3 Sentence Summary
In his 1992 book, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” Christopher R. Browning examines the actions of a group of German police officers who were involved in the murder of many Jews in occupied Poland during WWII. This battalion was turned into professional killers in order to carry out Hitler’s “Final Solution” as the German army had limited resources to continue the war to the East with Russia. The book caused a stir upon its release and attracted a lot of attention.
Summary Read Time: Less than 4 minutes
Actual Book Length: 271
First Published in: 1992
Below is the detailed yet quick summary of the book:
Part 1- A Frightfully Unpleasant Task
In 1942, Reserve Police Battalion 101 was given the task of rounding up and executing Jewish people in the Polish town of Józefów. Major Wilhelm Trapp, the commander of the battalion, was deeply affected by the assignment and spoke to his men with tears in his eyes. The order had come from higher authorities. The battalion was left with no choice but to carry out the horrific task. They had to separate young males to be taken to a work camp and execute the rest, including women, children, and the elderly.
This event marked the beginning of the transformation of ordinary men into “professional killers.” It highlights the power of authority and how individuals can be compelled to carry out unthinkable acts. The emotional impact on Trapp and the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 underscores the psychological toll of their actions. It also challenges our assumptions about who is capable of committing such atrocities.
Part 2 – The Final Solution
The Order Police, to which Reserve Police Battalion 101 belonged, was originally meant to consolidate city, rural, and community police. However, as the war expanded, the Order Police dramatically increased in numbers and was tasked with facilitating the repeated clearing and refilling of Jewish ghettos in Poland. The lack of disposable manpower led to the Order Police being tasked with rounding up Jewish people. They were then sent them to extermination camps. All this culminated in the creation of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe.”
Despite their conscription into the Order Police, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were not enthusiastic Nazis. In July 1942, the battalion arrived in the Lublin district and were given a “special action” to perform, without knowing the nature of the task. This marked the beginning of the battalion’s transformation into professional killers. It turned out to be a process that would test the psychological limits of ordinary men and the power of authority.
Part 3 – The Massacre at Józefów
One of the officers, Lieutenant Heinz Buchmann, refused to participate in the massacre. So he was given another assignment. A few more men followed his lead when Lieutenant Trapp offered them the chance to opt out. However, the majority of the battalion proceeded to round up the Jewish villagers and execute them, with Major Trapp avoiding witnessing any of the killings.
The men who participated in the massacre returned to their barracks in a state of agitation. Many of them drank heavily and did not want to discuss what had happened. Only around 10 to 20 percent of the battalion avoided participating in the killing. This means that 80 percent of the battalion had become murderers.
The day saw 1,500 Jewish people slaughtered, including defenseless women and children, sick, frail and young infants. The officers who refused to participate acted with courage. They tried to avoid the task and stood against orders. Their actions provide an example of resistance against evil.
Part 4 – Again and Again
The Reserve Police Battalion 101 experienced significant resistance when faced with the first task of killing Jewish people at Józefów. The resistance of a few men did not pose a problem to Lieutenant Trapp and his superiors. Instead, they had to alleviate the psychological burden on the bulk of the men who continued to kill. In response to this, key changes were made.
First, most of the battalion’s actions from then on would involve ghetto clearing and deportation rather than outright massacres. Second, in some of the battalion’s actions, they would be joined by units of Hiwis. Hiwis were Soviet prisoners of war recruited and trained by the Germans based on their anti-Semitic sentiments. These changes proved to be just what Reserve Police Battalion 101 needed to become accustomed to their participation in the Final Solution.
The next time the battalion found themselves faced with the task of killing, it was quite different from that first incident at Józefów. While a few men had refused to participate in the first killing, most of the men went on to become murderers. The changes implemented by the battalion’s superiors helped to alleviate the psychological burden on the men. It further allowed them to become accustomed to the task of killing.
Part 5 – The Descent of Lieutenant Gnade
Lieutenant Hartwig Gnade was a Nazi and an anti-Semite, who was known for his unpredictable behavior that ranged from friendly to cruel. During a Jewish action in Łomazy, Poland, Gnade became a drunkard and sadist. While waiting for the Jewish people to finish digging a grave for themselves and their fellow villagers, Gnade forced around twenty-five elderly men to crawl on the ground naked and ordered his officers to beat them.
With the help of Hiwis, the battalion mostly avoided direct participation in the killings, which eased their psychological burden. Also, unlike the previous incident, the men did not have to face their victims and establish a personal connection, which made it easier for them to kill. However, the men still had a choice, and they had to try harder to avoid killing.
As a result, only two men deliberately avoided shooting, and the number of men who “slipped off” was much lower. Despite this, the Reserve Police Battalion took a significant step towards becoming hardened killers.
Part 6 – The “Jew Hunts”
After the ghettos in the north were cleared, Reserve Battalion 101 began the “Jew hunts” to track down and eliminate the remaining Jewish people who had managed to escape and hide. Local Polish people worked with the battalion, revealing hiding places which led to an estimated 1,000 persons being shot. The smaller scale of the hunts allowed the killers to once again come face to face with their victims.
Since Józefów, many of the policemen had become hardened and cynical, with some becoming eager killers. Most men didn’t need to be coerced to participate and officers were generally able to form a patrol or firing squad by simply asking for volunteers. However, some tried to limit their participation and refrained from shooting when possible. Those who avoided becoming killers entirely were a small minority of nonconformists.
Despite the jaded attitudes of many of the policemen, there were still those who tried to limit their involvement or avoid it altogether. This highlights the complex and varying psychological responses of those involved in the genocide.
Part 7 – Ordinary Men?
Reserve Police Battalion 101 cleared the Lublin district of Jewish people by participating in their shooting deaths and placing many on trains to Treblinka. At least 83,000 people lost their lives to the battalion’s efforts, despite having fewer than 500 men. Why did most men become killers, while 10 to 20 percent did not?
The major reason was the war combined with the racial stereotypes perpetuated by the Nazis. This dehumanized their victims and polarized the “us and them” world of war. Following orders and conformity with comrades were cited as reasons for the policemen’s obedience. Many feared the consequences of disobedience in the authoritarian culture of the Nazis.
This story emphasizes that ordinary men can become killers when they are placed in a polarized and dehumanizing environment. It’s important to recognize the capacity for violence that exists within everyone and to avoid assuming that we would have acted any differently if we were in their place.