Ordinary men, p.21
Ordinary Men, p.21Christopher R. Browning
Even for the openly anti-Semitic conservatives, the Jewish issue was but one among many. And to suggest that they felt more threatened by the Jews than, for example, by the Triple Entente abroad or Social Democracy at home would be a serious distortion. If anti-Semitism was neither the priority issue nor the greatest threat even for conservatives, how much less was this the case for the rest of German society. As Richard Levy has noted, “One can make a convincing case that [Jews] were of very little interest to most Germans most of the time. Putting them at the center of German history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a highly unproductive strategy.”16
For some Germans, of course, Jews were the top priority and source of greatest fear. The turn-of-the-century anti-Semitism of German conservatives fits well Gavin Langmuir’s notion of “xenophobic” anti-Semitism—a negative stereotype comprised of various assertions that did not describe the real Jewish minority but rather symbolized various threats and menaces that anti-Semites could not and did not want to understand.17 Langmuir notes as well that “xenophobic” anti-Semitism provides the fertile soil for the growth of fantastic or “chimeric” anti-Semitism—or what Saul Friedländer has recently dubbed “redemptive” anti-Semitism.18 If Germany’s xenophobic anti-Semitism was an important piece of the political platform of an important segment of the political spectrum, the “redemptive” anti-Semites with their chimeric accusations—from Jewish poisoning of Aryan blood to a secret Jewish world conspiracy behind the twin threats of Marxist revolution and plutocratic democracy—were still a fringe phenomenon.
The succession of traumatic experiences in Germany between 1912 and 1929—loss of control of the Reichstag by the right, military defeat, revolution, runaway inflation, and economic collapse—transformed German politics. The right grew at the expense of the center, and within the former the radicals, or New Right, grew at the expense of the traditionalists, or Old Right. Chimeric anti-Semitism grew commensurately from a fringe phenomenon to the core idea of a movement that became Germany’s largest political party in the summer of 1932 and its ruling party six months later.
That fact alone makes the history of Germany and German anti-Semitism different from that of any other country in Europe. But even this must be kept in perspective. The Nazis never gained more than 37 percent of the vote in a free election, less than the combined socialist-communist vote. Daniel Goldhagen is right to remind us “that individuals’ attitudes on single issues cannot be inferred from their votes.”19 But it is highly unlikely that he is correct in his related assertion that large numbers of Germans who voted for the Social Democratic Party for economic reasons were nonetheless of one mind with Hitler and the Nazis about Jews. While I cannot prove it, I strongly suspect far more Germans voted Nazi for reasons other than anti-Semitism than Germans who considered anti-Semitism a priority issue but nonetheless voted for a party other than the Nazis. Neither the election returns nor any plausible spin put on them suggest that in 1932 the vast majority of Germans were “of one mind” with Hitler about the Jews or that the “centrality of antisemitism in the Party’s worldview, program, and rhetoric … mirrored the sentiments of German culture.”20
Beginning in 1933 all the factors that Goldhagen credits with dismantling German anti-Semitism after 1945—education, public conversation, law, and institutional reinforcement—were operating in the opposite direction to intensify anti-Semitism among the Germans, and indeed in a far more concerted manner than in the postwar period. Can one seriously doubt that this had significant impact, particularly given the rising popularity of Hitler and the regime for its economic and foreign policy successes? As William Sheridan Allen succinctly concluded, even in a highly Nazified town like Northeim, most people “were drawn to anti-Semitism because they were drawn to Nazism, not the other way around.”21 Moreover, the 1936 Sopade underground report to which Goldhagen repeatedly refers—“antisemitism has no doubt taken root in wide circles of the population…. The general antisemitic psychosis affects even thoughtful people, our comrades as well”22—is evidence of change in German attitudes following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, not the prior situation.
Even in the post-1933 period, however, it is best to speak in the plural of German anti-Semitisms. Within the party, there was indeed a large core of Germans for whom the Jews were a dire racial threat and central priority. The hardcore “chimeric” or “redemptive” anti-Semites of the Nazi movement differed in style and preferred response, however. At one end of the spectrum were the SA and Streicher types lusting for pogroms; at the other end were the cool and calculating, intellectual anti-Semites described by Ulrich Herbert in his new biography of Werner Best, who advocated a more systematic but dispassionate persecution.23
Hitlers conservative allies favored deemancipation and segregation of the Jews as part of the counterrevolution and movement of national renewal. They strove to end the allegedly “inordinate” Jewish influence on German life, though this was scarcely a priority equal to dismantling the labor unions, Marxist parties, and parliamentary democracy, or to rearmament and the restoration of Germany’s great-power status. They often spoke the language of racial anti-Semitism, but not consistently. Some, like President Hindenburg, wanted exemptions for Jews who had proved themselves worthy through loyal service to the fatherland, and the churches, of course, wanted exemptions for converted Jews. In my opinion, it is unlikely that the conservatives on their own would have proceeded beyond the initial discriminatory measures of 1933-34 that drove the Jews out of the civil and military services, the professions, and cultural life.
What the conservatives conceived of as sufficient measures overlapped with what were for the Nazis scarcely the first steps. The Nazis understood far better than the conservatives the distance that separated them. As complicitous in the first anti-Jewish measures as they were in the wrecking of democracy, however, the conservatives could no more oppose radicalization of the persecution of the Jews than they could demand for themselves rights under the dictatorship that they had denied others. And while they may have lamented their own increasing loss of privilege and power at the hands of the Nazis whom they helped into power, with few exceptions they had no remorse or regret for the fate of the Jews. To argue that the Nazis’ conservative allies were not of one mind with Hitler does not deny that their behavior was despicable and their responsibility considerable. As before, xenophobic anti-Semitism provided fertile soil for the chimeric anti-Semites.
What can be said of the German population at large in the 1930s? Was the bulk of the German population swept along by the Nazis’ anti-Semitic tide? Only in part, according to the detailed research of historians like Ian Kershaw, Otto Dov Kulka, and David Bankier, who have reached a surprising degree of consensus on this issue.24 For the 1933-39 period, these three historians distinguish between a minority of party activists, for whom anti-Semitism was an urgent priority, and the bulk of the German population, for whom it was not. Apart from the activists, the vast majority of the general population did not clamor or press for anti-Semitic measures. But the majority of “ordinary Germans”—whom Saul Friedländer describes as “onlookers” in contrast to “activists”25—nonetheless accepted the legal measures of the regime, which ended emancipation and drove the Jews from public positions in 1933, socially ostracized the Jews in 1935, and completed the expropriation of their property in 1938-39. Yet this majority was critical of the hooliganistic violence of party radicals toward the same German Jews whose legal persecution they approved. The boycott of 1933, the vandalistic outbreaks of 1935, and above all the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 produced a negative response among much of the German population.
Most important, however, a gulf had opened up between the Jewish minority and the general population. The latter, while not mobilized around strident and violent anti-Semitism, were increasingly “apathetic,” “passive,” and “indifferent” to the fate of the former. Anti-Semitic measures—if carried out in an orderly and legal maimer—we
Concerning the war years, Kershaw, Kulka, and Bankier disagree on some issues but generally concur that the anti-Semitism of the “true believers” was not identical to the anti-Semitic attitudes of the general population, and that the anti-Semitic priorities and genocidal commitment of the regime were still not shared by ordinary Germans. Bankier, who in no way downplays German anti-Semitism, wrote: “Ordinary Germans knew how to distinguish between an acceptable discrimination … and the unacceptable horror of genocide…. The more the news of mass murder filtered through, the less the public wanted to be involved in the final solution of the Jewish question.”26 Nonetheless, as Kulka put it, “a strikingly abysmal indifference to the fate of the Jews as human beings” gave “the regime the freedom of action to push for a radical ‘Final Solution.’”27 Kershaw emphasized the same point with his memorable phrase that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hatred, but paved with indifference.”28
Kulka and Rodrigue are uneasy about the term “indifference,” which they as well as Kershaw use, feeling that it does not sufficiently capture the internalization of Nazi anti-Semitism among the population at large, particularly concerning the acceptance of a solution to the Jewish question through some unspecified kind of “elimination.” They suggest a more morally weighted term such as “passive complicity” or “objective complicity.”29 Goldhagen is more emphatic, declaring the very concept of “indifference”—which he equates with having “no views” on and being “utterly morally neutral to mass slaughter”—to be conceptually flawed and psychologically impossible. For Goldhagen, Germans were not apathetic and indifferent but “pitiless,” “unsympathetic,” and “callous,” and their silence should be interpreted as approval.30 I have no problem with the desire of Kulka, Rodrigue, and Goldhagen to employ more powerful, morally condemnatory language to describe German behavior. But I do not think that choice of language here alters the basic point made by Kershaw, Kulka, and Bankier, namely that in terms of the priority of anti-Semitism and commitment to killing Jews a useful and important distinction can be made between the Nazi core and the population at large. In my opinion, Goldhagen is setting up a straw man in his definition of indifference and misinterprets the meaning of silence under a dictatorship. He also seems oblivious to the fact that Kershaw’s notion of indifference anticipates the continuums in Goldhagen’s own analytical model, when Kershaw notes that during the war years Germans may well have disliked Jews more while caring about them less.
There are two additional points on which Goldhagen and I agree. First, one must look at the attitudes and behavior of ordinary Germans not only on the home front but also in occupied eastern Europe, and second, when faced with the task of killing Jews, most ordinary Germans there became “willing” executioners. If ordinary Germans at home were indifferent and apathetic, complicitous and callous, in the east they were killers.
We differ, however, on context and motive for this murderous behavior. For Goldhagen, these ordinary Germans, “equipped with little more than the cultural notions current in Germany” before 1933 and now at last given the opportunity, simply “wanted to be genocidal executioners.”31 In my opinion, ordinary Germans in eastern Europe brought with them a set of attitudes that included not only the different strands of anti-Semitism found in German society and fanned by the regime since 1933, but much else as well. As the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Freikorps campaigns, and the almost universal rejection of the Versailles Treaty demonstrate, refusal to accept the verdict of World War I, imperial aspirations in eastern Europe underpinned by notions of German racial superiority, and virulent anticommunism were broadly held sentiments in German society. I would argue that they provided more common ground for the bulk of the German population and the Nazis than did anti-Semitism.
And in eastern Europe ordinary Germans were transformed even more by the events and situation of 1939-41 than they had been by their experience of the domestic dictatorship of 1933-39. Germany was now at war; moreover, this was a “race war” of imperial conquest. These ordinary Germans were stationed in the territory where the native populations were proclaimed inferior and occupying Germans were constantly exhorted to behave as the master race. And the Jews encountered in these territories were the strange and alien Ostjuden, not assimilated, middle-class German Jews. In 1941 two more major factors, the ideological crusade against Bolshevism and “war of destruction,” were added. Is it even plausible to suggest that this wartime change in situation and context did not alter the attitudes and behavior of ordinary Germans in eastern Europe, and that only a common cognitive image of Jews predating 1933 and held by virtually all Germans accounts for their willingness, and for some even eagerness, to kill Jews?
In this regard, it is important to note that before the Final Solution was implemented (beginning on Soviet territory in the second half of 1941 and in Poland and the rest of Europe in the spring of 1942), the Nazi regime had already found willing executioners for 70,000 to 80,000 mentally and physically handicapped Germans, tens of thousands of Polish intelligentsia, tens of thousands of noncombatant victims of reprisal shootings, and more than 2 million Russian POWs. Clearly, as of September 1939, the regime was increasingly capable of legitimizing and organizing mass murder on a staggering scale that did not depend on the anti-Semitic motivation of the perpetrators and the Jewish identity of the victims.
Daniel Goldhagen has recently written that even if he is “not entirely correct about the scope and character of German anti-Semitism, it does not follow that this would invalidate” his “conclusions about the … perpetrators and their motives.”32 Central to Goldhagen’s inteqoretation is that these men were not only “willing executioners” but in fact “wanted to be genocidal executioners” of Jews (italics mine).33 They “slaked their Jewish blood-lust” with “gusto”; they had “fun”; they killed “for pleasure.”34 Moreover, “the quantity and quality of personalized brutality and cruelty that the Germans perpetrated upon Jews was also distinctive” and “unprecedented”; indeed, they “stand out” in the “long annals of human barbarism.”35 Goldhagen concludes emphatically that “with regard to the motivational cause of the Holocaust, for the vast majority of the perpetrators, a monocausal explanation does suffice”—namely the “demonological antisemitism” that “was the common structure of the perpetrators’ cognition and of German society in general.”36
In support of this interpretation, Goldhagen constantly invokes the conscious use of rigorous social science methodology as one of the factors that sets his book above the work and beyond the reproach of other scholars in the field.37 I would like to focus on two aspects of Goldhagen’s argument for this interpretation and measure them against the very standard of rigorous social science that he himself sets: first, the design and structure of his argument, and second, his methodology concerning use of evidence.
While the bulk of Goldhagen’s book focuses on anti-Semitism in German history and German treatment of Jews during the Holocaust, crucial to the design of his argument are two comparisons.38 First, Germans are compared with non-Germans in their respective treatment of Jews. Second, German treatment of Jewish victims is compared with their treatment of non-Jewish victims. The purpose is to establish that only a pervasive, eliminationist anti-Semitism specific to German society can account for the stark differences that allegedly emerge from these comparisons.
The problems with the design are manifold. For the second comparison to adequately support his argument, Goldhagen must prove not only that Germans treated Jewish and no
Bringing wider attention to the death marches is one of the redeeming merits of Goldhagen’s book, but his attempt to generalize from the one case of the Helmbrechts death march is unpersuasive. His powerful description of this horrific event must not obscure the fact that in terms of proof of a widespread eagerness to kill Jews even contrary to orders, he has established neither its representativeness for other death marches nor that the same phenomenon did not occur in Germans’ treatment of other victims. And even in his own case Goldhagen admits that the guards had to prevent the local German population from providing food and lodging and German soldiers from providing medical care to the Jews, without ever considering whether these other Germans were not just as typical of German society at large as the murderous death march guards. Indeed, the stark difference in behavior of these different groups of Germans would suggest the importance of situational and institutional factors that he dismisses.39
Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes