Yes, the title is a wee bit provocative but let me explain. In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. This book, from the back cover on my edition, “…lays to rest many myths about the Holocaust: that Germans were ignorant of the mass destruction of Jews, that the killers were all SS men, and that those who slaughtered Jews did so reluctantly. Hitler’s Willing Executioners provides conclusive evidence that the extermination of European Jewry engaged the energies and enthusiasm of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans.” Goldhagen systematically addresses many conventional explanations for The Holocaust: 1) the perpetrators were coerced, 2) that they were merely following orders, 3) that they were under very severe psychological pressure, 4) that they were petty bureaucrats needing to perform whatever tasks assigned them for the sake of their own career advancement, and 5) that people performed isolated and fragmented tasks so that they couldn’t appreciate the significance of their actions. He then addresses each of these explanations and rejects them categorically. He argues that a great deal of horrifying brutality and genocide was exercised not by insane people, but by ordinary people carrying out their sacred duty to The Fatherland. This may be hard to believe, and the only real antidote to this scepticism is a thorough reading of Goldhagen’s book, but he is very convincing in his argument. His book is carefully researched and highly insightful.
For Goldhagen, The Holocaust was not the result of aberrant individuals, bureaucracy, indifference, ignorance or individual pathology of any kind and it was only possible because Germany and Germans, ordinary Germans, were systematically changed into anti-semites in very large numbers well before the war started. It was, he argues, the culmination of a process by which the German people, ordinary Germans, were convinced over decades that the biggest impediment to Germany’s apotheosis, its rise to true glory, was the Jewish people. Over decades before the war, Jews were portrayed as the greatest evil that Germany faced as a nation. So, it seems that Germans in their passionate love of The Fatherland were not only willing executioners of Jews (and other groups of people seen as a threat, either to The Fatherland, as in the case of Jews, or the Aryan race as in the case of people with mental or physical disabilities, the Romany, etc.), but enthusiastic, gleeful, inventive, proud and patriotic perpetrators of unbelievable brutality towards Jews. There is a photograph in Goldhagen’s book of a German soldier, an ordinary German soldier, shooting in the back of the head a young mother while she holds her child in her arms. He did it in front of the camera, proud of his patriotic deed. Obviously, human beings are capable of incredible personal barbarism but that barbarism is more often than not released against ‘the other,’ the perceived source of all evil and danger to the group, whether it be the marriage, family, community, town, city, province, country or ideology (pick any one). The soldier who shot the young mother did not see his deed as barbaric, but rather as patriotic, as one more step in the elimination of the Jewish evil infecting glorious Germany and threatening to weaken the Aryan race. From this viewpoint, every time a German kills a Jew, man, woman or child, Germany gets stronger. Essentially, the Jewish people were offered up as a sacrifice to ensure the future prosperity of the German nation. From here on, my argument gets a little complex and much of it arises in Ernest Becker’s work summarized in his posthumous book Escape From Evil (1975) in which he writes:
…the psychology of the Nazi experience, […] served as a grim refresher course on the metaphysics of mass slaughter. Leo Alexander, in his outstanding paper on the SS, points out how much the Nazis were animated by what he calls a ‘heathen concept’: they had a whole philosophy of blood and soil which contained the belief that death nourishes life. This was ‘heathen’ indeed: we recognize it as the familiar archaic idea that the sacrifice of life makes life flow more plentifully…Goering, for example, made a statement early in the war that ‘with every German airman who is killed by the enemy our Luftwaffe becomes stronger. (p.103)
So the logic of mass murder becomes clear. The ‘cleansing’ of Germany of the ‘dirty’ Jews was supposed to make Germany stronger, an idea that had been brewing for a long time in the German mind. In essence, Goldhagen’s insistance that Germany was infected long before the Nazi era with a profound antisemitism fits in perfectly with Becker’s observation that The Holocaust was not an ‘event’ in history, but a consequence of a profound and longstanding insecurity that ordinary Germans had regarding the state of Germany. Relief from this insecurity culminated in the execution and torture of masses of Jewish people. It became the duty of all right-thinking, patriotic and heroic citizens to participate fully in the elimination of the Jewish evil, an evil inherent in every sub-human Jewish man, woman and child, the evil that threatened, in their minds, the very source of their life and power, The Fatherland. Of course, the whole enterprise was a lie. No amount of killing could save the German nation.
So, what can we now make of Goldhagen’s contention that it was ordinary Germans who were the perpetrators of Hitler’s program to eliminate Jews from Germany (and everywhere else given enough time)? What we can say is that most evil in the world is not the result of the actions of aberrant individuals -although they definitely express their aberrance when permitted to or encouraged by the state – but of ordinary people expressing their love for country or idea (racial purity, the uselessness of the poor, God, the glory of money, etc…). As Becker states it, “…evil comes from man’s urge to heroic victory over evil.” (p.136)
What lesson can we learn from Goldhagen (and Becker – but more on that later)? That blind nationalism and unquestioning faith in God and country have, and can still, lead ordinary people into committing the most atrocious, genocidal actions possible. The Rwandan massacre of 1994 is an example of just such a thing and let us not think for a moment that it will never happen again. From the vitriol I’ve been reading in comments following articles on the Idle No More movement, I expect that ordinary Canadians could be led into the same genocidal frame of mind as ordinary Germans were during the Nazi era. Canadians are not anywhere close to becoming genocidal now, but systemic racism, scapegoating and a profound ignorance of the actions of their own government towards aboriginal people can set the stage for popular descent into crass racism and incivility. When the government’s agenda are dominated by the private accumulation of capital, any perceived impediment to economic growth such as treaty negotiations will be seen by some as a threat to Canada as a nation and it’s sovereignty. Once aboriginal people are openly scapegoated and blamed for a poor economy we will have to be doubly vigilant to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand and degenerate into widespread and open hostility towards First Nations.