Book (semi-)recommendation: Ordinary Men

‹As a wizard, I must tell you that words have power.›
‹As a politician, I must tell you I already know.›
«Unseen Academicals» by Terry Pratchett

A few sources I follow recently mentioned Browning’s 1992 book «Ordinary Men». It’s been on my reading list for a long time and actually I was already planning to read it. «Ordinary Men» is a historian’s account about a (Nazi) German police reserve battalion during WW2. During their time in Poland they participated in atrocities which included the deportation and systematic killing of Jews.

I guess it’s a rather graphic book, a bit like «The Rape of Nanking». But given a background in psychology, I am not that surprised by the atrocities. Yeah, that’s what «ordinary men» are capable of doing.

What struck me were four things:

1) Few — if any — resistance by the victims

First, how few Jews fought back. Reading the book, I got the impression they were led like lambs to the slaughter. Resistance apparently was the exception not the rule.


«The Jewish execution was performed smoothly and without incident.»


«The Jews were brought in groups of twenty, men first and then women and children. They were forced to lie face down near the cemetery wall and then shot from behind in the neck. Each policeman fired seven or eight times. At the cemetery gate one Jew sprang at Drucker with a syringe but was quickly subdued. The other Jews sat quietly awaiting their fate, even after the shooting began. ‹They were quite emaciated and looked half starved to death›, one guard remembered.»


«The policemen in the shooting commandos marched their Jews to the crest of one of the mounds of waste material in the area of the gravel pits. The victims were lined up facing a six-foot drop. From a short distance behind, the policemen fired on order into the necks of the Jews. The bodies tumbled over the edge. Following each round, the next group of Jews was brought to the same spot and thus had to look down at the growing pile of corpses of their family and friends before they were shot in tum. Only after a number of rounds did the shooters change sites.»

Although there were exceptions, which were mentioned as rare:

«Some Jews had survived by hiding in town rather than in the woods, but they too were tracked down. The most memorable case was in Kock, where a cellar hiding place was reported by a Polish translator working for the Germans. Four Jews were captured. Under ‹interrogation,› they revealed another cellar hiding place in a large house on the edge of town. A single German policeman and the Polish translator went to the second hiding place, expecting no difficulties. But this was a rare instance in which the Jews had arms, and the approaching policeman was fired upon. Reinforcements were summoned, and a fire fight broke out. In the end four or five Jews were killed in a breakout attempt, and eight to ten others were found dead or badly wounded in the cellar. Only four or five were captured unwounded; they were likewise ‹interrogated› and shot that evening.

And it looks like that behavior was more or less common:

«The German police then went in search of the owner of the house [in which Jews had been hiding], a Polish woman who had managed to flee in time. She was tracked to her father’s house in a nearby village. Lieutenant Brand presented the father with a stark choice — his life or his daughter’s. The man surrendered his daughter, who was shot on the spot.»

2) Resistance against the orders was only «I can’t do it», not «nobody must do it»

Members of the police reserve battalion did not want to get their hands dirty, but they did not try to stop the extermination from happening.

For example:

«Upon learning of the imminent massacre, Buchmann made clear to Hagen that as a Hamburg businessman and reserve lieutenant, he ‹would in no case participate in such an action, in which defenseless women and children are shot›. He asked for another assignment. Hagen arranged for Buchmann to be in charge of the escort for the male ‹work Jews› who were to be selected out and taken to Lublin. His company captain, Wohlauf, was informed of Buchmann’s assignment but not the reason for it.»


«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. 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.›»


«Once again they saw their victims face to face, and the killing was personal. More important, each individual policeman once again had a considerable degree of choice. How each exercised that choice revealed the extent to which the battalion had divided into the ‹tough› and the ‹weak›. In the months since Józefów many had become numbed, indifferent, and in some cases eager killers; others limited their participation in the killing process, refraining when they could do so without great cost or inconvenience. Only a minority of nonconformists managed to preserve a beleaguered sphere of moral autonomy that emboldened them to employ patterns of behavior and stratagems of evasion that kept them from becoming killers at all.»

The rationalizations for shooting were … typically human:

«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.›»

3) Creativity is value-neutral

Similar to its children — science, technology, engineering and the like — creativity is not inherently good or evil. It just is doing something that is new and useful — and it can be useful for really evil purposes:

«By the time each group had made two or three round trips to the collection_point and carried out their executions, it was clear to Scheer that the process was too slow. He asked Hergert for advice. ‹I then made the proposal›, Hergert recalled, ‹that it would suffice if the Jews were brought from the collection point to the place of execution by only two men of each group, while the other shooters of the execution commando would already have moved to the next shooting site. Furthermore, this shooting site was moved somewhat forward from execution to execution and thus always got closer to the collection point on the forest path. We then proceeded accordingly.› Hergert’s suggestion speeded the killing process considerably.»

4) Factors that influence people in the one or other direction

Browning goes into detail why so many (about 80-90%) of the police reserve battalion became killers. He mentions the classics in psychology (Milgram, Zimbardo). I would have expected a clearer argument or perhaps some more structure, but found two paragraphs interesting:

Akin to having «fuck you money», it pays if you have another pillar in your life than the job you are currently doing (although considering that these men might not have shot, but they still allowed the atrocities to happen):

«The two men who explained their refusal to take part in the greatest detail both emphasized the fact that they were freer to act as they did because they had no careerist ambitions. One policeman accepted the possible disadvantages of his course of action ‹because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one, but rather· an independent skilled craftsman, and I had my business back home …. thus it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.›»

Delegating responsibility, esp. if you see yourself as fulfilling a role, and not seeing yourself as a human being, is a problem:

«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 compliers 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. 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.»

All in all, an interesting book. Not fun to read. And yeah, it’s easy to condemn if you did not experience the same pressures (fundamental attribution error is likely at work here). But still a good reminder about the processes that can turn «ordinary men» to commit extraordinary atrocities.

Unfortunately, this process can happen again and again. These flaws are still in us.