As details emerge about the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists against dozens of Israeli infants in Kibbutz Kfar Aza and elsewhere, one struggles to understand how human beings could be capable of such savagery. 

Inevitably, episodes from earlier periods in recent history come to mind. As President Joe Biden said in his October 10 statement, “This attack has brought to the surface painful memories and the scars left by millennia of antiSemitism and genocide of the Jewish people…”

The question of why some ordinary individuals are capable of committing acts of brutal murder was the centerpiece of Daniel Goldhagen’s landmark 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Perhaps his account of the actions of one particular German police unit, Reserve Battalion 101, can help shed light on the mindset of Hamas’s own executioners.

In June 1942, 502 battalion members were sent to the town of Jozefow in southern Poland. They were tasked with forcing local Jews out of their homes, taking them to a nearby forest, and then shooting them point blank. Able-bodied men were temporarily spared for slave labor; the killing would focus on Jewish women, children, and the elderly.

Just before the mass murder began, the unit’s commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, gave the policemen a pep talk. He explained that slaughtering Jews was necessary because the Jews were to blame for the Allied bombings of German cities. Trapp also informed the men that anyone who did not feel he could do the job would be excused without penalty. Only a dozen of them did so.

  Prof. Goldhagen’s careful analysis of the murder process focused on the close proximity of the killers to their victims. When a truck unloaded its Jewish prisoners at the edge of the Jozefow forest, each of the waiting policemen would select a victim. The two would then walk together to the nearby execution site. Many of the captives were children.

The walk “afforded each perpetrator an opportunity for reflection,” Goldhagen noted. “It is highly likely that, back in Germany, these men had previously walked through woods with their own children by their sides…Each killer had a personalized, face-to-face relationship with his victims in these moments.”

 Goldhagen wondered if the typical policeman ever “asked himself why he was about to kill this delicate human being who, if seen as a little girl by him, would normally have received his compassion, protection, and nurturing.” Or did the killer simply “see a Jew, a young one, but a Jew nonetheless,” and therefore accepted “the reasonableness of the order, the necessity of nipping the believed-in Jewish blight in the bud.”

 The mechanics of the killing were “a gruesome affair,” Goldhagen pointed out. “Each of the Germans had to raise his gun to the back of the head, now face down on the ground, that had bobbed along beside him, [and] pull the trigger.” The executioner had to “remain hardened to the crying of the victims, to the crying of women, to the whimpering of children.” 

 Even being spattered with blood and gore did not deter these reserve police officers. They continued to willingly slaughter defenseless children in this manner for hours on end.

 Both Goldhagen and Christoper Browning, author of the book Ordinary Men, examined the possible explanations for the behavior of the men of Battalion 101. Both scholars (especially Goldhagen) emphasized the crucial role of antisemitic ideology.

“The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, like the rest of German society, were immersed in a deluge of racist and anti-Semitic propaganda,” Browning wrote. “Furthermore [the men received] indoctrination both in basic training and as an ongoing practice within each unit. Such incessant propagandizing must have considerably reinforced general notions of German racial superiority…as well as Jewish inferiority and otherness.”

Goldhagen described the uniquely “eliminationist” quality of German antisemitism. Dehumanizing propaganda in the government-controlled news media and schools depicted Jews as rats, spiders, or lice who had to be destroyed. The only solution to the “Jewish problem” was the “final solution.” 

Such imagery did not disappear when the Holocaust ended. It merely moved to other parts of the world. By coincidence, the fate of the babies at Kfar Aza was revealed almost simultaneously with the news that the Bethlehem branch of the Palestinian Authority’s ruling faction, Fatah, posted a video celebrating the Hamas massacres. One image in the video showed a boot with the colors of the Palestinian flag squashing a rat on an Israeli flag.

 The website of Palestinian Media Watch, the agency that exposed the Fatah video, is replete with similar examples of dehumanizing images circulated both by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Jews are depicted as vicious rodents, ravenous insects, and other predatory creatures. Such images have become staples of Palestinian Arab popular culture. 

This Middle Eastern version of eliminationist antisemitism may help explain the mindset that led Hamas’s willing executioners to do what they did to Jewish children in Kibbutz Kfar Aza and elsewhere.

(Dr. Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.)