How ‘Ordinary Men’ Committed the Jewish Holocaust

Today, the atrocities committed under the rule of the Nazi party remain dreadfully terrifying to those who only read of such crimes in history books, let alone to those who experienced the terrors wrought by regime first hand.

It is all too often that individuals oversimplify how the notorious Nazi Party came to power in Germany.

Many conclude that, for such a bloodthirsty and malicious group to have been elected to power, German voters must have been brainwashed into mistakenly electing the blatantly hate-filled Nazis.  However, as argued by historian Christopher R. Browning, it is dangerous for individuals to not understand how the Nazi party, specifically, came to power.  Browning contends in his book that “ordinary men” can find themselves as the perpetrators of horrible crimes, such as the murder of countless millions as in World War II.

Ordinary Men documents how a very typical volunteer German police unit –not the more notorious German S.S., who are often perceived to be the sole perpetrators of the Holocaust –carried out dozens of instances of cold-blooded murder during a “short, intense wave of mass murder” (Cover).

Browning examines how such an ordinary group of German men could become part of the most notorious group of perpetrators of mass murder in recent history.  He grimly concludes that the blame cannot be placed upon Nazism or the German people in general, but more upon self-imposed human conditions like peer pressure, unrelenting loyalty to the unit and to one’s nation, and, simply, cowardice.  Browning believes that if the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become such terrible murderers.

Reserve Police Battalion 101 was a unit of just over 400 men from Hamburg.  Browning used Battalion 101 for his study because of how “ordinary” the men of the unit were: “middle-aged family men of working- and lower-middle-class background” (1).  In less than two years, Battalion 101 would become responsible for the shooting of 39,000 Jews in Poland and the deportation of 44,000 more to the concentration camps of Treblinka (89-95).

The curious aspect of the purge of the Jews in World War II is that the people who committed such crimes were even given the option to opt out of committing the murders (64).  However, as Browning illustrates, many were either two fearful or too proud to withdraw themselves from participating in the horrendous acts.  Eventually, even the more moral amongst Police Battalion 101 grew hardened to their heinous deeds: “Apparently the man who had wept through the massacre at Jozefow and still shied from the indiscriminate slaughter of Poles no longer had any inhibitions…” (102).

The rise of Nazism can be more accurately attributed to simple faults of human nature and not so much the common perception of overwhelming brainwashing, or entrancing ideological fanaticism from a racialist party and its crazed leader.  While, certainly, social issues of racism were contributing factors to the rise of the NSDAP, it played a marginal in the rise of the Nazis.

Browning’s book certainly contributes substantially to some historians’ beliefs that ordinary Germans bear large responsibility for not only the rise of the Nazis, but also the Holocaust itself.  Browning contends that it is certainly difficult, if not foolish, to make a sweeping generalization about the lot of human nature after studying the actions of 500 ordinary men placed in extraordinary situations (188).  Yet, even still, the historian argues that every human faces choices in his or her life, and that the perpetrators of the Holocaust consistently made the wrong choice, committing countless “terrible deeds” (188).

Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men (New York: Harper, 1992).

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