Could you commit atrocities? We don’t want to think that we are probably all capable, but read the following story that comes from Browning’s 1998 book: Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. I have taken this from what I wrote in my doctoral thesis on the topic. Browning’s book is shocking reading and frightening in its implications for society and the committing of atrocities.

Browning (a historian), on reviewing archival material, states (p. xv): “In mid March 1942 some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25 percent had perished. A mere eleven months later, in mid-February 1943, the percentages were exactly the reverse.” Mass murders (direct killing and deportations to the camps) had taken place.

The group that was largely responsible for the killing in Polish villages was Police Battalion 101. They were middle-aged family men of working and lower-middle class background from Hamburg, considered too old to be of use to the military and who were drafted instead into the Order Police. Hamburg was considered to be one of the least Nazified cities in Germany. By virtue of their age they had gone through their formative age in the pre-Nazi era.

Their visibly upset commander Major Trapp gave them their orders in March 1942. They were to kill all Jewish inhabitants in the Polish villages. He also told them that if any of the older men did not feel up to the task, that they could step out. Those who refused to participate in the killings experienced no official reprisal. 1 800 Jews were killed the first day at Józefów. This was done face-to-face, with a policeman paired off with a villager. They took their victims (including children) one-by-one into the forest and shot them. That evening the men of Police Battalion 101 were given alcohol and Trapp tried to console his men. Browning comments that between ten and twenty percent of the Battalion did not participate.

At the end of the killing, the Battalion had participated in the direct shooting deaths of at least 38 000 Jews. Once deportations were taken into account the 500 men of the Battalion were responsible for the deaths of at least 83 000 Jews (Browning, 1998).

Browning (1998, pp. 188-189) concludes: The collective behaviour 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 pressures 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?

Depending on the circumstances, we are all capable.

The photo is of the castle at Gondor, Ethiopia.