Ordinary men, p.16
Ordinary Men, p.16Christopher R. Browning
Some of the witnesses referred to specific attempts at maintaining good German-Polish relations. Captain Hoffmann explicitly boasted of friendly relations between his company and the native population in Puławy. He claimed that he filed charges against Lieutenant Messmann because the “shoot on sight” tactics of the latter’s marauding motorized Gendarmerie were embittering the Poles.1 Lieutenant Buchmann noted that Major Trapp carried out the selection of victims for the Talcyn reprisal shootings in consultation with the Polish town mayor. Care was taken to shoot only strangers and the destitute, not citizens of good standing.2
This picture of a rather benign German occupation in Poland was contradicted by only two testimonies. Bruno Probst recalled early activities of the battalion in Poznań and Łódź in 1940-41, when the policemen carried out brutal expulsions and amused themselves with cruel harassments of the local population. He was even more critical of German treatment of Poles in 1942.
Even at that time denunciations or comments from envious neighbors sufficed for Poles to be shot along with their entire families on the mere suspicion of possessing weapons or hiding Jews or bandits. As far as I know, Poles were never arrested and turned over to the competent police authorities on these grounds. From my own observations and from the stories of my comrades, I recall that when the above-mentioned grounds for suspicion were at hand, we always shot Poles on the spot.3
The second witness to challenge the “rosy” view of German-Polish relations was not a surviving policeman but the wife of Lieutenant Brand, who had visited him briefly in Radzyń. At the time it was quite usual, she said, even for German civilians—to say nothing of uniformed policemen—to behave toward the Poles as a “master race.” For instance, when Germans walked down a sidewalk in town, Poles were to step aside; when Germans entered a shop, Polish customers were expected to leave. One day her way was barred by some hostile Polish women in Radzyń; she and her companion got away only by threatening to call for the police. When Major Trapp heard of the incident, he was incensed. The Polish women should be shot in the public marketplace, he declared. According to Frau Brand, this incident was illustrative of the German attitude toward the Poles.4
In terms of sexual relations between German policemen and Polish women, there were only two references. Hoffmann claimed to have protected one of his men by not reporting a case of venereal disease contracted through forbidden intercourse with a Pole.5 Another policeman was not so fortunate. He spent one year in a “punishment camp” for violating the ban on sexual relations with Poles.6 The very existence of such a ban, of course, says a great deal about the reality of German-Polish relations so conveniently omitted from the bulk of the testimony.
Could the German policemen have done to the Poles what they did to the Jews? Though on a much smaller scale, the same process of growing callousness and indifference to Polish life seems to have set in. In September 1942 in Talcyn, the battalion was still cautious about the effect of reprisal shootings of large numbers of Poles. After killing seventy-eight “expendable” Poles, Trapp met his reprisal quota by shooting Jews instead. Bruno Probst recalled a different attitude prevailing by January 1943. As Hoppner’s Second Platoon of Third Company was about to go to the movies in Opole, they received reports that a German policeman had been shot by Polish assailants. Hoppner took his men to the village of Niezdów to carry out a reprisal, only to discover that all but the most elderly inhabitants had fled. Even though word came in the middle of the action that the German policeman had only been wounded and not killed, Hoppner had all twelve to fifteen elderly Poles—mostly women—shot and the village burned down. The men then returned to the movie theater in Opole.7
The testimony is marked by similar omissions concerning German attitudes toward Jews. One reason for this is a stark legal consideration. According to German law, among the criteria for defining homicide as murder is the presence of a “base motive,” such as racial hatred. Any member of the battalion who openly confessed to anti-Semitism would have seriously compromised his legal position; anyone who talked about the anti-Semitic attitudes of others risked finding himself in the uncomfortable position of witness against his former comrades.
But this reluctance to discuss anti-Semitism was also part of a much more general and pervasive reticence about the whole phenomenon of National Socialism and the policemen’s own political attitudes or those of their comrades during that period. To admit an explicitly political or ideological dimension to their behavior, to concede that the morally inverted world of National Socialism—so at odds with the political culture and accepted norms of the 1960s—had made perfect sense to them at the time, would be to admit that they were political and moral eunuchs who simply accommodated to each successive regime. That was a truth with which few either wanted or were able to come to grips.
Captain Hoffmann—who joined the Nazi high school student organization at sixteen, the Hitler Youth at eighteen, and both the Party and the SS at nineteen—offered the usual denial of the political and ideological dimension. “My entry into the general SS in May 1933 is explained by the fact that at that time the SS was seen as a purely defensive formation. No special ideologically based attitude on my part lay at the root of my entry.”8 Considerably less dishonest, though still evasive, was the explanation of Lieutenant Drucker, the only defendant who seriously attempted to grapple with the problem of his past attitude.
I received National Socialist ideological training only within the framework of training in the SA, and a certain influence was present from the propaganda of the time. Because I was a platoon leader in the naval SA and it was desirable at the time that platoon leaders were also Party members, I entered the Party shortly before the outbreak of the war. Under the influence of the times, my attitude to Jews was marked by a certain aversion. But I cannot say that I especially hated Jews—in any case it is my impression now that that was my attitude at that time.9
The few cases in which policemen testified to the brutality and anti-Semitism of others usually involved comments about particular officers by men from the ranks. With some reluctance, for instance, witnesses admitted that Gnade was a brutal, sadistic drunkard who was a Nazi and anti-Semite “out of conviction.” Two sergeants were also the subject of quite negative comments in several testimonies. Rudolf Grund, who deputized for Buchmann when the latter was excused from participating in Jewish actions, was nicknamed the “poison dwarf” because he compensated for his short stature by screaming at his men. He was characterized as “especially harsh and loud,” a “real go-getter,” and a “one hundred and ten percent Nazi” who displayed a “great zeal for duty.”10 Heinrich Bekemeier was described as a “very unpleasant man” who proudly wore his Nazi insignia at all times. Disliked by his men, he was especially feared by Poles and Jews, toward whom he was “brutal and cruel.” One of his men recounted how Bekemeier forced a group of Jews near Łomazy to crawl through a mud puddle while singing. When an exhausted old man collapsed and raised his hands to Bekemeier, begging for mercy, the sergeant shot him in the mouth. Heinrich Bekemeier, the witness concluded, was “a common dog.”11 But such denunciations by the policemen, even of unpopular superiors, much less of their comrades, were extremely rare.
A range of attitudes toward Jews is revealed in less direct and less guarded statements made during the interrogations. For instance, when asked how they could tell the difference between Poles and Jews in the countryside, some of the men cited clothing, hairstyle, and general appearance. Several, however, chose a vocabulary that still reflected the Nazi stereotype of twenty-five years earlier: the Jews were “dirty,” “unkempt,” and “less clean” in comparison to the Poles.12 The comments of other policemen reflected a different sensibility that recognized the Jews as victimized human beings: they were dressed in rags and half starved.13
A similar dichotomy is reflected in descriptions of Jewish behavior at the shooting sites. Some stressed Jewish passivity, occasionally in a very exculpatory way that seemed to imply t
The few references to sexual relations between Germans and Jews give a picture very different from forbidden romance or even quick sexual gratification between German policemen and Polish women. In cases involving German men and Jewish women, it was a question of domination over the powerless—of rape and voyeurism. The one policeman who was witnessed attempting to rape a Jewish woman was in fact the same man who was later denounced by his wife to Allied occupation authorities, extradited to Poland, and tried with Trapp, Buchmann, and Kammer. The witnessing NCO did not report the rapist.16 The second case involved Lieutenant Peters, who would get drunk on vodka in the evening and make night patrols in the ghetto. “Booted and spurred,” he entered Jewish dwellings, tore the bed covers off women, looked, and then left. By morning he was sober again.17
For the most part the Jews remained an anonymous collective in the German accounts. There were two exceptions. First, the policemen frequently mentioned encountering German Jews and were almost always able to remember exactly the hometown from which the Jew in question came: the decorated World War I veteran from Bremen, the mother and daughter from Kassel, the movie theater owner from Hamburg, the Jewish council head from Munich. The experience must have been quite unexpected and jarring—in sharp contrast to their usual view of the Jews as part of a foreign enemy—to have remained in their memories so vividly.
The other Jewish victims who took on a personal identity in the eyes of the German policemen were those who worked for them, particularly in the kitchen. One policeman remembered procuring extra rations for the Jewish work detail he supervised in Łuków, because “the Jews received practically nothing at all to eat, even though they had to work for us.” The same man claimed to have allowed the wife of the head of the Jewish ghetto police to escape when the ghetto was being cleared.18 In Międzyrzec, a kitchen worker begged another policeman to save her mother and sister during a ghetto clearing, and he let her bring them to the kitchen as well.19 In Kock a policeman encountered a weeping Jewish woman during the late September shooting and sent her to the kitchen.20
But the tenuous relations that developed between the police and their Jewish kitchen helpers seldom saved lives in the end. When his two kitchen helpers did not come to work during a deportation from Łuków, one policeman went to the collection point. He found both, but the SS man in charge allowed only one to go. A short while later, she was taken too.21
Most vividly of all, the policemen remembered those occasions when they not only did not save their Jewish workers but in fact were supposed to carry out the executions themselves. In Puławy Captain Hoffmann summoned Corporal Nehring* to his bedroom, gave him a gift of good wine, and told him to go to the agricultural estate he had formerly guarded and shoot the Jewish workers. Nehring complained of the assignment because he “personally knew” many of the Jewish workers there, but to no avail. He and his unit shared the assignment with a Gendarmerie officer and four or five men also stationed in Puławy. Nehring told the officer that many of the Jews were well known to him and he could not take part in the shooting. More obliging than Hoffmann, the officer had his men shoot the fifteen to twenty Jews on their own so that Nehring did not have to be present.22
In Kock two Jewish kitchen workers, Bluma and Ruth, asked for help to escape. One policeman advised them that it was “pointless,” but others helped them get away.23 Two weeks later some of the policemen found Bluma and Ruth hiding in a bunker along with a dozen other Jews. One of the men who recognized them tried to leave because he knew what was coming. He was ordered to shoot them instead. He refused and left anyhow, but all the Jews in the bunker—including the former kitchen helpers—were shot.24
In Komarówka Drucker’s Second Platoon of Second Company had two Jewish kitchen workers known as Jutta and Harry. One day Drucker said they could not stay any longer and there was nothing left to do but shoot them. Some of the policemen took Jutta to the woods and engaged her in conversation before she was shot from behind. Shortly thereafter, Harry was shot in the back of the head with a pistol while he was picking berries.25 The policemen had clearly taken extra pains to shoot unawares victims who had prepared their food over the past months and whom they knew by name. By 1942 standards of German-Jewish relations, a quick death without the agony of anticipation was considered an example of human compassion!
While the policemen’s testimonies offer scant information concerning German attitudes toward Poles and Jews, they contain very frequent and quite damning comment on Polish attitudes toward Jews. At least two factors must be kept in mind in evaluating this testimony. First, the German police quite naturally had considerable contact with Poles who collaborated in the Final Solution and helped them track down Jews. Indeed, such Poles attempted to curry favor with the German occupiers through their zealous anti-Semitism. Needless to say, Poles who helped Jews did their very best to remain totally unknown to the Germans. Thus there was an inherent bias in the sympathies and behavior of the Poles with whom the German policemen had firsthand experience.
This inherent one-sidedness is in my opinion further distorted by a second factor. It is fair to speculate that a great deal of projection was involved in German comments on Polish anti-Semitism. Often unwilling to make accusatory statements about their comrades or to be truthful about themselves, these men must have found considerable psychological relief in sharing blame with the Poles. Polish misdeeds could be spoken about quite frankly, while discussion about Germans was quite guarded. Indeed, the greater the share of Polish guilt, the less remained on the German side. In weighing the testimony that follows, these reservations must be borne in mind.
The litany of German accusation against the Poles began—like the mass murder itself—with the account of Józefów. The Polish mayor provided flasks of schnapps to the Germans on the marketplace, according to one policeman.26 According to others, Poles helped roust Jews from their dwellings and revealed Jewish hiding places in garden bunkers or behind double walls. Even after the Germans had finished searching, Poles continued to bring individual Jews to the marketplace throughout the afternoon. They entered Jewish houses and began to plunder as soon as the Jews were taken away; they plundered the Jewish corpses when the shooting was over.27
The classic accusation was made by Captain Hoffmann, a man who claimed to remember absolutely nothing about the massacre his company had carried out at Końskowola. In contrast he remembered the following in exquisite detail. After the outer cordon had been lifted and his Third Company had moved into the town center at Józefów, two Polish students invited him into their house for a vodka. The young Poles exchanged Greek and Latin verses with Hoffmann but did not hide their political views. “Both were Polish nationalists who expressed themselves angrily over how they were treated and thought that Hitler had only one redeeming feature, that he was liberating them from the Jews.”28
Virtually no account of the “Jew hunts” omitted the fact that hideouts and bunkers were for the most part revealed by Polish “agents,” “informants,” “forest runners,” and angry peasants. But the policemen’s word choice revealed more than just information about Polish behavior. Time and again they used the word “betrayed,” with its unquestionable connotation of strong moral condemnation.29 Most explicit in this regard was Gustav Michaelson. “I found it very disturbing at the time that the Polish population betrayed these Jews who had hidden themselves. The Jews had camouflaged themselves very well in the forest, in underground bunkers or in other hiding places, and would never have been found if they had not been betrayed by the Polish civilian population.”30 Michaelson belonged to the minority of “weak” policemen who never shot and could thus voice his moral criticism with less tha
Once again it was the ruthlessly honest Bruno Probst who put the matter in more balanced perspective. Often the “Jew hunts” were instigated by tips from Polish informants, he noted. But he added, “I further remember that at that time we also gradually began, more systematically than before, to shoot Poles who provided lodging to Jews. Almost always we burned down their farms at the same time.”31 Aside from the policemen who testified about the Polish woman who was surrendered by her father and shot for hiding Jews in her cellar in Kock, Probst was the sole man among 210 witnesses to acknowledge the existence of a German policy of systematically shooting Poles who hid Jews.
Probst also related another story. On one occasion Lieutenant Hoppner was leading a patrol that uncovered a bunker with ten Jews. A young man stepped forward and said that he was a Pole who had hidden there in order to be with his bride. Hoppner gave him the choice of leaving or being shot with his Jewish wife. The Pole stayed and was shot. Probst concluded that Hoppner never meant the offer seriously. The Pole would “certainly” have been shot “trying to escape” if he had decided to leave.32
The German policemen described other examples of Polish complicity. At Końskowola, one policeman in the cordon was approached by a woman dressed as a Polish peasant. The nearby Poles said that she was a Jew in disguise, but the policeman let her pass anyhow.33 A number of policemen told of Poles arresting and holding Jews until the Germans could come and shoot them.34 On several occasions the Jews had been beaten when the Germans arrived.35 Only one witness, however, told of Polish policemen accompanying the German patrols and taking part in the shooting on two occasions.36 In contrast, Toni Bentheim recounted what happened when the Polish police in Komarówka reported that they had captured four Jews. Drucker ordered Bentheim to shoot them. After he had taken the Jews to the cemetery, where he intended to shoot all four by himself, his submachine gun jammed. He thereupon asked the Polish policeman who had accompanied him “if he wanted to take care of it. To my surprise, however, he refused.” Bentheim used his pistol.37
Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes