Ordinary Germans in their hundreds of thousands, from every cross-section of life, were willing killers of Jews in Nazi Germany.
This is the chilling conclusion of Hitler's Willing Executioners, a new study of the Holocaust by Harvard social scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen which has just been published here (London).
Goldhagen's thesis is controversial mainly because, if true, it destroys the widely-held view, above all, in Germany itself — that the great bulk of Germans were either ignorant of the horrors of the Holocaust or coerced into supporting it.
Goldhagen rejects the conventional theories that explain why Germans were apparently willing to kill six million Jews. He summarises these as:
His main method is to study the police units, particularly Police Battalion 101, which were sent in behind the soldiers to kill Jews in conquered territory. Police Battalion 101, comprising about 550 men, was in the Lublin area of Poland for about 18 months from June 1942. Its main job throughout this period was to kill Jews, either themselves or by deporting them to the gas chambers.
Who were these men? Following German social classification at the time, 35.1% were from the lower class 61.9% from the lower middle and 3.1% from the elite.
The divisions were not significantly different from Germany as a whole. Moreover, when the genocidal killings started, the mean age was 36.5. More were over 40 than under 30.
"They were not the impressionable, malleable 18-year-olds that armies love to mould according to the institution's specified needs. These were mature men who had life experience, who had families and children. The overwhelming majority of them had reached adulthood before the Nazis ascended to power. They had known other political dispensations, had lived in other ideological climates. They were not wide-eyed youngsters ready to believe whatever they were told."
Neither were they particularly Nazified. About 32.5% were members of the party and 3.8% members of the elite SS, in neither case significantly higher than the national average. The battalion was in no sense indoctrinated before being sent off to kill. Their training was perfunctory, with some being drafted only days before being sent off to Poland.
Finally, there was apparently no coercion. At the outset, according to several members, battalion commander Major Wilhelm Trapp invited anyone who didn't feel able to kill Jewish women and children, to drop out and report for other duties. About a dozen did at the time. Others, at various times as they found their work too traumatic did likewise. None apparently suffered any retribution.
But the great majority of the battalion carried out their work with every appearance of enthusiasm. Some took photos, a few even invited their wives and girlfriends along to watch. They were responsible, either directly or through deportation, for 80,000 deaths while in all other respects living normal lives.
"The conclusion of this book is that anti-Semitism moved many thousands of 'ordinary' Germans — and would have moved millions more, had they been appropriately positioned, to slaughter Jews," Goldhagen says.
But why? Goldhagen concludes they did it because they believed it was just; that, indeed, Jews were not really human. To support this, he traverses well-travelled terrain: the long history of anti-Semitism in Germany, the myths about the Jewish "stab in the back" in World War I, the myths about the Jewish links with bolshevism, the central position of race in the Nazi ideology.
But he, no more than anyone before, can provide a satisfying answer and we are all left with the terrible question: would we, if born in Germany about 1920, have been any different?