Throwback Thursday Books: Hitler’s Willing Executioners

The white supremacist crowd at the insurrection and attempted lynching at the United States capitol on January 6, 2021, displayed a variety of anti-Semitic symbols and slogans. Those included the “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt worn prominently and proudly by one of the terrorists. We could also see the 6MWE acronym – “Six million wasn’t enough” – on shirts and placards. These disgusting demonstrations illustrate once again the clear connection between white supremacy and anti-Semitism. These moral and spiritual cancers grow from the same tissue and offer mutual nourishment one to the other.

These images were troubling but not surprising. I had already planned this Throwback Thursday Book Review prior to January 6. That event simply confirmed my intuition. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) examination of the role of nondescript German people in the extermination of six million Jews and millions of other victims regarded as burdensome and/or less than human. Since I first read this book in 1998, I have returned to it often as an interpretive tool and a cautionary tale regarding the capacity for evil in every human heart.

Photo by Mitja Juraja on Pexels.com

Goldhagen studies three topics in his work: who carried out the Holocaust, the worldview of German anti-Semitism that made this national crime an individual possibility, and the reality of German society during the Nazi period. He summarizes the third subject in these words.

The Holocaust was the defining aspect of Nazism, but not only of Nazism. It was also the defining feature of German society during its Nazi period. No significant aspect of German society was untouched by anti-Jewish policy; from the economy, to society, to politics, to culture, from cattle farmers, to merchants, to the organization of small towns, to lawyers, doctors, physicists, and professors. No analysis of German society, no understanding or characterization of it, can be made without placing the persecution and extermination of the Jews at its center. (page 8).

The Holocaust was not perpetrated by a small subset of German society. The persecution, hunting, torture, enslavement, and murder of Jews was not a contradiction of the larger German culture. It was not carried out by a criminal element, by a complement of fanatic true believers. It was not a heavy lift intellectually, morally, theologically, legally, or politically. The Holocaust portrays the “banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt put it. But it is more than that, as Goldhagen reports. The Holocaust was not merely banal. It was, in the German context, normal and even the expected result of five hundred years of anti-Semitic vitriol.

As I have re-read the book in the last few weeks, I have been reminded of and burdened by the parallels and interconnections between German anti-Semitism and American white male supremacy. Let me hasten to add that anti-Semitism is not, of course, an exclusively German phenomenon. It is a potent force wherever western Christianity has made an imprint. But it took particular hold in German society to horrific effect (a reality that fills me with periodic shame as a German-American).

That being said, I wondered what would lead a large number of people on January 6 to find an insurrection and attempted lynching to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning.

There is no escape into a facile and false “bad apple” theory, either for the Holocaust or for the January 6 sedition. It is not helpful to regard either the perpetrators of the Holocaust or the perpetrators of the insurrection as deranged or demonic (although those characteristics are factors for some of the participants). Rather, we must ask ourselves what it is in a given setting that renders hatred as a reasonable response and murder as the acceptable outcome.

We are still spilling ink on trying to understand the nature of the so-called Trump voters and followers. I am as disgusted by that over-focus as many others. However, I think it is worthwhile to spend enough time on the topic to debunk the self-serving and self-excusing myths that provide cover for the criminals. Goldhagen offers a similar description in his book.

Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social psychological pressure, not invariable psychological propensities, but ideas about Jews that were pervasive in Germany, and had been for decades, induced ordinary Germans to kill unarmed, defenseless Jewish men, women, and children by the thousands, systematically and without pity. (page 9).

We could write a similar analysis of those who stormed the United States capitol two weeks ago. It is clear that they were not suffering from economic hardship. No one held a gun to their heads, forcing them into criminal behavior. Instead, the foundations of white male supremacy and its evil twin, anti-Semitism, made this behavior normal and even required.

In his book, Goldhagen lays out with chilling clarity the fundamental role anti-Semitism played in German culture, self-understanding, intellectual assumptions, political life, and religious rules. This hatred of Jews was bone-deep for the Germans, just as white male supremacy is bone-deep for historic white American culture.

Many of us were surprised that the insurrectionists expected to carry out their coup and then return to their homes, families, jobs, churches, and neighborhoods without consequence or comment. We should not have been surprised.

Goldhagen describes how the ordinary Germans of Police Battalion 101, for example, brought their wives with them to the killing fields of Poland. Some of their spouses witnessed and offered approval for the wholesale and gruesome slaughter of hundreds and thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, often in the most inhuman and degrading of methods. After work, they went bowling, attended the theater, had picnics, and discussed great literature.

“Simply put,” Goldhagen writes, “the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say ‘no’” (page 14). If they had wanted to say “no,” they could have done so with no penalty. Goldhagen demonstrates with extensive documentation that when ordinary Germans demurred from the slaughter, they were able to do so with no adverse outcomes.

With almost no exceptions, however, those refusals were not based on moral scruples. Rather, the reluctance was typically tied to a bit of squeamishness that passed after a while. The command structure allowed perpetrators to opt out if they wished because the commanders wanted to protect their good Germans from the negative effects of committing thousands of murders. But hardly anyone passed on the opportunity. Nor did they moderate the cruelty and torture they inflicted on their victims. Rather they participated willingly and often celebrated the salutary results of their slaughter.

I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the insurrectionists as they cheered, took selfies, collected souvenirs, and congratulated each other – all while looking to commit mayhem, assault, and murder. The similarities between those images and the images of ordinary Germans as they hunted, tortured, and murdered thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were haunting and terrifying.

What went into the cultural worldview that fueled the gleeful participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust? Jews were regarded as a race of subhumans who could be used and abused, tortured and murdered, without scruple or consequence. They were of less value and importance than bugs to be squashed under a boot heel. But there was far more than dehumanization at work. Jews were regarded as the root of all evil in German society. They were thieves and thugs, parasites and pariahs, a malign infection in the body politic that could not be tolerated. “The Jews are our misfortune,” was a German byword of this perspective.

Given that understanding, the only reasonable response to the infection was eradication. The Nazi program, completely consistent with five centuries of cultural development (including, I am ashamed to say, the hateful words of Martin Luther), was “radical eliminationism.” This was carried out, not merely in the ovens and crematoria of the camps, but in the daily activities of ordinary Germans who were sure they served the greater good with their murderous efficiency.

Is there an analogous set of cultural assumptions at work in America? It is called white male supremacy, and it is four centuries in the making so far. Otherwise rational and intelligent people believe the QAnon mythology. They study the Turner diaries (and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for good measure). Timothy McVeigh put a truck bomb in front of the Murrah office building, and we can draw a straight line from that terrorism to the events of January 6 (and back to Emmett Till). White male supremacy, underneath all the obfuscation, is also ultimately a radically eliminationist program.

Some of us would like to think that anti-Semitism and white male supremacy are the aberrations, and that tolerance is the norm. But let us not be so naïve. Tolerance is the innovation in human culture. White supremacy is the historic norm in American culture, and a movement toward civil rights is the innovation. Remember that just yesterday, our outgoing secretary of state asserted that multiculturalism is not who America is. Offensive as that assertion is, he is right in a disturbing way. Multiculturalism is who America can be, but only through ongoing and specific policy decisions, cultural changes, and personal repentance.

Embracing the other in love is the innovation. And it is when we are most human.

“The inescapable truth,” Goldhagen concludes, “is that, regarding Jews, German political culture had evolved to the point where an enormous number of ordinary, representative Germans became—and most of the rest of their fellow Germans were fit to be—Hitler’s willing executioners” (p. 454). The book is a painful analysis, a cautionary tale, and a contemporary lens. I rejoice that some measure of anti-racist, anti-supremacist, anti-eliminationist progress is being made today. Tomorrow there will be just as much work to do.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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