Reading Christopher Browning’s text on the Józefów massacre—a chapter of his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, one of the most brilliant and horrifying books ever written about the Nazi era--it is impossible not to wonder: what happened there? I don’t know about you, but I find his account and the reality of what happened there to be profoundly and deeply disturbing.
Here’s what I want you first to address in this post. Why did these men do what they did? Why did some men participate and some men choose not to? What were the real repercussions if you chose not to participate? Why didn’t more of the men do that? What seemed to be “going through their heads”? What do you make of Major Tripp’s views and actions? Why were these actions—these massacres by teams that served as “einsatzgruppen”—special killing squads—so problematic for the Nazis in the short-term and in the long term?
Then, consider this. At the end of the Second World War, a psychologist named Theodor Adorno argued that there was a "Fascist Personality Type" that was prone to genocide. According to Adorno, it made folks feel good to know that this behavior was "just the way Germans are."
Then, in 1961 Stanley Milgram did what became his classic experiment on obedience and taught us about the power of the situation and how ordinary people are willing to obey authority. We will be looking at this experiment next week.
Since Milgram did his research, we have learned a lot about obedience and the potential for people to change their behavior through the power of the situation. Philip Zimbardo did a classic study at Stanford University in which students took on the role of guards and prisoners - with rather frightening results. Other researchers, like Mike Fatouros studied how someone goes on to become a torturer by a systematic psychological process. Lastly, other theorists, like Irving Janis, argue that we go into something called "Groupthink" where we are unable to make rational decisions because of our loss of perspective of the greater world.
Browning, along with these psychologists, have helped us to understand the question of this rather dark side of human behavior. But as a student last year asked, in response to this article: So what? She felt that Browning's article, in trying to make us understand the origins of their behavior, was asking us to have some sympathy for the perpetrators in the unit.
So, here is that question. So what? What does it mean for us if the answer is that "the power of the situation was so strong that individuals lose the ability to make rational, humane decisions”? Does this in some way lessen the horrible nature of their crimes? Does it mean that the perpetrators are in some way less responsible?
In your response, be certain to make specific reference to what you saw with the Einsatzgruppen, from Browning, and from his findings in this chapter from his ground-breaking book. This is perhaps one of the most thought-provoking and essential readings and posts we will have all year.