Christopher Browning, one of the better known Holocaust scholars today, used evidence from the post-war investigations of Police Battalion 101 to create an image of the “ordinary men” who participated in the massacre of Jews in Eastern Europe. By examining testimony, documents, and diary excerpts, he pieces together a chronological history of the unit’s participation and involvement in the Nazis’ “final solution.”
Even though Browning is writing as a scholar, with the intent of persuading through academic argument, his writing is clear and uncluttered. He approaches the subject with an easy-to-follow framework, providing a balanced look at how the battalion went from routine duties in occupied territories to the violent slaughter of Jewish civilians.
Throughout Ordinary Men, Browning provides a window into the daily life of the unit and its purpose in the hierarchy and structure of the Third Reich. The often personal glimpses demonstrate the slow and methodical change in Nazi policy towards Jewish civilians, as the German leadership shifted towards the Final Solution.
It’s this tapestry of documentation that pulls together a remarkable look at how the extermination of European Jews occurred: through an evolving policy rather than a pre-determined course. Combined with the personal accounts of battalion members, it is easy to see the slow progression of anti-Jewish doctrine, as well as the frequently unmentioned nuances of its executioners, the most revealing of which — the lack of disciplinary action for those who refused to take part in the massacres and “Jew hunts” — reveals a great deal about the make-up of the actual perpetrators.
Afterword: The more recent edition of Ordinary Men has an afterword from Browning dissecting his ongoing debate with Daniel Goldhagen (author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners). Personally, I’ve been surprised at how many people bought into Goldhagen’s rather contradictory and ill-conceived thesis, and yet, because of that, Browning decided to add this clear-cut statement about his own conclusions in order to refute Willing Executioners’ assertion that Germans are anti-Semitic by their very nature.