Holocaust: The Perpetrator’s Psych

The question in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men posed towards the beginning, when the author questions how a group of normal/sane policemen could “[shoot] some 1,500 Jews in the Polish village of Jozefow in the summer of 1942,” encompasses much of Browning’s analysis within his work. He investigates the motivation of the Holocaust perpetrators and attributes the ability of everyday men to commit the atrocities of killing millions to almost surprisingly normal means; by stimulating the idea of the Jewish threat through anti-semitic propaganda and wartime anarchy, the Nazi regime effectively transformed casual men into ruthless killers. Caught up in the isolating nature of World War II, members of the Police Battalion aligned their mental states with that of the State, afraid to estrange themselves from their wartime companions.

Browning claims that the true reason for the transformation of ordinary men into mass-murderers relies on the core tenets of human nature and socio-psychological factors. Conformity was the first major one of these components. Deferring to widespread anti-Semitism campaigns and repeatedly being told that Jews were a sub-human race, policemen eventually mentally gave in to this idea while also yielding to authority who continuously reminded them of the Nazi ideals and visions for the Final Solution also stimulated these conceptions. The third primary idea that Browning presents is the adjustment to wartime procedures and duties, which includes maintaining order in enemy zones. This adjustment, as seen in many of the situations the Police Battalion were placed in, meant taking up the job of executions. While many of the men may not have enjoyed or wanted to partake in these killings, some eventually became desensitized to the crimes they were committing. Maybe this allowed them to not think too much about the lives they were taking, thus easing the job they were set to do (and hence also easing the task of deferring to authority).

Perhaps another reason that so many men were able to take part in the mass-murders didn’t have anything to do with “giving in” to authority and instead had to do with the time period that they were living in. In hindsight, we find the acts of mass-murder repulsive but if we were in the same situation during that era, who’s to say we wouldn’t do the same? Fifty years from now the generation ahead may think many of today’s acts as atrocious too. In other words, our morals grow and change overtime, depending on the factors around us (i.e. state of the nation, politics, tech, etc). And in times when we fear for the security of our country, we may partake in actions that would otherwise be seen as deplorable. Thus, Browning’s “ordinary men” may not seem so “ordinary” to us today, but in that time, it is likely that they were a representation of typical men.

Browning bases his case off of Police Battalion 101 as this was the most documented unit of the Order Police. However, even he acknowledges the possible faults of his work. Firstly, the information is based off of the testimony of 210 men twenty years after the events in question, meaning the potential for unreliable memory is fairly high. The former Battalion members also may have omitted certain details in fear of conviction. Still, since Browning went into his investigation with these potential barriers in mind, his depiction of Battalion 101 and the Order Police generally provides a relatively grounded basis despite imperfections in the actual testimonies. Hence Browning does indeed form a convincing case on motivation of Holocaust perpetrators. He does not write under the assumption that his word is completely correct, but instead provides his arguments as an initial ground upon which to further speculate.

Although Browning does a fine job at supporting his thesis that the reason for the policemen’s actions against the thousands of Jews was a result of typical men falling into a reacting phase to the situations at hand (i.e. WWII and brainwashed notions of race), the actual cause of the men’s adherence to such brutal orders may have other roots. Anti-semitism had been present in Germany pre-World War II and this violence towards people of Jewish descent could be attributed simply to the activation of this sentiment and not, as Browning suggests, to basic human nature of adjusting to circumstances and falling brainwashed into propagated ideas of racial superiority and inferiority. Therefore, the hatred towards the Jews could possibly be attributed to the already deep-seated biases that people had towards different races. This would make sense in Germany especially since many Jews were part of the wealthy minority.

Browning also does not really address the idea that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not completely German, as the Poles took a large part in the violence as well (at least this aspect isn’t as heavily emphasized), and that the victims were not strictly confined to Jewish people. However, despite this criticism of his overall argument, Browning does offer a plausible motivational factor for the brutality inflicted by the Police Battalion. He demonstrates how men can commit such heinous crimes without being innately malicious; rather, men can easily be coerced into a type of herd sensation and find that the ability for violence does indeed lie within their own hands just as much as the systems.

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