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Bernard von Bothmer Understanding the Holocaust: Hannah Arendt, Christopher Browning, and Daniel Goldhagen I.

Introduction The debate over the essential shape, character, and origins of the Holocaust has been one of the most contentious scholarly disagreements of the past half-century. It is one that continues to produce enormously innovative scholarship. How is one to explain the Holocaust? Among the many questions one need to ask are: Did the atrocities result from decisions made by Hitler, or did they stem from beliefs held among Germans? Would there have been a Holocaust if Hitler were not Germany‟s leader. Was his goal extermination or emigration? Were the death camps uniquely “German”? Was the murder of six million Jews part of a policy that was planned before the start of the World War II, or did the rationale behind these murders evolve only as the war progressed? As Ian Kerhsaw has eloquently asked: Was the systematic extermination of European Jewry the direct realization of Hitler‟s ideologically motivated „design for destruction‟, which, after various stages in an exorable process of development, he set into operation through a written or, more likely, verbal „Fuhrer Order‟ sometime in 1941? Or did the „Final Solution‟ emerge piecemeal, and without any command of Hitler, as „an imperative result of the system of cumulative radicalization‟ in the Third Reich?1

Two formulations have been used to explain the Holocaust. One, which can be loosely called the “intentionalist” approach, focuses on Hitler‟s policy towards the Jews, specifically his goals and his ability to achieve his intentions. Oftentimes called the “Hitlerism” approach, these scholars argue that the Holocaust occurred because of a specific and long-planned out program.


“Intentionalists” see a consistent direction in Hitler‟s policies and contend that Hitler‟s plan for these atrocities pre-dates the war. The Final Solution, this school hypothesizes, was the primary element of Hitler‟s entire policy, from the very beginning of his life in politics. Thus, they believe, there is a direct connection between anti-Semitism, Nazism, and the Holocaust. As Milton Himmelfarb succinctly summarized: “No Hitler, No Holocaust.”2 Others believe in what scholars refer to as the “functionalist” or “structuralist” approach to explaining the Holocaust. Disparaged by detractors as “revisionist,” these historians stress structures and elements that affected the policy of the Third Reich. According to this school of thought, the Holocaust emerged from a disorganized bureaucracy and from a general sense of confusion towards the Jews, and that Hitler basically made up the plan to exterminate the Jews as he went along. Unlike the “intentionalists,” the “functionalists” do not see a systematic plan. Instead, they portray the Nazi leadership as split into different factions. Mass genocide was not considered or planned out before 1941, they contend, and the policy of exterminating the Jews only came about as the war was proceeding. Another approach has attempted to transcend these two interpretations. Recently, a more radical theory has emerged, that the Holocaust occurred because of the virulent antiSemitism of the German people. The historian of the Holocaust must thus struggle with a variety of explanatory theories. These differences are important ones, as they help understand the nature of Nazi policy. “The problem of explaining the Holocaust is part of the wider problem of how the Nazi regime functioned, in particular of how decisions were arrived at and implemented in the Nazi state,” writes Kershaw. “The central issue remains, therefore, how Nazi hatred of the Jews became translated into the process of government, and what precise role Hitler played in this process.”3


Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship – Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 102. 2 Milton Himmelfarb, “No Hitler, No Holocaust.” Commentary (March, 1984), p. 37. 3 Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship – Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 94. 2

The Eichmann trial. a German-Jewish political philosopher and World War II refugee most noted for her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism. and Daniel Goldhagen have addressed Kershaw‟s “central issue. To attribute the Holocaust to either purely “intentionalist” or “functionalist” causes is deny the complexity of the conditions that led to the murder of six million European Jews. as each of their approaches has their respective strengths and weaknesses. It can be concluded from an analysis of each of these historians that there is no single explanation of exactly why the Holocaust occurred. the interplay of a variety of factors. as opposed to “genocide. II. especially the heated exchange that took place between Browning and Goldhagen during the 1990s. Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil Much of the recent scholarship on the Holocaust was ignited by the firestorm set off by Hannah Arendt‟s 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” only began to be widely used (at first by Jewish scholars) during the 1960s. produced a torrent of interest in the Holocaust. especially the nature of the totalitarian regime under Hitler as described by Arendt and the psychological pressures of conformity as argued by Browning. Neither scholar alone offers a complete answer. a term that itself. which described the nightmare societies created by Hitler and Stalin. help put the policies of Hitler‟s Third Reich into clearer focus. inaugurating a steady flow of scholarship on the period that shows little signs of abating. was sent to Jerusalem as a reporter for the New Yorker to cover the 3 . and Arendt‟s controversial book on it.Eminent scholars such as Hannah Arendt.” The debates among them. Arendt. Until recently there was little interest in the Holocaust. Arendt‟s work is thus a logical starting point by which to examine how scholars have treated the Holocaust. worked together in conjunction with Germany‟s history of anti-Semitism as portrayed by Goldhagen to produce the horror that was the Holocaust. Christopher Browning. Rather.

and in so doing she arrives at the most unsettling conclusion that ordinary people can contribute to acts of extraordinary evil. Eichmann became a symbol of a problem larger than any single man.. which gave the death penalty to a person found guilty of these crimes. I just did not do it. He was tried under the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950. After 14 weeks. I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a nonJew. Eichmann himself did not kill a single person. Eichmann or the German state? Arendt‟s text is most concerned with providing a portrait of Eichmann. a man without any conscience. To her Eichmann is. For the prosecution. Israeli Special Forces had captured Eichmann in Argentina. but antiSemitism throughout history.. his trial began in Jerusalem. In 1961.” he said on the stand. p. above all. p. “I never killed a Jew. 6 Ibid. 4 . for that matter – I never killed any human being. “With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. 22. Her account was initially published in a series of five articles that appeared in the magazine in February and March of 1963. 19.” Arendt writes. Who then was ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews. 6. In April of that year. and not the Nazi regime alone. As Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said on the eve of the trial. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York.”6 But in following orders he aided the process by which Jews were killed. as well as of war crimes and of membership in criminal organizations. but all agreed that Eichmann was directly involved in transporting Jews to the death camps. Viking Press. he was convicted of crimes against both the Jewish people and against humanity. He was hanged in May of 1962. or a non-Jew. after an unsuccessful appeal attempt. “not on what Eichmann had done. Ibid. “It is not an individual that is in the dock at this historic trial.”4 The prosecution wished to expose the world to the horrors that could occur when an ideology such as anti-Semitism was given legitimacy by the state. “This case was built upon what the Jews had suffered. p.”5 The trial was highly controversial.trial. “He 4 5 Hannah Arendt. 1963).

p. He held no firm ideology of his own. He had no ideas of his own.remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do – to ship millions of men.” a typical bureaucrat especially eager to be promoted. 26..”10 Noting his penchant for using trite expressions. according to Arendt. and children to their death with great zeal and with the most meticulous care. 25. decidedly not a fanatic eager to kill Jews. Eichmann. I would receive no directives from anybody. the end of the war was significant to him because. Ibid. Eichmann was a “company man. Arendt is critical of both Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion as well as Gideon Hausner. and only wanted to advance his career.‟” one of Arendt‟s central theses is that the judges were reluctant to admit that “an average. To Arendt. Though pointing out that “under the conditions of the Third Reich only „exceptions‟ could be expected to react „normally. p. as he recounted. no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me. was not insane.”9 Eichmann said on the stand that “Officialese is my only language. “I now sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life. she emphasizes. did not share the “scientific” racism of his superiors. the chief prosecutor. a life never known before lay before me. 7 8 Ibid. could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong. For example.” Arendt writes that “the longer one listened to him. „normal‟ person. 5 . and. p.. no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult – in brief.. women. 9 Ibid.”8 Eichmann is also portrayed as a man completely void of the powers of introspection. Eichmann is described as a man who thrived on order and on membership in organizations. neither feeble minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical.” and Arendt concludes that “officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.”7 Throughout the book. “the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés. 32. noting that he was declared by a psychiatrist to be quite normal.

p. p. as he understood it.the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think. nor had he ever read Mein Kampf. When Eichmann joined the Nazi Party. p.. What most concerned him was his profound dissatisfaction with his life as a traveling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company.”11 After hearing Eichmann‟s final statement. proceeded to submit a handwritten account that pleaded for mercy. after consulting his counsel.”14 Eichmann emphasized with great drama that the one thing he had learned in life was that one should not take an oath – and then declared that he would like to testify under oath.”12 What is most haunting is the sheer indifference of Eichmann.. Ibid.. 15 Ibid. 54. into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him – already a failure in the eyes of his social class. 49.”15 and then. he did not know the Party doctrine. “namely. 13 Ibid. “From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History.. 48. and hence in his own eyes as well – could start from scratch and still make a career. “everybody could see that this man was not a „monster. p. Though he failed to remember being sent to Bratislava to discuss the program to deport Jews from Slovakia. 14 Ibid. He said that the “worst thing he could do would be to plead for mercy. had invited Eichmann to go bowling. namely. 10 11 Ibid. to think from the standpoint of somebody else. 6 . 55.” Arendt explains. 55.. p. Arendt also recounts numerous examples of Eichmann‟s poor memory. 12 Ibid.”13 Eichmann is presented in a far more subdued fashion by Arendt than he was by the prosecution. the Minister of the interior in the German-established Slovakian puppet government. 33. p. he remembers clearly that Sano Mach. Arendt observes that “This horrible gift for consoling himself with clichés did not leave him on the hour of his death. “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution.. of his family.‟ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was not a clown.” she notes.

Were the Holocaust the work of evil men. To her this makes the Holocaust even more frightening: The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him. terribly and terrifyingly normal. 7 .” she writes.17 Arendt‟s work sparked enormous controversy. this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together. Arendt was influenced by Raul Hilberg‟s thesis that Hitler depended on Jewish cooperation with the Nazis. and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic.”16 Eichmann represents something new. he had no motives at all. never realized what he was doing. an ordinary man under the command of a regime that practiced genocide. and she is struck by the eagerness with which Eichmann gave up the use of his own faculties of criticism and self-thought. He merely. he certainly never would have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. “Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement. in part because of the way she portrayed Jewish involvement in the Holocaust. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of justice. the tragedy might be understandable. 287.. which he believes came from a tradition of passivity. p. “And this diligence was in no way criminal. and still are. as Eichmann was not the monster he was portrayed to be.What is most frightening to Arendt is the idea that people would cooperate so willingly with the Nazi regime. to put the matter colloquially. that they were. Were Jews themselves responsible for much of the organization of the Final Solution? Many accused her of blaming the victim. Arendt emphasizes Jewish compliance in 16 Ibid. for it implied – as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels – that this new type of criminal…commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. But Arendt attempts to show that the prosecution against Eichmann was incorrect.

Arendt‟s portrayal makes one realize how easily another Holocaust could occur. government. The lesson here is that this could happen again and that the victims could be other groups as well. she discusses how Danes were able to save their Jews by shipping them to Sweden.. Ibid.much of the atrocities that the Nazis committed. 19 Ibid. But why exactly was the Final Solution more successful in some countries than in others? Arendt never gives a completely satisfactory answer to this question.. and this leadership. For one. For example. 117. Wherever Jews lived. much of Arendt‟s book is concerned with comparing the treatment of Jews across different countries. Arendt remarks that “the whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare organizations on both the local and the international level. 8 .”19 Arendt‟s work suggests that anti-Semitism alone does not account for the horrors of the Holocaust. were also responsible. As a result. Though recognizing the fact Jews did not have any territory. A variety of other factors. there were recognized Jewish leaders. Questions could also be raised about the nature of the legal proceedings themselves. done entirely by Jewish police – there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower. 125. Eichmann in Jerusalem is a brilliant and haunting examination of the Holocaust. cooperated in one way or another. p. “Without Jewish help in administrative and police work – the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was. Was Eichmann‟s trial really a trial. 276. she does not always cite her sources. Furthermore. as I have mentioned. with the Nazis. for one reason or another. p. p. weapons. For example. the text leaves important questions unanswered. she implies. army or even government in exile to help them. including bureaucratic ones. but it also contains shortcomings that serve to raise several questions about the overall quality of Arendt‟s scholarship.. or just a show to justify Israel‟s actions? One comes away 17 18 Ibid. The absence of footnotes adds an element of confusion for the reader. almost without exception.”18 she writes.

central to her analysis is the role of the state in the Holocaust and how it influenced individuals‟ minds. though non-ideological and clearly not an ardent Nazi willingly went about organizing the transport of Jews to their deaths. but there is little discussion of the issues concerning the legality of the trial itself. Here one sees the central importance of Hitler. to Arendt. Here one sees an evolving plan. Her text demonstrates that Eichmann was the distorted person he was because of the pervasive influence of the state. Was Arendt taking the side of the defendant. it is rather unclear whether Arendt is an “intentionalist” or a “structuralist. Eichmann‟s own actions show how easily regular Germans went about the task of killing Jews. Most important are the questions raised by Arendt‟s portrait of Eichmann. one would not have had the totalitarian state that produced the climate of such uncritical thinking in which Eichmann functioned. But her analysis also demonstrates that decisions were made during the course of the war that accelerated the program to murder European Jews. as some critics accused her of doing? Did Eichmann dupe Arendt? Could not one make the argument that Eichmann really knew what he was doing all along? Could it not be demonstrated that Eichmann chose not to make choices? Were these proven to be true. the Holocaust could only have occurred if the German people had consented to the Third Reich‟s demands. one that could not have been said to exist during the 1930s despite the creation of a totalitarian state under Hitler‟s ruthless leadership. Clearly. To Arendt. Furthermore. but he also could only have done what he did with the help of other people. without Hitler.from her account with tremendous insight into Eichmann‟s character as well as the devastating nature of the psychological impact of the Third Reich. Eichmann is clearly guilty. A society of virtuous citizens could easily recreate another Holocaust were the state to gain the same level of power and influence as did the Third Reich.” Regarding the former. In the end. Arendt‟s work thus establishes a 9 . Eichmann. it would severely put into question one of the text‟s central theses. after all.

Browning‟s work is derived from the testimonies of 125 of them. They did not know what they would be asked to do once they joined the battalion. were from the lower-middle class. simple “ordinary men. they shot at least 38. Noting that in March 1942 “some 75 to 80 percent of all the victims of the Holocaust were alive. In the 1960s. investigators interviewed 210 of these soldiers. During this time. His 1992 book Ordinary Men – Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning’s “Ordinary Men” What about all the other Eichmanns in Germany? Were all Germans who participated in the killing of Jews Nazis? What exactly transformed Germans into killers? These questions are central to the work of Christopher Browning.000 Poles to the death camps at Treblinka. Many joined because they would not have to join the army and could thus be near their wives and children. This proved to be one of the few times that former German soldiers were indicted following the war.” but that by February 1943 “the percentages were exactly the reverse. a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. several were indicted on crimes against humanity. Browning‟s work studies the outlook of the killers. while 30 to 25 percent had perished. under the direction of their commander. Browning looks at the actions of lower level soldiers. and less than 4 percent members of the SS.” Who were they? About 25 percent were members of the Nazi party.000 Poles and deported over 45. examined 500 German men recruited into police battalions to clear the ghettos of Jews in 1942 and 1943. They tended to be older than the average German soldier. who was high up in the Nazi bureaucracy. Thus instead of examining the victims of the Holocaust. As a result of these testimonies. Major Trapp. But unlike Eichmann. serving prison sentences.” Browning concludes that “The German attack on the Jews in Poland 10 . and had little education.framework by which to examine two other interpretations of the Holocaust. came mostly from Hamburg. III.

HarperCollins. xv.” he argues. and dismisses. and social background. a massive offensive requiring the mobilization of large numbers of shock troops. 48. 11 . p. 24 Ibid. 21 Ibid.was not a gradual or incremental program stretched over a long period of time. and unlike Nazis who worked at desk jobs. One obvious explanation is the battalion‟s war experiences.”24 He returns to this point when he later writes that “by age. But Browning stresses that the battalion never saw combat in the war.… (B)rutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men‟s actions. 161.” he writes.”23 Another area to explore is the battalion‟s background. 36. “Wartime brutalization through prior combat was not an immediate experience directly influencing the policeman‟s behavior at Jozefow. and bureaucratic euphemisms that veiled the reality of mass murder. the men became increasingly brutalized. Ordinary Men – Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York. these “ordinary” troops pulled the trigger themselves. After investigating their pasts. 23 Ibid.. 22 Ibid. p.”20 Unlike Eichmann.” he points out.”21 The question that guides Browning is “How did these men first become mass murderers?”22 Browning‟s book investigates. “On the contrary. 1992). “These men were not desk murderers who could take refuge in distance. a variety of possible answers. 37. he concludes that “These men would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers on behalf of the Nazi vision of a racial utopia free of Jews. “Reserve Police Battalion was not sent to Lublin to murder Jews because it was composed of men specially selected or deemed particularly suited for the task. however. which discredits the hypothesis that the men became hardened killers as a result of the war. too. p. the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were least likely to be considered apt material out of which to mold future mass killers. but a veritable blitzkrieg. But Browning quickly discredits this explanation.”25 This is a constant theme that runs throughout the book. “Once the killing began. “These men saw their victims face to face. geographical origin. p. routine.. p... the battalion was the „dregs‟ of the manpower pool 20 Christopher Browning.

”29 Clearly. Were the men free to make their own decisions? Trapp. p. p. 57. p. “The bulk of the killing was to be removed to the extermination camp.” he writes. p.. 64. and brains sprayed everywhere and besmirched the shooters. in short.”27 The battalion‟s men were in a far different situation than Eichmann. 164. Browning describes in vivid detail how the killings were anything but remote and distant. “through the point-blank shot that was thus required. at first.”28 Physical memories of the atrocities they had committed literally stuck to them.. And the acknowledgement of this reality greatly influenced how the commanders organized the work. 30 Ibid.available at that stage of the war.”26 Might there be the explanation that men inclined to participate in such violence were the same men that chose to join the battalion? After a lengthy analysis. 28 Ibid. Browning concludes that “Self-selection on the basis of personality traits.. Browning notes. and the worst of the onthe-spot „dirty work‟ was to be assigned to the Trawnikis. p. bone splinters.. “The psychological alleviation necessary to integrate Reserve Police Battalion 101 into the killing process was to be achieved through a twofold division of labor. he (Trapp) made his extraordinary offer: any of the older men who did not feel up to the task that lay before them could step out.. Major Trapp was worried about the effect such brutality would have on his men. 77. 29 Ibid. and between 10 and 20% chose not to. told the soldiers that they did not have to participate.. p. “After explaining the battalion‟s murderous assignment. the bullet struck the head of the victim at such a trajectory that often the entire skull or at least the entire rear skullcap was torn off. as he later confided to his driver that “If this Jewish business 25 26 Ibid. 165. Ibid. 12 .”30 Major Trapp was troubled by the brutality he was witnessing. As one member recalled. 169. and blood. offers little to explain the behavior of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. 27 Ibid.

35 Ibid.”35 And directly contradicting Arendt. like the rest of German society. Browning contends that the material was too dull and pedantic to inspire killings. 179. then. were these men transformed into cold-hearted killers? According to Browning. in contrast to Goldhagen‟s thesis (discussed later) that “much of the indoctrination material was clearly not targeted at older reservists and in some cases was highly inappropriate or irrelevant to them. 58. 170. p.” namely propaganda and indoctrinating material. p. and that “the killing of Jews cannot be explained by brutal exhortations to kill partisans and „suspects. p.. 34 Ibid. were immersed in a deluge of racist and anti-Semitic propaganda.‟”34 Though Browning admits that “the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101.” he stresses. it was because of pressures to conform to the group and because of the men‟s 31 32 Ibid.”32 Browning also challenges other explanations.”36 ever avenged on earth. which among other things created a climate where orders had to be obeyed. 184.. Browning concludes that “in the past forty-five years no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment. Ibid.. 183. p. p..”33 Browning argues that “ideological indoctrination” alone did not cause the men to do what they did.”31 Perhaps because of Trapp‟s doubts about the validity of such an exercise. Regarding the effect of Nazi “educational materials. 36 Ibid. Regarding the theory that their behavior was the result of the authoritarian political culture of the Nazis. writing that the “prose may have put readers to sleep... p. it certainly did not turn them into killers. 184. 33 Ibid. then have mercy on us Germans. Browning goes on to say that “one would have to be quite convinced of the manipulative powers of indoctrination to believe that any of this material could have deprived the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 of independent thought. 13 . the choice to participate was soon rescinded. Can one then claim that the men were forced to obey orders? Browning dismisses this explanation as well.

Browning emphasizes that these soldiers were not much different from him. It was easier for them to shoot. The “guards” soon began abusing the “prisoners.” he writes. In the Zimbardo study men were placed in a fabricated prison setting as both guards and prisoners.”39 In both experiments individuals were reluctant to deviate from group behavior. subjects become oblivious to the patient‟s “pain. “Those who killed cannot be absolved by the notion that anyone in the same situation would have done as they did. p.” as they faced a situation where “to break ranks and step out. This experiment showed that people begin to believe in their powers and tend to cruelly exploit others who they control. subjects were asked under orders from a “doctor” to shock a “patient” in an adjoining room. during the so-called “Jew Hunt. p. Browning‟s main lesson is that people anywhere could become just as horrific and cruel as the members of Reserve 37 38 Ibid. 127.”38 For example. 174.”37 In the Milgram study.. “Human responsibility is ultimately an individual matter.” he points out how “only a minority of nonconformists managed to preserve a beleaguered sphere of moral autonomy that emboldened them to employ patterns of behavior and stratagems of evasion that kept them from becoming killers at all.” Browning concludes that “many of Milgram‟s insights find graphic confirmation in the behavior and testimony of Reserve Police Battalion 101. was simply beyond most of the men.. Rather than expressing some inherent form of particularly “German” sentiment.” Browning concludes that “Zimbardo‟s spectrum of guard behavior bears an uncanny resemblance to the groupings that emerged within Reserve Police Battalion 101. Here Browning uses results from two famous psychology experiments. p. Soon.” But he stresses that these men could have been any group of 500 men.. Thus the “vital factor” for Browning that most accounted for their behavior was “conformity to the group. 14 . to adopt overtly nonconformist behavior. Ibid.”40 Browning does not imply that group conformity excuses what took place in Poland. 168. 39 Ibid.tendency to obey authority.

he notes. the most glaring omission in the interrogations is any discussion of anti-Semitism. Ibid. p. However. could easily merge with 40 41 Ibid. Regarding the interviews from the 1960s. and.. Browning writes that “In terms of motivation and consciousness. But Arendt and Browning differ in an important way.Police Battalion 101.. in Browning‟s formulation anti-Semitism is a sentiment that deals more with race than with religion. How exactly could these men have become such killers? Browning‟s work begs the obvious question: what role exactly did virulent anti-Semitism play in the men‟s behavior? His text appears to ascribe causes other than anti-Semitism for their actions.. “Everywhere society conditions people to accept authority. Browning also argues that “The dichotomy of racially superior Germans and racially inferior Jews. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances.”42 Furthermore. it was almost impossible to be “normal” when one lived under the conditions of the Third Reich. while recovering from hepatitis. His book is dedicated to Hilberg. for example. 184. p. For one. also read Hilberg‟s monumental work in its entirety. central to Nazi ideology. “Within virtually every social collective. anti-Semitism was noticeably absent from any analysis of the men‟s crimes.” he writes in the text‟s final pages. Browning read Arendt while in graduate school. p. 42 Ibid. both are indebted to Raul Hilberg‟s The Destruction of the European Jews. 15 . Are these battalion members really “ordinary men?” As Arendt‟s book emphasizes. one gets a sense of incompleteness from Browning‟s account. in his conclusion. what group of men cannot?”41 How do Browning‟s conclusions contrast with those of Arendt? Both share many common concerns. and Arendt has also been quite open about her admiration for Hilberg. 189.” As a result. the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. 73. Though Ordinary Men is an extremely powerful and gripping text. Often. “… Everywhere people seek career advancement. too.

” he writes in his introduction. Knopf. Hitler‟s message of virulent antiSemitism resonated with the German people. p. Alfred A. Hitler‟s role is important to Goldhagen. the Holocaust was inevitable. These feeling were not produced by Hitler but were instead deeply meshed into the German psyche.”44 Goldhagen examines nearly every aspect of German society and looks at not only police battalions. One of the most controversial books in European history in the past decade. not because he shaped 43 44 Ibid. “Nothing helped the Nazis to wage a race war so much as the war itself. Goldhagen‟s analysis stresses the concept of “eliminationist antisemitism. But would other men have become such killers if they were placed in the same situation as Reserve Police Battalion 101? IV. He concludes that.” which he argues developed in Germany since the mid 19th century. given the inherent anti-Semitic nature of the German people.(New York. 16 . arguing that the Holocaust emerged as the war proceeded rather than being planned out well in advance. 186. Goldhagen‟s text is a tour de force that boldly challenges almost all of the existing literature on the Holocaust. he contends. Goldhagen’s “Ordinary Germans” One way to answer this question is to look at Daniel Goldhagen‟s 1996 Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.the image of a beleaguered Germany surrounded by warring enemies. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust . “Explaining why the Holocaust occurred requires a radical revision of what has until now been written. as well as one of the most heavily publicized books in the mass media by its publisher.. 9.” As a result. Daniel Goldhagen. “This book is that revision.”43 But where specifically did this notion of German racial superiority come from? Can it be traced to a certain period in German history? Browning clearly favors the “functionalist” approach. p. as Browning did. precisely because of their longstanding belief in such ideas. but also the death camps and the death marches. 1996).

rather than Nazi anti-Semitism. to the influence of totalitarianism. 9. according to Goldhagen. he suggests. Goldhagen is particularly critical of the psychological argument for why the Holocaust occurred. “Because it is indisputable that not all people in similar structural situations – either as guards in a camp or as executors of other genocidal orders – did act or would have acted as the 45 46 Ibid. Ibid. or to social psychology. to either economic conditions. 17 .. he suggests. p. as if the wider German public had no influence over. or part in.”46 Nor were Germany‟s leaders the cause of the horrors inflicted upon the Jews. caused the Holocaust.. p. 460. 47 Ibid. “The attacks upon Jews during these first years of Nazi governance of Germany was so widespread – and broad-based – that it would be grievously wrong to attribute them solely to the toughs of the SA. but because he was able to bring to the surface sentiments already shared by the German public.public opinion. As Goldhagen states in his introduction: Germans‟ antisemitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust. is in its essence false. These killings were not due. moved people to commit acts that they abhorred.‟ „normal‟ society which had the misfortune to have been governed by evil and ruthless rulers who. p.45 Goldhagen discounts almost every single excuse imaginable for the behavior of Germans towards the Jews. the violence.. had they been appropriately positioned – to slaughter Jews. using the institutions of modern societies. “The notion that Germany during the Nazi period was an „ordinary. 95.”47 German anti-Semitism. They were the central causal agent not only of Hitler‟s decision to annihilate European Jewry (which is accepted by many) but also of the perpetrators‟ willingness to kill and brutalize Jews…(A)ntisemitism moved many thousands of “ordinary Germans” – and would have moved millions more.

”51 The Germans did not merely take orders. or even identifiable minorities.. “did significant portions.Germans did. p. he argues. faithfully.”49 Goldhagen‟s Germany did not have a dramatic break with the past in 1933. p. Ibid. 52 Ibid. 430. Himmler and Heydrich “easily enlisted ordinary Germans by the tens of thousands. as “antisemitism in Germany was. Germany was different from other countries. he argues. creating a society of robots.. Germans – from the lowest of ranks to Hitler himself – understood what they with their actions were seeking to accomplish. as there would have been a Holocaust even without Hitler.”48 These were not merely Nazi policies. 371. 50 Ibid. 428..”52 Nor were they simply “brainwashed. 425. “The eliminationist antisemitism.”50 Goldhagen concludes that Germans were not forced to do the killing that they did. who built and paved it with an immense dedication born of great hatred for the Jews whom they drove down that road.” he concludes. for many. resided ultimately in the heart of German political culture. “the ordinary Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust willfully. Hitler. And they did so willingly. p. 51 Ibid. he emphasizes. But 48 49 Ibid. 53 Ibid. “To the very end. of the German people express either dissent from the dominant elaboration of the nature of Jews or principled disapproval of the eliminationist goals and measures that the German government and so many Germans pursued. „universal‟ psychological and social factors could not possibly have moved the perpetrators to act as they did. part of the Durkheimian collective unconscious. p. in German society itself..”53 Goldhagen is quite critical of Hilberg‟s interpretation of the Holocaust. but eagerly participated in the killings. like mother‟s milk. 89.. “The road to Auschwitz was not twisted. 18 .” he writes. with its hurricane-force potential.” he concludes.” he writes..” “When it came to Jews. “At no point during the Nazi period. 390. p. and zealously slaughtered Jews. Arendt stresses how totalitarianism destroys the private as well as the public realm.54 and his analysis also differs from Arendt‟s in a number of crucial ways. but uniquely German attitudes. p.

as the group “were not an unusually Nazified lot of German society. 580n23. writing later in the text that “Even the routine orders that were circulated by the various institutional commanders…convey that these genocidal executioners were not the clichéd. p. He argues that the members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could be said to be representative of the German population as a whole. 581n27. Browning tries to be understanding of the soldiers. Goldhagen‟s “ordinary Germans” are portrayed much differently than Browning‟s “ordinary men. Browning‟s scholarship is detached. Overwhelmingly (they) consisted of ordinary Germans – of both kinds – those that were in the Party.Goldhagen emphasizes that “Contrary to Arendt‟s assertions. Goldhagen says that they could only have been German soldiers. p..”56 Most important. 582n35. but Goldhagen‟s prose is emotional. atomized individuals that they are often asserted to have been – and that virtually all people today probably conceive them to have been. and especially. photographs of the battalion reveal that “It is difficult to see in the photographs men who viewed the killing to be a crime. p. atomized beings. those that were not. Whereas Browning suggests that they could have been any soldiers.. and accusatory. 56 Ibid.” Goldhagen devotes an entire chapter to the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. While Browning seeks to understand. non-judgmental.. Whereas Browning uses psychological explanations such as conformity to explain the men‟s behavior. Goldhagen attempts to indict an entire nation. Ibid. and p. Above all.”55 Goldhagen stresses this throughout. To Goldhagen. p. highly charged. in Goldhagen‟s it is a movement that began at the bottom and moved to the top of the Nazi hierarchy. 19 . 264. the perpetrators [of the Holocaust] were not such lonely. but Goldhagen clearly does not. Goldhagen argues that the men killed so freely because they did not see Jews as members of the human race.”57 Goldhagen sees the members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 as representing the anti-Semitism of the entire German nation.” while their poetry 54 55 Ibid. and reads more like a lawyer‟s brief. 385. whereas in Arendt‟s analysis it is bureaucrats such as Eichmann who were responsible for the Holocaust.

reluctance. not curing. His argument is frequently too narrow. Furthermore. quite surprisingly. poor editing. as it is almost impossible to come to a single conclusion about an entire country. from a moral standpoint. Whereas Arendt and Browning‟s works are compact and tightly woven. “the unsubstantiated. the names of the men who repeatedly sent them to kill Jews.D. 393. Thus Goldhagen‟s conclusion that Germans were all inherently violently anti-Semitic is itself quite suspect. 247. By relying on the perpetrator‟s testimony. p. Ibid. Goldhagen‟s essential thesis contains several major problems. and refusal…permeate Ordinary Men and. Yet in other areas Goldhagen paints with too broad brush. it is also deeply flawed. How many times must the author insist upon using the term “ordinary Germans?” Often it reads like the Ph. Browning ignores the victims‟ views. Goldhagen‟s suffers from needless repetition and. First. he claims.”59 Goldhagen argues that Browning relies too much on the soldiers‟ own account of their actions and that his desire to “understand” the members of the battalion causes him. and the mentally handicapped. 20 . dissertation that it originally was. such as Russians.. gypsies. p. p. faithful to their cultural antiSemitic credo. there is first the issue of literary style. Furthermore. self-exculpating claims of the battalion men to opposition. to excuse their actions. since Browning appears to have generally accepted them uncritically..”58 He views the battalion as “assenting mass executioners. Thus.shows that “these Germans were celebrating. considered the slaughter to be just. 59 Ibid. men and women who. 208. true to their own eliminationist anti-Semitic beliefs. one sure to provoke debate for years to come. his reliance upon anti-Semitism as his principle explanatory variable ignores the fact that the Nazis also killed others besides Jews. how often did 57 58 Ibid. The book does not cover the range of German feelings towards the Jews before the Nazis took power.”60 Though Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a provocative book. For example.. they inform and therefore substantially impair his understanding of the battalion.

Would there have been a Holocaust without Hitler? One could argue that anti-Semitism was at the very core of Hitler‟s outlook towards the world. p. why then did the Jews remain attached to German society? And could not antiSemitism also flourish in an environment where many people were not anti-Semitic? And how could Germans have “had choices. If there were rising anti-Semitism in Germany. for no other reason than political gain. And if one to draw all-encompassing conclusions from a single group could not one also make the argument that resisters to the Nazis. then. and on the sheer political. his argument is simply illogical. Most important why did Hitler keep his plans about the Jews so secret? If antiSemitism existed to the extent that Goldhagen says it did. In 60 Ibid. was the killing done so clandestinely? Goldhagen‟s text also tends to downplay the crucial role that Hitler played in the Final Solution. as Arendt does. 534n. and economic power of the Nazi regime. Is silence the same as complicity? Goldhagen believes that it is. and the punishment that would come upon those who questioned their policies. social. how does one explain the rapid decline on antiSemitism once the war was over? If these feelings were so imbedded in the German psyche. as he does not give enough emphasis. one would have assumed that Hitler would have more openly exploited such sentiments.. were representative of the German people as a whole? Goldhagen‟s work also frequently makes broad assumptions. rather than supporters of them. to the political environment that the Nazis created. despite the best intentions of the American “denazification” and reeducation programs of the late 1940s. Too often.” if so many of them believed so strongly in the tenets of antiSemitism? And if Germans were all anti-Semitic. it is completely implausible to suggest that these sentiments could be immediately contained. He also underplays the role that totalitarianism played in Germany. 21 .German civilians who were not part of the Nazis kill Jews before the war? Was the killing of Jews a part of Nazi policy in 1933? Exporting Jews from Germany is much different than annihilating them. Why. stretching back well over a century.

Finally. But despite these flaws. despite Mussolini‟s urging. Furthermore. And the Russian pogroms were as violent as much of German behavior. after the book‟s publication in response to a very critical review by Browning. Goldhagen gives little attention to anti-Semitism in either Poland or Austria. would they have necessarily acted exactly the same way towards the Jews? The answer is clearly no. and most glaringly. After all. there is the obvious question: if the men of the battalion were from another country. many other European countries also killed Jews. Goldhagen does raise several interesting observations. What about anti-Semitism in other countries? The Dreyfuss affair clearly demonstrated prejudice equal to if not surpassing that seen in Germany. did not treat Jews with such cruelty. the fact remains that the Nazi‟s grandiose plans could not have succeeded without some measure of deep popular support. Then what conditions made the Germans act as they did? As Goldhagen wrote. Goldhagen shows no little regard for the complexities of European society. First. Italians.many ways Goldhagen‟s argument excuses Hitler and his regime. it was a crime in West Germany in the 1960s to commit violence because of racism. he is most perceptive to question both the accuracy and Browning‟s interpretation of the battalion members‟ testimony from the 1960s. “The refusal or the unwillingness of others to [deport and kill Jews] 22 . How much can we trust not only the accuracy of their recollections but also the honesty of their testimony? After all. and the Danes saved their Jews. Goldhagen‟s book is flawed because it does not undertake a deep comparison with other Western societies at the time. because it implies that there could have been a Holocaust even without him. despite the many problems with Goldhagen‟s analysis. for example. Furthermore. This is an important conclusion that deserves wider attention. And second.

Arendt and Browning. 61 Daniel Goldhagen. there will thus also exist the possibility for barbarity in every modern nation-state. p. the Disputed. due to either men losing their capacity to think for themselves. 1998). as demonstrated by Eichmann.demonstrates that the Germans were not ordinary men.” in Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. for he clearly views the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101 as unique to Germans. Viking Press. “Ordinary Men or Ordinary Germans.Arendt‟s “lesson of the fearsome. 62 Daniel Goldhagen. and technologically advanced as Germany could have within it the seeds of such horror. or through men succumbing to the enormous pressures of conformity. sophisticated. In the end. 23 . 1996). writing that “The symbiosis between Hitler‟s passionately held and pursued aim of extinguishing Jewish power by whatever means and the German people‟s racial eliminationalist view of Jews together produced the conditions and the drive to undertake the eliminationist policies of the 1930s and 1940s. The conclusions of all three of these historians . however. which is what must be investigated and specified. Goldhagen‟s conclusions are strangely less disturbing than those of either Arendt or Browning. Peck. eds. 63 Hannah Arendt. The Holocaust and History – The Known. 1963). word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” as in the text‟s final pages he stresses the interaction between these two schools of thought. Knopf. but that there was something particular about them.are most sobering. Indiana University Press. Alfred A. suggest that another Holocaust could easily occur again.”61 And perhaps Goldhagen is not even purely an “intentionalist. V. Yet if a nation as refined. p. as Goldhagen infers. and the Reexamined (Bloomington. Conclusion All three of these works indirectly address the question of whether we need to fear the possibility of another Holocaust.”63 how Browning‟s “ordinary men” and Goldhagen‟s “ordinary Germans” became ruthless killers . 252.”62 Goldhagen‟s thesis is not as clear-cut as both his supporters and detractors make it out to be. as suggested by Browning‟s interpretation of the actions of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. p. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York.. 305. 447. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York.

Arendt perceptively points out that Eichmann was far from the monster he was portrayed as by the prosecution.” and “Hitler was the principle driving force of antisemitism in the Nazi movement from the earliest period. What is needed is a balance between all three. p. one cannot dispute that Hitler exerted enormous influence on the direction of the country. Marrus. The Path to Genocide – Essays on Launching the Final Solution (Cambridge. Perhaps the best interpretation is Browning‟s “moderate functionalism. in the Third Reich. 1987). Cambridge University Press.”65 The debate over the Holocaust has produced much thought-provoking scholarship.Why did the Holocaust happen? All three viewpoints. As the leader of the Third Reich. As Michael Marrus has noted. p. attributing the Holocaust solely to Hitler. 17-18. 24 . The Holocaust in History (New York. the “functionalist” approach.”64 History is never as black and white as historians make it out to be.” that the German people willingly embraced the Holocaust. “antisemitism was central because Hitler determined that it should be so. “Hitler had an intense hatred of Jews. 1992). but that he had indeed made a series of key decisions in 1941 that ordained the mass murder of European Jews. Penguin Group. one must also continue to keep in mind the indisputable fact that virulent anti-Semitism was at the very core of Hitler‟s world view and colored almost every political and military decision he made. And while Browning is correct to stress the role of conformity in explaining the battalion‟s actions. 88. one must also take into account the extensive history of German anti-Semitism.” which argues that “Hitler had not decided on the Final Solution as the culmination of any long-held or premeditated plan. yet one can never know the extent to which his own feelings towards sending Jews to their deaths played a role in his actions. are by themselves limiting. the “intentionalist” one. Highly emotional. arguing that the decision to exterminate the Jews only evolved as the war was being fought. And sadly. 65 Michael R. the 20th century has given humankind ample horrors 64 Christopher Browning. And though Goldhagen emphasizes the role that everyday Germans played in creating the conditions that lead to the Holocaust.” Thus. it is an area of European history that is bound to become even more controversial in the years ahead. or the “Goldhagen thesis.

Indiana University Press. Stalin‟s liquidation programs and purges. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.. and recent events in the former Yugoslavia have all contributed to the notion that the last century has been one of horror. Vietnam‟s My Lai Massacre. eds. The Turkish Armenian genocide. the Disputed. and Peck. (New York. Abraham J. and the Reexamined. The Holocaust and History – The Known. and Goldhagen. Pol Pot‟s Cambodian genocide. Michael. Bibliography Arendt. 1963) which to test the theories of Arendt. Let us hope that this new century makes the need for such scholarship unnecessary. Browning. (Bloomington. Hannah. the Hutu‟s violence towards the Tutsi‟s in Rwanda. 1998) 25 . Viking Press.

Penguin Group. (New York. Knopf. Ian. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Oxford University Press. (Cambridge. Michael R. The Holocaust in History. 2000) Marrus. HarperCollins.Browning. (New York. (New York. Cambridge University Press. Daniel. The Nazi Dictatorship – Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. (New York. Ordinary Men – Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. 1992) __________________. The Path to Genocide – Essays on Launching the Final Solution. Alfred A. 1987) 26 . Christopher. 1992) Goldhagen. 1996) Kershaw.