The Holocaust
The Holocaust

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The Holocaust

4.2 Who to blame

Browning developed his work on Police Battalion 101 into a book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992b). The same material was subsequently used, and reinterpreted, by Daniel J. Goldhagen for Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996). Goldhagen points the finger of blame for the Holocaust precisely at Germany. The Holocaust was, he stresses, a German phenomenon, and he argues that it built on what he detects as ‘an eliminationist form of anti-Semitism’ already present in nineteenth-century Germany. Of course, it was Hitler and the Nazis who unleashed the mass murder; nevertheless, Goldhagen maintains, they succeeded with such frightening ease because of the way in which ordinary Germans had long regarded Jews. The debate has been furious. Goldhagen's book was, initially, poorly received – particularly so by German academics. The main criticisms focused on three main areas: the extent to which such ‘eliminationist’ anti-Semitism existed; the fact that Goldhagen was making a special case for the treatment of Jews when Slavs, Gypsies and others were also being massacred; the fact that much of the killing was actually done by non-Germans, such as the Latvian Auxiliary Security Police (Arajs Kommando). This particularly appalling group tortured and raped their victims, sometimes literally wading in blood and drunk on vodka. But Goldhagen has also had his strong supporters, who stress that, when all is said and done, it was the Germans who began the mass murder. They also point out that, even if the Germans did not commit all of the killing, they nevertheless administered it, and very few ever spoke out against it (unlike, for example, the euthanasia programme, which had been publicly criticised). The arguments can be followed up in, for example, Robert R. Shandley, Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate (1998). For two particularly ferocious critiques of Goldhagen, which challenge the way in which he has both interpreted documents and constructed his argument, see Norman J. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (1998).


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