Review: Goldhagen Controversy – Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Turkey, Opinion)

By Hüseyin Aktürk

“…German anti-Semitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust… The conclusion of this book is that anti-Semitism moved many goldhagenthousands of “ordinary” Germans – and would have moved millions more, had they been appropriately positioned – to slaughter Jews. Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not the social psychological, 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…” (Goldhagen, 1996:9)

23/5/2008- In the early morning of July 13th 1942, the “ordinary” members of German Police Battalion 101 found themselves in an extraordinary situation. Under the orders of Battalion commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, they were commanded to round up the 1,800 Jews in the village (Jozefow, Poland), take the ones that are able to, to the work-camp and execute the remaining women, children and the elders. It was the first time that the ordinary policemen were directly ordered to massacre. Trapp, however, who was also not completely happy with the orders decided to excuse the ones who felt that they weren’t up to the task. Around a dozen policemen took advantage of this offer. After driving the Jews out of their homes, shooting those who resisted or were immobile, they selected around 300 able men from 1,800 Jews in the village. The method of execution in Police Battalion 101 was simple and direct but also inhuman. Each policeman in the firing squad would be teamed with a victim and they would walk to a forest path in a wooden area where Jews would be ordered to sit down and the policeman would fire from behind into the skull (Hinton, 1998:9). As Hr. Ernst, one of the perpetrators explains, the bullet sometimes struck the head of the victim with such trajectory that often the entire skull or at least the entire rear skullcap was torn off, and blood, bone splinters, and brains preyed everywhere and besmirched the shooters (Browning, 1992:64). After these shootings, few more of the German policemen dropped out of the Battalion.

Both Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” and Browning’s book “Ordinary Men” examine the same Police Battalion 101 and the motivations of these murderers. Browning’s final chapters examine why despite Trapp’s offer of excuse, many of these German “Ordinary Men” decided to stay and proceed with the order for murders. According to Browning, the reasons for the perpetrators, at least the source of their motivations were: peer pressure, the war, physical revulsion, desensitization, dehumanization, brutalization, self-interest, the nature of authoritarianism, and anti-Semitic propaganda. Browning concludes that, the Police Battalion 101, who came from middle-lower class background with older age, was made up of nothing more than any “Ordinary Men”. According to Browning, all the motivations listed above would make any other ordinary men to commit such brutal atrocities. Goldhagen, in his highly controversial book (1996), “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, directly attacks Browning’s conclusions about the motivations of the “Ordinary Men”. For Goldhagen, the people who committed the atrocities were not only “Ordinary Men”, they were “Ordinary Germans” and these men were willingly engaged in the genocidal activities because of the level in which their anti-Semitism extents. He shifts the political focus of the subject to the psychology and more than that to anthropological make up of the German society. He states that “German society must be approached “…with the critical eye of an anthropologist…”(Goldhagen, 1996:15). Although it is agreed that the Holocaust was a dehumanizing act, he chooses a specific language to explain the acts of the Police Battalion 101:

“…they chose to walk into a hospital, a house of healing, and to shoot the sick, who must have been cowering, begging, and screaming for mercy. They killed babies. None of the Germans has seen fit to recount details of such killings. In all probability, a killer either shot a baby in its mother’s arms, and perhaps the mother for a good measure or as was the habit during these years, held it at arm’s length, shooting it with a pistol. Perhaps the mother looked on in horror. The tiny corpse was then dropped like so much trash and left to rot…” (Goldhagen, 1996: 215-216)

The selection of the words tells us that the author has a lot of emotions involved. Throughout his book, words, such as brutal, inhuman, horror, gruesome,and terror are used. The book appears to be a product of moral outrage. Goldhagen wants to show that these “Ordinary Men” were thinking in the course of such actions, with the same mentality. The fact that the Police Battalion 101 was made up of these ordinary people who were not necessarily indoctrinated by the Nazi Party brings one single conclusion that the German people including the very most ordinary ones must have hated the Jews which has its origins from a long-lasting and at that time on-going anti-Semitism. He argues that the Germans had one unique element which made all the Germans potentially genocidal by their nature which he describes as “eleminationist ideology” especially against the Jews. Goldhagen, given that in less than one dozen pages, dismisses decades of research on the Holocaust conducted by the most important scholars such as Yehuda Bauer, Christopher Browning, Raul Hilberg, it is more than expected that the book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” has generated a great deal of controversy. While a few Holocaust scholars have responded favorably to Goldhagen’s argument, many have strongly criticized him for saying very little that is new, making a monocausal and deterministic argument, using a deterministic methodology, being over-simplistic, and making racist arguments against the Germans (Hinton, 1998:12). The level and the depth of anti-Semitism in the book is overstated. At the same time Goldhagen ignores two incredibly major points: Not all the shooters were German and not all the victims were Jewish. Some of the killers of the Holocaust were also drawn from populations who did not necessarily lived within the borders of Germany. Some ethnic Germans, who lived in Ukraine, had killed approximately 30,000 Jews. Also, the guard force in Auschwitz was also made up of ethnic based Germans who lived outside of the country. The executioners were also from Croatia, Romania, Lithuania and other European countries. A senior scholar Hilberg explains this feature with a good example:

“…The great Odessa massacre of 1941 was Romanian, and it was the Romanian Marshal Ion Antonescu who asked on 16 December 1941, ‘Are we waiting for a decision to be taken in Berlin?’ just before 70,000 Jews were killed by his men in the Golta prefecture. Thousands of these Jews were burned alive. As to the Croats, there are photographs of what went on in that satellite state. Baltic auxiliaries were absolutely essential to the Germans, as in the case of Latvian street and harbor police who participated heavily in the massive shootings of Jews in Riga. Of the Lithuanian police battalion that was pressed into the service, the second is of special interest. In October of that year, it was ordered to go from Kaunas to Byelorussia as a component of the German 11th Police Battalion. The mission was to kill Jews. Facing the victims, a young Lithuanian declared that he could not shoot men, women and children whereupon the company commander, Juozas Kristaponis, invited any of his men with similar objections to move to the side. Some did, most did not. Later, this unit was involved in more killing, and in Slutsk, there were occurrences that prompted a German police officer to call the Lithuanians ‘pigs…’” (Hilberg, 1997:5)

Goldhagen does not mention these occurrences that took place outside of Germany in his book. He does however at times differentiate the German perpetrators by saying: Germans were the “prime movers and executers of the Holocaust” (Goldhagen, 1996:476). There is unfortunately no comparative argument; therefore the motivations of other Europeans cannot be explained. Were the atrocities committed by the Latvians also due to the mere fact that Germans were anti-Semitic and of the same mind of Hitler’s? If these atrocities and ideology was unique to the German society, how can one explain what was going on in the rest of Europe? Omitting this fact, a statement of this magnitude, requires a comparative study, Goldhagen fails greatly for discriminating Germans from other Europeans without even looking at the attitudes of others while the innocent Jews were being killed not only in Germany but elsewhere in Europe.
The second major failure of Goldhagen is the fact that there were many non-Jewish victims. Raul Hilberg argues: “It would be difficult to ascribe all these man, who had not been a part of German Society, the kind of German anti-Semitism that in Goldhagen’s view harbored an ‘exterminationist potential’. “It would be manifestly impossible to connect any anti-Semitism with the origination of killing operations directed at non-Jewish people” (Hilberg, 1997:5). During 1930s and early 1940s German government exterminated more than one forth of its mentally disabled patients with gas. The disabled people in Germany were not a threat to the German society by any means but they were still transferred from the euthanasia centers and gassed just like the Jews. Similarly, Gypsies in Germany were treated in exactly the same manner as the Jews were treated. All the Gypsies were transferred to the ghettos in Poland together with Jews and they were also exterminated. Again, Goldhagen makes a few references to the other victims of these “ordinary willing executioners” however he does not include these references for his conclusion. So while evaluating the German society, what Goldhagen does is, take one type of executioner while there are many others and one type of victim again among all others and draw a hasty generalization that all Germans were anti-Semitic and of the same minds of Hitler’s by their nature. He does however manage to link anti-Semitism to racial purity and this purity would be achieved not only by killing Jews but also others, who are threats to the Aryan German blood.

On the other hand, as Nick Zangwill argues, there are certain cases in which Goldhagen seems to be right. Every single leading Nazi member who was executed after the Nuremberg trials went to death with their clear conscience. The common thought among all was that “they had done the right thing”. For example at the Nuremberg trials one of the leading Nazi officers said that: “I will absolutely and gladly take responsibility for even the most serious things which I have done…” (Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, vol. IX: 368). Goring also says: “The only motive which guided me was my ardent love for my people, its freedom, its happiness and its life” (Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, vol. XXII, 564). There is no plausibility in the idea that Goring was someone who was attracted to evil qua evil. None of the leading Nazis in the trials showed any weakness because they did what they believed in. It is agreeable that the top Nazi officers’, especially Himmler’s, biggest motivation was anti-Semitism, potentially eleminationist anti-Semitism (Zangwill, 2003:4). One major criticism of Goldhagen’s work is that, it is “monocausal”. However this criticism is not entirely true. Goldhagen, in most part of his thesis, shows that the Holocaust had more than one cause. However, he does argue that anti-Semitism alone was the only motivational factor which led to genocide. Goldhagen recognizes that other factors were necessary for the killings but he insists that anti-Semitism, as a real psychological factor in the mind of the majority of the killers, was an important necessary condition (Goldhagen, 1996: 140-141). Browning denies the fact that the eleminationist anti-Semitic ideology was a motivational factor for the killings. It is agreeable that Goldhagen is not wrong for his observation in explaining the motivational factors. Although Browning lists many factors he slightly omits the anti-Semitic, eleminationist motivations for the cause of the killings.

Coming back to the specific case of Police Battalion 101, Goldhagen argues that the “Ordinary Men” were in fact proud and unlike Browning suggests they were not acting under the peer pressure. For the hypothesis, he relies on many photographs taken by the members of the Battalion as his evidence of this pride (Goldhagen, 1996: 245-247, 405-406). According to Goldhagen, these men showed pride, no shame or weakness which makes him come to a conclusion, if the “Ordinary Men” in those pictures are happy and proud, they must think that what they are doing is worth and right. Although, I have to admit that this is pretty weak evidence, I can see the conclusion he draws looking at the evidence he has. These pictures may as well be exceptions and selected in a biased manner and it can create illusions when drawing a conclusion about the psychology of these men.

In conclusion, although Goldhagen had major shortcomings in proving his theories, he did, in fact spark an intellectual debate on the issue. At least, he raised a very important question that remains open and still important more than ever. What were the motivations of these ordinary men when committing such brutal atrocities? Goldhagen’s research appears to be a product of moral outrage and lacks anthropological, sociological and psychological theory analysis. His analysis would have been so much more powerful if he argued that the “eleminationist anti-Semitist ideology” was highly motivating for many “Ordinary Men” in explaining their behavior. It is true that for quite a number of executioners “eleminationist ideology” was more than enough as a motivating factor whereas for many others, there were many more factors that contributed to the decisions of these men. Eleminationist anti-Semitism was an important, maybe one of the most important one but it isn’t the only cause of the Holocaust on its own. The arrogance of his style even by using a provocative title “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” made him a target for open-fire from its cover to conclusion, because his sole intention was to attack a senior scholar like Christopher Browning. Also, if he had argued that the “eleminationist ideology” was one of the factors, he would have made a valuable contribution to the intellectual debate researching the causes of the Holocaust. Although Goldhagen asks an important question, he does not address several other key issues in particular, how an advanced society would have carried out the Holocaust. Gellately says that: “Goldhagen had forcefully presented some challenging insights, offered new and important evidence, and certainly given us good reason to revise some of our perceptions and understandings” (Gellately. 1997:191). He does however fails dramatically in giving us a complete review of the Holocaust that he argues the purpose of his book is (Goldhagen, 1996:9). The study of Holocaust requires a better research, at least a comparative study, complex methodology which Goldhagen does not apply and present. Overall one issue remains open which is going to be discussed for several other decades: “What exactly then motivated the “Ordinary Men” just like the five hundred of those in the Police Battalion 101 to commit such brutal atrocities?” The answer may be: “either/or”, maybe even “neither” and the real answer will be reached, only with the contributions of young and brave scholars.


  1. ALFORD, F,. 1997. What does “Willing” Mean?. Theory and Society, 26(5): 719-738, October 1997.
  2. BROWNING, C., 2000. Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. BROWNING, C., 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  4. BROWNING, C., 2004. The Origins of the Final Solution. London: William Heinemann.
  5. GELLATELY, R., 1997. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Goldhagen. Reviewed in: The Journal of Modern History, 69(1): 187-191, March 1997.
  6. GOLDHAGEN. J., D., 1996. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Vintage Books.
  7. HILBERG, R., 1997. The Goldhagen Phenomenon. Critical Inquiry, 23(4): 721-728, Summer 1997.
  8. HINTON, A., 1998. Why did the Nazis kill? : Anthropology, Genocide and the Goldhagen Controversy. Anthropology Today, 14(5): 9-15, October 1998.
  9. INTERNATIONAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL, 1947-1949: Trials of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg.
  10. MOSES, A., D., 1998. Structure and the Agency in the Holocaust. History and Theory, 37(2): 194-219, May 1998.
  11.  ZANGWILL, N,. 2003. Perpetrator Motivation: Some Reflections on the Browning/Goldhagen Debate. Ashgate.

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