top of page
  • Writer's pictureSimon Vincent

The Ordinary Men of the Holocaust

What would you do if you lived during the Holocaust?

When faced with this question, most people would say they would, due to their moral conscience, speak bravely up against the atrocities and fight the Nazi regime, whatever the cost may be.

This is an unsurprising claim, and one that, in the post-war world, is common. The Holocaust was one of the worst atrocities ever committed in human history, systematizing the extermination of about eleven million victims. Anyone who studies the Holocaust are left with an unavoidable impression of the perpetrators as demons in the flesh, and those who stood idly, as morally detestable.

But perhaps the worst fact about the Holocaust is that the perpetrators, and the indifferent "permitters", were just like you. They were humans, as we are. The evil they either unleashed or permitted, is equally available in us. This is a bone-chilling realization.

One cannot help but wonder, then, how could this happen? It is imperative that we explore this question and contemplate it with an honest mind. Only then can we detect the "red flags" within us all, and so ensure that an atrocity at this level will never happen again.

If we cease, for a moment, to always identify ourselves with the heroes of every story, and instead identify with the aggressors, we open a scary, but necessary, dimension. Who were the perpetrators? After careful examination, Christopher Browning found out that they were, to the detriment of our fantasies, mere ordinary men. He explores this in his best-selling book Ordinary Men - Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

Warning: Strong content.

The Most Unlikely killers

On a hot July night in 1942, the Reserve Police Battalion 101 were woken up at 2 a.m and loaded onto trucks. They were driven to the Polish town of Joseflow, where their Lieutenant-Colonel briefed them of their assignment. He began with a series of arguments why the Jews were secret colluders with the enemy, the instigators of the war, and a criminal race. He then told them that they were to assemble all the 6,000 Jews in the town, march them to the forest, and execute them by shooting.

Understanding that this was a difficult task psychologically, the Colonel explicitly stated that all those who did not want to participate, were excused without any repercussions.

Only 20% of the Battalion asked to be excused. The rest of the Battalion then proceeded with the massacre. Men, women, children and the elderly were mercilessly marched to the woods and shot.

Who were these men? In hindsight, it is often believed that these were sadistic psychopaths, recruited deliberately by the Nazis to become killing machines. Others say they were men who had no other choice, or that they were completely indoctrinated.

But none of this is completely true for Battalion 101. They were all working class family men in their 30s from Hamburg. Most of them grew up in the pre-Hitler Weimar Republic, and only 25% of them were members of the Nazi Party. They all had clean criminal records, and none had any inclinations to psychopathy or sadism in their records. In other words, they were ordinary men. Christopher Browning brands them as "the most unlikely men in Germany to become Hitlers killers."

The Environment that bred killers

But how could such ordinary men end up performing such horrible atrocities? Especially when participation was voluntary? For a start, we must review the environment the policemen were in. Firstly, for these men, there was no obvious reason why they should distrust the better judgement of their superiors. Hitler's regime lifted millions of Germans out of poverty and raised Germany from being a humiliated disaster, to becoming Europe's strongest nation. The policemen were therefore inclined to trust that the State worked, ultimately, for the greater good. Nazi rhetoric had also been insidiously baked into every aspect of society for many years before 1942, steadily warping their subconscious judgement over time.

Secondly, Germany was in total war, where the "us" versus "them" dichotomy was extremely entrenched. War is raging on all fronts, and infiltrators are everywhere. This fosters a climate of emergency, where ordinary men are more easily pushed to do brutal and murderous acts, often under the belief (or hope) that it is ultimately for the greater good. In a war climate, the herd instinct is also made much stronger - in presence of danger, no one wants to leave the pack.

This herd instinct was made even stronger by the narrative that the Germans were the victims in the war, not the aggressors. In their eyes, they were the "defenders" against Communism and "Jewish conspirators".

The Psychological Push to kill

But when reviewing the postwar interrogations of the policemen, we get a disturbing view of their personal psychological transformation. When asked why they did not withdraw from the murderous assignment in Joseflow, some said they had no time to reflect on the task, and their hesitation cost them their "freedom of choice", but of course this excuse carries no weight in the aftermath, and may just be the result of suppressed memory.

The chief rationalization, however, was that none of them wanted to "appear weak" or "lose face". They were bound by a strong comradery. By refraining, a gut-wrenched policeman would pass on his share of the so-called "dirty work" to another equally gut-wrenched comrade, which, in their eyes, was immoral. It would mean to fail your friends due to your own weakness.

"If the question is posed to me why I shot with the others... I must answer that no one wants to be thought a coward." - a policeman (p.72). Yet, in-so-doing, they embraced moral cowardice. Another policeman admitted: "I was a coward." (p.72)

Christopher Browning summarizes it quite succinctly: "What is clear is that the men's concern for their standing in the eyes of their comrades was not matched by any sense of human ties with their victims. The Jews stood outside their circle of human obligation and responsibility. Such a polarization between us and them... is of course standard in war." (p.73) In other words, the men were more concerned of who they were in the eyes of others, than who they truly were.

Some tried telling themselves that the Jews were "doomed anyway", so it was just a matter of time before they would die, and therefore it made no difference who shot them:

"I thought that I could master the situation and that without me the Jews were not going to escape their fate anyway... Only years later did any of us become truly conscious of what had happened then...that had not been right." - a policeman (p. 72).

Others said they knew the Jews would have a miserable life and so shooting them would "free them" from their fate:

"My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother, the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release ("Erloser", synonymous in German to "redeem" or "save" in a religious sense) children unable to live without their mothers." - a policeman (p. 73).

Needless to say, these are all very sickening ideas, but we must not belittle them. These are the twisted self-justifications that made ordinary men kill innocents in the millions.

We see heinous and desperate pseudo-morality at play. It warns us of how powerful the human ability of self-justification really is. But it also warns us of the shocking power of conformity, especially in pressurized, political situations.

The massacre itself was clumsy and inefficient. During the onslaught, many of them quit after executing 3-4 victims, having nervous breakdowns, vomiting or hiding in the woods. Yet still - there were no repercussions for those who quit. Anyone could stop, at any point, yet they continued.

"In no case can I remember that anyone was forced to continue participating in the executions when he declared that he was no longer able to do so," - a policeman (p.128).

The Battalion commanders also provided schnapps and vodka to let alcohol help their mental suppressions. This is a testament that they were all quite inexperienced to such raw brutality. But despite these repulsions, they kept going for 14 hours until the last victim was shot.

"Most of the other comrades drank so much solely because of the many shootings of Jews, for such a life was quite intolerable sober." - a policeman (p. 82).

The Professional killers

After a few more massacres, the Nazi leadership re-assigned them to work on Holocaust logistics instead. For the rest of the war, the policemen rounded up Jews in ghettos, shipped them on trains to the Treblinka concentration camp and did so-called Jew hunts to kill any survivors. According to the policemen, such tasks were much "easier" and a "relief" to do.

"Those spared such direct participation seem to have had little, if any, sense of participation in the killing," Browning surmises (p.85).

By introducing division of labor and bureaucratization, the Nazis created a mechanical distance between the perpetrator and the victim, desensitizing the killing process.

The deportations of Jews to the camps was "decidedly more orderly and humane," one policeman claimed, an attitude that reveals a shocking normalization of cruelty (p.110).

Since the policemen were already accustomed to killing, however, they could now kill at ease. The "Jew Hunts" they went on were, in Browning's words, "tenacious, remoreseless, ongoing campaign in which the "hunters" tracked down and killed their "prey" in direct and personal confrontation. It was... an existential condition of constant readiness and intention to kill every last Jew who could be found" (p.132). These were once family men of the working class, but were now trained murderers. Their morality was a sunk cost.

Conclusionary remarks

If we now try to summarize then: What made Ordinary Family Men transform into Jew-hunting mass murderers?

  • Conformity under pressure: In a climate of emergency, the herd instinct is entrenched. Men would rather murder innocent civilians than "fail the herd" and appear as the weak-link.

  • Warped worldview: the slow and steady infiltration of Nazi rhetoric into every sector of society means that the subconscious worldview is gradually perverted to blur the line between good and evil. A new, created pseudo-morality is offered onto the ordinary men. This created pseudo-morality goes in perfect accord with the ideological motives of the regime, so that ordinary men can intoxicate themselves with the lie of their own goodness while committing atrocities they would otherwise never imagine themselves capable of doing. This is not a cause of the actions, but the excuse.

Carl Joachim Hambro, the Parliamentary President of Norway in 1940, added a very strong insight into the perversion of man and permission of Evil: "Such are the inevitable consequences of the National Socialistic philosophy. And it is well to bear in mind that it is not the crook who is the real danger: it is the kindly, industrious, trustworthy business man, professor, mechanic, gone nationally insane because his instincts of right and wrong have been methodically perverted." (C.J. Hambro, I Saw It Happen In Norway, 1940).

May this serve as a warning to us all. It was ordinary men who systematically exterminated 11 million innocent human beings in cold blood. It was men and women - just like you and me.

"There can be no compromise between Right and Wrong, between Good and Evil. The struggle is not fought in the abstract, in a moral no-mans land. It is going on in every country, it is going on in the minds of Ordinary Men and women, and every public speaker, every commentator and leader-writer is taking sides every day, is wittingly or unwittingly reinforcing the power of Evil or taking his place on the front of Good." (C.J. Hambro, I Saw It Happen In Norway, 1940).


Browning, Christopher (2001); Ordinary Men - Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland; Penguin Group.

467 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page