book response: Ordinary Men by Browning (1992)

Christopher Browning sought to find out how the Germans turned into genocidal mass murderers in World War 2. He used as his sample set the post-war testimonies given by men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 out of
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Hamburg and placed them against the back drop of official Nazi records of the time. These guys were "ordinary men," who had signed up as a reserve policeman either before the war or to stay out of the war. They just wanted to stick around Hamburg and work there, but like our National Guard, they were needed in Poland, behind the lines, not in combat with the Red Army, to prepare Poland for the expansion of Germany in it's blood purity. Eventually, over the next 16 months, all the men participated in mass murder, facilitating Himmler's Final Solution. Directly, the 500 men of this reserve police battalion, shot to death at least 38,000 Jews. (For all the Holocaust deniers out there, this number is from the Nazi's own records.) Indirectly, they herded onto trains headed to the Treblinka gas chambers and furnaces, another 45,000 Jews.

Browning follows their duty stations and actions chronologically. It was so gut wrenching that I had to take breaks every chapter or so, to breathe and clear my mind by reading another book or watching a movie or a TV show. As I learned from Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, there were not that many Jews in Germany, but Poland was the epicenter of European Jewry. Most of the genocidal gassing centers were built by the Nazis in Poland. In fact, one reason the gas chambers were needed was that direct murdering demoralized the Germans doing it, up and down the ranks.
The psychological burden was serious and extended even to Bach-Zelewski himself. Himmler's SS doctor, reporting to the Reichsfuhrer on Bach-Zelewski's incapacitating illness in the spring of 1942, noted that the SS leader was suffering "especially from visions in connection with the shootings of Jews that he himself had led, and from other difficult experiences in the east." p. 25
But until those genocidal sites could be brought on-line, men like those of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were given the orders to clear towns of Jews, bring them into the woods, line them up in front of pits dug to receive their bodies, and place the bayonets of their rifles in the right location on the neck for the most efficient kill shot, one at a time, hundreds per town, all ages, all genders, no exceptions. The commanding officer wished he did not have to give such orders to his men, in fact, he even let those who asked the freedom to any assisting job instead of the actual murdering. Despite his own misgivings, he was an ordinary man, he did not want to disobey orders. "He said something like, 'Man,...such jobs don't suit me. But orders are orders.'" p. 58 He was sure what they were doing was wrong, "'If this Jewish business is ever avanged on earth, then have mercy on us Germans.'" p. 58 He knew it was wrong, but acted as if the greater wrong was to disobey the orders. The Final Solution needed absolute genocide, so the reserve police were ordered to go on "Jew hunts" in all possible hiding places, in basements and barns or in hand-dug bunkers in the forests, even in a hollowed out hay stack.
...the "Jew hunt" was not a brief episode. It was a tenacious, remorseless, ongoing campaign tn which the "hunters" tracked down and killed their "prey" in direct and personal confrontation. It was not a passing phase but an existential condition of constant readiness and intention to kill every last Jew who could be found. p. 132
What enables ordinary men to become hunters of other humans, able to converse with them in one moment about shared experiences, some Jews they killed were German Jews who had left Hamburg, before sticking a gun at the back of their heads in the next moment and killing them? Browning discusses some of the theories offered, but he seems to agree with the one I also agree with, and I suspect Iris Chang would have also. She wrote about the same level of cruelty and genocide by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanking. See my book response here. Chang says the veneer of civilization is thin. I believe we are all subject to our sin nature to one degree or another. Browning quotes the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
Bauman argues that most people "slip" into the roles society provides them, and he is very critical of any implication that "faulty personalities" are the cause of human cruelty. For him the exception - the real "sleeper" - is the rare individual who has the capacity to resist authority and assert moral autonomy but who is seldom award of this hidden strength until put to the test. p. 167
We know what happens to courageous people, Jesus, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Bonhoeffer.  Not all courageous people are assassinated, but it only takes a few examples to overpower our moral duty with our will to live, and if not that bad, our will to live comfortably. Courageous soldiers lay on live grenades to save their friends. Courageous people choose to enhance the lives of others at their own expense, quite the rarity. Courage involves tremendous self-sacrifice, which is not ordinary. Browning focuses more on peer pressure, which I consider more the excuse than the ultimate cause.
Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets the moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot? p.189
I agree with his implied assertion that most of us cannot. But I think so few of us are able to assert moral autonomy at great personal sacrifice. I thought of my Jewish friends as I read these pages and wondered how many more of them are missing because of the Nazis, and would I be a courageous friend if faced with the choices the Reserve Battalion did? I hope I am one of those "rare individuals."
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