"Rather than consider the political or historical backdrop, we should rely upon our intuitions, upon 'what we know about individual and social life in general.' This ostensible knowledge includes the capacity to perceive the 'beast within'—within other people, that is, never Goldhagen himself or his readers. National societies, we are to understand, differ in their level of subhumanity: 'there is variation of beastliness across cultures and subcultures.'
"Goldhagen's writing has been, as his publisher says, 'very popular,' perhaps because it is tempting to distinguish among murderers and the murdered in such a stark way. [Yet] Goldhagen's own categories, if rigorously applied, reveal a problem with his approach. For Goldhagen, a 'perpetrator' is someone who 'knowingly contributes in some tangible way to the deaths or elimination of others, or to injuring others as part of an annihilationist or an eliminationist program.' . .
"Goldhagen is right that no account can do without the ideologically motivated leaders. . . . [Yet] in Engelking and Leociak's compendium of the creation and destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, the importance of its two thousand Jewish policemen is also excruciatingly clear. They did most of the work and they knew what was happening; by Goldhagen's definition, they too were 'perpetrators.' As such, the Jewish policemen must have acted, in Goldhagen's account, according to their anti-Semitic desire to eliminate Jews. This is absurd.
"Goldhagen might of course counter that Jewish policemen acted from non-ideological motivations, such as the desire to save themselves or their families. But his analysis leaves no room for perpetrators who act according to such calculations. He might wish to argue that Jewish policemen armed with clubs were taking orders from German policemen armed with guns, as was the case. But Goldhagen explicitly and repeatedly denies the importance of coercion to the actions of perpetrators. He seems reluctant to examine the layers of authority that brought Jews to the death factories. . . .
"Goldhagen is of course right that anti-Semitism is indispensable to the explanation of the Holocaust. Where Goldhagen differs from other scholars is his impatience with plural causality. . . . He is wrong to see free will, and only free will, everwhere we find mass killing. The Holocaust as it actually happened involved the participation of many tens of thousands of people who, contrary to Goldhagen, had no 'decision-making moment,' had not 'freely opted' to participate in the killing, and had taken part in no murderous 'conversation about the dehumanized or demonized victims.'
". . . Like the Jewish policemen, [these captured Soviet soldiers under German command] were not free actors realizing their individual wills withing 'supportive eliminationist milieus.'"
Timothy Snyder, "What we need to know about the Holocaust," New York review of books 57, no. 14 (September 30, 2010), 78.