Monday, September 16, 2013

Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Mr. Goldhagen analyzes the perpetrators of the Holocaust in this compelling study.  He studies the least Nazi indoctrinated group: police battalions and finds some chilling facts about the group.  The alacrity with which the shooters killed and the brutality inflicted on the innocent victims and lack of moral concern or dissent from the killings put the Germans in a different category of antisemitism. Mr. Goldhagen claims only an "eliminationist" antisemitism could have produced an efficient killing apparatus to have killed so many people without serious dissent or without moral outrage.  Mr. Goldhagen challenges the previous studies that gloss over the lack of moral outrage and shows that the real problem was not even the lack of moral outrage but rather the alacrity and enthusiasm with which the task was carried out!  He shows that those few who opted out of being the shooters did so not out of moral principle but rather out of squeamishness; in principle they were convinced that Jews should be destroyed.

The traditional German defense that was brought out and introduced in the Eichmann trial of "only following orders" is completely destroyed in this study.  There is evidence that photos were proudly sent home picturing the actual shootings.  There is evidence that wives supported husbands in the field of killing operations.  The author shows that the program was so large requiring so many people to perpetrate the murders that there could not have been any serious coercion.  The evidence does not support any serious argument in Germany against killing the Jews.

Churchmen calling out against the evil like Karl Barth are unique and not the rule.  The opposite seems to be true that the Church allowed the spewing of hatred and only a few Churchmen called out against it.  Only a few voices remind that "Pauline love" precludes hatred of the Jews. Those voices fall on deaf ears.

Mr. Goldhagen studies the concept of the labor camp (not killing centers) and concludes that the exploitation of slave labor had little positive economic effects or advantages.  The labor camp, the author asserts served as an outlet for orgiastic terror and brutality.

The author argues that Germany went through long stages of indoctrination toward antisemitism but only with Hitler's racial and eliminationist tendencies do the German people become inured to persecution of the Jews and agree enthusiastically to carry out his plan and wishes.

I would like to offer that eliminationist tendencies in hating Jews do not start with Germany.  Biblical exegesis from Nachmanides shows that the ancient Pharaoh wanted to eliminate the Israelites and could not call for their destruction for fear of the immediate moral outcry.  Rather, Pharaoh gradually introduces an incremental persecution program when eventually everyone in the country sees the necessity of casting the male infants into the Nile without moral outrage.  Additionally, the Biblical character of Haman hates Mordecai the Jew and hence forth desires to eliminate the entire Jewish nation.

Additionally, the concept of willing executioners is also not necessarily originating with Germany but perhaps has its origin in ancient Egypt too.  Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik comments that the killing of the first born that culminates in the 10 plagues recited at the Passover Seder represents the concept of willing perpetrators.  The Rav explains that the first born in antiquity was the basic administrator of the family.  Striking down the first born meant that he had to punished for the complicity in the persecution of the Israelites.  Egypt was a country with willing executioners.

I do not seek to minimize the uniqueness or minimize the gravity of the Holocaust because the German efficiency and scope of murder is so great. I point out, nevertheless that the single concepts of eliminating the Jews and being complicit in persecuting them are old themes. The event of the Holocaust is uniquely German because as Mr. Goldhagen argues the brutality coupled with alacrity in killing creates a whole new strand of Jew hatred.

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