A Book Review of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (by Jack Watt)

A Book Review of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (by Jack Watt)

Ordinary Men is regarded as seminal in Holocaust studies, as micro-history in its own right, and valuable for studying authoritarianism and indoctrination on individuals and collective groups. Tracing a single German unit, Reserve Police Battalion 101 (henceforth RPB-101) throughout their military duty as they are instructed to kill innocent Jewish men, women and children face-to-face in Poland, Browning documents their transition from men originally deemed unworthy of conscription to efficient killers. Browning tries discover how ‘ordinary men’ could commit such extraordinary crimes by relieving the senseless events in the order the men did. His argument, at its most stripped down, is essentially that ordinary people follow instructions from government and authority figures, especially outside their comfort zone, and will not want to risk alienation by not complying.

One of the most influential figures in Holocaust studies, Browning has gained wide-scale respect in a fiercely divided scholarly field. A‘moderate functionalist’, he believes there was no official order for the total destruction of the Jewish people until late into Nazi rule. His fiercest critic, Daniel Goldhagen, an ‘extreme intentionalist’, is discussed later. Browning’s reputation has seen him contribute to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum , and summoned to the trials of Holocaust deniers Ernst Zündel and David Irving as an expert witness. Browning’s other books have studied memory recollection and the validity of post-war trials, but the way Ordinary Men tackles the Holocaust through a micro-history source is groundbreaking.

Browning is heavily influenced by fellow historian Raul Hilberg, dedicating Ordinary Men to him. Twenty years Hilberg’s junior, he seems to regard him as a a tutor and partner in research on perpetrator motivation; Hilberg’s ‘Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders’, published months before Ordinary Men, broadly addresses much of what Browning tackles, generally finding consensus in its conclusions. Influential too is Hannah Arendt’s work on ‘the banality of evil’, arguing humans are willing to participate in deeds sanctioned by the state as acceptable. Studying perpetrators with the aim of understanding and empathising is less desirable for many historians, especially as many are descendents of victims. Browning justifies the importance though, stressing the difference between empathising and forgiving :

‘we have… to look closely at the perpetrators… who carried out the murder day after day, face to face, with their victims. And to treat them as human beings… then you are faced with that uncomfortable awareness that: Are they fundamentally different than I am?’

Browning avoids a dry, overly academic writing style, with refreshingly concise sentences and no pretentious synonyms. This helped broaden Ordinary Men’s intended audience, with glowing reviews on the cover from mainstream publications like The New York Times. Extremely short, the first chapter could be from a popular fiction novel. It describes the scene as the men arrive in the depths of Poland, clearly out of their comfort zone. Their commander informs them, for the first time, their requirement to kill innocent Jewish women and children. The chapter is more emotive and atmospheric than most of the book, adopting a ‘cultural turn’. Did Browning really know it was ‘quite dark’ when the men climbed into the trucks? Or if the road was a ‘jarring washboard’, or that Commander Trapp spoke with ‘a choking voice and tears in his eyes.’? One cannot say without access to his primary sources, but the evident intention of the chapter is to engage the reader, establishing a human connection with the men of RPB-101 in order to empathise and understand their actions.

Browning graphically describes atrocities, because removing the most gruesome or tragic details would invalidate a study which aims understand the darkest deeds of men. It would be patronising to an adult audience with an academic interest in the subject of the Holocaust, but whether Browning’s book is appropriate for students of secondary education is debatable. It is Browning’s use of specific examples of the men’s involvement suffering and cruelty that invoke the most reaction and understanding, or lack thereof. Opposed to incomprehensible numerical figures of casualties, individual accounts of beard-burning or urinating on old Jewish men invoke more genuine reactions. Browning avoids overusing facts and figures, which can be skimmed over, dehumanizing the victims.

Browning’s grasp of language is excellent; he mentions offhand that the men ‘committed several more massacres’ to mirror their desensitization, and uses colloquialism like ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to reflect their casual attitude. Browning is not oblivious that the perpetrators behaviour in contrast to their violent actions creates the blackest of humour, noting his disbelief that members of RPB-101 complain about butter rations and 3rd class carriages on a deportation train after packing Jews into cattle-cars by the hundreds without water. Another example is the nicknames the men give to their superiors – ‘Little Rommel’ or the ‘Hitler Cub Scout’, further reminding us perpetrators are humans, capable of joking, complaining, and occasionally engaging in reflection.

Counter to the intensity of the opening chapter, chapters two to six give historical contexts thematically (chains of command, history of the Order Police, concentration camps etc.), with original use of extended primary sources. By doing so, Browning aids a casual reader’s background knowledge, and incorporates contextual factors outside of those immediate to his major source, RPB-101, avoiding a pitfall of micro-histories.

After these informative sections, chapter seven returns to Commander Trapp’s first order to the company to commit a massacre, and from here a chronological narrative begins. This approach is vital in order to experience the way the events and actions of RPB-101 unfolded. Several massacres and other events occur in the following chapters, culminating in chapter 15 (March 1943), when the pace and intensity increases and one understands why Browning believes it was a ‘veritable blitzkrieg’ for shooting squads. In the same way that one is gradually introduced to atrocities by the same sequence of events as the men themselves experienced it, Browning follows their surreal return to the normality of domestic life in chapter 16, before moving to the concluding chapters.

Due to his opening chapters, Browning avoids having to explain background knowledge as he narrates and analyses, but the result of the chronological narrative is that many important points of his argument repeatedly occur at individual events, and are reiterated a further time in the concluding chapters of the book.

While many in RPB-101 were police officers, as a reserve unit, most were not soldier material; most were too old for duty, few had Nazi party membership. They could not be indoctrinated for use as killing machines like younger, more mentally malleable men. But what makes Browning’s study so intruiging is that ultimately they did become effective murderers. Browning uses other disciplines to support his argument, such as the work of psychologist Milgram. Milgram’s experiment found that commands from a legitimate authority figure are usually obeyed even when the subject is not under duress and has moral objections. The experiment was designed with the Holocaust in mind, during the Eichmann trial. Subjects administered repeatedly higher electric shocks on an actor, at the command of a scientist; most continued while the subject screamed, and 65% continued after the subject fell silent. Browning found some men did refuse to take part in shootings as often as possible, but under military authority in a foreign combat situation it certainly seems plausible that compliance figures would rise higher, confirming Browning’s argument. Ernest Klee’s research however that found almost no evidence existed of German’s even being threatened with punishment by Nazi superiors, which does make damage Browning’s arguments somewhat. Browning does not claim it was morally right for RPB-101 to not object, but that it is understandable that complied. Central to Browning’s argument, and something critics such as Goldhagen fail to grasp is that although these men may have been willing to follow orders, they did not want to be genocidal executioners, and for the most part, took no pleasure from it. Where they did take pleasure from it, Browning soundly argues that continued exposure to brutality caused desensitization. This explains why RBP-101 was gradually introduced to larger massacres, slowly dehumanising their victims to increase their efficiency.

Browning almost exclusively uses primary sources, mostly diaries and Nazi reports, to write his first few chapters, creating original secondary material when he could have easily relied on secondary material of other historians to bolster the context of RPB-101. Browning’s sources on RPB-101 are the most valuable though. They are excellent because of the wealth of first-hand interviews and German court documents between perpetrators and lawyers candidly speaking about what happened. The legal conditions of the sources meant names had to be changed for confidentiality reasons, but Browning rightly argues this doesn’t detract from his argument, just minute historical accuracy. With 500 men in the unit, there is great space to cross-examine and collaborate the testimony, which is of great importance when there is a high chance of the men not telling the whole truth about their involvement due to the nature of their crimes. Browning is aware of the motivations to lie, and also other reasons to treat the testimony with caution. Browning notes the detrimental effects of time, trauma and camaraderie in memory recollection in his introduction, a topic more extensively studied for example by Winter and Sivan. However, the trials took place as early as 1962, so the memories may have remained more intact, but they may have been all the more painful to recount less than 20 afterwards for the men of the RPB-101.

Ten grainy photographs and two maps early on in the book are the only visual sources. The maps are of limited interest, and Browning’s photos seem a token inclusion too, all bunched together with little commentary, the most striking photograph already included on the front cover. With a wealth of pictures of the Order Police units available, which help visualise and relate to the Holocaust, Browning has failed to utilise an important aspect available to him. Goldhagen’s Willing Executioner’s used far more informative pictures, which were specific to RPB-101.

As mentioned in the introduction, critical reception to Ordinary Men was overwhelmingly positive in academic and popular circles as a groundbreaking study methodologically, while remaining accessible and offering a deeply permeating insight into perpetrator mentalities. However, the reception it initially gained was completely eclipsed by following the publication of Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Goldhagen’s book cannot receive extensive analysis here, but I concur with Rosenfeld that the entire debate detracts from the value of Browning’s book and gives Goldhagen’s flawed, inferior work undeserved attention.

Essentially, Goldhagen’s book aims to refute Browning’s conclusions that German’s were ‘ordinary men’, who in hostile environments, fearing isolation and rejection, simply followed orders and became increasingly desensitised to their work. Goldhagen argues instead that the Holocaust could only have occurred in Germany due to ingrained anti-Semitism and racial superiority in German culture; essentially German’s were more than willing. Goldhagen’s work was hailed by the media (due in part to heavy publicity) and, surprisingly, in Germany. In stark contrast, it was almost universally dismissed by academics including Browning and Hilberg, opening up a fierce historiographical debate. The main concerns were that the book was not as original as he claimed, bordered on racist, but more importantly was monocausal, ahistorical in its use and/or exclusion of sources and held profound misunderstandings of German anti-Semitism.

Not only is Goldhagen’s book too long, but too simple with its monocausal argument, lacking the wider considerations and nuancing of Browning’s. The vast size of Hitler’s Willing Executioners may be a subtle attempt to quite literally belittle micro-histories, insinuating Ordinary Men lacks a wide enough source basis to formulate valid reconstructions and arguments, even though Goldhagen uses Battalion 101 for the basis of a micro-study in direct attack of Browning. Using the source, he draws contrary conclusions to Browning, that these men showed almost no opposition, regret or revulsion at killing Jews, but often desire and sadistic enjoyment. Their contradictory opinions demonstrate that total objectivity can never be achieved when analysing human motivation.

Goldhagen’s criticisms of any merit are twofold. The first is that Browning tends to play down sources that show cruelty and willingness to volunteer for atrocities. The second is that Browning is far too trusting of the men’s testimony throughout the book, not being critical enough that they may be lying or omitting details. Essentially, just because the men say they are not anti-Semitic, or do not mention it at all, does not mean it was not a major motivation! But while Browning bases his evidence perhaps too uncritically on what the men do say, Goldhagen’s assertions about what the men don’t say seems even less sound.

In an afterword in newer editions of Ordinary Men, Browning refutes Goldhagen’s criticisms quite successfully. He reflects on his own work, saying he should have stressed the legitimising capacities of government more strongly to explain the men’s willingness, which does seem an important factor. He stands by his complex approach that takes into account more factors than just fear of alienation by the men, and is happy to admit that some of RPB-101 may have been sadists, or more specifically anti-Semitic sadists, but does not believe it was in the national consciousness. He justifies his use of RBP-101, saying that it is a representative study, proved by Goldhagen using it himself.

It appears Browning feels the personal need to prove himself, despite the criticism of Goldhagen’s work by other colleagues. This manifests itself in over-complex, clumsy sentences;

‘thereafter, the pre-capitalist German elites maintained their privileges in an autocratic political system, while the unnerved middle classes were bought off with the prosperity of rapid economic modernization, gratified by a national unification they had been unable to achieve through their own revolutionary efforts, and ultimately manipulated by an escalating ‘social imperialism’

Most poignantly, Browning declares Goldhagen’s conclusions far more comforting than his own. As Browning believes ‘ordinary men’ can always commit such horrific acts in the right circumstances, the Holocaust could be repeated. Goldhagen, by restricting the Holocaust to the contextual boundaries of 20th century German nationalist and racial values, suggests it cannot.

Browning does seem to trust the men’s testimony in regards to underplaying anti-Semitism as a motivation, but he also doesn’t give enough credit to the indoctrinating efforts of the Nazi party. He doesn’t give enough credit to the fact that German society, and especially Police culture, was particularly receptive to authority and may have more easily reconciled itself with Nazism. While most of RPB-101 were older and likely less receptive to Nazi propaganda, there is also a good chance that many were affected by the constant anti-Jewish propaganda put forward.

Fox believes that a mentality of not wanting to break ranks is understandable in football squads, but for murderous requests it seems harder to accept. Browning himself notes that there was a high turnover of men though, so that only a portion of RPB-101 took part in every massacre. This weakens Browning’s fundamental point that RPB-101 were gradually desensitized as a collective, and did not break ranks because of high loyalty; such flaws give Goldhagen’s view on German attitudes some credit.

Another point Browning ignores, which potentially flaws his argument, is that the first massacre order was given in 1942 to RPB-101, but he notes in 1940, men of the Battalion were assigned to the safe job of guarding a POW camp, and before any major desensitization could have taken place and without superior orders, held ‘victory celebrations’ upon shooting Jewish prisoners and ‘intended to kill a Pole on New Year’s Eve’. No remorse or objections are noted, and an explanation by Browning cannot be found either.

Regardless, Browning’s book certainly deserves its seminal status. A mix of original factual research on an exemplary source base is matched with a nuanced conclusion on perpetrator motivation; while Browning finds a strong conclusion, he does not dismiss other factors. An in-depth study of a single German unit through the war is created too. Where Browning’s book does still leave the reader perplexed at how ordinary people could commit such actions, I can only quote Primo Levi on the illogical nature of human action in the Holocaust:

“Logic and morality made it impossible to accept an illogical and immoral reality… The harsher the oppression, the more… the willingness, with all its infinite nuances and motivations, to collaborate… responsibility lies with the system… the room for choices (especially moral choices) was reduced to zero”


Arendt, H., Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, 1963)
Browning, C. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (London 1992)
Browning, C. Reviewed Works: Daniel Goldhagen’s Willing Executioners, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25618699 (Found November 15, 2011)
Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust – http://www.codoh.com/gcgv/gcpgcbrown.html (Found 1 December, 2011)
Fox, J., Review of: Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4211746 (Found 15 November, 2011)
Goldhagen, D., ‘The Evil of Banality’: A Review of Christopher “Browning’s Ordinary Men” (New Republic Magazine, July 1992)
Goldhagen, D., Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (London 1997)
Greene, D. & Browning, C., Voices on Anti-Semitism Podcast Series (Transcript), United States Holocaust Museum, http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/focus/antisemitism/voices/transcript/?content=20061221 (Found 15 November, 2011)
Gritz, J., The Atlantic Magazine: An Insidious Evil, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/02/an-insidious-evil/3113/ (Found 15 November, 2011)
Klee, E., Those were the days: the Holocaust as seen by the perpetrators and bystanders (London 1991)
Rosenfeld, G., The Controversy That Isn’t: The debate over Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20081704 (Found 15 November, 2011)
Westermann, B., “Ordinary Men” or “Ideological Soldiers”? Police Battalion 310 in Russia, 1942, http://www.jstor.org/stable/info/1432392 (Found 15 November, 2011)
J. Winter & E. Sivan, War and Remembrance in the 20th century (Cambridge, 1999)
Primo, L., The Drowned and the Saved (Italy, 1986)


5 thoughts on “A Book Review of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (by Jack Watt)

  1. Obviously a good Critical Review and the book was way off. The author had no clear understanding of the atmosphere surrounding the true anti-semetic ‘culture’ which kicked off the chain-of-events leading to such horrible atrocities, and clearly, these seemed to be down-played in the book, as you seem to portray them as such in your review.

    I, however, am still a bit perplexed why you shun away from facing some of these genocide and historical facts ‘dead-on’ when you intimate in this article that Browning doesn’t clearly cover these appropriately either. Perhaps you should state your opinions more clearly and be afraid to back them up. The bibliography is there to backup your research. You use this as your stepping stone. You then form your own opinion. You need to state it more clearly, albeit in a sensitive matter, but you cannot mince words. This doesn’t mean that you negate your intelligence, past education, or orals in anyway. You keep revising, just as I do, even at my age, until you find the perfect marraige of historical fact, and moral condemnation, without giving the appearance of exploding in your articles. Although, sometimes, that really isn’t such a bad thing either. Moral outrage in History has shown to be influential, as I am sure you know. WRITE MORE! re-write from a different standpoint, perhaps opinion only, with your Bibliogry as backup only, and see where you can keep your emotion in check with Historical perspective. 😀

    • So if you think this man missed the mark, do a re-write, as I said. Send me a copy. I would love to read it. In the mean time, I think I will go research who this man is. It sounds fascinating!

  2. I too have read Browning’s book (which I thought was brilliant and recommend btw) and have written a review of it. Not sure it’s worth putting up several reviews of the same book though. What do people reckon?

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