I’ve just finished reading Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, by Christopher Browning. This is a history book about a battalion of German police officers who carried out a substantial part of the Final Solution in Poland during World War II. The interest of the battalion, and therefore the book, is that they were indeed ordinary men: working class, middle-aged men, mostly from Hamburg.

These are not men you would have expected to become mass murderers: they were not young men in over their heads; they were not particularly enthusiastic Nazis; most of them were apparently not even very anti-Semitic; they were not recruited for their violent tendencies; many of them had families. They were just ordinary men, who happened to be in the area when their higher-ups had a job that needed to be done.

To fill out the historical picture: twenty years or so after the way, the (West) German government investigated the unit, and interrogated a large fraction of the battalion. According to Browning, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were unusually forthright about their participation in the atrocities, and (to a certain extent) were willing to reflect upon it. Nevertheless, as Browning emphasizes repeatedly, these were men who were facing prosecution for war crimes, so they had strong incentive to sanitize their accounts. Browning had to sort through all of that; for the most part he presents his reconstructed version, with occasional notes in the main text or the footnotes about his methodological struggles.

The book helped me to fill in gaps in my thinking, simply at the factual level. When I think of the Holocaust I tend to think of large populations of Jews being deported from large cities to death camps. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were generally active in smaller cities and rural areas. Jews from small villages were transported into ghettos in larger cities, and then eventually sent to the death camps. Not every village was close to trains, and group of 200 Jews wouldn’t warrant its own train, so the task was concentrate the Jews in a large enough group to warrant train transport. This was the battalion’s primary activity, in terms of time spent and the number of victims. The more bracing events were those in which the men were personally involved in shooting the Jews (invariably women, children, and the elderly). This happened whenever there was some logistical obstacle to transporting them to the extermination camps—or camp; given their region of Poland, it seems it was always Treblinka.

It seems that between 10% and 20% of the men refused to execute unarmed civilians, with another segment willing to begin shooting, but eventually having to stop. Among the officers and the men, some did seem to derive some sadistic pleasure from the process. But the typical response was simply participation: following orders, no matter what the orders might be. There is no record of men having been punished for having refused to shoot (in the entire Holocaust, actually). With the exception of one officer, such requests were always granted. Men who chose not to shoot were reassigned to other duties, such as cordoning the area, or transporting people, which—my reflection, not Browning’s—still materially participated in the activity, albeit at a distance. No one seemed to consider the possibility that the mass execution of civilians should be stopped, or even vigorously protested. Evidently no one protested against the “easier” work of sending people to extermination camps.

Why did the men shoot? Because they were told to. Because it was dirty work, and they didn’t want to be shirkers. Because everyone else was doing it. Because they were concerned that if they didn’t, it would imply they disapproved of their comrades’ behavior.

(From here on it’s my own interpretations.)

Men murdered unarmed civilians because they wanted to fit in.

Men murdered unarmed civilians because they didn’t want to come across as prudes.

I think those two statements go some way to capture the horror of the events. We have a moral aversion against killing humans, especially unarmed civilians. We would like to think that overcoming that aversion would require an awesome exercise of power—mortal danger, brainwashing, and the like. In the event, it turned out the reason ordinary men committed murder is the same reason a 13-year-old tries a cigarette, or the reason you laugh along with others at an off-color joke, even if you don’t think it’s particularly funny. The stakes are mass murder, and those are the factors that decide it. It’s not just horrifying, it’s also tawdry and stupid.

And I would insert another explanation, which Browning perhaps touches on, but does not explore. The explanation is that, given a task, most of us will begin thinking about how to do it, rather than asking of whether it is a good and necessary thing to do in the first place. Now, at the most trivial level, this describes every organization I have ever been a part of, and I’m sure stacks of business books have been written about it. The moral horror is that this same bland, organizational stupidity is at play when life-and-death decisions are on the line.

I was not immune to this thinking this past January, when we were privileged to be able to visit Auschwitz. Most of what you see in Auschwitz is neither gruesome nor gory. The main camp was a repurposed army barracks, so there is nothing visually sinister about the place. Only at certain points are you confronted physically with the suffering and death that occurred there: the hair, the suitcases, the images of the prisoners, the guide’s remarks about what notable person died in this very place. The magnitude of the crime prevented me from thinking about the individuals, and then the place itself led me to a focus on the logistics. How do you deal with so many bodies? How do you keep people calm on their way to extermination, and yes, it makes sense when you think about it how necessary it would be when you’re dealing with such a large crowd of people. (And, by way of explanation, I should say that the history of the camp was the history of the perpetrators, who were carrying out a task on an industrial scale. So there were constant reminders in the tour that such-and-such a place was built to accommodate this need, crematoria were thus-much more efficient that burning bodies in open pits, and so forth.) It was in fact how Amon Göth was portrayed in Schindler’s List, as flustered and frustrated by the logistical task he was called to perform. And I think that is true to life.

And again, the horror is that this utterly banal observation of how easy it is to focus on the how instead of the why ends up being the explanation, not just for stupid work meetings, but also for why people participated in the Holocaust.

So the moral thrust of the book is to show what an ordinary man is. The power of the book comes from the cognitive dissonance between what we think of as humanity, and what humanity actually is. If we cannot individually think, “That could have been me,” we can at least think, “That could have been the man I just passed in the grocery aisle.”

Now, the one criticism I have of the book is what Browning considers to be an explanation for these events. He falls back onto social science experiments, namely—you guessed it—the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment (about people administering electrical shocks as punishment, under the influence of an authority figure). To my thinking, it is trivializing to interpret an event like the Holocaust with conclusions drawn from experiments done on undergraduates for beer money or extra credit. I admit a bias: referring to these studies is now hackneyed; perhaps it wasn’t when the book was first published (1991). We’re surfeited with social scientists giving TEDtalks that give fancy psychological or sociological labels to commonplace personal and interpersonal realities, with the attendant claim that this constitutes intellectual progress. So I can forgive this element of the book, though I do think it was unfortunate for it to end on such a weak note. I would much prefer to see the social scientists scrambling to try to make their findings relevant to historical facts—any historical facts—rather than the other way around.

A second observation. Although Browning rightly takes pains to observe that these men were not selected on the basis of any criminal or ideological criteria, he does not seem to reflect upon the fact that these were, in any case, police officers, who had (to some extent) bought into the idea that the state maintains a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence. So, at the basic level, these men had bought into the idea that they would receive orders to harm people, and carry them out. That does not make one a war criminal automatically, but not everyone makes that choice.

A preoccupation of mine, it seems, is the extent to which people commonly make moral judgments; there is good reason to think that they simply do not. Instead the mass of us are just going along with whatever prevails in our society, without objection or protest. At some level this is an easy thing to say, but it follows that there is the potential for mass murder in each of us individually and collectively.

Browning approaches this reality, but (I feel) doesn’t really follow it up. Here’s as far as he goes, in discussing why the men might have been hesitant to attribute their actions to anti-Semitism:

To admit an explicitly political or ideological dimension to their behavior, to concede that in the morally inverted world of National Socialism—so at odds with the political culture and accepted norms of the 1960s [when the men were being questioned]—had made perfect sense to them at the time, would be to admit that they were political and moral eunuchs who simply accommodated to each successive regime. That was a truth with which few either wanted or were able to come to grips.

Browning pg. 150

For my part, I doubt that any of the men would actually have considered that interpretation. As I observed previously, with some frequency large swathes of the population change their attitudes about moral issues. I would think that most people justify their moral beliefs by what they feel, and they don’t follow the feeling back to its source. To this same point, there is a passage of Hannah Arendt that I cannot locate at the moment. I believe it was in The Life of the Mind that she noted the amazement on the part of some that, following the war, the German population was rapidly converted from a society that would carry out a policy of annihilation against Jews, to a modern, liberal democratic society. To this, Arendt’s reply was that it was not surprising at all, but merely the converse of the process by which the society became (so to say) murderous in the first place. It was a sociological change, not a moral one.

So to my thinking, the correct conclusion of the book is that the moral fiber of humanity is not what we would have otherwise thought, given the typical absence of mass murder. The stupid and the tawdry rule the day just as much in our trifling everyday affairs, as in questions of life and death.

As a Christian, I do not find that shocking—or at least I should not. The Bible teaches the radical equality of all sin before God:

For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.” So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law.

James 2:10-11

Put differently, the problem is not particular sins, but Sin (capital-s), which is a problem common to all humanity. Solzhenitsyn says it even better (better than me, not better than James!):

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.


Now, I am sensitive to the critique that James 2:10-11 provides an extremely blunt analysis of sin. When you say that the same impulse that makes you speak abruptly to your wife is the same impulse that in another situation would cause you to commit murder, there isn’t a lot of subtlety there. To be sure: speaking harshly is not the same as murder. But the claim is that the origin of both behaviors is the same. The same sin gives rise, in one set of circumstances, to a faux pas, and in another set of circumstances, to a death.

But of course, the argument cannot simply be that the Bible’s moral teaching is blunt, but that it is too blunt. And in this instance, at least, the Bible certainly has the facts on its side. We can see that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were not some uniquely depraved collection of individuals, they were simply men like you and I. The difference was in their circumstances, not in their essence. But for “time and chance,” I would be the mass murderer and they would be the ones writing the blog entry.

So I think that the appropriate response to this book—as with all atrocities—is confession. I don’t mean a lazy confession that “we are all responsible” in some amorphous sense where the words are bleached of their meaning, but that we confess that the Sin in our hearts is the same Sin in their hearts. The essence of the sin is the same, and if owing to time and chance I have never been instructed to kill, that does not make me the better person.