How Ordinary Germans Did It

Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
German soldiers captured by American forces, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, France, June 1944

Growing consciousness of the Holocaust in both academic scholarship and society in general became evident in the late 1970s and intensified in the 1980s. Initially, important research focused on the different roles of Hitler, Nazi ideology, and the structure of the dictatorship in shaping the decision-making process that led to the Holocaust. Research also concentrated on the complicity of various professions and institutions in the Third Reich, and particularly on the SS. Still lacking was careful empirical study of how Nazi racial policy was also carried out by “ordinary” Germans.

Two events in the 1990s altered this situation. The first was the publication of my book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland in 1992, quickly followed by Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust in 1996. The second event was the exhibition of the Hamburg Institute of Social Research, “War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941–1944,” which extensively toured Germany from 1995 to 1999 and engendered both high attendance and considerable controversy. Ordinary Men and Hitler’s Willing Executioners overlapped in their focus on Reserve Police Battalion 101 as a test case because its commander had openly given his men—randomly conscripted, middle-aged reservists with a low rate of party membership and little police training and ideological indoctrination—the option not to participate in mass executions of Jews in Poland. Nonetheless the great majority did not avail themselves of this option.

Both books demonstrated that “ordinary” German men—and not just SS fanatics and ideologues, carefully selected and indoctrinated—had become mass murderers. But the two books differed significantly in trying to explain this phenomenon of noncoerced participation. I emphasized universal attributes of human nature and social-psychological factors shaping group dynamics, such as conformity, deference to authority, and adaptation to roles within an occupation unit stationed in enemy territory during wartime. Goldhagen emphasized German cultural particularity in the form of what he described as a deeply ingrained “eliminationist” anti-Semitism, which caused virtually all Germans to desire the death of the Jews and then to kill them with enthusiastic cruelty when given the personal opportunity.

Reserve Police Battalion 101 provided an exemplary case study to test and disprove assumptions about the factors often presumed necessary to explain individual participation in mass killing. Among those allegedly crucial factors were special selection by the Nazi authorities of those who would take part in the Holocaust, overt ideological commitment, harsh discipline and training, and coercion by means of binding orders and threatened punishment. None of these applied to the reserve policemen. But most of the ordinary German men who participated in the Nazi war effort and experienced the reality of the Nazi occupation of Europe did so in the armed forces, and not in the police battalions. Hence the explosive impact of the…

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