Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men

The English historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood once wrote that “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.” And of the many evils perpetrated in that bloody century, the Holocaust looms largest in the imagination – for the wickedness of the design, certainly, but also for the incredible scale of the operation, and the vast complicity this scale necessitated. One of the most haunting questions posed by the Holocaust asks how easily it might have happened elsewhere, or might happen again. Was Germany in the 1930s so unique, or do the forces that made men into monsters exist perpetually in the undercurrents of society? Ordinary Men, historian Christopher Browning’s investigation of the men responsible for carrying out the deportation and extermination of Poland’s Jewish population, seeks to answer that question.

Upon conquering Poland, the Nazis employed the “German Order Police,” a group of some 250,000 men, to control the conquered regions and, in accordance with their territorial ambitions, “resettle” Polish villagers. After the failure of the Russian campaign, when it became increasingly clear that Germany would not win the war, the Order Police were used to hasten Nazi plans for a Final Solution, either by carrying out massacres themselves or by rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of Polish Jews to the extermination camps. One unit, in particular, Reserve Police Battalion 101, was responsible for the massacre of some 38,000 Polish Jews, and a further 45,000 deportations – staggering numbers for a unit made up of fewer than 500 men. In their terrible efficiency, these men were not unique; similar Police Battalions can boast of similarly gruesome numbers. But a decade-long investigation into their actions, carried about between 1962 and 1972 by the Office of the State Prosecutor in Hamburg, yielded incredibly candid confessions and a wealth of documents and stories that have made this unit in particular a treasure trove for historians. Here is Browning, explaining this strange boon:

Unlike so many of the Nazi killing units, whose membership can only be partially reconstructed, Reserve Police Battalion 101’s roster was available to the investigators. As most of the men came from Hamburg and many still lived there at the time of the investigation, I was able to study the interrogations of 210 men from a unit consisting of slightly less than 500 when it was sent at full strength to Poland in June 1942. This collection of interrogations provided a representative sample for statistical answers to questions about age, Party and SS membership, and social background. Moreover, about 125 of the testimonies were sufficiently substantive to permit both detailed narrative reconstruction and analysis of the internal dynamics of the killing unit.

The question at the centre of this book is a simple one: how did “ordinary men,” fathers and brothers and sons, tradesmen and factory workers, ex-soldiers, firefighters and policemen, come to participate in one of history’s most brutal genocides? Before he can provide an answer, Browning preempts a shallow but expected criticism: that to attempt to explain the actions of these men, to point to causes and contributing factors, is to alleviate them of personal responsibility, to abstract them from the horrors of their actions – even, in some way, to sympathize with them. But Browning rightly replies that no amount of explanation can ultimately alleviate them of the weight of their responsibility, and that to pay no attention to the causes is to make ourselves vulnerable to their reoccurrence.

The narrative begins in the early hours of July 13, 1942, in the Polish village of Józefów. Major Wilhelm Trapp, commander of Police Battalion 101, has taken his men here without first telling them their mission; all they know is that they have each received an unusually large supply of ammunition. Finally, when he can afford no further delays, he confronts his men:

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. This assignment was not to his liking, indeed it was most regrettable, but the orders came from the highest authorities. If it would make their task any easier, the men should remember that in Germany the bombs were falling on women and children.

Their task was indeed a gruesome one: to separate the men from the women and children of Józefów’s 1,800-strong Jewish population. The men were to be sent on to work camps; the women and children executed. Trapp, not yet accustomed to this genocidal order, makes an extraordinary offer: any man not up to the job may exempt himself. Only a handful take him up on his offer. For the rest of the day, the executions happened in waves: two soldier would take two Jews – usually a mother and her child – deep into a nearby forest, where they would then order them to lie prone on the ground before killing them both with a well-placed shot to the back of the skull. But the men proved susceptible to the horrors of their undertaking. Many ran off into the winds, shirking their duty. Others needed to get increasingly drunk as the day wore on. A hardened few, according to testimony, managed to fulfill their duties without difficulty, but most began to rebel, at least psychologically. Hands became unsteady, their aim untrue, and this only added to the horror. Here is a description of the killing, provided by one of the former policemen: “Through the point-blank shot that was thus required, the bullet struck the head of the victim at such an angle that often the entire skull or at least the entire rear skullcap was torn off, and blood, bone splinters, and brains sprayed everywhere and besmirched the shooters.” Tasked with killing innocent women and children, many of the shooters turned to psychological rationalization. To begin with, they had years of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda to fall back on. When this failed, they devised alternatives. One soldier, who agreed to kill all of the children on the condition that his partner kill all of the mothers, rationalized his actions thusly: what he was doing was really a kind of deliverance, for what chance did the child have when the mother was dead?

Browning estimates that some 80% of the men participated in the shootings that day, but the remaining 20% demonstrated a remarkable ability to disclaim responsibility for their actions. They had not pulled the trigger; they had merely “rounded up” the Jews or marched them to the execution point, as if leading a child to her death is morally distinguishable from killing the child yourself. As the book progresses, killing comes more naturally to the men, and they exhibit a greater ability to dehumanize their victims. With the initial killings, for example, the men could recall precise details about their victims – what they were wearing, how they pleaded for their lives – but the later killings, though far more recent in their memories, were a blur, a mass of undifferentiated corpses.

Browning unfolds his story chronologically, taking his reader on a journey into the psyches of these men as they perpetrate a genocide, and if that journey is uncomfortable, even painful, it is because we are forced to confront, at every turn, how painfully ordinary these men were, how frighteningly like us in their failings.