Wow, this was an amazing book. Browning uses documentary history and interviews done in the 1960s to delve into the actions of these 'ordinary men' -- middle-aged, working-class German men too old to fight in the war, and drafted into the Order Police. The Order Police were sent into occupied territories to enforce order -- or so they said. In fact, they were an early vanguard of the Final Solution.
Whereas German Jews tended to be urban, educated, middle-class people who didn't stand out, Poland had innumerable tiny villages with relatively large Jewish populations. It was the job of the Order Police to travel around, clearing Jews out of each village and town. People were rousted out of their homes, collected in the town square, and then either made to walk into the countryside for mass shootings or crammed on to trains for transportation to camps. Browning documents quite a bit of what this battalion of 500 men did in Poland.
Browning introduces the commanding officers of the battalion and some of the men, many of whom are written about under false names. His question: how was it possible for these most ordinary of men, who were all old enough to have grown up before the Nazis came to power, to become hardened killers? And did anyone dissent? The answers are complicated.
Many people would assume that the men didn't have a lot of choice about what they did; they were drafted into the Order Police, and surely if they refused, they would be killed. Browning makes sure that we know that such was not the case at all. At the very beginning, the commander, Major Trapp, was clearly shocked and appalled by what they'd been ordered to do. He didn't refuse the order, but he did offer everyone the chance to not participate in the shootings. They could plead their age and weakness. Somewhere around 10% of the men managed to get out of shooting anybody; a larger percentage would deliberately miss sometimes, or let people get away if they could do it unobserved. But they all participated in shoving people into trains, and that sort of thing.
Of the majority, then men who fully participated, they of course became inured and brutalized. At first, they were horrified -- but they got used to it, and some of them got to enjoy it. One Lieutenant Gnade went from sick to sadist, as did others. They were given plenty of liquor, too, and often got Polish and Russian prisoner-'volunteers' to do the work for them.
Browning's work was originally published in the early 90s, and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler's Willing Executioners just a couple of years later. Goldhagen took exception to some of Browning's conclusions, and so Browning added a long afterword addressing his points for a later printing. Then, for this edition, he added another chapter looking at photos and evidence that weren't necessarily available 25 years ago. The result is that this book has a good 100+ pages of afterword -- nearly a third of the book!
It's an excellent book, really fascinating, but surely a difficult, grim read. And an important one; I think it's important to remember that this book proves in great detail that human beings are capable of sinking to awful depths if they allow themselves to do so. People don't have to start off especially evil in order to commit mass murder; put in a situation where social pressure operates to encourage it, a lot of people will go along to get along. Each step taken makes it easier to take the next.
Just after I finished this book, I listened to the January podcast from Slightly Foxed, which turned out to be all about the Weiner Library in London. It contains a massive archive of Nazi and Holocaust material, and they mentioned Ordinary Men. Browning must have used the library as a research source. Next time you're in London -- if all this is ever over -- you could take a tour! Meanwhile, the Weiner Library offers digital exhibits to explore from home.