Ordinary men, p.23
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       Ordinary Men, p.23

           Christopher R. Browning
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  But if Buehmann is to be cited as a prime witness providing evidence for a uniform anti-Semitism within the battalion, ought not the following statements also be included? Concerning the differing reactions of the men to Buchmann’s own refusal to take part in the anti-Jewish actions, he said: “Among my subordinates many understood my position, but others made disparaging remarks about me and looked down their noses at me.”68 Concerning their attitude to the killing itself, he stated that “the men did not carry out the Jewish actions with enthusiasm…. The men were all very depressed.”69

  One final example of tendentious selectivity of evidence. Goldhagen consistently emphasizes that the perpetrators “had fun” killing jews, and that these “men’s accounts of conversations that they had while in the killing fields suggest … that these men in principle approved of the genocide and of their own deeds.”70 A typical example of this is his account of Sergeant Heinrich Beke-meier’s squad carrying out the “Jew hunt” in Łomazy after the massacre. Goldhagen writes:

  When Bekemeier’s men did find Jews, they not only killed them but, in one instance that has been described, they, or at least Bekemeier, also had fun with them beforehand:

  He then quotes directly from the policeman’s testimony.

  One episode has been preserved in my memory to this day. Under the command of Sergeant Bekemeier we had to convey a transport of Jews to some place. He had the Jews crawl through a water hole and sing as they did it. When an old man could not walk anymore, which was when the crawling episode was finished, he shot him at close range in the mouth….

  At this point Goldhagen breaks off the quote and resumes the description of this same incident from testimony given at a later interrogation.

  After Bekemeier had shot the Jew, the latter raised his hand as if to appeal to God and then collapsed. The corpse of the Jew was simply left King. We did not concern ourselves with it.

  How different this testimony sounds if the witness’s account is not broken off, for after describing Bekemeier’s shooting of the old Jew in the mouth, he continues: “I said to Heinz Richter, who was walking next to me, ‘I’d like to bump off this trash.’” Indeed, according to the same witness, within the “circle of comrades” Bekemeier was deemed “vile trash” and “a dirty dog.” He was notorious for being “violent and cruel” to both “Poles and Jews” and even for kicking his own men.71 In short, by tendentious selectivity Goldhagen portrays this event as part of a pattern of generalized and uniform cruelty and approval, when the full testimony provides a picture instead of the cruelty of an especially vicious and disliked SS officer, whose behavior evoked disapproval among his men.

  In contrast to Goldhagen, I offered a portrayal of the battalion that was multilayered. Different groups within the battalion behaved in different ways. The “eager killers”—whose numbers increased over time—sought the opportunity to kill, and celebrated their murderous deeds. The smallest group within the battalion comprised the nonshooters. With the exception of Lieutenant Buchmann, they did not make principled objections against the regime and its murderous policies; they did not reproach their comrades. They took advantage of Trapp’s policy within the battalion of exempting from shooting those who “didn’t feel up to it” by saying that they were took weak or that they had children.

  The largest group within the battalion did whatever they were asked to do, without ever risking the onus of confronting authority or appearing weak, but they did not volunteer for or celebrate the killing. Increasingly numb and brutalized, they felt more pity for themselves because of the “unpleasant” work they had been assigned than they did for their dehumanized victims. For the most part, they did not think what they were doing was wrong or immoral, because the killing was sanctioned by legitimate authority. Indeed, for the most part they did not try to think, period. As one policeman stated: “Truthfully, I must say that at the time we didn’t reflect about it at all. Only years later did any of us become truly conscious of what had happened then.”72 Heavy drinking helped: “most of the other men drank so much solely because of the many shootings of Jews, for such a life was quite intolerable sober.”73

  That these policemen were “willing executioners” does not mean that they “wanted to be genocidal executioners.” This, in my opinion, is an important distinction that Goldhagen consistently blurs. He also repeatedly poses the interpretational dispute in the form of a false dichotomy: either the German killers must have been “of one mind” with Hitler about the demonological nature of the Jews and hence believed in the necessity and justice of the mass murder, or they must have believed that they were committing the greatest crime in history. In my view the majority of the killers could not be described by either of these polar-opposite views.

  In addition to a multilayered portrayal of the battalion, I offered a multicausal explanation of motivation. I noted the importance of conformity peer pressure, and deference to authority, and I should have emphasized more explicitly the legitimizing capacities of government. I also emphasized the “mutually intensifying effects of war and racism,” as “the years of anti-Semitic propaganda … dovetailed with the polarizing effects of war.” I argued that “nothing helped the Nazis to wage a race war so much as the war itself,” as 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 enemies.” Ordinary Germans did not have to be “of one mind” with Hitler’s demonological view of the Jews to carry out genocide. A combination of situational factors and ideological overlap that concurred on the enemy status and dehumanization of the victims was sufficient to turn “ordinary men” into “willing executioners.”

  Goldhagen claims that we have “no choice but to adopt” his own explanation, because he has “irrefutably” and “resoundingly” disproved the “conventional explanations” (coercion, obedience, social-psychological observations about human behavior, self-interest, and attenuation or fragmentation of responsibility). Several problems emerge. First, these “conventional explanations” are not invoked by scholars as sole and sufficient causes of perpetrator behavior but are usually part of a multicausal approach, what Goldhagen derides as a “laundry list.”74 Thus they do not have to meet the same high test of allegedly accounting for everything that Goldhagen sets for his own explanation. Second, to claim that one has disproved something irrefutably sets a high test that Goldhagen does not meet. And third, even a comprehensive refutation of the “conventional explanations” would not necessitate accepting Goldhagen s thesis.

  Let us look more closely at Goldhagen’s alleged refutation of two of the so-called conventional explanations: a German propensity to follow orders, and general attributes of human behavior studied by social psychologists (deference to authority, role adaptation, conformity to peer pressure). Goldhagen abruptly dismisses the notion that a propensity to follow orders and unthinking obedience to authority were prominent elements of German political culture. After all, he notes that Germans battled in the streets of Weimar and were openly disdainful of the Republic.75 But one incident does not make a country’s history or characterize its political culture. To claim that German political culture displayed no tendency to obedience because of opposition to Weimar is no more valid than to claim that anti-Semitism was not a part of German political culture by citing Jewish emancipation in nineteenth-century Germany—a notion Goldhagen emphatically resists.

  More important is the historical context of Weimar disobedience. Goldhagen notes that Germans were obedient only to government and authority that they deemed “legitimate.” This is indeed vital to the issue, for it was precisely the democratic, nonauthoritarian character of Weimar that delegitimized it in the eyes of those who disdained and attacked it. It was precisely the Nazis’ demolition of democracy and the restoration of an authoritarian political system, emphasizing communal obligations over individual rights, that gave them legitimacy and popularity among significant segments of t
he German population. Indeed, many historians have argued that Germany’s incomplete and halfhearted democratic revolutions in 1848 and 1918 opened the door for successful authoritarian counterrevolution and restoration, and that failed democratization—not anti-Semitism—decisively distinguished Germany’s political culture from that of France, England, and the United States.

  The same kinds of evidence and arguments that Goldhagen cites as proof of the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism inculcating hatred of Jews in Germany can also be found in support of the notion that Germany had a strong tradition of authoritarianism inculcating habits of obedience and antidemocratic attitudes. All the elements that Goldhagen himself cites as decisive for shaping political culture—education, public conversation, law, and institutional reinforcement76—were at work inculcating authoritarian values in Germany long before the Nazis also used them to incessantly disseminate anti-Semitism.

  Moreover, the most outspoken anti-Semites in Germany were also antidemocratic and authoritarian. To deny the importance of authoritarian traditions and values in German political culture while arguing for the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism is to insist that the glass is half-full while denying that it is half-empty. To the extent that Goldhagen’s arguments about German political culture and anti-Semitism are valid, they are even more so for German political culture and obedience to authority.

  Goldhagen claims that the social-psychological interpretation is “ahistorical” and that its adherents “imply that any group of people, regardless of their socialization and their beliefs, could be parachuted into the same circumstances and would act in exactly the same way toward any arbitrarily selected group of victims.”77 This is a serious mischaracterization that confuses the experimental setting with scholars’ subsequent application of the insights derived. For example, the point of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments was to isolate the variables of deference to authority and role adaptation precisely so that the dynamic of these factors in human behavior could be examined and better understood. To have run either of these experiments pitting Serbs against Bosnian Muslims or Hutus against Tutsis would have been ludicrous, for the very reason that the historically specific ethnic animosities would have introduced a second powerful variable, totally skewing the results.

  It was precisely because the experiments were kept ahistorieal that the insights from them have validity, and that scholars now know that deference to authority and role adaptation are powerful factors shaping human behavior. For scholars studying motivation in concrete historical situations, in which variables cannot be isolated and historical actors are not themselves fully conscious of the complex interaction of factors that shape their behavior, such insights can in my opinion be invaluable for sifting through problematic evidence.

  Goldhagen has repeatedly claimed that his interpretation alone correctly assumes that the perpetrators believed that the slaughter of Jews was necessary and just, while the “conventional explanations” suffer from the false assumption that the killers believed that what they were doing was wrong and had to be induced to kill against their will. This both mischaracterizes the position of others and poses the issue as a false dichotomy. Employing a social-psychological approach in investigating the historically specific instance of “crimes of obedience” in Vietnam, Kelman and Hamilton have noted a spectrum of response to authority. Between those who acted out of conviction because they shared the values of the regime and its policies on the one hand, and nominal compilers who acted against their will under supervision but did not obey orders when not being watched, there were other possibilities. Many accepted and internalized the role expectation that soldiers must be tough and obedient and carry out state policies regardless of the content of specific orders.78 Soldiers and police can willingly obey orders and implement policy that they do not identify as commensurate with their own personal values, even when not supervised, in the same way that soldiers and police often willingly follow orders and are killed in the line of duty, though they do not want to die. They can commit acts in their capacity of soldiers and police that they would deem wrong if done of their own volition, but which they do not consider wrong if sanctioned by the state.79 And people can change their values, adopting new ones that do not conflict with their actions, thus becoming killers out of conviction as the killing becomes routine. The relationship between authority, belief, and action is not only complex, but it is also unstable and can change over time.80

  The social-psychological approach does not assume, as Goldhagen claims, that the perpetrators’ ideology, moral values, and conception of the victims do not matter.81 But the approach is certainly not congenial to the simplistic reduction of the perpetrators’ ideology, moral values, and conception of the victim to a single factor, such as anti-Semitism. I agree with Goldhagen when he states that” crimes of obedience’ … depend upon the existence of a propitious social and political context.”82 But the social and political context invariably introduces a plurality of factors beyond the cognition of the perpetrators and identity of the victims, and it produces a complex and changing spectrum or range of response.

  In short, Goldhagen has not come even close to accurately explicating and then “irrefutably” disproving several of the key “conventional explanations,”83 neither of which is claimed to be a total explanation in itself. Even if the five conventional explanations noted by Goldhagen had been “irrefutably” disproved, it is not the case that we are left with “no choice but to adopt” Goldhagen’s own interpretation. The search for understanding the motivations of the Holocaust perpetrators is not confined to a limited set. The scholars quest is not a multiple-choice exam. Or at the very least there must always be another choice: “None of the above.”

  Throughout the controversy, Goldhagen has claimed that his approach has restored a moral dimension missing from the accounts of previous historians. For instance, in his recent reply to his critics in THE NEW REPUBLIC, Goldhagen asserts that he has recognized “the humanity” of the perpetrators. His analysis is “predicated upon the recognition that each individual made choices about how to treat Jews,” which “restores the notion of individual responsibility.” On the other hand, he claims that scholars like myself have “kept the perpetrators at a comfortable arm’s length” and treated them as “automatons or puppets.”84

  These claims by Goldhagen are untenable. First, the social-psychological insights he cavalierly dismisses do not treat individuals as mechanically interchangeable parts, nor do they dismiss cultural and ideological factors.85 As noted above, Goldhagen’s assertion that the psycho-sociological approach is “demonstrably false”86 is based on crude caricature. Second, concerning the “humanity” of the perpetrators and not keeping them “at a comfortable arm’s length,” it is Goldhagen himself who admonishes other scholars to rid themselves of the notion that Germans in the Third Reich were “more or less like us” and that “their sensibilities had remotely approximated our own.”87 And his claim to treat perpetrators as “responsible agents who make choices” is difficult to reconcile with his deterministic conclusion: “During the Nazi period, and even long before, most Germans could no more emerge with cognitive models foreign to their society … than they could speak fluent Romanian without ever having been exposed to it.”88

  It is my position, in contrast, that psycho-sociological theories—based upon the assumption of inclinations and propensities common to human nature but not excluding cultural influences—provide important insights into the behavior of the perpetrators. I believe that the perpetrators not only had the capacity to choose but exercised that choice in various ways that covered the spectrum from enthusiastic participation, through dutiful, nominal, or regretful compliance, to differing degrees of evasion. Which of our two approaches, I would ask, is predicated upon the humanity and individuality of the perpetrators and allows for a moral dimension in the analysis of their choices?

  Goldhagen and I agree that Reserve Police Battalion 101 was representative of “ordi
nary Germans,” and that “ordinary Germans” randomly conscripted from all walks of life became “willing executioners.” But I do not think that his portrayal of the battalion is representative. He is certainly right that there were numerous enthusiastic killers who sought the opportunity to kill, found gratification in inflicting terrible cruelties, and celebrated their deeds. All too many frightening examples of such behavior can be found in both this book and his. But Goldhagen minimizes or denies other layers of behavior that are important to understanding the dynamics of genocidal killing units and that cast doubt on his assertion that the battalion was uniformly pervaded by “pride” in and “principled approval” of the mass murder it perpetrated. His portraval is skewed because he mistakes the part for the whole.

  This is a flaw that appears repeatedly throughout the book. For instance, I agree that anti-Semitism was a strong ideological current in nineteenth-century Germany, but I do not accept Goldhagen’s assertion that anti-Semitism “more or less governed the ideational life of civil society” in pre-Nazi Germany.89 I agree that by 1933 anti-Semitism had become part of the “common sense” of the German right without thereby concluding that all German society was “of one mind” with Hitler about the Jews, and that the “centrality of antisemitism in the Party’s worldview, program, and rhetoric … mirrored the sentiments of German culture.”90 I agree that anti-Semitism—negative stereotyping, dehumanization, and hatred of the Jews—was widespread among the killers of 1942, but I do not agree that this anti-Semitism is primarily to be seen as a “pre-existing, pent-up” anti-Semitism that Hitler had merely to “unleash” and “unshackle.”91

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