Culture of Murder, Culture of Complicity:  Anti-Semitism and the Origins of the Holocaust





            Fifty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, some of the most disturbing questions about the Nazi genocide remain unanswered.  To what extent were ordinary Germans willing participants in mass murder?  How are we to explain the behavior of the perpetrators?  To what extent was the German public aware of the extermination of the European Jews?  Everyone who teaches German history encounters these questions from students.  The factual record is not in doubt but the historical and moral implications remain ambiguous.  

            These questions are of more than mere academic interest.  "If there is any single lesson to be drawn. . .from the Holocaust,"  writes the historian Omer Bartov, "it is that precisely our own society [and] our mass and individual psychology contain the potential for another such genocide."[i]  It would be comforting if we could assign the Holocaust to the historical past and tell ourselves that the worst is over.  However the recent "ethnic cleansing," in Bosnia and the tribal slaughter in Rwanda, remind us that our world is not immune to outbreaks of mass murder.  

            The criminal enormity of the plan still stuns us.  The Nazi State undertook to kill every man, woman, and child of the Jewish people in pursuit of an ideological fantasy.  To carry out such a project of genocide, two groups of people were necessary:  a criminal political elite dominating the German state, and a much larger group of "ordinary men" willing to become the perpetrators of mass murder.  Much of the scholarship on the Holocaust for the last fifty years has focused upon the first group. There is no shortage of scholarly biographies of Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels and the other members of the Nazi ruling circle.  With a few exceptions, such as the precise date for the order to begin the "Final Solution," there is also a scholarly consensus about the development of Nazi policies from persecution to deportation, and finally extermination.

            However the actual murderers have received little scholarly attention; or, to put it more precisely, the foot soldiers of the Holocaust have received little attention.  Studies of the SS or the Gestapo  abound, but, "One expected them to behave as they did:  that is what they were for."[ii] 

            Ultimately the Holocaust occurred because the regime was successful in organizing large numbers of people willing to carry out murder.  "Sometimes they operated in the field, at the scene of death," writes Raul Hilberg, "as in the case of the Order Police engaged in shootings, or railway men driving the trains filled with Jews into camp enclosures.  Whether they were in command or lowly placed, in an office or outdoors, they all did their part, when the time came, with all the efficiency they could muster."[iii]  Furthermore, Hilberg, the dean of Holocaust historians, has estimated that 25% of all the victims died by shooting.  More than 50% perished in the six major extermination camps equipped with gas chambers (Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek, and Chelmno) and the remainder died of starvation in the ghettos, or of overwork and general brutality in labor camps and death marches.[iv]  The locus of genocide was Poland.






            Recently the entire  direction of Holocaust studies has been revolutionized by the publication of two books that focus on one group of perpetrators:  Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men:  Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1992) and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners:  Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996).  As the titles indicate, both books focus on the "ordinary" Germans who carried out the regime's murderous policies; in fact, both books draw upon the same body of evidence -- the judicial interrogations of 210 members of Reserve Police Battalion 101.   Working from the same data, Browning and Goldhagen reached radically differing conclusions motivation of this group of German policemen. 

            It is the problem of explaining the willingness of these "ordinary men" to engage in extraordinary acts of brutality that has dominated the field of Holocaust studies in the last several years.  The so-called German "Order Police" consisted of middle age men, unfit for the army, but nevertheless pressed into military service during the early days of The Second World War.  Organized roughly like the United States National Guard, the German Order Police was recruited on a regional basis--Police Battalion 101 came from the city of Hamburg--and assigned to occupation duties in Poland as the Wehrmacht  moved eastwards into the Soviet Union.  That the members of the unit were mass murderers is beyond dispute. The members of the unit, about 500 men in all, participated in the shooting of approximately 38,000 Jews and deported a further 45,000 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1943.[v] 

            The justice process worked very slowly in the case of Police Battalion 101.  Some members of the unit were killed during the war but most survived to return to Hamburg.  Major Trapp, the commander of the unit, along with one lieutenant and two enlisted men were extradited to Poland in October of 1947.  The Polish authorities charged the four men with the murder of 78 Polish civilians.  The indictment did not mention any crimes against the Jewish population.  After a one day trial, Trapp and one policeman were executed and the other two defendants were sentenced to prison.  Most of the men simply returned to their old jobs.  Twelve members of the unit joined the Hamburg police.  There was no further investigation until 1962 when the State prosecutor of Hamburg began looking into the case.  In the next five years 210 members of the unit were interrogated.  In 1968 fourteen members of the unit were found guilty of war crimes and given prison sentences ranging from five to eight years.  After a lengthy appeals process, most of the men received suspended sentences.  Ultimately, only three men served time in prison.[vi]  It is ironic that the investigation of Police Battalion 101 was arguably one of the few successful cases brought to trial in West Germany.  "It is to be hoped that the admirable efforts of the prosecution in preparing this case," writes Christopher Browning, "will serve history better than they have served justice."[vii]

            The men of Police Battalion 101 were initiated into their careers as genocidal murderers on July 13,1942.  Arriving from Hamburg, the unit received orders to clear the village of Jozefow of approximately 1,800 Jews.[viii]  The Battalion was ordered to select out the young men for labor and shoot the rest of the population--about 1,500 men, women, and children.  Major Trapp was obviously shaken by the order.  He asked the battalion medical officer:  "My God, why must I do this?"  The unit arrived in Jozefow before dawn, and Papa Trapp (as the men called him), gave a brief speech.  His voice choked with tears, he fought to control himself as he told the men that they had orders to perform a very unpleasant task. Major Trapp then made the men an extraordinary offer:  if any of the policemen did not feel up to the task that lay before them, they could be excused.  After some hesitation, ten or twelve men stepped forward.  They turned in their rifles and were assigned other jobs.  His driver remembered Trapp saying, "If this Jewish business is ever avenged on earth, then God have mercy on us Germans."[ix] 

             The men assigned to shoot the Jews gathered in a circle around the battalion surgeon to receive instructions as to the best place to aim.  One policeman recalled that "Dr. Schoenfelder sketched on the ground the upper part of a human body and marked on the neck the spot at which we should fire."

            The Jews of Jozefow were taken into the forest in groups of twenty and executed by a bullet to the neck or head.  Those soldiers tasked with the actual shooting found the experience difficult.  Shooting people at close range, in the words of Sergeant Bentheim, meant that "The executioners were gruesomely soiled with blood, brain matter, and bone splinters.  It stuck to their clothes."  The thirty men of Lieutenant Kurt Drucker's platoon shot three hundred Jews in three hours.  In all, Police Battalion 101 shot approximately 1,500 Jews that afternoon.  A fairly significant portion of the unit--according to Christopher Browning, 10 to 15% -- either did not shoot at all, or started shooting but could not continue. 

            Franz Kastenbaum*  volunteered the following account to the Hamburg prosecutor:


            The shooting of the men was so repugnant to me that I

            missed the fourth man.  It was simply no longer possible

            for me to aim accurately.  I suddenly felt nauseous and

            ran away from the shooting site.  I have expressed my-

            self incorrectly just now.  It was not that I could no

            longer aim accurately, rather that the fourth time I

            intentionally missed.  I then ran into the woods, vomited,

            and sat down against a tree. . . .Today I can say that my

            nerves were totally finished.[x]

            The killing continued throughout the afternoon and evening.  The bodies of the victims were left unburied.  The shooters returned from the woods about 9:00 PM.  The marketplace was now empty except for the piles of luggage which details of soldiers burned.  Before the men finished this task, a bloodied ten year old girl wandered in from the woods with a head wound.  She was brought to Major Trapp who took her in his arms and announced, "You shall remain alive."[xi]  One instant of pity neither excuses or absolves Major Trapp who was deservedly executed by the Polish authorities.

            The men climbed into their trucks and returned to their barracks.  An extra ration of alcohol was issued.  The men spoke little, ate almost nothing, but drank a great deal.[xii]  That night one policeman awoke from a nightmare firing his pistol into the ceiling of the barracks.

            The men of Police Battalion 101 do not fit easily into any model of genocidal executioners current in Holocaust studies.  These were not the fervent young products of Nazi indoctrination, nor were they the "desk murderers" portrayed in Hannah Arendt's classic study of Adolf Eichmann.[xiii]  The massacre at Jozefow also illustrates a point worth reiteration:  "the Holocaust was more than a bureaucratic operation; it was not the work of so many banal cogs in the wheels of evil."[xiv]  Perpetrator encountered victim at close range.  The officers and NCOs were men approaching middle age.  Of the 33 NCOs in the unit, 22 were Nazi party members. The average age of the men was 39.  Virtually none had any education beyond leaving Volkschule  at age 14. Over 60% of the men were unskilled laborers:  dock workers, truck drivers, and construction workers. 

            Most came from Hamburg, a cosmopolitan port city with a long tradition of socialist politics and intermarriage between the Jewish and Christian population.  If Munich was the most Nazi city in Germany, Hamburg was arguably the least Nazi city. In short, the social breakdown of this unit did not seem to offer a promising group from which to recruit mass murderers.  Yet 80 to 90% of these men became efficient professional killers.   How are we to explain this chilling transformation?




             Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has been the most forceful spokesperson for the idea that "the central causal agent of the Holocaust" was the German people's racist hatred of Jews:

            We readily accept that. . .the Aztecs believed human sac-

            rifices were necessary for the sun to rise. . .so why can

            we not believe that many Germans in the twentieth

            century subscribed to beliefs that appear to us to be

            palpably absurd. . .anti-Semitism, was the common structure             of the perpetrator's cognition  The German perpetrators were    . . . men and women who, true to their own anti-Semitic

            beliefs, considered the slaughter of the Jews to be just.[xv]


            Erwin Grafmann*, according to Goldhagen "the most forthcoming and honest of all the men in Police Battalion 101," discussed his memories of Jozefow with the state prosecutor during the 1960s.  When he was asked why he did not accept the offer from Major Trapp to excuse himself from the actual shooting, he responded that, "at the time, we did not give it any second thoughts at all."[xvi]  During his trial Grafmann was asked if he thought the killings were immoral.  He answered that, "Only in later years did one actually become fully cognizant of what had taken place at that time. . .[it was only afterwards that the thought first] occurred to me that it [the killing] was not right."[xvii]  Others put the matter more bluntly:  "The Jew was not acknowledged by us to be a human being."[xviii]  Goldhagen concludes that men like Grafmann, "By choosing not excuse themselves from the genocide of the Jews. . .indicated that they wanted to be genocidal executioners."[xix]

            It is hardly necessary to point out that Goldhagen's thesis is not new.  Goldhagen simply restates the old idea that a clear line of anti-Semitic thought runs from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler.  He believes that this peculiar German intellectual tradition was largely responsible for the triumph of Nazism.  In all probability, Goldhagen's ideas also sum up the common image of the Nazi genocide for most Americans of the "Baby Boom" generation and their parents today.  "Put Bluntly,"  Fritz Stern writes, "For Goldhagen, as for the National Socialists, Hitler was  Germany." [xx]  As for the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, given the chance to excuse themselves from murder, the great majority killed with "gusto"[xxi]; they had "fun'[xxii]; they "killed for pleasure."[xxiii]

             Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's approach raises as many questions as it answers.  If German anti-Semitism was the root cause of the Holocaust, as Goldhagen contends, how are we to explain the enthusiastic participation of thousands of non-German SS volunteers?  If, as many scholars have argued, French anti-Semitism was more pervasive before 1914 than German, why was the French defense of Jews more vigorous than similar efforts in Germany?  As a causal model for the Holocaust, "eliminationist anti-Semitism" explains everything and nothing. 

            If Nazi Germany was merely the culmination of the psychopathic and murderous German mind-set, how are we to account for the disappearance of that mind-set in the last few decades?  Today, Goldhagen describes Germans as "committed democrats" and concludes that the German's "absurd beliefs. . . .rapidly dissipated after the Second World War."[xxiv]  If, as Goldhagen contends, anti-Semitism was the "common cognitive structure. . .of German society," why should military defeat and occupation change that mindset so thoroughly?

            In a sense, Goldhagen's book is the latest chapter in an old argument between those who see the Holocaust as a crime against the Jewish people and those who see it as a crime against humanity.  Other scholars, most notably Hannah Arendt, have ascribed the Holocaust to the larger phenomenon of Totalitarianism.  Arendt argued that "only the choice of the victims, not the nature of the crime could be derived from the long history of Jew hatred and anti-Semitism."[xxv]





            There is another possible explanation for the behavior of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101.  One of the characteristics of twentieth century history has been the capacity of government to exploit the tragic conformity of ordinary men to unleash violence as state policy.  Perhaps the most chilling lesson to be deduced from the massacre at Jozefow is that "ordinary men" can be conditioned to become genocidal executioners.




Hitler's regime, wrote Amos Elon last month:


            succeeded in turning the legal order on its head, making the

            wrong and the malevolent the foundation of a new

            'righteousness.'  In the Third Reich evil had lost the dis-

            tinctive characteristics by which most people until then

            recognized it, i.e. as a 'temptation.'  It was redefined as a

            social norm.  Conventional goodness now became a mere

            temptation which most Germans, of course, were fast

            learning to resist.[xxvi]


            Many of the policemen who refused to shoot in the woods outside Jozefow overcame their initial moral reservations (according to Browning) and/or squeamishness (according to Goldhagen) and later volunteered for firing squads.  In short, the Holocaust acquired a twisted sort of grass-roots momentum, as perpetrators became true believers in what they were ordered to do.             Christopher Browning examined the post-war testimony of Police Battalion 101 and found evidence that some policemen, like Erwin Grafmann, killed because they shared the ideology of the regime; but for a great number of the killers, the decision to commit murder was simply the least painful option open in the situation.  The massacre at Jozefow is interesting precisely because the commanding officer gave the men the opportunity to excuse themselves.  "Yet 80 to 90% of the men proceeded to kill,"  writes Browning,. . . To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behavior, was simply beyond most of the men.  It was easier for them to shoot."[xxvii]   

              Many of the men no doubt harbored anti-Semitic attitudes.  Certainly Nazi racial propaganda played a role, but Browning discovered that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 cited other factors including:  the fear of breaking ranks, revealing unmanly "weakness" by refusing to shoot helpless victims, and even concerns over career advancement.  Sergeant Bentheim* advised those who could not or would not carry out the orders to shoot to "slink away" to the marketplace and watch the trucks.  One member of the battalion who refused to shoot remembered the response of his comrades returning from the murder site:  "They showered me with remarks such as 'shithead' and 'weakling' to express their disgust."[xxviii]

Those who refused to shoot argued not that they were "too good" but rather that they were "too weak" to kill. In this way they salved their consciences without challenging the dominant macho values of their comrades.[xxix]

             None of Browning's arguments excuses or even extenuates the murders of Reserve Police Battalion 101.  It would be comforting if we could ascribe the Holocaust to racist monsters, to men with no more in common with us than the Aztecs as Goldhagen would have it,

but the evidence leads us toward another conclusion.  The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were indeed ordinary men.  "It strikes me as more likely that Hitler's executioners came in all sorts and conditions,psychopaths and conformists, fanatics and opportunists, adventurers and moral cowards."[xxx]

            Half a century after Reserve Police Battalion 101 destroyed the Jewish community of Jozefow, the historian cannot but wonder if the conditions that produced that massacre could occur again.  Christopher Browning concludes that the collective behavior of Police Battalion 101 has disturbing implications for the future:

            There are many societies afflicted by traditions of racism

            and caught in the siege mentality of war or threat of war.

            Everywhere society conditions people to respect and defer to

            authority. . . Everywhere people seek career advancement.

            In every modern society. . .the peer group exerts tremendous

            pressures on behavior and sets moral norms.  If the men of

            Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such

            circumstances, what group of men cannot?[xxxi]





            Did the vast majority of Germans support Hitler and the Nazis?  Was Hitler's anti-Semitism central to his political appeal?  If electoral statistics are any indication, it is difficult to make the case, as Goldhagen would have it, that Nazi anti-Semitism, "in a more. . .elaborated and violent form--mirrored the sentiments of German culture."  In the last free election of 1932, some 67% of Germans voted against Hitler although it is certainly possible that some of those who voted anti-Nazi disliked Jews.  "It is generally accepted," writes Fritz Stern, "that the more the Nazis tried to widen their appeal, the more they muted their anti-Semitic theme."[xxxii]

            On the other hand the German public and the German elites, with a few notable exceptions, met the increasing state persecution of Jews with silence.  One ought to remember as well that active protest against anti-Semitic policies in the Spring of 1933 would not necessarily have resulted in arrest. "The price for the exercise of decency rose only when the regime became stronger."[xxxiii]  Commenting on the lack of civil courage among the Germans in a letter to Arnold Zweig dated September 29,1935, Sigmund Freud wrote "We did not want to believe it at the time, but it was true what the others said about the Germans. [Krauts]"[xxxiv] 

            However, after 1941, as expectations of victory declined and as news of German defeats became as common as the Allied bombs raining down on their cities, Germans became increasingly indifferent to the regime's treatment of the Jews.  But even as late as September, 1941, when the government issued a decree forcing Jews to wear the yellow star, some Germans reacted with acts of public kindness "offering Jews cigars or cigarettes, giving children sweets, or standing up for Jews on trams or underground trains."[xxxv]  Shocked by public dissent, even on a small scale, the regime responded by intensifying anti-Jewish propaganda and enacting a new law punishing any public displays of sympathy for Jews with a three month term of imprisonment behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp.[xxxvi] 

            In response to the common assertion that individual Germans still had the moral responsibility of resisting the government, one should remember that the Third Reich was not a benign dictatorship. Gestapo  records indicate that "between 1933 and 1945 about three million Germans were held at some stage in a concentration camp for political reasons, some only for a few weeks, but some for the whole twelve years; of these approximately 800,000 were held for active resistance."[xxxvii]  The University of Munich students who distributed anti-government pamphlets under the name the White Rose were beheaded. 

            The general consensus in the United States for the last fifty years has been that ordinary Germans must have known about the genocide.  How was it possible that the extermination of millions of human beings could have been carried out in the heart of Europe without anyone's knowledge?  The answer to this question is neither obvious nor reassuring.   The regime carried out the Final Solution under conditions of wartime secrecy and all public discussion or criticism of anti-Jewish policy would have been monitored by the network of Gestapo  informers.  Furthermore, the Nazi state employed cynical euphemisms to disguise their real activities:  "Final Solution" instead of extermination, "transfer" rather than deportation, and "special treatment" in place of killing by gas.   Nevertheless the evidence "leads to the conclusion that large sections of the German population, both Jews and non-Jews, either knew or suspected what was happening in Poland and Russia."[xxxviii]   

            After all, it was simply impossible to hide the existence of the great network of concentration camps spreading across Germany and occupied Europe.  The existence of the death camps was treated as a state secret, but any German citizen living in a large city would have been aware of the police round-ups and deportations of German Jews to the east for "resettlement"  It is just possible however that Germans living in small villages not adjacent to a major rail line might have been ignorant of the deportations.   But in the words of Eugen Kogon, a former prisoner at Buchenwald and later Professor of Political Science at the University of Munich:  "Not a single German could have been unaware of the fact that the prisons were full to overflowing, and that executions were taking place continually all over the country."[xxxix] 

            Thousands of German military personnel would have witnessed operations like that of Reserve Police Battalion 101 at Jozefow.  It is also true that Axis allies such as Italians, Hungarians and Romanian troops would have known about the mass shootings.  The Gestapo  reports indicate that the regime was aware of this problem. One party report dated October 9, 1942 noted:


            the population in various parts of Germany has recently begun             to discuss the 'very harsh measures' against the Jews. . .in the             eastern territories. . . these discussions. . .stem from stories             told by soldiers on leave from units fighting in the east, who             themselves had been able to witness such measures.[xl]

In October 1942, a wounded medical orderly named Hans Scholl returned from Russia to Munich and wrote a series of anti-Nazi pamphlets under the title the White Rose.  One White Rose leaflet stated that "since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered. . .in the most bestial way.  Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history."[xli]

            Rumors about the use of poison gas on Jewish inmates were current, although the details were often erroneous.  A defecting member of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra, questioned in Lisbon, reported that "Deportations to Poland and Russia were equivalent to a death sentence, for Jews were being gassed there."[xlii]  There is also some indication that, despite the efforts of the authorities to hermetically seal the extermination camp at Auschwitz, people were hearing rumors.  Railway workers reported that passengers on trains passing through Auschwitz stood up to get a better view.[xliii]  On the other hand, neither Elie Wiesel nor Primo Levi had heard about the existence or the nature of Auschwitz before their arrival.  Wiesel, in particular has often argued that an effort by the Allies to drop leaflets among the Hungarian Jews telling them of the true nature of Nazi "resettlement" might have saved thousands of lives.  David Bankier concludes, "what became known as the Holocaust was an inconceivable and therefore unbelievable reality even for those anti-Nazis who deliberately sought information."[xliv]

            Despite all the rumors, concludes Primo Levi, most Germans could claim a degree of ignorance:


            the methodical industrialized extermination on a scale of             millions, the gas chambers, the cremation furnaces, the vile             despoiling of corpses, all this was not supposed to be known,             and in effect few did know it up to the end of the war.[xlv]

However, that is not the final word on the question of German knowledge. "In Hitler's Germany, a particular code was widespread:  those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers.  In this way, the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance."[xlvi]  

            Millions of Germans knew that their Jewish neighbors had disappeared; many suspected that their fate was unpleasant.  Those who gave the matter much thought at all under the conditions of bombing raids and anxiety about relatives serving in the armed forces thought in terms of persecution rather than extermination.

"Most individuals faced a great many more important problems,"  wrote Walter Laquer, "It was an unpleasant topic, speculations were unprofitable, discussions of the fate of the Jews were discouraged.  Consideration of this question was pushed aside, blotted out for the duration."[xlvii]




            "The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference," Ian Kershaw wrote recently, "Very many, probably most Germans were opposed to the Jews. . ., welcomed their exclusion from economy and society, saw them as natural outsiders to the German 'National Community', a dangerous minority against whom it was legitimate to discriminate."[xlviii]  Beyond this, it is impossible for the historian to argue based upon the evidence of popular opinion.  Alfons Heck, a leading memoirist and historian of the Hitler Youth, commented in a recent letter that, "I'm forced to agree with Goldhagen that there was widespread anti-Semitism in the Third Reich, but it surely isn't a sufficient explanation for the Holocaust."  It is notoriously difficult for the historian to indicate the influence of abstract ideas on popular attitudes in any historical period and that difficulty applies to the concept of anti-Semitism.  Historians can, however, use the historical record to demonstrate how people acted.   

            The diaries of Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor married to a Christian, record both the callousness and decency of ordinary Germans in the Third Reich.  In December, 1938, Klemperer, noted that a policeman who had often been friendly in the past, walked by him "looking fixedly ahead, as distant as could be.  In his behavior, the man probably represents 79 million Germans."[xlix]  Only 1% of court cases for dissent dealt with citizens making pro-Jewish remarks.[l]  

            Most Germans found ways to resist the "temptation" of goodness.  "The majority of Germans accepted the steps taken by the regime," writes Saul Friedländer, "and looked the other way."[li]  Nazi Germany was a culture of complicity rather than a culture of "demonological anti-Semitism." "Apathy and 'moral indifference' to the treatment and fate of the Jews was the most widespread attitude of all.  This was not a neutral stance.  It was a deliberate turning away from any personal responsibility [and] acceptance of the state's right to decide on an issue of little personal concern to most Germans."[lii]


















            The ghost of Hitler still haunts the Germans and their neighbors.  The power of that shadow was illustrated in 1985 when an American president's ill-considered remarks caused an international sensation.  President Ronald Reagan planned to mark the fortieth anniversary of Germany's surrender in the Second World War by joining West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a visit to the small Southern German town of Bitburg to lay a wreath at the local military cemetery. 

          What should have been a ceremonial statement of NATO solidarity, became an intense political embarrassment to the Reagan administration when it was revealed that the Bitburg cemetery contained the graves of numerous SS.  President Reagan threw gasoline on the fire by declaring that "those young men are victims of Nazism also. . . .They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."[liii]  When critics suggested that the Bitburg visit ought to be balanced by a visit to a concentration camp, Reagan refused saying, [The Germans] "have a guilt feeling that's been imposed on them, and I just think it's unnecessary. . . .I feel very strongly that instead of re-awakening the memories. . . .we should observe this day as the day when, forty years ago, peace began."  The President stunned the world Jewish community by relativizing the line between perpetrator and victim.

            President Reagan paid a political price for his loyalty to Chancellor Kohl.  A French newspaper gave him an "F in history" and the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. acidly commented that "he fought the war on the film lots of Hollywood. . .and apparently got many of his ideas of what happened from subsequent study of the Reader's Digest."[liv]  Only in the face of an impassioned plea from Nobel Peace Prize winner and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel ("That place, Mr. President, in not your place.  Your place is with the victims of the SS.") did President Reagan agree to visit Bergen-Belsen as well as lay the wreath at Bitburg. 

            If nothing else, the Bitburg fiasco indicates the dangers of fuzzy historical thinking.  The historian has really only one duty:  to tell the truth about both the living and the dead.  The Nazi Holocaust of fifty years ago still looms over our world and we would be wise to remember the victims and the perpetrators and learn from the range of choices that both faced.  How should the ordinary German of today--especially the majority of the population born after 1945--view the Holocaust?  In the words of Elie Wiesel, "I don't believe in collective guilt, therefore there's no collective innocence or collective pardon. . . .Only the guilty can ask for forgiveness."  Ultimately, all responsibility is individual.  That is not to say that we should relativize or forget the Nazi genocide.  On the contrary, this generation, and every succeeding generation of Germans must confront--openly and honestly--the Nazi past. 











[i]Omer Bartov.  Murder in Our Midst:  The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, And Representation (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 182.

[ii]Peter Pulzer.  "Psychopaths and Conformists, Adventurers and Moral Cowards."  The London Review of Books,  23 January 1997. p. 20.

[iii]Raul Hilberg.  Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (New York:  Harper, 1992), p. 28.

[iv]Raul Hilberg.  The Destruction of the European Jews (New York, 1985), p. 1219.  See also Raul Hilberg.  Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders  (New York:  Harper, 1992).

[v]Christopher Browning.  Ordinary Men:  Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York:  Harper, 1992).  See the appendix, pp. 191-92 for a specific breakdown of the unit's participation in deportations,shootings, and "Jew Hunts." 

[vi]Ibid., pp. 143-46.


[viii]See Christopher Browning.  "One Day In Jozefow:  Initiation to Mass Murder."  Nazism And German Society.  Edited by David F. Crew (London and New York:  Routledge, 1994), pp. 300-315.  I have depended upon this version of Browning's study to reconstruct the massacre at Jozefow.  Browning admitted that "different historians reading the same set of interrogations would not produce or agree upon an identical set of 'facts' --beyong an elementary minimum--out of which a narrative of events. . .could be created."

[ix]Ibid.,  p. 300n.

[x]Browning, Ordinary Men,  pp. 67-68.

[xi]Ibid., p. 69.

[xii]See Browning, p. 203, n. 78.  Witness after witness used words like deprimviert,

verbittert, niedergeschlagen, bedrückt, verstört. empört, and belastet  to describe the mood of the unit that evening.

[xiii]See Hannah Arendt.  Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York:  Viking Penguin, 1963).

[xiv]Fritz Stern.  "The Goldhagen Controversy."  Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 6 (November/December 1996), p. 135.

[xv]Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.  Hitler's Willing Executioners:  Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), p. 9, pp. 392-93.

[xvi]Ibid., pp. 279-80.




[xx]Stern, Goldhagen Controversy,  p. 131.

[xxi]Ibid., p. 241.

[xxii]Ibid., p. 231.

[xxiii]Ibid., p. 451.  Once again I have chosen to highlight the same words in this sentence selected by Christopher Browning in his response to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen at the recent U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum syposium on Germany and the Holocaust held on 4/8/96.  For a full reference, see n. 17.

[xxiv]Ibid., pp. 593-94, n. 53; see also p. 582, n. 38.

[xxv]Arendt's controversial views on anti-Semitism can be found in Hannah Arendt.  The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York:  Meridian, 1958).  For her famous meditation upon the Adolf Eichmann trial and the "banality of evil,"  see Hanna Arendt.  Eichmann in  Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York:  Viking Penguin, 1963). 

[xxvi]Amos Elon.  "The Case of Hannah Arendt."  The New York Review of Books,  (Volume XLIV, Number 17) November 6, 1997, p. 26. 

[xxvii]Browning, Ordinary Men,  p. 184.

[xxviii]Ibid., p. 66.

[xxix]Ibid., p. 185.

[xxx]Pulzer, "Psychopaths and Conformists," p. 21.  Pulzer, a noted historian of political anti-Semitism, thus disagrees with his colleagues about the link between anti-Semitism--"eliminationist," "redemptive," or "revolutionary"--and the actual process of mass murder.  In this, it is probably fair to say, Pulzer represents the view of a majority of German political historians.

[xxxi]Browning, Ordinary Men,  pp. 188-89.

[xxxii]Stern, Goldhagen Controversy,  p. 131.

[xxxiii]Stern, Goldhagen Controversy,  p. 132.

[xxxiv]Qutoed in Saul Friedländer.  Nazi Germany and the Jews.  Volume I:  The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939  (New York:  Harper Collins, 1997), p. 172.

[xxxv]Quoted in Norman G. Finkelstein.  "Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 'Crazy' Thesis:  A Critique of Hitler's Willing Executioners."  New Left Review  (July/August, 1997), p. 65.

[xxxvi]David Bankier.  The Germans and the Final Solution:  Public Opinion under Nazism (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1992), pp. 124-30.  Bankier's book has been a vital source for anyone studying the German popular response to the Final Solution.

[xxxvii]See Peter Hoffmann.  The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945 (Cambridge, Mass.:  MIT Press, 1977) and Michael Balfour.  Withstanding Hitler in Germany (London: Routledge, 1988).

[xxxviii]David Bankier.  The Germans and the Final Solution,  p. 103.

[xxxix]Quoted in Primo Levi.  The Reawakening (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1965), p. 380.

[xl]Bankier, Germans and the Final Solution,  p. 105.

[xli]Inge Scholl.  The White Rose:  Munich 1942-1943 (Middletown, Conn:  Weslayen University Press, 1983), p. 78. 

[xlii]Ibid., pp.             111-112.


[xliv]Ibid., p. 115.

[xlv]Levi, The Reawakening,  p. 379.

[xlvi]Ibid., p. 381.

[xlvii]See Walter Laquer.  The Terrible Secret:  Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's Final Solution (New York:  Little, Brown, and Company, 1981). 

[xlviii]Ian Kershaw.  Popular Opinion & Political Dissent in the Third Reich:  Bavaria 1933-45 (Oxford, the Clarendon Press, 1983).  See especially Chapter 9. 

[xlix]Quoted in Friedländer.  Nazi Germany and the Jews,  p. 324.

[l]John Weiss.  Ideology of Death:  Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany (Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, 1996), p. 369.  Weiss' recent work is roughly in agreement with Goldhagen's thesis.

[li]Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews,  p. 324.

[lii]Ian Kershaw.  "German Popular Opinion During the Final Solution:  Information, Comprehension, Reactions."  In Asher Cohen et al.  Comprehending the Holocaust (New York, 1988), pp. 146-47.

57Richard Evans, In Hitler's Shadow,  p. 16.


59Ibid., p. 17.



























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