Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland is a nonfiction account of the genocidal journey of a police battalion conscripted into Hitler’s Final Solution, mostly from first-hand accounts of the men themselves (from their interrogations when they were put on trial in the 1960s). The term “ordinary men” refers to the types of men they were before they became part of the war effort. Many (if not the majority) were cigarette salesmen, bakers, metropolitan police officers, and bankers. They were middle-aged men deemed too old to be conscripted into the regular army. In short, they were not the kinds of people you might expect would go on to become mass-murderers.
The first mass murder takes place in a Polish town called Jozefow. The commander of the unit was teary-eyed and choked up when he gave the order to his men. Accounts hold that he even gave them a way out, stating that if any man didn’t think they were up for the challenge (of murdering thousands of Jews on that day), they were free to step down. About twelve men (among hundreds) decided to step down and opt out of the killing. As a side note, these are the men we should really be studying, because if every man had their courage, we may have avoided the Holocaust altogether. Nevertheless, 1,500 Jews were shot in the back of the head and neck that day. Many were killed on the spot, and many were gravely injured, but left in the mass grave to suffer a slow, more painful death, being suffocated by their friends and family as they fell on top of them.
The book follows the battalion through other such mass killings, Judenjagd (“Jew Hunt”) in the Polish countryside, and their participation in gathering up and deporting Jews to Treblinka (a literal death sentence). Ultimately, these bakers, salesmen, and police officers were directly responsible for the deaths of 38,000 men, women and children through mass-shootings, and another 45,200 through collecting people from the ghettos and forcing them onto trains for Treblinka (a Nazi extermination camp).
Browning offers up a variety of reasons that these ordinary men participated in genocide, some more pertinent than others. Among those reasons are deference to authority, psychological need for conformity, fear of a brutal regime, fear of looking “weak” in front of other members of the battalion, detachment from the people they were killing, and indoctrination via the Nazi propaganda machine. None of these individual reasons would have been enough to drive ordinary men to mass murder, but altogether, the reasons became enough for many of them.
“But those who killed cannot be absolved by the notion that anyone in the same situation would have done as they did. For even among them, some refused to kill and others stopped killing. Human responsibility is ultimately an individual matter.” -Christopher Browning via Ordinary Men Chapter 18
While reading Browning’s conclusions, I couldn’t help but think about the conclusions of other men who have grappled with the evil deeds of men. In their own ways, both Jung and Solzhenitsyn tell us that we all have the inherent capability for malevolence. Jung adds that being hyper-aware of that fact is essentially our only shot at preventing us from acting upon it.
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn via The Gulag Archipelago
“…inasmuch as I become conscious of my shadow I also remember that I am a human being like any other.” -Carl Jung
Final say: 4/5 stars. This is a very powerful book that is difficult to read at times due to the (necessarily) graphic depictions of violence. If you are at all interested in human nature or World War II, read this book.
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