Holocaust in itself goes beyond describing extermination of Jews; it describes crime against humanity in general. The damage that the Holocaust caused in Europe has not been matched in history.
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Nevertheless, the big question remains today; who was responsible for the extermination of Jews? Well, many people believed, and still believe that, Adolf Hitler was the man behind the whole issue. Not until you read Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning. In the wake of the strong-held belief that Jews were responsible for the fall of German Empire, there was massive deployment of police officers to clear Jews from ghettos and exterminate them.
However, Browning throws in another issue; that, ordinary men; reserve-untrained civilians; fathers; brothers got involved in this atrocious act. Browning asks, “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” (189).
The insinuation here is that, ordinary men got involved in the genocide. Browning traces how the Reserve Police Battalion 101 were sent to Poland; received their first command to kill at Jozefow and proceeded to exterminate thousands of innocent defenseless Jews in Erntefest.
Browning reveals how these ordinary men mostly from Hamburg in Germany, turned into cold-blooded slayers albeit being given the option of withdrawing from the exercise. “Each individual policeman once again had a considerable degree of choice” (Browning 27). Nevertheless, the big question remains: what made these ordinary men turn into killers?
These ordinary men did not kill because they wanted to kill. They killed because they came face to face with the victims. No wonder after they killed the first lot of Jews, “they were depressed, angered, embittered, and shaken” (Browning 69). There is the human instinct to dominate over other people when presented with the opportunity, and may be, these ordinary men opened fire impulsively to the Jews without such intentions.
However, the fact that these ordinary men had been given the opportunity to withdraw from the exercise, overrules this possibility. Nevertheless, it is important to note at this point that their commanders ridiculed those who tried to move out of the operation and this takes us to the next reason why members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 became executioners.
According to Browning, the members of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 never knew that they would take part in killing innocent wretched Jews (56). Before commencing the operations, the commander in charge of the Battalion allowed those who could not handle the operation to step aside to take less demanding jobs.
At this point, Schmike withdrew from the group but commander Trapp lambasted him (Browning 57). For fear of being scolded, majority of the ordinary men stayed back save for twelve more men who joined Schmike. This fear might be a major contributory factor as to why many ordinary men agreed to take part in the extermination operation. To some extent, this was an act of free will as Browning posits, “Human responsibility is ultimately an individual matter” (188).
Human beings are logical beings, they can make legitimate decisions, and given the fact that, these men were given the opportunity to choose between joining the executions and quitting the same, it shows that they were willing to kill and this is the third reason why these people turned into ‘willing exterminators’.
Finally, among other duties, the Police Battalion 101 had to put Jews into trains and transport them to death camps. They could bundle tens of thousands of Jews into trains and inspect them on their way to concentration camps (Browning 59). Faced with this opportunity to rule over helpless individuals, the Police Battalion 101 became accustomed to exterminating Jews for they had the mandate.
These reserve civilians also had to hunt for Jews who were on the run and flush them out of forests. In this hunting operation, many Jews lost their lives in the hands of these ordinary men. At times, the Police Battalion 101 would joke about the ‘hunting expedition’ (Browning 65).
Moreover, this Police Reserve Battalion did not face any opposition from any other group and this fuelled the killing. Human power, especially when being applied by untrained people under no control, can run out of hand. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Reserve Police Battalion 101.
The participation in the executions was not something that could only have taken place at this historical time and place; it is an example of broader issues and concerns. These executions portray an opportunity that had matured. Browning states that,
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“The fundamental problem is not to explain why ordinary Germans, as members of a people utterly different from us and shaped by a culture that permitted them to think and act in no other way than to want to be genocidal executioners, eagerly killed Jews when the opportunity offered.
The fundamental problem is to explain why ordinary men–shaped by a culture that had its own peculiarities but was nonetheless within the mainstream of western Christian, and Enlightenment traditions–under specific circumstances willingly carried out the most extreme genocide in human history” (222).
Browning has continually contended that the extermination, which many call the ‘final solution”, resulted from “cumulative radicalization.”
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.