I made an 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.
Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning is a historical account of Reserve Battalion 101, a part of the German Order Police, constituting of middle-aged Germans from Hamburg turning into cold-blooded mass murderers who slaughtered thousands of Jews during the Second World War.
The objective of the book is twofold. First, try to piece together how the Nazis were able to carry out the Holocaust at a time when their entire military strength was stuck in the offensive thrust against Russia. In eleven months, from mid-March 1942 to February 1943 they had managed to murder 75-80 percent of the Jewish community which had managed to survive in hellish conditions for the last two and a half years. Where did they get the manpower needed to carry out this slaughter and who were these people. Second, psychologically try and understand why these men discharged their orders, what choices they had, their motives and if these were indeed ordinary men, what made them transform into the people that caused this genocide.
Reserve Batallion 101 was chosen for this study as they were one of the only squads who were indicted for their crimes against humanity after the war and there is an extensive corpus of verbatim available from their interrogations. It’s extremely difficult to accurately determine the chain of events as orders were rarely written down in Nazi command and usually transmitted through word of mouth. The accused were also under duress during interrogations for fear of implicating themselves or betraying their comrades so the transcripts should not be accepted at face value.
We can simply label the perpetrators as monsters or ideological fanatics and argue that this analysis serves no purpose. If we try to understand and explain their actions and motives we are inherently forgiving them for what they did. But as Browning points out in the preface itself
Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving. Not trying to understand the perpetrators in human terms would make impossible not only this study but any history of Holocaust perpetrators that sought to go beyond one-dimensional caricature.
The members of Reserve Battalion 101 were working-class or lower-middle-class people. These were people who had families and other jobs. They were not indoctrinated Nazi fanatics who blindly followed the order of the Reich. These people never expected to be drafted into the role that they were thrust into, not in a million years. But by the end of the war, this battalion of 500 officers was responsible for the deaths of at least 85,000 civilians. Browning proposes that a mixture of motives, including the want to conform to the group identity and not stand out, deference to authority, propaganda, a sense of superiority against the Jews and twisted moral justification of their actions as shown in the top quote were responsible among others were responsible in driving these people to commit these atrocities against defenseless, unarmed civilians.
As Browning notes in the final lines of the book,
In every modern society, the complexity of life and the resulting bureaucratization and specialization attenuate the sense of personal responsibility of those implementing official policy. Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressure on behavior and sets moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?
Was an absolutely chilling read.