Ordinary men, p.20
Ordinary Men, p.20Christopher R. Browning
Insidiously, therefore, most of those who did not shoot only reaffirmed the “macho” values of the majority—according to which it was a positive quality to be “tough” enough to kill unarmed, noncombatant men, women, and children—and tried not to rupture the bonds of comradeship that constituted their social world. Coping with the contradictions imposed by the demands of conscience on the one hand and the norms of the battalion on the other led to many tortured attempts at compromise: not shooting infants on the spot but taking them to the assembly point; not shooting on patrol if no “go-getter” was along who might report such squeamishness; bringing Jews to the shooting site and firing but intentionally missing. Only the very exceptional remained indifferent to taunts of “weakling” from their comrades and could live with the fact that they were considered to be “no man.”49
Here we come full circle to the mutually intensifying effects of war and racism noted by John Dower, in conjunction with the insidious effects of constant propaganda and indoctrination. Pervasive racism and the resulting exclusion of the Jewish victims from any common ground with the perpetrators made it all the easier for the majority of the policemen to conform to the norms of their immediate community (the battalion) and their society at large (Nazi Germany). Here the years of anti-Semitic propaganda (and prior to the Nazi dictatorship, decades of shrill German nationalism) dovetailed with the polarizing effects of war. The dichotomy of racially superior Germans and racially inferior Jews, central to Nazi ideology, could easily merge with the image of a beleaguered Germany surrounded by warring enemies. If it is doubtful that most of the policemen understood or embraced the theoretical aspects of Nazi ideology as contained in SS indoctrination pamphlets, it is also doubtful that they were immune to “the influence of the times” (to use Lieutenant Drucker’s phrase once again), to the incessant proclamation of German superiority and incitement of contempt and hatred for the Jewish enemy. Nothing helped the Nazis to wage a race war so much as the war itself. In wartime, when it was all too usual to exclude the enemy from the community of human obligation, it was also all too easy to subsume the Jews into the “image of the enemy,” or Feindbild.
In his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi included an essay entitled “The Gray Zone,” perhaps his most profound and deeply disturbing reflection on the Holocaust.50 He maintained that in spite of our natural desire for clear-cut distinctions, the history of the camps “could not be reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors.” He argued passionately, “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.” The time had come to examine the inhabitants of the “gray zone” between the simplified Manichean images of perpetrator and victim. Levi concentrated on the “gray zone of protekcya [corruption] and collaboration” that flourished in the camps among a spectrum of victims: from the “picturesque fauna” of low-ranking functionaries husbanding their minuscule advantages over other prisoners; through the truly privileged network of Kapos, who were free “to commit the worst atrocities” at whim; to the terrible fate of the Sonderkommandos, who prolonged their lives by manning the gas chambers and crematoria. (Conceiving and organizing the Sonderkommandos was in Levi’s opinion National Socialism’s “most demonic crime”.)
While Levi focused on the spectrum of victim behavior within the gray zone, he dared to suggest that this zone encompassed perpetrators as well. Even the SS man Muhsfeld of the Birkenau crematoria—whose “daily ration of slaughter was studded with arbitrary and capricious acts, marked by his inventions of cruelty”—was not a “monolith.” Faced with the miraculous survival of a sixteen-year-old girl discovered while the gas chambers were being cleared, the disconcerted Muhsfeld briefly hesitated. In the end he ordered the girl’s death but quickly left before his orders were carried out. One “instant of pity” was not enough to “absolve” Muhsfeld, who was deservedly hanged in 1947. Yet it did “place him too, although at its extreme boundary, within the gray band, that zone of ambiguity which radiates out from regimes based on terror and obsequiousness.”
Levi’s notion of the gray zone encompassing both perpetrators and victims must be approached with a cautious qualification. The perpetrators and victims in the gray zone were not mirror images of one another. Perpetrators did not become fellow victims (as many of them later claimed to be) in the way some victims became accomplices of the perpetrators. The relationship between perpetrator and victim was not symmetrical. The range of choice each faced was totally different.
Nonetheless, the spectrum of Levi’s gray zone seems quite applicable to Reserve Police Battalion 101. The battalion certainly had its quota of men who neared the “extreme boundary” of the gray zone. Lieutenant Gnade, who initially rushed his men back from Minsk to avoid being involved in killing but who later learned to enjoy it, leaps to mind. So do the many reserve policemen who were horrified in the woods outside Józefów but subsequently became casual volunteers for numerous firing squads and “Jew hunts.” They, like Muhsfeld, seem to have experienced that brief “instant of pity” but cannot be absolved by it. At the other boundary of the gray zone, even Lieutenant Buchmann, the most conspicuous and outspoken critic of the battalion’s murderous actions, faltered at least once. Absent his protector, Major Trapp, and facing orders from the local Security Police in Łuków, he too led his men to the killing fields shortly before his transfer back to Hamburg. And at the very center of the perpetrators’ gray zone stood the pathetic figure of Trapp himself, who sent his men to slaughter Jews “weeping like a child,” and the bedridden Captain Hoffmann, whose body rebelled against the terrible deeds his mind willed.
The behavior of any human being is, of course, a very complex phenomenon, and the historian who attempts to “explain” it is indulging in a certain arrogance. When nearly 500 men are involved, to undertake any general explanation of their collective behavior is even more hazardous. What, then, is one to conclude? Most of all, one comes away from the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 with great unease. This story of ordinary men is not the story of all men. The reserve policemen faced choices, and most of them committed terrible deeds. But those who killed cannot be absolved by the notion that anyone in the same situation would have done as they did. For even among them, some refused to kill and others stopped killing. Human responsibility is ultimately an individual matter.
At the same time, however, the collective behavior of Reserve Police Battalion 101 has deeply disturbing implications. There are many societies afflicted by traditions of racism and caught in the siege mentality of war or threat of war. Everywhere society conditions people to respect and defer to authority, and indeed could scarcely function otherwise. Everywhere people seek career advancement. In every modern society, the complexity of life and the resulting bureaucratization and specialization attenuate the sense of personal responsibility of those implementing official policy. Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?
SINCE ORDINARY MEN FIRST APPEARED SIX YEARS AGO, IT HAS BEEN relentlessly scrutinized and criticized by another author, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who not only wrote on the same topic—the motivation of the “ordinary” Germans who became Holocaust perpetrators—but also chose to develop his own work in part by researching the same documents concerning the same unit of Holocaust killers, namely the postwar judicial interrogations of members of Reserve Police Battalion 101.1 It is not unusual, of course, for different scholars to ask different questions of, apply different methodologies to, and derive different interpretations from the same sources. But the differences are seldom so stridently argued and cast in such an adversarial framework as in this case. And seldom in academic controversies has the work of one of the adversaries become bot
On several issues Goldhagen and I do not disagree: first, the participation of numerous “ordinary” Germans in the mass murder of Jews, and second, the high degree of voluntarism they exhibited. The bulk of the killers were not specially selected but drawn at random from a cross-section of German society, and thev did not kill because they were coerced by the threat of dire punishment for refusing. However, neither of these conclusions is a new discovery in the field of Holocaust studies. It was one of the fundamental conclusions of Raul Hilberg’s magisterial and pathbreaking study The Destruction of the European Jews, which first appeared in 1961, that the perpetrators “were not different in their moral makeup from the rest of the population. The German perpetrator was not a special kind of German.” The perpetrators represented “a remarkable cross-section of the German population,” and the machinery of destruction “was structurally no different from organized German society as a whole.”3 And it was the German scholar Herbert Jäger4 and the German prosecutors of the 1960s who firmly established that no one could document a single case in which Germans who refused to carry out the killing of unarmed civilians suffered dire consequences. Goldhagen does credit Jäger and the German prosecutors in this regard, but he is utterly dismissive of Hilberg.
Aside from the differences in the tone that we employ in writing about the Holocaust and in the attitude that we display toward other scholars who have worked in this field of study, Goldhagen and I disagree significantly in two major areas of historical interpretation. The first is our different assessments of the role of anti-Semitism in German history, including the National Socialist era. The second is our different assessments of the motivation(s) of the “ordinary” German men who became Holocaust killers. These are the two topics that I would like to discuss at some length.
In his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen asserts that anti-Semitism “more or less governed the ideational life of civil society” in pre-Nazi Germany,5 and when the Germans “elected” [sic] Hitler to power, the “centrality of antisemitism in the Party’s worldview, program, and rhetoric … mirrored the sentiments of German culture.”6 Because Hitler and the Germans were “of one mind” about the Jews, he had merely to “unshackle” or “unleash” their “pre-existing, pent-up” anti-Semitism to perpetrate the Holocaust.7
To buttress his view that the Nazi regime should be seen merely as allowing or encouraging Germans to do what they wanted to do all along and not basically shaping German attitudes and behavior after 1933, Goldhagen formulates a thesis that he proclaims is “new” to the study of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism “does not appear, disappear, then reappear in a given society. Always present, antisemitism becomes more or less manifest.” Not anti-Semitism itself, but merely its “expression,” either “increases or decreases” according to changing conditions.8
Then in Goldhagen’s account this picture of underlying permanency and superficial fluctuation changes abruptly after 1945. The pervasive and permanent eliminationist German anti-Semitism that was the sole and sufficient motivation of the Holocaust killers suddenly disappeared. Given reeducation, a change in public conversation, a law banning anti-Semitic expression, and the lack of institutional reinforcement, a German culture dominated by anti-Semitism for centuries was suddenly transformed.9 Now, we are told, the Germans are just like us.
That anti-Semitism was a very significant aspect of Germany’s political culture before 1945 and that Germany’s political culture is both profoundly different and dramatically less anti-Semitic today are two propositions that I can easily support. But if Germany’s political culture in general and anti-Semitism in particular could be transformed after 1945 by changes in education, public conversation, law, and institutional reinforcements, as Goldhagen suggests, then it seems to me equally plausible that they could have been equally transformed in the three or four decades preceding 1945 and especially during the twelve years of Nazi rule.
In his introductory chapter Goldhagen provides a useful model for a three-dimensional analysis of anti-Semitism, even if he does not employ his own model in the subsequent chapters. Anti-Semitism, he argues, varies according to the alleged source or cause (for example, race, religion, culture, or environment) of the Jews’ alleged negative character. It varies in degree of preoccupation or priority, or how important is anti-Semitism to the anti-Semite. And it varies in degree of threat, or how endangered the anti-Semite feels.10 That anti-Semitism can vary in its diagnosis of the alleged Jewish threat and along continuums of priority and intensity would suggest not only that anti-Semitism changes over time as any or all of these dimensions change, but that it can exist in infinite variety. Even for a single country like Germany, I think we should speak and think in the plural—of anti-Semitisms rather than anti-Semitism.
The actual concept Goldhagen employs, however, produces the opposite effect; it erases all differentiation and subsumes all manifestations of anti-Semitism in Germany under a single rubric. All Germans who perceived Jews as different and viewed this difference as something negative that should disappear—whether through conversion, assimilation, emigration, or extermination—are classed as “eliminationist” anti-Semites, even if by Goldhagen’s prior model they differ as to cause, priority, and intensity. Such differences that do exist are analytically insignificant in any case, for, according to Goldhagen, variations on eliminationist solutions “tend to metastasize” into extermination.11 By using such an approach, Goldhagen moves seamlessly from a variety of anti-Semitic manifestations in Germany to a single German “eliminationist antisemitism” that, taking on the properties of organic malignancy, naturally metastasized into extermination. Thus all Germany was “of one mind” with Hitler on the justice and necessity of the Final Solution.
If one adopts the analytical model that Goldhagen proposes rather than the concept he actually uses, what then can one say about the changing variety of anti-Semitisms in German political culture and their role in the Holocaust? And where to begin?
Let us begin with nineteenth-century German history, or more precisely with various interpretations of Germany’s alleged “special path” or Sonderweg. According to the traditional social/structural approach, Germany’s failed liberal revolution of 1848 derailed simultaneous political and economic modernization. Thereafter, the precapitalist German elites maintained their privileges in an autocratic political system, while the unnerved middle classes were bought off with the prosperity of rapid economic modernization, gratified by a national unification they had been unable to achieve through their own revolutionary efforts, and ultimately manipulated by an escalating “social imperialism.”12 According to the cultural/ideological approach, the distorted and incomplete embrace of the Enlightenment by some German intellectuals, followed by their despair over an increasingly endangered and dissolving traditional world, led to a continuing rejection of liberal-democratic values and traditions on the one hand, and a selective reconciliation with aspects of modernity (such as modern technology and ends-means rationality) on the other, producing what Jeffrey Herf termed a peculiarly German “reactionary modernism.”13 A third approach, exemplified by John Weiss and Daniel Goldhagen, asserts a German Sonderweg in terms of the singular breadth and virulence of anti-Semitism in Germany, though the former paints with a less broad brush than the latter and is careful to identify the late nineteenth-century loci of this German anti-Semitism in populist political movements and among the political and academic elites.14
It seems to me that Shulamit Volkov’s interpretation of late nineteenth-century German anti-Semitism as a “cultural code” constitutes an admirable synthesis of major elements of these di
By the turn of the century a German anti-Semitism increasingly racial in nature had become an integral part of the conservative political platform and penetrated deeply into the universities. It had become more politicized and institutionalized than in the western democracies of France, Britain, and the United States. But this does not mean that late nineteenth-century German anti-Semitism dominated either politics or ideational life. The conservatives and single-issue anti-Semitic parties together constituted a minority. While majorities could be found in the Prussian Landtag to pass discriminatory legislation against Catholics in the 1870s and in the Reichstag against socialists in the 1880s, the emancipation of Germany’s Jews, who constituted less than 1 percent of the population and were scarcely capable of defending themselves against a Germany united in hostile obsession against them, was not revoked. If the left did not exhibit a philo-Semitism comparable to the rights anti-Semitism, it was primarily because for the left anti-Semitism was a nonissue that did not fit into its own class analysis, not because of its own anti-Semitism.
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