Ordinary Men In The Holocaust
Genocide, an Act of Voluntary Compliance
Nazism became prominent in Germany during the early 20th century. German leader Adolf Hitler promoted German superiority and anti-Semitism. During this time period of the Holocaust, the genocide took the lives of many. In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher R. Browning portrays how ordinary citizens became the driving force of the Holocaust. Although leaders such as Hitler and Himmler yielded vast power, the death toll of the Jewish population would not have been possible without the help of citizens. Although modern day society has changed greatly over the years, the Holocaust is a phenomenon of genocide that can be repeated in other places and times. Due to the moral norms during the time period of the Holocaust and the lack to rationalization by the German citizens, genocide was allowed and can be repeated under the same conditions.
As we observe retrospectively, Germany during the Holocaust is seen as barbaric, racist and destructive; however, the average citizen was “brainwashed” during this time period to perceive racism as the norm (p. 159). The leaders of the Holocaust deeply imbedded racism into German culture. Hitler’s rise to power stemmed from blaming the Jewish population for the German defeat in World War I. During the post WWI time period, Germany was in an economic crisis and in desperate need of help. Therefore they depended on a leader like Hitler who promised to bring Germany back into a healthy state even though he instilled extreme racist ideology throughout the state. Many of the active participants in the Holocaust were very young; therefore they were raised in a world of Nazi values (p. 182). By being young, the German participants knew nothing other than what they were taught.
Ordinary citizens often agreed to participate because it gave them a new sense of life. Many men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 were from the lower orders of German society (p. 48). Very few of the members were economically stable which gave them more of a reason to leave what they were doing. These citizens also did not experience any social mobility. Middle to lower class men were picked because psychologically, they felt as if they were playing a role in society. These men were socially and economically stuck; therefore they were willing to push for a change, an opportunity for a new life.
Conformity plays a large role in why the average German citizens acted the way they did. A study done by Stanley Milgram “tested the effects of peer pressure in bolstering the individual’s capacity to resist authority (p. 175)” Milgram’s tests showed how easy it was for people to submit and follow rather than resist. His tests showed that participants were willing inflict high levels of pain toward other people due to conformity. Milgram’s tests directly correlate to how the average German citizens were able to submit to killing innocent people. Within a social hierarchy in an authority system, people create a strong sense of obligation to those of a higher rank (p. 173). While men conform under the sense of authority, they “enter an ‘agentic state’ in which they are the instrument of another’s will. (p. 173)” While under this state, the men of Germany acted as agents, doing everything that was asked of them. Therefore, under the sense of obligation, the men were unwilling to back out of the situation because they were afraid of standing out to others. The main reason for men not to step out of the situation was because they feared their image. “Who would have ‘dared.’ One policeman declared emphatically, to ‘lose face’ before the assembled troops. (p. 72)” Many men of the Reserve Battalion did not want to kill, however, they did not want to be seen as cowardly or too weak by refusing to shoot.
If a man had doubt about killing innocent people, his actions were positively reinforced. Killing was in many ways rewarded. On days where killings were higher than usual, “victory celebrations” were held (p. 41). Because of these celebrations, the men felt as if they were doing something right. Men were also fed alcohol before shootings to relieve tension and to lower their inhibitions about the killing. Upon drinking large amount of alcohol, “continuous shooting” would occur and men would lose track of many men they had killed (p. 61).
Although alcohol and rewards for killing gave the men reasons to kill, killing directly correlated with time. As time went on, the number of killings increased due to desensitization. Initial feelings of guilt were often repressed or subdued because the men became use to killing. In the minds of the German citizens, there was a huge difference between “us and them” (p. 73). Germans no longer thought of their victims as similar people but as just the enemy. Killing became easier over time. Although many of the men had traumatic shock the first time, men did not experience it a second time because “killing was something one could get used to” (p. 85). For these ordinary men, killing became a mindless task to the extent that some even enjoyed it.
Despite desensitization, the major factor in the transformation of ordinary men into active participants in the Holocaust was the inability of men to rationalize. The men of the Reserve Battalion refused to think that they could stop the killing, instead they tried to make sense of their assigned tasks. Many men took the belief that even if they did not kill the Jews that they were assigned to, they would not have escaped their destiny. According to one man, “only years later did any of us become truly conscious of what had happened then…only later did it first occur to me that had not been right. (p. 72)” Leaders trained men to think irrationally. In one case, a speech was given to the men about how they should remember that when they were shooting Jewish women and children that German women and children were being bombed (p. 72). This even further promoted killing of the innocent yet the men were unable to rationally think about the whole genocide. If the men were able to think rationally, they would be able to see that the Jewish population was after all, the same race of humans that the Germans were. If German men had doubts, once again, they were quelled by the belief that it was their duty to kill.
Individuals of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 were given the opportunity to step down before they began the killing, however, very few did. Many German citizens indirectly participated in killing also. All the men in Germany knew of the concentration camps that the Jews were being transported to. They knew that the Jews were headed for a path of death, however “out of sight was truly out of mind. (p. 90)” Since they did not have to actively and directly participate in the shootings, they were easily able to go on with their every day activities. By doing this, they actively allowing thousands of innocent people die. The Police Battalion could have prevented some deaths during the Jew Hunts, however, by this point in time during the Holocaust, many of the German citizens were on a killing rage with “intention to kill every last Jew who could be found (p. 132). Since Jew Hunts were often conducted in forests in small groups, the groups could have easily spared the lives of many Jews, however they gave no mercy because their sensitivities were dulled. Refusing to continue could also have spared the lives of many. “In no case can I remember that anyone was forced to continue participating in the executions when he declared that he was no longer able to. (p. 128)
Therefore, the Holocaust is a phenomenon of genocide that could be repeated in other places and times. As seen through the Reserve Police Battalion 101, ordinary men were able to become active participants in one of the worst massacres in history. With the rise of a strong and powerful Nazi leader, Hitler was able to use humans for political, economic and social change. When humans succumb to conformity that leads to a lack of rationality, a recurrence of genocide is highly possible.