The Beatrice Interview: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (1996)

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Trained at Harvard, where he currently teaches in the Government and Social Studies programs, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has produced a work of historical research that attacks one of our most cherished assumptions about the Holocaust. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Goldhagen argues that ordinary Germans were not forced by the Nazis to participate in the Holocaust, and did not take part ignorant of the consequences of their actions. Many of them, he says, knew that they were killing Jews and were more than happy to do it. Bringing together an extensive collection of documentary evidence, Goldhagen allows the perpetrators to condemn themselves with their own words and deeds, and shows how anti-Semitism was not limited to the Nazis, but actively thrived in German culture.

This book originated from your doctoral dissertation, right?

The book is recognizably the same thesis as the dissertation, but has been substantially rewritten so as to make it more accessible to the general public. For example, the disseration began with a hundred pages of methodology. (laughs)

How did you first get interested in this material?

Early in graduate school, I heard a lecture on what was at that point the raging debate among Holocaust scholars, which was the origins of the killing — who did the killing, how was the decision reached, for what reasons… Listening to this debate, I realized they were treating the execution of the orders as unproblematic: when the orders were given, they were promptly followed. I researched, and found that very little had been written about the people who were the killers, and that’s what I decided to write about.

You write about the identity of the perpetrators of the Holocaust as “Germans” rather than as “Nazis.”

There’s a pattern of inattention to the perpetrators, including their omission from the killings by focusing on what was done to the Jews and others rather than who did it. As a consequence of that inattention to the killers’ identity, many people believed that they were principally SS men, or that they were fundamentally different from the majority of Germans—a small group of evil men called “Nazis”. As my research shows, this is just not the case, and we should refer to the perpetrators of the Holocaust as “Germans” just as we refer to the Americans who committed atrocities in Vietnam as “Americans” (not that these cases are of the same magnitude, of course). It’s customary usage, and the Holocaust should not be an exception.

You’re saying that the anti-Semitism in Germany was much more extensive than people want to believe?

Again, the evidence is clear that the belief that Jews were fundamentally, biologically different from Germans, that they were evil and powerful, was widespread in Germany. Hitler’s antipathy towards the Jews resonated with the German people, and when they started to persecute Jews, even before the killing, the Germans took part willingly. This was not something that was forced on the German people, although of course there were exceptions to the prevalent anti-Semitism in the society among individual Germans.

The natural assumption for every other mass slaughter and genocide in human history is that the killers wanted to do what they did. Only with the Holocaust is a different framework applied, which is an odd circumstance. What I’m saying in my book is very commonsensical: that the German perpetrators of the Holocaust were like other perpetrators of massive genocide.

photo: J.D. Sloan