Ordinary men, p.22
Ordinary Men, p.22Christopher R. Browning
Likewise one can find a counterexample concerning the ongoing killing of non-Jewish victims despite a top-level change of policy and the irrational misuse of non-Jewish labor. Having just decided to murder all the Jews of Europe, in October 1941 the Nazi regime reversed its earlier position concerning Soviet prisoners of war and ordered that henceforth they were to be used for labor rather than simply left to die from hunger, disease, and exposure. Rudolph Höss at Auschwitz was informed that he would receive a large contingent of Soviet POWs for the purpose of constructing a new camp at Birkenau—a project high on Himmler’s list of priorities. In short, both economic rationale and superior orders mandated that the Soviet POWs be kept alive and put to useful labor. Nearly 10,000 Soviet POWs arrived in Auschwitz in October 1941 and were sent to Birkenau. By the end of February, four months later, only 945 were alive—a survival rate of 9.5 percent.40 Himmler’s order to use Soviet POWs for a priority construction project did not immediately reverse either the habitual and ingrained behavior of concentration camp personnel of using labor for torture and extermination or the deadly conditions at Birkenau.
Indeed, as Michael Thad Allen has pointed out in his recent Ph.D. dissertation on the Business Administration Main Office (Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt) of the SS,41 within the concentration camp system the use of labor to punish and torture inmates rather than for production was part of the institutional culture long before Jews were a significant portion of the inmate population. Moreover, attempts to harness concentration camp labor productively continued to founder throughout the war on the resistance of concentration camp personnel stubbornly hostile to economic rationality. The concentration camp culture proved difficult to alter in this regard, whatever the ethnic identity of the prisoners involved.
What about the treatment of Jewish labor in Birkenau at this time? In comparison, 7,000 young Slovak Jewish women were sent to the Auschwitz main camp or Stammlager in the spring of 1942, also for labor. In mid-August, the 6,000 who were still alive were moved to Birkenau. At the end of December, just over four months later, only 650 had not yet died—a comparable survival rate of 10.8 percent.42 In short, institutional and situational factors and an ideology whose murderous potential was not derived solely from anti-Semitism produced nearly identical fatality rates among the Soviet POWs and Slovak Jewish women over the same period of time in the same camp, and this despite a change in government policy concerning the fate of Soviet POWs and the urgency of the economic task they were to perform.
Goldhagen is indeed correct that in the long run the murderous treatment of Soviet POWs did change while the murderous treatment of Jewish labor, except in minor ways, did not. But this simply indicates that, despite institutional inertia and the initial persistence of murderous patterns of behavior toward Soviet POWs, compliance with government policy ultimately prevailed in both cases. It does not demonstrate, as Goldhagen suggests,43 that the fate of Slavs, such as the Soviet POWs, and Jews differed primarily because of different culturally induced attitudes toward the two sets of victims. The Germans presided over the death of some 2 million Soviet POWs in the first nine months of the war—far more than the number of Jewish victims up to that point. The death rate in these POW camps far exceeded the death rates in the Polish ghettos prior to the Final Solution. The fact that the Nazi regime changed its policy to murder all Jews and changed its policy not to starve all Soviet POWs is more a measure of the ideology, priorities, and obsessions of Hitler and the Nazi leadership than of the attitudes of German society. The staggering fatality rate of Soviet POWs in the first months suggests above all the regime’s capacity to harness ordinary Germans to murder limitless numbers of Soviet POWs if that had remained its goal. The continuing mass death of Soviet POWs into the spring of 1942 demonstrates that killing institutions are not turned off and the attitudes and behavior of their personnel are not altered instantly, even when policy changes.
There are, in short, a number of conceivable variables—government policy and past patterns of behavior as well as culturally induced cognitive images—that are important. Yet, in accounting for differential German behavior toward Jewish and non-Jewish victims, Goldhagen’s argument does not adequately separate the variety of possible causal factors. His insistence on the German cognitive image of Jews as the “only” adequate framework is bolstered above all by his emphasis on the cruelty of the perpetrators.
However, the argument from unprecedented, singular German cruelty toward Jews is problematic on two counts. First, Goldhagen’s claim of singularity is grounded on the emotional impact of his narrative rather than actual comparison. He offers numerous graphic and chilling descriptions of German cruelty toward Jews and then simply asserts to the numbed and horrified reader that such behavior is clearly unprecedented. If only that were the case. Unfortunately, accounts of Romanian and Croatian killings would readily demonstrate that these collaborators not only equaled but routinely surpassed the Germans in cruelty. And that leaves myriad possible non-Holocaust examples from Cambodia to Rwanda totally aside.
Conversely, he downplays the cruelty in the Nazi murder of other victims, particularly the German handicapped in which Germans allegedly were “coldly involved” in inflicting “painless” death without celebration.44 Yet the mentally handicapped were first gunned down by the firing squads of the Eimann commando before the development of the gas vans and gas chambers, and many infants were simply not fed and left to starve to death. Screaming and fleeing patients were hunted down and dragged away from asylums to the waiting buses. And at Hadamar the killers threw a party to celebrate the milestone of 10,000 victims!45
Secondly, Goldhagen simply asserts as intuitively self-evident that such cruelty can be explained only by a cognitive image of the Jew peculiar to German culture.46 Goldhagen is quite correct that cruelty in the Holocaust—so salient in the memories of survivors—is an issue that scholars have not dealt with at length, but that does not mean his own ungrounded assertion concerning motivation is correct. Interestingly, the eloquent survivor Primo Levi agreed at least in part with Franz Stangl, the notorious Treblinka commandant, on a different, quite functional explanation for perpetrator cruelty, namely that the total debasement and humiliation of the victim facilitated the victim’s dehumanization so essential to the actions of the perpetrator—“to condition those who actually had to carry out the policies. To make it possible for them to do what they did.” But we can share Levi’s frustration that such an explanation in itself, if not entirely wrong, is nonetheless inadequate. “This is an explanation not devoid of logic,” he continues, “but it shouts to heaven; it is the sole usefulness of useless violence.”47
Indeed, too many instances of cruelty transcend a purely functional explanation. Another approach is taken by Fred E. Katz, who argues that in a killing environment the creation of “a culture of cruelty” is a “powerful phenomenon” that provides many satisfactions—individualized reputation and enhanced standing among one’s peers, alleviation of boredom, and a sense of joy and festivity, of artistry and creativity—to those who flaunt their gratuitous and inventive cruelties.48 But we are still left with an unresolved question that cannot be solved by simple assertion: Is a culture of hatred the necessary precondition for such a culture of cruelty? Goldhagen has posed an important question. I do not believe that we have as yet found a satisfactory answer.
Let us turn to the other comparison, namely that of German and non-German treatment of Jews. To be valid by accepted social science standards, German behavior would have to be compared with behavior in the complete set, or at least an unbiased random sample, of countries involved in the Final Solution. Instead Goldhagen suggests the behavior of Danes and Italians as the standard of comparison, which is neither random nor unbiased.49 Indeed, his suggestion merely begs the question of the rarity of Danish and Italian behavior vis-a-vis the ability of the Germans to find murderous collaborators virtually everywhere else in Europe. It does not demonstrate the singularity of German treatm
Moreover, as I noted at the April 1996 symposium at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,51 the example of the Luxemburgers in Reserve Police Battalion 101 offers the rare opportunity of comparing people in the same situation but of different cultural background. While the evidence is suggestive rather than conclusive, I noted that the fourteen Luxemburgers seem to have behaved very much like their German comrades, implying that situational factors were very strong indeed. Goldhagen replied that the 14 Luxemburgers were only a small number, from which one could not draw sweeping conclusions, though he has not been reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions from the small numbers of guards in the Lipowa and Flughafen labor camps or on the Helmbrechts death march.
My objections to the design of Goldhagen’s argument do not disprove his interpretation as such. They merely demonstrate that he has not met the standard of proof of rigorous social science that he has not only set for himself but also repeatedly claimed that others have so ignominiously failed even to understand. To demonstrate not only the lack of conclusive proof on behalf of his interpretation but flaws that render it unpersuasive, we must examine his use of evidence.
Goldhagen admits that he began with the hypothesis “that the perpetrators were motivated to take part in the lethal persecution of the Jews because of their beliefs about the victims.”52 The primary source of evidence for the behavior and motivation of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 by which to measure this hypothesis is the postwar testimony gathered through judicial investigation. It is not a matter of contention among scholars that postwar perpetrator testimony is highly problematic; it is shaped both by the questions posed by the investigators and by the forget-fulness, repression, distortion, evasion, and mendacity of the witnesses.
It is my position, however, that the judicial testimonies of Reserve Police Battalion 101 are qualitatively different from the vast bulk of such testimony. The roster of the unit survived, and more than 40 percent of the battalion members (most of them rank and file reservists rather than officers) were interrogated by able and persistent investigative attorneys. The large amount of unusually vivid and detailed testimony stands in stark contrast to the formulaic and transparently dishonest testimony so often encountered. Aware of the subjective and fallible nature of the judgments I will be making, I feel nonetheless that, used carefully, this body of testimony offers the historian a unique opportunity to probe issues in a way that is not possible from the records of other cases. It is no accident, after all, that among the hundreds of postwar German trials, both Goldhagen and I found our ways independently to the very same court records.
To deal with the problem of the evidentiary value of perpetrator testimony, Goldhagen argues in contrast that “the only methodological position that makes sense is to discount all self-exculpating testimony that finds no corroboration from other sources.”53 Goldhagen is also aware that “the temptation to pick and choose propitious material from a large number of cases should be resisted so as to avoid bias in the conclusions.”54 And he asserts that in his methodology “such bias is negligible.”55
But does Goldhagen’s methodology avoid bias? What in practice is Goldhagen’s standard for judging testimony as self-exculpating and thus to be excluded unless corroborated? For Goldhagen testimonies are “in all likelihood” self-exculpating if the witnesses deny giving “their souls, their inner will and moral assent” to the killing.56 In short, testimony about any state of mind or motivation at odds with his initial hypothesis is excluded unless corroborated, and finding corroborating evidence concerning state of mind—given the absence of contemporary letters and diaries—is nearly impossible. As a result, Goldhagen is left only with a residue of testimony compatible with his hypothesis, and the conclusions are for all practical purposes predetermined. A methodology that can scarcely do other than confirm the hypothesis that it was designed to test is not valid social science.
The problem of a deterministic methodology is compounded by another flaw in Goldhagen’s use of evidence, namely a double standard in which he does not apply the same evidentiary’ standards and high exclusionary threshold when the victims are Poles rather than Jews. The cumulative effect of these problems in Goldhagen’s use of evidence can be dramatically illustrated in comparing our respective accounts of Reserve Police Battalion 101′s initial massacres of Jews and Poles at Józefów and Talcyn.
According to Goldhagen, at Józefów Major Wilhelm Trapp delivered a “pep talk,” inciting his men to murder by activating the demonic view of the Jews that virtually all of them held. Though Trapp was “conflicted” and “uneasy,” his speech betrayed “his Nazified conception of the Jews.” Goldhagen concedes that “many of the men were shaken, even momentarily depressed by the killings,” but warns against “the temptation” of reading into the testimonies about the men’s negative reaction more than visceral weakness when faced with too much blood and gore.57
What is left out of this portrayal? Goldhagen acknowledges in one footnote, though not in the main text, that one witness described Trapp as “weeping.” There is no mention of the other seven witnesses who described Trapp as weeping or otherwise displaying visible physical distress.58 He does not mention the testimony of two policemen who recalled that Trapp explicitly said the orders did not come from him,59 nor four of the five who noted that Trapp openly distanced himself from the orders when transmitting them to his men.60 He does not mention the testimony of Trapp’s chauffeur: “Concerning the events in Józefów, he later told me more or less: ‘If this Jewish business is ever avenged on earth, then have mercy on us Germans.’”61 The “pep talk” allegedly activating a demonic view of the Jews turns out, on examination, to be a rather pathetic attempt to rationalize the imminent massacre of Jews as a wartime action against Germany’s enemies, similar to the bombs falling on German women and children at home. The repeated testimony of the men that they felt shaken, depressed, embittered, despondent, dejected, stricken, angered, and burdened is dismissed by Goldhagen out of hand as self-exculpatory or reflecting “momentary” visceral weakness.
Describing the first execution of Poles in a reprisal shooting at Taleyn, Goldhagen argues: “This illustrative episode juxtaposes the Germans’ attitudes towards Poles and Jews.” As proof, he cites just two witnesses—one witness to the effect that at Talcyn Trapp “wept,” and another that “Some of the men expressed afterwards their desire not to undertake any more missions of this sort.”62 In short, precisely the kinds of repeated testimony that Goldhagen excludes or dismisses when discussing the battalions murder of Jews at Józefów is suddenly embraced—even when voiced by just two individuals—to prove how differently the battalion felt about murdering Poles.
Moreover, this double standard in the selection of evidence can also be seen in Goldhagen’s analysis of the men’s motives. The failure of the policemen to opt out at Talcyn is not construed as evidence of a desire to kill Poles, while not opting out at Józefów is cited as evidence that they “wanted to be genocidal executioners” of the Jews. Nothing more than “momentary” visceral weakness is seen in the mountain of testimony about the men’s distress at Józefów, while the statement of a single witness at Talcyn is cited as valid evidence of the men’s “obvious distaste and reluctance” to kill Poles.63 The double standard concerning Jewish and Polish victims can be seen in yet another way. Goldhagen cites numerous instances of gratuitous and voluntaristic killing of Jews as relevant to assessing the attitudes of the killers. But he omits a similar case of gratuitous, voluntaristic killing by Reserve Police Battalion 101 when the victims were Poles. A German police official was re
A pattern of tendentious selection of evidence65 can also been seen in Goldhagen’s portrayal of near total uniformity among the men. Lieutenant Heinz Buchmann was the one member of the battalion who articulated a principled opposition to the mass murder and refused to take part in any aspect of the anti-Jewish actions. Concerning the difference in behavior between himself and the SS captains Julius Wohlauf and Wolfgang Hoffmann, Buchmann testified reluctantly that promotion was unimportant to him because he owned a successful business, while Wohlauf and Hoffmann were ambitious career policemen “who wanted to become something.” Moreover, he added, “Through my business experience, especially because it extended abroad, I had gained a better overview of things.”66 Goldhagen quickly glosses over the importance Buchmann himself gives to careeristic motives and construes the second portion of the statement as evidence that Buchmann alone in the battalion was not in the grip of German hallucinatory anti-Semitism.67
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