The following are essays created by a class studying the Holocaust. If you'd like to send your comments, please contact the instructor,
Hitler's Henchmen: Willing Followers in Genocide
by Michael Coffeen
In this paper I argue the opposing views of Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners and Christopher Browning's book Ordinary Men. These books deal with the question of whether or not the average German soldiers and civilians were responsible for the Holocaust. My paper argues in favor of Goldhagen's book, that the average German was responsible for their participation in the Holocaust.
At the end of World War II, the Jewish community and the rest of the world were crying out for justice. The crimes committed by the Germans were hideous and someone had to pay. At the Nuremberg trails, several Nazi leaders were held accountable for their actions. This has given rise to a big question. Were the Nazi leaders the only ones responsible for the pogrom aimed at the Jews? Several books in recent years have been published on the subject. One book which tries to offer an answer is Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. In this book, Browning states that the average German was not responsible for the genocide. On the other hand, Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, states that the average German willingly participated in the mass slaughter of Jews. In this paper, both sides of the argument will be examined. I will argue that the Germans did willingly take part in the genocide against the Jews.
Christopher Browning states in his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, that the average German did not willingly participate in the killing of Jews. Browning believes, and others, that the "Germans were coerced into killing, followed orders blindly, succumbed to peer pressure, or simply were unaware of the ongoing genocide" (Weinstein 1). Browning believes that the anti-Semitic propaganda started by the Nazi's in 1933 coerced the Germans into killing the Jews. I agree with the fact that propaganda was used to spread the Nazi's message of hate and may have caused some Germans to detest the Jews. But was it strong enough to have lead them into a killing frenzy? I don't think that the propaganda was a cause for the killing of Jews. "Goldhagen believes that the German brutality was motivated primarily by 'racial, eliminationist anti-Semitism'"(Weinstein 2). So it's not that the Nazis brain washed thousands of Germans, but they just added fuel to the hatred already present in the German society and gave them a way to justify their actions.
People argue against Goldhagen's claim, that the German society was anti-Semitic, by pointing out that after World War II, the Germans no longer hated the Jews and made laws to protect them. Goldhager rebuts this argument by stating, "Germans, after the war, were castigated by the world for committing the greatest crime in history...The Allies denuded Germany's institutional structures, replaced the dictatorship with democracy and revamped the education system" (Weinstein 2). So after the war, they realized their fallacies and had to change their views.
Browning claims that the Germans were blindly following orders. Thus the responsibility for the crimes falls on those who gave the orders. This in and of itself is true. The fact remains, however, that the Germans had the opportunity to decline to participate in the killing of Jews. And Goldhagen points out, "...not once in the history of the Holocaust was a German killed, sent to concentration camp, or punished in any serious way for refusing to kill Jews" (Kern 1). Now some will claim that peer pressure caused the Germans to do something they didn't want to do. I'm sorry, but if some of my friends brutally killed innocent people, I would not care what they said, the very least I would do was not join in.
To think that the Germans were unaware of the genocide is ignorant and absurd. The Germans saw as well as the Jews did what was going on. Why do you think so many Jews fled the country? They knew that death awaited them in the hands of the Nazis. The Germans saw the Jews being humiliated, corralled through the city, loaded up in trains and sent off to die horrible deaths in the concentration camps. They saw all this and did nothing because of the deep rooted hatred for the Jews. Sure, there were several instances where Germans helped the Jews escape persecution, but that just proves that they knew of the atrocities being committed.
Browning 's views revolve around the idea that the Germans were forced to commit these crimes against the Jews by the Nazi leaders. If that were the case, then why did they carry out the orders with such barbaric brutality? "They made old men perform antics before they shot them. They beat prisoners to death without reason. When Jews could not be taken unawares, they hunted them through the forest with great ingenuity and persistence. They did all these things even when no officer was looking, wholly on their own initiative" (Knopf 2). Do these sound like the actions of unwilling participants? To me they sound like the actions of malicious people driven by hatred for those they abused and killed, the actions of those who willing and eagerly took part in the genocide.
With the Holocaust more than fifty years behind us, it's probably too late to hold the Germans accountable for their actions. With six million Jews dead and another estimated six million dead at the hands of the Nazis, someone has got to be held responsible. To think that this sort of thing could happen and still occurs in our world is sickening. We should look at these dark events in history with a sense of shame. That a whole nation, lead by a madman, can set out to eradicate a whole people based on religious beliefs and almost succeed should frighten us. The blame should not be placed solely on the Nazi leaders who gave the orders to exterminate the Jews. In the American justice system, if you witness a crime and do nothing to try and stop it, you're guilty by association. The same should apply to those who either directly or indirectly participated in the Holocaust. We must never forget the Holocaust or turn the blind eye to such events taking place today. Because before we know it, another Holocaust may happen and claim the lives of more innocent people. So it must not go down in the history books that the Germans where coerced into killing by Hitler and are not responsible for their actions. With that we neatly place the blame on one man who we label as insane and ignore the real magnitude of this horrible event. We owe it to those who were savagely killed by the hands of German soldiers, that all who are responsible be brought to justice. [MC1]
Works Cited Geary, Dick. "Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis and the War in the Third Reich." History Today. February 1994.
Kern, Paul. http://h-net2.msu.edu/~german/discuss/goldhagen/gold9.html (09 March 1997).
Knopf, Alfred A. "Convicted of the Wrong Crime."
Weinstein, Natalie. "Prof defends his theory of 'willing killers'."
Go to the Top of the Page || Imagine