Of all the many books written about the Nazis' attempted genocide of the Jews one of the most significant has just been published. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners is an important volume in that its central thesis runs directly counter to the one that is currently fashionable amongst scholars of the Second World War. Goldhagen uses admirably detailed and thorough research to demonstrate that it was not just the leadership of Germany, not just the Nazi party in Germany, not just the insiders in Germany, who carried out the Holocaust. No, he argues, it was a major part of German society, both civil and military, of all classes, religions, and political affiliations.
As the cleansed Germany is eased into the New Order, we in the West have been given a different established truth to that which held sway in the immediate post-war years. For a decade after 1945 the only good German was a dead German. Then, when the Cold War grew ever more hot, the only good Nazi was a dead Nazi. By the 1970s not even all of the Nazis were bad-only those who "really knew what was going on." Germans were now free, democratic, expunged of tribal dishonour. Just, in fact, like us.
Yet Daniel Goldhagen has reversed this engineered trend. People who had never voted National Socialist, who were never members of the party, he shows, enjoyed killing Jews so much that they captured the scene with photographs. People who were long-term liberals and hated the SS took their girlfriends to their place of work so that the young ladies in question could watch the slaughter. The author calculates that up to 250,000 people were required to directly work the killing machine, with countless more involved closely enough to know exactly what was happening. Only a third of them were Nazi party members, a little over a quarter were in the SS. They composed almost an exact cross-section of German society and they continued to murder even after Himmler had ordered them to stop in 1945. Further, those who chose not to participate in the Holocaust not only were left unharmed but their chances of promotion were in no way damaged. Those who took part did more than obey orders: they urinated on their victims, humiliated them before death, and invented original and grotesque forms of torture.
But if Goldhagen is right, and I believe that he is, surely we must apply his arguments to other countries or empires in which mass murder has taken place. A change of political regime does not suddenly excuse or forgive a national culture and an ethnic grouping. This is particularly true for the former Soviet Union, where at least thirty million people were slaughtered by the Communists, with the smiling support of fellow travellers from Oxford to Ottawa. Lacking the dark efficiency of their Prussian neighbours, the Russian Marxists had no organized system of gas chambers and killing areas. They simply shot, bayoneted, clubbed, and strangled their way through villages, towns, and cities for forty years. Their victims were Christians, conservatives, kulaks, Jews, nationalists, and anyone else who appeared to stand in the way of socialism. One must construe from this that more people would be required to do the job, composed of a wider and even more representative section of Soviet society.
Yet we have very little contrition from the Soviets and their successors, comparatively few books analysing these horrors, and only a handful of Western politicians willing to condemn Russian atrocities. In Canada we even scoffed at the idea of refusing to play hockey with the Russians, in case it caused offence. But the Hitlerian hell was little different from the Stalinist holocaust. The Nazis were intent on eliminating their enemies and building a Europe free of Jews. This was genocide combined with random killing. The Soviets were a little less discriminate, willing to kill entire classes and cultures whenever their leader saw the need. Nor did this barbarism begin, or end, with Stalin. Lenin initiated the whole thing. "If for the work of Communism we must wipe out nine-tenths of the population," he said, "we should not recoil from these sacrifices." Trotsky joined him in the fun and, after Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev did their own share of social engineering with a whip hand. How legion must be the number of their willing executioners.
There has been some good literary work done already in this field. Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the first English-language writers to expose the Soviets and his work has been continued by the likes of Paul Johnson, Richard Pipes, and Edvard Radzinsky. But until we have similar numbers of books about Communism's murders as we do about Nazism's atrocities, we, and history, will have been ill-served. A victim will always be a victim, and a murderer will always be a murderer. l
Setting It Right, a collection of Michael Coren's newspaper and magazine writing, has just been published by Stoddart.