Holocaust is not only a lesson for Germans

April 15, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Business is brisk at the Holocaust Memorial Museum here. Visitors line up more than two hours before the doors open at 10 a.m., and about 2 million pass through those doors each year, four times more than were anticipated when the museum opened three years ago.

Explaining the museum's success, a member of the staff says dryly, "Human nature has been an enormous help."

She means that from Bosnia, where scores of mass graves are being explored, to Rwanda, from Angola to Kurdish regions of Iraq, from Liberia to Sri Lanka, headlines proclaim the continuing prevalence of what visitors hope the museum will help them comprehend: beastliness.

But that is the wrong word. Beasts do not do such things. Wanton, gratuitous, even giddily exuberant cruelty (such as one German's game of catching on a bayonet babies hurled from a hospital's windows) in the exercise of exterminating violence against categories of beings -- this is a distinctively human activity.

Teaching institution

The museum is an institution of memory for the victims of Germany rampant, 1933-45. But it also is a teaching institution, and last week was the scene of a heated symposium about a new book examining the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Reduced to an epigram, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's thesis in "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" is that "the road to Auschwitz was not crooked."

Elaborated through 619 pages of often shattering anecdotes mined from survivors' and perpetrators' testimonies, Professor Goldhagen's argument is that genocide fulfilled the logic of 150 years of German history.

Hitler's seizure of power, says Mr. Goldhagen, was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the Holocaust. Acculturation came first.

When ordinary Germans, products of long conditioning by a culture steeped in anti-Semitism, came under the sway of a totalitarian regime's propaganda that legitimized extermination, they fell to the task with attitudes ranging from dutifulness to relish.

Only such thinking, says Mr. Goldhagen, can explain the participation of between 100,000 and 500,000 persons who served in the genocide infantry those who got gore on their sleeves from shooting children at close range.

When Mr. Goldhagen, professor of government and social studies at Harvard, says they were "ordinary Germans" who sent photographs of their butchery to loved ones, and even invited their wives to watch them smash skulls with rifle butts, the question becomes: In what sense ordinary?

His answer is: Ordinary meaning the routine, predictable products of cognitive determinism. They killed Jews, often with pleasure, because an ideology told them doing so was not merely permissible but virtuous.

This monocausal explanation is made problematic by both the ** good and the bad that Germans did.

If virulent anti-Semitism had such a vicelike grip, what explains the behavior of the significant number of Germans who abstained from, or even resisted barbarism? And if German anti-Semitism was the cause of the barbarism, why did the barbarities engulf so many non-Jews, and why were there so many non-Germans among the barbarians?

The victims of barbarism included the mentally and physically handicapped, Gypsies, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, the inhabitants of the Greek village of Komeno, Italian POWs who a few days earlier had been Germany's allies, and others.

Cultural idea?

And although Professor Goldhagen insists that the "quantity and quality of personalized brutality and cruelty" inflicted by Germans on Jews flowed from a German cultural idea, many Croatians, Ukrainians and others collaborated with Germans in administering the Holocaust.

At the symposium, Christopher Browning of Pacific Lutheran University agreed with Mr. Goldhagen concerning the high degree of volunteerism on the part of the numerous ordinary German participants in genocide. But Mr. Browning, author of "Ordinary Men," a stunning study of middle-aged conscripts who became mass murderers in a German police battalion in Poland, argued that the unspeakable cruelties committed by the Khmer Rouge against fellow Cambodians, and by Chinese against other Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, cannot be explained by the Goldhagen model -- by centuries of conditioning by a singular idea.

Mr. Browning charged that Mr. Goldhagen's "unremitting portrayal of German uniformity" makes history one-dimensional and dehumanizes Germans. By making Germans so alien, the Goldhagen thesis is too comforting.

Mr. Browning believes that mass murder and the ubiquity of cruelty accompanying it suggests the need to seek explanations in "those universal aspects of human nature that transcend the cognition and culture of ordinary Germans."

Tomorrow is the Day of Remembrance for Holocaust victims and survivors. Since 1945 the theme of remembrance ceremonies has been "Never again."

But again Europe is sifting skulls from the earth over mass graves, this time of Muslims, victims of . . . what? Ordinary Serbs?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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