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Christopher Browning, most known for his novel Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101, relies on the investigation of the forces at the military police Battalion. These males of 101st were not enthusiastic Nazis but common middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg. They were drafted but found unsuitable for normal military work. This Battalion was put to hold up the forces in the ghetto and beat all women, babies, and elderly individuals on sight.
During these executions dozens of these officers sought to be given release from their execution jobs, attempting to not be assigned to the firing teams. After the murders were finished, the men drank heavily, agitated by their experience. Undoubtedly, Anti-semitism and the large indifference towards cruelty law allowed them to block the inhumanities they committed. Yes, these were possible reasons for how ordinary men transformed into genocidal killers, but Brown’s book examines how ideology did not drive the killers. In this essay I will discuss motive stemming from conformity, peer pressure, career advancement, and routine tasks. These factors influenced the behavior and actions of the men of Police Battalion 101 in combat situations.
How it works
Before Hitler arrival to power, cruelty was already normative in their society. This allowed for the race discrimination and dehumanization of the Jewish community with easy assimilation and conformity. Major Wilhelm Trapp and his team reveal reasons why the majority chose to kill and how they handled their emotions, displaying the coping mechanisms they enlisted to reconcile the horrors they’re enacting. The Order Police battalion were first ordered to the small village of Jozefow, a prominent jewish ghetto in Poland.
Trapp, before ordering the killing of Jews clearly showed his moral guilt in different ways. He informed the Battalion of the orders that was given, “Pale and nervous, with choking voice and tears in his eyes, Trapp visibly fought to control himself as he spoke. The battalion, he said plaintively, had to perform a frightfully unpleasant task” (2). After, Trapp used the myth of Jewish power, while also reminding the Battalion that the Jewish population had caused the War and that still now, “bombs were falling on women and children in German towns”(17). This made him feel like his actions were justified. On several occasions Major was seen weeping in his office.
Trapp says, “If this Jewish business is ever avenged on earth, then have mercy on us Germans”(18). Trapp refused to participate in the mass murders in-person because he could not stomach it. The reactions of Trapp shown in the book clearly shows the humanity and moral discrepancy he was internally facing. Only 12 men back out before the shooting began, but others began to do so after the had killing started. Peer pressure was a primary motivation to not withdraw from the mass murders of Jewish people. A large portion of the men who participated in the genocide were disgusted but did not have the courage to give up. Some of the policemen stated that those who refused to kill were bullied and labeled as weak men.
These men were seen as the outliers due to the fear of being labeled as nonconformist, this fact mixed with the peer pressure they felt from the larger group was a sufficient reason to kill. “Fear” is a famous explanation for the police battalion 101 behavior during the Holocaust. This factor, along with worrying about their careers being jeopardised because they are surrendering. The men continued to kill not due to their goal being to harm others, but simply due to their want to continue being be recognized for their courageous work and obedience to higher authority.
This bring me to three questions: When is someone responsible for their own actions? Was the men’s superiority a valid explanation for genocide? Did the inculcation affect/ justify their action? Socialization in the family, school, and community mold children into adults who defer to authorities recognized as legitimate. In Nazi Germany, the socialization, including political indoctrination, of young people became a priority for the regime, reflected in the Nazification of education and as of 1939, compulsory membership in Hitler Youth. In all societies, youth in the process of developing identities experience different kinds of pressures and temptations than their elders, but these policeman were older.
Violating the norms of one’s group is difficult for all ages and an individual has a stronger impulse to go along, to avoid feeling “different” or risking social rejection. After the genocide in Jozefow, according to Browning, the men were unable to cope with the pressing problems and experiences with their assignment. So, when they were assigned to kill again their reactions were not repugnant as the first killing, but became more efficient. Again, the men would drink alcohol to erase all the atrocities from the day. Soon, the men adapted to the routine and killed without questioning it. Browns said,
The victims were lined up facing a six-foot drop. From a short distance behind, the policemen fired on order into the necks of the Jews. The bodies tumbled over the edge. Following each round, the next group of Jews was brought to the same spot and thus had to look down at the growing pile of corpses of their family and friends before they were shot in turn. Only after a number of rounds did the shooters change sites.
Browning argues that the protagonist’ were ordinary men under severe pressure. The men were not trained to assess, protect, repair, and sustain government systems through any kind of crisis. The horrific experience of killing another human beings and perhaps through conditioning is how ordinary men became geniode killers. Browns says, “….Trapp immediately reported to Lublin that 3 “bandits,” 78 Polish “accomplices,” and 180 Jews had been executed..” (102). The men stop seeing human being and they began to see the entire Jewish community as just statistic.
Browning suggest, that Police Battalion knowledge was limited and the different ideologies within the military affected their perspective and judgment in a way that may later stir regret. Their assignments and beliefs are in flux, which made it even harder, even if one has moral qualms, to resist the lead of others—dominant peers or older authority figures. These issues along with several others made the men vulnerable to exploitation by the Nazis and their collaborators.
In closing, I find myself with many more questions about the nature of moral and duty of the policemen in our community. Should German people and perpetrators be viewed in a aggressive and dehumanizing way? Maybe with the deeply rooted anti-Semitic culture and “willingness” to kill. Browning argues that the protagonist’ were ordinary men under severe conditions and although anti-Semitism was present, there were influences based on conditioning and preferred that cannot be ignored. Browning perspective could possibly be true but what can we learn from a single viewpoint?
Browning text invites us to question how we would behave in similar situations in hope of reaching a understanding or empathizing with how these men were transform. So, what lesson do we learn from Police Battalion 101 and humanity? What additional understandings can one gather from the events taking place during the Holocaust without starting from human actions? There seems to be no sole reason or explationtions for how the men became genocide killers, nothing apart from recognizing the vulnerability and capability of the human mind.
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