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Book Review 230: Ordinary Men

March 17, 2012 - Harry Eagar
In this book, historian Christopher Browning argues for a largely situational, cultural explanation for mass murder. No one would dispute that culture has a lot to do with it.

In an afterword, he argues almost stridently with Danial Goldhagen, who in “Hitler's Willing Executioners” came out for a specifically German explanation.

On the face of it, and despite some methodological problems, Goldhagen would seem to have had the best of the argument. It was, after all, only Germans who devised and carried out racial extermination.

Reserve Police Battalion 101 is a particularly apt target for Browning's investigation, luckily, since of hundreds of Order Police formations, it was the only one the German prosecutors went after in the '60s. (With, it should be pointed out, no success.) It was made up of older draftees, so these were men who had grown up before the intense indoctrination of the '30s. They came from Hamburg, reputedly (though perhaps not so accurately) considered a less-than-enthusiastic Nazi city. The men, workers and modestly educated, are assumed to have been union men, and socialists or communists, although it rather looks from the meagre evidence that they were indifferentists rather than politicals

Ordinary men, or at least, ordinary Germans from most points of view.

With exactly one exception out of 500, they all acquiesced or participated in mass murder, and not just slaughter on the battlefield. In fact, it was never on the battlefield. They started out shooting infants and helpless grannies.

In his introduction, Browning acknowledges the danger of trying to understand great crimes – it may well seem that he is accepting them. Having warned himself, Browning then does a lousy job of not excusing the acts.

In his tussle with Goldhagen, he goes back to John Dower, who wrote about the savagery of the Pacific War (in “War without Mercy”). The comparison is otiose. Shooting babies is not in any way comparable to going to war.

Battalion 101 did not start out shooting soldiers, then become desensitized and end up shooting babies. It started out shooting babies.

This is not uniquely German behavior. It can be found among the Turks, the Japanese, and, yes, in some instances in American history, too. The way the Germans went about it, though, is unique in history. Usually, rightly or wrongly, genocides are justified in the minds of the killers as constructive means to an end, often saving state, society or religion. The Germans, when it came to a choice between saving the state (by trying to win the war) and shooting Jewish babies, shot Jewish babies.

Browning is aware of this, though it gets less than a full sentence of his book. He is aware but completely misses the point.

This is, in part, because he believes Germany was “in the mainstream” of Western civilization. It never was, despite the trappings – the symphony orchestras, railroads, laboratories and churches.

Only one western society (perhaps only one society anywhere) has the word shrecklichkeit. It is sometimes translated as frightfulness, but it is not directly translatable into English or any other language, because its meaning is remotely incomprehensible in any other language

It means to behave so brutally that non-Germans will quiver in fear whenever a German walks by. It was not originally applied against Jews. It came into currency in Belgium during World War I. The Germans were proud of it.

There were antisemitic political parties before the Nazis. In the west, they were brutal but not genocidal when they got the chance. In the east, it was a different story. Though only the Croats were as efficient as the Germans, most of the antisemitic parties east of the Elbe were coldblooded murderers when they got the chance.


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