Ordinary Men: Empathy and Judgment in the History of the Holocaust

Browning, Ordinary MenAs a teacher, I grow restless easily, tinkering for the sake of tinkering. But even in those classes that I teach yearly or semesterly, there are certain fine-tuned exercises that I expect to repeat for years to come. One of those happened last week in my upper-division survey of modern European history, when after one class session on the origins and course of World War II in Europe, then a second on the origins and implementation of the Final Solution, we dove headfirst into the mud of the Holocaust by conducting a mock trial of three of the Germans depicted in historian Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men.

Browning’s famous book tells the story of a battalion of reserve military policemen in the regular German army that in 1942-1943 killed some 38,000 Jews in Poland — and aided in the deportation of 45,000 more to extermination camps like Treblinka. He selected Battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei specifically because of the ordinariness of its members: while eight of its eleven officers and about two-thirds of its non-commissioned officers were members of the Nazi Party, 75% of the enlisted men were not, and only two officers and seven NCOs were also in the SS. Most of the enlisted men were middle-aged laborers, office workers, and salesmen from the large city of Hamburg, decidedly not a stronghold of fascism in the interwar era.

And — Browning’s kicker — when their commanding officer told them that they were assigned to execute over 1500 Jews in the village of Jozefow (mostly women, children, and elderly men), he expressly (and tearfully) permitted them to decline that duty. And those who didn’t know what they were in for were generally allowed to take alternative responsibilities once they were confronted with the reality of shooting defenseless people in the back of the neck. According to Browning, about 10-20% of the battalion did not kill.

Reserve Police Battalion 101, 1940
Members of Battalion 101, Christmas 1940 – U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

So I selected three “ordinary men” for our mock trial: the most senior NCO, who helped supervise the slaughter in Jozefow but also excused several soldiers who complained (he was charged with crimes against humanity); a salesman-turned-private who shot one woman then begged off (premeditated murder); and a composite named “Schmidt” who stood in for the railway workers who helped Battalion 101 send 10,000 Jews to their deaths at Treblinka in ch. 10 of Ordinary Men (accessory to murder). The week before the trial, students were assigned roles in the scenario: those who wanted to volunteer to play the role of prosecuting or defense attorney had the chance to do so, then I assigned the remaining attorney roles and cast the rest of the class as a jury. The “attorneys” wrote up “briefs” in advance for their course journal entry, then gave oral arguments and answered questions from the “jurors” and myself. The “jurors” then had a day to vote guilty or not guilty for each case (and to recommend a punishment in the event of a guilty verdict) and were asked to write at least 250 words reflecting on what was, for them, the most difficult decision to render.

I’ve done this exercise at least seven or eight times now, and the results are almost never the same from year to year. This iteration produced the most lenient results I can remember: only the NCO was found guilty, and jurors recommended (narrowly) a lesser term of imprisonment. (As did the Polish court that tried him not long after the end of the war, sentencing him to thee years in prison; his commanding officer was executed.)

If you’re interested in how things went, I posted a fairly detailed summary at our department blog yesterday. In addition to the jury’s vote on each case, it includes some sample comments from my students (anonymous, and used with their permission).

The reason that I keep doing this exercise is that, despite its high degree of difficulty, students invariably rise to the challenge. It forces them to balance two impulses that seem essential to the practice of history: to seek to empathize with those we study — even those (especially those) we’d prefer to demonize, but also to seek the truth and even (where appropriate and with humility) come to a moral judgment rather than retreating into indifference or absolute relativism. Neither is easy to accomplish well in this scenario. One student wrote of the challenge of imaginatively understanding these men and their actions:

A tough aspect of being a historian is empathy, and the attempt to reach into the minds of those who were faced with a certain decision. As a female student, living in 21st century (safe) America, I have absolutely no clue what it means to partake in warfare or violence. Furthermore, I have no valuable perspective into the minds of soldiers, who dealt with the pressure of comradeship.

Defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, 1945
An actual trial of a different set of perpetrators: Hermann Goering and other defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, 1945 – Wikimedia

Another wrote of the near-impossibility of finding anything like justice in the case of the railway worker charged as an accessory to murder:

From the descriptions given in the book about many of these men it seems like almost nobody downright wanted to kill the Jews, yet it still happened and I want more than anything for those devastated by the Holocaust to feel at least a shred of justice over what happened. At the same time, however, I can’t help but think that men such as Schmidt simply got caught up in a terrible situation that was really out of their control, and that the guilty party here is really only those in the highest positions of German leadership.

That same student concluded with a sentence that I’ve heard (in some form or another) from at least one person every time I’ve done this exercise, summing up his realization that he’s probably not that different from those being tried:

I would like to imagine that, had I been a train conductor in Germany during World War II, I would have opposed transporting Jews from the start. In reality though, it is impossible to say what I would have done, although there is a lot of reason to believe that I would have behaved contrary to my morals based on how the general population responded positively to Hitler.


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