AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Saturday, 11 February 2017


Oil by Samuel Bak
The “Willing Executioners”/ “Ordinary Men” Debate 

On April 8th, 1996, the United States Holocaust Research Institute hosted an evening of dialogue to examine the issues raised by Daniel Goldhagen’s deliberately provocative book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, in which the author seeks to challenge the canons of Holocaust scholarship and to directly confront its acknowledged masters. 

Assembled were seven distinguished and acclaimed scholars in the field of Holocaust studies from diverse disciplines and perspectives. They do not always agree with each other nor were they bidden to agree with Professor Goldhagen. 

But they were men of distinction, who have devoted their career to this material, who have read the same records, examined the same documents, pondered the same questions, and confronted the same darkness. 

We are proud that two of the seven, Konrad Kweit and Christopher Browning, are J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholars-in-Residence at the Research Institute. By their work and their presence they enhance the scholarly qualities of our programs—and their presentations on that evening were only one such example. We are equally honored that two other participants, Lawrence Langer and Yehuda Bauer, have accepted the nomination of the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and will serve as Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence for the fall of 1996 and the spring of 1998 respectively. We are proud of their accomplishment as scholars and of their willingness to spend extended time at the Research Institute. Professor Richard Breitman is the fiercely independent editor of the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which we proudly publish. Dr Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm was our guest; I trust that he too shall become a friend. 

The discussion was intense, at times even harsh and bitter. We were surprised by its vehemence, and at occasional breaches of civility. We have received requests again and again for this material. This “occasional paper” is an immediate way to respond to those requests. 

It was tempting to try to include all of the insightful and highly motivated presentations, rebuttals, panel moderator comments, and exchanges with the audience that took place during this four-hour-long seminar. But that has proven impractical within the “occasional paper” format. Accordingly, and with absolutely no slight intended toward those whose observations are not included here, we decided to limit the following published comments to the main addresses presented by those three of its principals, Daniel Goldhagen, Christopher Browning and Leon Wieseltier, whose remarks have been most requested both by attendees and by those who were not able to attend. 

Truth be told, our decision to sponsor this conference has met with some controversy within the scholarly community and the Museum family. So be it. Important events should spur controversy—not controversy for its own sake, but to use a rabbinic dictum, machloket le’shem shamaim, controversy for the sake of heaven, for the sake of truth. 

The Talmud tells us that in a debate for the sake of heaven, both sides are sustained. The reference is deliberate, for what we engaged in that night is commentary on the Testament from that world to our world. 

After reading Hitler’s Willing Executioners, we understood both what it attempted to prove and the importance of its provocative argument. We also knew immediately who as well as what Professor Goldhagen was seeking to confront and felt that the true estimation of his contribution should not be made by amateurs, but by professionals who have weighed the same evidence, and who read footnotes and not only the body of the text—scholars who set out on the same journey. 

Three generations of scholars from three continents made presentations.

Senior men, yet young and vital, who have reached almost three score and ten and whose scholarly careers are marked by significant accomplishments. These men lived through the Holocaust as adolescents. Their efforts were pioneering and for many years they worked in an intellectual wilderness. We heard from distinguished scholars in mid-career, born after the Holocaust and who came to intellectual maturity often before the Holocaust had entered the mainstream of American scholarly thought and whose choice to study this Event was, at the time, bold and risky. Would they have students to teach? Would anyone be interested in reading their publications? And we examined the work of a young scholar beginning his career, whose Ph.D. dissertation and first major publication seeks to overturn a field. 

The Research Institute could have waited six months or a year to critically examine Professor Goldhagen’s work, but we see it as our task not to respond to responses, but to provide a forum in which a response will be framed, not to comment on intellectual discourse in the field, but to help shape that discourse. We seek to remain on the cutting edge of academic debate. 

We also seek to reverse what has been an unfortunate trend in this field of study. Four decades ago when Professor Raul Hilberg completed his path-breaking study of the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews, he could not find a publisher—and once published, the author was shunned; barred even from the use of the archive and library of another research institute. His name could not be pronounced. He was relegated to footnotes even by scholars who depended on his insights to advance their own. 

When Professor Richard Rubenstein wrote After Auschwitz thirty years ago, he was silenced by his colleagues in a sort of bureaucratic excommunication. When Hannah Arendt and Bruno Bettelheim raised the issue of Jewish leadership and Jewish behavior during the Holocaust, people spoke about them and at them, but not with them and to them. 

The civility and the power of the discourse in this then young field was weakened, not strengthened by the lack of intellectual confrontation and serious engagement. 

Nearly three years ago at the opening conference of the Research Institute, Professor Goldhagen, then an even younger scholar, confronted Professor Browning on his widely and justly praised book Ordinary Men by asking whether Browning could speak of “ordinary men or ordinary Germans.” The intellectual engagement was civil and appropriate, and Professor Browning’s work was strengthened by it— not weakened. Time has passed and now it was Professor Browning who commented on Professor Goldhagen’s completed work—directly, forcefully and civilly. 

Most important, for the purposes of this conference, the question of the perpetrator is indisputably one of the most central to understanding the Holocaust. 


Sometimes the questions are even more important than the answers—tentative or otherwise—that we may offer. Who were the perpetrators? What were their motivations? Did they kill with venom or with reserve and technological precision? What of the psychology of the ordinary German and not just the leaders? What enabled them to perform their task day in and day out? Did German killers perform their task differently, more venomously than Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, or Dutch policemen and Luxembourgers who joined into the killing process? The discussion included here has shed light on these questions. 

Where not fully answered, the questions are only deepened—and that is a lot. 

What of antisemitism? 

My colleagues Dr Sybil Milton and the Ruth Meltzer Fellow for 1996, Professor Henry Friedlander, have argued that antisemitism was one form of Nazi racism, that any theory of the genocidal process must consider the fact that the Germans sought to kill the mentally retarded and physically handicapped or emotionally disturbed, and indeed that there was a “a final solution to the Gypsy problem” implemented by the Germans. Was antisemitism central to the enterprise of National Socialism? Of course, but how deeply was it embedded into German culture and shared by ordinary Germans? What of its evolution from religious antisemitism and political antisemitism into the racialized form it took under Nazism? Was it one of many core beliefs of National Socialism or the core belief? This, too, is an absolutely central issue to Holocaust scholarship and was open to discussion during the seminar.
Michael Berenbaum, 
Director United States Holocaust Research Institute


Contributions by 

     Daniel J. Goldhagen.................... p. 1 

     Christopher R. Browning............ p. 21 

      Leon Wieseltier.......................... p. 39 

About the Contributors.................... p. 45 

About the United States Holocaust Research Institute:
The United States Holocaust Research Institute is the scholarly division of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Founded in December 1993, its mission is to serve as an international resource for the development of research on the Holocaust and related issues, including those of contemporary significance. 

The Institute consists of eight departments—Academic Programs (including Academic Publications), Library, Archive, Photo Archive, Music, and the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. It will soon be the home of the Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance. 

The Institute fosters research in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, broadly defined. Fields of inquiry include, but are not limited to:

—historiography and documentation of the Holocaust; 
—ethics and the Holocaust; 
—comparative genocide studies; and 
—the impact of the Holocaust on contemporary society and culture. 

The Institute welcomes a variety of approaches by scholars in history, political science, philosophy, religion, sociology, literature, psychology, and other disciplines. It especially encourages scholarly work that utilizes the extraordinarily rich archival materials that the Museum has collected in Eastern Europe, Germany, and the former U.S.S.R. The Institute’s collections cover a wide range of subjects pertaining to the Holocaust, its origins, and its aftermath.