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.

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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.

The Common Sense of White Male Supremacy

I want to refer you to a January 14 article by Elana Schor for the Associated Press and carried by Religion News Service: “Anti-Semitism seen in Capitol attack raises alarms.” In the article Schor reports on the presence of anti-Semitic activists, symbols and expressions in the lynch mob that invaded the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. She notes that “the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute released a report that identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the insurrection.”

As I noted the presence of these groups, symbols and expressions of anti-Semitic hatred and violence during the January 6 attack, I knew that I needed to return to a seminal book for deeper understanding. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, details how ordinary Germans supported and participated in the Holocaust by choice rather than coercion. I will walk through that book in detail in my next “Throwback Thursday Books” post. For now, I want to look at just one aspect of Goldhagen’s work.

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From the beginning of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “antisemitism was ubiquitous in Germany. It was its ‘common sense’” (page 77). It is easy to forget that reality, if one ever knew it at all (although we Lutherans should never, ever forget it and our part in that). Antisemitism was a central organizing principle of German social and political life from the Middle Ages to the middle of the twentieth century. It morphed, as Goldhagen describes, from an assimilationist perspective to an “eliminationist” program in large part following the “emancipation” of Jews in Germany after 1848.

Assimilation was a sort of cultural elimination, since the idea was that Jews would gradually become European Christians and thus evaporate. “Built into emancipation itself—an emancipation that proceeded upon a cultural model of Jews derived from hostile Christianity—was the belief that Jews would disappear,” Goldhagen writes, “since Jews refused to do so, the false promises of emancipation created all but a structural guarantee that antisemitism would develop new virulence…” (page 78). When Jews refused to disappear “naturally,” the next step was to make them disappear systematically.

Elimination was just what it sounds like – programmatic extermination. This is what Goldhagen describes as the “common sense” of nineteenth and twentieth century German culture. It was unnecessary for the Nazis to invent German antisemitism or to infuse it with a genocidal impulse. It was only necessary for Hitler to energize and enact the common sense which was already there.

The intersection of Goldhagen’s book and the Capitol insurrection raises several terrifying thoughts for me.

The first is that antisemitism does not come and go. It hibernates. Goldhagen notes that the explicitly anti-Semitic political parties in Germany in the late 1800’s ceased to exist, not because antisemitism was rejected, but rather because it became a part of the mainstream political platforms. Thus, the fringe parties were no longer necessary. “Again, this meant not that antisemitism was dissipating,” Goldhagen notes, “but that it was merely less articulated and therefore partly disappeared from view. It would erupt again with great force only a few years hence” (page 76).

Who needs fringe political parties in our system when virulent racism walks into the halls of local, state and federal government on a daily basis?

Goldhagen’s work reminds me that antisemitism, like white male supremacy, is a dual process phenomenon. The “emancipation” of Jews (a stunning connection to America in the same period) was met with a virulent revival of antisemitic rhetoric, behavior, literature, politics, and violence. Modest moves toward toleration were met with the full development of eliminationist theory and practice. The primary reason that a full-blown genocide did not occur sooner was that Germans were distracted by the run-up to World War I.

Antisemitism was a dormant fuel needing only the right conditions to burst into full flame. Those conditions in Germany were the economic and social collapse following the First World War, and the rise of Nazi grievance culture in response to the defeat and devastation.

All that was needed was a bunch of angry white men who were sure they had been robbed of what was rightfully theirs. All it took was a culture certain that they were entitled to dominate and to root out the Other who stood in their way. All it took was an Other who could be blamed for all that was wrong in individual lives and in the lives of the aggrieved collective.

That’s all it took then…and now.

“It is thus incontestable that the fundamentals of Nazi antisemitism, the antisemitic brew that spawned Nazi thinking about the Jews, had deep roots in Germany, was part of the cultural cognitive model of German society, and was integral to German political culture,” Goldhagen concludes, “It is incontestable that racial antisemitism was the salient form of antisemitism in Germany and that it was broadly part of the public conversation of German society” (pages 74-75). It was not only common sense. To suggest any other way of looking at the world was to be a radical, a subversive, a communist(!), and an enemy of the Volk and the state.

We should be clear that this continues to be common sense for a number of our neighbors. Varieties and degrees of antisemitism participate in our Christian worship services weekly. Not only is antisemitism its own form of cultural cancer, but it also fits neatly into the larger framework of white male supremacy on display among us.

What leads a large number of people to find the violence of January 6 to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning?

While there is plenty of the deranged, demented, and demonic in that crowd, that’s not sufficient for our understanding. For most Americans for most of our history, white male supremacy has been “common sense.” Hard as that might be for some of us white men to absorb, it is true. Identifying, resisting, and seeking to dismantle that common sense is the innovation. Suggesting that no one is entitled to power, privilege, and position simply based on gender and skin tone is the novelty. Common sense may slip below the surface at times, but all it takes is a combination of change and demagoguery for it to explode into potency.

We can diagnose this for antisemitism, in part, because everything old is new again. According to Schor’s report, “Eric Ward, executive director of the progressive anti-discrimination group Western States Center, linked the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, adherents of which were at the forefront of the insurrection, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous 20th-century screed that falsely claimed Jews were colluding to take over the world.” This is the basis for a deranged white man attacking a New Jersey pizza parlor in search of Hillary Clinton and her ring of pedophiliacs a few years ago.

In much the same way, the white male supremacists at the heart of the January 6 lynch mob rely on the Turner Diaries as their bible and handbook for their own eliminationist fantasies. The Turner Diaries and related documents lead in the end to a worldwide campaign to eliminate every nonwhite human being from the planet in order to achieve “peace.” Goldhagen’s work provides the chilling German parallel. “Modern German anti-Semites,” he writes, “unlike their medieval forebears, could say that there would be no peace on earth until the Jews were destroyed” (page 77).

As a Christian, I must ask myself and my fellow Jesus followers, what do we regard as “common sense”? That takes work and help from outsiders, since most common sense is about as visible to us as the air we breathe. Jewish interpreters of Scripture help us to see that many of our founding documents and certainly our interpretations of them are profoundly antisemitic. There are some New Testament texts that I can no longer read in public worship for that reason and others which require extended explanation and caution if they are to be used.

That reticence is regarded by some Christians as heterodox, but I read somewhere that “you shall know them by their fruits.”

The natural and rightful hegemony of white, male Christianity is regarded as common sense. It’s obvious on the face of things that we continue to regard white male supremacy in and out of the church as “common sense.” Just try to challenge the assumptions of that view in most white Christian congregations, and the proof will be quick in appearing. In the best of times, we white Christians will talk about anything else – even politics, sex, or money – rather than to talk about racism and antiracism. In most places we can’t even call this conversation “antiracist” because that’s too confrontational.

Of course, during The Pandemic we have the perfect distraction to keep us from thinking about what it would mean to be Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” We have the ideal excuse to focus obsessively on a whole series of white-privilege problems and to ignore a host of underlying issues. We assure ourselves that God is merely “with us” in our difficulties and ignore the possibility that God might be longing for us to repent and grow as a result of our struggles.

We treat the necessary connection between whiteness and Christianity as common sense. We treat the capitalist invisible hand of the market as common sense. We treat the potential for armed violence in order to stand our ground as common sense. We treat the right to take what we want from others and from the earth as common sense. Is it any wonder that moves toward justice, peace, sustainability, and equity are treated as subversive and “communist”?

I’ll have more on Goldhagen’s book in my post next Thursday. But this was too much on my heart and mind to wait for that.