Ordinary Men is a case study about the involvement of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in the extermination of Polish Jews during the Holocaust . This battalion of police reservists were first ordered to shoot men who were physically unable to work. They were also ordered to shoot women and children. Later, these men were assigned to round up Jews, confine them to restricted areas and finally herd them unto trains for transportation to their death in German-manned gas chambers. Browning drew his data from German official documents detailing the involvement of Germans officials, in general, but particularly this group of men in this atrocity.
He supported his study with data from these men personal narratives about their social class and political standing, prior to their recruitment and their self-admitted participation in this crime. By examining history from this perspective, he provides us with fascinating view of how ordinary, white collar middle-age men from lower to upper class social standing; not seasoned soldiers programed form birth to kill could participate in one of the most heinous mass extermination in modern history.
Browning underlying premise in this study is that while the men of Battalion 101 may have been felt and expressed anti-semitic feelings, they may not have been enthusiastic ruthless killers. He argues that continued exposure to killings may have desensitized them to the horror they perpetrated on Jews. Additionally, he hinted that the totalitarian nature of the Third Reich could have contributed to self-preservation. In other words, these men killed partially because they may have feared that’s refusal to participate would be to their personal detriment.
He supportsh is argument by documenting the everyday life of these men and through the narratives of their own experience. In the opening chapter, he describes them as uniformed men with “no previous experience in German occupied territory who were drafted into the Order Police” (p. 1) with no prior knowledge of what they were about to participate in. He even presents their leader as “emotional and terry-eyed” when he finally gave them their orders to perform this ‘regrettable” and “frightfully unpleasant task” (p.2).
However, at times he presents information that seems to contract the very premise he supports: the same leader gave them the opportunity to refuse to participate if any one of them felt that they were not “up to the task” (p. 2). Evidently some of them took the opportunity because he also tells us that there was high turnover among the men and that only a specific group was consistently tasked with the responsibility to guard the Jews in the Ghetto and escort them to the concentration camps.
Browning thesis that good men, in unusual extenuating circumstances, can perform heinous acts not because they are bad men but because they are human, is debatable. The traditional historical interpretation about the holocaust is that all Germans hated Jews and supported their extermination; that perpetrator of the holocaust were all anti-sematic, racist, trained killers who eagerly exterminated millions of Jews. Browning developed an alternative view by looking at the issue from a different perspective; namely, the personal experiences of the perpetrators.
From this perspective he empathizes with the perspective that they (despite the horror of their actions) are human beings with human frailties and given extenuating circumstances can be swayed to perform inhuman acts against fellow human beings. My personal opinion is that an argument can be made for both perspectives. Given human nature, the conditions under which these men were recruited into Battalion 101, the desensitizing nature of war and human need to self-preserve; it is not logically to claim that all Germans who participated in these crimes were fundamentally evil men.
However, I believe some were evil and racist and the conditions allowed them to reveal their selves without fear of reprisal. What is equally as important as this debate is the lesson that we as humans could learn about the history of military conflicts. It is important to note that Browning perspective pushes us to confront our deeper demons and to understand that war of any kind is destructive to the conquered and the conqueror alike. While each group may face destruction of a different nature no one wins. In this particular instance, the Jews suffered a horrible atrocity but the Germans people lost their humanity.
While an argument can be made that the Jews received the worst of the conflict, a similar argument can be made that’s losing one’s humanity is perhaps equally as destructive because our humanity is what distinguishes us as the higher order of beings. Another important take away from this book is the notion that history repeats itself. If we were to accept Browning’s premise that human frailty was a significant contributor to the atrocities of the Holocaust, then it is incumbent on us to also understand that the frailty is constantly with us.
Consequently, the atrocities of the Holocaust can repeat itself and we have to be vigilant so that it does not happen again. If however, we accept the historical perspective that a specific group of demoralized evil men was responsible for a once in a life-time act and that it won’t ever happen again, we need not be as vigilant but we should question who we are as human because fanatical acts are not reserved for the German people only.
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Topic: Ordinary Men: Involvement
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