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Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” & The Dynamics of Mass Murder

When one considers the full effects of the Nazis’ Final Solution, it is easy to assume a uniformly efficient and orderly method to their ideologically driven madness. Yet, in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, we instead see a side of the Holocaust marked by fits of doubt, tears, vomit, and drunken stupor. That this perspective lacks the utterly depersonalized and mechanized nature of murder seen elsewhere in Nazi bureaucracy is not to suggest its outcome was any different, only that the perpetrator was often not afforded any distance between his actions and their consequences. Accordingly, Browning’s book, which focuses on the Reserve Police Battalion 101, offers a thorough examination of the dynamics of genocide on an individual, actively participatory level. Further, it seeks to explore how ordinary men not only assented to participation in such travesties but could transform so radically into murderers capable of killing innocent men, women and children alike.

To do so, Browning undertakes a largely chronological history of the battalion that relies heavily on documents produced and collected by German federal investigators during the 1960s. Pre-trial interviews conducted with former officers provide the basis for his analysis, which remains steadfastly focused on the firsthand experiences of the officers within the larger context of their group’s heinous crimes. It is not until the book’s final chapter, however, that Browning attempts any extended evaluation of the men’s motivations; there he places incorporates the work of Phillip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, researchers responsible for two of the 20th century’s most famous psychological experiments on power dynamics and obedience/conformity respectively. Despite reserving lengthy discussion of these subjects for the end, they are implicit in the history he presents in the preceding chapters.

In those chapters, and at the core of Browning’s book, is the repetitious process of killing that—after the first hurdle—worked to continually inure German officers to the gravity of their collective actions. A self-sustaining and fulfilling process, he writes, “brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior.”[1] Though this explains their later crimes—in fact the bulk of them—it notably fails to account for the initial behavior responsible for setting the cycle in motion. Recognizing the importance of that first incident, then, Browning structures his book around the buildup and fallout of the Józefów Massacre, the battalion’s first call to real action and the point that marked most officers’ transition into willful killers. The mission, to round up 1,800 Jews from an eastern Polish town, forged a group consensus to proceed with their assignment despite hesitations shared even by Major Trapp.

To understand how such a consensus became possible, Browning first establishes the group dynamics that governed Battalion 101. A ragtag collective, the battalion comprised many conscripted men who were largely middle-aged, from similar lower socioeconomic strata in Hamburg, and inexperienced in matters of war. [2] By most measures they appeared particularly ill-suited for the mission of killing, with Browning going so far as to characterize them as “the ‘dregs’ of the manpower pool at that stage of the war.”[3] That the group became “increasingly calloused and efficient executioners” over time is testament not to their unique capacity for violence but rather their ability to band together in a common pursuit.[4] This unity came early with Browning noting the quick development of a strong provincial ethos amongst the Hamburg contingent that made even neighboring Germans feel like outsiders. Once removed from Germany onto foreign soil and engrained with an “us vs. them” mindset that at the very least positioned the Jews amongst Germany’s enemies, it is not difficult to see how these bonds were further strengthened amongst the men as time wore on. Despite being tasked with explicitly ideological assignments, then, their carrying out of such directives evidenced more a responsibility to the group than any shared ideological fervor. So, in understanding the dynamics of mass murder, Browning foremost grapples with the dynamics of the responsible group.

Significantly, as Browning spends much time discussing, there was not total agreement amongst the reserve officers. When Major Trapp offered reprieve for any not willing to kill—directly, at least—a dozen or so stepped aside from the onset. Even more men conveniently went missing when it came time for the executions, which called for the policemen to be paired off “face to face” with their victims in the Józefów woods.[5] With limited exceptions, though, the dissenters’ objections stemmed not from political or ethical reasons but aversion to the physical act of killing. Regardless of reason, however, none of the objectors faced any punishment for their stance, only reassignment on the days required. While this lack of consequence ought to have invited more dissenters, Browning writes that the suddenness of their Józefów assignment afforded few men the luxury of self-reflection and instead pushed most to simply conform with the group, lest they be labeled “’too weak’ or ‘cowardly’.”[6] The fact that Buchmann, an officer outspokenly against the group’s Jewish assignments, was tolerated more by Major Trapp than many of his own subordinates who “looked down their noses at [him]” speaks especially to the pressure to conform within the group and contribute to its directives.[7]

Generally, however, those that did kill did not do so without great psychological burden. Yet their participation in the abrupt Józefów executions marked a point of no return. The men had followed unthinkable orders and battalion officials could now adjust their procedures to make subsequent missions more palatable, if even more deadly. Part of this amelioration process included the employ of Hiwis, or captured foreign volunteers, as the primary future executioners. Another “innovation” included the depersonalization of the actual killing act away from previous face-to-face encounters to rotating shifts. At Łomazy, where even more were killed than at Józefów, the officers recalled relief at having largely been spared the killing duties. Even those Germans ordered to shoot—Major Trapp advertised no similar reprieve this time—hardly recalled the same horror present at Józefów. By removing the seeming “burden of choice”, Browning argues, the men felt less internal conflict with their decision to go along with the group. He writes succinctly of the second massacre, “Like much else, killing was something one could get used to.”[8]

Following Łomazy, the officers’ assignments varied over time. Initially, they served to round up and deport Jews to work and extermination camps. Though the result of such actions was no different from the gruesome scenes in the Polish woods, the burden of direct responsibility had shifted away from the men, rendering the task more easily bearable. “Jew hunts,” on the contrary, required again a very personal nature of execution. By that point, though, hardened volunteers were more than willing to take the place of the squeamish and later share crass jokes about their action over lunch.[9] The battalion reached the height, or perhaps nadir, of its efforts during the Erntefest massacre in Majdanek and Poniatowa. There, the entire group was required to contribute in all phases to the death of at least 30,500 Jews. An astounding sum, Browning nonetheless is sure to highlight the conspicuous lack of significant outrage over the group’s most deadly of actions. Again, most simply had grown accustomed to the horrors they had repeatedly partaken in. Following Erntefest, the Reserve Police Battalion 101 made no further contributions to the Final Solution.

When considered individually, the path taken by each of the policemen over the course of the war seems unlikely. By any measure, that only 10-20 percent rejected participating in outright murder is staggering. Yet, Browning argues, the men’s actions make better sense when considered collectively as consequences of peer group pressure under the most intense of circumstances. Conformity was easier and preferable to the alternative. Further, with a collective mission, the men could divest themselves of personal responsibility. This cleansing of conscience became even more evident when the “dirty work” was taken care of by Hiwis or in a camp out of sight. Still, as time wore on, the men’s capacity to commit atrocity only increased through sheer desensitization given the work they simply could not avoid doing themselves. As Browning rightly concludes, the implications of the battalion’s story are nothing less than “deeply disturbing.”[10] For when one attempts to unpack the dynamics of mass murder, revealed are simple group dynamics far more commonplace and universal than we might care to admit.

Note: This paper was originally submit as an assignment for HIST 735 @ Queens College in the Spring ’17 semester.

[1] Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), Kindle Edition, 361.
[2] Browning, 117.
[3] Browning, 369.
[4] Browning, 187.
[5] Browning, 152.
[6] Browning, 173.
[7] Browning, 241.
[8] Browning, 204.
[9] Browning, 292.
[10] Browning, 424.

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