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Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning Critical Essay

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Updated: Jul 9th, 2019

Throughout history, several injustices have been committed by various people and groups. History scholars often evaluate the perpetrators of such injustices. Perpetrators are often thought to be brutal sadists without any conscience or morals but they are never thought to be ordinary human beings.

The reasons why most people often avoid looking at perpetrators from this angle is because they fear that they might recognize some similarities between the perpetrators and themselves. “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” is a book that tells the story about ordinary people who become fierce genocide perpetrators.

The author of this book is Christopher Browning a renowned holocaust scholar. The author’s main argument in this book is that everyone obeys the government and authority figures and people always comply with these rules to avoid being alienated.

The author of this book traces the activities of a German police squad named ‘Reserve Police Battalion (RPB) 101’. The RPB 101 is a police unit that has members who are recruited from ordinary citizens. The unit goes from being an amateur police unit to being a formidable killer force.

Holocaust scholars are always divided in terms of their opinions about what triggered and sustained the holocaust1. Browning’s opinions are always considered to be ‘moderately functionalist’. According to him, the order to eliminate the Jewish people came after a big number of Jewish people had already been eliminated.

The author’s expertise on the subject has seen him contribute to the Holocaust museum and act as an expert witness in Nazi trials2. Browning’s other works have dealt with Holocaust recollections and war trials. Nevertheless, “Ordinary Men” is one of the author’s most significant works. The book also serves as a source of micro-history for Holocaust scholars.

“Ordinary Men” starts by giving statistics about the extent of the Holocaust by 1942. According to the author, in March of 1942 over seventy-five per cent of all holocaust victims were still alive. However, a year later over seventy-five percent of the Holocaust victims were dead3. The author points out that between March 1942 and February 1943, there were a lot of mass murders that were going on.

In addition, the author pinpoints Poland as the epicenter of the Holocaust. This means that there had to be several German operatives on the ground during the height of the Holocaust. However, the author points out that during this time the German army was pre-occupied in the battle of Stalingrad. This means that the German administration had to source manpower from elsewhere.

The author set out to Germany to investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding the success of the Holocaust. When perusing through records in the State Administration for Justice’s office, Browning came across the RPB 101’s records. The author then acknowledges the people who helped him in the course of his research.

The book’s first chapter starts with the leader of the RPB 101 briefing his soldiers. Major Wilhelm Trapp lets his soldiers know about the task that lay ahead. According to Trapp, the soldiers were to “round up Jews in the village of Józefów, separate those who were of working age (who were to be sent to concentration camps) from women, children, and the elderly, and then shoot the rest”4.

In a surprising turn of events in this first chapter, Major Trapp offers the soldiers a chance to abstain from the task if they felt like they were not up to it. However, the author does not reveal whether any of the soldiers take this chance at this point but he instead continues with the next chapter. The main reason why the author chose to start the book with a cliffhanger is to capture the reader’s attention.

In the next chapter, the author does not continue with the subject matter of the first chapter. Instead, the author begins tracing the RPB’s origin. According to Browning, RPB 101 was part of the Order Police an organization that was created by Nazi. The order police operated like the army police and they had basic military training and equipments.

In the subsequent chapters, the author delves into the activities of the Order Police around 1940. The Order Police mostly took part in the slaughter of Jews in the Soviet Union. Browning details how the Holocaust began with public beatings and humiliations. Eventually, the humiliated people would be dragged to the woods where they were shot. The Order Police was also charged with transporting people to concentration camps.

The fifth chapter addresses the main activities of the RPB 101. For instance, the RPB’s activities in the 1940 included resettling the Jews who were living in Nazi territory in a bid to achieve “racial purity”5. The book also has a detailed analysis of the members of the RPB 101. According to the author, the members consisted mostly of middle-aged working class men.

The author does a good job of giving a historical background of the Order Police and RPB 101. This helps casual readers understand most of the events surrounding the Holocaust. The background information offered by the author also helps supplement his primary sources, which in this case are the RPB 101’s records.

Browning informs readers that the men in Battalion 101 were not necessarily hardcore Nazi adherents. The group was consisted of people who had preexisting political and moral standards even before joining Nazi. The author notes that even the Nazi leaders had little faith in the group. The author then revisits the cliffhanger in the first chapter by continuing narrating about the RPB 101’s first experience in Józefów.

According to the book, only thirteen men out of a group of around 500 men chose to take Major Trapp’s offer and abstain from the mass killings. The author then continues to explore the circumstances surrounding RPB 101’s massacre. The book ends with the members of the RPB 101 retreating to Germany. The book also offers a few details about the trials that resulted from RPB 101’s atrocities.

According to the author, only three members of this battalion were convicted. Moreover, none of their sentences exceeded four years. The author’s protests against the aftermath of the Holocaust are apparent. The author then recaps the process through which ordinary people became killing machines.

One of the author’s main influences is Paul Hilberg. This explains why this book has some similarities with Hilberg’s earlier book “Perpetrators, Victims, and Bystanders”. Like Hilberg, Browning addresses the issue of studying perpetrators with the view of empathizing with them6.

This approach is not common among historians. Most historians usually study perpetrators with the view of castigating them. Browning opts for simplicity when writing this book. The author does not use any complicated grammar or writing style. Instead, the author uses simple sentences that are devoid of any pretentious synonyms. This style increases the scope of the book’s intended audience.

The author’s simple style of writing saw the book being embraced even by the mainstream audience. The book’s first chapter is very short and it shocks the readers to some extent. The events that transpire in the beginning of the book almost seem fictional. The author’s specific details about what happened the first time the RPB 101 arrived in Poland are shocking. However, the readers often doubt the accuracy of these details.

For instance, it is hard for the reader to believe that the RPB’s leader spoke “with a choking voice and tears in his eyes”7. The only way to ascertain the accuracy of these details is by accessing the author’s primary sources and this is not easy to accomplish. Nevertheless, it is through these candid details that the author is able to connect the audience with the RPB 101 members in a more humane level.

The author’s choice of language is very important to the book’s overall outlook. For example, the author uses language that helps unearth the perpetrator’s inner characters. In one instance, the author claims that the perpetrators “committed several more massacres to mirror their desensitization”8. The author also portrays the men’s ‘fun side’ using casual language in their dialogue including the use of nicknames.

This choice is in line with the author’s aim of investigating the perpetrators with a view of emphasizing with them. Another strong point of this book is the author’s sources. The author mostly relies on Nazi reports and diaries as his primary sources. This makes “Ordinary Men” a useful secondary source as far as the history of the Holocaust is concerned.

The author’s main sources are the ones concerning RPB 101 and they are the book’s most valued asset. Moreover, the author manages to use visual sources in his book. The visual sources include photographs and maps. However, the author chose to put all his visual sources in one page as opposed to spreading them around the book. The latter would have been more beneficial.

The book was well received in both academic and non-academic circles. The book’s new method of exploring perpetrators was very popular with critics. However, shortly after “Ordinary Men” was published another book titled “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel Goldhagen sought to discredit Browning’s work. Among Goldhagen’s major protests is that the men in the RPB 101 were ordinary human beings9.

On the other hand, Browning accuses Goldhagen of providing ‘populist’ conclusions in his book. Nonetheless, Goldhagen is able to point out some valid inconsistencies in Browning’s book. For instance, Browning misrepresents the dates when the massacres supposedly started.

Overall, “Ordinary Men” is an insightful book that deserves recognition for its original historical account on the Holocaust. Browning is able to balance between providing a well-researched historical account and a well-analyzed conclusion concerning the activities of RPB 101.

However, the author seems determined to seek empathy for the RPB 101 members and therefore ignores some inconsistencies in his story. Nevertheless, the author is able to persuade the readers to empathize with the members of the 101 battalion. This book could be beneficial to all readers who might be interested in history especially that of the Holocaust.


Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Goldhagen, Daniel. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Sivan, Edward. War and Remembrance in the 20th century. New York: Cambridge, 1999.


1 Edward Sivan, War and Remembrance in the 20th century. (New York: Cambridge, 1999), 45.

2 Christopher Browning, Ordinary men. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), xi.

3 Browning, Ordinary men, 13.

4 Christopher Browning, Ordinary men. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 16.

5 Christopher Browning, Ordinary men. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 79.

6 Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945. (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 21.

7 Christopher Browning, Ordinary men. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 82.

8 Christopher Browning, Ordinary men. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 172.

9 Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 16.

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