Guest post by Carey Appling
A Battalion Police Officer lit his cigarette as he stood in front of the massive pile of bodies he and over 100 others labored 14 hours to make. Two thousand Jews were successfully killed. For a Nazi like this man, life had been somewhat simpler. He had gone from being a barber only 18 months ago to being one of the most bloodthirsty monsters ever to walk the earth. He had stacked Jews like this, and he would do it again, until he had killed or loaded some 83,000 in that year and a half. He swayed, and the Vodka on which he had been drunk since the round up began that morning was wearing off. Drunken Nazis talked around him as aloof as he was about the dark reality that existed before them.
An audible curse issued from that pile of bodies, followed by another but more muffled. The neck wounds from the executions didn’t fully kill all of their victims. Some were still alive somewhere in the depths of the dead. It was still easier than the headshot technique they used during the first action. That was messy. The executioners learned quickly. Sometimes the neck shot didn’t always kill, but it was better than brains everywhere. Such Nazis, however, always wished their next “Action” was train-loading. That was far easier—almost a pleasure in comparison.
What you have just read is just a snippet of Reserve Police Battalion 101. It was a German occupying police agency that, unbeknownst to them, were about as normal and “Ordinary” as a person could be. Before the War, they were skilled laborers, salesmen, factory workers, truck drivers, etc. They were blue collar Joes. None had any proclivity for hating Jews. They thought the Nazi rhetoric was a bit much, but the Jews, after all, were undermining the war effort. Even then, none of these guys were killers. Far from it. They were just as ordinary as the next guy.
Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning tells us about the horrific actions of average men once enlisted as occupying German Police. It tells of how they were given direct orders to round up the Jews in all the cities and villages in their assigned districts and either put them on trains or execute them one-by-one with their rifles. It tells how they transformed as individuals during this gruesome 18 months: from ordinary Joes to heartless killing machines. Browning recounts all of this by using hundreds of consolidated personal confessions of the Nazi Soldiers of that Battalion. He pieces entire days together from morning till night.
This was not the only Battalion of German Police in Poland. But during their occupation from ’42-’43 they were able to shoot at a minimum 38,000 Jewish men, women, and children. They loaded another 45,200 on trains. They were fast and efficient. You wouldn’t know it by how they wept after the first massacre. Even when, however, they swore never to partake of such “actions” again, sadly they followed orders without scruple two weeks later. They didn’t cry after that second massacre. A handful out of 500 men managed to go without killing by hiding or dodging the selection process. This was only possible during the initial “Resettlements” and Executions. But almost none escaped, eventually drinking the bottle, pulling the trigger, and putting in the long hours of hard labor it takes to kill that many people. They did this 3 or 4 times a month for a year and a half.
If they weren’t killing they were guarding a transition ghetto (Międzyrzec Podlaski Ghetto) that temporarily housed naked Jewish families who were starving and malnourished. This didn’t hamper the new Nazi men. They ruthlessly killed even when the Jews would only be there for a night before one of the killing trains arrived. They would stuff the train so full that they could barely close the doors—120 or so to a car. Those they nailed shut. I dare not describe the trains.
This is one reason I’m a Calvinist. God’s Word tells us man is desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9). Yes, all of man. In fact, this book is about the conundrum—from Humanists’ perspective—of how these somewhat common, ordinary, blue collar laborers and skilled workers so quickly and easily became one of the most efficient killing Battalions in Poland. They ran trains to killing camps from the cities and villages they were clearing out so fast they broke down one or two gas chambers. Given a grisly job to do, they were fast learners. They learned within the first hour at Jozefow that you either shoot between the shoulder blades or at the base of the neck—never the skull. They modified their techniques on-the-job, even as they wept and puked. Within the first hour, they had perfected the kill shot.
The accounts in the book are agonizingly detailed. One man remembers refusing to kill during the first action, only to be thrust a bottle of Vodka 4 months later at a cemetery where they were commissioned to kill 400 naked men, women, and children before daybreak. He killed that night. Almost no one went without killing before the end, no matter how resilient they were. The men were also always in a drunken stupor, sometimes drunk first thing in the morning because the killing began at daybreak. Police Battalion 101 toured their assigned district in Poland, week after week, town after town, liquidating Jews from Ghettos. Even if the Jews were still integrated into Polish society, it did not matter: they were ripped from their homes. The sick were shot in their beds, and children at times were ripped from their mothers and fathers and shot in the street. They wouldn’t survive the train, after all. If the children stayed with their mothers for execution the child and mother were paired and shot together. One German officer reflected on how he was the only one who would execute the children. He believed it was a merciful thing. How could the child live without the mother?
What is interesting is how these men rationalized their killing, and how they pressured each other into continuing. Even those who refused the killing softened the blow by admitting they were too weak to do such things. They encouraged their comrades to continue. The mere action of refusing to kill is itself a moral judgement upon those who did kill. Therefore, so as not to make himself morally superior to his peers, he would temper his refusal with words of encouragement to the killers. How they were brave. How they were strong. How they were manly as opposed to the coward who couldn’t carry his share of the load. After all, that’s how these men viewed the killing. It was a heavy psychological and spiritual toll to kill this many people: you needed to do your part. To fail to do your part was to let down your peers, and to most, that was unacceptable, no matter how hard or evil the task proved.
The Nazis called these killing programs “Actions,” whether they were loading trains or executing Jews on the spot. They would roll into a town completely by surprise many times, and begin systematically evicting the Jews. Most of the time, the Jews were already living in secluded ghettos they were not allowed to leave. Sometimes that meant only 400 Jews, sometimes 16,000 or 18,000. The last two figures were their final “Actions”—the biggest. The Germans were ruthless.
One Officer brought his new bride, who was 4 months pregnant, to a train loading “Action.” These “Actions” would take up to 14 hours to complete. This woman stood and watched her husband, the father of her new child, boasting in the massacre of Image Bearers of God. Another officer also brought his wife to Poland for a visit. He and his wife were enjoying breakfast when a handful of soldiers arrived, saluted, and said, “We have not had our breakfast yet!” The officer gave a puzzled look, to which the soldiers replied, “We have not killed any Jews today.” The wife called them monsters. I suppose words are more egregious than actions. The Nazis called the Jews their “Daily Bread.”
The average age of the men in this Battalion was around 39. The men who killed that many Jews were too old to fight on the front lines but not to old for the “Final Solution.” None of these men knew they would be committing such horrendous atrocities. None of them signed up with the express goal to kill Jews almost everyday for a year and a half. In fact, many were teachers, police officers, and waiters. They were being conscripted into the German War effort, they just didn’t know to what end. Yet they performed their duties almost to perfection, if such a thing can be labeled as perfect. On top of all this, only a quarter were actually Nazi Party members. They were hardly the bloodthirsty monsters we would expect to do this job.
Browning himself attributes the main factor to the way these men viewed the world around them. They were raised not to question the authority of their nation, as most Americans are likewise educated in our public schools and churches to think authority must always be submitted to. Another factor was that such men did not have strong moral convictions by which to judge their own government.
As Christians, we know God’s Law is the solution to these issues. The collective reigned supreme for these men. There was no alternative, and even 20 years later at their trials they would mostly justify their actions as merely “following orders” under the threat of death. There was no evidence, however, that any Nazi had ever been executed for not following the order to kill. In fact, the evidence shows that the position of executioners during these “Actions” was always a voluntary role. It was a “burden” that almost all the men eventually took turns carrying, willingly.
Ordinary Men is most definitely a dark journey into the depraved heart of mankind. It’s the hardest book I have ever read. It’s mortifying. It’s also the darkest book I have ever read. The men that made up Battalion 101 were not victims. They were confronted with the task that awaited them, the exact command to kill innocent men, women, and children. They were also asked to remove themselves if they did not feel up to the task. Very few excused themselves, despite the harrowing learning-curve on the job. Even the few who did, ended up killing anyway. The offer not to partake was only given during the very first “Action” at Jozefow. That offer was never given again. The hard physical and spiritual toll on the Battalion would be made all but mandatory from then on. This book is a raw depiction of the hard work it took to kill innocent people systematically. Perhaps the most frightening aspect is that it also shows just how easily that hard killing could become for almost all the normal men involved—men who had never seen war or death in their life. After a very brief initiation, it came easy for them. They even perfected it along the way (Rom. 1:30). This book is a sober reminder that the worldview framework we often lay for our own nation—blind submission and moral decay—is the same framework Reserve Police Battalion 101 used to justify why they did what they did. “I was just following orders.”