Nonfiction Review | Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland – Christopher R. Browning

About the Book

Ordinary Men is the true story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the German Order Police, which was responsible for mass shootings as well as round-ups of Jewish people for deportation to Nazi death camps in Poland in 1942. Browning argues that most of the men of  RPB 101 were not fanatical Nazis but, rather, ordinary middle-aged, working-class men who committed these atrocities out of a mixture of motives, including the group dynamics of conformity, deference to authority, role adaptation, and the altering of moral norms to justify their actions. Very quickly 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.

While this book discusses a specific Reserve Unit during WWII, the general argument Browning makes is that most people succumb to the pressures of a group setting and commit actions they would never do of their own volition.  

Ordinary Men is a powerful, chilling, and important work, with themes and arguments that continue to resonate today.

271 pages (Paperback)
Published on April 6, 1993
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I’ve been reading about, and researching, the Eastern front of World War II for YEARS. I’m fascinated by it. When I was in school, all I learned about was mostly what happened in France, and the UK and I understand why. To young Western minds, those places make more sense. 

However, the Eastern Front is far more fascinating. I feel, in a lot of ways, that by not knowing what happened in these areas, we don’t really understand the war. The things that happened in Eastern Europe are tragic and horrible, and often so hard to hear about it takes a long time to get through books and articles on it, but by not knowing this stuff, we are not hearing the stories of thousands and thousands of people who will never be heard.

It’s important to know these things. It’s important to be uncomfortable sometimes. It’s important to never forget. 

One of the things that interests me the most regarding this sort of thing is how ordinary people became part and part and party to absolutely horrible actions. There have been studies over the years about how people act when put under strict authority, and there have been plenty of books about how the war was perceived by those inside and outside of Germany, but I will absolutely never stop being completely baffled by these people who went out and did absolutely unbelievable things, and then returned home later, “Yes, I’d like potatoes with my roast. Work was fine today. How are the kids?” Another book that touches on this a bit is here.

Ordinary Men is one of those books that profoundly impacted me, and I’d honestly suggest anyone with a passing interest in World War II to put this on their essential reading list. Now, make no mistake, this is not an easy book to read. Before the author even gets to Reserve Battalion 101, he goes over a bit of the relocation actions going on in some places like Poland, Vienna, Ukraine and the like. And when I say “relocation” I mean, you get to read reports written by the officers who sat on the trains that were moving thousands of people were moved to death camps. You get to read one officer complaining that his butter was rancid (no mention of a train packed full of people going to a death camp, just a complaint about rations and how they didn’t survive the heat), and another talking about how the trains were so overstuffed, 2,000 people died, and they shot so many people they used up all their ammunition and all the additional ammunition they were given, so they had to resort to throwing stones at those trying to escape.

Reserve Police Battalion 101 was a group from Hamburg, mostly working-class men from middle class backgrounds. They were older, in their late thirties to mid-forties, which meant at the time they were conscripted into World War II, they were old enough to have grown up in a time before Nazi ideology took root (meaning, many of them were not party members). They were used for many purposes, mass executions, moving Jewish individuals to death camps, and the like. By the time World War II was over, it was assumed they had moved 45,000 to death camps like Treblinka, and another 38,000 murdered in mass executions.

What makes these men interesting is how normal they were, and how they took to the tasks they were given. The author gets his information from interviews done with 200+ surviving members of RPB101 in the 1960s and tells what happened from those interviews, showing how the group was divided, and why these seemingly ordinary men undertook such actions seemingly willingly. 

The author suggests that one of the ways this group did what they did was largely based on group dynamics. He explained he thought the RPB101 was broken into three groups:

  1. Sadists, who went out of their way to torture, beat, humiliate
  2. Your average soldier who was just following orders. 
  3. A group of men who asked to be excused from killing the Jews. 

There was no punishment inflicted upon those asking to be excused, but it is important to note that no one complained about taking people to death camps. They knew what they were doing. They knew what would happen there, but as I’ve seen in many other books, “out of sight, out of mind” is powerful. Once they had done their duty, the rest wasn’t up to them, and I think largely they mentally excused themselves from the burdens of those deaths. 

I find the fact that no one was punished for opting out of the executions interesting. I was watching a documentary about the Einsatzgruppen last night, and the officer in charge of the actions in Ukraine specifically ordered every soldier in his area kill at least one Jew. The reason why was twofold: First, it implicated everyone. Secondly, it spread out the burden of the action (More people doing a thing meant less work for everyone involved.).

So, in some ways the lack of punishment was the most interesting detail to me, but it worked hand in hand with the pressure to conform. Punishment wasn’t necessary, in most cases, because leaving the dirty work to their comrades, for some, likely became unbearable. In a tightknit group, wherein the only real social contact are people in their group, being a nonshooter often isolated people beyond what they could tolerate. There was no wider network of social support. If you become isolated and an outcast from your own group, especially in wartime, what do you have left?

Browning explores a bit of not just the circumstances surrounding RPB101, but also how things changed over time. He shows how powerful conformity and authority can be. While I do think it is important to note that these are just his interpretations of events, and he has come under fire for this book (notably from Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners), this is an interesting book to read because it shows that not everything is black and white. Even the worst things in the world can have some uncomfortable gray.

I do think it is important to understand that this is just the author’s psychological interpretation of events, and not bedrock fact. The only way we will ever know why any of these men did what they did is if we ask them, and they aren’t alive anymore so we are left with bits of history, stories, interviews, eyewitness accounts and the like. It is, however, an important and compelling book which gives the reader pause. We are not so far from depravity as we like to think, and perhaps that is the reason Ordinary Men is so haunting.

4/5 stars