Just Following Orders?

a THOUSAND YEARS FROM NOW, IF books are still being written, they will be written about the Holocaust, the event that more than any other taxes our powers of understanding. For a generation, the reigning paradigm of the Holocaust was Hannah Arendt's insight into "the banality of evil"--the startling observation that the modem bureaucratic state had turned mass murder into just another government program, diffusing responsibility to the extent that even Eichmann could convince himself that he was guilty only of pushing paper for the losing side. Now Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a young Harvard professor and the son of a Jewish scholar who barely survived the war in a Romanian ghetto, has proposed a disturbing alternative: that the German people were enthusiastic participants in their nation's moment of infamy. Hitler's Willing Executioners (Knopf $30) is Goldhagen's 619-page exegesis of a joke that crossed the Atlantic with the first Holocaust survivors. The German people, it was said, abhorred the awful things Hitler did--such as lose the war.

This is a provocative thesis, likely to prove all the more so when Goldhagen's book is published in Germany this summer. (Although probably not as provocative as a new biography of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels by British author and Hitler apologist David Irving. Irving's book was pulled from publication last week by St. Martin's Press after chairman Thomas J. McCormack concluded that its "subtext" was that "the Jews brought it on themselves.") Scholars praise Goldhagen's research among the little-studied records of West German warcrimes trials in the 1950s and 1960s, although they're not all convinced by his analysis. Elie Wiesel described the book as "a tremendous contribution to the understanding" of the Holocaust. But respected historian Werner Maser, a professor emeritus at Halle-Wittenberg University, called the assertion that most Germans even knew of the Holocaust at the time "American prattle."

It depends, perhaps, on where you look. Goldhagen's subject is not Auschwitz, whose existence was a state secret, but the Germans who ran the everyday machinery of the Holocaust. He is particularly interested in the police battalions who rounded up Jews for deportation--staffed not by fanatical SS men but by ordinary Germans often drafted for this work because they were too old for the army. Defenseless Jews, women, children--these they could beat, set on fire and shoot at close range, spattering their uniforms with blood. Goldhagen finds it especially telling that some men sent photographs home to their families to show off their work.

To read Goldhagen's book is to realize how history has been transfixed by the awesome machinery of the Final Solution, to the point that we have lost sight of the human beings holding the whip, the club, the leash. How could they have done it? The Holocaust was unique in two respects, Goldhagen says--in the comprehensiveness with which it tracked down every Jew within reach; and that it involved no objective conflict over territory, power or wealth. It was carried out, moreover, with a cruelty that went far beyond any conceivable "orders" the perpetrators might have received. (He shows that members of the police units could be excused from killing Jews if they asked, although hardly any did.) Goldhagen is left with the conclusion that the Germans actually hated the Jews, with a passion that amounted to a vast national psychosis.

This is the crux of Goldhagen's book and the assertion that historians will find most provocative. "If he's right, then we don't have to do any more history," says Conrad Kwiet of the Center for Comparative Genocide Studies at Australia's Macquarie University, a member of a panel of scholars assembled for a debate on the book at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "The Germans were anti-Semitic and therefore they killed the Jews." "It's a pretty dark view" of the world, Goldhagen admits, to assert that ordinary Germans clubbed Jewish children to death because they thought it was a good idea. But is it really darker than Arendt's? Prewar Germany was sui generis, the product of a unique history of anti-Semitism. The modem bureaucratic state is ubiquitous; if that is a predisposing factor for genocide, we're all in big trouble. For the record, Goldhagen says he considers Germany a "remade country." And he plans to go back there in August ... for his book tour.