Book Review: Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning

Last semester, I assigned Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland in my modern Western civilization course.  One of the other history teachers assigned it in a summer course, so I decided to keep in on the reading list for the fall.  Browning looks at the experiences of men in the Order Police assigned to Nazi-occupied Poland, not as frontline soldiers but as occupiers of conquered territory.  Reserve Police Battalion 101 was assigned at first to massacre Jews and later to clear Jewish ghettos and drive the residents onto trains for transport to the extermination camps.  Browning believes that this was not a group that would automatically follow along with the fanatical racism of the Nazi leaders.  Almost all came from the Hamburg area, where they held working-class or lower-middle-class jobs, and the majority fell in the age range of 37-42.  In 1942, only a quarter were Nazi Party members, with very few having joined before the Nazis came to power, and Browning thinks that a decent number of them must have been members of the Communist Party, Socialist Party, or a labor union before 1933.  These were not men programmed from birth to be killers:

By virtue of their age, of course, all went through their formative period in the pre-Nazi era.  These were men who had known political standards and moral norms other than those of the Nazis.  Most came from Hamburg, by reputation one of the least nazified cities in Germany, and the majority came from a social class that had been anti-Nazi in its political culture.  These men would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers on behalf of the Nazi vision of a racial utopia free of Jews. (48)

And yet they did kill.  After introducing the Order Police in general and Reserve Police Battalion 101 in particular, Browning catalogs the atrocities perpetrated by these “ordinary men.”  While the men found their first massacres to be horrible, Browning contends that only 10-20 percent of the men refused to kill.  Others, he argues, killed by their own volition and increasingly became used to the killing and even volunteered for missions.  One man even rationalized killing Jewish children if someone else had killed their mothers; he would never shoot the mother, but felt that her child could not survive without her, which allowed him to kill the child.  Even those who refused only seemed to achieve keeping their own hands clean rather than saving the lives of the victims of their comrades.

Browning’s most important sources were interrogations conducted in the 1960s by German prosecutors.  He realizes that these sources are problematic because interrogations will produce the incentive to exonerate oneself, and the time between the events and these interrogations leaves time for the imperfections of human memory to do their work.  Browning seems to approach the sources carefully, though, cross-checking information and acknowledging uncertainties.  One trend that he discerns is that the men tended to avoid any mention of anti-Semitism or anti-Polish feelings, but portrayed the Poles as ruthlessly anti-Semitic.  Browning writes that while Polish anti-Semitism and collaboration in the Holocaust was real (but not uniform among Poles), the Germans also were guilty of encouraging it.  The men seemed to be trying to exonerate themselves by blaming the Poles and portraying the Jews as passively accepting death.

Ordinary Men is a very carefully argued and documented book.  Much of the book, as one of my students pointed out, is simply description after description of the atrocities.  These set up Browning’s attempts to explain the men’s behavior at the end.  I think that he makes a strong case that the men truly did choose their actions, and were not compelled to kill.  Some of my students were not so sure, and raised two main objections.  First, although Browning argues that there is no evidence for the claim by some German Holocaust perpetrators that they would be killed if they did not follow orders, some of my students felt that the nature of the totalitarian society of Nazi Germany gave people a good reason to fear for the lives of themselves or their families.  Here is Browning’s comment on this objection:

Quite simply, in the past forty-five years [he wrote this in 1991] no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment.  The punishment or censure that occasionally did result from such disobedience was never commensurate with the gravity of the crimes the men had been asked to commit. (170)

To the defense of “putative duress,” the idea that perpetrators truly believed that they would be punished even if they would not have been, Browning responds while some people were pressured into killing, the culture of Battalion 101 was one in which people could dissent without much consequence at all.

The second objection was that Browning did not adequately address the role of anti-Jewish propaganda in Nazi society as preparation for the men to murder.  While he argues that the Order Police ideological training was not very rigorous, I think it’s possible that the general character of Nazi society contained a powerful inducement to kill.

Browning reveals a terrifying world in which ordinary people can knowingly do some of the worst things imaginable.  In this time after Christmas, it’s good to remember that it’s also the world that God so loved that he sent His Son into it to provide the way to forgiveness and salvation through faith in the suffering Savior and to defeat and someday destroy the powers of evil.  This should never be a tritely-expressed answer to the horrors of the Holocaust, but it does give us hope when we stare into the bottomless pit of human evil.

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11 comments

  1. If this is your top post today, does that indicate it is final’s time and students are mining it for research paper ideas?

  2. Milgram’s experiment is an important part of Browning’s explanation of the actions of the men, who coincide to some degree with the average people in the experiment.

    What did you think of the program’s discussion of Eichmann?

  3. I feel that while I can appreciate Browning’s arguement that these were not military men, but civilians, I don’t believe the word “ordinary” can be applied to anyone who can callously follow orders that result in the mass murder of millions. To me, this was not a group of normal average people forced into roles they didn’t want, but an unconciously indoctrinated group of men who had simply not been given the opportunity before to be tested. They were under considerable strain and encouragement to perform atrocities in the name of German interests, after being denied the opportunity to prove themselves within the military regime due to age and ability. I agree that peer pressure and conditioning enabled them to transition from horror at their proposed orders to indifference from direct involvement with the murder of the Jews. However, my belief is that these men were already inflicted with these anti-semetic influences long before WWII. The Jewish community was already under fire during and after WWI, despite the fact that 100,000 of the German troops were comprised of Jews. These men were 25 years younger when Jewish betrayal against Germany was a popular myth. They were far more impressionable and bore the weight of the economic downfall that spurred the rise of the Nazi party. To me, it is the same as a child growing up in a poor house with bitterly racist parents becoming a member of a racist organization in adulthood. Eventually, he’d be expected to take part in some violent and racist action. Of course he has a choice, but already being indoctrinated would make the shift that much easier.

  4. It’s an interesting and uncomfortable book to read. I don’t believe that the Jews went passively to their deaths. They must have been a proud and brave group. It is difficult to imagine the sounds, smells and sights that must have accompanied each of these incidents. My thoughts were the same as others – that the ordinary men must have been afraid for their own lives – but they apparently got over that worry!
    I do think it raises the thought that our founding fathers knew what they were talking about when the wrote the 2nd Amendment. Sometimes it is necessary to save yourself from your own government. Power is a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

  5. I haven’t read the book yet, but the reason I found it is that I’m interested in how ineffective religion is when actually tested against one’s culture, laws, & military. Weren’t most of these men “Christians”??? The general population of Germany was about 40% Roman Catholic & about 57% Protestant. I would want to know about the Hamburg area. Did they have Christian chaplins in this unit?

    • I don’t recall Browning mentioning any chaplains. I’m sure that most of these men were Christians by baptism and church membership, although I don’t know if the greater number of leftists in Hamburg might have meant a higher percentage of atheists or skeptics. Overall, though, the performance of professing Christians in Nazi Germany was infamous.

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