Christopher R. Browning's "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland" takes the study format. The book is a study of the troop of German Police recruits who are responsible for murdering as well as capturing Jews to be transported to the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, in the year 1942. The book entails a series of documentation and evidence that Browning adopted as references for the research. Some of the research materials included several postwar recorded interrogations of the German men in the battalion; who were involved in executing the wartime crimes. The battalion comprised of middle-aged men who led ordinary lives, and lacked connections to the police career; hence the branded name "ordinary men." Some of these ordinary men were elderly and unfit for even serving in the front-line of wars. Others had no plans to join the police career either. The thesis demystified by Browning regards the question, which claims to determine the reason why most of the men in the reserve battalion 101 become murderers while others chose not to indulge in killing the captured Jews. Drawing from Browning's conclusion, it is noted that "ordinary men" will commit crimes that other people would still execute, and the reason behind that being the fact that the "ordinary men" basically followed orders from the authoritative figures alongside the inability to resist peer pressure.
The book was extensively filled with evidence from concrete research materials, including personal account stories of the ordinary men. Their stories are registered as having taken place on 13th July 1942 and are well-written in a simple and comprehensible manner. Browning broadly presents the history of Heimrich Himmler's Order Police initiated after the end of World War 1. Himmler was the chief of the German police and oversaw all the police units within the Third Reich state (Coffin, Stacey, Lerner, & Meacham, 2005). Himmler, in collaboration with other Nazis, formulated the plan known as the "Final Solution." This plan was basically a Nazi-oriented program created to eliminate the Jews in Europe at that time. The execution of the plan resulted in the death of about six million Jews, which signified approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe (Coffin et al., 2005). Browning highlights the events that proceeded with the establishment of the Nazi regime - a police battalion was developed. All the police units in the battalion were subjected to military training, followed by postings across various barracks in the country (Browning, 1992).
According to Browning (1992), the Reserve Police Battalion 101 was among the established police units; and it consisted of the recruited "ordinary men." The principal task of this unit was to assist the Schutzstaffel (SS) force within the villages in Poland (Coffin et al., 2005). The SS was in charge of managing Hitler's personal security and safety. The book presents an account of another significant event that involves the "ordinary men." On 13th July 1942, ordinary men are initiated into their first mission (Coffin et al., 2005). These men are taken to Jozefow, where they are commanded to search and capture people for the work camps. However, the order is accompanied by harsh repercussions - captured children, women, and the elderly were to be executed. The story is well-explained, and the ordinary men are seen to execute the command from above - they go on to kill the victims one at a time in the woods with no remorse. However, the book claims that ordinary men were not subject to the mandatory execution of the victims. The men were allowed to object the command at their own will. The book captures facts from the Nuremberg War Crimes, which reveal that only about twenty percent of the men objected to the command either totally or partially. This implies that some of the ordinary men did not kill, and others killed only a few. It is revealed that on that day, more than three-quarters of the ordinary men who took part in the killing eliminated about 1,500 Jews in Jozefow (Browning, 1992).
Browning generally explains the reason why the majority (about 80%) of the ordinary men became killers, while only a smaller number did not indulge in the executions (Browning, 1992). Browning's research depends significantly on primary sources, which include the testimonies offered by the policemen. The testimonies reveal firsthand information regarding encounters experienced during the period. Browning brings to light the issue of conformance to peer pressure, an irresistible atmosphere of obedience, and propaganda from Nazi administrators, as being the reasons that influenced the majority of the ordinary men into being killers. Browning's research discloses that these ordinary men had been presented with an optional command - killings were to be made voluntarily, and none of the ordinary men would be held accountable if they failed to kill the Jews. He adds that the command was instigated as a personal choice and not a compulsory act (Browning, 1992).
Browning relates the case of the ordinary men to one Yale Psychologist, Stanly Milgram - who initiated several experiments regarding obedience and authority. Browning agrees that obedience to the authority forms a substantial motivating factor that led to ordinary men enabling the massacre as well as the capture of Jews into concentration and working caps. Milgram's experiments were initiated moments after Adolf Eichmann, a German Administrator, was subjected to trial for war atrocities. Results of Milgram's experiments proved that the "ordinary men" only acted under the influence of authoritative figures who kept issuing orders (Coffin et al., 2005). The experiments are, however, biased because the participants were not subjected to real situations. Authoritative figures in the experiment issued "virtual" punishments to their disobedient subjects. Browning borrows from this finding and agrees that the ordinary men's scenario applies similarly. Browning fails to support this view extensively because, in my opinion, it is unreliable to compare a staged experiment carried out in a university lab where subjects are subjected to virtual pain. The scenario experienced by the ordinary men is different - here, the men physically engaged their victims as they subjected them to death. Killings were real, and so obedience to authoritative figures is not reason enough. Furthermore, the killings were consensual and a matter of choice among ordinary men.
Browning also fails to wholly validate the reason behind the ordinary men's participation in the killing of 1,500 Jews in a single day. Browning simply puts it in a plain text that, after all, "human responsibility is ultimately an individual matter" (Browning, 1992, pp. 188). Besides, in the final chapter of the book, Browning claims that racism has played a significant role in influencing fear and war in society. Furthermore, he believes that society models people into respecting authoritative figures while seeking growth, and this forms the background of respecting the official policy of society. He also adds that peer groups bear a great influence on the moral being of others in society. Therefore, is it right that Browning poses the question, "If the men of the reserve police battalion could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?" (Browning, 1992, pp. 189). An excellent answer would be that people learn from experience. Past mistakes made by others is not reason enough to repeat immorality. People study history as a lesson to avoid repeating past mistakes such as the Holocaust. People in society need to explore the histories of other nations to avoid violating human rights in the future.
The book is recommendable for anybody researching the Holocaust as it adds knowledge to the subject. The book gives the reader a soldier's perspective during wars, something that many textbooks fail to portray occasionally. Browning's Ordinary Men presents the reader a choice to decide their stand on moral rights and wrongs while discouraging the idea of mass-influence. The book is a good read as it illustrates the effects of peer pressure. Instead, people need to think about doing things for the greater good of society and not being individually centered.
Browning, C. R. (1992). Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. HarperCollins, New York.
Coffin, J. G., Stacey, R. C., Lerner, R. E., & Meacham, S. (2005). Western civilizations. Their History and Their Culture. Brief, 2.
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