If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:
You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left. You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through. By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.
You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car. The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light. You have two choices:
- Stop your car and give the man some money. This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person. But this means that you might not make the light. For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
- Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.
If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.
Why does this happen? Why does this feel like a no-win situation? Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?
Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation. When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections. We all want to get to our destination. Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change. Be ready to go. This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others. Your primary and immediate obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight. When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers, for example, get preference over the poor of the third world.
Sure, we don’t want honked at. But we also don’t want to break the covenant with our momentary “brothers” behind the wheel.
Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light. Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs. Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers. We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide. The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs. This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way. Thus, we would not slaughter Jews. But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced. Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs. Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.
This means that no one is immune. Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.
Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:
- They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war. All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
- Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
- Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
- Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews. Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
- Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.
As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target. Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men. Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.
The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men. The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bits of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on. In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress. He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.
But he did give the order.
At this point what options do these men have?
- If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance. But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond, to prevent such a crime?
- If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
- You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty. Does being on guard duty absolve you?
- Perhaps most significantly, soldiering tells you that if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work. The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all. Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work. No one wants to put their fellows in such a position. The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.
Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it. Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways, such as:
- War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
- Surely this is an isolated, one-time action. It is horrible that we have this assignment. But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous. Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
- Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed. Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way. Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job. So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
- One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children. I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them. Their lives without their parents would be misery. I could free them from suffering.”
Those that did not join in bore the stigma of cowards and shirkers. Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.” Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak. Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.” Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.
After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress. We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again. In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews. Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem. Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:
The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in
1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)
1943: 30,000 (minimum)
In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups. These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:
- The main enemy of fascism is communism. Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
- Some of these Jews who fled now have arms. They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces. Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight. They deserve their fate.
Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions. It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms. Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.
Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities. The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul. Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*
We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.
I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man. Throw in the side-car of our selfishness and desire to get home and not be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values. The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot. In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time. But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all. We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.
Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation. You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead. Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets. The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death. Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ? What happens to them? Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot? How many of us would take guard duty?
In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,
It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.
Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.
*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism. In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler. They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.