Understanding the Actions Ordinary Men: Perpetrators of Genocide

Ordungspolizei Executing Jews in Poland

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.”

I just finished re-reading Christopher Browning’s classic book on an often overlooked part of the Holocaust in Poland, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution  in Poland. As I read it I was reminded of Niebuhr’s words. The book details the actions of the men of a police unit that one would have expected to be the most unlikely perpetrators of violence and mass killing. Most of the unit’s men were not ardent Nazis or even party members, many were too old to have been drafted into the military, and most came of age long before the Nazis took control of the education system.  They were mostly from Hamburg, one of the least Nazified of all major German cities, and included was a contingent from Luxembourg, a country that was not part of Germany.

In their actions in Poland an estimated ten to twenty percent refused to take part in the mass killings of Jews. Unlike the people who manned the factory like death camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, these men killed their victims in an exceedingly personal manner. They stood at close range and fired pistol or rifle shots into the back of the skulls of their victims, who mostly were kneeling over pits or prostrate on the ground. The members of the unit killed a minimum of 38,000 Jews in this manner, and were instrumental in the deportations of about 45,000 more to the death camps. Very few were prosecuted for their crimes. Most went home, and some resumed successful careers in the police.

These men were very ordinary, and that is what makes what they did so troubling. One of the problems with human nature is that people in any time or place can participate in the very kinds of evil that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and other units like it did. We have to understand what allows normal people to take part in evil. As Timothy Snyder wrote in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin:

“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.”

It is never easy to examine and understand the actions of the perpetrators. To understand them is not to justify them, but to ensure that we do not become like them, as Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, holocaust, leadership, Political Commentary

2 responses to “Understanding the Actions Ordinary Men: Perpetrators of Genocide

  1. I absolutely agree with you Padre. I have always wondered about this from the time I was a very small child. Why do normal ordinary people allow themselves to be riled up into a mob or do horrible things in groups! They go along with the crowd and feel like they can get away with anything, I guess. Why do people hurt each other so? Couldn’t they try to be civilized and work out their problems, or learn to be more tolerant?
    Children are taught that it is very naughty to hit or hurt each other and then grow up seeing adults doing it all the time on TV and in our homes. We see war and violence on the news and witness savage violence over and over on TV programs until it seems normal to us. I don’t like it. I know that this does not have to happen. There are peaceful groups of people in the world who do not live this way. The trouble is the peaceful people are disappearing and violent ones are replacing them. This is frightening!
    I witnessed so much everyday injustice in my early life that I didn’t understand. At a very young age, I was made a scapegoat of my own father that I had once adored and deeply loved. He lost his job and became bitter and abusive to me until the day he died, even though I am sure that I had nothing to do with his job loss. I was only a six year old little girl! I promised myself that I would never treat my own children that way and that I would never forget what it was like to be a young child. I searched for years in therapy and reading and studying to find out what was wrong in my family. I finally found out when I was fifty! We moved a lot and my parents were not social so I did not have many or any friends sometimes. My father was a school superintendent and he was not liked at all by anyone in our town for his stubborn opinions and refusal to cooperate with the locals. He was very superior and well educated in a lower class beer drinking town and he was a rabid teetotaler (non drinker) among other things. I was a terrible tomboy and the smartest and strongest physically in my class until high school.
    I have a kind heart and I cannot stand cruelty. One day in fourth grade two girl bullies were picking on a girl whose father was out of work due to a workplace injury. She had to wear hand-me-down cloths to school. These popular girls always had the best new clothes and lots of friends. She lived far outside of town and had no friends. I over heard them mocking her and making her cry because her clothes were old and out of style. She was a sweet shy kindhearted girl and I had to stop them from hurting her. I went over to them and said to stop doing that because it wasn’t very nice and she was my friend and you better leave her alone. Then I comforted her. A few days later these girls organized a mob of eleven girls to beat me up on the playground. The bullies falsely accused me of things I did not do and shrieked that everyone should get me. They attacked me all together and hit me on my back with their fists. Then, I fought some of them one on one. They kept it up right in front of the teacher when I asked the teacher to stop them. The teacher refused to help me. But I survived and they could not beat me because I was strong and I knew I was in the right, even though it did hurt.
    The rest of my school years I was hated and ostracized by almost everyone in my class. I made friends in the older class instead. Then I decided to graduate early in the older class where I had a few friends. Then my classmates said to me why did I want to leave our class. I told them that they never cared for me when I was in their class so why should they care if I want to leave. I felt like I had the last word. I never went back to that town after I left for collage. I am still glad that I left. It is a very hateful town.
    I learned to rely on myself and think for myself. I don’t join groups easily. I like people if they are nice. I like different or unusual people and people from other cultures. I love to learn new things. But I also love my time alone. When I am alone, I am not lonely because I have myself. I don’t like to live alone, though. I lived alone for ten years and it was not good for me. If I had to live alone I would get a pet dog at least. It feels best when someone else is there in the house or just around nearby.
    I think that if I had been one of those men, I would have tried to stop them from hurting those people, even if I failed; I would have tried. I am not a crowd follower at all. I just can’t do it. I like my independence and freedom too much. I paid a heavy price for it when I was a child. I cried so many tears as a child and young woman that I rarely cry anymore. I get really angry about injustice instead.
    Now I know that hate and injustice is everywhere. It seems to be getting worse. I think it is because there are too many people on the earth and we are feeling threatened by all the competition for jobs and food, and housing, and just to stay alive. The animals have no place to go because the land has too many humans. I love animals. Animals are more loving and forgiving than people, I think. But if you put too many rats in a box they will eat and kill each other! There is too much I could say about all this.
    Great topic! Nice to read. Peace and love to you. Sue

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