While I haven't read Goldhagen or scholars with a similar viewpoint directly, I frequently encounter the following argument that seems very Goldhagenite to me: "The Germans tried to murder Jews up until the end of the war, the trains went to the death camps even when the war was already being lost and more resources were needed for the war effort, this clearly shows the German eliminationist antisemitism."

Eliminationist Antisemitism was defined by Goldhagen in Hitler's Willing Executioners. One key feature would be that the germans were "of one mind with Hitler" in terms of antisemitism. This would explain the continuation of the murders late into the war. Now, among other criticisms, Browning pointed out that the same willing executioners were as willing to kill handicapped or Russian POW before the mass murder of the European Jews began; also he got the diverse ways in which German society was antisemitic wrong.

So to me, eliminationist antisemitism is not plausible - but what other explanations are there? Since Goldhagen's views are not widely shared, I assume other historians tried to answer this question - why continue the killings until the brink of defeat. Those would be the answers I'm looking for.

p.s. In no way do I want to deny that ordinary Germans were willing executioners, or that there's antisemitism entrenched in German society. But I think the actual history is more complicated than made out in the model of eliminationist antisemitism.

EDIT by F.G.: For background on functionalist/intetionalist see here.

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    I really don't understand the question. Are you looking for an alternative explanation for the fact that the Holocaust-machine was running till the very end of the war? Or are you asking what Browning has to say on this matter? Or something else entirely? Jan 23, 2013 at 14:26
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    Could you link to definitions of "functionalists" and "eliminatorical antisemitism". I share @FelixGoldberg's confusion concerning what you are asking. If you could make the question more precise, it might elicit more answers. From my confusion it seems like you're asking, "Without reference to the notion that the Nazi's wanted to eliminate the Jews, why did the Nazi's try to eliminate the Jews?"
    – MCW
    Jan 23, 2013 at 15:08
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    I added a link to the definition as @MarkC.Wallace has asked. Jan 23, 2013 at 15:26
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    P.S. I would expect e.g. this New Yorker article from 1996 to give a nuanced account and perhaps an answer (full disclosure: a subscriber, but not yet at the time :)
    – Drux
    Jan 23, 2013 at 17:15
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    Good question. Good issue with functionalist interpretations. Jan 23, 2013 at 19:08

4 Answers 4


My understanding is that both schools are "broad" interpretive frameworks. The obvious deficiencies of "intentionalism" are clear—we can clearly demonstrate the plurality of emergent genocidal conducts, and these cross German and NSDAP racial categories. The POW origins of systematic camp based killing should be sufficient indication.

Goldhagen posits three majors mechanisms for killing: the pogrom, the camp and the death march. In Goldhagen's account, the late war system of death focuses on the use of the death march to eliminate already fatigued prisoners. I suppose that Goldhagen is arguing that the imaginary Jew still required punishment and discipline by the German people. This system of marching people to death is the focus of his attention in the majority of the end of the book. The camps operated until they were in the domain of operational warfare, and then instead of just abandoning prisoners, the camp authorities marched them out to die. Obviously the aims of the policy of massacring, imprisoning, executing and neglecting prisoners were widely shared institutionally and popularly. While Goldhagen is functionalist, his functionalism relates to a cultural history assertion that's pretty unique to Goldhagen about the nature of the German People. (I agree Goldhagen is deeply unsatisfying).

If we accept Goldhagen's broad schema of methods of execution, but start looking more broadly, we can see that pogroms continued into 1944/1945 in Yugoslavia and other areas of partisan activity. Similarly the idea of the "camp" as an idee fixe of the "Particularly Jewish Holocaust" breaks down when we consider the death rates of Slavic slave labourers in the late war.

I would suggest a few things: 1) That the motivations that drew the majority of the German People and the institutions of German society into systematic murder and death by maltreatment of central and eastern Europeans continued into the late war. 2) That killing Jews and Slavs were broadly shared policy aims throughout German society, and that this policy was still viewed as good and essential into the late war. 3) That the imaginary Jew in the culture of Germany in the 1940s required a particular "punishment" as distinct from the imaginary Slav (see pointless makework). That the imaginary Jew's elimination was a high priority policy across bureaucratic apparatus, and in popular German life (soldier's voluntary "Jew hunts" in rear areas, as opposed to actual anti-partisan operations).

So the continuation of the policy for a contemporary functionalist is bound up with the policy continuing to fulfil popular and institutional German policies. It doesn't require Goldhagen's thesis on the German people being fundamentally bad.

Finally, I'd suggest that genocide studies in general has retreated from "broadscale" analysis in the past 15 years, and has begun to focus more and more on the individual massacre as the unit of analysis. This seems to be indicating a general breakdown of theoretical categories and an attempt to reconstitute the field from the bottom up.

I hope this helps.

  • What exactly do you mean by putting the "Particularly Jewish Holocaust" in quotes? Jan 23, 2013 at 20:48
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    I'm a bit confused now: You say Daniel Goldhagen is a functionalist, the Wikipedia article seems to group him under extreme intentionalism? Not even he proposed that the regime was innocent as opposed to their people, so why not the second? Perhaps the synthetic interpretation: IMO e.g. Ian Kershaw is a much more reliable scholar than Goldhagen ever was.
    – Drux
    Jan 23, 2013 at 22:13
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    Removing the particularity of the German extermination programme targeting Jews from the general context of German extermination programmes. So, the concealment of the general features of the camp systems, including the Soviet POW camps and Slavic labour camps, beneath the particularity of—for example—Auschwitz. Similarly avoiding "anti-partisan" warfare (the general massacre of civilians), particularly in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, when discussing pogroms. Jan 23, 2013 at 22:14
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    For further fun in synthesis, look up the Police Battalion studies. The Police Battalions had an age profile in their 40s and 50s, with a political spread matching German society. And they still volunteered (volunteered mind) to go on Jew hunts. Whether Jew hunting was anti-semitic or not is up in the air; but, older men whose politics were formed in pre-NSDAP society and whose politics match the German spectrum volunteered to engage in genocide. Not Goldhagen's thesis, but a worrying one for the idea of "stable older citizens" preventing extremism. Jan 23, 2013 at 22:38
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    let us continue this discussion in chat Jan 24, 2013 at 0:46

I've no expectation (or intention) of supplanting the accepted answer, but I would like to add some additional information.

For a start, nobody is a pure functionalist nor a pure intentionalist. Even Goldhagen, who you mention a few times in your question, acknowledges the extent to which the Nazis became progressively more radicalised as the war progressed, and even Goldhagen doesn't suppose that the Nazi party adopted a broad program of physical annihilation prior to 1941.

To complicate this picture, consider that the intentionalism/functionalism dialectic operates both in relation to the NSDAP as a party, and to individual members of that party as people. Even if we were to suppose that the leader of the party had in mind a program of genocide before the war started, that is insufficient to demonstrate that the party itself was structured in such a way as to expedite the fulfillment of that goal.

To speak directly to the substance of your question: how do "functionalists" (bearing in mind that there is also no such thing as pure functionalism) explain the desperate attempts made at the conclusion of the war to continue murdering large numbers of people?

For a start, the widespread murder of people with physical and intellectual disabilities continued in German hospitals well after their occupation by the Allied powers. This is because the doctors responsible for this program were genuinely convinced of its intrinsic goodness. They did not associate euthanasia with murder.

Secondly, the murder of Jews in the final stages of the war occurred concurrently with the murder of other "undesirables", and it was not just Jews who were marched back from the approaching front with staggering casualties.

Thirdly, the desire to murder prisoners at this late stage corresponds with other procedures that the Nazis and their collaborators implemented in order to limit the amount of physical evidence that their murderous campaign had generated.

Sonderaktion 1005 was the code-name given to a widespread program of disinterment, the burning of corpses and the shredding of documents. During this program, death camps at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka was dismantled and removed, and the teams of slaves employed in this program were subsequently executed.

Finally, when it became more apparent even to the die-hard Nazi ideologues that the war was over, it was still not necessarily apparent the extent to which they had lost. Many people believed that while they might not be able to hold onto their empire, they will still be able to retain control of Germany, and that they will only be able to do this if they are in a sufficiently strong condition as to sue for peace.

Forcing the Hungarians to participate in the slaughter of their Jewish population was not at all an irrational decision. The Hungarian government (which went through six prime ministers in the time of the war) consistently prevaricated on this issue, and it was clear to observers in Berlin that they were going to join the Allies. Making them complicit in the final solution was designed to prevent that possibility, and to cause them to fight alongside Germany with greater desperation.

The idea that this late campaign damaged the war effort is mistaken, and it is an historiographical error that is only now starting to be corrected. In all instances, "human cargo" destined for Auschwitz took second place to the transport of munitions and soldiers, which is why cattle trains often languished for days on end on railway spurs.


As the end of the war was approaching, we see more and more effort on the part of at least the people in the field towards eliminating evidence of their actions. This led to prisoners (both Jews, other concentration camp inmates, and prisoners of war) being transported (often on foot for lack of trains and trucks, as well as to kill them through exhaustion) towards camps ever nearer the German heartland. At the same time documents were trucked there as well, or sometimes hidden or destroyed (rare) on site, and where possible facilities destroyed as well.
The "deathcamps" no longer existed at the time (meaning, the special facilities set up for no other purpose than to gas people, as far as I know those were all shut down by mid-late 1944 at the latest, as it was decided to work Jews to death instead, using them as slave labour in the production of e.g. the V2 and Me262).

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    Nice answer, but a couple of references (to give an idea of your sources) would be beneficial :)
    – astabada
    Jan 24, 2013 at 9:57
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    loads of old book knowledge (including Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and original German sources, my father's an avid collector of German books from the period), and there's a comprehensive list of camps and their operational periods on wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nazi-German_concentration_camps
    – jwenting
    Jan 24, 2013 at 11:37

In the BBC's 1997 documentary 'The Nazis: A Warning From History', the rise and fall of the Nazi regime is examined. Another insightful analysis is Timothy Snyder's 2015 book 'Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning'.

From these sources we gain an important insight into the character of the Nazi regime, and how fundamentally different their thinking was. This cannot be stressed enough, that you cannot merely think of the Nazis and Hitler as just nationalists, or just antisemites.

Their behaviour contrasts with the behaviour of antisemitic nationalists, like Antonescu's Romania. Romanians helped to exterminate 300,000 Jews... and then completely reversed their policy, because Antonescu's primary objective was national supremacy, and not racial supremacy inclusive of a life or death struggle against international Jewry.

The Nazis, and Hitler in particular, were racial anarchists. Snyder goes into this in detail, but the gist is this: Hitler believed that the natural way of things is violent struggle between races, allowing the superior to be superior. Hitler also believed that the legal and philosophical evolution of civilisation, from Christianity to ethics and law, were created and maintained by an elaborate global Jewish conspiracy to alienate people from their natural struggle. To enable allegedly inferior Jews to keep allegedly superior Germans under control, and pervert the natural order of things.

Consider how the popular German response to their losing the First World War was a 'stabbed in the back' myth. Allegedly, it was Jews that were responsible for selling out, and if only they had continued fighting they would have achieved victory (which was completely fanciful thinking). The Germans then had to suffer the treaty of Versailles, again blamed on Jewish elements.

Of course it doesn't make sense to continue a genocide when those resources could otherwise be allocated to a war effort, especially when the war is going badly. But that rational response is a distinctly un-Nazi one.

To the Nazis fighting in the east, there was little distinction between efforts to exterminate Jews, and fight Russians. They sincerely believed that the liberal regimes in Britain and America, along with the Communist regimes in the USSR, were two sides of the same Jewish coin, and were both ultimately controlled by a giant Jewish conspiracy.

Furthermore, it is important to add that the Nazis had become complacent and optimistic after swift conquests in Poland and France. The Nazis believed sincerely that an attack on the Soviet Union would result in another swift victory. They perceived the USSR's apparent strength to be merely a facade, part of an illusory system of Jewish conspiracy and control. But when the superior German people were sent to knock the facade down, the whole house of Judeo-Bolshevism would collapse. This idea initially seemed correct as the surprised and unprepared Soviet army struggled to cope. But as the war turned against them the delusion proved problematic, which for most committed Nazis served only to increase their denial and zealotry.

Most Nazis regarded the war, especially against the Soviets, not simply as a war between nations, but as a war of annihilation to be fought to the bitter end. Emboldening this fervour was a sincere belief in German racial supremacy, and implicit in this is the belief that they could not lose against a racially inferior foe.

To conclude, as Snyder said in an interview on the subject:

At the end of the war, Hitler said, ‘Well the Germans lost, that just shows the Russians are stronger. So be it. That’s the verdict of nature.’ I don’t think a nationalist would say that.

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