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

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In the early hours of July 13, 1942, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, a unit of the German Order Police, entered the Polish Village of Jozefow. They had arrived in Poland less than three weeks before, most of them recently drafted family men too old for combat service--workers, artisans, salesmen, and clerks. By nightfall, they had rounded up Jozefow's 1,800 Jews, selected several hundred men as "work Jews," and shot the rest--that is, some 1,500 women, children, and old people. Most of these overage, rear-echelon ...

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Poilu

Aug 10, 2019

Unit history that provides window on Holocaust

Recently finished reading Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. This is a worthwhile, if certainly depressing work that focuses on a group of largely middle-aged German men who mostly hoped to avoid active military service by joining a reserve unit they thought would result in no deployments far from their home town of Hamburg. Instead, after a couple deployments to occupied Poland, they were brought in 1942 to Eastern Poland where they assisted in the Holocaust, doing nuts and bolts tasks like deporting Jews from the local ghettos by rail to death camps, or just shooting them on the spot.

Drawing on extensive post-war testimony, Browning posits that different groups of men reacted differently to their gruesome tasks, some were enthusiastic, others would simply do it, and a few would try to avoid it as much as possible. The afterward goes into considerable sociological/psychological analysis on the various motivating factors in the battalion in a polemic with another holocaust scholar, Daniel Goldhangen. Also as part of the revised 2017 edition, there are a number of photos included with narrative descriptions.

The book does provide a good understanding of the duties that went into the Holocaust, and the effect it had on those carrying out mass murder as essentially a small unit history. While I could have done without the follow-on polemics I think the book is a worthwhile read. I was quite struck by the closing lines, which really resonate today:

I fear we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms.

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