The Holocaust grew from Germany's national character Hitler led: But without popular anti-Semitism his campaign of slaughter would have failed


April 07, 1996|By Jonathan R. Cohen | Jonathan R. Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Who was responsible for the systematic murder of 6 million Jews and the extermination of Europe's Jewish culture? Hitler and his high command, or the entire German nation?

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's new history, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" (Knopf, 640 pages, illustrated, $30), persuasively demonstrates that, although launched by the Nazi movement, the Holocaust was a national project of the German people. To the insistent question, how could something so barbaric happen in the country of Beethoven, Goethe, Hegel, Freud and Einstein, Goldhagen has a simple answer: because a vast number of Germans willingly helped make it happen, and those who didn't help stood by approvingly or uncaring.

Although it has since migrated elsewhere in the world, Mr. Goldhagen persuades us that the ideology of absolutist anti-Semitism, with the eradication of the Jewish people as its goal, flowed freely through German life for many years before the Nazis came to power.

Even at the remove of 50 years and through the filter of many thousands of other accounts, it is staggering to realize the vast extent to which murderous hatred of the Jews - the belief in the need to "combat the widely obtruding and decomposing Jewish influence in our popular life" - was part and parcel of the German national character.

As early as 1882, a leader of the National Liberal party could observe (with something less than genuine alarm) that "the army, schools, the scholarly world, are filled to the brim" with the national obsession of anti-Semitism.

Religious anti-Semitism was not new, of course. But the Germans added to it a new and explicitly racist component. For them the Jews were not merely religious outcasts but a dangerous subspecies of humankind that threatened society and had to be eliminated.

Mainstream politicians, leading clergy, judges, intellectuals and university officials embraced the new racial anti-Semitism well in advance of Hitler. In one analysis of the depth of Nazism's roots, Goldhagen shows that of "51 prominent anti-Semitic writers and publications that appeared between 1861 and 1895 ... 28 of them called for 'solutions' to the 'Jewish Problem'. Of those, 19 called for physical extermination of the Jews."

Even liberal and leftist groups favored eliminating the Jewish presence from German society, albeit through aggressive assimilation. Anti-Semitism was preached from the most important religious pulpits and influential editorial pages in the land.

While it may be true that the Holocaust could not have happened without Hitler, neither could it have happened without the

approval of the German people. Hitler's charismatic leadership allowed the Germans to act out their mortal hatred of the Jews. But he did not create the thoughts in their heads or the malice in their hearts. The Germans already possessed the intent to eliminate the Jews; Hitler merely gave them permission to do it by killing, and he showed them how.

Nor was the Holocaust a sudden nightmare that somehow erupted unexpectedly. It unfolded over a period of 12 years in several distinct stages.

First came a national program of insults, humiliation and degradation, culminating in the promulgation of more than 2,000 specifically anti-Jewish laws and regulations, and then in Kristallnacht, the country-wide organized riot against Jewish property in 1939.

With the conquests of Poland and France, the Germans became masters of millions of Jews in other lands, whom they ghettoized, incarcerated, beat and killed.

With the invasion of the Soviet Union came a yet more advanced stage of the Holocaust, marked by mass shootings of entire Jewish communities, such as the 33,000 slaughtered in two days at Babi Yar, in Ukraine. Some 2 million Jews died in this and similar ways before 1942, when the messy business of shooting innocent men, women and children was finally mechanized in the crematoria of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor and the other death camps.

Did the German people really know about the death camps? Even those who accept that there was broad national support for the state-sponsored anti-Semitism of the 1930s often argue that most Germans didn't know about the mass killings during the war years. But how could they not? After nearly a decade of grinding the Jews down, then shipping them out, for what fate did the German people believe the Jews were headed if not death?

Numbering millions

Mr. Goldhagen says that those Germans who actually participated one way or another in the killing of the Jews numbered between 100,000 and 500,000, in a nation of some 67 million souls. If slave labor and other brutalizations short of summary extermination are included in a broader definition of the Holocaust, "the number of Germans who perpetrated grievous crimes might run into the millions."

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