Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans & The Holocaust

Los Angeles, Cal.: Getty Center Gardens & Maze 11/28/09

No matter how familiar the Shoah has become, no matter how it recedes into the past, it retains the capacity to surprise, to horrify anew.

The title of Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) chilled me when I first saw a review, before I read much – but never all – of it.  The facts he presented, I believe, proved his thesis which his title aptly stated.

For years afterwards, Goldhagen suffered attacks of a wearying, wearisome variety.  The main line of criticism seemed that he didn’t get right the nature of German antisemitism.

What no one I’ve read challenged was that ordinary Germans were Hitler’s willing executioners.  Nor did anyone I read challenge the horrible implications for us all – all humans – of that statement.

Now two German scholars, Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, have confirmed Goldhagen’s assertion in Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs (Knopf, 2012).

In an article in The Daily Beast, Neitzel and Welzer quote interviews with German soldiers, from generals to enlisted men, that confirm the complicity and guilt of ordinary Germans in uniform.  Even for someone very familiar with the history of the Shoah, some of the quotations are shocking, horrifying.

The poet and future Nazi collaborator, Ezra Pound wrote at the end of WWI that the job of a novelist was to reveal to humans the nature of humanity.  Goldhagen and Neitzel and Welzer establish the evil of banality, the evil in our ordinary selves.

Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichman in Jerusalem (1963) as ‘terrifyingly normal’.  So are the soldaten.  And that should terrify us, the normal.

At least 15 years ago, I visited a Holocaust exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London.  Relatively small, it focused on the modernity of the killing, on the ‘progressive’ impulses toward hygiene and race improvement.  In the center of its long, next-to-last room ran a scale model in gray and black of the reception area and crematoria at Birkenau.  On the walls were the famous SS photographs of the Hungarian transports’ arrival in July 1944.

On leaving this room, I found myself in an L-shaped exit.  The L-walls bore an organisational chart – light gold lettering on glass, as I recall – for the cleansing of Europe.  I stopped, stupefied and horrified.

The proud accomplishments of industrial times became means to no different ends than the knives Charlemagne’s soldiers used to slit the throats of the surrendered.  As ever, the executioners were willing, ordinary – us.