Paper: "There, But For the Grace of God…" by Hannah Burtness

For History 456: Germany in the Twentieth Century, with Professor Peter Fritzsche
26 October 2010

What convinced the German soldiers who carried out the holocaust to do what they did? This is the question that Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, grapples with, by looking at the experiences of some of the men who were involved in the Final Solution to kill all European Jews. While their era, their culture, and the effects of the Nazi agenda all influenced these “ordinary men” in their motivations and justifications for killing, the ultimate lesson to be learned from Browning’s book is that none of these factors set them apart from any other group of people; these men were not fundamentally different from you and me. This makes the chilling fact of the holocaust that much more important to learn from. If it was people like you and me who actually did it, are we not susceptible to the same influences they are? Could we not just as easily be a cog in another evil machine?

One of the points that Browning’s study makes is that we must use a layered view of the situation surrounding the mass killings of the holocaust. He puts forward the idea that if we boil down the motivations of these “middle-aged reserve policemen” (Browning 3) to one simple answer such as Nationalism, racism, or anti-Semitism, we are oversimplifying the matter and risk misunderstanding how something like this comes about.

As Browning describes in his preface, discussing the motivations for the decisions these men made is in no way meant to exculpate or exonerate their crimes. It is instead seeking to understand the thought process that gave them, in their estimation, license to kill thousands of other human beings. As Browning puts it: “I must recognize that in the same situation, I could have been either a killer or an evader—both were human—if I want to understand and explain the behavior of both as best I can,” (Browning xix, xx.) His work does this well.

Some of the major themes that Browning discusses are the various avenues of authority by which the men of Police Battalion 101 felt compelled to kill thousands of people. The most obvious (but no less important to look at) is the basic fact of being a part of a military command: you have agreed to obey your superiors, and when they order you to do something, you are already oriented to do it. Obeying orders is one of the most important parts of being a soldier (and these police men were functioning much as soldiers); without this structure, an army will cease to function.

Along with the understanding that as a soldier or police officer you will be killing people (especially understood as part of being in the Nazi military), these men were in the middle of a war; a war where their leaders, as Browning points out, were constantly reminding them that they were superior and should act like it. In any war, men are prepared to kill other people. This war was based on race, so they were (at least theoretically) prepared to kill based on racial lines.

In addition to the formal authority structure of military command, there were other, subtler, ways that the men felt compelled to go along with the killings. Peer pressure is a major influence that Browning describes. When discussing the first big massacre, at Jozefow, he goes into great detail describing the leader of the battalion, Major Trapp, and his disgust at the work they were doing. Trapp even offered the men a way out; if they didn’t feel up to it they could step out. This is hardly the image of a strong leader coercing his men into battle. While discussing the psychological experiments done by Stanley Milgrim about humans’ response to authority, Browning mentions that if they are to be believed, “conformity assumes a more central role than authority, at Jozefow,” (Browning 175).

Browning bases a large part of his argument—that the behavior seen in the men of Police Battalion 101 is common to all of humanity—on these experiments by Milgrim. In the case of these German policemen, “experts” (Hitler, other leaders, propaganda) had been telling them time and again for the last seven years that the Jewish people are evil and deserve to die. While many of the men’s reactions show that these lies had not fully sunk in, the fact is that this pervasive ideology would have prepared them to follow authority where it was leading them, even though authority asked them to murder.

Another factor that came from above was the not-so-gradual escalation of violence against Jewish people that had been happening in Germany since the beginning of Hitler’s regime. The normal people of Germany (and in particular these men) were slowly brought from when they could have thought of Jewish people as neighbors, past legal rights being taken away from “Jews”, through Kristallnacht, to Jozefow, and ultimately to executing the holocaust. This de-humanization of the Jews was slow enough not to bother “ordinary Germans” (or at least, not enough to make them protest), and it was effective at creating the possibility for killing Jews.

The way that the men of Police Battalion 101 reacted to their situation can help us understand how German men in the twentieth century thought, but one of the greatest strengths of Browning’s work is the point that any human, when faced with the choices that these men were faced with, could respond this way. In other words, their situation was not singular to these men, or to their time.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were a time of modernization and bureaucratization. Being a part of German society, a person would have gotten used to being one part of a bigger whole and relying on those above you to make decisions (whether that’s the government, or the managers in your factory). In this sense, the men in question were already fitted and used to following orders, even before they joined the Orpo [Ordnungspolizei, “Order Police”].

Another product of the modern age is efficiency; not just the concept but also the methods of implementation needed to create a lot of something in a little amount of time. These concepts certainly influenced how the Nazi leaders led the men into massacring. After Jozefow, Browning talks about how the leaders needed to lessen the psychological burden of it on the Orpo, not to ease their minds or make them happier, but to make the killings more efficient. At the later massacre described in Chapter 9 of Ordinary Men, there were many changes to the plan to make it work better and get done with the massacre sooner. One of these was bringing in other soldiers to do the actual killing. Because of this, as Browning puts it, “the personal tie between victim and killer was severed,” making the work faster and easier on the soldiers (Browning 85). These and other changes were brought about to fix the problems on the floor, so to speak, to make the assembly line of mass death move faster. This concept is a logical continuation of the push for productivity and Fordism that grew during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

One of the biggest questions when looking at this subject is: was there something particular to Germans that made them more apt to become killers? This discussion is at the heart of the argument that Browning discusses in his afterword, which is between Browning and another historian, Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen’s thesis is that it was a virulent strain of anti-Semitism that created killers out of “ordinary Germans”; that in their hearts the ordinary German was completely in agreement with the Nazi party line about the evils of Jews.

Throughout the history of modern Germany, especially when looking at the Kaiserreich, you can see a cultural desire for strong leadership, and a willingness to follow the leader. In addition, the tradition of the glorious Prussian army cannot be forgotten when discussing Germany’s tradition of obedience, and obedience to the military select. This tendency to follow a leader could have made following Hitler to be seen as a positive choice. It also could have made it easy for individual men to submit to their military structure, even against their moral inclinations. But a tendency to follow a strong leader does not directly make killers. Was there something more in Germans, something that forced them into being willing murderers? Goldhagen argues that it’s anti-Semitism.

The argument between Goldhagen and Browning’s interpretation of the records from Police Battalion 101 comes down to the question of whether these men were normal, like us (Browning), or if they were different; evil, anti-Semitic to the point of inhumanness (Goldhagen).

I think the most surprising part of reading Browning’s book is the realization the reader comes to that these criminals, these murdering Nazis, were normal men. They felt remorse, they were at times horrified at the killing they themselves were doing. The evidence he puts forward as to the emotional toll on the men, specifically after the massacre at Jozefow, turn these Nazis from the cold-blooded bad guys from all the World War Two movies we’ve seen into real men who made terrible, terrible decisions.

Browning’s discussion is not looking for whom to blame for the mass killings; we know who the culprits are: the Nazis; in this case the men of Police Battalion 101 who actually pulled the triggers to kill Jewish men, women, and children by the thousands. As he says in his preface, “Ultimately the holocaust took place because…individual human beings killed other human beings in large numbers over an extended period of time.” (Browning xvii). Browning studied the story of these men, not to exonerate them, but to understand their motivations and how they became mass murderers. Goldhagen says that anti-Semitism is to blame for their actions. But it would follow from that logic that if I am not anti-Semitic (or to a wider extent; not involved in racial hatred against another group) that I am immune to being such a killer. Browning’s argument shows that, because the multi-faceted psychological factors involved in their motivation are common to all humans, no one is immune. And this argument--that the Nazis weren’t especially evil, but were in fact people just like you and me--is chilling, hard to face, and very, very important.

Sources Cited
Browning, Christopher. “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”. 1998. Harper Perennial, New York. Page xix, xx, xvii, 3, 85, 175.