Historian Cage match
In the afterword of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, the author makes a rather spirited defense of his book against the sharp criticism of another historian and author, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Both men have written about the same topic, even the same Battalion 101, with significantly different conclusions.
In Willing Executioners, Goldhagen argues that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were willing executioners because they harbored with a particularly virulent form of antisemitism, a special mentality that grew out of the medieval ages. Browning contends the men of Battalion 101 were not anti-Semitic fanatics, but just ordinary men. They participated in massacres not out of blood lust or primal hatred, but out of basic obedience to authority and peer pressure. Goldhagen disagreed. He says the men of battalion 101 may have been “ordinary men” but they were part of an extraordinary political culture which possessed a unique lethal view of the Jews.
Historians on the sidelines of this cage match have generally sided with Browning. Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg is perhaps Goldhagen’s harshest critic, calling him “totally wrong about everything” and his work, “worthless.” Other historians have tried to explain how ordinary Germans could participate in such a monstrous c
rime. Explanations range from indifference to passive complicity.
The argument points out an inherent difficulty in trying to explain the Holocaust from the comfort of your research library or living room. What is lost if the atmosphere of the time and its impact on ordinary men who otherwise wouldn’t hurt a fly. The historians I have read on this subject all agree Hitler’s pathology was the driving force behind the Holocaust, yet all struggle to explain how ordinary Germans and their willing accomplices in the East could turn into genocidal maniacs. Was it the fear of reprisal or peer pressure? Indifference? Passive complicity? Something much deeper and sinister? Time is running out on finding a definitive answer.
Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993). 57
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Willing Executioners, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) 51-52.
Konrad Kwiet, “Goldhagen, the Germans and the Holocaust”, Journal of Jewish Affairs, 1996.
Photo: Jew Killings in Ivangorod (1942) Historical Archives, Warsaw. http://www.common.wikimedia.org