Picks and Pans Review: Hitler's Willing Executioners

updated 07/01/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

The author, an assistant professor of government and social studies at Harvard, has set off a storm of controversy with a book that seeks to prove a simple—and, many would say, radical—point: It wasn't the Nazis who killed the Jews, it was the Germans.

The difference, or course, is crucial. If the Nazis did it, the Holocaust can be seen as a nightmarish aberration carried out by a clique of madmen. Goldhagen argues that facts don't support such an explanation, but that it is accepted because his thesis—that everyday Germans knew about and supported, or did nothing to prevent, the extermination of the Jews—raises too many troubling questions.

The heart of his book consists of testimony from members of police units who rounded up and shot Jews in Poland. Few of the policemen were members of the Nazi party, Goldhagen maintains—most were drafted, many were too old for front-line service. Yet they and others like them executed thousands of Jews, willingly, efficiently—even zealously. When officers offered to excuse any man who was uncomfortable killing Jews, almost no one stepped forward.

Goldhagen's writing is jargon-filled and repetitive, and he often seems to push his argument farther than his evidence merits. At the least, though, as the Holocaust slips into history, Executioners is a chilling reminder that Hitler received broad support. (Knopf, $30)

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