Ordinary Men, Review Essay, Research Paper
Ordinary Men Analysis
The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were just ordinary men, from a variety of backgrounds, education, and age. It would appear that they were not selected by any force other than random chance. Their backgrounds and upbringing, however, did little to prepare these men for the horrors they were to witness and participate in.
The group was made up of both citizens and career policemen. Major Wilhelm Trapp, a career policeman and World War I veteran headed the battalion. Trapp joined the Nazi party in 1932, but never became an office in the SS. His two captains, Hoffmann and Wohlauf, were SS trained officers. The reserve lieutenants, all seven of them, were drafted into the Order Police because they were ordinary. They were middle class, educated, and successful in their civilian lives. Five of them were members of the Nazi party, but none were in the SS. Of thirty-two remaining officers twenty-two were Party members, but none were members of the SS. Sixty-three percent of the rest of the battalion were blue-collar workers. About thirty-five percent were lower-class workers. The remaining two percent were middle-class but not greatly successful. Many were in their late 30s, too old for active army duty, but just right for police duty. They were old enough to know of political ideology other than that of the Nazi party, even though most were members.
Without a doubt, the men of this battalion greatly contributed to the final solution. The first action the 101st Battalion was order to do took place in J zef w. They went into the town and were ordered to shoot anyone trying to escape and those that were too sick or frail to walk to the marketplace, as well as infants and anyone offering resistance or attempting to hid, were to be shot on the spot . (Browning, 57) They then trucked or marched the Jews they found into the woods just outside the village. When the first truckload of thirty-five to forty Jews arrived, an equal number of policemen cam forward and, face to face, were paired off with their victims. (Browning, 61) The shear atrocity of this was too much for many of the policemen, so alcohol was provided to calm the men s nerves. Only a dozen men stepped out and refused to shoot at all. As the day went on, however, many could not continue. They even had a special technique dubbed the neck shot . The men were told to place the end of their carbines on the cervical vertebrae at the base of the neck, but here too the shooting was done initially without fixed bayonets as a guide. The results were horrifying. The shooters were gruesomely besmirched with blood, brains, and bond splinters. It hung on their clothing. (Browning, 65) The task at hand would seem daunting at first, but as time went on the 101st Battalion would refine their methods, and the shooting would come much easier to them. This scarred the men and they tried to justify what they were doing. 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 my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers. (Browning, 73) The author goes on to further explain what the soldiers actually meant. The full weight of this statement, and the significance of the word choice of the former policeman, cannot be fully appreciated unless one knows that the German word for release also means to redeem or save when used in a religious sense. The one who releases is the Erl ser the Savior or Redeemer! (Browning, 73)
After the effects on the men of the outright massacre were seen, two changes took place. First, the 101st Battalion was assigned to clearing the ghettos and loading people on trains destined for the Treblinka death camp. Second, the real dirty work was to be carried out by SS-trained soldiers. This helped remove them mentally from the deaths, and made their work much more efficient.
They went on through a number of towns, clearing out ghettos and loading people on trains. By mid-November 1942, following the massacres at J zef w, Lomzay, Serokomla, Konskowola, and elsewhere, and the liquidation of the ghettos in Miedzyrzec, Luk w, Parczew, Radzyn, and Kock, the men of Reserve Battalion 101 had participated in the outright execution of at least 6,500 Polish Jews and the deportation of at least 42,000 more to the gas chambers of Treblinka. (Browning, 121) Now that that was done, they had to go back through and make sure the towns and ghettos were truly judenfrei (free of Jews). Hence, the Jew Hunt began, and the soldiers would be faced with mass executions. This was quite significant because the men were face to face with their victims, only this time many were hardened killers and would handle the situation quite differently. Although there are no numbers as to how many Jews were killed by the 101st during this sweep, there are numbers for other similar groups. For a group near Lublin, the total was 1,695, or an average of nearly 283 per month , and in Warsaw, …reflect a total of 1,094 Jews killed by his unit, for an average of nearly 14 Jews per policeman . (Browning, 131) Browning points out that many of these man had participated in ghetto clearing, but few had, up to this point, been involved in such personal killings. It was a tenacious, remorseless, ongoing campaign in which the hunters tracked down their prey in direct and personal confrontation. It was not a passing phase but an existential condition of constant readines and intention to kill every last Jew who could be found. (Browning, 132)
There last final, and most brutal sweep was the Harvest Festival . Here they were to wipe out the remaining Jews in the work camps. The men here were now ordered to kill the cooks and servants they had working for them. This sweep was led by the SS and involved digging mass graves that the victims were rounded up into. Once stripped naked, they were ordered to lie down into the grave, where they were sprayed by machine gun fire. The next round was ordered to lie down on those who were already shot. This was even more inhumane then the previous killings because there were no neck shots , the victims were often only wounded. The wounded wouldn t die instantly, but would be crushed by the next wave of victims being ordered to crawl onto the bodies of their wounded friends and family.
Did Police Battalion 101 significantly contribute to the genocide? With a conservative estimate of 6,500 Jews shot during the earlier actions like those at Jozefow and Lomazy and 1,000 shot during the Jew Hunts , and a minimum estimate of 30,500 Jews shot at Majdanek and Poniatowa, the battalion had participated in the direct shooting deaths of at least 38,000 Jews. With the death camp deportation of at least 3,000 Jews from Miedzyrzec in early May 1943, the number of Jews they had placed on trains to Treblinka had risen to 45,000. For a battalion of less than 500 men, the ultimate body count was at least 83,000 Jews. (Browning, 142)
At this time, one must wonder what drove these dock workers, bankers, and businessmen, ordinary men, to kill so many people. Browning goes into a deep analysis of the possible causes for these men to become hardened killers. He dismisses propaganda because many of the men were older, and had seen life before the Nazi regime. He also does not believe the men were specially chosen to be killers. By age, geographical origin, and social background, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were least likely to be considered apt material out of which to mold future killers. (Browning, 164) So, what did actually drive them to kill? He attributed much of it to out of site, out of mind . Not only was the killing done by others, but it was done out of sight of the men who cleared the ghettos and forced the Jews onto the death trains. (Browning, 163) There have been a number of tests performed by psychologists that studied the effects of pressure from authority figures on human behavior. By examining one of the most famous, Milgram s electric shock test, it is hard not to draw some parallels. Milgram noticed that if people did not have direct contact with the people they were inflicting pain on, two-thirds of the subjects inflicted what was considered extreme pain. If they had visual and voice feedback, only forty percent obeyed orders. The number fell to thirty percent if they were in direct contact with the person they were shocking. Browning also points out that the social pressures of conformity were quite apparent. Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets the moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot? (Browning, 189) In closing, these men, who appeared to be quite ordinary, became extraordinary in their brutality and killing, no matter what the reason. Decidedly, their contribution to the genocide was quite significant. It is a shame that many received little, or no punishment for the slaughter they participated in.