How Banal Germans Quickly Became Nazi Murderers


Over the last few years, as the few remaining Holocaust survivors have neared the end of their lives, there has been a rush to record their testimonies. The streaming services are full of shows recording the heartrending accounts of those who lived through humanity’s darkest night.

A much more neglected question about the Holocaust, however, is how the Germans and their various accomplices were able to commit mass murder and sleep soundly at night.

In the Nineties, writer Daniel Goldhagen advanced in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a theory of “eliminationist antisemitism” – a virulent strain of prejudice which he traced from Luther to 1900s Germany, which he described as being “pregnant with murder”.

But antisemitism wasn’t unique to Germany, there were pogroms of Jews all across eastern Europe during World War II.

In 1993, academic Christopher Browning put forward a more persuasive theory in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. He held that rather than any deeply held ideology, it was group dynamics and a fear of looking weak which enabled ordinary men to become mass murderers.

Browning’s book forms the basis for a new Netflix documentary and it makes for absolutely gripping viewing. He describes how he selected for his study a German police battalion active in World War II.

The men were too old to have grown up under the totalitarian regime, they had not been radicalised by Hitler Youth. They came from Hamburg, a city which had generally been left-leaning and had not been enamoured of the Nazi ethos.

And while not quite a ‘Dad’s army’, they were only pressed into action in 1942, which meant that, for various reasons, they had avoided conscription for quite some time.

When these men were sent into the newly conquered territories in Poland they quickly became aware of the brutal ethnic cleansing operation of which they were to become a part.

But the Nazi leaders already knew the psychological toll that hand-to-hand killing could have on its men; the whole reason the industrial system of gas chambers was developed was because German soldiers had been deeply traumatised by being ordered to shoot Jewish children in the Ukraine and elsewhere.

The hierarchy wanted to protect its men from the horrors of war.

So the commander of Police Battalion 101 gave his men an out. He told them that if they didn’t want to pull the trigger they didn’t have to. There would be no punishment. And yet, almost to a man, they got on with their dirty work.

The first ‘operations’ were burned into the men’s brains and they were traumatised by what they did – but they quickly became inured.

Browning speaks of some of them being “spattered with brain matter” as they shot entire families at point blank range.

He tells of the dark expedients they resorted to: such as shooting a mother through the child she was holding – so that only one bullet would be used.

And he tells of the stories they told themselves so that they might persevere, including that they were performing these murders in a more humane manner than might have otherwise been the case.

Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children perished at the hands of the Hamburg battalion. By the end of World War II it had the fourth highest kill rate of any battalion during the entire war.

Throughout it all a kind of warped camaraderie kept the wheels of the murder machine turning. These men weren’t “obsessed with Jews”, Browning notes, they were “obsessed with themselves and how they appeared to others.”

Their motivations were much more boringly universal than we might suspect, recalling the line about the “banality of evil”.

This insight is what makes this such a powerful film. Rather than comforting us in our distance from these terrible crimes, it lays bare the fact that everyday impulses – such as wanting to belong, or not wanting to let people down – could easily lead us into barbarism.

Men committed these acts, not monsters, and men could commit them again.