How did a unit of ordinary German civilians participate in massacring innocent Jews? This question is explored In The Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning. Additionally, what does this say of human nature?
The book chronicles the Reserve Police Battalion 101, which was comprised of truck drivers, teachers, business owners, waiters, and other ordinary occupations. The book shows the slow devolution of morals and the evolution of group/mob mentality which allowed these seemingly ordinary people to commit horrible acts.
An important fact that needs to be acknowledged is that the soldiers and the officers involved in the terrible acts were aware of their actions and how wrong they were. Major Trapp offered the soldiers a way out of committing the act in turn showing that he understood the severity of their actions.
Trapp then made an extraordinary offer: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out. (p. 2)
Neither did the German leadership lack awareness of the psychological damage such acts can cause to the soldiers involved. The following is the order issued by Colonel Montua of the Police Regiment Centre:
The battalion and company commanders are especially to provide for the spiritual care of the men who participate in this action. (p. 14)
The soldiers also understood how evil their actions were.
Upon learning of the imminent massacre, Buchmann made clear to Hagen that as a Hamburg businessman and reserve lieutenant, he “would in no case participate in such an action, which defenseless women and children are shot.” He asked for another assignment. (p. 56)
However, not every soldier protested, and neither did they take Trapp’s offer to step out of the killing line. According to Browning, the two main reasons for this were conformity and habitation.
Conformity is defined as a behavior under socially accepted conventions or standards. The main reasons why soldiers conformed were that they did not want to be viewed as cowards by their fellow soldiers and neither did they wish to separate themselves from the group.
Nonetheless, the act of stepping out that morning in Jozefow meant leaving one’s comrades and admitting that one was “too weak” or “cowardly.” Who would have “dared,” one policeman declared emphatically, to “lose face” before the assembled troops. “If the question is posed to me why I shot with the others in the first place,” said another who subsequently asked to be excused after several rounds of killing, “I must answer that no one wants to be thought a coward.” (p. 72)
The predicament the soldiers found themselves in was simple: either be good and not commit the horrible evil and be labeled a coward along with group ostracization, or commit the evil act and be accepted.
This is an example of how adaptable man can be. In order to deal with the psychological knowledge of what they were doing, some soldiers rationalized their actions as if they were the ones doing good. One such rationalization was that whether they took part in the shooting, these Jewish civilians were going to die. However, it’s the second rationalization that was even worse as a thirty-five-year-old metalworker said:
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 neighbor 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. (p. 73)
Another feature of man’s ability to adapt to the demands of the environment can be seen with habituation. The initial killing was difficult, but with time and with more “practice” such an act became easier and easier and less psychologically demanding because this was what was asked of the participating soldiers.
Habituation played a role as well. Having killed once already, the men did not experience such a traumatic shock the second time. Like much else, killing was something one could get used to. (p. 85)
Once killing began, however, the men became increasingly brutalized. As in combat, the horrors of the initial encounter eventually became routine, and the killing became progressively easier. In this sense, brutalization was not the cause but the effect of the these men’s behavior. (p. 161)
In the months since Jozefow many had become numb, indifferent, and in some cases eager killers; others limited their participation in the killing process, refraining when they could do so without great cost or inconvenience. Only a minority of nonconformists managed to preserve a beleaguered sphere of moral autonomy that embodied them to employ patterns of behavior and stratagems of invasion that kept them from becoming killers at all. (p. 127)
So, even the horrible in us can persevere. Which for me raises the question of if there is inherent evil in us. In the book, Ervin Staub raises this notion of how evil that comes from ordinary thinking and is acted upon by ordinary people is the norm and not the exception. Meaning that acting in an evil manner is not “special” to us and that each one of us is capable of it (p. 167). Zygmunt Bauman, on the other hand, proposes the notion that man adapts to the role provided by the society he or she is in (p. 167). The soldiers in the Reserve Police Battalion 101 needed to be killers, and so they became killers.
For me, I believe them both. I do not think that man is inherently good or evil, but is capable of it and has both aspects in them. However, mostly, man is adaptable and he or she adapts to their environment. This brings up the importance of individual thinking, or at the very least, individual principles and limits. For, by following the group and falling into the herd mentality, one is likely to act in a manner that is despicable if that is what the herd demands.
If there is one thing I take away from this book, it would be this: realizing and understanding that I too would have acted like these soldiers if I were in their position.
This realization has made me question the way I act and the standards I hold myself up too because if I were to find myself in such a horrible position, I would like to think that I would act honorably and resist the evil. However, that can only be done if I act with honor and speak the truth at this very moment and hold myself up to a high standard so that if I were in such a position, I would not need to hope but I would know that I will do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.
Such standards are what I aim at. At the moment, I am far away from them. It is a vulnerable thing to understand how easily man, including myself, can follow the instructions of the herd without acting upon his or her own individual thoughts. This text brings forth the understanding of this vulnerable position and I am glad I can think and act in the correct manner now instead of being forced into the shoes of those German civilians. Ultimately, what this text does is that it shows the senseless killing of so many innocent human beings and serves as a reminder of the potential of both good or evil that is embedded in each one of us.
Last, in case anyone who reads this thinks by trying to understand the Nazi soldiers, I or the text try to justify their actions, I would like to finish with Christopher Browning’s statement on this topic and as well the words of the French Jewish historian Marc Bloch.
Explaining is not excusing, understanding is not forgiving. (p. xx)
“When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies.” (p. xx)