July 13, 1942. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 climb out of their trucks near the village of Jozefow. Major Wilhelm Trapp addresses his men with choking voice and tears in his eyes. The battalion, he says, has an unpleasant task to carry out: the liquidation of Jozefow’s Jews. He offers any man who does not feel up to the task to excuse himself and step out. The strange thing isn’t that a few did, it is that most didn’t. It’s strange because these were ordinary men.
The Holocaust suffers from what could be called an “Auschwitz myth” in popular memory, where the memorial site of the infamous death camp stands as the symbol of the Holocaust. In reality, the vast majority of the Jews murdered in Europe never saw the inside of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and only half ever entered a camp in the first place. Almost three million of the murdered six million Jews died in a simple and brutal way: through firing squads organized from German murder squads or occupation forces in Europe and the Soviet Union. One of the units that carried out the grim tasks of liquidation and deportation in occupied Poland was Reserve Police Battalion 101.
In the 1980s, historian Christopher Browning was trying to answer one of the great debated questions of the Holocaust – that is, why did regular Germans become killers? Why did men in a prosperous European country, a country famous for its philosophers, composers and scientists, become the perpetrators of the most terrible genocide in human history? Browning’s research led him to the Order Police Battalions which had carried out the machinery of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, and this led him to Hamburg.
In the archives of Hamburg, Browning discovered the record of a large investigation into the actions of a single unit of 500 men: Reserve Police Battalion 101. It was a wealth of in-depth information about the makeup, composition, actions and reactions of a select segment of the Holocaust’s facilitators and perpetrators. 125 individual testimonies revealed the battalion’s descent from ordinary men to hardened killers.
With these documents and other research, Browning was able to assemble a deep and vivid picture. In his book “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” he shone a magnifying glass on the actions and behavior of a single unit during the Holocaust. It is this research that illustrates the story I am about to tell today.
Reserve Police Battalion 101 was not a frontline unit, but a part of the Order Police. These were large police formations with military training and equipment under the control of Heinrich Himmler’s SS commanders. The Order Police had to be quickly enlarged in 1939 and 1940 due to the sudden need for occupation forces in Nazi-occupied Europe, and soon 101 battalions of Order Police were serving behind the lines. Since most of the men fit for military service had already been called up (Germany was having manpower issues even in 1940), the Order Police was mainly recruited from older drafted reservists.
Battalion 101 was formed in 1939, made up almost entirely of men from Hamburg and the surrounding area. Throughout the period 1939-1941, 101 was involved in multiple ethnic cleansing actions, as well as guarding the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto; almost all of this action resulted in deportations with some single shootings, but no mass killing. Not that it matters for this story, since the Battalion went through an almost 100% personnel changeover by the time it returned to Poland in June 1942.
These new men were older reservists considered unfit for frontline service. Their average age was 39, old in military terms, and 63% of them were working-class men from Hamburg, usually with wives, families and skilled labor careers. Dock laborers, truck drivers, construction workers, and waiters were common. The other 37% were middle-class: sales, office clerks, teachers, and pharmacists. The Hamburg region was famously one of the least Nazified areas of Europe, and had been a socialist stronghold before the Nazi takeover in 1933.
The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were from the lower orders of German society, a social class that had been anti-Nazi in its political culture. They had grown up in a time before the Nazis, with political and moral standards different from the last decade. Only 25% were Nazi Party members, a very low figure compared to the society at large. They were non-radicalized, non-political, average middle-aged German citizens. They would not seem to be a group with a lot of potential for becoming a cog in the machine of mass murder. They were…ordinary men.
In June 1942, Battalion 101 returned to Poland with its new complement of middle-aged Hamburg men. By that time, the Final Solution was in full effect, with the extermination camps of Belzec and Sobibor gassing trainloads of Jews from all over Europe. Battalion 101 was assigned to the area of Lublin, Poland, with the task of rounding up and deporting Jews to the camps. Most of the Jews had already been forced into ghettos, so it was a simple matter of launching predawn operations to rouse thousands of terrified Jews from their beds and herd them onto train cars bound for the abattoirs of the Holocaust. During this period, Battalion 101 were just facilitators – not yet perpetrators.
That changed on July 13, 1942. The order had come down several days before, and rumors had been circulating of an “extremely interesting task” slated for July 13. One of the sergeants told his men that he “didn’t want to see any cowards” when their task was before them. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were woken at 2am. Given large amounts of extra ammunition, they were herded blinking and sleepy onto trucks and rode toward the town of Jozefow. The officers also obtained a generous supply of alcohol for the task ahead.
The battalion’s commander, career Hamburg policeman Major Wilhelm Trapp, assembled his men in a half-circle and addressed them. Pale, nervous, and teary-eyed, he informed them that they had to perform a frightfully unpleasant task. He didn’t like it, but the orders came from highest authority. If it made the task easier, his men should remember that the enemy was bombing German women and children. He also reminded them of the “fact” that the Jews had brought America into the war against them, and that the Jews of Jozefow had been helping the local partisans.
He then explained their task. The male Jews of working age would be rounded up and taken to a work camp. The remaining Jews – women, children, elderly, and infirm – were to be “liquidated” by the battalion that day. He then made an extraordinary offer: if any of the men did not feel up to the task before them, he could ask to be excused.
After some moments one man did step out of the ranks. His company commander was furious that one of his boys had been the first to break ranks and began to curse at him, but Trapp cut him off. After Trapp showed that men would be excused from the “task,” ten or twelve other men stepped out, turned in their rifles, and were given further assignments. Trapp himself was visibly distraught at the task; he spent the rest of the day in a schoolroom that he used for his headquarters, avoiding any direct involvement in what was to come.
While Trapp wept in the schoolroom, his men carried out the battalion’s task. The ordinary men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 cordoned off the town and drove the Jews out of the Jozefow ghetto. Anyone too sick to rise or too old to move quickly was shot on the spot, though the men still quailed at shooting children or infants. The air was thick was screams and gunfire. As the Jews were gathered in the marketplace, several men of First Company were given a quick class by the battalion doctor and their First Sergeant on how to shoot a kneeling man by using the bayonet as a guide.
About 300 “work Jews” were separated out and marched away with much anguish and crying on the part of their families. They themselves were almost stoic until they heard the first volleys of rifle fire, when they began to weep as they realized their families were being shot.
35 to 40 policemen were driven out to the shooting sites, closely followed by the first truckloads of Jews. The policemen were paired up with their victims face to face. Then the Jews were told to lie facedown in a row, and the policemen placed their bayonets on the neck as instructed and shot them. They would be replaced by the next squad, with the next group of victims, and the pendulum of murder continued.
The dozen men who had stepped out were the outliers; for many policemen, the reality of what they were about to do had not sunk in. As the day went on, several men realized what was going on, approached their sergeants and officers, and asked to be excused. They all were. Some approached the wrong officer, and were threatened with punishment, but after a moment’s consideration were ordered to a different detail. This is the critical part: anyone who could not kill did not have to. They were excused. Some men simply evaded duty in other ways. They would fire past their victims on purpose, or slipped out to hide by the trucks, or drifted towards the latrines or marketplace. One driver who was ferrying Jews to the shooting site only made one trip before asking to be relieved. He was criticized for his “weak nerves” but nevertheless was excused and replaced.
Since the “action” was not going fast enough, soon men who had not been “properly” trained were shifted to firing squad duty. Their poor aim and unsteady nerves meant that soon blood, bone splinters, and brain matter sprayed the shooters. This caused much distress, and many began approaching the sergeants and officers to ask for other duties.
The shooting continued until nightfall, until 1500 Jews from Jozefow had been executed and left unburied in the fields outside of town. The “action” was finished in 17 hours.
The reactions of Battalion 101’s men after Jozefow reveal a large array of behavior. Men experienced numbness, nightmares, and sharp nerves for days afterwards. They were depressed, angry, embittered and shaken, eating little but drinking heavily. Major Trapp walked among his men to reassure them, but placed the responsibility on higher authority. The sense of shame and horror was bottled up, locked away. No one talked about it. Those who had not been in the forest did not want to know more. Jozefow became a taboo subject.
The disgust did not last. A month later, the Battalion cleared the ghetto of Lomazy and were far more efficient, “liquidating” 1700 Jewish women and children. They continued deportation duty for the larger ghettos and execution in the smaller ones for the next six months. After this they were put on “Jew hunt” duty, hunting down refugee Jews in the woods of Poland. Thousands were shot this way. All in all, Reserve Police Battalion 101’s 500 men murdered some 83,000 Jews and deported hundreds of thousands to the death camps.
Why did these men participate in the mass murder and genocide of the Holocaust, even when they obviously hated and reviled their job? How did these ordinary men become murderers – not just pressing a button in a gas chamber, but face to face with their victims and covered in their human remains? Why did most men become killers, while only a minority did not?
Wars have always been accompanied by atrocity, but most famous atrocities – My Lai, Black Hearts, Malmedy – were committed in combat zones by men worn down and degraded by battle. This was not true of Battalion 101. They were not combat veterans; most of them did not seek out opportunities to kill. They were not particularly anti-Semitic on their own, and generally did not torture or humiliate their victims – indeed, the few sadists in the battalion evoked disgust from the rest.
But then again, Nazi Germany was filled with propaganda that painted Jews as subhuman, as criminal, and as the cause of all their ills. The idea of a Europe free of Jews was painted as utopia. The authoritarian dictatorship of Nazi Germany is often invoked as an explanation, too: it is widely believed that many Germans faced punishment for not going along with atrocity. But as the action at Jozefow demonstrates, it was surprisingly easy to not participate in the massacre.
Seventy years of research on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust have revealed a single devastating fact. There is NOT ONE CASE where a refusal to obey orders to kill unarmed civilians resulted in serious punishment. Every single member of Police Battalion 101 faced a decision about shooting. Commanders identified men who “weren’t up to” the shooting and assigned them other tasks. By the end of Battalion 101’s time in Poland, there was a 20% minority of “non-shooters” who were never given the task.
To put it simply, the most important factor in turning Battalion 101’s men into killers was group conformity. The battalion had received orders to massacre the Jews, but the individuals within it had not. Yet 80 to 90 percent of the men, horrified and disgusted as they were with the task, proceeded to kill. To break out of the ranks, to be the first to say “I won’t,” was just beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot.
The non-shooters faced social rejection, isolation, ostracism. By breaking ranks, they left the “dirty work” to their comrades. Since the battalion had a task to carry out even if individuals did not, refusing to shoot meant passing on the burden to others. It could also be seen as a moral reproach, implying that they were “too good” for this unpleasant collective task. Some of the men even described their own behavior as “being too weak”, not “too good” to kill. This idea legitimized and upheld “toughness” as a superior quality; by being “too weak” to kill, the non-shooters found a way out of the task without insulting their fellow policemen.
Only very exceptional people can remain indifferent to social isolation and rejection by one’s comrades, especially in wartime. The strengths of human nature and desire to be part of something greater than ourselves make us want to be admitted, accepted, wanted. This is not an alien notion to any of us. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 did not do what they did because they were Nazis. They did it because they valued their group, they respected authority, and if they all did it, they were able to avoid individual responsibility in the collective.
I’ll let Christopher Browning finish. “Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”