The origins of ‘radical evil’: Debating the Holocaust

By Philippe Burrin, Le Monde diplomatique, June 1997

The publication early last year of Hitler's Willing Executioners, by American academic Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, sparked off a stormy debate about the destruction of the European Jews. With the book now available in French translation, the controversy continues, fuelled by a great deal of media hype. But it would be a pity if it blinded us to the rich contributions made to our understanding of the Holocaust in the first half of the 1990's, which have shed new light on the origins of the massacre, the conditions under which it was decided on and perpetrated, and the personalities and motives of the killers.

From 1990 to 1995, almost as many books on the persecution and extermination of the European Jews were published as in the whole period from 1945 to 1985 (1). Few of them are written in French, but German academics are now vying with their American, British and Israeli colleagues in a field greatly enlarged by the opening of the archives of the former Communist bloc, which contained mountains of German documents seized by the Soviet authorities.

The first works based on this new archive material show that the stages in the tragedy can now be reconstructed accurately, including relations between the departments of the occupation authorities, the tension between forced labour and extermination, and the attitudes of non-Jewish populations. Particular attention has been paid to the attitudes of the occupying forces themselves, a colonial society considerably affected by corruption and the progressive weakening of inhibitions against the use of violence (2).

The striking feature of this new output is the proliferation of monographs. Exploration of the terrain, inch by inch, takes priority over synthesis and interpretation (3). Countless works deal with the fate of European Jews at local, regional or national level, their daily lives under Nazi oppression, the various concentration and annihilation camps, and the attitude of the surrounding population (4). There have also been many works dealing with the other victims, notably Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, the mentally ill and homosexuals. Our steadily increasing knowledge of the treatment meted out to these groups makes it unjustifiable to consider antisemitism in isolation, ignoring the fact that it was part of a much wider racist policy (5).

While our knowledge of how these events occurred is becoming increasingly precise, the question why is the subject of sustained debate. At least two issues deserve special attention. The first, which is still giving rise to controversy because of the gaps in the documentation, is the genesis of the Holocaust. Intentionalists see antisemitic policy, conducted by Hitler, as directed from the outset towards a clear objective, the murder of the Jews. Functionalists point to the confusion about intentions and stress the meanders and improvisations of Nazi policy on the Jews. In their view the Nazi regime, itself a conglomeration of warring constituencies subject to distant arbitration by the Führer, was on each occasion able to extricate itself from its difficulties only by radically intensifying persecution.

In this debate the timing of the decision to undertake genocide is of crucial importance. One school situates it in early 1941: the impending conquest of the Soviet Union was to be accompanied by a final settlement of accounts with the Jews. The other places it in autumn 1941 at the earliest, when the campaign in the East suffered its first setbacks. The exact moment, the precise context, the chain of decisions, the nature of the motives—all of which are still under debate—have considerable implications for our understanding of the Holocaust and of the functioning of the Nazi regime.

Some of the heat has gone out of the discussion since the clashes between Eberhard Jackel, Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen, but more recent contributions still show polarisation (6). Nevertheless, interpretation seems to be shifting towards a more subtle balance between the murderous logic of Nazi antisemitism, the methods of functioning of the regime, and the influence of context. The wind is blowing more in the direction of the functionalists, especially in regard to the decision to undertake genocide. Most recent works reject the idea of a single order emanating from Hitler. The move to a policy of annihilation is coming to be seen as a process comprising on-the-spot initiatives and ad hoc decisions at the top which lasted from early 1941 to mid-1942, when mass gassing began at Auschwitz and Heinrich Himmler issued the order also to exterminate Jews who were fit for work (7).

The functionalists have at least stimulated study of the many processes that contributed to the crime itself. By questioning the decisive role of Hitler, they have highlighted the responsibility of all those who supported him, especially the conservative elite. Recent works have analysed the role of government departments such as the ministries of finance and labour, key figures like Albert Speer, and institutions such as the judiciary, the universities and the army (whose involvement in the crimes of the Nazis is the subject of heated controversy in Germany). It is now abundantly clear that the Holocaust was the outcome of multiple, often discrete, factors, which combined to produce a sum greater than the parts.

The second debate, which erupted in the 1990's, reflects the attempt to tackle the why issue by focusing on the people who actually conceived and perpetrated the Holocaust. We assume we know who the spiritual mentors of the Holocaust were—all those European antisemites who vied with each other in expressions of hatred and ingenuous solutions to the Jewish question. But German historians like Götz Aly and Susanne Heim (8) argue that the Holocaust was not mainly conceived by fanatics. It was the brainchild of technocrats (economists, sociologists, geographers, demographers, urban planners, etc.) who, before going on to make successful careers for themselves in the Federal Republic, inhabited the middle echelons of the Nazi occupation apparatus in the East. Their goal was to rationalise the economies of the countries of Eastern Europe and anchor them firmly in the Nazi greater economic area. To solve the problem of overpopulation, they conceived an economic and social restructuring plan that involved elimination of the Jews. In Poland, for example, a key component was the transfer of part of the underemployed rural population to jobs in the cities freed by aryanisation.

On this view, elimination of the Jews was an integral part of an overall rationalisation plan. Elimination became annihilation when circumstances made this the most efficient option. Departure of the Jews for a distant reservation, announced on several occasions from 1939 to 1941, was postponed indefinitely when the advance in the East came to a halt. As a result, the continuing presence of the Jews blocked the process of economic and social restructuring. Robbed of their possessions by the Nazis, and confined to ghettos where they suffered from malnutrition and typhus, the Jews were no longer productive enough. They cost more in food than they contributed to the economy.

Aly and Heim, exploring a milieu and pattern of thought hitherto neglected by research, emphasise the crucial link between the Nazi's plans for remodelling Europe racially and their goal of economic, social and demographic transformation. The population of Europe, both Jewish and non-Jewish, came to be seen as a variable which the Nazi leaders could manipulate at will—transplanting, sterilising and exterminating as necessary—to provide the master race with lebensraum and a standard of living befitting its status. Aly and Heim see the technocrats in question as an extension of the biologists and physicians whose role has been stressed by other researchers (9). They argue that the passage from euthanasia to genocide was marked not only by continuity of personnel and methods (gassing) but also by continuity of discourse about useless mouths to feed. This gives fresh impetus to the debate on the disturbingly modern nature of nazism and illustrates Hannah Arendt's thesis of radical evil as the fruit of a system in which human beings become superfluous (10).

Mass murderers

Nevertheless, Aly and Heim are far from establishing a clear chain of cause and effect in relation to the Holocaust. They do not dispute the reality of Nazi antisemitism, but they fail to appreciate its independent dynamics. They show how the elimination of the Jews was incorporated in cold blood into a social restructuring project, which must have made the option of annihilation more acceptable. But they do not demonstrate that the project itself necessarily led to the choice of that option. Even less do they prove that it motivated decision-makers higher up in the Nazi hierarchy. The productivity thesis notably fails to explain why Jews fit for work were exterminated right in the middle of a serious labour shortage.

Antisemitism, on the other hand, is the cornerstone of Hitler's Willing Executioners, a recent work by the American political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (11). The author turns the spotlight on the killers at the base of the pyramid: the police who carried out mass shootings of Jews in Eastern Europe and the guards who killed Jewish prisoners in the labour camps and during forced evacuation marches at the end of the war. Unlike the situation in the annihilation camps, here the executioners were face to face with their victims. This chilling account of bloody murder confronts the reader with a kind of horror that most historians have preferred to keep at a distance.

Despite considerable public acclaim, Goldhagen's book has not been well received by historians (12). Its basic theses are that the killers were fully aware of what they were doing and acted with a zeal that could only derive from deep-seated antisemitism; that in terms of their origins, professions and mentality they were ordinary Germans; that the German people as whole supported them, if not emotionally than at least intellectually; and that this support is explained by the long-standing presence in German culture of virulent antisemitism that had raised elimination of the Jews to the level of a national mission. Each of these claims has been challenged by specialists. The last two, which came in for particular criticism, are the least well substantiated parts of the book, where the author's selective approach can be seen most clearly.

But what of the study of the executioners themselves? Goldhagen portrays the bloody face of the Holocaust with shattering force. Overshadowed by the enormity of Auschwitz, the extent of face-to-face murder is not often realised. However, no less than 1,300,000 Jews were shot. In addition, Goldhagen tackles the major issue of the motives and responsibility of the murderers themselves. His predecessor in this area, Christopher Browning, reaches more complex and more convincing conclusions (13). Studying the activity of a police battalion responsible for murdering tens of thousands of Polish Jews, Browning argues that antisemitism is not a sufficient explanation. Other factors, especially group pressure and the context of war, helped to turn ordinary men into mass murderers. In insisting that the killers acted voluntarily, Goldhagen trivialises the influence of a context that freed these men from the inhibitions of ordinary life and of an institutional framework that pushed them in the direction of mass crime. By attributing their behaviour to a single source, German national culture, he avoids the question of what, in the twentieth century, has turned men into mass murderers in so many different countries.

Does this study of the killers provide a special key to explanation of the Holocaust? It minimises the role of the bureaucratic apparatus of annihilation, reconstructed in such masterful fashion by Raul Hilberg, and relegates the gassing of three million people to second place (14). What justification can there be for giving the bloody face of the Holocaust precedence over systematic industrial annihilation? The mass shootings in Eastern Europe are terrifying, but Auschwitz questions the very basis of our civilisation.

On the one hand, we are asked to accept the thesis of a massacre brought about by age-old hatred of the Jews. On the other, the industrial elimination of useless mouths as part of a technocratic project to restructure the continent of Europe. These opposing interpretations of the Holocaust, the one atavistic and the other modernist, are both over-simplifications. They are likely to have little lasting impact on current research. But knowledge is not advanced simply by accumulating information or by linear progression. In the midst of countless monographs reflecting an unprecedented thirst for knowledge of the facts, works like those of Götz Aly, Susanne Heim and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have the invaluable merit of defining the contours of our thinking on the tragedy of our century.


(1) Estimate based on Michael Ruck, Bibliographie zum Nazionalsozialismus, Bud-Verlag, Cologne, 1995.

(2) See the exemplary study by Dieter Pohl, Nazionsozialistische Judenverfolgung in Ostgalizien 1941-1944. Organisation und Durchführung eines staatlichen Massen-verbrechens, Oldenburg, Munich, 1996.

(3) See Michael Marrus, Reflections on the Historiography of the Holocaust, Journal of Modern History, Chicago, March 1994.

(4) See Renée Poznanski, Etre juif en France pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, Hachette, Paris, 1994, and Jean-Claude Pressac, Les Crématoires d'Auschwitz. La machinerie du meurtre de masse. Editions du CNRS, Paris, 1993.

(5) See Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State : Germany 1933-1945, Cambridge University Press, 1991; Edouard Conte and Cornelia Essner, La quête de la race : une anthropologie du nazisme, Hachette, Paris, 1995.

(6) See, on the one hand, Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide : Himmler and the Final Solution, New York, 1991, and, on the other, Hans Safrian, Die Eichmann-Männer, Vienna, Europa Verlag, 1993. For an appraisal of the state of the argument, see Christopher Browning, The Path to Genocide. Essays on Launching the Final Solution, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

(7) See Hans Safrian, Die Eichmann-Männer, op. cit.; Thomas Sandkühler, Endlösung in Galizien : der Judenmord in Ostpolen und die Rettungsinitiativen von Berthold Beitz 1941-1944, Bonn, Dietz, 1996; Götz Aly, Endlösung : Völkerverschiebung und der Mord an den europäischen Juden, Fischer, Frankurt-on-Main, 1995; and Dieter Pohl, Nazional-sozialistische Judenverfolgung in Ostgalizien 1941-1944, op.cit. For the last two writers, the decision process took a decisive turn in October 1941.

(8) Götz Aly and Susanne Heim, Vordenker der Vernichtung. Auschwitz und die deutschen Pläne für eine neue europäische Ordnung, Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg, 1991.

(9) See Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance : Euthanasia in Germany c. 1900-1945, Cambridge University Press, 1994; and Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide : From Euthanasia to the Final Solution, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1995.

(10) Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Meridian Books, New York, 1958. On the modern nature of nazism, see Norbert Frei, Wie modern war der Nazionalsozialismus?, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Göttingen, No.3, 1993.

(11) Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners : Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Knopf, New York, 1996.

(12) See the discussions in Le Débat (January-February 1997), L'Histoire (January 1997), Documents and Les Temps Modernes (February-March 1997), as well as Edouard Hussen's remarkable essay, Une culpabilité ordinaire? Hitler, les Allemands et la Shoah, François-Xavier de Guibert, Paris, 1997.

(13) Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, HarperCollins, New York, 1992.

(14) Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1961. To the Jews killed by shooting or gassing must be added more than 800,000 who perished as a result of the living conditions imposed by the Nazis in the ghettos.