Ordinary Men Essay

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Browning opens the book with a brief first chapter describing Major Wilhelm Trapp’s orders on the day of July 13, 1942, when Police Battalion 101 committed its first massacre in the Polish town of Jozefow. This short chapter sets up the question that Browning will address over the next few chapters: “How did a battalion of middle-aged reserve policemen find themselves facing the task of shooting some 1,500 Jews in the Polish village of Jozefow in the summer of 1942?” (Browning, 3). The following chapters, from 2 through 6, chart the creation of the Order Police in the aftermath of World War I, and its early tasks in the first years of World War II, when its numbers swelled as thousands of German men volunteered, some to avoid the draft and front-line service, others with the hope of post-war career advancement in the Police. The Order Police were sent to occupied Russia and then Poland, where its primary assignment, to keep order, was aided by the passage of two decrees: the “commissar order”, which allowed for on-the-spot execution of any Communist functionary suspected of being anti-German, and the “Barbarossa decree”, which allowed German soldiers to shoot any Russian civilian without being subject to military discipline. Jews and Bolsheviks were the enemy, and they were to be handled “ruthlessly”. (Browning, 11).

In 1942 the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, Odilo Globocnik, was told by Himmler that the Jews of the General Government, who constituted the greater part of Polish Jewry, were to be eliminated as part of Hitler’s Final Solution. (Browning, 49). Extermination camps were seen as the most efficient means of doing this, but Globocnik needed large amounts of manpower to transport the many Jews of the General Government to the three extermination camps planned for Poland. The Order Police, who were stationed in Lublin and under Globcnik’s personal command, were one of many groups tasked for this challenge. (Browning, 51-2). When Battalion 101 arrived in Lublin in late June, 1942, the transportation required to transport Jews to the extermination camps was inadequate. Globocnik decided then to switch tactics to on-the-spot execution by firing squad, and Battalion 101 would be the test unit. (Browning, 54).

Chapters 7 through 16 describe Battalion 101’s physical actions as part of the Final Solution in Poland. Their “initiation” to mass murder was the July action at Jozefow, in which work-capable males were to be sent to a Lublin labor camp, while women, children, and elderly men were to be executed immediately. Major Trapp informed his men of this, and because he did not approve of such an action he told them that any who wished to be excused from the action could do so. Around a dozen men did so, including Lieutenant Heinz Buchmann, who would do his best over the next year to avoid taking part in other killing actions. After the executions began many of the men who had agreed to take part realized they could not continue and were allowed to leave. These men were not punished.

Over the next year Battalion 101 took part in numerous mass executions and deportations to death camps in the north Lublin district. Around 10-20% of the Battalion’s men found ways to avoid taking part in one way or another throughout the year, but those who did take part eventually became desensitized to their actions, although they did not entirely like what they were doing. Another minority of men became not only desensitized, but came to actually enjoy what they were doing. After the towns and ghettos of the northern Lublin district had been cleared, the Battalion was ordered to find and murder any Jews who escaped or hid during the earlier round-ups. The Battalion’s final act was to take part in the multi-unit “harvest festival” massacre of November 1943, in which all of the Polish Jews spared in previous massacres/deportations for their ability to perform labor, around 45,000 in all, were to be executed in a surprise roundup to prevent any possible uprising.

The final chapters of Ordinary Men, 17 and 18, comprise a discussion of the men’s testimonies, and Browning’s analysis of Police Battalion 101’s motivations. The Afterword is a response to the criticisms of Daniel Goldhagen.

‘Explaining’ Genocide: Browning and Police Battalion 101

One of the toughest questions to arise in the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust is a matter of motivation. What could have led the German people, a nation of otherwise sane, mentally healthy human beings, to commit mass murder on a scale which was absolutely unheard of in previous times? A myriad of potential answers have arisen over the more than half-century that has passed since 1945, but none has been satisfactory enough to receive unanimous agreement from the academic community. Christopher R. Browning’s 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, is a reversal of the “band of brothers” theme so prevalent in American films on World War II. The men of Battalion 101 committed mass murder because they were caught up in brutal, polarizing war, they were told time and time again the Jews were less than human, and most importantly they did not want to become isolated from the group of men they saw as comrades-in-arms. Ordinary Men is by no means the last word on what motivated the Holocaust’s perpetrators, as the striking debates between Browning and another scholar, Daniel Goldhagen (as well as followers and critics of both men in the academic community), have shown. But finality was not Browning’s goal, and the strength of Browning’s work is that he does not rely solely on one explanation for his thesis.

Browning’s interest in Police Battalion 101 arose because unlike most of the other units that took part in the Final Solution, Battalion 101’s history was documented post-war by investigators who sought to press charges against certain members. In all, 210 former members of Battalion 101 were interrogated between 1962-67 (Browning, 145). As one reviewer notes, the usual source of information on the Order Police and Einsatzgruppen were reports prepared soon after an action took place, then transmitted by “radio, teletype, and courier” back to Berlin (Breitman, 1638). The men who wrote the reports, as well as the men who received them, often “avoided or omitted issues and events, alluded to fundamental orders only in passing references, or used euphemisms.” (Breitman, 1638). Such inaccuracies do not discount all the information taken from reports made during the war, but it has led scholars like Browning to seek post-war testimony for the different light it can shed.

Browning is quick to note that we should not take the post-war testimony of Battalion 101 at face value. For one thing, the events in question were over twenty years in the past when the men were interrogated, and beyond a certain point memory becomes less reliable. Browning got around this by using the testimony of all of the men in question when describing a certain event, so that as many viewpoints as possible were included. Memory was not the only issue, however: the men knew they could be brought up on charges for what they had done, which led to certain events or states-of-mind being played down or lied about. For example, “According to German law, among the criteria for defining homicide as murder is the presence of a ‘base motive,’ such as racial hatred.” (Browning, 150). Due to such legal considerations, the testimony contained few statements on antisemitism unless the subject was an unpopular officer or the Polish collaborators (Browning, 151). The fact that Browning went into his study knowing these problems might occur, and the pains he took to use such issues to his advantage, means that his overall thesis holds up even when the testimony itself is imperfect.

Browning was not just interested in Order Police Battalion 101 because of the large amount of testimony they left behind. The Battalion represented an interesting test case that could be used to prove or disprove the many theories about what motivated German mass-executioners. For example, although membership in the Nazi party was somewhat overrepresented, the men primarily came from the same place, Hamburg, “by reputation one of the least nazified cities in Germany.” (Browning, 48). This common origin, as well as the fact that most of the men were middle-aged, was important to Browning because it meant that despite the relatively high level of party membership, nobody could say the Battalion’s members were primarily formed and shaped by Nazi ideology and anti-Semitic propaganda (Browning, 48). In a sense, they ‘knew better’, or at least ‘different.’ This would seem to disprove the theory that Hitler’s executioners were motivated solely because they had been saturated with, and believed strongly in antisemitic propaganda, although it does not discount the fact that such ideology was part of their motivation.

Battalion 101 was also an interesting test case because its members were given a choice as to whether they would take part in the mass killings or not, evidence that speaks strongly for Browning’s thesis. Before the men took part in their first massacre, at Jozefow, Major Trapp gave a speech in which he not only showed signs of being visibly disturbed by his orders, but also said that the older members of the Battalion could be reassigned if they so wished (only the older men received this offer initially, but later even younger members could step aside without punishment) (Browning, 55). Around a dozen men took this offer, but as time went on between 10-20% of the Battalion found some way to separate themselves from the killing (Browning, 73-4). The fact that these men were allowed to step aside from their duty, and were not punished in any material way (although feelings of guilt may have provided spiritual punishment to some), says a great deal about those who continued to shoot. At the very least, the relative freedom given to those who did not want to shoot says the rest were not under physical compulsion to continue.

The task of killing thousands of people at point-blank range was certainly not an easy one, and it had a great effect on the shooters, even the ones who became desensitized through repetition. Many spoke of feeling physically sickened by what they did at Jozefow, even decades later in their interrogations (Browning, 74). Others, in describing what went on, are extremely graphic about the horrors they witnessed, even in the Battalion’s last massacre, the “Harvest Festival” in which over 40,000 Jews were shot to death in a matter of a few days. According to Martin Detmold, “The whole business was the most gruesome I had ever seen in my life, because I was frequently able to see that after a burst had been fired the Jews were only wounded and those still living were more or less buried alive…. I remember that from out of the piles of corpses the SS [ sic] men were cursed by the wounded” (Browning, 140-1). The men who caused such images, which are disturbing even when viewed as printed words on a page, could not have ignored them, yet the majority continued to take part.

Browning denies that there was something intrinsically brutal about the men of Battalion 101, precisely due to the characteristics stated earlier. “In this sense, brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior” (Browning, 161). The men were not all inhuman, as the sickened reaction seen in even some of the hardened shooters will attest (although others, like Lieutenant Gnade, showed that they took a sadistic pleasure in what they did), and they were not selected beforehand because they had brutal characteristics. “By age, geographical origin, and social background, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were least likely to be considered apt material out of which to mold future mass killers” (Browning, 164). These characteristics of the Battalion, which made it so intriguing as a subject for Browning’s study, demanded a more complicated answer.

Browning believes there were a few different factors at work, each operating to turn the men of Battalion 101 into mass-murderers, and they had more to do with the “extraordinary circumstances in which the men were placed, rather than a conceded pre-existing antisemitic orientation….” (Moses, 205). For one thing, in the years 1942-3, when Battalion 101 committed most of its actions, Germany was a nation surrounded by enemies, a situation that undoubtedly forced its men to widen the circle of those it considered “the enemy”. The chaotic and “polarizing” effect of a war as encompassing and dehumanizing as World War II made it all too easy for Jews to be lumped into this category (Browning, 186). The propaganda pushed on every German citizen by the German state from 1933 until the end of the war was able to influence Battalion 101 in this situation. Although they had not been strongly antisemitic before, the general racism of Germany at the time gradually convinced the men to simply not care what happened to the Jews, as they were pushed further and further from the circle of humanity (Browning, 184). Alone, indoctrination was not enough to drive the men to commit mass murder. But when operating in tandem with an extremely dehumanizing war, the act of killing became easier.

Binding those two factors together is the fact that it is human nature to seek conformity in a group, and avoid standing out too sharply. To avoid shooting made a man seem weak in his comrade’s eyes, and it also might be construed as taking a moral stand, as though the non-shooter believed he was better than his fellows. Taking such a stand was “a very uncomfortable prospect within the framework of a tight-knit unit stationed abroad among a hostile population, so that the individual had virtually nowhere else to turn for support and social contact.” (Browning, 185). Not shooting, though it did not bring discipline from a man’s superiors, brought disapproval from the individual’s peers, a difficult thing for somebody in a strange land in the middle of a war to face. Again, Browning believed this factor was the most important one, and he is convincing in his argument that if the majority of the men of Battalion 101 had chosen not to take part in the killings, the rest would follow. But the majority stayed silent, so only a minority chose a separate path.

Browning’s very human explanation for the inhuman actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101 has received both support and criticism from the academic community, with the criticism coming most strongly from Daniel Goldhagen, who wrote an entire book in response: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. According to Goldhagen, the true motivation behind the actions of men like those in Battalion 101 could be found in Germany’s cultural history, which held a deep-rooted antisemitism that took a leader like Adolph Hitler to unleash. Here is Goldhagen, quoted in an anthropological analysis of his book: “What Hitler and the Nazis actually did was to unshackle and thereby activate the Germans’ pre-existing, pent-up anti-Semitism” (Hinton, 11). Goldhagen’s view is almost the polar opposite of Browning’s, because he sees what the Germans did as completely alien, something unique to their national culture and experience, where Browning sees the reaction of ordinary individuals to an extreme situation.

Goldhagen himself has received criticism for the extreme nature of his thesis. As one reviewer writes, Goldhagen ignored two fundamental points that disprove his thesis: “One is that not all shooters were Germans, the other, that not all the victims were Jews” (Hilberg, 723). Browning himself defused much of Goldhagen’s argument in the Afterword he added to the 1996 edition of his book, thirty pages devoted solely to the debate. Browning attacked Goldhagen’s methodology, for example his decision to leave out testimony he deemed “self-exculpating,” which for Goldhagen meant any testimony in which a German denied being completely at peace with the crimes he committed. “As a result, Goldhagen is left only with a residue of testimony compatible with his hypothesis…” (Browning, 211). To be fair, this criticism came from the obviously biased Browning, so it may not be entirely accurate. If true, however, it would be impossible to take Goldhagen seriously with such self-fulfilling research methods.

On a personal level, this reviewer, despite not having read Goldhagen’s book itself, disagrees with what he has learned of it from outside sources. Goldhagen’s thesis, by relying on a single factor as an explanation for genocide, comes dangerously close to dehumanizing the men and women who made up the Nazi state as much as they dehumanized the Jews. Battalion 101 was made up of around 500 individuals, each with his own childhood, sense of self, sense of morality, and goals for the future. The crimes these men committed cannot be forgotten or forgiven, but the only ‘good’ that could come of it is to seek an understanding so that it cannot happen again. Goldhagen’s thesis, as damning as it seems in regards to German society, is in many ways the “easier” one, because it allows us think that only a strange, alien culture could do what the Nazis did. Browning’s work forces us to look for the sources of evil in our habits and ourselves. This is an exercise of much greater use if we truly wish to learn from our mistakes.

Essay Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning

1256 Words6 Pages

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning

I. Ordinary Men is the disconcerting examination of how a typical unit of middle-aged reserve policemen became active participants in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Polish Jews. Reserve Police Battalion 101 was made up of approximately 500 men most from working and lower-middle-class neighborhoods in Hamburg Germany. They were police reservists, not trained in combat, some of whom worked with and had been friendly with Jews before the war. Major Wilhelm Trapp, a WWI veteran and career police officer headed the battalion. On July 13, 1942 the 101st Police Battalion arrived in Jozefow where Major Trapp informed his men they had received orders to perform a "very unpleasant…show more content…

Only 4 of the over 500 members of the unit were arrested, tried and convicted. Two were sentenced to a few years in prison, and two (including Major Wilhelm Trapp) were sentenced to death and executed. In the 1960's, the "Ordinary Men" came under scrutiny while Nazi war crimes were being investigated. Approximately 210 former "policemen" of the unit were questioned and fourteen members were put on trial. Though most were convicted, only five were given prison terms and the case pending against all others was dropped.

II. Enlightenment did not exist among the 101st battalion. There was no tolerance, acceptance or reasoning. If you believe someone to be your equal, how could you assassinate him or her? They were told to kill, and kill they did. There was no questioning their superiors when given a command, no matter how inconceivable the act was. Not following orders was unthinkable and denouncing authority was not even considered. The ‘Weltanschauung' of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 was the same as Hitler's. The men were immersed in racist and anti-Semitic propaganda. When receiving their first assignment in Jozefow, Major Trapp told his men the Jews were involved in the killing of women and children by bombing Germany and were involved with the partisans. The Jews were

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