"Ordinary Men" Christopher Browning

We can never begin to understand Genocide and its root causes by looking the victims. There have been thousands of books written about the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor, but very little in comparison that deal with the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity.

Ordinary Men is part narrative account, part analysis of the history of a group of Hamburg policemen. All middle-aged, and too old to serve in the German army after the outbreak of the Second World War, Police Reserve Battalion 101 are then sent to the Lublin districts of Poland to perform “police duties“ for the new General Government – occupied Poland. The book is based on the unique collective accounts of around 125 of these policemen interviewed around 25 years later as part of an investigation into their actions during WW2.

Piecing together their history Browning paints an incredible picture of how a few hundred ordinary middle-aged policeman could – within just a short space of time – be turned into the executioners of tens of thousands of Polish Jews. It follows the story of the men who seemingly just followed the orders they were given and murdered thousands, but also talks about the 10-20% of the men who refused to take part or at least stood up to their commanders and questioned their orders and actions.

In trying to find an explanation for the apparent ease in which many men diligently followed their orders Browning hits the nail on the head.

"War, a struggle between “our people“ and “the enemy“, creates a polarized world in which “the enemy“ is easily objectified and removed from the community of human obligation. War is the most conducive environment in which governments can adopt “atrocity by policy“ and encounter very few details in implementing it. As John Dower has observed, “The Dehumanization of the Other contributed immeasurably to the psychological distancing that facilitated killing“. Distancing, not frenzy and brutalization, is one of the keys to the behaviour of Police Battalion 101. War and negative racial stereotyping were two mutually reinforcing factors in this distancing."

When analysing the accounts of the men who refused to shoot, either before or during the initial massacre at Józefów Browning explains “Even twenty five years later those who did quit shooting along the way overwhelmingly cited sheer physical revulsion against what they were doing as their prime motive but did not express any ethical or political principles behind this revulsion“.

Some of the direct quotes from the interviews provide an incredible insight (and disturbing at times) into the mind-set of the men at the time. A thirty five year old metal worker from Bremerhaven explains about the pairing off of victim and assassin before entering the forests to commit the murder…

"I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbour then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers."

However Browning explains that the German word for release – erlösen – also means redeem or save, when used in a religious sense. The one who releases is the Erlöser, the Saviour or Redeemer.

The final part of the book is a long afterword designed to answer (and throw back) criticism of his work by another author who used much of the same source material but came up with in the most part, a very different conclusion. In Daniel Goldhagen’s book “Hitler's Willing Executioners” the author claims that anti-Semitism was so virulent in pre-Nazi Germany that it formed not just a part, but the whole root of subsequent policy, and that the whole of Germany was “In one mind”…