In 1992, Christopher R. Browning published Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.1 His book chronicles the activity of a German police battalion of middle-aged men brought in behind the main army to maintain order and enact Nazi policy in occupied territory. In particular, this battalion was sent to Poland and ordered to slaughter Jews in Józefów and other cities. It was responsible for the murder of more than 80,000 Jewish citizens in World War II. The book seeks to discover what happened in that unit and what made it possible for these rather “ordinary men” to become cold-blooded killers of men, women, and children.

Browning chronicles a long list of atrocities. At various times, Battalion 101 was engaged in forcing Jews to board trains for transport to death camps. As many as 200 Jews would be crammed into a single railroad car, with a quarter of them dying during the journey.2

The first large action was a mass slaughter at Józefów. There, although battalion commander Wilhelm von Trapp was visibly shaken and repulsed by the orders issued to his unit, his offer for men to be excused from the action resulted in only 12 of his 500 police officers excusing themselves.3

Browning recounts several of the excuses given by the police officers. One policeman reasoned that the Jews could not escape anyway, so not shooting wouldn’t save them.

Another reasoned thus: “I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. 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 children unable to live without their mothers.”4

Browning comments: “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,’ between one’s comrades and the enemy, is of course standard in war.”5

After the executions they performed in that action, many of the police officers were demoralized and heartbroken. But changes were soon made, and a division of labor smoothed the way.

“The bulk of the killing was to be removed to the extermination camp, and the worst of the on-the-spot ‘dirty work’ was to be assigned to the Trawnikis [SS-trained auxiliaries from Soviet territories and recruited from prisoner of war camps]. This change would prove sufficient to allow the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 to become accustomed to their participation in the Final Solution.”6

Some of the actions involved moving Jews from one location to another. In one instance, some were ill in a ghetto “hospital” room and inconvenient to move. “A group of five or six policemen was assigned to enter the room and liquidate the forty or fifty patients, most of them were suffering from dysentery. . . . The policemen opened fire wildly as soon as they entered the room. Under the hail of bullets, bodies toppled from the upper bunks.” One participant said, “At the sight of the sick, it was not possible for me to shoot at one of the Jews, and I intentionally aimed all my shots wide.”7

The book records a large number of unimaginably evil murders. And the totals? “At the conclusion of the Erntefest massacres, the district of Lublin was for all practical purposes judenfrei [free of Jews]. The murderous participation of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in the Final Solution came to an end. With a conservative estimate of 6,500 Jews shot during the earlier actions like those at Józefów and Łomazy and 1,000 shot during the ‘Jew hunts,’ and a minimum estimate of 30,500 Jews shot at Majdanek and Poniatowa, the battalion had participated in the direct shooting deaths of at least 38,000 Jews. With the death camp deportation of at least 3,000 Jews from Międzyrzec in early May 1943, the number of Jews they had placed on trains to Treblinka had risen to 45,000. For a battalion of fewer than 500 men, the ultimate body count was at least 83,000 Jews.”8

The closing sections of Browning’s book attempt to understand how men could do these deeds. Here are some of his observations:

  • War, a struggle between ‘our people’ and ‘the enemy,’ creates a polarized world in which ‘the enemy’ is easily objectified and removed from the community of human obligation.”9
  • Normal individuals enter an ‘agentic state’ in which they are the instrument of another’s will. In such a state, they no longer feel personally responsible for the content of their actions but only for how well they perform.
  • “Once entangled, people encounter a series of ‘binding factors’ or ‘cementing mechanisms’ that make disobedience or refusal even more difficult.The momentum of the process discourages any new or contrary initiative.”10
  • People far more frequently invoke authority rather than conformity to explain their behavior, for only the former seems to absolve them of personal responsibility.”11
  • Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing obedience, for it permits the person to see his behavior as serving a desirable end.”12
  • ‘Overarching ideological justification’ [in Stanley Milgram’s 1960s experiments] was present in the form of a tacit and unquestioned faith in the goodness of science and its contribution to progress.”13

Browning offers this conclusion “The collective behavior of Reserve Police Battalion 101 has deeply disturbing implications. There are many societies afflicted by traditions of racism and caught in the siege mentality of war or threat of war. Everywhere, society conditions people to respect and defer to authority, and indeed could scarcely function otherwise. Everywhere people seek career advancement. In every modern society, the complexity of life and the resulting bureaucratization and specialization attenuate the sense of personal responsibility of those implementing official policy. Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressure on behavior and sets moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”14

This is a truly chilling book. These were not young men raised under the radioactive glow of Nazi ideology but middle-aged men whose values were formed before the rise of Nazism. Yet most were transformed from reluctant participants into efficient murderers.

This is no theory, no experiment; Battalion 101 existed and killed on a grand scale. From a Christian standpoint, we understand. Men and women are born with damaged natures—fallen, if you will. Humans were designed to be holy, healthy, and happy, to be outward focused, facilitating the good of others. Instead, we are bent and inverted. We deteriorate into who we are and become self-seeking, self-serving individuals. The Bible says that “God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29) and that “there is madness in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3).

Are we Christians also afflicted with polarization? It seems that we are. Other authorities can easily steal our hearts, so it is urgent that we return to the Bible. The subtle influences of momentum, an agentic state, and entanglement are troubling.

In recent history, we saw firsthand how churches speedily complied with arbitrary government rules and closures during 2020. There was little or no reflection, just a hypnotic recitation of government talking points. It was as though the religion of Christ had been left behind, exchanged for the religion of scientism.

The human machinery, it seems, is not difficult to weaponize for other agendas and other ends. If we continue unvigilant, we will become no more than salespeople for dehumanizing agendas. If we have any desire at all for freedom, we must return to the only Person who can make us free.

Jesus can transform our hearts. That is the project of the gospel: to turn cowards, compromisers, conformers, and bullies into free people who love truth and respect the liberty of others. My heart can be—must be—supernaturally transformed, or I am only an executioner in waiting, like the men of Battalion 101. 

Larry Kirkpatrick is a pastor in Michigan.

1. Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2017).

2. Browning, 36.

3. Browning, 57.

4. Browning, 72, 73.

5. Browning, 73.

6. Browning, 77.

7. Browning, 116.

8. Browning, 141, 142.

9. Browning, 162.

10. Browning, 173.

11. Browning, 174.

12. Browning, 176.

13. Browning, 176.

14. Browning, 189.

Ordinary Men

by Larry Kirkpatrick
  
From the November 2022 Signs