk about guilt, we’re
not talking about the SS and the Nazis, we’re talking about Germans and German
culture, from Luther to Thomas Mann. Are they trying to prove how un-German they are
by applauding this sweeping charge?
Coming to terms with the past in this way further obscures the behavior of a group
of Germans who showed during the Nazi years that they carried a very different
(Un-German?) gene: Let’s call it the gene of humanism. In Berlin, for instance,
some 10,000 families hid Jewish friends during the war. For the most part, these
unsung heroes have been forgotten. Why is that?
Perhaps because these “good” Germans refute the claim, made by the Nazis and
their supporters, that they couldn’t resist what they called Hitler’s “perfected
terror apparatus.” Perhaps these good Germans trouble the younger generation with
the realization that, beyond any cultural genetics or “eliminationist mindset,”
as Mr. Goldhagen calls it, one had a choice and consequently could have behaved
differently — even under Hitler’s dictatorship. It may be easier to claim that
everyone was a potential killer than to honor those who were not.
For decades, many Germans played down the involvement of the “ordinary” Germans
in the Holocaust. With some noble exceptions — Willy Brandt and Richard von
Weizsäcker among them — politicians have admitted German guilt only under
pressure. After Mr. Golhagen’s book, these facts can no longer be denied. Germans
will be measured by what we’ve learned from this history, especially in dealing
with the murderous neo-Nazi assaults against minorities in Germany.
Some German intellectuals are calling and searching for a new national identity. But
I’m afraid we cannot look for any lost or new identity. We have one and Auschwitz
is part of it.
But it is also true that the German identity cannot be founded on the history of the
Holocaust alone and on the belief that one belongs to a people of murderers.
Germans must be permitted to believe and to state that our history is more than 12
years long and has produced more than “eliminationist anti-Semitism.” There is
even an urgent need to make known that in those 12 years thousands of Germans risked
their lives to help Jews.
I would not expect anything good from the children of a country whose national
archives offered only murderers and no heroes.
Peter Schneider is the author, most
recently, of “Couplings,” a novel.
This article was translated from the
German by Leigh Hafrey.
Letters That Appeared in The New York Times
To the Editor:
Re: your report on Daniel Jonah Goidhagen’s
book on the Holocaust (Arts page, April 1) and A. M. Rosenthal’s April 2 column on
Yes, Jews were classified as vermin, as
undercutting the German economy by acquiring wealth, as nonhuman. There is no
denying the political strategy used to rally Germans and others against the Jews.
But it takes a mature, humane mind to understand events of history without reducing
people en masse to good and evil. There must be a passion for preventing the
thinking that allows one human to objectify another. Moreover, compassion is needed
for the descendants of the perpetrators, many of whom oppose the Ideas that allowed
murder and genocide to occur.
Medford, Mass., April 2, 1996
To the Editor:
A. M. Rosenthal (column, April 2) says that ordinary Germans made the Nazis their
biggest political party.
On March 5, 1933, the Nazis received 44 percent of the popular vote, and no other
party running received a greater percentage. But this election took place after
Hitler’s storm troopers had seized newspapers and radio stations, thereby
prohibiting opposing parties from campaigning, and after a reign of terror in which
anti-Nazi forces were rounded up. What is remarkable is that the German people
rejected Hitler by a 56 percent majority. On April 10, 1932, Hitler won 36.8 percent
of the vote, the most he ever received In a truly democratic national election.
Mr. Rosenthal implies that Germans who voted for Hitler did so knowing that he would
commit genocide against six million Jews.
There is no doubt that Hitler’s rhetoric consisted of rabid anti-Semitic
calumnies. But even the most knowledgeable people had no warning of the genocide to
If Jews had anticipated the travesty to come, they would have attempted to leave
Germany as soon as Hitler assumed power. Even after the genocide commenced, millions
of Jews offered no resistance when boarding the trains that would lead them to the
death camps. Indeed, many Jews, arriving at the camps, did not know the fate that
THOMAS P. THEOPHILOS
Kew Gardens, Queens, April 4 1996
(Holdwater adds: The author shares the "same"
name with Shutterbug Armin Theophil
Were ordinary Germans in on the
Holocaust as "Hitler's Willing Executioners" evidently purports? I
haven't read the book, but I'm now thinking of documentary footage I've seen of local
Germans paraded into the liberated concentration camps by the Allied troops, and most of
these citizens seemed genuinely shocked. They could have been acting, of course, but I'd
doubt it... their spirits were probably too low to put on much of a show. I like to
believe when a government commits crimes, its common people are generally off the hook
(especially when media information is tightly controlled, as was certainly the case, under
Goebbels); maybe I'll change my mind if I learn more, but I wouldn't be quick to issue
blame on the regular German citizen of Nazi times; some may have heard rumors of the
camps, but it takes exceptionally strong character, courage and, sometimes, even
stupidity, for an individual to be outraged enough to go into action, especially when one
lives in a ruthless police state. (Armin Wegner, mentioned above, was one such
individual... to his credit. He was persecuted by the Nazis, after writing a letter to
Hitler, regarding Germany's treatment of the Jews.)
The View of a
Two years ago in 1997, Daniel
Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners sounded the call for an overall indictment
of the bulk of the German people. They had been, he argued, collectively in
the throes of an "eliminationalist antisemitism," but he failed to come up
with the supporting evidence. For over a year, a trans-Atlantic quasi-debate
– often a shouting match – erupted. Most of it was silly, emotional, ad
hominem, and melodramatic. Collections of essays by scholars and of newspapers
op-eds are testimony to the wind-filled exchanges, often giving the impression no
one was listening and everyone was speaking, often at once.
Strangely, no one took note of the 1995 publication of an extraordinary document,
the diary of Victor Klemperer. In this massive – nearly 1700 printed pages
– personal report of life in Germany from 1933 to 1945, Klemperer paints a
panoramic view of the day-to-day existence of a Jew surviving in Nazi Germany.
As one makes ones way through the rich Proustian tapestry of this text, one thing
becomes clear: there was a broad layer of Germans deeply disturbed by the state's
brutal treatment of their Jewish neighbors. Klemperer records this faithfully
without over-emphasizing it. The fact remains that German citizens (whatever
their views) were terrorized into compliance, many, perhaps most, of them harboring
less than friendly dispositions towards Jews; but there were more than a few with a
conscience, as is apparent in Klemperer's daily encounters.
A study of the SA between July 1934 (after the SS's murderous assault on their
leadership in June) and November 9, 1938, (up to Kristallnacht) makes it all too
clear that the bulk of the German population remained unresponsive to repeated calls
for "spontaneous" grassroots acts of violence against Jews. Nor were
they particularly enthusiastic about their enforced change of identity from a
national – German – to a racial one – Aryan. Thousands of documents in
the German Bundesarchiv in Koblenz attest to this, leaving one to wonder why the
stellar academic opponents of Goldhagen neither referred to Klemperer's monumental
work nor drew on their knowledge of the unpublished sources.
Excerpted from Dr. Henry Huttenbach's
"So There were Decent Germans!" (The Genocide Forum, July-August 1999, No.