The Pequod Review:
Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men begins with a question:
In mid-March of 1942, some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25 percent had perished. In mid-February 1943, the percentages were exactly the reverse. At the core of the Holocaust was a short, intense wave of mass murder. Furthermore, this task was carried out at the same time German soldiers were fighting in Stalingrad. How did such an enormous mobilization of soldiers take place to execute such a genocide?
To answer this, Browning examines detailed records and interviews of a specific unit of 450 men from Hamburg (Reserve Police Battalion 101) who would ultimately be responsible for the direct murder of 39,000 Jews, as well as the transportation of another 44,000 to Treblinka. He looks into their ages, backgrounds, personalities, and social positions, and (based on detailed interview transcripts) shows how various psychological tactics were used to create the state of mind necessary to carry out such an extensive genocide. Browning finds that three groups emerged within the battalion: "a core of eager killers, a plurality who carried out their duties reliably but without initiative, and a small minority who evaded participation in the acts of killing without diminishing the murderous efficiency of the battalion whatsoever....Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets the moral norms." From this, Browning concludes, "If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 cold become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”