Ordinary men or ordinary Germans?

After finishing Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones – see my recent post – I went back and re-read Ordinary Men. Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher R. Browning’s extraordinary but troubling study of the involvement of a unit of part-time policemen in the Holocaust. Using detailed interviews carried out by state prosecutors in the 1960s, Browning reconstructs how this group of average, middle-aged men from Hamburg readily killed and deported tens of thousands of Jews in a series of actions in support of the SS in the Lublin district of occupied Poland in a 16-month period from July 1942 to November 1943. He argues that most of the men were not so much anti-Semitic Nazis as “ordinary men” who killed out of obedience to authority and peer pressure. In my post I suggested The Kindly Ones could be read as an illustration of how a perpetrator might use Browning’s “ordinary men” thesis to absolve himself. But is the thesis itself right?

The most prominent critic of Ordinary Men since it was first published in 1992 has been Daniel Goldhagen, who wrote his own book Hitler’s Willing Executioners as a response to Browning’s study. Goldhagen argued that Browning underplays the “exterminationist” anti-Semitism of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 – and of “ordinary Germans” in general – during the Nazi era. However, Browning does not reject anti-Semitism as a motivation for the men; he merely argues that anti-Semitism was just one of a number of factors that influenced their different responses to the order to shoot or deport Jewish men, women and children. In Ian Kershaw’s words, which Browning quotes in the afterword to Ordinary Men, “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference”. (I’m not sure it’s even possible to distinguish clearly between hate and indifference. Reading Browning’s gruesome descriptions of the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101, I was struck by how little the men seemed to see their victims as human beings. “The Jews stood outside their circle of human obligation and responsibility,” he writes.)

At the same time, Browning does seem to me to underplay the influence not so much of anti-Semitism but of other specifically German factors on the actions of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. He shows that, in contrast to the SS, the men received limited training and propaganda before they began their killing spree with the Józefów massacre in July 1942. However, he seems to conclude from this that they were therefore no different from “ordinary men” elsewhere and therefore generalises from the case of Reserve Police Battalion 101 to human beings in general. Referring to the famous Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, he suggests the case of the Hamburg policemen raises difficult questions about all men’s capacity for mass murder. The pressures that caused this particular group of men to carry out mass murder – racism, war or the threat of war, authority, ambition, the bureaucratization and specialization of modern society, peer pressure – exist in every society. Therefore, as he asks in the last sentence of the book, “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”

This jump from conclusions about “ordinary Germans” to claims about “ordinary men” seems to me to be problematic. Browning is surely right in the afterword to reject the idea that Germans in the 1940s were “a people utterly different from us and shaped by a culture that permitted them to think and act in no other way than want to be genocidal executioners”. But it’s not clear to me that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 came from “a culture that had its own particularities but was nonetheless within the mainstream of western, Christian and Enlightenment traditions”. That seems to me to understate the complex and problematic nature of German intellectual history before 1933, which, as I suggested in another post, both constituted the West and radically challenged it. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were products of this history. Surely we can say that a series of complicated influences going back at least a century and probably further created a German population that in 1941 was particularly susceptible to being mobilised for industrialised genocide?

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2 thoughts on “Ordinary men or ordinary Germans?

  1. I have not read Browning’s book, but I have begun to delve more into what essentially amounts to the thinking that an “ordinary man” status immunizes one from being (what in days past would have been deemed) “evil”. Specifically, in About Evil, Part 3, I suggest that, in The Kindly Ones, Aue uses conventional societal notions about respectability – basically what it means to be a respectable “ordinary man” – more as a means by which Aue can continue to avoid the possibility of there being some sort of transcendent evil rather than as a way by which he might directly absolve himself (or any others, for that matter). As will be apparent (hopefully) in future installments, Aue’s need for the alleged immunity bestowed by “ordinary man” respectability is precisely the reason why he misunderstands the notion concerning the banality of evil, and it is this very banality aspect which ultimately makes positions such as Goldhagen’s not only beside the point but, more importantly, frankly unconstructive.

  2. What do you believe is Browning’s thesis? I’ve read this book twice now and I’ve found it quite difficult to pinpoint his thesis exactly.

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