Over the years, the amount of research on the Holocaust has piled up; many phenomenal published works from scholars on the topic have largely gone unnoticed, ignored by the general public—then, Daniel Goldhagen arrived. Few books have managed to rival the attention that Goldhagen received for his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Written in 1996, his book began as a Harvard doctoral dissertation that grew into an international phenomenon before the book was even released.
In his book, Goldhagen hypothesizes that “ordinary Germans” not only knew about the Holocaust, but supported and participated in the Holocaust, due to a national ‘eliminationist anti-Semitic’ mindset.  Such a controversial statement naturally resulted in an onslaught of response, ranging from enthusiasm to scornful criticism. In this paper, I will investigate various historians’ opinions on Goldhagen’s work, centering the discussion on his belief in widespread anti-Semitism throughout Germany before and during the Holocaust.
I will break the discussion into two primary questions: first, how did Nazi racial ideology make its way to the foreground of society in Nazi Germany? Second, how were seemingly normal Germans able to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust? I will conclude with what implications Hitler’s Willing Executioners and the lively debates surrounding the book have on the future value of learning about the Holocaust.
The works that will be discussed are Karl Schleunes’ The Twisted Road to Auschwitz, Omer Bartov’s and Geoff Eley’s work in The “Goldhagen Effect”, Norman Finkelstein’s A Nation on Trial, and, of course, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. In his book, Goldhagen promotes a monocausal explanation for the eliminationist anti-Semitism felt in Germany that led to the Holocaust. Scholars have written books attempting to disprove his work point-by-point, while others have written material that simply contradicts the assertions made in Hitler’s Willing Executioners.
He argues that, long before the Genocide, “normal” Germans had a pre-existing eliminationist anti-Semitic mindset towards Jews that took the highest precedence.  He maintains that “eliminationist anti-Semitism was a German cultural cognitive model that predated racial anti-Semitism. Killing Jews was…a deed not for Nazism but for Germany. ” It is unclear what Goldhagen bases this information off. Karl Schleunes provides a different take on German ideals at the onslaught on the Nazi regime, arguing that no specific plans for a solution existed early, just a “commitment to an eventual solution”. 4] Schleunes raises a strong point—why were death camps not implemented immediately, if both the Nazi regime and the overwhelming majority of “normal Germans” had eliminationist anti-Semitist goals? Even before this, Schleunes points out a general German willingness to allow Jewish integration into mainstream European society through an adoption of basic Christian-German values, a seemingly enormous step forward in the context of the time.  It would seem that Schleunes is arguing the “Jewish problem” stemmed from German ideas and desires of a fully German nationhood, not at all from a racial hatred of Jews.
Goldhagen’s thesis does not explain in enough detail the reasons why so little discrimination (legal or violent) faced German Jews prior to the World Wars, or, as Omar Bertov muses, how these supposedly racist Germans became “just like us” after the Second World War.  Norman Finkelstein adds to this side of the argument, mentioning that Hitler maintained his ultimate goal was emigration, and that he confined remarks on Jewish massacres, aware of the general opposition he would meet. 7] Schleunes talks about Hitler’s writing in Mein Kampf, in which he discusses the importance of basing a party on the ideals of the middle classes which live in constant fear of extinction.  In the midst of economic turmoil, is it possible that Germans flocked to anti-Semitism because of Nazism (which promised economic rebound) and not vice versa, as Goldhagen seems to imply? Schleunes shows that anti-Semitism and the Nazis were not taken seriously early in the development of the party. Even when Goldhagen refers to the 37. 4% of Germans that voted for the Nazis on July 31st 1932, he does not mention the 62. % that did not vote for the Nazis.  This would appear to give credence to Schleunes’ belief that the Nazis’ rise to power stemmed more from incompetence of rival parties to channel the desires of middle-class German citizens into votes.  Even Goldhagen cannot deny the role of economic hardship in the success of Hitler’s rise to power. 
Furthermore, compared to other parts of Europe, Schleunes shows that the Jewish problem was relatively calm; oppressed Jews from Eastern Europe fled to Germany during the Bismarckian Empire in search of better education and looser limitations of their rights. 12] Schleunes work brings to light a question that is not answered by Goldhagen: if similar limitations for Jews existed across Europe in early 1900, why did the Holocaust occur only in Germany? Goldhagen appears to be repeating, not solving the issue at hand. Finkelstein relates the situation to the American exploitation of African Americans for slave labour, questioning why these slaves were not murdered on mass scales since Goldhagen’s ideas on pre-existing racial mindsets should be directly applicable to this situation. 13] Finkelstein’s rebuttal appears overly simplistic and problematic, however. These black slaves were horrifically exploited for the sake of money, whereas the Nazis simply did not employ the Jews in an economically rational way, as Goldhagen discusses.  Goldhagen again contradicts the work of these other scholars in his assertion that the elimination of the Jews was of highest priority to Nazi Germany. Kristallnacht was met with great anger within the regime over the insurance costs German companies would face over the 24 million marks of broken glass. 15] Hardly the abandonment of “economic rationality” that Goldhagen claims.  Goldhagen continues – Hitler merely “unleashed” Germans’ “instinctive anti-Semitism”. 
He is defiant in his that the Nazis did not “brainwash” German citizens; Hitler’s proclamations of genocide met the public with “general understanding, if not approval. ” He argues that forcing Jews to wear gold stars allowed “all Germans [to] better recognize, monitor, and shun” the Jews. 19] The crucial evidence for this belief is the gratuitous cruelty performed on Jews: the “how” can explain the “why”, according to Goldhagen.  He spends many pages throughout the book detailing examples of excessive cruelty towards Jews. Some of his most interesting work includes the death marches from the concentration camps, discussing the aimless wandering through German cities where Jews were insulted, attacked, and disallowed food and water. 21] Finkelstein also discusses this topic, arguing that citizens in these German cities did not share food with the Jews due to general food shortage from the war, and fear of punishment from Nazi guards.  Furthermore, I find Goldhagen’s mention of the aimless wandering interesting given his analysis a few pages earlier in which he states “[the Nazi guards] did not possess a map…[they] had to improvise constantly with the changing conditions. ”
This could be viewed as contradictory to the idea that the Nazi guards were excessively cruel in their aimless wanderings during death marches. In closing out this discussion on the nature of German eliminationist anti-Semitism leading up to and through the Holocaust, Finkelstein states that Goldhagen’s thesis relies on things that cannot be proven: “the scope and character, content and nature of German anti-Semitism…things [that] are the very essence of his thesis, not distinct from or subsidiary to.  It appears that Goldhagen’s work may be flawed in that he allowed his thesis to guide his research, instead of vice versa. The second common topic of debate within these scholars’ works seems to be the question of how seemingly normal citizens could commit the violent atrocities that the Holocaust demanded. Goldhagen’s monocausal thesis mentioned above is, obviously, again used to answer this question.
The problem I see in this approach is that Goldhagen’s answers appear very cyclical: the perpetrators were drawn to eliminationist anti-Semitic because they were, essentially, sadistic, pathologically ill racists who saw the widespread slaughter of the Jews to be just.  Thus, they were able to commit the violent acts for these identical reasons. Indeed, Goldhagen concludes that “the Germans’ anti-Semitism was the basis of their profound hatred of the Jews and the psychological impulse to make them suffer…  It is an interesting position, but proving such a statement is a daunting task for scholars. Most scholars seem to recognize the role of anti-Semitism in the Holocaust, just not as the monocausal explanation that Goldhagen offers. Finkelstein argues that once the Nazis came into power, the role of totalitarian rule corrupts any monocausal argument.  This argument seems more valid – Omer Bartov supports it, citing Stanley Milgram’s infamous social experiment wherein participants were commanded to administer lethal electric shocks on a man.
Bartov relates this to the Holocaust, discussing how the role of fear and the desire to obey authority blurs the simplistic explanation put forth in Hitler’s Willing Executioners.  Finkelstein agrees, putting forth evidence that philo-Semitic actions were often punishable by imprisonment in concentration camps.  Bartov concludes that any killing done by sadists or anti-Semites is not the fundamental component of explaining the Holocaust; it is merely a symptom and its ultimate consequence. 30] Goldhagen’s claim that his study on (excessive brutality performed by) policemen is a cross-sectional, accurate representation of German citizens as a whole is entirely dismissed by Bartov.  Finkelstein documents records from Auschwitz trials, citing survivors that spoke in “defense” of some Nazi soldiers, insisting no more than 5-10% were sadistic, and that gratuitous cruelty played an insignificant role in comparison to general living conditions of concentration camps. 32] Such evidence, if historically accurate, shakes the core of Goldhagen’s thesis surrounding excessive brutality as a major source of evidence of a monocausal Holocaust. What does all of this prove? In reading through this paper, one immediately notices the plethora of contradicting opinions combined with no real answers to the original questions the paper set out to answer. It is clear that most scholars are extremely conservative, or “safe” in their judgment of how an event like the Holocaust could come into being.
Those that attempt to express concrete, monocausal explanations for such an event are refuted point-by-point. Why then, if we cannot answer fundamental questions about the Holocaust, do we study such an event? Why would Goldhagen’s book receive such a flurry of attention when handfuls of scholars have written entire books simply in an attempt to discredit him? I believe that people flocked to his book because it provided “new” research—it provided quick answers to something we want to know so badly.
Schleunes’ Twisted Road to Auschwitz is a masterfully written examination on the topic, but it provides no real answers; it is a “safe” examination, one that covers all possibilities. Schleunes makes statements such as, “At the same time, it must be remembered that [anti-Semitism] did not prevent his coming to power either. ” He knows that the answers to these fundamental questions surrounding the Holocaust are complicated, and that we do not know the exact answers.
It is impossible to measure the scale of eliminationist anti-Semitism within Nazi Germany, despite Goldhagen’s suggestions. Can we thus learn anything from the Holocaust if our current research struggles to answer these fundamental questions that can help us prevent such a tragedy from occurring again in the future? For me, if one thing became clear from this sea of opinions and ad hominem attacks on fellow scholars that I perused through in doing this paper is that the basic requirements for a genocide which these scholars roughly agree on exist in any modern society.
It thus appears that there is no “lesson” we can withdraw from such an event and apply to our future. The shape of this paper ended up much different from what I expected, or originally set out to answer. The research I undertook in completing this paper now stands in direct contrast to my first paper in this class, in which I stressed an ardent desire to pull from this class a tangible lesson I could apply to the prevention of a future Holocaust.
Genocides have occurred since the Holocaust, still continue today, and will continue tomorrow. It is in this idea that the implications the “Goldhagen debate” has on the study of the Holocaust Goldhagen debate lie: there are no easy answers. There is no “lesson” within the Holocaust. We study the darkest parts of human history in objectives lights for our own reasons; perhaps to see how the world around us today was shaped— not to discover how to shape a world for tomorrow. And that’s ok.
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