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on 16 February 2009
Descriptions of the Holocaust never lose their power to horrify - the cold bureaucratic language of official reports is particularly sickening. However, those who try to comfort themselves with the illusion that the Holocaust was the work of a unique handful of sadists will find this study of a single Reserve Police Battalion doubly disturbing: sadists there certainly were, but mass murder on such a gigantic scale would not have been possible without the participation of a huge number of "ordinary men". One's sympathies are solely with the Jewish and Polish victims, but an honest man must also ask himself some uncomfortable questions, "What would I have done if I had found myself conscripted into a Reserve Police Battalion and ordered to shoot unarmed men, women, and children? Would I have been one of the few with the courage to refuse to shoot? If so, is that enough? Does morality not demand more? Would I have been capable of more active opposition?" Many people might like to fantasise that they would have rescued like Oskar Schindler, protested like Sophie Scholl, or even resisted like Claus von Stauffenberg. Yet fantasy is what it is: the reality is that for every Schindler, every Sophie Scholl, and every von Stauffenberg, there were thousands of people like the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, most of whom knew that what they were doing was wrong but who did it nonetheless. We should never attempt to justify this, but we need to explain it if we are to stand any chance of preventing such atrocities in future. Professor Browning, like most academics, feels obliged to deny the validity of the Nuremburg Defence, "I was only obeying orders": while he is doubtless correct in saying that historical research has failed to authenticate a single case of a German serviceman being executed for refusal to kill unarmed civilians, a conscript in 1942 was in no position to know that. All the conscript knew was that the Nazi military code mandated capital punishment for refusal to obey orders and the Nazi authorities were not squeamish about executions - whereas the Americans executed only one soldier for desertion in World War Two, the Germans executed thousands. The conscript would also, of course, have witnessed the ruthlessness of his superiors first hand. It would therefore take a brave man to disobey: the fact that some did, and survived, does not negate the fact that the pervasive atmosphere of physical fear in the Third Reich must have had a far bigger impact than most modern academics are prepared to accept at this safe distance. Coercion must therefore be recognised as a significant factor, but many still went far beyond anything they were forced to do. Browning also touches on a number of other factors which he might have explored further: the grey area between obedience to authority and social conformity; the sense of inevitability developed by huge bureaucracies; and the way the men were incriminated gradually, by small steps, from guarding convoys to forming cordons around villages to rounding up Jews to shooting stragglers to massed executions. In the end, Browning is right to conclude that many factors were at work, but the most significant is that most human beings have a strong psychological need to conform. That excuses nothing, but knowing it means we can guard against it. In an age of so-called "political correctness", governments with more potential power over the individual than the frequently chaotic Nazi state, and mass media far more intrusive than anything available to Dr Goebbels, our only hope is to learn to cherish nonconformity. Of course, some say that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen here and now - but that is probably what the future conscripts of Reserve Police Battalion 101 would have said in 1932. Sorry to go on so long, but the issues raised in this book are important and they really ought to be considered in much greater depth.
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on 19 December 1998
Reserve Police Battalion 101 was composed of 500 middle-aged men who had come from Hamburg, Germany and were either too old or unsuitable for the army. It was these ordinary men that carried out a piece of the dreaded New Order in Hitler's Europe, systematically gunning down Jews, Poles and other undesirables. They followed the dreaded "Einsatzgruppen," or Mobile Killing Units that carried out similar ghastly deeds and were, in turn, predecessed by the German army operating in the East. In this tremendously interesting and radical book, Christopher Browning has painted a portrait filled with much more than blood, guts and bone-splitting detail: he has clearly shown how these ordinary men became the perpetrators of some of the most henous crimes in history. It was Police Battalion 101 that commited the single greatest atrocity commited during the whole of the Second World War. It was this group -- which began as one composed of men who could not bear to see their victims falling in corpse-filled ditches -- that were responsible for the shooting of 38,000 people and another 45,200 who were deported to the killing center of Treblinka. Tracing their origins from the killers' own testimonies and using a brilliant writing style, Browning's book remains a crowning historical achievment, for it shows how this group of ordinary men went from scared individuals to systematic killers of humanity.
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on 22 January 2003
This book shatters all reassuring fantasies that atrocities - on whatever scale - are carried out by drooling sadistic monsters. It shows how ordinary men can gradually lose their humanity and lightly, casually murder men women and children in order not to let their mates down or be considered soft.
Sickening but necessary reading, and despite the horrific nature of the story told, beautifully written by Christopher Browning.
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on 18 April 2007
Amongst historians this book has quickly reached the status of a classic. But it deserves to have a much broader readership as the subject it tackles - that of how 'ordinary men' can end up doing morally repugnant deeds - has implications that go far beyond its historical context. There is a human tendency to categorise and blame groups of people because it is easier than facing the possibility that anyone is capable of horror. An example would be the claim that 'religion causes wars' - it places the burden on an external agency, on the 'other' rather than the fact that anyone can commit an atrocity.

This is what Browning's book illustrates beautifully; the gradual steps these ordinary men take on the path to atrocity. Browning refers to a number of psychological studies as well as the historical record to illustrate his points and the book is nothing if not frightening in that you can see how this could all to easily happen again. From a reluctance to let down their comrades to the difficulty of disobeying orders from a higher authority you can see how some of these men ended up becoming killers.

Browning's prose is succinct and he explains his points clearly and logically. Whilst the complex ideas don't always make for easy reading, Browning deftly provides examples and explanaions that illustrate his point.

This is an important book and it deserves a wide audience.
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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.
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on 2 June 2010
The horrors of the Nazis are well documented, this book looks at how a number of ordinary mature pillars of society embraced the Nazi killing machine and became facilitators of slaughter of innocents.

Having researched this subject over a couple of years, the psyche of Nazi murderers, this book has finalised my interest in the subject and answered the outstanding dilemas I had.

If you want drama and voyourism about Nazi attrocity, this is NOT for you, it goes much further, deeper and poses dark questions about how we might behave in similar barbaric circumstances.
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on 15 June 2014
This book fails to answer the central question it poses: Why did "ordinary men" do what they did in Eastern Europe between 1939-1943? In so doing (or not doing), however, it asks another, more important question.

The book shows how a relatively small number of men, from moderate and mainly non-military backgrounds, carried out their work. And their work was murder, either in direct one-on-one shootings of eastern Jewry, or indirectly, forcing these terrified souls onto the cattle trains that had as their final destinations the death camps of Sobibor, Treblinka et al.

Without living in that awful period it is hard to imagine the mindset of the oppressors, let alone the oppressed and the horrors they were subjected to. And that is why it is always going to be hard to understand how these humdrum Germans did what they did. The final third of the book is a rather laboured attempt to explain, to contextualise their actions. I just do not think it can be done.

Thus the book raises another - far more unsettling - question: Given that these men did what they did, would you or I have done anything markedly different, had we been in their shoes? This is not rhetoric: "Ordinary Men" (very well researched, written in a straight-matter-of-fact manner) is likely to make you question your assumptions. Unsettling indeed.
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on 30 October 2009
What makes this work genuinely remarkable is that unlike so many books about the Holocaust, and other atrocities of the Second World War, it attempts to view events through the eyes of the perpetrators rather than those of the victims. Whilst some reviewers seem to find the whole premise reprehensible, this is what makes this volume fresh, different, and rivetting. Some have criticised Browning on the grounds that the depositions of murderers always, or almost always, contain deliberate fabrications, convenient lapses of memory, and other devices of wishful thinking to justify their actions: but Browning does in fact bring this to the reader's attention, realises the implications for his research, and tries to take some of this into account.

What emerges that is particularly valuable is vast areas of 'grey' in what is so often a black and white picture of good and evil. Some of the Reserve Police unit embrace their task of annihilation with gusto - one officer brings his new wife along to witness the slaying. Others carry out their duty grimly without comment, others follow orders but stop when there are no directions. The unit commander clearly does not like the job - and absolves some of his more humane, or more squeamish, underlings, of their duty. One or two brave men refuse to kill - but even one of these cannot seem to completely escape culpability when faced with a direct order from a senior officer who is not of his own unit. Given the nature of the evidence that exists Browning has done a remarkable job. This is one of those books that it is difficult to put down until finished.

So why four stars not five ? This is a very good book - but there are a few points of note. Perhaps the first is a technical difficulty, as Browning was obliged, or felt that he had to, obscure the identities of many of the protagonists. This is a great shame as sixty or more years after the event it would be far more satisfying to lay blame where it was due, and give some credit to the few who attempted to avoid - successfully or otherwise, becoming part of the crime. As the main sources are official, court related, documents, there should really be no problem. We know everything about Fred and Rosemary West in the most excruciating detail - so why not the identities of those from many years earlier, acting on a much larger and more public stage ? Prosecutions have already taken place - and the few players that are still alive are likely to be the most junior ones, and of very advanced age.

Another weak area is arguably the comparisons with psychology experimentation, which might be said to occupy far too much of the book. The environment of the laboratory in peacetime is nothing like a war, and however good the actors none of the participants will have lived through the times which are the subject of the book. The blood and the pain were not real in the theoretical. Moreover good history usually identifies as many particular facts and circumstances as possible and then attempts to interpret them -in short tells us why something was unique, not how it was just like everything else. Finally the substantial addenda which outlines arguments with other historians is not of great interest, and if anything detracts from the gravity and significance of the book. Brownings work stands by iteslf, and needs no external justification. Recommended.
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on 27 January 2012
This (226 page) book is by Christopher Browning, an American history professor. It's an account of the Reserve Police Battalion 101's brutality in Poland in 1942-43 when it (500 men) shot 38,000 Jews and sent 45,000 by train to Treblinka. The book discusses why ordinary men (in mid-life having grown up in the pre-Nazi Germany) were willing to commit atrocities. Why did so few refuse orders?

The book's in 3 parts: a history (massacres, "Jew hunts", deportations to Treblinka), chapter 18 which discusses why ordinary men would do such things, and an afterword where the author discusses his views vis-à-vis those of Daniel Goldhagen ("Hitler's Willing Executioners"). The first 2 sections are excellent, the last long and less relevant because Browning doesn't alter his views. He rejects Goldhagens view that anti-Semitism created a permissive climate.

The causes of the events are not easy to disentangle. For example, the atrocities were unusual in being institutionalised, bureaucratised, ... as opposed to excesses of individuals. Whilst most perpetrators said they were following orders, policemen who refused to obey were treated leniently. I was tempted to sum up by saying the climate was anti-semitic, orders are orders (few question authority), and group solidarity binds men together; ... no doubt these were important factors. But there are deeper forces at work. Christopher Browning argues that war, with it's heightened tensions, provides a medium in which barbarous acts arise. I'm tempted to think Mr Browning is assuming people are more rational than they are. Individual actions often arise from half-understood fashions or trends in life, and to some extent have roots outside reason (as opposed to being based on firm conviction). Perhaps men follow the herd because their humanity has shallow roots and following is easier than making a stand.
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on 12 February 2015
An excellent, if disturbing book. By the nd of reading it your faith in the innate goodness of the aevrage guy in the street is a bit shaken. On the other hand, it points out that some of the men did their utmost not to get swept up in the horrific events around them.
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