Ordinary Men, Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution; Christopher Browning; 1998; 268 pgs
Just about everyone who is aware of the depths of Nazi evil have asked themselves this question: How could a modern, civilized nation sink into barbarity and, if I were there then, would I be shooting Jews in the back of the head too?
This book is about the latter half of that question. Its conclusions are drawn from trial transcripts, modern testimony, Nazi records and psychology experiments (specifically the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram's faked electric shocks experiment). Putting aside the notion of souls, this is basically a nature/nurture argument. One thing is certain, if we are just talking statistics, the answer to the question would seem to be "Yes. Being generous, three out of four of us would be pulling the trigger".
The Order Police 101 Battalion consisted of about 500 men. All but a few officers were born in the first decade of the 20th century. The average age was 39. In other words, old enough to know better. Virtually all were conscripted. Many were cops before the war. During the war, they shot 38,000 men, women, and children, and rounded up and deported 45,000 to the Treblinka gas chambers. Some men were set aside for labor. The standing order, SOP if you will, was to shoot children, women, and the infirmed where they stood. The bodies were left for other Jews or town folk to clean up. Others were marched out to nearby forests, forced to dig their own graves and then were shot in the back of the head at a range of inches. The descriptions are very grisly and graphic.
One interesting fact about all the participants in the Final Solution: There is no evidence that any one was censured for refusing to kill unarmed people, despite claimed fears to the contrary by many of the perpetrators at trial.
Most of the Battalions work was done as the Germans transitioned from the psychologically damaging shooting of Jews to the easier, out-of-sight, out-of-mind deportation to the gas chambers.
Killing 1,000 Jews in a single town was a typical one day action. In the first such action, the commanding officer asked if any of the 500 men would not want to participate. A dozen stepped forward. Others would find ways to avoid the work. None were punished for avoiding this work. The actual shooting was often fobbed off to blood-thirsty, anti-Semitic Hiwis, volunteers from Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and elsewhere. But 80% (a number that correlates well with the Stanford Prison Experiment) did pull the trigger. Liberal amounts of vodka were distributed to the men to ease their guilt.
There are many reasons why they did what they did. Almost all are rationalizations. Projecting the blame onto the ones who give the orders; thinking of what they did as merciful; blaming the Jews for passivity; concern for future employment as a reason not to shoot; antisemitism; and so on. But the biggest reason was peer pressure. This is not really what I expected. Like most, I assumed the killers were young, stupid, brainwashed Hitler youth. Not so.
Perhaps this is the reason the only group I have been a part of was a group that hated groups.
Do not think that the Germans were unique in their behavior, Think My Lai or ISIS.
I had one small nit with one supposition of the book. The author argues that there was no real self-selection bias in the battalion. I would argue that cops in general are predisposed to hierarchies, the exercising of power and deference to authority, Any many of the Order Police were cops before and after the war.
This book is hard to read. Just as the killers got inured to killing, the reader gets inured to reading about the killing. But it is important that we have a good understanding of the ugly side of human nature. It is relevant today. Consider ISIS; the drug war in Mexico where beheadings have become common place; the cult of personality in North Korea; Iran and Saudi Arabia and sharia law; the killing fields of Cambodia, etc.
I strongly recommend this book if you have any interest in the subject matter at all.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.