Ordinary men, p.8
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       Ordinary Men, p.8

           Christopher R. Browning

  Hergert was emphatic that no one in First Platoon was given the option of withdrawing beforehand. But once the executions began and men approached either him or Scheer because they could not shoot women and children, they were given other duties.51 This was confirmed by one of his men. “During the execution word spread that anyone who could not take it any longer could report.” He went on to note, “I myself took part in some ten shootings, in which I had to shoot men and women. I simply could not shoot at people anymore, which became apparent to my sergeant, Hergert, because at the end I repeatedly shot past. For this reason he relieved me. Other comrades were also relieved sooner or later, because they simply could no longer continue.”52

  Lieutenant Drucker s Second Platoon and the bulk of Sergeant Steinmetz s Third Platoon were assigned to yet another part of the forest. Like Scheer’s men, they were divided into small groups of five to eight each rather than large groups of thirty-five to forty as in Wohlauf’s First Company. The men were told to place the end of their carbines on the cervical vertebrae at the base of the neck, but here too the shooting was done initially without fixed bayonets as a guide.53 The results were horrifying. “The shooters were gruesomely besmirched with blood, brains, and bone splinters. It hung on their clothing.”54

  When dividing his men into small groups of shooters, Drucker had kept about a third of them in reserve. Ultimately, everyone was to shoot, but the idea was to allow frequent relief and “cigarette breaks.”55 With the constant coming and going from the trucks, the wild terrain, and the frequent rotation, the men did not remain in fixed groups.56 The confusion created the opportunity for work slowdown and evasion. Some men who hurried at their task shot far more Jews than others who delayed as much as they could.57 After two rounds one policeman simply “slipped off” and stayed among the trucks on the edge of the forest.58 Another managed to avoid taking his turn with the shooters altogether.

  It was in no way the case that those who did not want to or could not carry out the shooting of human beings with their own hands could not keep themselves out of this task. No strict control was being carried out here. I therefore remained by the arriving trucks and kept myself busy at the arrival point. In any case I gave my activity such an appearance. It could not be avoided that one or another of my comrades noticed that I was not going to the executions to fire away at the victims. They showered me with remarks such as “shit-head” and “weakling” to express their disgust. But I suffered no consequences for my actions. I must mention here that I was not the only one who kept himself out of participating in the executions.59

  By far the largest number of shooters at Józefów who were interrogated after the war came from the Third Platoon of Second Company. It is from them that we can perhaps get the best impression of the effect of the executions on the men and the dropout rate among them during the course of the action.

  Hans Dettelmann,* a forty-year-old barber, was assigned by Drucker to a firing squad. “It was still not possible for me to shoot the first victim at the first execution, and I wandered off and asked … Lieutenant Drucker to be relieved.” Dettelmann told his lieutenant that he had a “very weak nature,” and Drucker let him go.60

  Walter Niehaus,* a former Reemtsma cigarette sales representative, was paired with an elderly woman for the first round. “After I had shot the elderly woman, I went to Toni [Anton] Bentheim* [his sergeant] and told him that I was not able to carry out further executions. I did not have to participate in the shooting anymore…. my nerves were totally finished from this one shooting.”61

  For his first victim August Zorn* was given a very old man. Zorn recalled that his elderly victim

  could not or would not keep up with his countrymen, because he repeatedly fell and then simply lay there. I regularly had to lift him up and drag him forward. Thus, I only reached the execution site when my comrades had already shot their Jews. At the sight of his countrymen who had been shot, my Jew threw himself on the ground and remained lying there. I then cocked my carbine and shot him through the back of the head. Because I was already very upset from the cruel treatment of the Jews during the clearing of the town and was completely in turmoil, I shot too high. The entire back of the skull of my Jew was torn off and the brain exposed. Parts of the skull flew into Sergeant Steinmetz’s face. This was grounds for me, after returning to the truck, to go to the first sergeant and ask for my release. I had become so sick that I simply couldn’t anymore. I was then relieved by the first sergeant.62

  Georg Kageler,* a thirty-seven-year-old tailor, made it through the first round before encountering difficulty. “After I had carried out the first shooting and at the unloading point was allotted a mother with daughter as victims for the next shooting, I began a conversation with them and learned that they were Germans from Kassel, and I took the decision not to participate further in the executions. The entire business was now so repugnant to me that I returned to my platoon leader and told him that I was still sick and asked for my release.” Kageler was sent to guard the marketplace.63 Neither his pre-execution conversation with his victim nor his discovery that there were German Jews in Józefów was unique. Schimke, the man who had first stepped out, encountered a Jew from Hamburg in the marketplace, as did a second policeman.64 Yet another policeman remembered that the first Jew he shot was a decorated World War I veteran from Bremen who begged in vain for mercy.65

  Franz Kastenbaum,* who during his official interrogation had denied remembering anything about the killing of Jews in Poland, suddenly appeared uninvited at the office of the Hamburg state prosecutor investigating Reserve Police Battalion 101. He told how he had been a member of a firing squad of seven or eight men that had taken its victims into the woods and shot them in the neck at point-blank range. This procedure had been repeated until the fourth victim.

  The shooting of the men was so repugnant to me that I missed the fourth man. It was simply no longer possible for me to aim accurately. I suddenly felt nauseous and ran away from the shooting site. I have expressed myself incorrectly just now. It was not that I could no longer aim accurately, rather that the fourth time I intentionally missed. I then ran into the woods, vomited, and sat down against a tree. To make sure that no one was nearby, I called loudly into the woods, because I wanted to be alone. Today I can say that my nerves were totally finished. I think that I remained alone in the woods for some two to three hours.

  Kastenbaum then returned to the edge of the woods and rode an empty truck back to the marketplace. He suffered no consequences; his absence had gone unnoticed because the firing squads had been all mixed up and randomly assigned. He had come to make this statement, he explained to the investigating attorney, because he had had no peace since attempting to conceal the shooting action.66

  Most of those who found the shooting impossible to bear quit very early.67 But not always. The men in one squad had already shot ten to twenty Jews each when they finally asked to be relieved. As one of them explained, “I especially asked to be relieved because the man next to me shot so impossibly. Apparently he always aimed his gun too high, producing terrible wounds in his victims. In many cases the entire backs of victims’ heads were torn off, so that the brains sprayed all over. I simply couldn’t watch it any longer.68 At the unloading point, Sergeant Bentheim watched men emerge from the woods covered with blood and brains, morale shaken and nerves finished. Those who asked to be relieved he advised to “slink away” to the marketplace.69 As a result, the number of policemen gathered on the marketplace grew constantly.70

  As with First Company, alcohol was made available to the policemen under Drucker and Steinmetz who stayed in the forest and continued shooting.71 As darkness approached at the end of a long summer day and the murderous task was still not finished, the shooting became even less organized and more hectic.72 The forest was so full of dead bodies that it was difficult to find places to make the Jews lie down.73 When darkness finally fell about 9:00 p.m.—some seventeen hours after Reserve Police Battalion
101 had first arrived on the outskirts of Józefów—and the last Jews had been killed, the men returned to the marketplace and prepared to depart for Biłgoraj.74 No plans had been made for the burial of the bodies, and the dead Jews were simply left lying in the woods. Neither clothing nor valuables had been officially collected, though at least some of the policemen had enriched themselves with watches, jewelry, and money taken from the victims.75 The pile of luggage the Jews had been forced to leave at the marketplace was simply burned.76 Before the policemen climbed into their trucks and left Józefów, a ten-year-old girl appeared, bleeding from the head. She was brought to Trapp, who took her in his arms and said, “You shall remain alive.”77

  When the men arrived at the barracks in Biłgoraj, they were depressed, angered, embittered, and shaken.78 They ate little but drank heavily. Generous quantities of alcohol were provided, and many of the policemen got quite drunk. Major Trapp made the rounds, trying to console and reassure them, and again placing the responsibility on higher authorities.79 But neither the drink nor Trapp’s consolation could wash away the sense of shame and horror that pervaded the barracks. Trapp asked the men not to talk about it,80 but they needed no encouragement in that direction. Those who had not been in the forest did not want to learn more.81 Those who had been there likewise had no desire to speak, either then or later. By silent consensus within Reserve Police Battalion 101, the Józefów massacre was simply not discussed. “The entire matter was a taboo.”82 But repression during waking hours could not stop the nightmares. During the first night back from Józefów, one policeman awoke firing his gun into the ceiling of the barracks.83

  Several days after Józefów the battalion, it would seem, narrowly missed participation in yet another massacre. Units of First and Second Company, under Trapp and Wohlauf, entered Alekzandrów—a so-called street village composed of houses strung out along the road twelve kilometers west of Józefów. A small number of Jews was rounded up, and both the policemen and the Jews feared that another massacre was imminent. After some hesitation, however, the action was broken off, and Trapp permitted the Jews to return to their houses. One policeman remembered vividly “how individual Jews fell on their knees before Trapp and tried to kiss his hands and feet. Trapp, however, did not permit this and turned away.” The policemen returned to Biłgoraj with no explanation for the strange turn of events.84 Then, on July 20, precisely one month after its departure from Hamburg and one week after the Józefów massacre, Reserve Police Battalion 101 left Biłgoraj for redeployment in the northern sector of the Lublin district.


  Reflections on a Massacre

  AT JÓZEFÓW A MERE DOZEN MEN OUT OF NEARLY 500 HAD responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder. Why was the number of men who from the beginning declared themselves unwilling to shoot so small? In part, it was a matter of the suddenness. There was no forewarning or time to think, as the men were totally “surprised” by the Józefów action.1 Unless they were able to react to Trapp’s offer on the spur of the moment, this first opportunity was lost.2

  As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out. The battalion had only recently been brought up to full strength, and many of the men did not yet know each other well; the bonds of military comradeship were not yet fully developed. Nonetheless, the act of stepping out that morning in Józefów meant leaving one’s comrades and admitting that one was “too weak” or “cowardly.” Who would have “dared,” one policeman declared emphatically, to “lose face” before the assembled troops.3 “If the question is posed to me why I shot with the others in the first place,” said another who subsequently asked to be excused after several rounds of killing, “I must answer that no one wants to be thought a coward.” It was one thing to refuse at the beginning, he added, and quite another to try to shoot but not be able to continue.4 Another policeman—more aware of what truly required courage—said quite simply, “I was cowardly.”5

  Most of the interrogated policemen denied that they had any choice. Faced with the testimony of others, many did not contest that Trapp had made the offer but claimed that they had not heard that part of the speech or could not remember it. A few policemen made the attempt to confront the question of choice but failed to find the words. It was a different time and place, as if they had been on another political planet, and the political values and vocabulary of the 1960s were useless in explaining the situation in which they had found themselves in 1942. Quite atypical in describing his state of mind that morning of July 13 was a policeman who admitted to killing as many as twenty Jews before quitting. “I thought that I could master the situation and that without me the Jews were not going to escape their fate anyway…. 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…. Only later did it first occur to me that had not been right.”6

  In addition to the easy rationalization that not taking part in the shooting was not going to alter the fate of the Jews in any case, the policemen developed other justifications for their behavior. Perhaps the most astonishing rationalization of all was that of a thirty-five-year-old metalworker from Bremerhaven:

  I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers.7

  The full weight of this statement, and the significance of the word choice of the former policeman, cannot be fully appreciated unless one knows that the German word for “release” (erlösen) also means to “redeem” or “save” when used in a religious sense. The one who “releases” is the Erlöser—the Savior or Redeemer!

  In terms of motivation and consciousness, the most glaring omission in the interrogations is any discussion of anti-Semitism. For the most part the interrogators did not pursue this issue. Nor were the men, for understandable reasons as potential defendants, eager to volunteer any illuminating comments. With few exceptions the whole question of anti-Semitism is marked by silence. What is clear is that the men’s concern for their standing in the eyes of their comrades was not matched by any sense of human ties with their victims. The Jews stood outside their circle of human obligation and responsibility. Such a polarization between “us” and “them,” between one’s comrades and the enemy, is of course standard in war.

  It would seem that even if the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 had not consciously adopted the anti-Semitic doctrines of the regime, they had at least accepted the assimilation of the Jews into the image of the enemy. Major Trapp appealed to this generalized notion of the Jews as part of the enemy in his early-morning speech. The men should remember, when shooting Jewish women and children, that the enemy was killing German women and children by bombing Germany.

  If only a dozen policemen stepped out at the beginning to extricate themselves from the impending mass murder, a much larger number either sought to evade the shooting by less conspicuous methods or asked to be released from the firing squads once the shooting had begun. How many policemen belonged to these categories cannot be ascertained with any certainty, but an estimate in the range of 10 to 20 percent of those actually assigned to the firing squads does not seem unreasonable. Sergeant Hergert, for instance, admitted excusing as many as five from his squad of forty or fifty men. In the Drucker-Steinmetz group, from which the greatest number of shooters was interrogated, we can identify six policemen who quit within four rounds and an entire squad of five to eight who were released considerably later. While the number of those who evaded or drop
ped out was thus not insignificant, it must not obscure the corollary that at least 80 percent of those called upon to shoot continued to do so until 1,500 Jews from Józefów had been killed.

  Even twenty or twenty-five years later those who did quit shooting along the way overwhelmingly cited sheer physical revulsion against what they were doing as the prime motive but did not express any ethical or political principles behind this revulsion. Given the educational level of these reserve policemen, one should not expect a sophisticated articulation of abstract principles. The absence of such does not mean that their revulsion did not have its origins in the humane instincts that Nazism radically opposed and sought to overcome. But the men themselves did not seem to be conscious of the contradiction between their feelings and the essence of the regime they served. Being too weak to continue shooting, of course, posed problems for the “productivity” and morale of the battalion, but it did not challenge basic police discipline or the authority of the regime in general. Indeed, Heinrich Himmler himself sanctioned the toleration of this kind of weakness in his notorious Posen speech of October 4, 1943, to the SS leadership. While exalting obedience as one of the key virtues of all SS men, he explicitly noted an exception, namely, “one whose nerves are finished, one who is weak. Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”8

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