Review: Ordinary Men
- Published: 27 April 2010 27 April 2010
- Last Updated: 12 July 2013 12 July 2013
Christopher R. Browning
What turns decent, middle-aged family fathers into genocidal killers? Where the atrocities committed by the Germans behind the front lines something unique, or can we expect to see crimes against civilians in other places and in our time? Is it possible that we don’t know how we would react when faced with the choice to “just follow orders” or to defy them? Christopher Browning, a professor of history at the Pacific Lutheran University, caused quite a stir when his book was first published in 1992. The years that have passed haven’t diminished the impact or importance of the book, and events since its first appearance have confirmed that all too many “ordinary men” are capable of and even willing to commit atrocities.
The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 hadn’t signed up to be murderers. Too old for army service, they were drafted for service with the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei, or OrPo) and rear area security and policing duties. But unbeknownst to them, the decision to exterminate the Jews had been taken, and in order to round up and execute them, the OrPo was among the services picked for the task. On the morning of July 13, 1942, the 500 men of the 101st were roused for an “action” against the village of Józefów in Poland. By the end of the day, 1,500 of the 1,800 Jewish inhabitants were dead, shot by family fathers in their 30’s and 40’s, some of them new to the unit. What damned those men was the choice presented to them: the battalion commander, major Trapp, who was clearly distressed by the orders he had received, gave the men the option to not participate in the shootings. Several accepted that, and during the day, more men asked to be excused from shooting unarmed civilians. Despite peer pressure and being regarded as shirkers, perhaps 10-20% of the OrPo men didn’t actively participate in that and subsequent actions. Even so, the Reserve Police Battalion 101 was instrumental in the killing of 38,000 Jews in 16 months, and in assisting the deportation of a further 45,200 Jews to the extermination camps.
How could this happen? Relying heavily on interrogations conducted in the 1960’s, professor Browning tries to understand what made those men kill, or in many cases not kill. The resulting account is a chilling reminder of how thin the veneer of civilization can be. The book, finished just months before the civil war in Yugoslavia, and before the war in Chechenya and the massacres in Rwanda, paints a bleak picture of human nature, but not without forgetting that there was a not insubstantial number of men who didn’t want to participate in those killings, despite the extreme conditions. The claim that “I was just following orders”, and that not doing so would invariably lead to grave consequences, doesn’t hold water. But the author doesn’t choose the easy way out and explain it with an especially virulent, antisemitic strain in the German people, like Daniel Goldhagen (author of “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”). Instead, he points to experiments conducted by Milgram and Zimbardo (the former the infamous “electric shock” experiment, the latter with groups of “prisoners” and “guards”), which show that there’s a tendency to conform to the group, and to do things otherwise unthinkable as long as ordered to do so. The Holocaust was an extreme, but the mechanisms behind it didn’t disappear with the Nuremberg Trials.
Professor Browning ends the book with a 30-page afterword (found in editions from 1998 onwards), where he replies to the criticism from David Goldhagen, whose controversial “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” used the same police battalion for his thesis that the Germans wanted to exterminate the Jews, and that Hitler only supplied the means. Methodically, Browning devastates Goldhagen’s assertations in a quiet but scathing manner. Of the two books, “Ordinary Men” is perhaps less spectacular, but it is the one that has become a classic in its field. On a side note, I contacted professor Browning concerning a couple of points in his book, and I received a reply in less than 24 hours. That alone deserves respect.
While I don’t like “books you must read” lists, “Ordinary Men” should be read not only by those interested in the darker sides of WW2, but also for its comment on human nature in general. Not only an account of the act perpretated by the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, the book is a warning that we are all well advised to take with us into the 21st century.
(Reviewed by B. Hellqvist)