Hannah Arendt referred to Adolf Eichmann as the paradigm of the banality of evil: an ordinary man led by extraordinary circumstances to exceptional evil. However, given that Eichmann spearheaded some of the key initiatives of the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, I have argued that he was quite extraordinary: extraordinarily sociopathic and evil. The circumstances of Fascist Germany allowed his true nature to be revealed and his thirst for power through murder to be played out.
In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993) historian Christopher R. Browning reveals the true nature of the banality of evil by recounting the transformation of members of the Order Police, the Police Battalion 101, from regular men to brutal killers. Although initially the Order Police was composed of young men sympathetic to Nazi principles, by the late 1930’s it included older men from all walks of life: policemen, workers, small businessmen. Browning notes that these Order Police units expanded during the war: “Twenty-one police battalions of approximately 500 men each were formed from the various police companies and training units in Germany, thirteen of them were attached to the armies invading Poland” (6).
While one can plausibly argue that the SS were chosen for their anti-Semitic outlook and brutality, that’s not the case of the Reserve Police Battalion 101. Yet this unit of five hundred “ordinary men” is responsible for the murder of 38,000 Jews and the deportation of an additional 45,200 in occupied Poland in 1942. Few of the perpetrators were tried for their crimes against humanity after the war.
For those who did face a trial, their main defense was similar to Eichmann’s: namely, that they were merely following the orders of their superiors. In their case, unlike in Eichmann’s, this defense sounded plausible. Few of these men were ardent Nazis. Even fewer had violent or sadistic tendencies. Most of them were middle-aged men who were found ineligible for military duty. They were sent to Poland to participate in Operation Reinhard, which included shooting en masse the Jews of entire small towns, such as Jozefow and Lomazy.
They did so voluntarily, although initially not eagerly. Most of these men hesitated to kill women and children in the beginning. Browning points out that, contrary to the later excuse they offered that they were merely following orders, those orders didn’t entail any serious negative consequences for those who refused to follow them. The commander of Unit 101 gave his soldiers the option of opting out of conducting mass murders if they did not have the “fortitude” to kill civilians. All they faced, at worst, was peer pressure from some of their more ruthless colleagues. And yet, Browning notes, remarkably, only 12 out of the 500 men in Reserve Police Battalion 101 opted not to shoot innocent people.
Seeing themselves as merely doing their duty, they rounded up and shot thousands of helpless civilians. As they got used to their “job”, they became more violent and sadistic. Some even smashed Jewish babies against the wall, or threw them up into the air and shot them. The rest became increasingly used to the mass murders, quickening the pace of slaughter and increasing the brutality as time went on. If any book can show that genocide can happen anywhere and be perpetrated by regular human beings placed in extraordinary circumstances, Browning’s well-researched and persuasive book is it.
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory