Ordinary Men Or Willing Executioners

Ordinary Men Or Willing Executioners The arguments of Christopher Browning and Daniel John Goldhagen contrast greatly based on the underlining meaning of the Holocaust to ordinary Germans. Why did ordinary citizens participate in the process of mass murder? Christopher Browning examines the history of a battalion of the Order Police who participated in mass shootings and deportations. He debunks the idea that these ordinary men were simply coerced to kill but stops short of Goldhagen’s simplistic thesis. Browning uncovers the fact that Major Trapp offered at one time to excuse anyone from the task of killing who was not up to it. Despite this offer, most of the men chose to kill anyway. Browning’s traces how these murderers gradually became less squeamish about the killing process and delves into explanations of how and why people could behave in such a manner.

Goldhagen’s book however, has the merit of opening up a new perspective on ways of viewing the Holocaust, and it is the first to raise crucial questions about the extent to which eliminationist anti-Semitism was present among the German population as a whole. Using extensive testimonies from the perpetrators themselves, it offers a chilling insight into the mental and cognitive structures of hundreds of Germans directly involved in the killing operations. Anti-Semitism plays a primary factor in the argument from Goldhagen, as it is within his belief that anti-Semitism “more or less governed the ideational life of civil society” in pre-Nazi Germany . Goldhagen stated that a “Demonological anti-Semitism, of the virulent racial variety, was the common structure of the perpetrators’ cognition of the German society in general. The German perpetrators .. were assenting mass executioners, men and women who, true to their own eliminationist anti-Semitic beliefs, faithful to their cultural anti-Semitic credo, considered the slaughter to be just.” Though his statements seem quite harsh in content, they are not completely unjust for there is no obvious reason why a culture cannot be fanatically consumed by hatred. Goldhagen argues that for centuries, nearly every German was possessed of a homicidal animus towards Jews and thus 80 to 90 percent of Germans would have relished in the occasion to eliminate Jews. (Goldhagen dissents from Christopher Browning’s estimates that 10-20 percent of the German police battalions refused to kill Jews as ‘stretching the evidence ).

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It is one of Goldhagen’s central arguments that the police battalions were prototypical of the murderous German mind-set. Goldhagen’s true distinction from Browning is to argue that German anti- Semitism was not only a significant but rather it was the sufficient condition for perpetrating the extermination of the Jews. Goldhagen observes that if it was not for “Hitler’s moral authority”, the “vast majority of Germans never would have contemplated” the genocide against the Jews. He also argues that by the time Hitler came to power, the model of Jews that was the basis of his anti-Semitism was shared by the vast majority of Germans. To rebuttal his claim I must ask that if anti-Semitism was true to not only the Germans but also the other European countries then why didn’t a massive scale anti-Semitism movement come into play elsewhere? It is true that Goldhagen believes “Had there not been an economic depression in Germany, then the Nazi’s, in all likelihood, would never have to come to power.” However, this statement simply requires a question that if the Germans were fanatically anti-Semitists then why did they have to wait an economic depression to attain power and act out their anti-Semitist beliefs? Anti-Semitism, according to Goldhagen, was symptomatic of a much deeper German dissatisfaction. It served the Germans as a “moral rationale” for releasing “destructive and ferocious passions that are usually tamed and curbed by civilization”.

Goldhagen uses the testimonies from the Reserve Battalion 101 as evidence to assert his claims on the anti-Semitic nature of the Germans. He tends to use much of the same evidence that Browning used but he, in trying to prove his point, neglected to use some the vital information that Browning used to assert his own claims, thus selecting only the relevant information. Goldhagen uses numbers to give an idea of the make-up of the men, there age, status, and participation in the Nazi regime. While pointing out the ages of these men serving in the Reserve Battalion 101, he makes a significant claim that these men were mostly over the age of 30 and thus are “not the wide-eyed youngsters ready to believe whatever they were told.” “These were mature men who had life experience, who had families and children. The overwhelming majority of them had reached adulthood before the Nazis ascended to power.

They had known other political dispensation, had lived in other ideological climates.” This argument deems relevant to Goldhagen’s claims and quite frightening but what about the status of these men. Mostly from the lower middle class and that of the lower class these men were not from the good universities, if one at all and they were probably very concerned with making sure that their families were taken care of. If you look at the fact that most of these men were of the lower middle and lower class, they were most likely used to succumbing to someone else’s orders of a higher status. If they did not obey and work then what would happen to their families. Goldhagen’s argument based on the Reserve Battalion 101 is that these men were ordinary Germans, had no problems doing their duty for the Nazi Regime, and were proud of it. Browning on the other hand tends to argue, by using the testimonies of the men of Reserve Battalion 101, that these men were ‘ordinary’ and not fanatical anti-Semites.

Browning believes that these men, or at least most of them, succumbed to peer pressure, obeyed their orders, and hoped to advance themselves. When looking at Goldhagen’s statistics the largest groups of men were employees at a lower or intermediate level (pg207). Though Goldhagen has made a clear and valid point that these men were not boys it is important to also look at their status in society. It is of common knowledge that the largest group of people to suffer in the Holocaust was the Jews, but what about other victims? In Goldhagen’s novel the explanation of the protests against the Euthanasia program are clearly described as Germans upset only because these victims were Germans but deemed ‘Life unworthy of life’. The Euthanasia program saw “German physicians take the lives of more than seventy thousand people”. Here Goldhagen has a very valid point but it does not convince me that the Germans have a strong history of anti-Semitism.

These protests, show that the “(1) Germans recognized the slaughter to be wrong, (2) expressed their views about it, (3) openly protested for an end to the killing, (4) suffered no retribution for having expressed their views and for pressing their demands, and (5) succeeding in producing a formal cessation of the killing program, saving German lives.” As Goldhagen’s view is a valid, one I must wonder about the awareness factor. These Germans protested because their loved ones were being killed and they were clearly aware of their deaths. As it is clearly known, the extent the Jews being killed was not so clear for it was not so close to home and even as a Nazi, the chain of events were very spread out so the full magnitude of the horrors were not so evident. I am sure that some knew and were anti-Semites but can Goldhagen make such a large claim to an entire population? What about the people who helped the Nazi’s, who were not German? According …


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