The Holocaust Historiography Project


Goldhagen’s 'Evil' Indictment of Germans

  • Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. New York: Knopf, 1996. x+622 pages. $30.00.

Reviewed by Charles E. Weber

This is an evil book, as evil as the well-known incitement to hatred against Germans by Elie Wiesel, who praises this thick volume as “a tremendous contribution to the understanding and teaching of the Holocaust.”

Author Goldhagen’s basic thesis is that a harsh “eliminationist” hostility toward Jews was so deeply ingrained in Germany that “ordinary Germans” were “willing executioners” of the Third Reich’s murderous Holocaust of European Jewry. Even Germany’s clergy comes under vehement attack in the chapter “Eliminationist Antisemitism as a Genocidal Motivation” (especially pp. 432-438; see also pp. 107-114). Goldhagen asserts (p. 437):

In sum, in the face of the persecution and annihilation of the Jews, the churches, Protestant and Catholic, as corporate bodies exhibited an apparent, striking impassiveness. Moreover, in the ranks of the clergy at all levels, numerous voices could be heard vilifying the Jews in Nazi-like terms, hurling imprecations at them, and acclaiming their persecution at the hands of their country’s government.

Not even the members of the conspiracy who plotted to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944 are spared by Goldhagen (pp. 115-116).

In the opening pages of his book, in which he gives a sort of preliminary summary of its contents, Goldhagen writes (p. 4) of “the tens of thousands of ordinary Germans who… became genocidal killers.” Even if we were to assume, quite hypothetically, that 70,000 Germans could fall into such a category, that would still be only one in a thousand Germans — hardly the basis for a sweeping moral condemnation of a whole nation.

I can hardly imagine that Goldhagen has experienced military life himself or that he even has a good secondhand grasp of what it is like. In any military organization, a few members are prone to become sadists, especially after bloody engagements with enemy forces, and infused with the skillful psychological indoctrination that is a routine part of modern warfare. I recall, a few months after the end of the war in Europe, a fellow soldier boasting to me about how many Germans he had killed with the trucks he had driven. Were members of the American air force who delighted in reducing hundreds of thousands of women and children to cinders morally superior to members of the special German Einsatzkommando police units, to which Goldhagen devotes so much space? Most members of both groups no doubt thought they were performing acts that were a patriotic military necessity.

Right at the outset, Goldhagen demonstrates to the discerning reader just how unreliable his book is. On page 4 (and later on p. 162) he insists that German anti-Jewish measures killed six million Jews. Because German authorities never had more than about 3.8 million Jews under their control, as can be confirmed by checking easily accessible statistics on Jewish prewar and postwar populations, the familiar Six Million figure is absurd. (See, for example, Walter Sanning’s The Dissolution of Eastern European Jewry, published by the IHR.)

Goldhagen calls the Holocaust “the most shocking event of the twentieth century, and the most difficult to understand in all of German history” (p. 4) — an arrogant, ethnocentric comment suggesting that Jewish suffering has special significance. The number of Ukrainians who died from starvation in Stalin’s imposed mass famine of 1932-33 is, alone, perhaps ten times the number of Jews who perished in Europe under German and Axis rule, 1942-45.

Documents and Photographs

As evidence of a German extermination policy, Goldhagen cites (p. 322) the purported protocol of a conference of German government and military officials held at Wannsee (near Berlin) on January 20, 1942. As anyone who has carefully read the text knows, this 15-page document contains no mention of any policy or program to exterminate the Jews, let alone anything about gas chambers or the like. Remarkably, this document envisages a restructured Jewish makeup for those who survive forced employment, upon their future release ("bei Freilassung"). (Actually, there is some evidence that this document, which contains no signature, date, and so forth, may be a forgery of some sort. For the complete text and detailed discussion of the Wannsee conference protocol, see Auschwitz: A Judge Looks at the Evidence, by Wilhelm Stäglich, pp. 31-41, 283-291, published by the IHR.)

Similarly, at least some of the grim photographs in Goldhagen’s book appear to be of dubious authenticity. Some such “Holocaust industry” photos were produced by montage techniques, while in other instances unaltered photographs were used with false captions. (On this topic, see Udo Walendy’s article the Spring 1980 Journal.)

As is now well known, torture was used to obtain many of the “confessions” upon which much of the Holocaust story is based. (See, for example, Robert Faurisson’s article, “How the British Obtained the Confessions of Rudolf Höss,” in Winter 1986-87 Journal.) Holocaust “eyewitness” testimony, often quoted here by Goldhagen, are also frequently unreliable, as pointed out by the Jewish historian Arno Mayer in his 1988 book, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The 'Final Solution' in History (p. 362).

Much of Goldhagen’s book is devoted to the thesis that Wehrmacht troops were generally so hostile to Jews that many took a personal delight in tormenting them. Wise military commanders prohibit such evil, not only for the sake of the morale and psychological well-being of their men, but also to prevent encouragement of a more determined resistance on the part of their enemies. And German soldiers were exceptionally well disciplined and officered, as any number of non-German military historians have acknowledged. As Jewish author John Sack points out in his book An Eye for an Eye (pp. 87, 105), SS guards at Auschwitz could be (and in some instances were) punished severely by the German authorities for mistreating inmates, especially for emotional satisfaction.

Heinrich Himmler recognized the value of Jewish inmates in German concentration and labor camps as a source of labor for the war effort. In an order dated December 28, 1942, to the administrators of these camps the SS Reichsführer insisted that deaths of inmates (as a consequence of disease) were to be reduced “at all costs.”

Historical Context

It is important to realize that the grim subject of this book is only understandable within the context of the time. For example, Goldhagen makes an astonishingly naive or disingenuous statement (p. 409) to the effect that the behavior of Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians in collaborating with the German occupation forces was difficult to understand. For anyone familiar with the historical circumstances, though, this collaboration is not at all surprising.

It is well established that Jews played a decisive and probably dominant role not only in the early Soviet Russian regime, but also in the genocidal Soviet administrations imposed in the Baltic nations in 1940-1941. [See “The Jewish Role in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Early Soviet Regime,” Jan-Feb. 1994 Journal.] When German forces occupied the Baltic countries in the summer of 1941, people there took bloody vengeance on their tormentors (p. 151).

Goldhagen devotes considerable attention to the grim work of the Einsatzkommandos, special German security police detachments that operated behind the front lines in the occupied Soviet Union.

In these vast territories, large numbers of Jews came under German occupation in 1941. As a group, the Jews there were ardently hostile to German rule and posed a threat to security. Many joined the irregular (partisan) forces, which became a severe menace to thinly spread German military personnel. (Jews today point to this chapter of history with considerable pride, as shown, for example, in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.)

This reality, and the special character of the pitiless conflict between Germany and Soviet Russia, necessitated the very harsh security measures behind the front lines that resulted in many Jewish deaths. These victims, which included many innocent people, accounted for a large portion of all Jewish wartime deaths, a fact that Goldhagen acknowledges (p. 523, n. 4).

Ignored Evidence and a Shift in Emphasis

The grave distortions and lack of balance of this book are perhaps due less to what Goldhagen writes than to what he does not include. He ignores the abundant evidence brought out in recent decades — such as the Leuchter Report and the aerial reconnaissance photographs taken of Auschwitz in 1944 — that discredits the generally accepted Holocaust extermination story.

While a look at his bibliography suggests that he is not aware of this research, he seems to know of evidence that discredits the familiar claims of homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz, and to believe that the Holocaust story needs at least some revision. “The imbalance of attention devoted to the gas chambers needs to be corrected,” he writes (p. 523, n. 4).

Goldhagen also devotes a great deal of attention to the evacuations of inmates from German concentration camps during the final months of the war, in the face of the approaching Soviet forces. Many thousands of Jewish prisoners were evacuated from Auschwitz, for example, in the weeks before its capture by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945. It seems not to have occurred to Goldhagen that if there had been anything like a policy to kill all Jews, the German authorities would not have diverted desperately needed guard personnel and overtaxed transportation facilities to such cumbersome evacuations, which Goldhagen refers to as “death marches.”

Threats of Genocide

Germany’s harsh anti-Jewish measures were carried out during a war in which the German people were themselves threatened with genocide — an aspect of the subject that Goldhagen, like most Holocaust historians, essentially ignores.

Even at the outset of the conflict there were mass killings of thousands of civilian ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) by both civilian and military Poles, who were confident that Poland would quickly defeat Germany. Many apparently expected to take possession of German farms and businesses. An estimated 58,000 German civilians lost their lives in the massacres carried out in September 1939, of which the “Bromberg Bloody Sunday” is perhaps best known. (These atrocities are documented in gruesome detail in a book issued by the German Foreign Office. The American edition, Polish Acts of Atrocities Against the German Minority in Poland, was published in New York in 1940.)

Then came the book by American Jewish writer Theodore Kaufman, Germany Must Perish, which called for the sterilization of all Germans and the parceling out of Germany to neighboring states. First published in 1941, translations of this shocking work were widely distributed by Goebbels' agencies as a grim admonishment to the German people. Of course, one looks in vain for any mention by Goldhagen of this Jewish call to genocide.

So eager were Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to ruthlessly crush Germany that in January 1943 they issued their demand for “unconditional surrender” — a savage directive that unquestionably cost the lives of huge numbers of soldiers on both sides. In September 1944 came the notorious Morgenthau Plan, an occupation program endorsed by Roosevelt and formulated by his Treasury Secretary that would have had a genocidal impact on the German people by depriving the nation of its heavy industry and thus the possibility of obtaining the imports necessary for its very survival. (Since about 1870 the German population had grown beyond the capacity of its arable land to feed itself. During 1945-1948 I myself witnessed the starvation and economic paralysis that was imposed on the vanquished Germans.) Then in October 1944 came the discovery of the Soviet massacre of German civilians in Nemmersdorf, a village in East Prussia that was briefly recaptured by German forces. In February 1945 Allied air forces carried out the genocidal bombing of Dresden.

Under these circumstances, which receive little or no mention from Goldhagen, it is naive to expect that the Germans would have maintained a sympathetic, benevolent attitude toward the Jews.

Germany’s wartime internment of Jews has certain parallels with America’s wartime internment of its citizens of Japanese descent. In each case, racial-ethnic distrust and concerns for security were significant factors. But there were also some important differences. Whereas the US government acted swiftly in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to round up its citizens of Japanese ancestry, the German authorities moved rather slowly and hesitantly against the Jews, until the outbreak of the German-Soviet conflict.

If the German authorities intended to consign all Jews to death, as Goldhagen claims (p. 173), they moved with a remarkable lack of urgency. The Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in the spring of 1943, for example, came some three and a half years after the outbreak of the war.

The appalling conditions in the German concentration camps during the war’s final, chaotic months are reminiscent of the dreadful conditions in the prisoner of war camps of the starving and beleaguered Confederacy during the Civil War. In the case of Germany, however, Allied bombing had shattered the country’s transportation network and supply system in the final months.

German Tolerance

Contrary to Goldhagen’s thesis, hostility toward Jews was by no means more widespread or deep-rooted in Germany than in, say, France or even the United States. In modern times Jews have rightly regarded Germany as a haven of relative tolerance, virtually a “promised land.” One of the most influential literary pleas for tolerance of Jews was the famous 18th-century German play, Nathan der Weise ("Nathan the Wise"). The dramatist and critic G. E. Lessing (1729-1781) presents the play’s central figure, a Jew, in a highly sympathetic light, in contrast to the Christian figures in the drama.

During the 19th and 20th centuries Jews thrived in Germany, which afforded them great opportunities to distinguish themselves in arts, letters, sciences and commerce. One need only recall such outstanding German-Jewish figures as the poet Heinrich Heine, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, shipping magnate Albert Ballin, the banking families of Rothschild and Warburg, political leaders Ferdinand Lassalle Walther Rathenau and Hugo Preuss, theater director Max Reinhardt, and physicist Albert Einstein. By the time of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) German Jews were very disproportionately represented in commerce, banking and the legal profession.

On the other hand, the predominant Jewish role in the incredibly cruel Marxist regimes established in Russia, Hungary and elsewhere in the 1917-1919 period generated tremendous anti-Jewish feeling, not only in Germany but across Europe. In the United States automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, who had idealistically tried to reconcile the warring powers during the First World War, subsidized critical studies on the “Jewish question.” These were published 1920-1922 and later republished in four volumes under the title The International Jew. Quickly translated into German, these volumes constituted a significant (but hardly the only) American influence on public opinion in Germany.

Third Reich Measures

Contrary to the impression given by Goldhagen, Third Reich measures against Jews were remarkably mild during the first few years after Hitler came to power in January 1933. The well-known boycott of Jewish businesses, April 1, 1933, was a token one-day response to the already established and on-going international Jewish boycott of German exports. It was not until the promulgation in September 1935 of the “Nuremberg Laws” that marriage between Jews and non-Jews was banned, a prohibition that, incidentally, paralleled the long-standing laws in numerous American states against marriages between Caucasians and Negroes.

Even as late as November 1938, at the time of the anti-Jewish “Crystal Night” riots (provoked by the Jewish murder of a German diplomat in Paris), much of Germany’s retail trade was still in Jewish hands. As even Goldhagen concedes (p. 100) Jews still owned some 7,500 stores and business in Germany at that time. (On the origin and nature of “Crystal Night,” see Ingrid Weckert’s study, Flashpoint, published by the IHR.) As late as 1941, more than a hundred Jewish institutions, agencies and organizations were listed in that year’s edition of the Berlin telephone directory. Of the nearly 1400 feature films produced during the Third Reich era, no more than four or five were anti-Jewish.

All this would hardly have been possible if hostility toward Jews in Third Reich Germany had been as deeply entrenched, as widespread or as intense as Goldhagen contends.

Goldhagen mentions (p. 142) Hitler’s often-cited words from his January 30, 1939, Reichstag address, in which he predicted that if international finance Jewry succeeded once again in plunging Europe into world war, the result be the destruction of the Jews in Europe — although without specifying how or by whom. The German leader certainly wanted no European-wide conflict, or even war with Britain, but his awareness of the vehement international Jewish effort to incite war against Germany may perhaps explain his 1939 Reichstag prediction. (See “President Roosevelt’s Secret Campaign to Incite War in Europe,” Summer 1983 Journal.)


Anyone who seeks a balanced treatment of an emotion-laden chapter of modern history had better look elsewhere. But a lack of balance is hardly the greatest defect of this work. Probably its most pernicious feature is that it helps to destroy any prospect of good relations between Jews and Germans. Some Jewish leaders, fearing the destruction of their people through assimilation, may consciously wish to demolish tolerable relations between Jews and non-Jews.

Is this perhaps one of the author’s motives in writing this book? If so, his book is another manifestation of an ancient Hebraic tradition, expressed in Jewish religious writings, of sowing discord amongst host populations. (See, for example, Isaiah 19:2-3: “And I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians, and they shall fight every one against his brother … And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof …")

Just as Jewish musicians who reject the music of Richard Wagner because he was anti-Jewish only cheat themselves, so also do Jews like Goldhagen who poison opportunities for good relations with Germans actually harm the interests of their own people.

As already mentioned, Jews have enjoyed advantageous relations with Germans in the past and may do so again in the future. Because this book’s long-range impact is likely to be more harmful to Jews than to Germans, it should be challenged not only by non-Jews but by enlightened Jews as well.

Charles E. Weber received a doctorate in German literature from the University of Cincinnati in 1954, and has taught at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Missouri, Louisiana State University, and the University of Tulsa (Oklahoma). He has served as Head of the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Tulsa. During service in the US Army, 1945-1946, he was trained in military intelligence at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, and was then involved in “denazification” work in occupied Germany as a noncommissioned intelligence officer. Dr. Weber (no relation to the Journal’s editor) publishes the Bulletin of the Committee for the Reexamination of the History of the Second World War. He is the author of The 'Holocaust': 120 Questions and Answers (1983), and a member of this Journal’s Editorial Advisory Committee.