TAC Bookshelf: What Made the Nazi Police Kill?
Here's what TAC's writers and editors are reading this week.
Barbara Boland, TAC foreign policy reporter: What happens when middle-aged salesmen, bakers, police officers, and bankers, too old to be conscripted into the army, are sent to commit genocide? The book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, by Christopher Browning, takes a look at that very question, spotlighting those conscripted into a police battalion and tasked with enacting Hitler’s Final Solution.
The book is built from first-hand accounts of the “ordinary men” themselves (from their interrogations when they were put on trial in the 1960s). You wouldn’t think these men would have turned out to be mass murderers. But in short order, that’s exactly what happened, as they became directly responsible for the deaths of 38,000 men, women, and children, and another 45,200 who were rounded up and sent to the Nazi extermination camp Treblinka.
This book is a deep dive into the many reasons it was possible for ordinary men to so quickly become killers—and how easy it is to create a social dynamic where following orders and executing others becomes routine. Ordinary Men should be required reading, especially in our chaotic times.
The book begins with a poignant scene. At the site of the first mass murder his unit will commit, in the Polish town of Jozefow, a commander tells his men with tears in his eyes that if they are not up for the task, they may stand aside. Out of hundreds of men, only 12 do. The rest set about shooting 1,500 Jews in the back of the head and neck. Some of their victims are instantly killed, but many fall into a mass grave and are suffocated by the bodies that fall on top of them
From there, the book proceeds through a number of graphic, stomach-churning scenes. The unit rounds up and deports Jews to Treblinka and participates in chilling mass murders, including the Judenjagd, the “Jew Hunt” in the Polish countryside.
The book gives many personal accounts, showing that some people enjoyed killing, while a handful of others did everything they could to avoid it without reducing the effectiveness of the battalion. But the vast majority of the men did what they were ordered to do, and were amazingly effective it.
The contrast between the horrors the men committed and the ordinary people they were before the war, as well as the explanations they gave later for their actions, is striking. Although Browning explores many rationales, the reader will walk away from this book unsettled. Like Hannah Arendt, Browning’s conclusion is that the reasons men commit mass murder are fairly mundane: they defer to authority, feel the psychological need to conform, are afraid to look “weak” in front of other members of the battalion, are detached from the people they kill, had been indoctrinated by the Nazis to dehumanize the Jews. Not everyone killed for the same reasons, and none of these reasons alone would have likely been enough, but together, they were sufficient to justify one of Hitler’s most brutal killing sprees. What’s even scarier is how very few chose to step aside from these mass killings when given the chance.
I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.”