Ordinary and Willing Germans

During the rule of the Nazi’s in Germany a regime of vehement and continuous antisemitism was enacted. During this time Jewish people were subjected to the worst conditions that could be brought upon a human being. These atrocities were taken out by members of the German Military, divisions of the German Police and ordinary German citizens. For these people to commit these acts many historians, including Daniel Goldhagen, believe that these people must have something special about them that predisposed them to these acts. Other historians, including Christopher Browning, believe that under the circumstances that were imposed by the German Government any person with no predisposition would resign themselves to these types of acts. This theory is backed up by the research study done by Stanly Milgram at Stanford University. During the course of this paper both points will be argued. Both sides have much evidence to defend them on their own, however I will argue for the fact that both sides played an almost equal role in the turning of ordinary Germans into willing perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts that caused the death of millions of people.  

After the First World War the German citizens were subjected to an unpresented amount of guilt based restriction in the Treaty of Versailles. These restrictions brought the once great pre-war empire to a struggling debt ridden and bitter country under the control of the weak Weimar government. Adding this need to blame someone for the loss of the war and by extension the loss of the greatness of the country to the previously existing anti-Semitism that existed through Europe and especially in Germany a special circumstance comes to be. The idea that the German citizens at the time of the Nazi rise to power were specially predisposed to the anti-Semitic horrors that they were to contribute to was put into writing by Daniel Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. In Goldhagen book he makes his opinion known in the first sentence, “Germans’ anti-Semitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust.” With this early strong view point it is easy to agree with the writer while reading the stories that he recants. Even if it can easy be argued that the author takes a strong opinion and does not let the reader have any opinion of their own his work can still be and will still be used to argue his hypothesis is correct that the German citizens were uniquely predisposed to the preparatory of the Holocaust. When considering the events of the Holocaust it is not hard to think that whoever committed these crimes would have to have something wrong with them. Germans who took part in various extents of the events of the Holocaust did not all share a psychological disease that allowed them to take violent action against people who for all intensive purpose did not do anything to Germany. During a government ordered rounding up of the Jews in Bialystok the police Battalion 309 did so in a vicious and murderous way. Why did these men who were ordered to do nothing but bring the Jewish citizens to a central place decide to kill without reason any Jew that they felt the need to? These men began firing their guns almost as soon as they exited the trucks that brought them into the city. While not killing Jews at sight the men of the Battalion would break down doors and drag Jews out of their homes without even warning of what was awaiting anyone who resisted. (Goldhagen 185-188) The men of the Battalion could not have seen these Jews as real human beings in order to take out these actions. Can a person see another human for the first time and know that they are not worth living as these men did? In this case the unfeeling hatred was long ingrained into everyday life for German Arians the Nazi government did their best to play upon already held beliefs that Jews were crooks by telling citizens not to buy from the stores. Large signs to remind people which stores were owned by Jews the Germans put up signs “Don’t buy from Jews” and “This is a Jewish shop” (Johnson & Reuband 155). The forced wearing of the Jewish Star of David also allowed the people to quickly notice Jew that they should not go near or talk with. (Johnson & Reuband 94) The German people had a long distaste for the Jewish population, this was increased with the loss of the First World War and got a major boost by the Nazi’s anti-Semitic laws and widespread propaganda that backed previously held beliefs. All together the hatred for Jews allowed Germans to see the Jews that they were torturing as non-human which made what was being done easer to be done and even caused many men to go above and beyond in the ways they hurt the Jews. 

Killing a person cannot be an easy thing to do no matter what they may have done to you. For the men that killed thousands of Jews up-close with a pistol these acts could not have been easy or enjoyable the first time. According to Christopher Browning in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland these men would have never done these things if not for the orders from their superiors and the peer pressure around them. Men of the Police Battalions were not, with a few exceptions, hardened soldiers with the mental skills to kill others at orders. The members of the Police Battalions were men who were too old for army duties who wanted to help the war cause. Unlike the previously discussed actions the men of the Battalion 309 the men of Battalion 101 where ordered specifically to kill Jewish people in cities. The leadership of the Battalion gave his men the option to resign from what they were about to do. This can be seen as the leader, the man giving the orders to kill these Jews not really wanting to force anyone to do the job. The ‘Job’ as is was on that day was ordered from above the Battalion commander who even though he did not want to relay the orders to his men who also followed orders and began rounding up Jews, having them dig the grave they were about to occupy and then began to shoot them. For the men who did not take advantage of the early drop out there was a long and gruesome day ahead of them. Many of the men who did not take the offer early on but still found the job of killing all the slated Jews to be too much found way out of there assignment. (Browning 170-172) These men had just killed about 1,800 Jewish citizens of this town. These rounding up and shooting thousands of Jews was not an isolated event. It was carried out by other battalions and it continued until the creations of the death camps. (Johnson & Reuband 46-52) What effect can this continued killing have on a person? After the first of the mass killings by Battalion 101 the men returned to their barracks they were asked by their superiors not to speak of the events. This was not a hard thing to do for the men but also acted as a way to keep the men from deciding collectively what they were doing was wrong. The men then began to drink heavily with the large quantiles of alcohol that was provided. (Browning 171) Sometime after the war had ended and the thinking of what had happened to cause people to kill others in mass quantiles a research study was concluded by Stanley Milgram to understand the role of obedience in the violate toward others. The experiment was conducted in a teacher learner setup with the test subject as the teacher. The teacher was told that his job was to give shocks to the learner to test the effects of negative reinforcement. When the shocks got to a high enough point the learner would call out in pain and at a higher point he would stop responding altogether. In the room with the teacher was an experiment overseer that was giving orders to the teacher. The orders from the overseer also had an early point at which the teacher could get out but once he was in the overseer did not give any more ways out but to finish the job of giving the test. (Obedience 3rd -10th mins) Many of the teachers like many of the Battalion members asked many times to get out of the experiment but with the pressure of the overseer most continued. (Milgram 3-7) This study reinforces the argument that the men of the Police Battalions were not bad or special just that they were pressured into the jobs that they did by the orders they received from superiors.

Can anyone seventy-two years removed from the atrocities of the Holocaust point to one theory and say that it is the total and complete truth? Well some historians may hold firm to one side or the other and some say that one theory explains why some men did what they did while the other explains the rest of the men. Could it not be argued that both theories have significant effects on all men involved in the killings? Browning argues that the men were normal when they started and were forced to kill. While Goldhagen states that the men had long standing hatred for Jews which made them happy to beat and kill as many Jews as they could. These two theories could be combined. It is unarguable that the Germans had a long-standing distaste for the Jews who lived in and around Germany. It is also true that the Nazi Government pushed propaganda about the Jews and their anti-Nationalism. It is very easy to argue that not all members of the Police Battalions saw the Jews as national emeries and it is also easy to theorize that even some of the most anti-Semitic members would not have gone to the lengths that they did on their own. Between the group dynamic and the peer pressure the whole of the Police Battalion acted in a way that no single member would have. Not all the actions were taken out by orders. However, these actions could fall under the idea that being a part of a group that allows members to get away with things that are appressed by normal society would allow the men to rely pent up urges to come out to physical actions. Also, once a member of the Battalion has committed the first act against the Jews and has not been punished rather rewarded it allows the actions to become more normal therefor the next time the acts are easier to preform and most likely more violent because for no other reason than they can be. All told this is not a perfect theory for explaining the acts taken out during the Holocaust, they are simply my personal opinion of the best way these two prominent theories can be brought together to explain the whole better than either one can do on its own. 

In conclusion, the acts of the Holocaust were some of the worst brutalizes take out against human beings in modern history. Understanding what lead up to these event that allowed them to happen at the scale and brutality that they did is required to prevent anything similar to this Godless disregard for human life from ever happening again. Can what happen to create an army of Jewish eradicators out of ordinary and willing citizens be fully explained? Not fully, not without understanding what happened to every individual member to cause them to be willing executioners. However, as a whole the groups of mass murders can be studied and as long as people are learning about the atrocities future atrocities may be prevented.