It wasn’t too many years ago that the bad teeth of the English, the bad breath of the French, and the bad manners of Americans were accepted as modest rules of thumb: not very edifying, perhaps, but serviceable in their way. That’s not to say people were blind to those Frenchmen (to choose one example) who were even bigger louts than the average Americano–far from it! They just reckoned that if they could draw a reasonable pattern from the known facts then it was worth losing a few million pushy Frogs in the calculation.

As strange as it sounds, this used to be regarded as a normal way of thinking. The world naturally fell into different groups, and curious minds saw nothing wrong in puzzling over the qualities that set one off from the other. They disagreed about what those qualities were, to be sure, and whether they were good or bad, but from Herodotus (“The peoples of the Black Sea–Scythians exempted–are the stupidest in the world”) to Nelson Algren (“To the professional mediocrity…Chicago is today a city of golden opportunity”) few questioned the basic soundness of the enterprise. If the types revealed by this kind of inquiry were unpleasant, they weren’t denounced as invidious fantasies on that account; if they were imprecise, they weren’t dismissed as meaningless abstractions. For the most part they were considered tenable, indeed quite vivid realities.

Nowadays, as we all know, to find a bona fide cultural generalization you’ve got to go snooping inside the black valise of the thought criminal. From time to time somebody takes one out and waves it around in public, usually as a joke (Mike Royko: “There is no reason for Mexico to be such a mess except that it is run by Mexicans”), but even that sets off an immediate clutching of foreheads and beating of breasts. The current apotheosis of the individual and his cargo of self-esteem makes any judgment of the group seem insulting and unfair, but I don’t think that accounts for the intensity of the reaction, which often approaches horror. That horror, it has been said, is actually due to some collective memory of what happened when the German nation appointed itself as master race and stamped each of the other peoples in Europe as free, slave, or unfit to live. If that’s true, then Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s message in his new book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, is all the more remarkable. To the question posed by the Holocaust first, last, and always, How could so many people carry out so many unspeakable atrocities? he answers, in effect, they did so because they were German.

The received view of the Holocaust runs roughly as follows. In the 1930s a band of fanatical anti-Semites took power in Germany and conceived the idea of wiping the Jews off the face of the earth. To realize this plan they called upon an efficient but essentially amoral bureaucracy. The bureaucrats were career men, not ideologues, and they were far enough removed from the killings they directed to believe they acted purely in the interests of their state. Adolf Eichmann, the chief example of this type, always claimed he had nothing whatever against the Jews and would have killed his own father had it been necessary. His outlook was that of “a common mailman” according to his own lawyer, a cast of mind made famous by Hannah Arendt as “the banality of evil.” Further down the scale, the soldiers who did the actual work of rounding up Jews and killing them were neither banal nor evil: they simply had no choice. Sadists apart, these were the proverbial “good Germans,” mostly decent fellows who were “just following orders.” They weren’t heroes, but neither is it fair to blame them for the wickedness of their superiors. As for the mass of the German people, the worst that can be said about them is that they were indifferent. True, they were tyrannized by a combination of propaganda and police terror, but the fact remains they did nothing to stop the crimes perpetrated in their name. In the common phrase, they “let it happen.”

These images and phrases are so fixed in the popular mind they have become cliches. For Germans it’s a great relief to hear that their country was hijacked by a gang of demons and then driven down the road to perdition by soulless functionaries and citizens too mindful of their duty. And even outside Germany, is there anyone with a grain of optimism who really wants to believe that an entire nation was bent on such a goal? The prospect is an assault on the idea of humanity itself. Better to focus the blame down to a small, intense ray that obliterates just the madmen, monsters, and enthusiasts of death, and so spares all the others who did the dirty work. They may get singed badly, but at least they can survive as human beings in the way we prefer to think of the species. The rest will feel the heat, but in the end they’ll be able to adjust to some ghastly holes in the moral fabric of their country.

Professor Goldhagen calls all this into question by turning the standard view of the Holocaust on its head. Hitler and his henchmen didn’t impose themselves on a Germany strapped by war and economic depression; rather the Germans’ own anti-Semitism, which is coeval with their Christianity, ripened into a set of beliefs that made Hitler possible, if not necessary. In this sense the German people created Hitler, for when he set out to make the world free of Jews he was translating one of their deepest impulses into action. Let us be clear about this. Goldhagen is not saying that a majority of Germans would have assented to the idea if asked. They might have, but the Nazis didn’t govern by opinion poll. His point is different, and even more damning: the Holocaust expressed the will of the German people as a whole.

There are two parts to this argument. First Goldhagen tells us how German anti-Semitism evolved into an ideology of annihilation decades before the formation of the Nazi party. For more than a thousand years Jews had been denounced from the pulpit as obstinate unbelievers and Christ killers, but during the 19th century these old religious dogmas gave way to new racial doctrines: Jews were no longer accused of merely professing the wrong religion, they were classified as inherently dangerous and degraded beings. This way of thinking about the “Jewish problem” (as it was universally known) was the essential precondition for its “final solution.” Christianity had called for the persecution of Jews, but always with a view to redeeming them through baptism; once the Jews were identified by race, not by creed, the only logical solution was their physical elimination from German society.

Ghettoes, deportation, and genocide were all debated as possible means to this end before Adolf Hitler was born. If Jews were not yet subject to state-sponsored physical assault, the mental machinery that would make this possible was already up and running. Still, the Jews did have friends in Germany. These were liberal politicians who managed to grant them full civil rights on the theory that, once emancipated, they would stop being Jews. When that didn’t happen it proved once and for all how intractable the “Jewish problem” really was, and how far the Jews might go, masquerading as citizens, to subvert the German nation from within. The bogeymen we’ve known in this country–communists, say, in the 1950s–have been mere delinquents next to the demons that were conjured up by ancestral German fears, now fevered with the immediacy of racial hatred. German patriots didn’t have to look under their beds to find Jews, who simply refused to disappear. Emancipation was a failure. By the turn of the century even the liberals had abandoned Jews as incorrigible, and anti-Semitism was a settled axiom of German politics. When one leading anti-Semite avowed in 1904 that “the Jewish problem is today no longer a question of ‘whether?’ but only one of ‘how?'” he was stating the plain truth.

At this time Jews made up barely 1 percent of the population. And yet, Goldhagen tells us, Germans were so obsessed with the imaginary doings of this tiny fraction that they identified themselves as a people in express opposition to it. Germanness retreated to one pole of their national life, repelled by Jewishness at the other. It was as if Jews were antimatter to the German matter, only worse, because Jews were conscious beings working actively to destroy Germany. These were not Nazi ideas, Goldhagen insists, they were simply German, and by World War I they were already “pregnant with murder.” Thus, when Albert Einstein moved from Zurich to Berlin in 1914 to take up one of the most prestigious scientific posts in Europe, he saw for himself how much everything depends on where the observer is standing. “I discovered for the first time,” he wrote years later, “that I was a Jew.”

Very well, professor,” you must be thinking, “but wasn’t German anti-Semitism just another racial prejudice, perhaps no worse than our own, until it was seized by the Nazis and turned into a murderous mass hysteria?” Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. In making his case against the German people Goldhagen has presented anti-Semitism as their motive for the Holocaust; now he needs to show that the accused acted deliberately, free of any (collective) mental illness. This is the second part of his argument, and his reasoning goes like this: if Nazi Germany was suffering from hysteria, or from any other kind of social pathology, then the derangement should be apparent above all in those given the task of actually killing Jews. Therefore let us select the most ordinary Germans we can find at the front lines of the Holocaust–not Nazi zealots, but people broadly representative of the society as a whole–and put their behavior under the microscope. This inspection forms the bulk of Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The author looks for signs of pathology, for robotic killing machines or berserkers crazed by propaganda, but finds none; he looks for reluctance, and finds very little of that either. What he does find is clearheaded thoroughness, enthusiasm, and gratuitous brutality.

Goldhagen locates these ordinary Germans in the Order Police, a lightly armed branch of the military used in the control of captured territory, not front-line combat. Its soldiers were of much lower quality than the regular army: nearly half were reservists with careers and families at home, and the draftees were also drawn from an inferior pool of older men with established civilian lives. They were trained hastily, without any special indoctrination in Nazi ideology. As measured by membership in the party or the SS, the officers and men of the Order Police were no more Nazified than the country as a whole. In a word, these were not Nazi supermen; they were aging soldiers who had no reason to expect anything other than relatively light duty when they were sent to occupied Poland. Instead they found themselves at the center of the Holocaust, with their fingers on the trigger.

Using the records of West German judicial investigations, Goldhagen follows the activities of one unit of the Order Police, Battalion 101, over the course of a year and a half during which it was responsible for the murder of more than 80,000 Jews. These killings were pivotal events in the lives of the men, and their testimony is extremely vivid. This allows Goldhagen to reconstruct specific incidents, actions, and conversations in the greatest detail, which he then assays for any hint of shame, or for any human feeling toward the Jews whatsoever. With a handful of individual exceptions, he finds nothing of the kind.

The way this battalion performed during its very first massacre will serve as an example. With no prior warning the men were told early in the day what their task in this village was to be. Their commander offered to excuse anyone who didn’t feel up to the job, and several men did step forward. The behavior of the rest as they combed through the ghetto to round up Jews, as they shot those too old or sick to move, as they guarded the terrified families in a mass, and finally as they marched their victims in small batches into the forest to dispatch each of them with a single shot to the back of the head at point-blank range, one Jew shot by one German killing over and over and over–their behavior through all this was exactly what you’d expect from any group of 500 men ordered to exterminate a herd of swine. That is, while most simply got on with the unpleasant business there were some who enjoyed themselves thoroughly, others who were unnerved by the screams of their victims and found ways to hide from the killing, and still others who were revolted by the blood, bone, and brains that smirched them all as the day wore on. These could be seen leaning against trees and vomiting. Not everyone is cut out for work in a shambles, which is why some of the men were excused at the start. There was never any question about the morality of what they were doing. In any case they all participated in the collection and guarding of Jews, which were always brutal operations, and most of those who begged off that first day didn’t scruple to kill in the future.

There was one exception, a reserve lieutenant who believed that the mission of the battalion was wrong and said so. He stuck to this position and was eventually transferred back to Germany. His case illustrates a truth that Goldhagen hammers at relentlessly: Germans could always refuse to kill. The number of documented cases of Germans who refused to murder or mistreat Jews and were themselves killed, sent to concentration camps, imprisoned, or seriously punished in any way is zero. Naturally these people were not considered Aryan role models, to mix our racialisms, but their weakness was no crime. This is why we hear so much about blind obedience, propaganda, and peer pressure–the recipe for a “good German.” Since there was no physical coercion, only mental states like these can explain why Germans did not refuse their orders to kill defenseless Jews. But to explain is to assume they wanted to refuse. The novelty of Goldhagen’s approach is that he doesn’t make that assumption. For him what the Germans wanted to do is a question to be decided by the evidence, and his conclusion based on the files of Police Battalion 101 will probably strike you, depending on your view of human nature, as either self-evident or outrageous: “These ordinary Germans wanted to kill the Jews.”

And just who is Goldhagen’s ordinary German? He has drawn every one of his breaths inside the inimical, hate-filled atmosphere of German anti-Semitism. He knew what Hitler stood for long before he came to power–there was never any doubt about that. He could well have voted for the Nazis: in 1933 more than 17 million other Germans did. After that the waves of propaganda didn’t hypnotize him; he already knew the truth. The official boycotts of Jewish businesses, the expulsion of Jewish citizens, and the herding of Jews into ghettoes didn’t outrage him; these measures answered his fears. When the brownshirts burned the synagogues, he went to rallies the next day and cheered. When the Jews in his town were marched down Main Street and away to the first concentration camps, he stood on the sidewalk and spit at them. So when the masterminds of the “final solution” drafted this ordinary German out of his settled civilian life and sent him to Poland they had reason to believe he would be fit for the task, and they were right. He knows who the enemy is, and his instincts will teach him the special ethos of this war. He routinely humiliates his victims. He terrorizes them before death. He inflicts pointless cruelties. He volunteers for “Jew hunts,” small parties that comb through the countryside to root out every last Jew in hiding, often whole families, and when he finds them he shoots them on the spot. From village to village he celebrates victories with his comrades. He goes home on furlough and comes back for more. He has pictures taken to commemorate his part in this historic undertaking. He is neither a monster nor is he ashamed. He is a human being.

You may have noticed that Goldhagen’s title actually understates his argument. In this book the foot soldiers of the Holocaust are not only willing to kill Jews, they seem to be waiting for the chance, and when it comes they show every sign of wanting to carry their campaign to the bitterest of bitter ends. The last point is especially clear at two other fronts of this war that Goldhagen visits in some detail: the work camps (as opposed to death camps) where Jews were slowly annihilated through starvation and various forms of torture, and the so-called death marches of camp inmates that took place during the final days of World War II.

In the work camps we enter a world ruled entirely by the SS, the inner abode of Nazi fanaticism. Goldhagen cannot cast all the men and women who ran the camps in the role of “ordinary Germans,” so his argument here is more general: the work camps were a vital part of the Reich’s war effort, yet rather than use Jews to perform meaningful work the guards chose to torment them instead. In other words, when the ferocity of their hatred as Germans opposed their celebrated efficiency and discipline as soldiers, their hatred won. Other groups of prisoners were managed more or less efficiently as slaves: they were fed enough to keep them alive, they were beaten so as to maintain productivity, not cripple it, and they weren’t liable to be killed on a whim. None of this was true for Jews. Their rate of death in the labor camps was always at or near 100 percent, many times that of political prisoners, criminals, homosexuals, and Gypsies. Even Untermenschen (“subhumans”) like Poles and Russian POWs fared much better. Whenever the order came down to go easy on prisoners so as to increase output, they all benefited–except the Jews.

To illustrate the story of the death marches, Goldhagen narrates the ordeal of one group of about 600 young Jewish women and girls along the Czech-German border in April and May of 1945. Here he is back on firmer ground since he’s able to show that the guards in this case had no significant SS or Nazi party affiliations at all. They were, he says, “ordinary, working-class Germans.” They had evacuated their home camp because of the Allied advance and were supposedly taking their prisoners to another one for more “work,” but this was pure fiction given how fast the Allies were closing in. On their second day of the march, in fact, they were visited by an adjutant of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, with news that negotiations were already being held with the Americans. Therefore, the adjutant told the assembled officers and guards, Himmler had ordered that all Jews were to be treated humanely. They were not to be killed for any reason. Even so, with the end of the war just days or weeks away, the Germans saw to it that the Jews in their charge suffered horribly: they starved them where there was food, they let them freeze where there was shelter, they beat them, and they shot all stragglers. The women began the march in the most wretched physical condition; by the time the Germans abandoned them three weeks and 200 miles later, nearly half had died or been killed outright.

We may now safely toss the “good German” into the dustbin of history. He was always something of a cartoon; Hitler’s Willing Executioners demonstrates that he is also a lie. A morally inert mass of soldiers carrying out the orders of a few sadists does not make a pretty picture, but it’s more pleasant than ordinary citizens killing Jews because they want to. If he has his way, Goldhagen will deny that consolation to Germans and their posterity. This might explain why he has been attacked across the board in Germany. Even those Germans disposed to agree with him must be alarmed to see home truths like those in Hitler’s Willing Executioners being aired by an outsider. Right or wrong, it is a colossal affront.

That’s not to say there aren’t real problems with this book, which bears all the stigmata of the academic dissertation: it is repetitive, truculent, and filled with rebarbative jargon. As soon as you hack off a branch of “non-cognitive structural features” you get slapped in the face with “allegedly universalistic social psychological processes,” while “situational variables” keep buzzing around your head. It is not an easy slog. Even more dispiriting are the passages where Goldhagen invents the most intimate details of the Germans’ psychology out of thin air. Who can say what thoughts they had as they blew the heads off eight-year-old girls? The author apparently feels he has to try, and the results are always puerile and inflammatory. This sort of zeal, which is made worse by Goldhagen’s unbecoming taste for sarcasm, often leaves you feeling you’ve been buttonholed rather than instructed. Perhaps it is too much to ask someone who has spent years exploring the minds of genocidal killers to remain completely dispassionate, but his book would have been a lot better had he simply led us into the moral landscape of the ordinary German and let us view it with our own eyes.

For all that, Goldhagen is at bottom a scientist. Indignation sometimes gets the better of him, but he doesn’t moralize. His book is remarkably free of the usual pieties about the need to study the Holocaust so it will never happen again–as if genocide were a disease, like cholera, that can be prevented with education in proper mental hygiene. The way he presents it, the German campaign to kill all the Jews in Europe didn’t just “happen” the first time either. The Germans made it happen. Another Holocaust is therefore as likely as another U.S. Constitution or Russian Revolution popping up somewhere else in the world. Nobody has to be told that events like these are unique, and exemplary of the countries that made them. Yet Goldhagen feels the need, doubtless for good reason, to affirm that “the Holocaust was a sui generis event that has a historically specific explanation.” Put any other subject in that sentence and you’ll see immediately how ridiculous it is. The author is not to blame here; he knows his readers. They will not want to hear him say that Germans were indispensable to the Holocaust, that it could have happened only where it did, and that Germany had been moving toward disaster for decades. Above all they will not want to hear him specify the conditions for this catastrophe in the “pervasive, virulent, racist, eliminationist antisemitism of German culture.”

If all this seems just a little hard, then ask yourself: Where are all the books that explain how the Turks had to be stupefied by propaganda before they would go off to murder Armenians? Or that Pol Pot hypnotized his Khmer Rouge fighters into such robotic conformity they would kill more than a million of their own countrymen for no apparent reason? Or that the Tutsi and Hutu tribesmen in Rwanda were “just following orders”? There is a prejudice at work here, and it’s not very subtle. Although we are horrified by the barbarism of these butcheries, in the end we are not surprised. But Germany, one of the most civilized nations in Europe? Its Nazi period appears to us as something mysterious, almost supernatural, a baffling contradiction. Maybe the Germans just had too much of a good thing, too much of European organization, discipline, and ingenuity.

The Holocaust is huge and terrifying, but that doesn’t make it alien and inexplicable. Its perpetrators were human beings; Goldhagen does his best to treat them that way, and so bring them within the power of our own human reason to understand. This is what Hitler’s Willing Executioners is about. It does not pose the larger question of what there was in the German people that started them down this road in the first place, much less answer it. The historian wisely leaves that for the reader, if he’s curious, to ponder on his own.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Knopf, $30.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.