Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Ordinary Men"

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In his book, Ordinary Men, Christopher R. Browning gives readers an in-depth look into the minds of the “ordinary” German men, specifically those of Reserve Police Battalion 101, who became perpetrators in one of the most horrifying events in history; The Holocaust. The question arises; how and why did these ordinary men suddenly become cold-blooded killers? This is the issue Browning explores throughout the reading. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 did not begin as bad men or murderers. So, what happened? There are a number of circumstances that can be attributed to what led these ordinary men to aid in Hitler’s Final Solution.

The issue of simply following orders proved to be the most frequently stated explanation, given by the perpetrators, for their behavior. Along with the culture of the Nazi dictatorship came extreme obedience and discipline. “Orders were orders, and no one in such a political climate could be expected to disobey them, they insisted” (Browing, p.170). The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, from the very start, were simply following the orders given to them. When first called to serve, most men were not even fully informed or aware of exactly what they were expected to do. They had no knowledge of the massacres they would later have to take part in. However, many admitted that when they were told by a higher authority to kill, they did because they were ordered to do so. Fear for his own live kept many from backing out or refusing authority.

Another circumstance leading to the contribution of the Final Solution was conformity. To give an example, one can look at the situation at Jozenfow when Major Trapp informed his men, for the first time, of the upcoming massacre they would have to take part in. Trapp offered a way out to any man who did not wish to take part. All he would have to do is step forward and excuse himself. Out of five hundred men, only a dozen responded. Many men later admitted that those who felt they could not handle the task of single handedly shooting the Jews in the back of the neck, killing them at point blank range, were thought of as “cowardly” or “weak”. Browning points out many times that most of these men did not agree with, or want any part of, the treatment of the Jewish people. Some refused, but many pushed themselves through their first few rounds to appear strong in the eyes of peers and authority figures. It seems however, that over time, the task had become less difficult. This brings up yet another factor explaining the behavior of the men of Battalion 101.

As the number of murders increased, the traumatizing effect it had on the perpetrators gradually decreased. Reserve Police Battalion 101 became desensitized as time went on, especially when they were not directly participating in the shootings. In many cases, then men would begin to justify their actions at any cost. “Out of sight was truly out of mind. Indeed, for some men of Steinmetz’s platoon, the most vivid memory was that they were assigned guard duty in a swampy meadow north of Parczew, where they had to stand all day with wet feet” (Browning, p.0). Even Major Trapp, who wept throughout the first massacre and refused to even be present during the early shootings, “no longer had any inhibitions about shooting more than enough Jews to meet his Quota” (Browning, p. 10) when in the Kick Ghetto. What had at first seemed like a nightmare to the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 had now become an everyday reality.

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Finally, the issue of careerism played a major part in the driving force that led these men to contribute to Hitler’s Final Solution. There were men, such as Lieutenant Buchmann, who had “well established civilian careers to return to” (Browning, p.16). Therefore, being openly opposed to the treatment of the Jews, and refusing to participate in any physical aspect of the project had no negative repercussions on their future. On the other side of the coin were men who hoped for a future in the police, and therefore felt the need to prove themselves by performing over and beyond what was expected. Careerism for these men was the driving force that led to their contribution of Hitler’s Final Solution.

In Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning has created a thought provoking and eye-opening perspective on the events of The Holocaust and the Final Solution. His look inside the minds of these men helps to explain why ordinary men would grow to kill innocent people. However, these circumstances do not excuse their actions. What one might find frightening is the fact that they were every day, “ordinary” men. However, as Browning chillingly stated, “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”

Ordinary Men

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