Understanding The Ordinary Men Who Massacred The Innocent

The question that is explored In The Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning, is how the Reserve Police Battalion 101, that was comprised of normal German civilians, were transformed and were able to participate in the massacre of innocent Jews during the Second World War. Additionally, what does this say of human nature?

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 upon the soldiers involved. For the following order by, Colonel Montua of the Police Regiment Centre was issued:

The battalion and company commanders are especially to provide for the spiritual care of the men who participate in this action. (p. 14)

Additionally, 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. The two main reasons provided by the text to why the soldiers continued to participate with the killings even though they had opportunities not to are conformity and habitation.

Conformity is defined as a behavior in accordance with socially accepted conventions or standards. The main reason why soldiers conformed was 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 but be labeled as a coward and be ostracized by the group or commit the evil act and be accepted. Here there is an example of how adaptable man can be. In order to deal with the psychological knowledge of what they were doing, some of the soldiers began to rationalize their actions as if they were the ones doing good. One such rationalization was that whether or not they took part in the shooting, those Jewish civilians were going to die. However, it the second kind 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 in the case of 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 patters of behavior and strategems of envaion 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 (167). The soldiers in the reserve police battalion 101 needed to be killers and so, they became killers.

For me, I tend to believe them both. I do not think that man is inherently good or evil but is capable of it and does have both of these aspects in them. However, for the most part, 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 it is clear that 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 rather, 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, is able to 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 boots of those German civilians and having to adapt to the reality of their situation. 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.

Lastly, in case anyone who reads this is under the impression that by trying to understand the Nazi soldiers, I or the text in any way 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.

Explaning 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)

 

 

 

Reflections: On Human Nature

Recently I have been studying the First World War and along with this, I have also spent time reading about the atrocities committed in the Second World War, specifically the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust. These conscious human actions have made me think about good or evil and whether or not humans are good. I’ve come to lean away from believing that most humans are fundamentally good and neither do I think they are evil. Rather, they have the capacity to do both, which is in some ways a sad truth but in another, it is a gift because when you do meet a genuinely good human being, it means that person has molded and made themselves good.

We all can commit horrible evil and to do wonderful good. Believing this is unsettling as well because to me this means that a person foundation can be determined by others. It can be swayed to one side or other by how the group is feeling because many people never create their own good or evil, their own limits and restrictions, instead they borrow that from the group they belong too.

What I mean by this is that it was ordinary men, truck drivers, waiters, business owners who participated in the Holocaust. The Japanese soldiers in Nanjing were regular working civilians as well but they still committed those acts. They knowingly committed these acts.  These people were not born like this. I am sure they told jokes and laughed, shared food, acted selflessly towards one another, told each other about their loved ones and about their hopes and dreams and then they committed rape and mass murder and then, those who survived the war, went back to their civilian lives.

It’s almost like this moment of madness in the otherwise neutral way of life. This plain existence on a chart that is disrupted by a sudden uptick and then back to the horizontal line as if the madness that is in us is able to breathe life for a moment. But this moment of madness existed and has always existed in humans. Almost everyone would have been a Nazi and they would have done those acts and the same goes with Japan and Nanjing.

This is no excuse but rather something that is evident of humans. Humans are adaptive. At the end of the day, humans will do whatever it takes to survive and to keep going and if this means to allow the madness inside of them to come out and rage, then so be it and if it means to keep the madness caged and lead a civilian life, then it shall remain caged, for the most part. You see it, madness, peak its head out in civilian life as well but not as much because there are laws to stop that and there is a certain way of life that everyone has agreed upon to live that stops this madness from raging.

But at war, when there is disorder, when it is not reason that leads but rather your appetite, your emotions and feelings that lead you and control you, it is difficult to keep the madness caged and it comes out and when it is unfiltered, you see the evil in man and the evil that has always been in man be unleashed and the consequences of this evil are hard to comprehend. This is compounded when the leader of the group allows the madness to go and even encourages it. Perhaps this is why it is easier for most people to cage off the group and say that something was wrong with that group. Something was wrong with the Nazi’s or the Japanese men at Nanjing but I don’t think they were any different from most people on the planet.

The reason for this is that there is only a small minority of individuals who lead their lives based on their own principles and rules. Most people live life according to the principles and rules set by group so, when those rules change, the individual follows and lives by the new rules but if one sets his or her own rules or principles then the outside does not affect it and by doing so, that individual can be the one to not only say no to killing an innocent child but try to save that child and even give his or her own life to do so.

However, most people don’t have to come to terms with such a thing. Most people live quiet lives where there is no need for the madness that is inside of them and whatever little madness does leak out every so often, it is easy to cage again. Most people then believe themselves to be good or at least lean closer to good rather than evil. They put up these false thoughts that they could never commit horrible evil.

But how do you know this to be true? If you have never faced a circumstance that tests your goodness and presents evilness as a viable choice and a choice that is being made by those around you, how do you know how you will act?

I doubt very much that the ordinary German or Japanese citizen ever thought that in a year or two they would be killing innocent women and children. Yet they did.

So, I think of the good and evil question and I cannot say the human being is either. It is good when it needs to be and it is evil when it needs to be.

Such are we.