How 500 “Normal” Humans Went On To Kill 83,000 in 11 Months
"Herr Leutnant, I have not yet had breakfast. I have not yet killed any Jews.”
The Holocaust took place between 1933 and 1945. By mid-March 1942, around 20% of its eventual victims were alive. Eleven months later, an extra 60% of its eventual casualties did.
German Reserve Police Battalion 101 participated in the killings. It consisted of middle-aged working-class men. They weren't veteran murderers, didn't have experience "managing" German territory, and received education before the antisemitic, Nazi era. Yet, they killed 83,000 Jews between the period the Battalion lasted: June 1942 and May 1943.
“Ordinary Men” is a book studying the interrogations of 210 men from Reserve Police Battalion 101. Its lessons teach how "normal" people like you and I can go from being terrified of hurting others to finding pleasure in doing it.
From Ordinary Men to Terrified Killers
On June 20, 1942, Reserve Police Battalion 101 arrived in Lublin, Poland. They didn’t know it, but they were there to mass execute the women, children, and elderly from Józefów as well as men who couldn't work at work camps. After revealing this, Major Trapp said, "if it makes the task easier, remember that, in Germany, bombs were falling on women and children."
But it didn’t make it easier for anyone.
Buchmann, a reserver lieutenant, said he “would in no case participate in such action, in [which] defenseless women and children are shot.” Trapp even told men they could choose not to take part if they didn’t want to. Then, as the events unfolded, he spent his time away from the executions.
“Trapp’s distress was a secret to no one,” said of the men. “At the marketplace, one policeman remembered hearing Trapp say, “Oh, God, why did I have to be given these orders,” as he put his hand on his heart.”
The men who stayed took Jews out of their houses and shot anyone that couldn’t move. The town was small, so Jews and officers heard screaming from every direction. It was terrifying for both parties. A Doctor showed up after RPB assembled all Jews. He explained how to shoot them without making their guts splash onto everyone else. Moments later, the Battalion placed them on a line, looked for the "right" place to shoot, and killed them.
“One policeman approached First Sergeant Kammer, whom he knew well. He confessed that the task was “repugnant” and asked for a different assignment. Kammer obliged, assigning him to guard duty on the edge of the forest, where he remained throughout the day. Several other policemen who knew Kammer well were given guard duty along the truck route. After shooting for some time, another group of policemen approached Kammer and said they could not continue. He released them from the firing squad and reassigned them to accompany the trucks”
The Józefów operation lasted seventeen hours. Many people never took part in it. Others left mid-way. While those who stayed participated in the killings, most were repulsed by the task.
Christopher Browning, the author of Ordinary Men, writes:
"Those who had not been in the forest did not want to learn more. Those who had been there likewise had no desire to speak, either then or later. By silent consensus within Reserve Police Battalion 101, the Józefów massacre was simply not discussed. “The entire matter was a taboo.” But repression during waking hours could not stop the nightmares. During the first night back from Józefów, one policeman awoke firing his gun into the ceiling of the barracks."
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From Terrified Killers to Mass Murderers
By Mid-November 1942, four months later, Reserve Police Battalion 101 had killed around 6,500 Polish Jews and sent over 42,000 to the gas chambers. They now had a new order as part of an operation called "The Jew Hunt:" murder the Jews who escaped the previous roundups.
A squad member recalls the assault:
“We were told that there were many Jews hiding in the forest. We therefore searched through the woods in a skirmish line but could find nothing, because the Jews were obviously well hidden. We combed the woods a second time. Only then could we discover individual chimney pipes sticking out of the earth. We discovered that Jews had hidden themselves in underground bunkers here. They were hauled out, with resistance in only one bunker. Some of the comrades climbed down into this bunker and hauled the Jews out. The Jews had to lie face down on the ground and were killed by a neck shot.”
Like at Józefów, members had a choice. Some stayed far from the killings. Others, because they had shared their unhappiness with the massacres, weren't even asked to take part.
But this time, most members felt comfortable and excited to kill. The wife of a lieutenant recalls:
“I was sitting at breakfast one morning with my husband in the garden of our lodgings when an ordinary policeman of my husband’s platoon came up to us, stood stiffly at attention, and declared, ‘Herr Leutnant, I have not yet had breakfast.’ When my husband looked at him quizzically, he declared further, “I have not yet killed any Jews.”
Members also became colder, going from sparing to torturing. For example, one lieutenant made a father choose between his life and his daughter's. In the past, many would have taken the work-ready men and spared the women, even though the order was to kill the women, children, and elderly. Yet, this time, the member engaged in psychological torture. After the Jew chose his daughter, the man killed her and left him there to see.
Few men left before or during the Jew Hunt. In fact, authorities had to turn officers away because too many wanted to kill.
After the Jew Hunt finished, one policeman remembers,
“At the lunch table, some of the comrades made jokes about their experiences during an action. From their stories, I could gather that they had just finished a shooting action. I remember as especially crass that one of the men said now we eat ‘the brains of slaughtered Jews.’”
Meanwhile, after the Józefów killings, most of those who participated experienced guilt, shock, and anger at authorities.
What changed in five months?
How Ordinary Men Become Evil?
In around one year, Reserve Police Battalion 101 went from being a group of ordinary men like you and me to a squad where at least 80% of the people became killers. I’ll explore many potential reasons to explain this and to further answer the question of what makes humans aggressive.
Potential reason one: people were brainwashed
Yale Psychologist Stanley Milgram ran experiments to test whether ordinary people could harm others if an authoritative figure told them to. He found that, in most cases, they could. Milgram says evil behaviors became common in Nazi Germani “through relatively long processes of indoctrination."
My research backs Milgram’s hypothesis to some extent. In a past essay, I wrote, “Humans can be aggressive, but instincts do not trigger it. Other people do. Political Scientist Harald Wydra saw that human aggression was always motivated by someone. The wrong leader manipulates people's emotions and frames violence as the solution.”
But members weren't brainwashed. Most members were middle aged-men educated in pre-Nazi Germany. A time when acts of dehumanization, such as the ones conducted by Nazis, would feel repugnant.
"Many came from a social milieu that was relatively unreceptive to National Socialism. They knew perfectly well the moral norms of German society before the Nazis. They had earlier standards to judge the Nazi policies they were asked to carry out.”
The Nazi education these men did receive was also not purely anti-Semitic. Weekly, members attended lectures and read books on the importance of the German race. But, in about two hundred issues altogether, says Browning, few pages had explicit anti-Semitic content:
“One issue, ‘Jewry and Criminality’—exceptionally ponderous even by the quite undistinguished standards of the two series—concluded that alleged Jewish characteristics, such as ‘immoderateness,’ ‘vanity,’ ‘curiosity,’ ‘the denial of reality,’ ‘soullessness,’ ‘stupidity,’ ‘malice,’ and ‘brutality,’ were the exact characteristics of the ‘perfect criminal.’ Such prose may have put readers to sleep; it certainly did not turn them into killers.”
Detailed anti-Semetic material didn’t make it until 1943. By that time, most of Reserve Police Battalion 101 had clearer up the zone.
Even if all the material was anti-Semitic, it wouldn't be able to turn an entire population into killers via lectures. I haven't become more violent by studying violence. Students ignore most of what they can learn at college. We forget most of what we try to learn. Agency was a choice, and members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could take it.
For the sake of argument, let's say members were young, stubborn men more susceptible to brainwashing. Even then, genes, instincts, and a lack of self-control influence if someone is aggressive. There were less than 500 men in the battalion, from which 50 to 100 did not kill. Those who did always had a choice.
Potential reason 2: People were afraid of punishment
During the interviews, members often blamed Nazi authorities for what they did. They said they had no choice. Even if they did listen to a choice, it's normal to believe one doesn't have one. Some Nazi authorities were cruel. Feeling there is a slight chance that they are lying when they say you can choose not to participate and face no punishment is normal.
In How Leaders Turn Kind People Evil, I share how humans always pursue an authoritative figure. These figures don’t have to be good per se—they must be authoritarian and look like they know something you don’t.
I go on:
“Kidnapping, murdering, and humiliating someone,” such as a Jew, “is an inconceivable act up to the moment the person you admire the most does it. Then it's atrocious but justified.” Psychoanalyst Fritz Redl says followers eventually do these acts and find pleasure in them because the leader takes the initiative. If the leader acts first, the action is valid because he knows what's best, but since he is the supreme authority, he is to blame for any bloodthirsty event.”
This is exactly what happened in this case. People followed evil leaders and blamed them for everything.
The problem with the argument that members felt they had no choice was that more people decided not to kill during the first assault than in the last. So at the same time that members saw fewer comrades not being punished, they became more interested in killing. Each time people who didn't participate weren't punished signaled that not participating was ok. Yet, more people participated.
“In the past forty-five years, no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment. The punishment or censure that occasionally resulted from such disobedience was never commensurate with the gravity of the crimes the men had been asked to commit.”
We can argue there was always a risk of death involved. If I had been a soldier, seeing other officers spared despite not executing orders after one massacre wouldn’t be enough to convince me to go against orders. The risk of executing the order was that I’d lose my humanity. The risk of not doing it could be death. Yet, after the sixth massacre, I would expect more "good" people to risk and step back.
Potential reason 3: Dehumanization
Many of those who kill during a war do it from a desk. They write an order to kill a group of people from a specific area and ethnicity, and someone else executes the order. The distance makes it easy to do, as you are killing names, statistics, and races instead of people you can see, hear and touch.
Reserve Police Battalion 101 always saw their victims. They heard the screaming, saw the terror, and smelled the blood. Yet they killed even if they could decide not to, sometimes, even when authorities hired seasoned assassins to do the dirty work.
Members took part in every massacre from the "Harvest Festival," a season when Germans wanted to kill every Jew alive.
“Jews were shot in such a way that there were inclines in the piles of corpses enabling the newcomers to lie down on corpses piled as much as three meters high,” said one of the officers. “The whole business was the most gruesome I had ever seen in my life because I was frequently able to see that after a burst had been fired, the Jews were only wounded, and those still living were more or less buried alive beneath the corpses of those shot later, without the wounded being given so-called mercy shots.”
Compare that to the first massacre, in which officers were terrified, and you’ll see that, despite the “last Jews” being as human as the “first Jews,” most of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 didn’t feel the same repulsion they once felt. They shifted their repulsion to banal things, such as how the food they had while migrating hundreds of Jews to concentration camps tasted.
One Lieutenant writers:
“In future, it will be necessary to provide the men of the transport commando with marching rations, because the cold rations do not keep in the summer months. The sausage—it was a soft sausage—was already opened and cut up when handed out on June 15, and had to be consumed no later than the third day because of the danger of spoiling. On the fourth day the men had to be satisfied with marmalade, because the butter was also already rancid due to the tremendous heat in the train car. The size of the ration was also rather meager. “
For this Lieutenant, the conditions in which Jews’ traveled for sixty-one hours were banal. What mattered the most was the state of the sausage.
Potential reason 4: War frenzy
If you hit a random person, chances are they will hit you back. The adrenaline and stress of being hit will trigger a survival response. At war, this instinct makes soldiers persecute, torture, and kill enemies who have done the same or trying to do it.
Reserve Police Battalion 101 didn't experience a war frenzy, though. They were not attacked, persecuted, or tortured. Because the people they were trying to kill, 99% of the time, accepted their death. Aside from a few World War I veterans, none had experienced war either. So it wasn't a case of them redoing terrible acts they once did.
"Most of them had not fired a shot in anger or ever been fired on, much less lost comrades fighting at their side. "The horrors of the initial encounter eventually became routine, and the killing became progressively easier. In this sense, brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior.
Potential reason 5: Mimetism
Browning concludes that, in line with what I've shared, the only thing left to explain the shift was social status. Even though members could choose not to kill, someone always had to do it. So not doing it meant leaving a collective task to their comrades.
"Those who did not shoot risked isolation, rejection, and ostracism—a very uncomfortable prospect within the framework of a tight-knit unit stationed abroad among a hostile population, so that the individual had virtually nowhere else to turn for support and social contact. This threat of isolation was intensified by the fact that stepping out could also have been seen as a form of the moral reproach of one’s comrades: the non-shooter was potentially indicating that he was “too good” to do such things. Most, though not all, non-shooters intuitively tried to defuse the criticism of their comrades that was inherent in their actions. They pleaded not that they were “too good” but rather that they were “too weak” to kill. Such a stance presented no challenge to the esteem of one’s comrades; on the contrary, it legitimized and upheld “toughness” as a superior quality."
It's fascinating to see people can turn into killers to fit in. But most fascinating is how we can learn to kill via imitation. Those who did not know how to kill murdered Jews before they knew why they were doing it. And I mean a moral or existential why not the "they were ordered to" why.
In Imitation: The Unseen Architect of Society, I argue we learn to act before we learn why we do it. I write,
"Person X is a model to follow for Person Y. Y mimics what X does, even though they don't know why X does it. X might not know it, either. But, by accurately imitating behaviors that benefit X, Y learns skills they didn't realize they could get."
In the essay, I explain this in the context of learning how to pass on know-how across generations. But it applies here in the context of learning how to kill in eleven months.
I've argued mob dynamics aren't enough to make non-aggressive people be aggressive. How self-control, genes, and parents play a role. So, why do I, for now, seem to agree with Browning's mimetic argument? Because, unlike in studies of mob dynamics, members of the Battalion faced constant peer pressure. It wasn't a matter of hours or days. But months in which they saw and killed close to 100,000 Jews. Under this longer timeline, mob violence might be able to spread easier.
Could you and I become killers?
No person lives alone. All of us are part of a social collective where peer pressure exists, directly or indirectly. To say I couldn't become a killer because I'm passive, spiritual, and rational would be absurd. It would likely be the same for you, even if you thought of all the traits you have that seem to oppose those a killer would have. If Reserve Police Battalion 101, went from a group of ordinary men to a group of killers, could you not? Perhaps we'll never know. And it is better for it to stay that way.
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This is haunting and terrible. So well written, Nicolás. So emotional.