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On July 13th, 1942, a unit of the German Order Police – namely Reserve Police Battalion 101 – entered the Polish village of Jozefow and went on to murder 1,500 Jews in cold blood. The initial visceral throb in us screams of sadism. But, on the contrary, these men couldn’t be further detached from the deranged evil in the higher echelons of the Nazi regime. Instead, as Christopher Browning’s title suggests, the men, in fact, ordinary.
Ordinary Men begins with a brief summary of the make-up of Reserve Police Battalion 101, and what is salient to point out is that they were mostly of an age where indoctrination could play a minimal factor. Most of the men were middle-aged and well aware of life pre-Nazi Germany. Neither did the men show any noticeable zeal towards the Nazi party, or the war for that matter. It’s clear that the men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 were, by all accounts, ordinary men at the time of them assembling. Although, throughout a period of brutal bloodshed in 1942, their ordinariness slips into the surreal. Browning presents to us, in excruciating detail, the accounts of those that had to carry out such brutality. It is key to remember that Major Trapp, who was in command of the Battalion at the time and was obviously perturbed by being in such a position, offered to the men a chance of refusal. Only 12 out of 500 men accepted this offer. The others went on to round up Jews and lead them to their deaths. Those that could not carry themselves or would prove as detrimental to the speed of the process (that being the elderly, frail and infants), the men were ordered to shoot on the spot. Those that could walk, which included pregnant women and children, faced their murderers face to face, were forced to lay on their fronts, bayonets pointed at their necks and shot at point blank range. In some of the most harrowing accounts, men on Reserve Police Battalion 101 tell of how sometimes their shots could go astray, leading to the skulls of their victims blasting onto their uniforms along with brain remnants.
Such accounts make the stomach churn. But as graphic as these accounts are, they are at times paled in comparison with the rationalisations. One of the most disturbing is one of a man who told that he would exclusively shoot children. His reasoning for which is that he would see these children’s mothers die, and, of course, no child can survive without a mother. Thus, he saw himself as a redeemer of these children.
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