Motivations of the Nazi’s "Ordinary Men"

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Motivations of the Nazi’s – “Ordinary Men”

Holocaust IDU – English & World Studies
In trying to understand the Holocaust, it is understandably common that we focus on the feelings of the victims – after all, we need to empathize or at least sympathize with them in order to comprehend their pain and the evil that caused it. Perhaps another reason we do this, though, is that we resist attaching real feelings to the predators of the Holocaust: “They weren’t real, everyday people; they were monsters. I have nothing in common with them!” The truth is, however, that the Germans who carried out the horrendous acts of the Holocaust we largely everyday people, not too different from you or I or any of our families right here in Hilliard. So what could have motivated people just like us to commit some of the most evil acts in human history? It is our understanding of that concept that holds the key to never letting it happen again.
Part 1: Oral Reading: Chapter 1 of Ordinary Men
Listen to the background of our particular incident. Remember, they had a choice!
Part 2: Summary & initial response to reasons given for why these men chose to kill

  • No time to think: it all happened too suddenly.

  • Need to conform: didn’t want to be called cowards – though they later admit that made them cowards in itself.

  • Fear: false threat that women and children were being bombed in Germany; Jews had caused the boycott by the United States that had damaged Germany.

  • Saviors: saving the Jews from further suffering that was sure to come; saving children from suffering without their parents.

  • Dehumanized Jews: Jews were less than people; it was more like shooting “things.”

  • Ironically, very few actually said they hated Jews at all!

Which of these reasons most likely might have motivated you if you were in the German’s shoes? Why?

What would you say to someone who was about to commit murder for that reason?

Which do you think is the weakest, most inexcusable motivation? Why?

What would you say to someone who was about to commit murder for that reason?

Part 3: Read/View and Respond
1. Read the lead-in and poem below and respond after.
“Hanging on the wall behind [a group of smiling Germans] is a hand-lettered ditty which they obviously composed themselves:”

The watchword for today

Now the light-stepped fun begins

And all feels well. (Goldhagen 247)
How does this little poem make you feel when you consider its topic?

Write an equivalent three-line poem in response to it – try to use your emotional response described above.

A man from Police Battalion 101 amuses himself and the beaming German onlookers with their Jewish playthings.

(Goldhagen 245)

2. In at least a ten line poem, address any one of the men in this picture – what would you like to say to him? Alternately, you may write a 4-6 sentence “letter” to him instead.

3. “When the question is put to me why did I at all participate in the shooting, I must say that one does not want to be considered a coward.” (Goldhagen 251)
It is clear from the above quotation that even grown men are susceptible to what is essentially peer pressure – the wish to avoid rejection in the eyes of one’s peers. What is it about his sort of pressure that makes it so strong, even in adults? How do you resist this sort of pressure in your own life? Do you think you could resist it in an incredibly powerful and serious situation such as that faced by the Germans?

4. “I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers.” (Browning 73)
First, respond emotionally/intellectually to what you have just read – read it again for full effect:
Second, what you read in the quotation above is referred to by psychologists as “rationalization” or a defense mechanism by which your true motivation is concealed by explaining your actions and feelings in a way that is not threatening. Why do you think people do this? When do you do it? Give an example. What do you find dangerous about human beings’ ability to do this?

5. Finally, if there is time, attach a sheet of paper to this handout on which you summarize what makes ordinary people commit horrendous acts and what we have to do to make sure that such forces do not affect us like that ever again.


Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men. New York: HarperPerennial Books, 1998.

Goldhagen, Daniel. Hitler’s Willing Executioners. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

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