Books: The hate of the common people

A shocking study incriminates ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. Jan Morris begs the question; Hitler's Willing Executioners, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen Little,Brown, pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
At a first flick of the pages, this grim book might seem to be just another contribution to the publishing industry that is the Holocaust: page after devastating page of beatings, gassings, shootings, death-marches and mass burials, illustrated with the statutory nightmare photographs and presented with what in any other context could be called a fanatic zeal. Daniel Goldhagen, though, is a profoundly serious Harvard scholar, and in these pages he explores themes of such historical magnitude that - shame on me for even thinking it - the fate of another few hundred poor victims comes to seem almost irrelevant. He is re-examining the very nature of the Second World War. He is re-considering the purposes of the Third Reich. He is offering the unwelcome argument that it was not just the Nazis who were responsible for the genocide of the Jews, but the host of ordinary Germans who provide his title.

The book is no work of literature. Dr Goldhagen is a social scientist, and his writing is turgid with socio-jargon: "ideational properties", "cognitive saliences", "immiserating" (meaning to make miserable), to "privilege" as a transitive verb... It is exhaustingly repetitive, hammering home the same arguments time after time, and is demeaned by dogmatic arrogance.

Dr Goldhagen's theories about the nature of the war will shake many Britons out of their assumptions. It was not, he believes, primarily a war of national rivalries, a resumption of the First World War: it was a war against the Jews. World Jewry was blamed for everything the Nazis most resented, everything that had humiliated the German volk in the 20th century. Jewish industrialists had stabbed them in the back during the First World War, Jewish economists had devised the punitive reparations that impoverished them, Jewish intellectuals had made the Weimar Republic an exhibition of avant-garde decadence, Jewish Bolshevists threatened their historic inheritance. Jews were a permanent fifth column within German society and a fundamental threat to the future of the nation.

This makes the Battle of Britain seem decidedly marginal, but it certainly adds credence to Dr Goldhagen's analysis of the nature of the Nazi State and Empire. It was an institution organised above all, he insists, around the concept of race. The Nordic peoples were to be eternally supreme when the Nazi view of human society came to fruition. The various lesser peoples of Europe were to be subsidiary, the Slavs were to be helots and the Jews were to be, once and for all, exterminated as being not really human beings at all. These were the Nazis' fundamental political aims, and first among them, so Goldhagen maintains, was the final elimination of Jewry, "the defining feature of the culture, the central mission of the juggernaut".

And Hitler's willing agents in this task were the ordinary Germans. As a passionate believer in the power and reality of redemption, and an admirer of all that the Germans have done to transform themselves since the Second World War, I could wish this book had never been written, for it does seem to establish that the vast majority of the last but one German generation at least condoned the Nazi racial programme.

Time and again, Dr Goldhagen convincingly demonstrates that the murderers and torturers of the Holocaust were not SS men, not even Nazi party members, but run-of-the-mill, normally decent family men and women. He does allow that since the war, the ``character structure and the common cognitive models of Germans" have changed dramatically, but he dismisses the idea of "the proverbial good German'' as mythical.

How could it be that a cultivated Christian people should be so perverted? If we are to believe Goldhagen, the whole frightful construction of Nazism was built specifically upon hatred of the Jews. The Nazis did not, of course, invent anti-semitism. Like most Europeans, the Germans had cherished the prejudice for centuries, basing it upon the execution of their Saviour, allegedly at the hands of the Jews of Palestine. But given as they were to myth and fairy-tale, hobgoblin and magic potion, the Germans were particularly vulnerable to the legend that Jews were corporately satanic, outcasts of God.

Along came the Nazis, and these ancient hallucinations were given official sanction, decreed absolute truth, and turned into political action. The Jews were not just to be forced out of German society; their lives were to become a perpetual condition of punishment, a retributive hell on earth. When it came to their extermination, they were not simply to be murdered: they were to be made to suffer every mile of the way to the gas ovens.

This madness was given a kind of ghastly glamour by a charismatically evil lunatic and his disciples. All the corruptions and wicked ambitions of Nazi Germany were subsumed in these hysterical notions, and the camp became, as Goldhagen says, a blueprint for the Europe that the Germans intended to create. Older, simpler Germans were confirmed in their inherited prejudices. Young Germans were brought up on a diet of insanity that was, to use a fateful idiom, politically correct.

I do not know how far to accept Dr Goldhagen's tentative conclusions that only "an insignificant scattering" of the German people objected to the regime's ill-treatment of the Jews, while many of them readily opposed, so he says, such other Nazi measures as forcible euthanasia. But they must all have known about it from the start: everybody could see that Jews were being openly tormented and progressively excluded from public life.

They knew: but then so did we. Western businessmen and diplomats in Germany in the Thirties must often have witnessed the bullying and degradation of Jews: how many intervened? Dr Goldhagen's terrible truths are only half-truths: no nation is generically more evil than any other, not even the German nation of half a century ago. History and example, religion and patriotism can make monsters of us all: and if you and I had been born into the Germany of the Thirties, we might have been among Hitler's willing executioners ourselves.