The Goldhagen Book


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Hitler's Willing Executioners

is a book by Daniel Goldhagen. This book was published in 1997 and caused a considerable controversy between established historians or history professors and Dr. Goldhagen, himself an assistant professor at Harvard at the time of publication. Since then, Goldhagen attained a higher rank in the academic hierarchy, but resigned from Harvard this year in order to devote his time to writing.

Goldhagen’s book is so important because it is the only book concerning the holocaust which describes those events in a manner familiar to those of us who survived these  horrors.

Goldhagen describes accurately what those present in Germany during Hitler’s dictatorship experienced. That was the nearly total devotion of the Christian German population to the persecution and murder of the European Jews. Goldhagen maintains that the German public was willing to participate in the extermination of all Jews. Indeed, only a few actually participated in the mass murders. However, almost all Germans approved of these killings and almost all Germans used verbal violence and physical violence against  German Jews as soon as Hitler declared in 1935 that Jews were no longer German citizens, even if born in Germany, and that Jews had no police protection. This led to Jews being assaulted in the streets either by being called “Judensau” or “Saujuden” (Jewish swine) or being beaten by mobs in the streets. The German public also participated in stealing Jewish property after the GESTAPO (Geheime Staats Polizei or Secret State Police) arrested Jewish families, including children, and sent them to death camps. Then the Christian population entered the abandoned Jewish homes and stole money, furniture, kitchen utensils, children’s toys, clothes, bedding , pictures, jewelry, rugs, and everything else until the house or apartment was empty.

Goldhagen describes how teachers insulted and berated Jewish children until all Jewish students from kindergarten through universities, as well as Jewish teachers, were removed from schools, so that they could no longer “contaminate” the German or “Aryan race.” In short, Goldhagen succeeded in presenting the Germans as “eliminationist Jew haters,” willing and enthusiastic in promoting the slaughter of Jews.

As soon as Hitler’s Willing Executioners was published in English and German,  American and German historians denounced  the book and its author “ad hominem” by attacking not only the content of the book but Goldhagen.  Some demanded that his doctorate be revoked while others called him incompetent and a failure. Now, nothing reveals the weakness of an argument so much as personal insults. Evidently the history establishment could not tolerate that a recent doctoral student wrote a dissertation that opposed their rigid, lockstep interpretation of the holocaust. That interpretation may be summarized as claiming that only “the Nazis,” not the German people as a whole, were  responsible for the horrors inflicted on the European Jews. Yet, the phrase “Nazi” is two syllable derivation from the German word “Nazional,” as in Hitler’s party “Die Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei” or “ The National Socialist German Labor Party.” Goldhagen shows that even anti-Nazi Germans, such as those who tried to kill Hitler and failed, were malicious Jew haters seeking to eliminate Jews from a Germany that they meant to organize if they had succeeded. Goldhagen also wrote that the famed pastor Niemöller, who was incarcerated in a “concentration Camp” for objecting to some of Hitler’s policies, expressed hatred for Jews, as did the Catholic priests who denounced Nazi attacks on their church.

An example was the speech by the Catholic bishop von Galen, who printed copies of his sermon attacking the Nazi euthanasia program that gassed to death crippled and mentally retarded Germans. Hitler called these people “worthless lives.” Von Galen loudly denounced these killings. The German people agreed with him, and the uproar over killing ill people resulted in so much fury that Hitler stopped the killings. Obviously von Galen could have done as much for the Jews, whom he did not even mention. Goldhagen describes how non-Jewish women married to Jewish men assembled in the hundreds in front of GESTAPO headquarters and demanded the release of their Jewish husbands. The uproar became so large that Hitler ordered the release of the Jewish men for fear that he had a revolt on his hands that included not only the non- Jewish wives but also their relatives. This clearly demonstrated that the Christian population could have saved the lives of their Jewish neighbors and co-citizens had they been willing to do so.

Goldhagen proved that the Germans were enthusiastic persecutors of all Jews, and that those who denounced him were afraid that someone younger was providing evidence that the German people as a whole were indeed “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”

P.S. The book is available online or in nearly all libraries.

Shalom u’vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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