- Paperback: 271 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (April 24, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780060995065
- ISBN-13: 978-0060995065
- ASIN: 0060995068
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 237 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #40,731 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland Paperback – April 24, 1998
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Shocking as it is, this book--a crucial source of original research used for the bestseller Hitler's Willing Executioners--gives evidence to suggest the opposite conclusion: that the sad-sack German draftees who perpetrated much of the Holocaust were not expressing some uniquely Germanic evil, but that they were average men comparable to the run of humanity, twisted by historical forces into inhuman shapes. Browning, a thorough historian who lets no one off the moral hook nor fails to weigh any contributing factor--cowardice, ideological indoctrination, loyalty to the battalion, and reluctance to force the others to bear more than their share of what each viewed as an excruciating duty--interviewed hundreds of the killers, who simply could not explain how they had sunken into savagery under Hitler. A good book to read along with Ron Rosenbaum's comparably excellent study Explaining Hitler. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
Browning reconstructs how a German reserve police battalion composed of "ordinary men," middle-aged, working class people, killed tens of thousands of Jews during WW II.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The first mass murder takes place in a Polish town called Jozefow. The commander of the unit was teary-eyed and choked up when he gave the order to his men. Accounts hold that he even gave them a way out, stating that if any man didn’t think they were up for the challenge (of murdering thousands of Jews on that day), they were free to step down. About twelve men (among hundreds) decided to step down and opt out of the killing. As a side note, these are the men we should really be studying, because if every man had their courage, we may have avoided the Holocaust altogether. Nevertheless, 1,500 Jews were shot in the back of the head and neck that day. Many were killed on the spot, and many were gravely injured, but left in the mass grave to suffer a slow, more painful death, being suffocated by their friends and family as they fell on top of them.
The book follows the battalion through other such mass killings, Judenjagd (“Jew Hunt”) in the Polish countryside, and their participation in gathering up and deporting Jews to Treblinka (a literal death sentence). Ultimately, these bakers, salesmen, and police officers were directly responsible for the deaths of 38,000 men, women and children through mass-shootings, and another 45,200 through collecting people from the ghettos and forcing them onto trains for Treblinka (a Nazi extermination camp).
Browning offers up a variety of reasons that these ordinary men participated in genocide, some more pertinent than others. Among those reasons are deference to authority, psychological need for conformity, fear of a brutal regime, fear of looking “weak” in front of other members of the battalion, detachment from the people they were killing, and indoctrination via the Nazi propaganda machine. None of these individual reasons would have been enough to drive ordinary men to mass murder, but altogether, the reasons became enough for many of them.
“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.” -Christopher Browning via Ordinary Men Chapter 18
While reading Browning’s conclusions, I couldn’t help but think about the conclusions of other men who have grappled with the evil deeds of men. In their own ways, both Jung and Solzhenitsyn tell us that we all have the inherent capability for malevolence. Jung adds that being hyper-aware of that fact is essentially our only shot at preventing us from acting upon it.
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn via The Gulag Archipelago
“…inasmuch as I become conscious of my shadow I also remember that I am a human being like any other.” -Carl Jung
Final say: 4/5 stars. This is a very powerful book that is difficult to read at times due to the (necessarily) graphic depictions of violence. If you are at all interested in human nature or World War II, read this book.
For example, this book presets graphic accounts of babies being slaughtered, but it presents them in the context of a commander who allowed men to sit out if they were unable to commit such atrocities, and some of them did sit out. By inserting human elements like this (which is really just giving appropriate context), the horrors feel more real, and the reader is challenged to imagine how he or she would react in a similar situation. Our daily choices may not involve murder, but our smaller choices, when aggregated, can amount to similar horrors.