In Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning uses the example of one particularly brutal Nazi police unit in occupied Poland to explain how a group of seemingly normal individuals could participate in some of World War II’s worst atrocities. By examining the mixed reactions they showed as they carried out their orders, Browning rejects the most common arguments as to why they complied with the Final Solution and asserts that a combination of factors motivated ordinary men to become mass murderers.
Reserve Police Battalion 101, a unit of the German Order Police (or “Orpo”), played a significant role in the Final Solution by serving as an occupation force in eastern Europe, rounding up Jews and political enemies of the Nazis, helping deport them to labor and death camps, and killing over 38,000 Jews between early 1942 and the end of 1943 (191). Its ranks grew from 56,000 in 1933, when the Nazis assumed control and created an extra tier of internal security, to over 300,000 by 1942, when the Final Solution was implemented (4-7).
Browning makes clear that the unit, which formed in Hamburg in early 1942, was not comprised of fanatical Nazis, rabid anti-Semites, or marginal members of society. The officers were mainly middle-class merchants and professionals (with some party members and only two members of the SS among them), while the ranks comprised blue-collar men who were not devout Nazis. Clearly, the men who committed mass murder were not marginal, violent criminals but solid citizens who were somehow transformed. The “Community” (Battalion 101)
The battalion’s early operations reveal its ambivalence about its mission in Poland. The unit’s commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, initially anguished over the orders to kill rather than simply deport Polish Jews, and its first major atrocity, the Jozefow Massacre of 13 July 1942, was hardly a coldly efficient operation by steely-nerved Nazis. The event, in which a Polish village’s 300 able-bodied Jewish men were deported to a labor camp while its 1,500 Jewish women, children, and elderly were gunned down, handled it inefficiently and with significant emotional division.
Beset by drinking and sloppy methods, the unit took much of the day to carry out their orders and was initially ambivalent about the entire premise of their mission. Trapp even gave his troops the choice to refrain from the killing, which twelve did; over the next year, about twenty percent of the unit either never killed Jews or initially did but stopped. Browning remarks that the few who bowed out did so for a variety of reasons.
They were so unprepared for the mission that they found it easier to follow orders than to think about their actions; many feared being labeled as “cowards” or “weak” by refusing to kill the unarmed; and, though few claimed to be avowed anti-Semites, “they had at least accepted the assimilation of the Jews into the image of the enemy . . . [that] was killing German women and children by bombing Germany” (73).
Trapp adapted to his men’s emotional chaos by sending much smaller groups to kill, avoiding the division and discord and thus making Battalion 101 a more efficient killing operation. Another of its operations, a massacre at Lomazy on 17 August 1942, proved Trapp’s wisdom; the unit’s Second Company, with help from “Hiwis” (Slavic collaborators with the Nazis), slaughtered 1700 Jews in much less time than the Jozefow killings took.
Browning comments, “Like much else, killing was something one could get used to” (85). Gradually, many of Battalion 101’s members became desensitized and some, like brutal, heavy-drinking Lieutenant Hartwig Gnade, actually came to enjoy their role as murderers. Even the worst were not monolithic Nazi madmen; they were still essentially normal men who struggled with their consciences but ultimately chose to become monsters.
Still, despite the unit’s large number of murders and increasing prowess at killing, it was never wholly united and some members, like Lieutenant “Heinz Buchmann” (a pseudonym, which Browning uses for many of the principal figures), made no secret of their opposition to their actions, but Trapp never disciplined him, even giving Buchmann a transfer and a favorable recommendation later in the war. Also, some of the enlisted men refused to participate, facing some indirect punishments like taunting and unpleasant duties, though none faced serious disciplinary action for their dissent.
Browning writes, “As long as there was no shortage of men willing to do the murderous job at hand, it was much easier to accommodate Buchmann and the men who emulated him than to make trouble over them” (103). In his final chapters, Browning makes clear that the battalion’s members did not consider their actions monstrous; they simply considered it a matter of following orders, and a few even thought that the Jews brought their fate on themselves by accepting it so passively.
Others believed that murdering unsuspecting victims was humane, because “a quick death without the agony of anticipation was considered an example of human compassion” (155). When trying to find reasons for why such seemingly average men without violent histories had become such bloodthirsty, ruthless killers, the author weighs the most common of historians’ claims (racism, excessive obedience, the role of propaganda, war’s brutalization, and the bureaucratic division of labor) and argues that none was alone sufficient to cause the unit’s transformation.
Instead, he implies that those factors’ combination, along with what author Primo Levi deemed a “gray zone” of “ambiguity which radiates out from regimes based on terror and obsequiousness” (187), allowed otherwise normal individuals to be transformed into murderers – and it could possibly happen again to another group of equally “ordinary” men. REFERENCES Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.