The Goldhagen Debates: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust Goldhagen, opinion article in

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The Goldhagen Debates:

Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

Goldhagen, opinion article in The New York Times, March 17, 1996.
“The Nazi authorities, apparently acting on the assumption that any able-bodied German would consent to kill Jews, assigned virtually anyone to the task. Their assumption was borne out.”
“A trove of articles confirms this fact. During postwar illegal investigations, the West German authorities interrogated tens of thousands of former killers and put former killers and put a few thousand on trial. These records have been used only selectively by scholars, in part because they are scattered throughout the justice system, and not stored in historical archives.”
General Theory of Hitler’s Willing Executioner:

The personal responsibility of the Nazi perpetrators within an anti-Semitic cultural horizon

Theoretical concepts:

Goldhagen asks about the extent of anti-Semitism in German society. He explains anti-Semitism as an Axiom of the society. Thus, anti-Semitism was not just a personal ideology but also functioned as a cultural code, the essence of the German Volksgemeinschaft, which culminated in Auschwitz. He sees anti-Semitism in the horizon of Auschwitz. Furthermore, he claims that society is a transmitter of anti-Semitic attitudes, fitting these prejudices into the cognitive structures which inform public and interpersonal discourse. Thus, Goldhagen adapts Maurice Halbwach’s theory on collective memory to anti-Semitism, arguing that anti-Semitism was part of the shared code for conversations and interactions which constitute society---meaning that each German’s reality was formed by this cognitive frame of anti-Semitism. Thus, Goldhagen roots his explanation of Auschwitz in the history of German political culture before and during the third-Reich. In this environment, the Jews became the Volk’s antithesis. “Built into the concept of Volk was a deprecation of Jews, who embodied all the negative qualities and ideals which were absent from the Volk, including moral ones. Thus, the conceptual and moral foundation of German political existence incorporated the perniciousness of the Jews” (Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, 77-78).

Definition of anti-Semitism:

  1. Anti-Semitism is not the result of action or behaviour of concrete Jewish persons.

  2. Anti-Semitism is an aspect of the Christian culture.

  3. The expression and outbreak of anti-Semitism depends on political and social changes.

Eliminationist anti-Semitism:
While Goldhagen sees this type of anti-Semitism as unique to the German case, it lacks a cohesive definition in his work, a point which many scholars have criticized. However, it is primary expressed in:
1. The total assimilation of Jews, asks them to construct themselves in the image of Germans.

2. Laws which restricts rights of Jews

3. The desire to take back the Jewish emancipation from the beginning of the 19th century.

4. Forcing Jews out of the country.

5. Extermination.
Christopher R. Browning, “Ordinary Men or Ordinary Germans” given at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Memorial on April 8, 1996.
“Goldhagen has gone about constructing his history of Germans and the Holocaust…. [it] is an example of what I like to call ‘keyhole history’; he views events though a single narrow vantage point that blocks out context and perspective.”
Ruth Bettina Birn, “Revising the Holocaust” from The Historical Journal (40, 1, 1997)
“He seems to follow no stringent methodological approach whatsoever. This is the problem. He prefers instead to use parts of the statements selectively, to reinterpret them according to his own point of view, or to take them out of context and make them fit into his own interpretative framework”
Goldhagen quotes pointed out by Norman G. Finkelstein in “Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s ‘Crazy Thesis’ A critique of Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, in A Nation on Trial The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth.
“Germans’ anti-semitism was the basis of their profound hatred of the Jews and the psychological impulse to make them suffer” (HWE: 584)
“The motivational dimension is the most crucial for explaining the perpetrator’s willingness to act” (HWE: 20).
Goldhagen in New York Times:
Few people believe that the Serbs who butchered and brutalized Muslims in Bosnia were forced to do so. Few believe that the Hutus slaughtered Tutsis in Rwanda, the Turks who killed Armenians and the Khmer Rouge who decimated the Cambodian people thought that they were doing wrong.

Major Phases of the German Debate:

1st: “debate without the book”---April 1996 to June 1996.

2nd: Goldhagen’s Germany Tour—September 1996
Questions to think about:

  1. Do we believe that Auschwitz has its roots in the nature of German society, as Goldhagen argues? Or does the Nazi maniuplaton explain the crimes?

  2. If that is true, do we believe in Goldhagen’s claim about the effectiveness of the Allied re-education program?

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