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Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning – Book Review

History has its fair share of moments where horrible actions have taken place. It is almost as if history is just one bad thing after the other. Sometimes we might wonder how it could possibly be that human beings can cause such atrocities towards one another. One of the cruelest events in recent history is by far the Holocaust, where approximately 6 million Jews were slaughtered or put in slave camps.

            The premise of this book asks: how could ordinary people just like you and me, systematically kill and deport millions of people of a certain group? This book takes the view that the atrocities were committed not only by radicals, but by ordinary people. To prove this point, the book follows the events of police battalion 101 of Nazi-Germany. Hitler used the police as a sort of underground army. That way he could circumvent the Treaty of Versailles, which didn’t allow Germany to have a large army.

            Every chapter points out an event in the 101 police battalion. Every event becomes crueler than the other and it shows the evolution of ordinary policemen to cold-blooded killers. The policemen first had to humiliate the Jews. They were to be seen as less than human. If you can dehumanize your enemy it becomes easier to kill him. So instead of killing them (which would come later) the police battalion had to first evict them out of their homes. Then when they didn’t listen, had to beat them up. Some even went as far as burning the beards of the male Jews, not killing them but making it a sign for worse things to come.

            When they had to kill the Jews by placing a shot in the back of the neck, they were allowed to tap out if they didn’t feel like doing it. Quite some people tapped out in the beginning, but peer pressure became too much and either they quit, or they started killing. Once someone had killed, it became easier to kill another one. This kept on going until they became merciless killers.

            Yet, there are rapports that those who participated in the killing of the Jews actually became bodily ill because of what they were doing. There are rapports of the captains crying while giving the orders and policemen puking when someone would be shot. This didn’t withhold the soldiers from continuing though.

            The guards of the concentration camps were ordinary civilians and volunteers plucked from the street with a promise of a good pay. They didn’t really know what was expected from them, but once they were there it seemed too late to back out. The whole culture of honor towards the country was pretty much brainwashing everyone in the country, which created a slave-like obedience towards the country. Jews were also appointed as guards in the promise of not being killed and having a better living condition than other Jews.

            Many who had to kill, had to do so in rapid motion. The police battalion would get the mission to escort Jews to the forest, without being told that they had to kill them. When the information was given to them, it caught them with surprise. In the heat of the moment, they didn’t think rationally and just shot them. Many of the soldiers became alcoholics to ‘cope’ with their actions.

            This book is full of awful stories. All real, they seem to come out of a horror story. And all the actions were done by ordinary people, who could just be you and me. This is the moral of the book. The Nazi’s were not special people, they weren’t immensely cruel people who only come around once every hundreds of years. No, they were normal people, with normal values and normal lives. They were like you and me and we would do well to remember that. Atrocities at the hands of the common people with common values isn’t the exception, it’s the norm.

            If you want to learn about the holocaust in a real and affectionate way, then this book would be a great recommendation. Even if you don’t like gruesome stories, you should still read this book, since it is a book about us and what’s at stake. With radical polarization on the rise, it is now more important than ever that we are aware of the horrible things we as humans are capable of doing. As Viktor Frankl said: since the holocaust we know what humans are capable of doing and since Fukushima we know what’s at stake.

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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