Ordinary men, p.17
Christopher R. Browning
The German portrayals of Polish complicity are not false. Tragically, the kind of behavior they attributed to Poles is confirmed in other accounts and occurred all too often. The Holocaust, after all, is a story with far too few heroes and all too many perpetrators and victims. What is wrong with the German portrayals is a multifaceted distortion in perspective. The policemen were all but silent about Polish help to Jews and German punishment for such help. Almost nothing was said of the German role in inciting the Polish “betrayals” the policemen so hypocritically condemned. Nor was any note made of the fact that large units of murderous auxiliaries—the notorious Hiwis—were not recruited from the Polish population, in stark contrast to other nationalities in pervasively anti-Semitic eastern Europe. In some ways, therefore, the German policemen’s comments about Poles reveal as much about the former as the latter.
WHY DID MOST MEN IN RESERVE POLICE BATTALION 101 become killers, while only a minority of perhaps 10 percent—and certainly no more than 20 percent—did not? A number of explanations have been invoked in the past to explain such behavior: wartime brutalization, racism, segmentation and rou-tinization of the task, special selection of the perpetrators, careerism, obedience to orders, deference to authority, ideological indoctrination, and conformity. These factors are applicable in varying degrees, but none without qualification.
Wars have invariably been accompanied by atrocities. As John Dower has noted in his remarkable book, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, “war hates” induce “war crimes.”1 Above all, when deeply embedded negative racial stereotypes are added to the brutalization inherent in sending armed men to kill one another on a massive scale, the fragile tissue of war conventions and rules of combat is even more frequently and viciously broken on all sides. Hence the difference between more conventional war—between Germany and the Western allies, for example—and the “race wars” of the recent past. From the Nazi “war of destruction” in eastern Europe and “war against the Jews” to the “war without mercy” in the Pacific and most recently Vietnam, soldiers have all too often tortured and slaughtered unarmed civilians and helpless prisoners, and committed numerous other atrocities. Dower’s account of entire American units in the Pacific openly boasting of a “take no prisoners” policy and routinely collecting body parts of Japanese soldiers as battlefield souvenirs is chilling reading for anyone who smugly assumes that war atrocities were a monopoly of the Nazi regime.
War, and especially race war, leads to brutalization, which leads to atrocity. This common thread, it could be argued, runs from Bromberg2 and Babi Yar through New Guinea and Manila and on to My Lai. But if war, and especially race war, was a vital context within which Reserve Police Battalion 101 operated (as I shall indeed argue), how much does the notion of wartime brutalization explain the specific behavior of the policemen at Józefów and after? In particular, what distinctions must be made between various kinds of war crimes and the mind-sets of the men who commit them?
Many of the most notorious wartime atrocities—Oradour and Malmédy, the Japanese rampage through Manila, the American slaughter of prisoners and mutilation of corpses on many Pacific islands, and the massacre at My Lai—involved a kind of “battlefield frenzy.” Soldiers who were inured to violence, numbed to the taking of human life, embittered over their own casualties, and frustrated by the tenacity of an insidious and seemingly inhuman enemy sometimes exploded and at other times grimly resolved to have their revenge at the first opportunity. Though atrocities of this kind were too often tolerated, condoned, or tacitly (sometimes even explicitly) encouraged by elements of the command structure, they did not represent official government policy.3 Despite the hate-filled propaganda of each nation and the exterminatory rhetoric of many leaders and commanders, such atrocities still represented a breakdown in discipline and the chain of command. They were not “standard operating procedure.”
Other kinds of atrocity, lacking the immediacy of battlefield frenzy and fully expressing official government policy, decidedly were “standard operating procedure.” The fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities, the enslavement and murderous maltreatment of foreign laborers in German camps and factories or along the Siam-Burma railroad, the reprisal shooting of a hundred civilians for every German soldier killed by partisan attack in Yugoslavia or elsewhere in eastern Europe—these were not the spontaneous explosions or cruel revenge of brutalized men but the methodically executed policies of government.
Both kinds of atrocities occur in the brutalizing context of war, but the men who carry out “atrocity by policy” are in a different state of mind. They act not out of frenzy, bitterness, and frustration but with calculation. Clearly the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, in implementing the systematic Nazi policy of exterminating European Jewry, belong in the second category. Except for a few of the oldest men who were veterans of World War I, and a few NCOs who had been transferred to Poland from Russia, the men of the battalion had not seen battle or encountered a deadly enemy. Most of them had not fired a shot in anger or ever been fired on, much less lost comrades fighting at their side. Thus, wartime brutalization through prior combat was not an immediate experience directly influencing the policemen’s behavior at Józefów. Once the killing began, however, the men became increasingly brutalized. As in combat, the horrors of the initial encounter eventually became routine, and the killing became progressively easier. In this sense, brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior.
The context of war must surely be taken into account in a more general way than as a cause of combat-induced brutalization and frenzy, however. War, a struggle between “our people” and “the enemy,” creates a polarized world in which “the enemy” is easily objectified and removed from the community of human obligation. War is the most conducive environment in which governments can adopt “atrocity by policy” and encounter few difficulties in implementing it. As John Dower has observed, “The Dehumanization of the Other contributed immeasurably to the psychological distancing that facilitated killing.”4 Distancing, not frenzy and brutalization, is one of the keys to the behavior of Reserve Police Battalion 101. War and negative racial stereotyping were two mutually reinforcing factors in this distancing.
Many scholars of the Holocaust, especially Raul Hilberg, have emphasized the bureaucratic and administrative aspects of the destruction process.5 This approach emphasizes the degree to which modern bureaucratic life fosters a functional and physical distancing in the same way that war and negative racial stereotyping promote a psychological distancing between perpetrator and victim. Indeed, many of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were so-called desk murderers whose role in the mass extermination was greatly facilitated by the bureaucratic nature of their participation. Their jobs frequently consisted of tiny steps in the overall killing process, and they performed them in a routine manner, never seeing the victims their actions affected. Segmented, routinized, and depersonalized, the job of the bureaucrat or specialist—whether it involved confiscating property, scheduling trains, drafting legislation, sending telegrams, or compiling lists—could be performed without confronting the reality of mass murder. Such a luxury, of course, was not enjoyed by the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, who were quite literally saturated in the blood of victims shot at point-blank range. No one confronted the reality of mass murder more directly than the men in the woods at Józefów. Segmentation and routinization, the depersonalizing aspects of bureaucratized killing, cannot explain the battalion’s initial behavior there.
The facilitating psychological effect of a division of labor for the killing process was not totally negligible, however. While members of the battalion did indeed carry out further shootings single-handed at Serokomla, Talcyn, and Kock, and later in the course of innumerable “Jew hunts,” the larger actions involved joint ventures and splitting of duties. The policemen always provided the cordon, and many were directly involved in
To what degree, if any, did the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 represent a process of special selection for the particular task of implementing the Final Solution? According to recent research by the German historian Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm, considerable time and effort was expended by the personnel department of Beinhard Heydrich’s Beich Security Main Office to select and assign officers for the Einsatzgruppen.6 Himmler, anxious to get the right man for the right job, was also careful in his selection of Higher SS and Police Leaders and others in key positions. Hence his insistence on keeping the unsavory Globocnik in Lublin, despite his past record of corruption and objections to his appointment even within the Nazi Party.7 In her book Into That Darkness, a classic study of Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, Gitta Sereny concluded that special care must have been taken to choose just 96 of some 400 people to be transferred from the euthanasia program in Germany to the death camps in Poland.8 Did any similar policy of selection, the careful choosing of personnel particularly suited for mass murder, determine the makeup of Reserve Police Battalion 101?
Concerning the rank and file, the answer is a qualified no. By most criteria, in fact, just the opposite was the case. By age, geographical origin, and social background, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were least likely to be considered apt material out of which to mold future mass killers. On the basis of these criteria, the rank and file—middle-aged, mostly working-class, from Hamburg—did not represent special selection or even random selection but for all practical purposes negative selection for the task at hand.
In one respect, however, an earlier and more general form of selection may have taken place. The high percentage (25 percent) of Party members among the battalion’s rank and file, particularly disproportionate for those of working-class origin, suggests that the initial conscription of reservists—long before their use as killers in the Final Solution was envisaged—was not entirely random. If Himmler at first thought of the reservists as a potential internal security force while large numbers of active police were stationed abroad, it is logical that he would have been leery of conscripting men of dubious political reliability. One solution would have been to draft middle-aged Party members for reserve duty in higher proportions than from the population at large. But the existence of such a policy is merely a suspicion, for no documents have been found to prove that Party members were deliberately drafted into the reserve units of the Order Police.
The case for special selection of officers is even more difficult to make. By SS standards, Major Trapp was a patriotic German but traditional and overly sentimental—what in Nazi Germany was scornfully considered both “weak” and “reactionary.” It is certainly revealing that despite the conscious effort of Himmler and Heydrich to amalgamate the SS and the police, and despite the fact that Trapp was a decorated World War I veteran, career policeman, and Alter Kämpfer who joined the Party in 1932, he was never taken into the SS. He was certainly not given command of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and specifically assigned to the Lublin district because of his presumed suitability as a mass killer.
The remaining officers of the battalion scarcely evidence a policy of careful selection either. Despite their impeccable Party credentials, both Hoffmann and Wohlauf had been shunted into slow-track careers by SS standards. Wohlauf’s career in the Order Police in particular was marked by mediocre, even negative, evaluations. Ironically, it was the relatively old (forty-eight) Reserve Lieutenant Gnade, not the two young SS captains, who turned out to be the most ruthless and sadistic killer, a man who took pleasure in his work. Finally, the assignment of Reserve Lieutenant Buchmann could scarcely have been made by anyone consciously selecting prospective killers.
In short, Reserve Police Battalion 101 was not sent to Lublin to murder Jews because it was composed of men specially selected or deemed particularly suited for the task. On the contrary, the battalion was the “dregs” of the manpower pool available at that stage of the war. It was employed to kill Jews because it was the only kind of unit available for such behind-the-lines duties. Most likely, Globocnik simply assumed as a matter of course that whatever battalion came his way would be up to this murderous task, regardless of its composition. If so, he may have been disappointed in the immediate aftermath of Józefów, but in the long run events proved him correct.
Many studies of Nazi killers have suggested a different kind of selection, namely self-selection to the Party and SS by unusually violence-prone people. Shortly after the war, Theodor Adorno and others developed the notion of the “authoritarian personality.” Feeling that situational or environmental influences had already been studied, they chose to focus on hitherto neglected psychological factors. They began with the hypothesis that certain deep-seated personality traits made “potentially fascistic individuals” particularly susceptible to antidemocratic propaganda.9 Their investigations led them to compile a list of the crucial traits (tested for by the so-called F-scale) of the “authoritarian personality“: rigid adherence to conventional values; submissiveness to authority figures; aggressiveness toward out-groups; opposition to introspection, reflection, and creativity; a tendency to superstition and stereotyping; preoccupation with power and “toughness”; destructiveness and cynicism; projectivity (“the disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world” and “the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses”); and an exaggerated concern with sexuality. They concluded that the antidemocratic individual “harbors strong underlying aggressive impulses’ and fascist movements allow him to project this aggression through sanctioned violence against ideologically targeted outgroups.10 Zygmunt Bauman has summed up this approach as follows: “Nazism was cruel because Nazis were cruel; and the Nazis were cruel because cruel people tended to become Nazis.”11 He is highly critical of the methodology of Adorno and his colleagues, which neglected social influences, and of the implication that ordinary people did not commit fascist atrocities.
Subsequent advocates of a psychological explanation have modified the Adorno approach by more explicitly merging psychological and situational (social, cultural, and institutional) factors. Studying a group of men who had volunteered for the SS, John Steiner concluded that “a self-selection process for brutality appears to exist.”12 He proposed the notion of the “sleeper”—certain personality characteristics of violence-prone individuals that usually remain latent but can be activated under certain conditions. In the chaos of post-World War I Germany, people testing high on the F-scale were attracted in disproportionate numbers to National Socialism as a “subculture of violence,” and in particular to the SS, which provided the incentives and support for the full realization of their violent potential. After World War II, such men reverted to law-abiding behavior. Thus Steiner concludes that “the situation tended to be the most immediate determinant of SS behavior” in rousing the “sleeper.”
Ervin Staub accepts the notion that “some people become perpetrators as a result of their personality; they are ‘self-selected’.” But he concludes that Steiner’s “sleeper” is a very common trait and that under particular circumstances most people have a capacity for extreme violence and the destruction of human life.13 Indeed, Staub is quit
If Staub makes Steiner’s “sleeper” unexceptional, Zygmunt Bauman goes so far as to dismiss it as a “metaphysical prop.” For Bauman “cruelty is social in its origin much more than it is characterological.”15 Bauman argues that most people “slip” into the roles society provides them, and he is very critical of any implication that “faulty personalities” are the cause of human cruelty. For him the exception—the real “sleeper”—is the rare individual who has the capacity to resist authority and assert moral autonomy but who is seldom aware of this hidden strength until put to the test.
Those who emphasize the relative or absolute importance of situational factors over individual psychological characteristics invariably point to Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment.16 Screening out everyone who scored beyond the normal range on a battery of psychological tests, including one that measured “rigid adherence to conventional values and a submissive, uncritical attitude toward authority” (i.e., the F-scale for the “authoritarian personality”), Zimbardo randomly divided his homogeneous “normal” test group into guards and prisoners and placed them in a simulated prison. Though outright physical violence was barred, within six days the inherent structure of prison life—in which guards operating on three-man shifts had to devise ways of controlling the more numerous prisoner population—had produced rapidly escalating brutality, humiliation, and dehumanization. “Most dramatic and distressing to us was the observation of the ease with which sadistic behavior could be elicited in individuals who were not sadistic types’.” The prison situation alone, Zimbardo concluded, was “a sufficient condition to produce aberrant, anti-social behavior.”
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