Ordinary Germans: Notes on the Reception of Hitler's Willing Executioners in Germany

Andreas Kunze, February 1998

Stamp collectors and even ordinary people will have already realized this, but for two or three years now, on German postage stamps, it's not the old-fashioned "Deutsche Bundespost" any longer—it's just plain self-assured "Deutsch land." Is this an indication of national "normalization"? Is it a step toward the new full-fledged, all-German Berlin Republic outshining the homely Bonn Bundesrepublik? There are people in Germany who see it this way. Many of them felt that 1995—which marked 50 years since the end of Great Germany—should signal the end of what was and is perceived as humiliating and fruitless endeavors of Vergangenheitsbewältigung—coming to terms with that unwholesome and deeply agonizing Great German past.

A national normalization of this rather dubious kind may well be under way. Yet, there is also a strong counternormalization going on, a grassroots movement of present-day ordinary Germans who, after decades of stale commemorative speeches and aloof academic expertise, want to find out themselves, want to face the facts and the reality, want to see those other, gone-by ordinary Germans as they really were. This sort of normalization means accepting, instead of shunning, the burden of the Great German past. This sort of normalization may be one of the more constructive outcomes of the democracy espoused in the now-waning postwar Bundesrepublik. The emerging Berlin Republic would be well advised to build on a normalization of such down-to-earth democratic caliber.

Three recent events testify to the new trend for a democratically "normal," facts-facing perspective on the Great German past. The first was Victor Klemperer's widely acclaimed chronicle of Jewish everyday life in Germany, Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten, 1933–1945, 2 vols. (Berlin: 1995). (See the review, by Anthony Northey, on H-Net's H-Holocaust, July 1996.) The second event was the equally successful exhibit, Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941—1944, under the auspices of the Hamburg Institut für Sozialforschung, 1996–97.

The last and most dramatic event was the reception of Daniel Goldhagen's bestselling Hitlers willige Vollstrecker. Ganz gewöhnliche Deutsche und der Holocaust (published as Hitler's Willing Executioners in the United States). As of December 1997, more than 150,000 copies have been sold in Germany.

Goldhagen's clearest and most forceful thesis is that an old-established, deep-seated, vicious, and visceral anti-Jewish mentality ("eliminationist anti-Semitism") among many ordinary Germans accounts for the deliberate and willful terrorizing and killing of Jewish children, women, and men in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

When the American version appeared in March 1996, the first German reactions—relatively short, often glaringly polemic, and published mostly in news dailies and magazines—related to this original version. However, when the German-language edition was published by Siedler Verlag in August 1996, the interest and pro-Goldhagen sentiment of the ordinary German public was immense. Within two months 100,000 copies had been delivered to German bookstores, and in September 1996, Goldhagen embarked on a generally well-received discussion tour throughout the country. In 1997 a number of scholarly (and nonpolemical) articles and books on Hitlers willige Vollstrecker appeared. In March 1997 Goldhagen was awarded the Democracy Prize by the journal Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik and the award-winner gave a speech on national history, entitled "Democracy and Internationalization in Germany." In the fall of 1997 Siedler brought out Briefe an Goldhagen—letters from ordinary Germans, old and young, addressed to the author of the Vollstrecker book.

For the German audience the book was innovative for three reasons. It places the origins of the Great German destruction of the Jews where they belong: in German cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries. It identifies the Nazis as Germans. And it evokes, realistically and drastically, the horrible deeds of individual German men, and the suffering and dying of individual Jewish children, women, and men.

In the German scholarly debate, there are many supporters of the Vollstrecker thesis. It is noteworthy that not all of them can be dismissed as mere "Fach-Historiker" (political scientists, psychoanalysts, and sociologists). Nevertheless, disapproval and rejection of the book seems to outweigh the favorable comments. Historians Eberhard Jaeckel, Hans Mommsen, and Hans-Ulrich Wehler are among the most prominent and staunch objectors. These and other critics object that it is "simplistic," "not complex," "monocausal," "neglecting other factors"; fixated on German "national character"; accusing all Germans of being bloodthirsty killers; renewing the "Kollektivschuld" and "Sonderweg" thesis; relies on horror images; too emotional and moralistic; lacking in original research; lacking in scholarly achievement; too sociological; nothing new; sensational, provocative, and media-pushed; American; just bad; by a Jewish author; and by an author who is too young (but charming)!

These criticisms, however, seem to be unfair descriptions of Goldhagen's book. For instance, he does not neglect "other factors." While he maintains that the prevailing anti-Jewish mentality was the chief factor, he insists that it could not have come into effect without the implementation of the Great German state. And nowhere can the author's approach reasonably be understood as propounding an "ahistorical German national character." He focuses on German "political culture," which is clearly a historical phenomenon. Neither does he espouse the collective guilt thesis. Rather, he expressly refutes this thesis and argues for the very opposite of collective guilt by adducing individual cases of guilt.

This presentation of individual deeds and of individual suffering is the great merit of the Vollstrecker book and an important reason for its popular reception in Germany. Over the past decades, German mainstream historians of the so-called NS-Zeit (National Socialist period) have dealt with party politics and structures, war strategies, elites, ideologies, and the so-called industrial mass destruction that occurred far away, somewhere back in the east. The Vollstrecker book shows that ordinary Germans committed these atrocities, not nameless, faceless "Nazis."

Just as important, the book shows ordinary Jews in life and death. Children, women, and men who were spit at, urinated upon, and heartily and joyfully derided. Children, women, and men who were harassed, tortured, beaten, kicked, starved, burnt, shot, and slain. That's a significant change for German readers. For decades we have only heard about Jews who were killed. We have seen corpses, which is terrible but abstract. We have been told, in nicely humanist-minded schoolbooks, that millions (five? six?) of these people were killed—disposed of, that is. But who killed them? Who disposed of them? Mindless bureaucrats, we learned, the faceless SS. By contrast, the Vollstrecker book reestablishes the identity of the disposers. They were ordinary. They were German. The Vollstrecker book transforms the passive "were killed" into the active "killed." The Vollstrecker book brings back empathy and compassion into Germans' perspective of the European Jews.

The debate will go on for a long time. It will accompany us ordinary Germans into normalization. In this process, the author fails to answer one crucial question. Just why was the German anti-Jewish mentality so specifically vicious, so incomparably violent? What is the special German nature of that eliminationism? What has to be examined is an awareness of the all-pervasive culture of German Idealism—its purist (Reinheit-purity) and purificationist dimension in particular. This idealist purificationism is the common denominator of eliminationist deeds, perpetrated by pure Great German men, on "low" and "impure" Untermenschen, on Russians, Poles, Gypsies, the disabled—and Jews.

—Andreas Kunze is a senior lecturer in history and social sciences at FernU (the German distance-teaching university at Hagen), and is currently at work on a book tentatively entitled Pure Men: German Idealism and the Destruction of the Jews. He can be reached at andreas.kunze@fernuni-hagen.de.