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Ordinary Men, But Not Ordinary Motivations
on 19 December 1997
The focus of Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men is how and why could the seemingly ordinary men of Police Battalion 101 shoot and deport Jews as they did, mostly in Poland's version of the Final Solution. He draws on the interrogations of over 100 members of Police Battalion 101 conducted during the 1960s.
Lurking in the background is the commonly held misconception of the perpetrators of the Holocaust as anti-Semitic, Nazis, and sadistic. Browning suggests that what is striking about the men of Police Battalion 101 is their ordinariness. First of all, they were middle-aged (32-48), meaning that they had been exposed to alternative world views because they had been socialized before the Nazis came to power and they had families. Secondly, with the exception of the officers who were career policemen, they were working-class, one of the groups least inclined to support the Nazis. Only a quarter of the group were members of the Nazi party, most of whom were the officers, and only six had been members of the party before Hitler, most of whom had not gone on to much within the party ranks. Thirdly, they were from Hamburg, which was not known for its support of the Nazis. Fourthly, unlike S.S. men, they were not trained killers, but had been selected because they were too old for the army or because they had volunteered to avoid the draft. Seemingly then, their age, class, region, and reason for selection suggest ordinariness and no indication that these men would become mass murderers.
Nevertheless, we learn that almost all of these men were involved in shootings and deportations to Treblinka. What is most shocking is that on several occasions commanding officers like Major Trapp offered them chances to withdraw themselves from the murder process. According to Browning, only 10-20% accepted such an offer. According to Browning, the only punishment these men faced was the ridicule of their colleagues. He suggests that the men of Police Battalion 101 knew that people were not punished and were reassured by occasional tearful breakdowns by commanding officers. Browning also suggests that these men had untold numbers of opportunities to remove themselves when not under watchful eyes, such as not pursuing their victims mercilessly when scavenging through a forest. Nevertheless, volunteers were always plentiful, even from musicians that accompanied the battalion.
Browning suggests that anti-Semitism and indoctrination had little to do with why the men killed as they did. He goes on to suggest that the amount of indoctrination that the men received was really quite small. Browning also claims that the men of the battalion reported that they were repulsed by the gruesomeness of the killing process. Browning claims that their educational level prevents them from articulating that they were really morally repulsed. In other words, these men were not anti-Semitic, their indoctrination could not have made them so, and they had a lot of problems with what they were doing. So why did they do it? According to Browning, it was pressure to conform.
Browning's case-study approach, i.e. focusing on a specific police battalion, is a refreshing change from the traditional focus on the camps. And some of the individual parts of the book are fascinating, including the Harvest Festival hunt, the person of Major Trapp, the father that turns in his daughter to save his own life, and the Polish husband that chooses to be shot with his Jewish wife. However, there are a number of problems with his work, including its central premise. In hindsight, we can see that perhaps these men faced nothing other than a good deal of verbal abuse from their colleagues if they did not partake in the murders. But, no matter how many people the men saw go unpunished or how many officers they saw in tears, they better than anybody, understood the illogical and unpredictable nature of the Third Reich. In other words, could they really have been confident enough of not been punished to cause them to withdraw in large numbers? Browning relies on the post-war testimony of men who have a pressing interest to downplay their willingness to participate in killing activities and their anti- Semitism. Also, a few hours a week of indoctrination is considerable. The level of indoctrination increases when one considers that just about everything during this time was steeped in anti-Semitic garb. The men may claim that anti-Semitism had very little to do with it and that indoctrination was not a factor, but how can they judge themselves reliably? Not to mention, their enthusiastic participation in search and destroy missions to ferret out hiding Jews and the level of volunteering which characterized this group suggests anything other than an unarticulated moral repulsion. What these men were expressing revulsion at was the blood and guts on their clothes, nothing more. One also has to ask why Browning is unwilling to believe these men when they say that they were repulsed by the gruesomeness and offer his own explanation of moral revulsion, when he is willing to believe them any other time. One also has to wonder how ordinary this group is when many of its leaders were career cops and members of the Nazi Party.
The claim that the men did what they did because of the pressure of conformity is most unsatisfactory. I agree with Browning that it was not a matter of bureaucracy or routine, nor was it a matter of segmentation and depersonalization of the murder process through space. Clearly, the men with brains and guts splattered on them were waist high in the Final Solution. But are we supposed to accept that peer pressure caused men to butcher other men repeatedly, even as they walked with old women and young girls to graves time and time again to shoot them in the back of the head?
There are many weaknesses with Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners, but his treatment of this Battalion is far more satisfactory that Browning's. There is too much evidence suggesting that these men were enthusiastic murderers.