Christopher Browning. Ordinary Men

Christopher Browning. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. HarperPerennial, 1998.

This fascinating and disturbing book has been out a while, but I just lately got around to reading it. It addresses a big issue–trying to gain some understanding of how German people could have participated in mass murder in the Nazi era–in a helpful way by focusing on just one small part of the story. Browning looks at a single group of German soldiers and their process of becoming ever more involved in genocide.

Part of what is disturbing in this story is that, as the title states, these were “ordinary men.” They were not professional soldiers but rather a reserve unit of civilians pressed into service, sent to Poland, and ultimately ordered do kill thousands of Jews in cold blood. A number of men in the unit did resist, a little (there was only one who successfully evaded the call to kill), but most–in Browning’s telling–initially drug their feet but in time simply “obeyed orders.”

As a theologian, what I note to be missing is any sense that these church-going men might have found anything in their faith tradition that might have pushed them to stand between the obviously, horrifically, sinful commands from their leaders and the helpless victims they were being called upon to slaughter. Another sad element of the story is the on-going denial characteristic of most of the participants in the years following these events.

Browning challenges the argument of well-known author Daniel Goldhagen that “pent-up anti-Semitism” that simply was waiting for a Hitler to serve as a catalyst  (and was in some sense distinctive to Germany) explains these events. “The fundamental problem is not to explain why ordinary Germans, as members of a people utterly different from us and shaped by a culture that permitted them to think and act in no other way than to want to be genocidal executioners, eagerly killed Jews when the opportunity offered. The fundamental problem is to explain why ordinary men–shaped by a culture that had its own peculiarities but was nonetheless within the mainstream of western Christian, and Enlightenment traditions–under specific circumstances willingly carried out the most extreme genocide in human history” (page 222).

“It would be very comforting if Goldhagen were correct, that very few societies have the long-term, cultural-cognitive prerequisites to commit genocide, and that regimes can only do so when the population is overwhelmingly of one mind about its priority, justice,and necessity. We would live in a safer world if he were right, but I am not so optimistic. 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'” (pages 222-23).

I highly recommend this book.


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