ORDINARY MEN by Christopher R. Browning, HarpersCollins Publishers, Inc.; New York, NY (1992)
HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Vintage Books A Division of Random House, Inc.; New York (1996)
Americans love World War II. Why? Because we were the ‘good guys’ and the Nazis were the ‘bad guys’. There is no debate about this in the U.S. You can see this attitude in popular culture, like the movies “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Big Red One.” We were the good guys because of what the Allies found in the concentration and extermination camps of the Third Reich. The Holocaust made the Nazis not just the ‘bad guys’ waging wars of aggression, but a force of evil. That sort of clarity of right and wrong is very rare in the history of war.
“The Holocaust was the most shocking event of the twentieth century and, the most difficult event to understand in all of German history.” This was not something done in the frenzy of battle and war or by Mongol hordes or Viking raiders. It was done in a methodological, cruel and ruthless fashion by ‘ordinary men’, recruited specifically for this purpose. How is it possible that the German nation, a civilized, educated, Christian nation, could have committed the crime of the century? Two books that deal with this question are “Ordinary Men” by Christopher R. Browning and “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. These two authors deal with the question and subject from different viewpoints but have some common factors. Both attempt to look at the holocaust from the bottom. Instead of concerning themselves with the leaders of the Nazi death machine, they deal with the rank and file of the killers of the holocaust. Specifically, they deal with one of the groups of killers.
The Deathhead SS and the Einsatzgruppen were not the only formations to carry out mass extermination of Jews. Another group was The Order Police. This was not part of the army or the SS and “were not ‘Nazi’ institutions.” These were groups of men, organized in battalions of 500, in a military manner, given military training and uniforms and armed like soldiers. Their purpose, however, was to preserve law and order in the German occupied territories of Eastern Europe. In function, they became the same as Einsatzgruppen, mobile units of armed men whose purpose was to carry out mass executions. Technically, they were different. “Police battalions were formally and mainly devoted to policing and maintaining order Their training and ethos were that of policemen, if perhaps that of colonial policemen. The Einsatzkommandos, by contrast, were ideological warriors by stated vocation, whose understood reason for being was to exterminate Jews.” They were also different in composition. SS men were carefully screened for both ideology and family history. These were fanatic idealists who believed in the Nazi cause. The Order Police did not undergo this screening; they were generally older, with families back in Germany and “broadly representative of German society.”
Browning and Goldhagen concentrates on one specific unit, Reserve Police Battalion 101. This was a unit of about 500 men recruited from the Hamburg area. Most of them were older men with a median age of about thirty-six. The unit was sent to the Lublin district of Poland to perform mass executions and force local Jewish population onto the trains going to the camps. From July of 1942 to November 1943, they killed at least 38,000 Jews and deported at least 45,000. The Lublin district was declared Judenfrei (Jew free), and the battalion was sent back to Hamburg, Germany.
Each of the books deal with this unit in different ways. Browning’s book is entirely about battalion 101. It begins with the unit’s first action in the Polish town of Jozefow and gives a chronological account of the unit’s actions. It is incredible how banal the killings seem to become as you read the book; a predictable pattern begins to emerge. On date A, they went to town B and killed C number of Jews. It is like reading the production report for a widget factory. This may be because Browning tries to maintain an objective account of what happened. He seems to be trying to avoid being judgmental in his tone. This is the opposite of Goldhagen whose main purpose is judgment.
While not clearly stated, Browning’s thesisseems to be that peer pressure was the reason for their actions. There were factors like anti-Semitism and deference to authority, but he focuses on “the pressure for conformity.” The men were offered the opportunity to refrain from actions if they felt they could not do it, but few did so. Why not? According to Browning, it was “the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out." To do so would have been “admitting that one was ‘weak’ or ‘cowardly’.”
Goldhagen’s book differs from Browning in a couple of ways. First, Browning’s book is only about that specific unit. It gives a chronological and impressively detailed account of the unit’s actions in Poland. Goldhagen’s book is an analysis, rather than a chronological account like Browning. Also, it deals with a much broader area, not just the one police battalion. Only two chapters deal specifically with Police Battalion 101 and only one of the six parts of the book deals with the police battalions in general.
Goldhagen’s thesis is different from past scholarly literature on the holocaust. He does not accept the past conventional explanations but blames it on the nature of German society itself. It was the German tradition of anti-Semitism that made men killers. He feels ‘that the perpetrators, ‘ordinary Germans’, were animated by anti-Semitism, by a particular type of anti-Semitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say ‘no’.” Therefore, they were “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.”
There are a number of conventional explanations that Goldhagen refutes. The most common is that the killers had no choice. If they had disobeyed orders, they themselves would have gone to the camps or been shot. This has proven to be false. There is no record of anyone ever having suffered this fate because of refusing to kill Jews. Also, there were formal orders that persons who wished to transfer from killing squads could do so. “It is also incontestable that the knowledge that they did not have to kill, if they preferred not to, was extremely widespread among the killers.”
Another explanation is that the “Germans were strongly if not ineluctably prone to obeying orders regardless of their content.” They couldn’t help but obey, whenthe orders were combined with Hitler’s powerful charisma." Goldhagen finds this false. If they were so devoted to government authority, how were they able to oppose and disobey the lawful authority of the Weimer Republic? Goldhagen finds this too “conditional” to be true.
A third explanation is the one that Browning uses, the power of peer pressure. “The desire either not to let down one’s comrades or not to incur their censure.” That would imply that your peers approve of mass murder. “If indeed Germans had disapproved of the mass slaughter then peer pressure would not have induced people to kill against their will”
A fourth explanation says that they did it for their own self-interest, for career advancement and personal rewards. This may be true for career men in the SS or the government but not the reserve police battalions. They consisted of older men and reservist with civilian lives back home. After the war was over, they would have gone home to that life. Experience in mass murder would not have helped them in civilian careers.
A fifth and last explanation are the least sensible. The killers “could not understand what the real nature of their actions was; they could not comprehend that their small assignments were actually part of a global extermination program.” To this I say, so what? Whether it was part of a greater plan or not, any of the individual action by the police battalions was a crime. It is like saying, ‘I didn’t know the robbery I committed was contributing to the crime wave’.
Goldhagen refutes all these explanations and places it on the door of German anti-Semitism. As proof of this, he cites the initiative and cruelty that many Germans showed in carrying out their tasks. “Two of the most significant and revealing actions of the men of Police Battalion 101 are, on the one hand, the men’s incessant volunteering to kill and, on the other, the failure of the men to avail themselves of the opportunities to avoid killing.” In the course of their duties, “the Germans expended no effort to spare the victims any unnecessary suffering.” Often victims were beaten or humiliated before death.
Browning disagrees with many of Goldhagen’s conclusions. Both authors used the same sources in reference to Battalion 101: interrogation transcripts and court records from the archives of The Central Agency for the State Administration of Justice, in the town of Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart. This agency is responsible for coordinating Nazi crimes investigations for West Germany. From this same source, the authors derive different conclusions.
Browning’s book was published some time before Goldhagen. But in a recent edition, he includes in the after word his comments and feeling on “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” and the differences between them. He does not agree with Goldhagen on the role of anti-Semitism and on the motivations of the ordinary men who became killers. Browning sees different degrees and shades of anti-Semitism in German society while Goldhagen sees it as absolute. Nor is it solely a German phenomenon. Some Luxemburgers, in Battalion 101, behaved the same as their German comrades. Also, Browning offers a more ‘multilayered and ‘multi-causal’ explanation of the motivations of the men. Lastly, he takes Goldhagen to task for his “selectivity of evidence.”
In conclusion, I must say that I found Browning’s book superior in simple objectivity. Goldhagen’s book is brilliantly written and argued, and superior in span of subject and depth of analysis, but he seems too judgmental. It seems he approaches the project with a preconceived theory and simply looked for facts to prove that theory.
On a final note, I will say a word on why this subject of ‘ordinary men’ produces so much interest and is so important. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but most of the general public, do not want to believe that it is possible for ordinary men to become genocidal killers. Most people in our society believe, or want to believe, in the inherent goodness of mankind, and that people are basically good. We believe each man has a soul, that spark of the divine which is a piece of the essence of God. Without it, we are not much better than the animals. That essence of the divine is what makes man basically good.
If ordinary men can become genocidal killers, then can man be naturally good? Are we touched by the divine? The actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and other such groups seem to contradict this. It makes a person ask, ‘am I good? Am I capable of evil? Would I have behaved the same way in the same situation?’ This is not a question people feel comfortable asking themselves.