Title: Ordinary Men
Rating: 4 Stars
When you read about WWII, it’s easy to become inured to the numbers. Six millions Jews killed during the holocaust. Nearly three million ethnic Poles were killed during the occupation. 3.5 million Soviet POWs were killed by the Nazis.
The numbers become so large that they lose meaning. The Nazi regime becomes some abstract notion of evil.
What is sometimes forgotten (or maybe laid aside?) is that all of these millions didn’t kill themselves. There wasn’t some large machine grinding out murder. There were men that executed these murders. Especially in the early days, before the gas chambers, these murders were extremely personal.
This book moves away from the notion of abstract evil and concentrates upon one group of men. By and large, they were not Nazi careerists. They were mostly older men, so they had not grown up under Nazi ideology. They were businessmen and tradesmen. They were, in fact, ordinary men, mostly from Hamburg.
They joined a police battalion. Some of them did it to serve the war effort (they were too old, at the time, to serve in the army). Some were interested in becoming policemen as a career.
They were sent to Poland. There, ultimately, the vast majority of them ended up committing atrocities, including shooting Jewish women and children, shooting Poles, forcing Jews onto trains whose destination were extermination camps, and hunting out escapees in forests, calling these exercises ‘Jew Hunts’.
Make no mistake. This was personal murder. Especially at the first site, each policeman was paired up with a Jew. They then would walk in tandem to a specific site. The policeman would then take his gun, point his bayonet at a certain point of the Jew’s neck (helpfully previously pointed out by the unit’s physician, if you can believe that), and pull the trigger. If you pointed too high (which happened), the victim’s skull and brains would splatter all of the policeman. The policeman would then go back to the truck and wait to be paired up with the next victim. This went on until nightfall.
Why? That really is the unanswerable question. Why did they do it? Was it something specifically German or to that time? Or is there some larger, more universal reason common to humanity?
There are the usual reasons.
One is that they were just following orders. However, the commander of the police, when announcing the initial order to kill, wept while doing so and explicitly excused any man that wasn’t willing. Several men did step up and opted out with no apparent punishment. Later, as the horror of what the men were doing started seeping in, more and more men began to stop. They would just hang out by the trucks or wander off to the woods. Other policemen would intentionally fire and miss or would intentionally jam their guns. Again, there were no ramifications to the policeman that stopped participating. In fact, from a scholarly point of view, there’s no evidence in Nazi Germany of anyone actually being punished for refusing to commit atrocities.
Another possible reason is that the Germans just had a long term base hatred of Jews. However, there were times when Germans showed compassion towards Jews. Some of the Jews were actually recognized by the policemen (some of whom were from Hamburg). They were treated in a much more humane manner.
There is the camaraderie of the police. The Jews were going to get murdered, so if one policeman didn’t do his job, that meant that some other policeman was going to have to do it instead. The policemen were a unit, so there was loyalty to the unit. However, again think about what they were being asked to do. They were pointing a gun at a helpless woman or child and pulling the trigger. You would do that so you wouldn’t look weak in front of your unit?
Browning ties it back to the Zimbardo prison experiment and to the Milgram experiments. These are both famous experiments about how casually callous people can become to other people. With Zimbardo, men were randomly separated into guards and prisoners. Within days, the guards were effectively torturing and subjugating the prisoners until Zimbardo called the experiment off early. With Milgram, subjects would knowingly give what they thought were fatal shocks to test subjects, despite the test subjects (actors all) screaming in pain, continuing even when the actors lapsed into silence.
I honestly don’t buy into the argument that this was something unique to the German people or to the Nazi time. Think about the Khmer Rouge killing off one to three million people (out of a population of eight million). Think of the 800,000 people killed in Rwanda. On a much lesser scale but much closer to home, think about My Lai or even Abu Ghraib.
This is something that can happen anytime and anywhere. If the times comes for me, how will I respond? Everyone likes to think of themselves as principled and moral, but history would seem to say otherwise.
I can only hope that I will never be placed in such a position, but if I do, I can only hope that I will see the moral truth of the situation, make the right decision, and be willing to bear the consequences regardless.
However, reading a book like this and seeing all of these ordinary men commit overt crimes against humanity, it does leave me with a unsettling, gnawing doubt.