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 Self Understanding

Why do you act the way you act?

Why do you think the way you think?

What is your purpose? Your intent? Your understanding?

Are these your own thoughts or someone else’s? Are these your own actions or someone else’s? How do you become an individual?

What obstacles are you putting in front of your own self? How are you lying to yourself? How are you adding to your own suffering and hardship?

What are the things you should be doing? What are the things you should not be doing? Why aren’t you doing them? Why are you doing them?

Why did you make those past mistakes? Why haven’t you fixed them? What mistakes are you currently making? Why are you making them?

Recently, I have come to know one thing about myself. It is that I only want the end goal. I don’t want to work for it. I just want the fruit without the labor. The reward without the work. To go to the Grey Havens without bearing the burden. This laziness and lack of commitment are in me and that must change. For me, that change is a change in perspective.

The end goal is clear but it is the everyday that matters. The process of getting there. Loving the process itself. Understanding and appreciating the struggles of the everyday and not craving for the easiness of the end. That is what it comes down to for me. Easiness. Wanting to be comfortable, to live easy, to have made it. But that has to be a distant thought in one’s mind. The Stoics might advice me to live in the present, to live in the now and not think about future which is uncertain. That advice was true in the Ancient times and it is true now. Living in the present means embracing whatever that is happening, not what is going to happen or what has happened. In the happenings of the now, one must find pleasure and peace. It goes back to the cliche saying about how its the journey that matters not where the journey ends. In stories, it is the transformation of the characters as they go through their ordeals that attract me, not the peaceful or unpeaceful end of the story. For myself, the lesson is in that.

Embrace the now, embrace the work, embrace the hardship. Without it, the end means nothing. The process of living is what should dominate my thoughts, not the calm end. Loving the hardship, not seeking the soft life of those who have made it. They have put in the work, I have not. It’s simple but it’s also difficult to put into action if you are constantly thinking about the end. So, I have to narrow my view to what is in the now and just work.