We know how, but we still don't know why the Germans killed the Jews

Neal Ascherson
Saturday 20 April 1996 23:02

Like generals, journalists and publishers are always gearing up to fight the last war. The appearance of Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen's account of German participation in the Jewish Holocaust, is no exception.

In Germany, the weekly Die Zeit has announced a new Historikerstreit (battle among historians). The first Streit was in the early 1960s, when Fritz Fischer wrote a book to prove that the First World War had been deliberately started by Imperial Germany. The second began 10 years ago, when several historians suggested that the Nazi genocide of the Jews was not entirely a German initiative but had some relationship to the gigantic massacres already perpetrated by Stalin and his henchmen against sections of the Soviet Union's population. The third round, according to Die Zeit, begins now with Goldhagen's book.

But this is an overstatement. It is bad luck for Goldhagen, a young assistant professor at Harvard, that publishers' hype about his book has gone over the top. "On March 29, 1996, Knopf will publish an explosive historical work of the utmost originality and importance that will transform our view of the Holocaust and of Nazi Germany." The book is powerful enough to deserve better. Its subject matter - how Germans killed Jews, and how they felt about what they were doing - forms a terrible documentation which ought to be studied by everyone in every country. But Goldhagen justifies his book not by its detailed description of the genocide, but by his explanation of it. And this explanation is not very convincing.

Goldhagen argues that we are wrong to be puzzled over the apparent mystery of how "some Germans - or SS men, or Nazis" could murder millions of helpless and unarmed men, women and children without more than minor signs of stress. There is no mystery. They killed them because they wanted to, because violent anti-Semitism which preached extermination as the "solution to the Jewish problem" permeated German society. This "eliminationist anti- Semitism" had already evolved in the distant German past, so that Hitler was merely adapting mass popular belief to his own political purposes. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, according to Goldhagen, this obsessive certainty that Jews were the main source of all that was wrong in Germany had become German "common sense".

This version of history - which few other historians would accept in such an extreme and absolute form - is crucial to Goldhagen's next logical step. The killing of the Jews was not the act of some fanatical minority. It was so solidly supported by the "common sense" of most Germans that it should be described as a "national project".

"The first task in restoring the perpetrators to the centre of our understanding of the Holocaust," writes Goldhagen, "is to restore to them their identities ... by eschewing convenient yet often inappropriate and obfuscating labels like `Nazis' and `SS men', and calling them what they were, `Germans' ... Their chief common denominator was that they were all Germans, pursuing German national political goals - in this case, the genocidal killing of Jews."

Nobody can deny that the question of "how could they have?" has never been satisfactorily answered. In the years immediately after the last war, there was a sort of consensus of incredulity. A Pole, a Norwegian, an Italian or a Russian found it easy to agree then that there was something special, fearsome and inaccessible about "Germans" which made them capable of such horrors. But, as the years passed it came to seem a bit crass to generalise about national character. Perhaps some social flaw, inherited from history, had rendered ordinary Germans easy meat for manipulative cliques. Perhaps only a tiny Nazi minority had done these things or known about them, or perhaps there was a special capacity for "numbing" which allowed otherwise ordinary individuals to commit monstrous crimes.

For Goldhagen, all that is smoke-screen. Ferociously, he slashes down all explanations that are based on circumstances. To him, this is a matter of "cognition" - of simple, conscious will. Most Germans had for a long time approved of the idea that Jews should be killed. When they got the chance, they proceeded to kill them with every appearance of satisfaction and enthusiasm. For the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners, the only thing that needs explaining is why other historians refuse to see that truth when it is in front of their noses.

Before criticising this theory, it's important to say how impressive this book is as a compilation of fact. It is true that none of his accounts of genocidal murder are new, but until now some of the most important documents have reached only a small circle of readers.

One of Goldhagen's main sources is the investigation, carried out in Hamburg between 1957 and 1965, of Police Battalion 101. This was one of the many police units whose job was to round up and shoot the Jewish population of Poland, town by town, village by village, for month after month. No more dreadful dossier of human savagery exists. And yet these men, who added to their central crime a gratuitous cruelty which almost passes belief, were not hard-core Nazis or trained killers. They were a haphazard bunch of recruits who for many reasons - age, unfitness - had not been called up for military service. Many had families of their own.

Some asked to be excused from the firing-squads - and they were not punished for it. Most, though, chose to carry out the slaughter. They disliked being spattered with the brains of women and children, but a brief rest and a cigarette was usually enough to restore their spirits and let them return to work. They took some pride in that work, and there were few shirkers.

From evidence like this, and he has a great deal more, Daniel Goldhagen makes his case. He concludes that the genocide of the Jews was not a secret but known to hundreds of thousands of Germans; that men selected almost at random were ready and willing to torment and murder Jews; that the Holocaust seemed to "ordinary Germans" a sensible and desirable act of policy.

There is some truth in this, but not all the truth. In the first place, the "who knew and who approved?" question is still open. Second, there is the problem of Goldhagen's method.

He insists that "the Germans" were rational actors, who enjoyed free will to choose their actions and chose to kill the Jews. He states that the Holocaust "marked [the Germans'] departure from the community of `civilised' peoples".

These are curiously antique ways of describing human behaviour. Few now believe that people choose in such a total way, or control the results of their choice with such sovereignty. Few academics would use the term "civilised", even qualified by quotation marks. But Goldhagen needs the "rational actor" approach, so that he can argue that the Germans found it easy to kill Jews because they agreed with an anti-Semitic programme. If that approach is wrong, then so is his central analysis.

What theory does work? I do not know. In this book is the war's most awful photograph: a German soldier taking aim at a young woman clutching a child. Goldhagen has tried to honour all that remains of that unknown woman and her child, which is the question: Why?

He has not yet reached the right answer. Instead, he has shown that the enigma of German motive is also a huge gap in our own theoretical understanding of human behaviour. Fifty years on, it is time that gap was filled.

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