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But just because only 12 out of the 500 men accepted the refusal offer, it does not mean that those that participated did so with a light heart. Many of the men tactfully exploited the ensuing chaos; the killing squads began to intermingle, and one could easily slip off into the woods, as one man did for numerous hours, puking until his insides were folded out.
So why didn’t they just accept the offer when it first offered to them? Well, in the ultimate chapter of the book, Browning offers some insight. With unnerving accuracy he draws parallels between the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and those participating in pioneering psychological and sociological experiments. One of the most pertinent examples is that of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment wherein those that participated were randomly selected to either perform the role of guard or prisoner. What then happened went beyond anyone’s expectations. The guards started to perform their role with a little too much zeal. Soon, they treated the prisoners with such disdain and so morally wrong that the experiment had to be cut short. Zimbardo’s conclusion of the experiment is nuanced, but one of the main point was from the fact that they had managed to dehumanise the prisoners, complied with authority, and followed what their fellow guards were doing. All of this points to what Hannah Arendt has termed ‘the banality of evil’. And it is clear to see what Browning draws on such an example. Though their immediate authority had given them the chance of refusal, there still lingered in their mind the awareness of an even higher power. Many of the men erred against the idea of shooting innocent men, women and children at point blank range, but the thought of squandered future career prospects forced their hand. Others realised that the Jews’ fate was already sealed; their refusal could not change that. And some of the men fully appreciated the barbarism but could not let their fellow men handle such bloodshed alone, or at least they could deflect the epithet of ‘coward’.
This, however, was only the first of what would be many routine killings. The ease with which they start to carry them out is chilling; but then perhaps more so is the desensitisation you feel as the reader when the account of events becomes ritualistic and – I dare say – tedious.
Ordinary Men is, without question, a very important book. In a world full of statistics, where ’50 dead’ is met with a nonchalant shrug, briefly immersing yourself in accounts of brutality is a morbid necessity. You will wince, you may have to put the book down at times, you may recognise yourself as very similar to those in Reserve Police Battalion 101 – but it is needed.
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