Excellent thesis book challenges several common ideas about the Holocaust that Goldhagen believes to be myths.
The book, which began as a Harvard doctoral dissertation, was written largely as an answer to Christopher Browning’s 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Goldhagen’s book stoked controversy and debate in Germany and the United States. Some historians have characterized its reception as an extension of the Historikerstreit, the German historiographical debate of the 1980s that sought to explain Nazi history. Hitler’s Willing Executioners won the Democracy Prize of the Journal for German and International Politics. The Harvard Gazette asserted that the selection was the result of Goldhagen’s book having «helped sharpen public understanding about the past during a period of radical change in Germany». In 1992, the American historian Christopher Browning published a book titled Ordinary Men about the Reserve Police Battalion 101, which had been used in 1942 to massacre and round up Jews for deportation to the Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.
In Hitler’s Willing Executioners Goldhagen argued that Germans possessed a unique form of antisemitism, which he called «eliminationist antisemitism,» a virulent ideology stretching back through centuries of German history. Under its influence the vast majority of Germans wanted to eliminate Jews from German society, and the perpetrators of the Holocaust did what they did because they thought it was «right and necessary. Goldhagen charged that every other book excellent thesis on the Holocaust was flawed by the fact that historians had treated Germans in the Third Reich as «more or less like us,» wrongly believing that «their sensibilities had remotely approximated our own. Goldhagen’s book was meant to be an anthropological «thick description» in the manner of Clifford Geertz.
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Title page of Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies. Goldhagen used Luther’s book to argue for the deep-rooted unique «eliminationist» antisemitism of German culture. Hitler’s Willing Executioners marked a revisionist challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy surrounding the question of German public opinion and the Final Solution. As such, to prove his thesis Goldhagen focused on the behavior of ordinary Germans who killed Jews, especially the behavior of the men of Order Police Reserve Battalion 101 in Poland in 1942 to argue ordinary Germans possessed by «eliminationist antisemitism» chose to willingly murder Jews. Using Geertz’s anthropological methods, Goldhagen argued by studying the men of Battalion 101 one could engage in a «thick description» of the German «eliminationist antisemitic» culture.
What some commentators termed «The Goldhagen Affair» began in late 1996, when Goldhagen visited Berlin to participate in debate on television and in lecture halls before capacity crowds, on a book tour. Goldhagen was awarded the Democracy Prize in 1997 by the German Journal for German and International Politics, which asserted that «because of the penetrating quality and the moral power of his presentation, Daniel Goldhagen has greatly stirred the consciousness of the German public. The laudatio, awarded for the first time since 1990, was given by Jürgen Habermas and Jan Philipp Reemtsma. Debate about Goldhagen’s theory has been intense. Detractors have contended that the book is «profoundly flawed» or «bad history». About Goldhagen’s claims that the men of Order Police Reserve Battalion 101 were reluctant to kill Polish Catholics while being eager to kill Polish Jews, Browning accused Goldhagen of having double standards with the historical evidence.
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