The central argument of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men is that the German soldiers who participated in the Holocaust were regular men representative of German society in general, and that their participation in the murder of European Jewry was only possible due to the devaluation of Jewish life by the Nazi regime and their acclimation to murder. To support this argument, Browning examines Reserve Police Battalion (RPB) 101 and their role in the Holocaust. Browning utilizes 1967 testimonies given by the men while on trial for committing crimes against the Jews in which the men recount their actions during the Holocaust. While the situation in which these testimonies were extracted makes the sources problematic, Browning attempts to locate other primary sources to corroborate and verify the testimonies.
From these sources, Browning argues that the men of RPB were “ordinary” German men placed in extraordinary positions in which they were not prepared. He then recounts and traces the atrocities that RBP 101 participated in noting that 10-20% of the men refused to partake and found methods for avoiding actions. To explain how “ordinary” men devolved into murderers, Browning suggests a combination of three theories. First, that the increasing stages of persecution against the Jews by the Nazi regime devalued Jewish life making it somewhat easier to commit murder; second, that there is a strong relationship between authority and obedience and that when ordered most men participated in murder; and third, that the RPB became acclimated to the atrocities they partook in and therefore it became easier for them to participate after initial reluctance. For Browning, the combination of these ideas explains how “ordinary” men were coopted into the genocide of the Nazi regime.
The main primary source utilized by the author in creating this study is 125 testimonies given by men who served in RPB 101. These testimonies were given in the 1960s when the men were on trial for participating in the genocide of the Jews. Due to the situation and the distance from the acts, Browning emphasizes caution when dealing with the sources. He recognizes that memories, especially of perpetrators, can be repressed and forgotten and that because the men were on trial they may have lied. As these sources are fundamental to his study, Browning does attempts to corroborate the testimonies through comparison and victim accounts. This effort to verify the RPB testimonies allows Browning to draw in other primary sources including Nazi government documents, Nazi military documents, and first person accounts from victims and Polish civilians. Browning then integrates these sources to set out his argument and produce his narrative on RPB 101. Browning’s methodology is fairly sound for the primary sources employed, though using memories as the main source on which to build an entire narrative is problematic as memory is always being reformed, reshaped, and negotiated. I do not dismiss the use of memory as a source but contend that memory should be checked and supported with other sources, and while Browning attempts to verify, I feel that his narrative relies too heavily on the testimonies to completely prove the men of RBP “ordinary.”
Overall, I find the author’s explanation for RPB 101’s regression into genocide to be convincing but not explanatory for every unit involved in the Holocaust. I believe that Browning needs to be careful and explain that reserve police units are different from the regular army (Wehrmacht) and the special SS Einsatzgruppen because the training, experience, and amount of indoctrination varied. If these differences are kept in mind, then Browning has produced a satisfactory explanation for the actions of the reserve police units but not the entire German military. The narration of the study clearly depicted the action of RPB 101 and showed the majorities willingness to participate in genocide. Organizationally, I would change the book. While I understand that the academic rigorousness is placed at the end to appeal to a popular audience, I would have appreciated if some of the information in the final chapter, particularly the author’s main reasons for explaining the devolution of RPB into perpetrators be placed in the preface.