Minutes of Monthly Meeting
December 8, 1996
Location: Home of Jerry and Lorraine Kotler
Meeting Topic: Review of book: Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Speaker: Ken Rosenzweig, Department of Accounting, University of Dayton and Robin Smith, Lexis-Nexis
Hosts: Jerry and Lorraine Kotler
PRESENT: Connie Breen and Lou Ryterband, Cochairs; Gloria Anticoli, Arthur Auster, Judy Auster, Larry Briskin, Corrine Coleman, Steve Coleman, Chaya Eylon, Danny Eylon, Paul Flacks, Shirley Flacks, Hillel Fox, Erika Garfunkel, Felix Garfunkel, Johann (Hans) Hafner, John T. Hickey, Sophie Kahn, Steve Kahn, Jack Kelley, Eleanor Koenigsberg, Harry Koenigsberg, Jerry Kotler, Lorraine Kotler, John Magee, Eileen Moorman, Bill Rain, Bonnie Rosenzweig, Ken Rosenzweig, Harold Rubenstein, Sophie Rubenstein, Robin Smith, Lou Vera, Marianne Weisman, Murray Weisman, William Younkin.
Connie called the meeting to order at about 7:50 PM. For the invocation, Jerry sang a Jewish song in Hebrew and English, "Lamanechar, Peace Be to You." Paul Flacks then delivered his news report.
Connie Breen then introduced one of the meeting's speakers, Ken Rosenzweig. Ken is an Associate Professor in the Department of Accounting at the University of Dayton. He visited Augsburg, Germany for the last two summers to conduct accounting research and to teach an accounting course. He and his wife Bonnie are members of Temple Israel, a reform Jewish synagogue in Dayton. At this point, Connie presented Ken with a certificate of appreciation and a Books and Company gift certificate for his service as Secretary to the Dialogue for the past few years. Connie emphasized Ken's work in preparing accurate and interesting minutes of the Dialogue meetings and in helping attract new speakers and members of the Dialogue. (Ken was touched by the certificate of appreciation as well as the Books and Company gift certificate.)
Ken began by explaining to those in attendance the order of presentation of the topic. First is a summary of the main arguments made by Goldhagen and the book's research method. Then Robin and Ken will in sequence present their views of the Goldhagen book.
Summary of Goldhagen's Arguments and Research Method
At this point, Connie asked Robin to introduce herself. Robin has worked for the US government in Washington, DC and in Germany. She has a bachelors degree in European history and is currently working on her masters degree.
Robin began her presentation by stating that Elie Wiesel says of the Goldhagen's book: "The book is not perfect..., but what Goldhagen is trying to say is that the Nazis were not the only ones (involved in the Holocaust.) The S.S. were not the only ones who did the killing....There were people involved who weren't even Nazis." That is Goldhagen's main thesis, but that idea is not what has upset so many people. It is statements like this that stir up negative feelings about Goldhagen's book: "What can be said about the Germans cannot be said about any other nationality.... Instead of being guided by the assumption of the Germans' likeness to us, we begin our analysis from the opposing, more sensible position...." What if we substituted the word Jews for Germans and said, What can be said about the Jews cannot be said about any other nationality....Instead of being guided by the assumption of the Jews' likeness to us, we begin our analysis from the opposing, more sensible position. You end up getting something that sounds somewhat similar to what Hitler would have said about the Jews. But even this idea about the Germans being different is an old idea called the Sonderweg thesis, meaning that the Germans followed a different path of development from the other nations which ultimately erupted into the Holocaust.
My main problem with Goldhagen's book is his conclusion that the Police Battalions represent ordinary Germans. The Police Battalions were sent into Eastern Europe to kill the Jews, and since these policemen evidently enjoyed torturing and killing Jews, Goldhagen claims that one can say that the German people as a whole enjoyed or would have enjoyed torturing and killing Jews, because the men of the Police Battalions were, in his opinion, ordinary Germans. Goldhagen states they were ordinary because the policemen came from a wide variety of occupations and most were of the middle or lower-middle class. He makes a point to mention the ages of these policemen--most were middle-aged; they were not young men who had grown up during the Nazi regime. And he makes the point that these men were police officers, not soldiers. And since these were middle-aged men from the middle classes from a wide variety of occupations, they should be considered "ordinary Germans."
I don't agree with Goldhagen because, for one, although these men might have been called policemen, they were sent into foreign lands to kill Germany's enemies. This is not what policemen do; this is what soldiers do. As I mentioned before, Goldhagen emphasizes that these men were middle-aged. That means that most of them must have fought in the First World War, because towards the end of that war, Germany had lost so much of her manpower that she began sending in virtually all males, even young boys and old men. Therefore, since these policemen fought in the First World War, they knew what soldiers were supposed to do and how soldiers were supposed to think. And just how are soldiers supposed to think? To illustrate what was expected of German soldiers, I'd like to tell a World War I story about Kaiser Wilhelm and the Red Baron. One day Kaiser Wilhelm went to visit the Red Baron at his squadron. The Red Baron had just shot down a British military plane that had 2 soldiers inside and it had burst into flames, as most planes did that were shot down during dogfights. While the Kaiser and the Red Baron were at breakfast, the Red Baron said, "It is a strange feeling, Your Majesty, to know that once again a pair of men have been shot dead and they lie somewhere all burned up, while I sit here at the breakfast table as if everything were normal. What do you think of that, your Royal Highness? Kaiser Wilhelm was somewhat shocked by the Red Baron's remark and for a few moments did not know what to say. Finally he said, "German soldiers don't kill men. They annihilate the enemy."
In other words, soldiers aren't supposed to view the people they kill as humans but as an entity called The Enemy, and they are not supposed to see themselves as killers of humanity but as destroyers of evil, defenders of the nations. All soldiers of all nationalities are taught to think this way, not just German soldiers. My point is that the police battalions were not thinking like ordinary Germans when they were killing Jews; essentially soldiers, they were annihilating the enemy, and Germans were reminded constantly that the Jews were The Enemy.
When soldiers kill people, they must dehumanize them in their minds or else they would probably not be able to carry out their duties as soldiers. In some of the photographs from Goldhagen's book, we see German policemen laughing as they humiliate and persecute Jews. But not all Germans had a good time as they inflicted suffering upon the Jews; Himmler got sick and threw up the first time he visited a concentration camp and he told the soldiers there that he knew that their task was a difficult one, yet it was something that had to be done. It is strange how humans can compartmentalize humans. A few months ago, I saw a TV program on the Persian Gulf War and it showed a video and played a tape recording made of one of the battles. In one particular battle, an American pilot was shown dropping bombs on Iraqi troops; he laughed and joked the whole time and said the explosion of the bombs was a beautiful sight. When he was almost done, he received a radio transmission from HQS which told him to cease firing immediately; he had accidentally attacked friendly troops. In other words, he had just killed several American soldiers. The American pilot ceased from laughing at once and began to sob and cry. He was heartbroken, although he was assured that these things always happen in war.
Some people might say that they can understand how a man could drop bombs on his fellow human beings since he is not getting a close-up view of the destruction he is causing. But not seeing the destruction was of no comfort to that poor American pilot when he discovered that his victims were Americans and not the enemy. It was not the sight of dead Americans that caused the pilot so much anguish, because the sight had not changed. It was the idea that had changed. The pilot's conscience reacted to the idea of the death of the enemy and the idea of the death of his own people in two very different ways. Ideas can have great power.
We humans compartmentalize not only victims but acts of evil. There is supposed to be a war-crime trial in Bosnia some day, and there are people, especially women, who believe that rape should be considered a war crime. Many people believe that rape is not a war-crime. Since soldiers have raped, pillaged, and plundered for centuries, rape is not seen as extraordinarily evil, although it devastates the lives of its victims. In the former Yugoslavia, many Muslim women were raped in front of their children; once raped, the women were considered impure and were outcasts. Many felt compelled to commit suicide. It is strange that his kind of evil is considered "normal" war activity by many people, just because it has been done to so many for so long, but it shows how we can convince ourselves of the normality or sometimes even of the goodness of acts which are hurtful and destructive to other humans. This is not a uniquely-German trait, as Goldhagen would have us believe; it is unfortunately a human trait.
Jerry cited what he considered the progression of the German attitude toward Jews over the years. For example, suppose that tomorrow an edict was issued that all children, men, and women with red hair are evil and deserve to die. We would laugh it off. But if there was a history of lore in the culture that people with red hair were evil, maybe we would kill them--if the belief that they were evil had become part of the culture. Regarding Germany, the transition from religious anti-Semitism to racial anti-Semitism happened at various times. Jerry noted that no one at the meeting had mentioned Mein Kampf. Jerry said that Hitler was a very honest anti-Semite. Hitler did not like the Jews because they tamed civilization. Hitler was a barbarian and was proud of it. The question is how did a nation buy in to barbarism.
As a concentration camp inmate during the Holocaust, Murray personally witnessed that most ordinary Germans actively supported the subjugation and killing of Jews. Robin said that Hitler's ultimate aim was to get rid of Christianity, but he started with the Jews. Felix Weil stated that in one instance that he is aware of, 1,124 Jews were deported from Frankfurt. As they were taken through the streets of Frankfurt, ordinary Germans lined the streets cheering. Jews were subhumans in the eyes of the Germans. Felix noted that Himmler warned near the end of the War that the death marches should not continue; the Allies would not like it. However, the killing continued. The Germans are to blame.
Lorraine stated that she does not believe the ordinary people are to blame. Felix Weil countered with the fact that there has been only one Holocaust and it took place in Germany. Larry Briskin said that racism developed out of Darwinism. This led to such Nazi racist policies as eugenics (selective breeding of human beings). Felix Garfunkel contrasted religious and racial anti-Semitism by contrasting the treatment of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition with the treatment of Jews in the Holocaust. If Spanish Jews converted, they assimilated and were spared. However, Jews subjected to Nazi rule did not have the conversion option. Jews were always Jews, no matter what. Eileen said that Hitler wanted to make Germany a world power again. Then he used propaganda to get the Germans to blame the Jews. Eileen stated that although we are not as evil as the Germans were, we all have the potential to be evil. In this regard, the Germans personified the moral choice all humans have to be good or evil. She mentioned the lore that the Jews killed Jesus. Unfortunately, the lore is not going to die in the next ten years. Therefore, dialogue is critical for people to gain knowledge and understanding of each other.
Erica explained that she left Germany in 1939 when she was eleven years old. She had experienced the magnetism of Hitler. She sees how the ordinary German could be caught up in the frenzy. She says that in Germany today the main problem is not anti-Semitism but rather anti-foreigner attitudes. Harold noted that Hitler was successful only when he appealed to the people's anti-Semitism. The Gospels contain the seeds of that anti-Semitism. Eileen disagreed. She said that it is not the Gospels themselves that contain the seeds of anti-Semitism; it is the interpretation of the Gospels.
Arthur questioned Ken's lack of appreciation of Holocaust programs that concentrate on the Righteous Gentiles (people who saved Jews in the Holocaust). He cited the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that story, Abraham argued with God that if he could find ten good people, the city should be saved. Arthur says that not respecting the Righteous Gentiles as part of Holocaust programming shows a lack of respect for the message in this Biblical story. Ken replied that he was not against celebrating the deeds of the Righteous Gentiles; however, that celebration should not overwhelm the main lesson gleaned from the Holocaust--ordinary people have the capacity for extraordinary evil.
Someone stated that systemic evil is often unconscious and not necessarily recognized in a society. Anti-immigrant bias in this country is similar to anti-foreigner bias in Germany. Erica said that there is no comparison between German anti-foreigner bias and anti-immigrant bias in the United States. Murray stated that while we realize that there is the potential for evil in people from all nations, an excessive number of Germans during the Holocaust gave in to their evil urges. Most German people participated willing and gladly. The German watchwords were hegemony, control, power, ueberalles!
Lorraine said that Hitler used the seeds of hatred sown by Christianity to attack what Christianity stands for--love, charity. . . Shirley said that German folk legends made the Germans feel they were wonderful--blond, blue-eyed, and tall. Danny said the Goldhagen book is about personal responsibility. There is no simple answer. The Holocaust was waiting to happen. In fact, earlier in history, a holocaust against Jews almost occurred in England. The roots of anti-Semitism existed all over Europe. Examples of this include the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Dreyfus case. Danny said he was not trying to suggest that the Germans are not to blame, but responsibility is larger than Germany. Germany was hit by a depression in the 1920's; Jews in Germany during this period were very successful and Germans resented that success. Danny said, so when you try to place blame, be careful. At this point our customarily peaceful Dialogue became somewhat more heated! Someone stated that the Goldhagen book is not unique in its depiction of the Holocaust; the film Shoah depicted present-day people in central and Eastern Europe who had lived during the time of the Holocaust; the negative visceral attitudes of these people toward Jews remain unchanged. During the discussion, a number of people felt uncomfortable placing full blame on Germany. Paul stated that he sees nothing wrong with blame. Christians accept what happened with pain. The only people who can understand fully are the people who lived through that experience. Paul was in combat with the US Army in Germany. He said, do not be so objective and fair minded that you fail to place proper blame.
At this point, Hans Hafner, Visiting UD Professor of Theology from the University of Augsburg, Germany introduced himself. He said the Goldhagen book triggered a wave of reaction in Germany. The book is effective because it points out individual atrocities and does not just dwell on numbers. Hans stated that he basically agreed with Ken's presentation, but he pointed out that Ken had forgotten to bring out a major point made in the Goldhagen book that German anti-Semitism was a uniquely virulent strain that was unlike the anti-Semitism in any other nation. Ken acknowledged this oversight. Hans noted that Goldhagen says that only Germans were responsible for the Holocaust and that all Germans were responsible. Hans, however, believes that only one million Germans participated in the atrocities; he vows that his family could never have participated in such atrocities.
Steve said there are several degrees of participation in the Holocaust. Noting that not every German committed an atrocity, Steve wondered how many Germans actively opposed the atrocities. Those who did not, passively participated in the Holocaust. Paul asked Hans if tomorrow 50,000 Jews moved to Cologne, how would they be received? Hans said the Jews have no problems in Germany today. Arthur challenged Hans with respect to his estimate of one million active participants in the Holocaust and cited the fact that the German armed forces alone numbered five million. Arthur noted that among the three Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan, only Germany conducted the Holocaust. Hans asked whether the fact that something happens in Germany means that it is the only place it could happen. Felix Weil noted that industrialists who were actively involved in the war machine in Germany are doing well today. Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are not always the same. There is always anti-Semitism but there is not always a holocaust. Felix Weil announced that the Sinclair Holocaust Memorial Committee is planning to bring in Goldhagen for its 1998 Holocaust Remembrance Program.
The meeting was adjourned at 9:45 PM.