The ‘ordinary men’ who committed mass murder

Historian Christopher Browning labelled members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 ‘ordinary men’. Neither of the SS or the Wehrmacht, they were mostly unskilled workers. So what drove them to murder 38,000 unarmed men, women, and children in Poland at the height of the war?

Members of Police Battalion 101 are saluted by their order police officers as they march in formation in Lodz. Image: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Michael O’Hara; Bernhardt Colberg.

The most notable thing about Reserve Police Battalion 101 was their ordinariness.

They were not members of the SS. They were not even members of the Wehrmacht. They were ordinary, middle-aged men from Hamburg. The average age was 39, many had families, most were unskilled or semi-skilled workers, a few were skilled workers, and a few lower middle class. Many were churchgoing men.

They had ended up as reserve policemen because they were too old for service on the front-line and were not employed in essential occupations. True, a disproportionate number seem to have been Nazi Party members (25%) – twice as many as among German men generally at the time of the war.

Members of Police Battalion 101 engage in combat training in the vicinity of Lodz.
Image: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Michael O’Hara; Bernhardt Colberg.

Needless to say, party membership exploded after Hitler came to power – reaching a peak of about 8 million members – because of the considerable career-advantages of a party card in a totalitarian state.

So the relatively high proportion of party members in Reserve Police Battalion 101 is not so very remarkable. Researcher Christopher Browning seems quite justified in labelling this unit of 500 reserve police officers ‘ordinary men’.

In June 1942, these ‘ordinary men’ were redeployed to Occupied Poland to take part in a ‘special action’.

Eighteen months later, at the end of its tour of duty, Reserve Police Battalion 101 had murdered 38,000 unarmed men, women, and children. They had also deported another 45,000 people to Treblinka, an extermination camp, where an estimated 750,000 Jews were gassed in the course of the war.

So they had been accomplices in the murder of these people too. In the latter case, they were no doubt able to distance themselves from the act of murder.

This is an important part of any explanation of how the Holocaust happened. It was a vast, complex, bureaucratised operation, involving tens of thousands of personnel in a hundred different roles, most of whom were never required to empty canisters of Zyklon B into chambers packed full of human beings.

Einsatzgruppen – SS death-squads – in action in Eastern Europe. The image appears to be a snap taken on a personal camera by a unit member. it provides a vivid impression of the work undertaken by Reserve Police Battalion 101.

Some 14 million Germans voted Nazi in the July 1932 general election. Some 38 million Germans voted in favour of Hitler’s dictatorship in the August 1934 plebiscite. Only a small fraction of these people were directly involved in genocide during the war.

The Nazi seizure of power gave them control of the German state, which they then subjected to a process of Gleichschaltung, or ‘bringing into line’. This meant the purging of some staff and the cowing of the rest through a mixture of incentives, indoctrination, and intimidation.

Some people were already Nazis. Many others chose to become so. Many more simply kept their heads down and got on with their jobs. Few were minded to ask critical questions. In this way, the army, police, and civil service were turned into streamlined instruments of totalitarian dictatorship.

Take the railway system. When the Third Reich stretched from the Atlantic to the Black Sea – which it did in the middle two years of the war – some hundreds of thousands of people worked on the railways. The great majority of them did what they were told. Sometimes that involved sending cattle-trucks packed with human beings to extermination camps.

Were they accomplices to murder? Were they among the guilty? There is no easy answer.

This is an extract from a 14-paged special feature on the Holocaust, published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters.

In our special this time, Neil Faulkner drills down to the level of the individual perpetrator, to ask to what degree ordinary people were responsible. Drawing on Christopher Browning’s seminal research, he reaches disturbing conclusions about the forces for evil that may exist in our society.

Also this time, Taylor Downing reviews the debate – past and present – about whether Allied air power should have been deployed to disrupt the extermination programme, perhaps by bombing the railway lines to the camps or even the gas chambers. Again, the conclusion is disturbing.

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