Regarding Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men
The first and the final agenda of Hitler was the extermination of Jews. The basic objective of his all War plans was to wipe out this race from the face of this Earth, as would be testified from this order. Browning writes, “Major Weis then went further. The war, he said, was a war against Jews and Bolsheviks, and he wanted it understood that the battalion should proceed ruthlessly against Jews. In his views, the meaning of the Fuhrer’s orders was that the Jews, regardless of age or sex, were to be destroyed.”(Browning, 1993, p.11) The initial action plan commenced not in Poland, but in Russia in 1941. Destiny played its part and how soon Hitler had to commit suicide, bemoaning, “Brutal force has not won anything durable!”
What does Browning’s work say about institutions and individuals we may take for granted, as well as human behavior?
Browning throws the correct light on the composition of the German reserve battalion. They were middle-aged men belonging to the working class, mostly artisans. In the normal course of life they would not have been specially trained to become villains and shoot to kill. They were ordinary men, would have served in their workplaces till retirement, and walked up to the grave. Unfortunately they found mention in the World War II history. Wars create strange and desperate situations and those who need to take decisions, have little time to think deep. Stalin ‘learnt’ from Germany and used the same tactics to pit one ethnic group against the other.
Indecision is the least tolerated word in the army circles, but the job at hand at Josefow was so serious and inhuman, Browning gives details of the initial hesitation and vacillation of the Commanders, and how the men forming part of the execution squad were molded to be ruthless and cruel as they were not in a position to negate the commands of the highest authorities. The devastating conditions of war could produce evil incarnations, because no Commander would like to be accepted with any sort of excuse for non-performance of duty and the ultimate defeat.
Men, women and children are the normal casualties and have to bear the brunt in situations of war. Before the actual commencement of the dastardly action, the psychological state of the Commander, Browning describes thus: “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 highly 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.”(Browning,1993, p.2.) Browning makes the position clear. The orders from the highest authorities had to be carried out, howsoever unpleasant they might be. Any latitude would mean certain death for the Commander himself. The Commander must have thought—if one of us has to be the survivor, let it be me-you better die! As for the method of killing, I have the voluminous job at hand, so shootout is the only option with me and my men!
Who might become a perpetrator?
The path of downward spiral is fast and one need not take to special efforts to do such march. Just be the part of the crowd. The destination-less and directionless individual will be automatically pushed to the doom. The nerves of the Holocaust perpetrators were not made of special steel. Extreme cruelty was not a German trait either. The contributing factors were the routine ones: loyalty to battalion, doing one’s duty and above all ideological indoctrination! Their own actions utterly surprised them, once the evil phase was over. Their transformation as brutes could be due the overall anti-Jew sentiments prevailing in the then atmosphere. In the hysteria created by war, self-defense assumes priority, the survival of the Nation is equated with the survival of the individual, annihilation of the people that you don’t like hoped to create more space and job opportunities for the Germans, the leaders encouraged the people to practice the racist ideology and the questions seemed to have no answer, you were mentally blocked —‘do or die, don’t ask why’- is anyway the final order in the army discipline.
How would you define heroism and resistance after reading this book?
What does the book say about Nazism and `ordinary Germans? `
In every historical situation, it is the leaders who deserve debits or credits. It is true as for the political, economic and military leadership. The power of a dictator or military general in times of war is unlimited. The time at one’s disposal, to take decisions is also limited. Such decisions have far-reaching implications, for better for worse. Browning admits that the interrogation process of the Survivors of Police Battalion 101, commenced after more than two decades of the happenings of the event. Give allowance for memory distortions, such men would give priority to conceal their guilt first, because if it is proved, it may lead to unwanted consequences as for their life and those of their family members. They might even repent what they did under those grim circumstances and would never like to reveal the ugly aspect of their life. This may not be true of the die-hard Nazi Generals, but very true of the ordinary Germans. The interrogation process can not be fair, for the fear of prosecution will, loom large on the minds of the interviewers. So, dishonesty in testimonials is the distinct possibility. Such doubtful credentials can not be the basis for compilation of the unbiased history of the period.
What type of resistance to the mass murder took place among Police Battalion 101?
Reserve Police Battalion 101, a unit of over 450 adults was imposed upon the responsibility to shoot 39,000 Jews and deportation to Treblinka of 44,000 more. Unit Commander, Major Trapp was acting true to his name, trapping the helpless men, women and children on July 13, 1942, though he explained and initiated the action with tears in his eyes. Josefow was the unfortunate village in Poland. Some of the able-bodied Jews were spared the ordeal. The man, who initiated such crimes, was the top authority presiding over the destiny of Germany. The able-bodied Jews were rounded up– they would be awarded death later—for the time being their services marked to be utilized to serve as the labor force to serve the German army units. Rapp was, however, lenient on the older men of the unit; those unwilling were spared the agony of participating in the heinous acts. About 20% of the force availed the option and the rest, did he assigned duty to perfection. Browning’s study reveals, that most of them were not much educated, did low level jobs, had no career ambitions, and they were there to make their livelihood. They were not committed to hardcore Nazism, nor had strong faith about the purity and superiority of the German race. They were just part of the series of unfortunate evens, over which they had no control. They had to act in the way they did. But the question is not whether one individual is killed or one thousands are killed. It related to the mind-set of then forces that took part in the action. If one reads the stories of atrocities, in the police stations, ethnic and religious violence, and also the sadistic battlefields, Major Trapp would perhaps shift in his grave. Nazi Holocaust demanded worldwide attention, because the man, who initiated it, was the number one leader who presided over the destiny of Germany.
How did it manifest itself? What issues are brought forth here that you understood already?
The initial phase of the unpleasant task may be difficult for the ordinary men. But unfortunately it has been observed by the psychologists that over a period the ordinary men transform as professional brutes. They lose all sorts of human sensitivity, once they do the same thing over and over again. It soon becomes the mission, and they develop among themselves a competitive attitude, as to the degree of brutality they are capable of committing. Murder and torture become sporting activities to them, especially when they have freedom to do what they like by the Commanders. This is the human tendency limited to only ordinary people. It is true of the Officers also. The examples cited are Fighter Pilots getting the “hunter disease” and the serial killer, feeling the hankering for the next kill. During hostilities and in war situations, the spiritual schedule of even the most intelligent individual, takes the back-seat. The Satan ruling over the faculties of judgment and here is the real threat. The worst in the personality of an individual finds manifestation, and he derives the sadistic pleasure of committing the heinous acts.
What perspectives are new?
It is difficult to entirely agree with Browning that men of the Reserve Battalion 101 were ordinary men. Even if they were, these men did not remain ordinary men in relation to the operation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Some of them could be ordinary at the time they marched to the Josefow village but they were certainly devil-incarnates by the time they led the Jews to the Treblinka Concentration Camp. Perhaps, they were then convinced about their objectives and became the willing partners of the Holocaust. In the unit set-up, the ordinary men only have the assigned duties to do, they rarely get opportunity to think or do anything independently. However, in the situation they are placed in, they can not be categorized as good human beings. In the case of Unit 101, the Commander gave specific option to the men to seek participation in the action or not. Only a small percentage opted out. What about the rest? This is an important question.
SS Commandant Rudolph Hoess of Auschwitz Extermination Camp:
In the summer of 1941, Hoess was summoned to Reichsfurher SS, Himmler received him alone, to give a crisp order. “The Fuhrer has ordered that the Jewish question be solved once and for all and that we, the SS, are to implement that order.”
Hoess was entrusted with the obvious task. He was instructed that further details would be given by Sturmbannfuhrer Eichmann of the Reich Security Main Office. The logic given was barbaric. That the Jews were the enemies of Germans, and if they were not destroyed during the war, they would eventually destroy the Germans. The Jews were to be exterminated systematically from Polish territory under German rule, Germany, Czechoslovakia, West France, Belgium and Holland. The extermination was to be done by gassing. The plan was later prepared and approved by the Reichsfurer SS.
Stanley Milgram, a graduate with PhD in social psychology from Harvard’s department of social relations, instead of probing the inner psyche of human beings, proved something about the external social forces that have powerful effects on one’s behavior. The subjects were made to believe that they were part of an experiment related to relationship between punishment and learning. The learner ‘was punished’ by electrical shocks. In fact, the actor was not given the shock. It was a make-believe arrangement. The significance of the experiment can be linked to what happened to an ordinary German soldier. The findings of the experiment were, “. They demonstrated with jarring clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced to act destructively even in the absence of physical coercion, and humans need not be innately evil or aberrant to act in ways that are reprehensible and inhumane. While we would like to believe that when confronted with a moral dilemma we will act as our conscience dictates, Milgram’s obedience experiments teach us that in a concrete situation with powerful social constraints, our moral sense can easily be trampled.” The soldiers acted like the robots trained to do violent acts. Their actual thinking process had collapsed.
The pages of human history daubed in bloodshed of mindless violence relating to class, ethnic, color, race and religious violence, ask the crying question. How to make this Planet Earth heaven-like? The answer is simple and direct. Eyes full of understanding, hearts full of love and the life that refuses conflicts—enough, these alone are enough! To achieve such a state, the thought process of each individual, has to change. When the thought process is changed, the action process will also change. When the thoughts are changed, the mind is changed; when the mind is changed, the man is changed; when the man is changed, the society is changed. That indeed is the dawn of the era of plenty and prosperity as for the whole world!
Browning, Christopher: Book: Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (February 5, 1993)