Prof defends his theory of willing killers

For many Holocaust survivors, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's new book doubtlessly states the obvious:

Average Germans gladly, almost gleefully, participated in the torture and mass murder of Jews during World War II.

Yet "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" is creating a flap in academic circles.

Goldhagen's book, released in late March and already No. 11 on the April 21 New York Times Best Sellers List, strives to debunk long-held theories of German behavior during the Holocaust.

Most scholars subscribe to a number of explanations: Germans were coerced into killing, followed orders blindly, succumbed to peer pressure, or simply were unaware of the ongoing genocide.

"All these theories suppose these people had to be forced to do something they thought was wrong," said Goldhagen, visiting San Francisco recently as part of his nine-city book tour.

Goldhagen, an assistant professor of government and social studies at Harvard, rolls his eyes at the mention of fellow academics slamming his book as an oversimplification. He already has heard their criticism.

But the 36-year-old son of a Holocaust survivor is sticking to his verdict that average Germans who participated in mass slaughters weren't forced to do so.

"I'm saying they were willing killers."

His conclusion came after spending 14 months in Germany researching post-war legal records and the testimony of individuals who staffed the police battalions, work camps and death marches.

"There is the fundamental question of what did these people think about what they were doing?…Did they approve or disapprove?" Goldhagen asks.

He isn't just referring to a small band of fanatic Nazis who took control of the nation. Goldhagen is literally talking about hundreds of thousands of Germans who participated in the mass slaughter, and millions of others, whom he maintains weren't directly involved but knew what was happening.

Goldhagen believes the German brutality was motivated primarily by "racial, eliminationist anti-Semitism."

European Jews were long familiar with the religious-based anti-Semitism of their Christian neighbors. But Germans transformed this anti-Semitism into one based on bloodlines and biology.

Eventually, Jews were no longer even human beings in the eyes of Germans. Jews became an "anti-race" that required eradication, according to the Nazis.

"I'm not saying Germans are monsters. I'm saying they were led to do monstrous acts," he said. "It took Hitler to show them the way, of course."

Germans' unique brand of anti-Semitism differed from that of their neighbors, he said, even the Poles.

"There was enormous anti-Semitism among the Poles," said Goldhagen, who looked the part of the young professor in a charcoal turtleneck and brown tweed jacket. "However, all said and done, this was a German national undertaking…Even Polish anti-Semites would never have imagined killing all the Jews in France."

Critics of Goldhagen's theory assert that he goes too far by focusing on only "eliminationist anti-Semitism" as the reason for the Holocaust.

Christopher Browning, a visiting scholar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a history professor at Pacific Lutheran University, is one of those critics.

Browning studied and wrote about the same police unit as Goldhagen in the 1992 book "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland."

Almost any Holocaust historian acknowledges Germany's anti-Semitism was stronger than that in other nations, Browning said in a telephone interview. But by eliminating the nuances of human behavior and circumstances in Germany, Browning said, Goldhagen's theory goes too far.

"Many historians would say it's too extreme and general," Browning said. "It basically steamrollers everything people had written for the past 30 years."

Goldhagen, who appeared tired due to a packed schedule of book promotion, perked up when he gets a chance to answer the accusation.

Other than Browning, he said, no one has studied in depth the average Germans involved in the killings. Academics have based their conclusions about what motivated the genocide mainly on Nazi leaders or concentration camp commanders."On what are these nuanced conclusions based?" he asked. "Not the perpetrators."

If his conclusions are accurate, how does Goldhagen explain the apparent 180-degree turn in Germany after World War II?

Germans, after the war, were castigated by the world for committing the greatest crime in history, Goldhagen noted. The Allies denuded Germany's institutional structures, replaced the dictatorship with democracy and revamped the education system.

In the decades since the Holocaust, he said, eliminationist anti-Semitism in Germany has declined steadily until it has become divorced from mainstream culture as it is in the United States.

"Today, it's more like the anti-Semitism we have in this country," said Goldhagen, whose book will be released in Germany this summer.

In fact, he believes Germany has changed so profoundly that its laws banning anti-Semitic material could now be revoked.

"German democracy," he said, "has stood the test of time and matured."