Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

ordinary menChristopher 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.

Not My Turn To Die (review)

not my turn to dieAs the former Yugoslavia broke into a multi-national civil war, it became clear that the Serbs intended to gain control over Bosnia and Herzegovina through a campaign of ethnic cleansing. In Not My Turn To Die, Savo Heleta, a thirteen year-old Serb living in Gorazde, recounts his family’s experience during the army’s siege on that predominately Muslim area.

Even though Heleta’s memoir doesn’t provide a direct testimony of the ethnic violence raging through other parts of the country, it does provide a unique look at the fallout from the conflict. As non-Serbs found themselves persecuted, the reverse was taking place in Gorazde, as the city turned itself into a xenophobic conclave of Muslim refugees, the ultimate outcome being a mirrored response to the Serbians.

Even though the Serbs of Gorazde weren’t the victims of genocide, the similarities are certainly there — Heleta’s family lived in constant fear, were often threatened, were interrogated and beaten, and even spent a short period confined to a building that was nothing short of a makeshift “ghetto.” And just as the Holocaust is riddled with small stories of witnesses lending a hand to aid their former Jewish neighbors, this too becomes the recurring theme of Not My Turn To Die.

While it would be easy to dismiss Heleta’s account as one Serbian’s attempt to downplay the violence against non-Serbs, it’s far better to take this book as it was intended, as a lesson in the blind brutality of war. In fact, what’s most striking about this memoir is its ability to demonstrate that violent events are often viewed through large, global terms, with too little emphasis placed on personal experiences and responsibility. The majority of any given group might take part in a pogrom for instance, but it’s the individual who chooses not to follow that produces an extraordinary result.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families

When you deal with books on genocide, you’re usually looking at one of three different formats. The most commonly seen is probably the third person objective variety; the second is the first person narrative (the survivors tale); and the third is the fictionalized novel.

The last one is useful to those who study Holocaust/genocide literature, but of lesser value to those who want to study the dynamics and outcomes of a particular genocide. In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch manages to use his skills as a reporter to meld the third person narrative with eye-witness accounts to create a personal history of the Rwandan genocide that’s far more accessible than a traditional academic study.

What initially drew me into Gourevitch’s book is the fact that he and I share the same questions. Like myself, he wants to know, more than anything else, how such an atrocity can happen.

No doubt, the promise of material gain and living space did move some killers. But why hasn’t Bangladesh, or any other terribly poor and terribly crowded place of the many one might name, had a genocide? Over population doesn’t explain why hundreds of thousands of people agreed to murder nearly a million of their neighbors in the course of a few weeks. Nothing really explains that. [p.180]

He goes on to outline a laundry list of reasons that are at least marginally responsible for the sudden swell toward genocide – including precolonial inequalities, the hierarchical government, the Hamitic myth, the economic collapse of the 1980’s, the extremist Hutu Power, propaganda, superstition, ignorance, alcoholism, and any number of other factors that figure into the complex cultural soup that still exists in Rwanda today.

By using a series of visits to the country and interviewing those who took part in the genocide as well as the survivors, he manages to weave together a depiction that is both vivid and frightening. Unlike the Holocaust, where the victims are looking back at an atrocity that happened fifty or sixty years ago, Gourevitch is able to talk with people who are still struggling with what happened, and living in the state of uncertainty that follows any genocidal outbreak.

While the Rwandan genocide differed greatly from the Holocaust, the sense of separation, extremism, and fear are clearly palpable through Gourevitch’s interviews in a way that eerily echoes the past. It’s through this accessibility that we see how little has changed since those nationalistically turbulent days, and through this narrative, we can clearly see the cautionary signs of what we might expect as Darfur continues to deteriorate.

It’s this tangible quality that makes We Wish to Inform You a valuable book on modern genocide.