'Willing Executioners' revives German angst over Holocaust

A treatise on the guilt of ordinary citizens is proving a bestseller
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The Independent Online
"Captain Wolfgang Hoffmann was a zealous executioner of Jews. As the commander of one of the three companies of Police Battalion 101, he and his fellow officers led their men, who were not SS men but ordinary Germans, in the deportation and gruesome slaughter in Poland of tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children. Yet this same man, in the midst of his genocidal activities, once stridently disobeyed a superior order that he deemed morally objectionable."

The story of Captain Hoffmann and other maniacs who toured the Third Reich exterminating Jews is about to become a best-seller in Germany. After months of heated debate on both sides of the Atlantic, the German edition of Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners - Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust arrived in the shops last week, unleashing a second wave of anguished soul-searching.

Few Germans could have failed to notice the controversy that has been raging ever since the book was published in the US in March, and fewer still could escape the chilling conclusion spelt out in the title, illuminated by the opening words above and spun out to some 700 pages. Yet thousands of them are expected to shell out DM60 (pounds 27) for a bed-side read that is the stuff of nightmares.

At Behrendt bookshop, opposite Bonn University, the precious volumes are locked up in a glass cabinet, so as to prevent casual readers from getting the Goldhagen experience free of charge. "We have sold many copies of the English edition," said an assistant. "We expect the German version will sell even better.Some customers had reserved their copy in advance."

The Berlin publishers Siedler have produced an initial print run of 40,000. Publicity takes care of itself, and next month the Goldhagen road show hits Germany. The 37-year-old assistant professor from Harvard has scheduled a series of panel discussions with German historians, generating yet more hype for a tome variously described by critics in the US as "turgid" and "unreadable".

In Germany itself, the work has been roundly condemned. "An improbable denial of historical reality", was how the historian Hans Mommsen described it. "A failed dissertation", was another learned opinion. Scholars left and right of all ages united to trash the "emotional" thesis of a young man described as living in the shadow of his much more talented father, Erich Goldhagen, a Harvard professor and Holocaust survivor .

So if it is so bad, why would Germans, who have wept through Schindler's List and guffawed atHogan's Heroes, pay money to be tormented by a book branding their forefathers as a nation of congenital killers? Perhaps 50 years from now, a far-away academic will discern ingrained masochistic traits in today's society, but until then more rational explantions must be sought.

It seems Mr Goldhagen has held up a mirror, from which, however distorted a view it may offer, Germans cannot avert their gaze. The debate about the book, as another eminent historian pointed out, has been more illuminating than Mr Goldhagen's revelations. It has shown, to the surprise of Germans themselves, that the national experience half a century ago has far greater resonance today than they would care to admit.

The common wisdom holds that many people committed evil deeds under a brutal regime. Now Mr Goldhagen provides evidence of a vast number of "ordinary Germans", not only conniving in the crime, but participating without coercion, even enjoying the deeds. The Holocaust happened, he says, because of a combination of three factors: deep-seated "eliminationist anti-Semitism" in German society, the existence of the Nazi regime and the opportunity presented by the war. Mr Goldhagen does not accuse every single individual of perpetrating genocide, but that is the inference that Germans draw from his reasoning.

The unfairness of it all rankles, and so the decayed corpse of Nazi Germany is exhumed once again, for an autopsy the nation hopes will absolve it of collective guilt. Talk-shows, newspaper columns and television screens fill with mental or actual images of the slaughter, and politicians duck below the parapet - a sure sign of a national crisis.

Fanning the flames are the publishers and the US press, eager to seize on proof of lingering German tendencies. Bemused German media comment - by and large balanced and erudite - is amplified on its journey across the ocean, eliciting an echo that further inflames passions. At one point Mr Goldhagen cancels at short notice a meeting with German historians in the US, claiming that no scholarly debate can be held in the hostile atmosphere whipped up by a shrill German press.

Now the protagonists will at last come face to face. By an unfortunate coincidence, the book hit the shelves in the middle of the marching season, as neo-Nazis commemorate the anniversary of Rudolf Hess's suicide at Berlin's Spandau jail in 1987. For a week police have been rounding up gangs of jack-booted thugs who plan to display in a series of rallies culminating next Saturday the "virulent anti-Semitism" and totalitarian leanings for which the author berates Germans of the previous generation.

The actions of this insignificant minority will provide an embarrassing backdrop to the debate, but today's ragged army of neo-Nazis does not have the vocal power to influence its outcome. The most crucial contribution will come from the Jews themselves, many of whom have been appalled by Mr Goldhagen's sweeping generalisations and spectacular leaps of logic.

Leaders of the Jewish community have so far tried to stay out of the fray, but many Jewish intellectuals have vociferously condemned the book described by one Jewish author as "sensationalist in the extreme". An impressive array of Holocaust historians in Germany, the US and Israel have formed the opinion that while Mr Goldhagen's research added a great deal to knowledge of the era, he was much too hasty in his conclusions and too loud in trumpeting them.

But no one disputes that the deafening roar has awoken ghosts which had been lying dormant for too long. As a result, the simplistic thesis championed by revisionist historians which blames members of the National Socialist party for everything that went on in Nazi Germany has been fatally undermined. Like the Holocaust television series and Schindler's List in the past, Hitler's Willing Executioners has triggered a purge of the collective soul; an unpleasant process of mass psycho-analysis that offers no guarantee of redemption. The silent majority, terrified or simply unconcerned, are no longer off the hook.

The German authorities have recently noticed to their horror that many victims of Nazism, jailed or executed for opposing Hitler's regime, were never pardoned after the war. In June they rushed through the rehabilitation of the Rev Bernhard Lichtenberg the day before he was to be beatified by the Pope.

Lichtenberg perished in a crusade against the Nazis, along with many others who remain convicted criminals in the eyes of the law. Their legal limbo arises from the haste with which the democratic state consigned an entire era to oblivion. In his book Mr Goldhagen could find only villains in the Third Reich. Critics retort that the age had its heroes, too, but the trouble is that most of them have been forgotten. After the initial shock, many Germans are now thanking the American author for jogging their memory.