Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
This is a book on Jordan B. Peterson’s recommended reading list, because it provides an excellent case study of a group of people who have committed atrocities during the Second World War and the types of social conditions and personal reasoning involved in perpetuating war crimes. Police Battalion 101 was formed in Hamburg, and was one of many Reserve Police Battalions formed to maintain control over the civilian populations of the occupied territories Germany annexed leading up to The Second World War.

CONTENT WARNING: this is a review of a book discussing the history of a battalion involved in genocide, massacres of innocents, and deportations to concentration camps. I have scrubbed the accounts of some of the more macabre minutia while preserving the overall description of events. My goal above all was to try and capture the psychological dimension of the events, and I’ve included details to the extent that sense of psychological situation is upheld and elucidated.

The Battalion’s Composition

The Battalion was composed of 3 companies of about 140 men in strength.

It was commanded by 53 year old Major Wilhelm Trapp, a veteran of the First World War and recipient of the Iron Cross First Class. After the war he became a career policeman and rose through the ranks. Although he was a Nazi Party member since 1932, he had never been taken into the SS or even given an equivalent SS rank, in spite of attempts by Himmler and Hydrich to meld together the state and Party components of the SS and the Order of Police. Trapp was by all accounts not considered SS material.

He often was in conflict with two captains under his command: both young SS men, who even in their testimony more than twenty years later made no attempt to conceal their contempt for their commander as weak, unmilitary, and unduly interfering in the duties of his officers. The two captains, Wolfgang Hoffmann and Julius Wohlauf, both born around the start of the First World War and were early members of Hitler Youth and joined the SS before graduating from their college preparatory high schools. The reserve lieutenants had ages ranging from 33 to 48 and none belonged to the SS. Of the 32 non-commissioned officers 22 were party members and 7 were in the SS. Their ages ranged from 27 to 40, with an average of 33.5. These were not reservists but rather prewar recruits to the police.

Concerning the rank-and-file police, the vast majority were from Hamburg, and two thirds were of working class background, holding jobs as dock workers, truck drivers, warehouse and construction workers, machine operators, seamen, and waiters. The remainder were lower middle class white collar workers in sales or bureaucracies as clerks. The number of independent artisans and small businessmen was very small. About a quarter were Nazi party members in 1942. The men of the lower middle class held Party membership in an only slightly higher proportion (30%) than those from the working class (25%).

The men were predominantly from the lower orders of German Society. They had experienced neither social nor geographic mobility. Very few were economically independent, and outside apprenticeships or vocational training virtually none had any higher education past age 14.

As Browning states,
These were men who had known political standards and moral norms other than those of the Nazis. Most came from Hamburg, by reputation one of the least nazified cities in Germany, and the majority came from a social class that had been anti-Nazi in its political culture. These men would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers on behalf of the Nazi vision of a racial utopia free of Jews.

Early History of the Battalion

Police battalions (Ordnungspolizei) were battalion formations, trained and outfitted by their main police offices in Germany. These forces served to maintain control of the civilian populations in Germany’s occupied territories. Reserve Police Battalion 101 was shipped out to Poland in 1939 under the supervision of the SS on the heels of the Nazi invasion force. Their initial role involved resettlement operations to expel Poles, Jews, and Gypsies from the annexed territories marked for “germanization” and resettlement by ethnic Germans. Over the five months of resettlement action 37k people were evacuated out of central Poland, with 22k people escaping the evacuations by fleeing. According to one eyewitness the killings began with these actions, particularly with respect to the old, sick, and small children. At this point it was the exception and not the rule, although the resettlement commission (composed of SS, SD, and some civilians) did accuse officers of being inefficient by evacuating these vulnerable groups, saying “nothing could be done with such people” instead of ordering executions outright.

Some accounts of shootings were mentioned, but the majority officers testifying 20 years after the fact did not recollect any shootings at this time, compared to what was to follow after.

The Massacre of Józefów

Józefów was a small village 15 km to the southeast of Warsaw, and on July 11th 1942 was the first occasion in which Battalion 101 committed outright massacres of civilians. For the first time for the Battalion, instead of relocating Jews only the male Jews of working age were to be relocated a work camp in Lubin; the women, children, and elderly were to be shot on the spot.

The men were not officially informed of this until the morning of, after being mobilized and transported from a neighbouring town at 2am. At Józefów Major Trapp explained the battalion’s murderous assignment. Once he finished, he made an offer to the men. Any of the men who did not feel up to the task could step out. The first man stepped out, a policeman under Captain Hoffman, who sharply reprimanded the man for embarrassing his company by being the first to step out. Trapp quieted Hoffman, and once he was under his wing more men stepped out, totalling to 12. They had their weapons removed and were to await further assignment from the major.

Trapp then summoned the company commanders and gave them their respective assignments. The orders were relayed by the first sergeant, Kammer,* to First Company, and by [Lieutenant] Gnade and [Captain] Hoffmann to Second and Third Companies. Two platoons of Third Company were to surround the village. The men were explicitly ordered to shoot anyone trying to escape. The remaining men were to round up the Jews and take them to the marketplace. Those too sick or frail to walk to the marketplace, as well as infants and anyone offering resistance or attempting to hide, were to be shot on the spot. Thereafter, a few men of First Company were to escort the “work Jews” who had been selected at the marketplace, while the rest of First Company was to proceed to the forest to form the firing squads.

After making the assignments, Trapp spent most of the day in town, either in a schoolroom converted into his headquarters, at the homes of the Polish mayor and the local priest, at the marketplace, or on the road to the forest. But he did not go to the forest itself or witness the executions; his absence there was conspicuous. As one policeman bitterly commented, “Major Trapp was never there. Instead he remained in Józefów because he allegedly could not bear the sight. We men were upset about that and said we couldn’t bear it either.”

Indeed, Trapp’s distress was a secret to no one. At the marketplace one policeman remembered hearing Trapp say, “Oh, God, why did I have to be given these orders,” as he put his hand on his heart.14 Another policeman witnessed him at the schoolhouse. “Today I can still see exactly before my eyes Major Trapp there in the room pacing back and forth with his hands behind his back. He made a downcast impression and spoke to me. He said something like, ‘Man, . . . such jobs don’t suit me. But orders are orders.’”15 Another man remembered vividly “how Trapp, finally alone in our room, sat on a stool and wept bitterly. The tears really flowed.”

As the town was quite small, the sounds of screams and gunfire could be heard everywhere. Police reported that all patients in the Jewish hospital or old people’s home were shot, although no one admitted having actually seen the shooting or taken part. At this point it is rather obvious that the police testimonials are going to lengths to avoid implicating themselves any more than necessary in the war crimes. The witnesses reacted differently to the problem of shooting infants. Some claimed they were treated the same as the women and elderly, whereas others stressed there were no infants or small children in areas they were charged with “clearing,” and that everyone tacitly refrained from shooting the young. Later on this same witness observed that even facing death the Jewish mothers did not separate from their children, and the police tolerated the mothers taking their children to the marketplace. In spite of this Captain Hoffman reproached his unit for “not proceeding energetically enough.”

After the roundup, the work Jews were taken by train to Lubin, and platoons were taken to assemble firing squads in the woods. At this point it began to sink in more for the other officers what laid ahead, and some requested to be transferred to different assignments; this was assented to or denied based largely on the officer’s temperament. Hoffman, same man who reprimanded the first officer to step out on killing, told one man he could lie down alongside the victims in the forest. Many however were sent back to the marketplace and some even returned early to the barracks.

Some policemen who did not request to be released from the firing squads sought other ways to evade. Non-commissioned officers armed with submachine guns had to be assigned to give so-called mercy shots “because both from excitement as well as intentionally [author’s italics]” individual policemen “shot past” their victims. Others had taken evasive action earlier. During the clearing operation some men of First Company hid in the Catholic priest’s garden until they grew afraid that their absence would be noticed. Returning to the marketplace, they jumped aboard a truck that was going to pick up Jews from a nearby village, in order to have an excuse for their absence. Others hung around the marketplace because they did not want to round up Jews during the search. Still others spent as much time as possible searching the houses so as not to be present at the marketplace, where they feared being assigned to a firing squad. A driver assigned to take Jews to the forest made only one trip before he asked to be relieved.

Some other testimonials from shooters:
It was in no way the case that those who did not want to or could not carry out the shooting of human beings with their own hands could not keep themselves out of this task. No strict control was being carried out here. I therefore remained by the arriving trucks and kept myself busy at the arrival point. In any case I gave my activity such an appearance. It could not be avoided that one or another of my comrades noticed that I was not going to the executions to fire away at the victims. They showered me with remarks such as “-idiot-” and “weakling” to express their disgust. But I suffered no consequences for my actions. I must mention here that I was not the only one who kept himself out of participating in the executions.
“The shooting of the men was so repugnant to me that I missed the fourth man. It was simply no longer possible for me to aim accurately. I suddenly felt nauseous and ran away from the shooting site. I have expressed myself incorrectly just now. It was not that I could no longer aim accurately, rather that the fourth time I intentionally missed. I then ran into the woods, vomited, and sat down against a tree. To make sure that no one was nearby, I called loudly into the woods, because I wanted to be alone. Today I can say that my nerves were totally finished. I think that I remained alone in the woods for some two to three hours.”

Kastenbaum then returned to the edge of the woods and rode an empty truck back to the marketplace. He suffered no consequences; his absence had gone unnoticed because the firing squads had been all mixed up and randomly assigned.

This proceeded over 17 hours from sunrise to 9pm. Upon returning to the barracks,

[the men] were depressed, angered, embittered, and shaken. They ate little but drank heavily. Generous quantities of alcohol were provided, and many of the policemen got quite drunk. Major Trapp made the rounds, trying to console and reassure them, and again placing the responsibility on higher authorities. But neither the drink nor Trapp’s consolation could wash away the sense of shame and horror that pervaded the barracks. Trapp asked the men not to talk about it, but they needed no encouragement in that direction. Those who had not been in the forest did not want to learn more. Those who had been there likewise had no desire to speak, either then or later. By silent consensus within Reserve Police Battalion 101, the Józefów massacre was simply not discussed. “The entire matter was a taboo.” But repression during waking hours could not stop the nightmares. During the first night back from Józefów, one policeman awoke firing his gun into the ceiling of the barracks.

Reflections on a Massacre

At Józefów a mere dozen men out of five hundred had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder. Why was the number of men who from the beginning declared themselves unwilling to shoot so small? In part, it was a matter of the suddenness. There was no forewarning or time to think, as the men were totally “surprised” by the Józefów action. Unless they were able to react to Trapp’s offer on the spur of the moment, this first opportunity was lost.

As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out. The battalion had only recently been brought up to full strength, and many of the men did not yet know each other well; the bonds of military comradeship were not yet fully developed. Nonetheless, the act of stepping out that morning in Józefów meant leaving one’s comrades and admitting that one was “too weak” or “cowardly.” Who would have “dared,” one policeman declared emphatically, to “lose face” before the assembled troops. “If the question is posed to me why I shot with the others in the first place,” said another who subsequently asked to be excused after several rounds of killing, “I must answer that no one wants to be thought a coward.” It was one thing to refuse at the beginning, he added, and quite another to try to shoot but not be able to continue. Another policeman—more aware of what truly required courage—said quite simply, “I was cowardly.”

Most of the interrogated policemen denied that they had any choice. Faced with the testimony of others, many did not contest that Trapp had made the offer but claimed that they had not heard that part of the speech or could not remember it.
A few policemen made the attempt to confront the question of choice but failed to find the words. It was a different time and place, as if they had been on another political planet, and the political values and vocabulary of the 1960s were useless in explaining the situation in which they had found themselves in 1942. Quite atypical in describing his state of mind that morning of July 13 was a policeman who admitted to killing as many as twenty Jews before quitting. “I thought that I could master the situation and that without me the Jews were not going to escape their fate anyway. . . . Truthfully I must say that at the time we didn’t reflect about it at all. Only years later did any of us become truly conscious of what had happened then. . . . Only later did it first occur to me that had not been right.”

In addition to the easy rationalization that not taking part in the shooting was not going to alter the fate of the Jews in any case, the policemen developed other justifications for their behaviour. Perhaps the most astonishing rationalization of all was that of a thirty-five-year-old metalworker from Bremerhaven:

“I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers.”

The full weight of this statement, and the significance of the word choice of the former policeman, cannot be fully appreciated unless one knows that the German word for “release” (erlösen) also means to “redeem” or “save” when used in a religious sense. The one who “releases” is the Erlöser—the Savior or Redeemer![/quote]

Speaking to the question of ethical or ideological motivations for declining to shoot, Browning has the following:

Even twenty or twenty-five years later those who did quit shooting along the way overwhelmingly cited sheer physical revulsion against what they were doing as the prime motive but did not express any ethical or political principles behind this revulsion. Given the educational level of these reserve policemen, one should not expect a sophisticated articulation of abstract principles. The absence of such does not mean that their revulsion did not have its origins in the humane instincts that Nazism radically opposed and sought to overcome. But the men themselves did not seem to be conscious of the contradiction between their feelings and the essence of the regime they served. Being too weak to continue shooting, of course, posed problems for the “productivity” and morale of the battalion, but it did not challenge basic police discipline or the authority of the regime in general. Indeed, Heinrich Himmler himself sanctioned the toleration of this kind of weakness in his notorious Posen speech of October 4, 1943, to the SS leadership. While exalting obedience as one of the key virtues of all SS men, he explicitly noted an exception, namely, “one whose nerves are finished, one who is weak. Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”[/quote]

Careerist motivations were brought up by one officer: “because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one, but rather an independent skilled craftsman, and I had my business back home.... thus it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.” Numerous company chiefs such as Hoffman were, on the other hand, young careerist men or SS members to boot who were ambitious.

The chief opposition to Major Trapp and his superiors in the SS were not ethical or political in nature, but originated in the broad demoralization of the police force from the horror of the killing process itself. Subsequent actions involving Police Battalion 101, based on the experience in Józefów, relegated the men of Battalion 101 to roundups and deportations of civilians, and later on “Jew Hunts” in the forests of Poland in which refugees and partisans were executed. Because the executions by themselves were so demoralizing, other means of allowing the police to participate in the ethnic cleansing were sought out.

Joint Killings with the Hiwis in Łomazy

Major Trapp himself had apparently made arrangements that the killings and more brutal tasks pertaining to deportation were carried about by the Hiwis, with the Police Battalion forces only serving to round up Jews and participate in shootings as a last resort. “Hiwi” is a German abbreviation for “voluntary assistant”, and were military volunteers indigenous to the occupied territories recruited into the German paramilitary forces to serve as auxiliaries.

The first joint operation of Police Battalion 101 with the Hiwis occurred in Łomazy, where many Jewish communities from smaller villages were concentrated. One day before the impending action the platoon stationed in Łomazy received orders from Lieutenant Gnade in the battalion that there would be a Jewish “resettlement” the next morning, which by that time was a well-understood euphemism. On the fateful morning the lieutenant himself held a meeting with the non-commissioned officers, who received instructions for clearing the Jewish quarter and concentrating them at muster points. The usual instructions were given to shoot the young and elderly, but once again most children ended up being brought to the assembly point. At this point a group of young men were selected out of the crowd to begin digging a mass grave in the forest nearby town.

Over the course of several hours of waiting and digging the Hiwis from Trawiniki came into town, led by an SS officer. Immediately after arriving they and the battalion commanders began to drink heavily. Eventually the Jews began to be transported in groups of 200 or 300 at a time to the grave sites. This time point is also notable as it is when Lieutenant Gnade began to exhibit signs of sadism: chasing some to the grave site and ordering a large elderly group to strip and be beaten with clubs for his amusement.

The killing began and throughout the day the Hiwis became increasingly drunk themselves. As the number of able shooters diminished Lieutenant Gnade ordered Battalion police to replace the lost Hiwis. Eventually the Hiwis who were drunk rose from their stupor and resumed shooting. This continued until 7pm, marking the conclusion of the second four-figure shooting carried out by the men of Reserve Battalion 101.

The execution of Łomazy differed from Józefów in numerous ways. There were many more attempts at escape in Łomazy, as there was no program of extracting the able-bodied men for work camps (the group most capable of escaping or fighting back). In spite of this the killing itself exerted much less psychological stress on the Police Battalion, not being directly involved for the most part in the firing squads of the assembled Jews; reportedly some were “overjoyed” they did not have to participate en masse. Yet even those policemen who did replace the Hiwis in shooting for several hours did not recall the same extent of horror as back in Józefów. The first reason for this was that the shooting occurred in Łomazy at a distance against a group, rather than one-on-one as it had in Józefów. Having killed once already, at least some of the police began to acclimate to being killers. The number of police who had testified they had deliberately tried to miss their targets had decreased. And unlike Major Trapp, the sadistic Lieutenant Gnade gave the men no option of bowing out of participating in the executions; nor were the men systematically excused if they were too shaken to continue as in Józefów.

Trapp had not only offered a choice but he had set a tone. “We have the task to shoot Jews, but not to beat or torture them,” he had declared. His own personal distress had been apparent to all at Józefów. Thereafter, however, most “Jewish actions” were carried out in company and platoon strength, not by the full battalion. The company commanders—like Gnade at Łomazy—and not Trapp were thus in a position to set the tone for the behaviour expected and encouraged from the men. Gnade’s gratuitous and horrific sadism at the grave’s edge was only one instance of how he chose to exercise leadership in this regard, but such examples soon multiplied. When Gnade and the SS commander of the Trawnikis, both still drunk, encountered Toni Bentheim in the Łomazy schoolyard after the massacre, Gnade asked, “Well, how many did you shoot, then?” When the sergeant replied none, Gnade responded contemptuously. “One can’t expect otherwise, you’re Catholic after all.” With such leadership and the help of the Trawnikis at Łomazy, the men of Second Company took a major step toward becoming hardened killers.

This division of labour between the police and Hiwi forces made the largest impact in the village of Alekzandrów under Major Trapp’s command, where Jews were again rounded up for execution by a detachment of Hiwis from Trawniki, but because the latter did not show up the Police Battalion simply released the Jews from captivity, allowing them to return home. As this was only a few days past the events of Józefów the memory of the massacre was still fresh in their minds.

The August Deportations to Treblinka

Aside from these pairings of Police Battalion 101 with the Hiwi executioners, the Battalion was involved largely in ghetto clearing and deportations of Jews to the concentration camp at Treblinka, located some 110 km to the north of the battalion headquarters in Radzyn. Parczew was the first town targeted, and although the Hiwis were present there was comparatively little violence. A second deportation in Parczew didn’t even require the Hiwi attendance. Thus the men of Police Battalion 101 were more willingly involved because they were spared from direct participation in the killing. The fact that there were ultimately far more victims from the deportations to Treblinka was not of salient psychological consequence to them.

This contrasted with another deportation in Międzyrzec in August 1942, which was the largest ghetto clearing the battalion participated in for the duration of the Final Solution. Some 11,000 Jews were targeted for deportation, and less than a thousand work Jews were permitted to remain in Międzyrzec until they could be replaced with Poles. The amount of Jews killed on the spot versus those deported was about nine percent. To put this into perspective, the Warsaw ghetto clearing had a ratio of two percent. So even by Nazi standards the Międzyrzec deportation was a bloodier operation than normal, involving whips even to get people to move.

The author believes the ratios of perpetrators to victims played a role in the level of perceived violence by the latter. In Parczew there were 5000 Jews for ~350 police. The police at Międzyrzec numbered 350-400, and were charged with clearing 10,000, which placed a lot more pressure on the police to use more brutal and ferocious tactics to get the job done.

Late September Shootings

Due to a lag in deportation activities late September 1942 Battalion 101 resumed indiscriminate shootings under orders of the SS, in addition to reprisal shootings against resisting Jews and partisans. A lieutenant under Major Trapp named Buchmann mentioned after the massacre at Józefów he would not take part in Jewish actions. A mass execution similar to that of Józefów in Talcyn was the last straw. Buchmann asked for a transfer and while this was being processed he remained in Radzyn.

In Radzyń Buchmann had made no effort to hide his feelings. On the contrary, he “was indignant about how the Jews were treated and openly expressed these views at every opportunity.” It was obvious to those around him that Buchmann was a very “reserved,” “refined” man, a “typical civilian” who had no desire to be a soldier.
If Buchmann’s behaviour was tolerated and protected by Trapp, it received mixed reactions from his men. “Among my subordinates many understood my position, but others made disparaging remarks about me and looked down their noses at me.” A few men in the ranks followed his example, however, and told the company first sergeant, Kammer, “that they were neither able nor willing to take part in such actions anymore.” Kammer did not report them. Instead he yelled at them, calling them “shitheads” who “were good for nothing.” But for the most part he freed them from participating in further Jewish actions. In so doing, Kammer was following the example Trapp had set from the beginning. As long as there was no shortage of men willing to do the murderous job at hand, it was much easier to accommodate Buchmann and the men who emulated him than to make trouble over them.

Chapter 13 of this book interestingly enough was devoted to the health of Captain Hoffmann. Himself a careerist, he developed a habit of having severe digestive upsets and cramping whenever a murderous operation was to occur. In spite of this he refused to report his illness for a long time. The men under him noticed that his bedridden days coincided with company actions involving the murder of innocents. “It became common for the men to predict, upon hearing the night before impending action, that the company chief would be bedridden by morning.” He was verified to be ill, but such behaviour was adaptive. “If mass murder was giving Hoffmann stomach pains, it was a fact he was deeply ashamed of and sought to overcome to the best of his ability.” So acts of evil did have a toll on his health, although this was something he did his best to mask.

[Continued below]
The Jew Hunts

This chapter refers to the various operations of capturing and summarily executing Jews who had escaped from the ghettos, which was an ongoing activity since about October 1941. This began to be a problem as the starvation and deprivation forced more and more individuals to escape and smuggle food and secret away. This grew to be such a problem that the German government in Poland asked for judicial procedures to be replaced with on-the-spot executions so that order could be maintained.

This, as was the case in Józefów and Talcyn, presented the police with the challenge of encountering their victims face-to-face again. In the deportation activities thousands of Jews were transported and the police could psychologically distance themselves from the killing occurring farther afield. This could not be the case in these later operations. Months of experience in executing innocents hardened many into becoming numbed, indifferent, and sometimes eager killers; whereas others did what they could to avoid participation in the killings unless they felt forced to; a smaller number (eg. Buchmann) avoided killing with greater conviction.

Wherever individuals stood on the spectrum however, Police Battalion 101 had up to this point executed at least 6,500 Polish Jews and deported 42,000 more to Treblinka, and the growing callousness of the men began to pervade the post-shooting behaviour. The Jew hunts themselves, these were conducted on a voluntary basis, and there were a group who did eagerly participate, to the point of some needing to be turned away. Whereas others who had no interest in these activities were tacitly offered other opportunities:

Those who did not want to go on the “Jew hunts” or participate in firing squads followed three lines of action. They made no secret of their antipathy to the killing, they never volunteered, and they kept their distance from the officers and NCOs when “Jew hunt” patrols and firing squads were being formed. Some were never chosen simply because their attitude was well known. Otto-Julius Schimke, the first man to step out at Józefów, was frequently assigned to partisan actions but never to a “Jew hunt.” “It is not to be excluded,” he said, “that because of this incident I was freed from other Jewish actions.”....The tactic of keeping one’s distance was invoked by Heinrich Feucht* to explain how he avoided shooting on all but one occasion. “One always had a certain freedom of movement of a few meters, and from experience I noticed very quickly that the platoon leader almost always chose the people standing next to him. I thus always attempted to take a position as far as possible from the center of events.” Others likewise sought to avoid shooting by staying in the background.

Sometimes distance and reputation did not suffice, and outright refusal was required to avoid killing. In Second Platoon of Third Company, Lieutenant Hoppner became one of the most zealous practitioners of the “Jew hunt” and eventually tried to impose the policy that everyone had to shoot. Some men who had never shot before then killed their first Jews. But Arthur Rohrbaugh* could not shoot defenseless people.... On patrol in the woods with Corporal Heiden* and five other policemen, Rohrbaugh encountered three Jewish women and a child. Heiden ordered his men to shoot the Jews, but Rohrbaugh simply walked away. Heiden grabbed his gun and shot the Jews himself. Rohrbaugh credited Trapp for his suffering no negative consequences. “On account of the old man, I think, I had no trouble.”

Others were more cautious and refrained from shooting only when no officer was present and they were among trusted comrades who shared their views. As Martin Detmold recalled, “In small actions it often occurred that Jews whom we had picked up were let go again. That happened when one was sure that no superior could learn anything of it. Over time one learned how to evaluate one’s comrades and if one could risk not shooting captured Jews contrary to standing orders but rather letting them go.” The battalion communications staff also claimed that they ignored Jews they encountered in the countryside when they were laying lines on their own.

Germans, Poles, and Jews

A chapter is devoted to examining the views of the German police on the Jews and Poles, as well as the views of the Poles on Jews. This is a critical point when it came to interviewing the police some 20 years after the events, as to admit to having anti-Semitic views would be severely compromising to an officer from a legal standpoint. Examining their testimony about the Polish attitude toward Jews was in its own way a means of working around the battalion’s avoidance of self-incrimination and witness against former comrades.

Concerning German-Polish relations, the most salient feature is the scarcity of any comment. The men make general references to partisans, bandits, and robbers, but the thrust of their comments is not the specifically anti-German character of such phenomena. On the contrary, they depict banditry as an endemic problem that predated the German occupation of Poland. Thus, they invoke the presence of partisans and bandits in two ways: on the one hand, to imply that the Germans were protecting Poles from an indigenous problem of lawlessness; and on the other hand, to obscure the frequency and intensity of the battalion’s anti-Jewish activities by alleging that partisans and bandits, not Jews, were the chief preoccupation of the policemen.

Despite this attempt at positive characterization of anti-Partisan activities, the German civilians (to say nothing of officers and military) conducted themselves with privilege toward the Poles. Poles were to step aside on sidewalks for Germans, vacate shops when Germans entered, and so on.

With regard to the Jews, some reluctantly admitted that lieutenant Gnade was openly anti-Semitic and brutal. The same went for Sergeant Rudold Grund, who was harsh with his men and merciless toward Jews. It is notable the less the officers of the battalion liked their commanders the more willing they were to admit their moral failures with respect to treatment of the Jews or Poles. With these exceptions, officers tended to be mum when it came to extracting direct opinions about the Jews, instead opting for more tepid platitudes such as “under the influence of the times, my attitude toward the Jews was marked by a certain aversion. But I cannot say that I especially I hated Jews—in any case it is my impression now that that was my attitude at the time.”

A range of attitudes toward Jews is revealed in less direct and less guarded statements made during the interrogations. For instance, when asked how they could tell the difference between Poles and Jews in the countryside, some of the men cited clothing, hairstyle, and general appearance. Several, however, chose a vocabulary that still reflected the Nazi stereotype of twenty-five years earlier: the Jews were “dirty,” “unkempt,” and “less clean” in comparison to the Poles. The comments of other policemen reflected a different sensibility that recognized the Jews as victimized human beings: they were dressed in rags and half starved.

A similar dichotomy is reflected in descriptions of Jewish behaviour at the shooting sites. Some stressed Jewish passivity, occasionally in a very exculpatory way that seemed to imply that the Jews were complicit in their own deaths. There was no resistance, no attempt to escape. The Jews accepted their fate; they practically lay down to be shot without waiting to be told. In other descriptions the emphasis was clearly on the dignity of the victims; the composure of the Jews was “astonishing” and “unbelievable.”

There were a handful of instances where the police personally identified with some of the Jews. “One policeman remembered obtaining extra rations for the Jewish work detail he supervised in Lukow, saying ‘the Jews received practically nothing at all to eat, even though they had to work for us.’ Other stories involved recruiting Jews known to the officers to work detail, although in the end often they were executed or deported anyhow. In many instances the officers themselves were asked to shoot those they knew personally. Some refused and bowed out. Others reported taking them on innocuous trips and then shooting them in the head from behind unaware. “By 1942 standards of German-Jewish relations, a quick death without the agony of anticipation was considered an example of human compassion!”

While the policemen’s testimonies offer scant information concerning German attitudes toward Poles and Jews, they contain very frequent and quite damning comment on Polish attitudes toward Jews. At least two factors must be kept in mind in evaluating this testimony. First, the German police quite naturally had considerable contact with Poles who collaborated in the Final Solution and helped them track down Jews. Indeed, such Poles attempted to curry favor with the German occupiers through their zealous anti-Semitism...

This inherent one-sidedness is in my opinion further distorted by a second factor. It is fair to speculate that a great deal of projection was involved in German comments on Polish anti-Semitism. Often unwilling to make accusatory statements about their comrades or to be truthful about themselves, these men must have found considerable psychological relief in sharing blame with the Poles. Polish misdeeds could be spoken about quite frankly, while discussion about Germans was quite guarded. Indeed, the greater the share of Polish guilt, the less remained on the German side. In weighing the testimony that follows, these reservations must be borne in mind.

Some of the Polish misdeeds toward the Jews spoken about “quite frankly” by the men of Police Battalion 101 included Poles providing liquor to the police (such as in Józefów), rousting Jews from their homes, revealing their hiding locations in urban or forest bunkers in the Jew Hunts, brining Jews to the muster points in person, burglarizing the homes of Jews after their abduction, and plundering their corpses after they were shot. Very often police used the word “betrayed” to describe Polish behaviour toward the Jews. “Betraying” the location of a Jewish hideout bunker in the far outskirts of the countryside, for example. Such strong moral condemnation of the Poles was an indirect way to project and alleviate their own sense of guilt. An officer by the name Bruno Probst mentioned this attitude amounted to little, as Poles which did not “betray” and in fact helped hide Jews were shot just as much as any partisan. It went without saying that those Poles who could infiltrate underground networks and locate Jewish and partisan strongholds and hideouts were recruited and rewarded by the occupying forces in Poland.

“Probst also related another story. On one occasion Lieutenant Hoppner was leading a patrol that uncovered a bunker with ten Jews. A young man stepped forward and said that he was a Pole who had hidden there in order to be with his bride. Hoppner gave him the choice of leaving or being shot with his Jewish wife. The Pole stayed and was shot. Probst concluded that Hoppner never meant the offer seriously. The Pole would ‘certainly’ have been shot ‘trying to escape’ if he had decided to leave.”

The German portrayals of Polish complicity are not false. Tragically, the kind of behaviour they attributed to Poles is confirmed in other accounts and occurred all too often. The Holocaust, after all, is a story with far too few heroes and all too many perpetrators and victims. What is wrong with the German portrayals is a multifaceted distortion in perspective. The policemen were all but silent about Polish help to Jews and German punishment for such help. Almost nothing was said of the German role in inciting the Polish “betrayals” the policemen so hypocritically condemned. Nor was any note made of the fact that large units of murderous auxiliaries—the notorious Hiwis—were not recruited from the Polish population, in stark contrast to other nationalities in pervasively anti-Semitic eastern Europe. In some ways, therefore, the German policemen’s comments about Poles reveal as much about the former as the latter.

Explanations for the Behaviour of Police Battalion 101

In the final chapter Browning discusses why most of the men in Police Battalion 101 became killers, while only a minority of 10-20 percent didn’t. The explanations typically given range from wartime brutalization, racism, segmentation and routinization of the task, special selection of the perpetrators, careerism, obedience to orders, deference to authority, ideological indoctrination, and conformity. The author examines each of these in turn.

With regard to wartime brutalization,

Except for a few of the oldest men who were veterans of World War I, and a few NCOs who had been transferred to Poland from Russia, the men of the battalion had not seen battle or encountered a deadly enemy. Most of them had not fired a shot in anger or ever been fired on, much less lost comrades fighting at their side. Thus, wartime brutalization through prior combat was not an immediate experience directly influencing the policemen’s behaviour at Józefów. Once the killing began, however, the men became increasingly brutalized. As in combat, the horrors of the initial encounter eventually became routine, and the killing became progressively easier. In this sense, brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behaviour.

Many scholars of the Holocaust emphasize of the bureaucratization and routinization of the tasks, in combination with racial stereotyping, in promoting psychological distance between perpetrators and victims. In this type of operation jobs were highly compartmentalized and so one did not feel like they were murdering someone in carrying out the act. This observation goes a long way to explain the complicity of the police in the roundups and deportations of Jews, but far less in the cases where one-on-one or highly personal interactions were more common, as in Józefów, or in situations where brutal tactics were in higher demand, such as the clearing of the dense ghetto in Międzyrzec. In situations such as Łomazy where Hiwis were present to carry out the execution orders there was greater distancing than in Józefów but less than the deportation operations.

A third explanation for the behaviour of the police of Battalion 101 was speculation about whether there was any positive selection for people predisposed to violence or mass murder. Browning’s answer to this was an emphatic no.

By age, geographical origin, and social background, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were least likely to be considered apt material out of which to mold future mass killers. On the basis of these criteria, the rank and file—middle-aged, mostly working-class, from Hamburg—did not represent special selection or even random selection but for all practical purposes negative selection for the task at hand.... In short, Reserve Police Battalion 101 was not sent to Lublin to murder Jews because it was composed of men specially selected or deemed particularly suited for the task. On the contrary, the battalion was the “dregs” of the manpower pool available at that stage of the war.... Indeed, if Nazi Germany offered unusually numerous career paths that sanctioned and rewarded violent behaviour, random conscription from the remaining population—already drained of its most violence-prone individuals—would arguably produce even less than an average number of “authoritarian personalities.” Self-selection on the basis of personality traits, in short, offers little to explain the behaviour of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101.

One group of theorists tried to explain the actions of some during the Second World War by ascribing an “authoritarian” personality type, described as scoring high on a personality test called the F-scale. This drew criticism from the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, for its implications that ordinary people did not commit fascist atrocities. In essence there was some truth to the notion that people did self-select for organized brutality. The sociologist John M. Steiner proposed the notion of some individuals being “sleepers,” or people who were violence-prone in such a way that was latent in normal society but can be activated under certain conditions.

Ervin Staub accepts the notion that “some people become perpetrators as a result of their personality; they are ‘self-selected’.” But he concludes that Steiner’s “sleeper” is a very common trait and that under particular circumstances most people have a capacity for extreme violence and the destruction of human life. Indeed, Staub is quite emphatic that “ordinary psychological processes and normal, common human motivations and certain basic but not inevitable tendencies in human thought and feeling” are the “primary sources” of the human capacity for mass destruction of human life. “Evil that arises out of ordinary thinking and is committed by ordinary people is the norm, not the exception.”

Bauman continues to oppose characterological explanations such as that of “sleepers” or “inherent authoritarians,” instead opting that “most people ‘slip’ into the roles society provides them, and he is very critical of any implication that ‘faulty personalities’ are the cause of human cruelty. For him the exception – the real ‘sleeper’ – is the rare individual who has the capacity to resist authority and assert moral autonomy but who is seldom aware of this hidden strength until put to the test.”

Modern Sociological Experiments and Their Implications

Some of the conclusions of the Stanford prison experiment by Zimbardo were brought in to try and explain some of the numbers. In this experiment about one third of the guards emerged as “cruel and tough,” whereas most were just regular rule-followers, with only two guards (less than 20 percent) acted more compassionately toward the prisoners. In spite of the fact that this experiment has received a fair share of heavy criticism in terms of how it selected guards, sample size, and Zimbardo’s own participation, these numbers do somewhat line up with the relative percentages of police who turned down tasks to shoot and those who volunteered for such tasks.

The most classical defense offered by the police of Battalion 101 was that they were following orders, and were doing so under duress as the Nazi regime was notorious for crushing dissent. One hitch in this defense is that in the history of the investigations into the Holocaust no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment (i.e. death of themselves and their families). For the most part such punishments amounted to little more than bullying or ominous threats, particularly from those commanders who attempted to force all police officers to participate in the killing.

Everyone but the most open critics, like Buchmann, did have to participate in cordon duty and roundups, but in such circumstances individuals could still make their own decisions about shooting. The testimonies are filled with stories of men who disobeyed standing orders during the ghetto-clearing operations and did not shoot infants or those attempting to hide or escape. Even men who admitted to having taken part in firing squads claimed not to have shot in the confusion and melee of the ghetto clearings or out on patrol when their behaviour could not be closely observed.

If obedience to orders out of fear of dire punishment is not a valid explanation, what about “obedience to authority” in the more general sense used by Stanley Milgram—deference simply as a product of socialization and evolution, a “deeply ingrained behaviour tendency” to comply with the directives of those positioned hierarchically above, even to the point of performing repugnant actions in violation of “universally accepted” moral norms.

The above refers to Milgram’s electroshock experiments, wherein a non-coercive authority requested naive experimental subjects deliver increasing electrical shocks to (acting) “learners.” One of the conclusions of the experiment was that increasing proximity to the test subject made the naive subjects more reticent about administering higher shock dosages. Another was how professional the acting scientist giving requests to the naive subject appeared. If he or she did not resemble a scientist or other authoritative figure the naive subject was far less willing to obey in administering higher electrical doses. “The ‘situational obligation’ or etiquette makes refusal appear improper, rude, or even an immoral breach of obligation. And a socialized anxiety over potential punishment for disobedience acts as a further deterrent.”

These experiments differ from the situations encountered during the Holocaust in a number of obvious ways. Test subjects were assured no permanent damage would result from their actions; the police battalion knew they were killing people. The experiment lasted for an hour with no time for subjects to contemplate the implications of their behaviour; whereas the executions and deportations of the Final Solution went on for years. Even without the specifics Milton insisted on the role that ideology or indoctrination can play as a social premise upon which groups coordinate their actions, and obedience to this can lead men to commit atrocities.

When Milton himself reflected on the results of his experiments, notes that
people tended to invoke authority over conformity to explain their actions, for only the former seem to absolve them of personal responsibility.... Yet many policemen admitted responding to the pressures of conformity—how would they be seen in the eyes of their comrades?—not authority. On Milgram’s own view, such admission was the tip of the iceberg, and this factor must have been even more important than the men conceded in their testimony. If so, conformity assumes a more central role than authority at Józefów.

Additional testing by Milton on the effects of group pressure either to continue to experiment or rebel against the experiment showed that the effects of peers did indeed produce a strong effect.

If this were the case, one is tempted to wonder if enough people had voiced opposition the executions of Józefów would have been called off? Direct and personal murder of innocents did increase the amount of noncompliance in the men; however, the same effect managed to have a dulling effect when the police were only involved in deportations with masses of faceless civilians, and compliance was much higher in spite of ultimately leading to more deaths.

Milgram did stipulate “definition of the situation” or ideology, that which gives meaning and coherence to the social occasion, as a crucial antecedent of deference to authority. Controlling the manner in which people interpret their world is one way to control behaviour, Milgram argues. If they accept authority’s ideology, action follows logically and willingly. Hence “ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing obedience, for it permits the person to see his behaviour as serving a desirable end.”

The Role of Indoctrination

The Order Police Main Office, which oversaw all reserve police battalion recruitment, training, and equipment, all battalions would be educated in the ideology of National Socialism. Current events were read from an ideological perspective each day, and each week there was a 45 minute lecture or reading of an ideological book or prepared SS pamphlets.

In spite of this heavy indoctrination, examining the contents of these books and pamphlets themselves reveals very little in the way of preparing the men to become hardened killers. The majority of weekly circulars devoted comparatively little to explicit anti-Semitism, and what there was were often just stereotypes and mischaracterizations of Jews as having all sorts of vices and criminal behaviours, and how the Jews were fomenting the war against anti-Semitic Germany but that it would be their downfall. Browning points out that these talking points were themselves available to the general public as a whole, so indoctrination directed at the police themselves was limited. Much of the SS pamphlets themselves were targeted at young SS members, extolling them to marry young and fertile wives and bear lots of children. This was a message lost on a group of police who were already in their thirties and forties.

Such a more targeted seminar assured the police that “no matter how innocuous their jobs may seem, in total war ‘everyone is important.’” This was a piece of propaganda brought to them in September 1942, well after the mass shootings at Józefów and Łomazy and the initial deportations from Parczew and Międzyrzec. As Browning says, “it is unlikely any of them would have found this article terribly relevant, much less inspiring.”

A number of factors must be kept in mind, therefore, in evaluating the indoctrination of the reserve police through pamphlets such as these. First, the most detailed and thorough pamphlet was not even issued until 1943, after the northern Lublin security zone of Reserve Police Battalion 101 was virtually “free of Jews.” It appeared too late to have played a role in indoctrinating this battalion for mass murder. Second, the 1942 pamphlet was clearly directed at the family obligations of the young SS man and particularly irrelevant to middle-aged reservists who had long ago made their decisions about marriage partner and size of family.... Third, the age of the men affected their susceptibility to indoctrination in another way as well.... [the men of Police Battalion 101] were educated and spent their formative years in the pre-1933 period. Many came from a social milieu that was relatively unreceptive to National Socialism. They knew perfectly well the moral norms of German society before the Nazis. They had earlier standards by which to judge the Nazi policies they were asked to carry out. Fourth, ideological tracts like those prepared for the Order Police certainly reflected the wider ambience within which the reserve policemen were trained and instructed as well as the political culture in which they had lived for the previous decade. As Lieutenant Drucker said with extraordinary understatement, “Under the influence of the times, my attitude to the Jews was marked by a certain aversion.” The denigration of Jews and the proclamation of Germanic racial superiority was so constant, so pervasive, so relentless, that it must have shaped the general attitudes of masses of people in Germany, including the average reserve policeman.

Fifth and last, the pamphlets and materials that dealt with the Jews justified the necessity of a judenfrei Europe, seeking support and sympathy for such a goal, but they did not explicitly urge personal participation in achieving that goal through killing Jews. This point is worth mentioning, because some of the Order Police instructional guidelines concerning partisan warfare stated quite plainly that each individual must be tough enough to kill partisans and, more important, “suspects.”

Concluding Remarks on Conformity

Browning stresses that in his own view, it was pressure to conform that drove the men to commit acts of murder against the Jewish civilians.
The battalion had orders to kill Jews, but each individual did not. Yet 80 to 90 percent of the men proceeded to kill, though almost all of them—at least initially—were horrified and disgusted by what they were doing. To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behaviour, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot.

Why? First of all, by breaking ranks, nonshooters were leaving the “dirty work” to their comrades. Since the battalion had to shoot even if individuals did not, refusing to shoot constituted refusing one’s share of an unpleasant collective obligation. It was in effect an asocial act vis-à-vis one’s comrades. Those who did not shoot risked isolation, rejection, and ostracism—a very uncomfortable prospect within the framework of a tight-knit unit stationed abroad among a hostile population, so that the individual had virtually nowhere else to turn for support and social contact.

This threat of isolation was intensified by the fact that stepping out could also have been seen as a form of moral reproach of one’s comrades: the nonshooter was potentially indicating that he was “too good” to do such things. Most, though not all, nonshooters intuitively tried to diffuse the criticism of their comrades that was inherent in their actions. They pleaded not that they were “too good” but rather that they were “too weak” to kill.

Such a stance presented no challenge to the esteem of one’s comrades; on the contrary, it legitimized and upheld “toughness” as a superior quality.
For the anxious individual, it had the added advantage of posing no moral challenge to the murderous policies of the regime, though it did pose another problem, since the difference between being “weak” and being a “coward” was not great. Hence the distinction made by one policeman who did not dare to step out at Józefów for fear of being considered a coward, but who subsequently dropped out of his firing squad. It was one thing to be too cowardly even to try to kill; it was another, after resolutely trying to do one’s share, to be too weak to continue.

Insidiously, therefore, most of those who did not shoot only reaffirmed the “macho” values of the majority—according to which it was a positive quality to be “tough” enough to kill unarmed, noncombatant men, women, and children—and tried not to rupture the bonds of comradeship that constituted their social world.

Toward the end of the book, Browning discusses Primo Levi’s essay entitled “The Gray Zone,” which discusses the moral gray areas that both victims and perpetrators inhabit.

He maintained that in spite of our natural desire for clear-cut distinctions, the history of the camps “could not be reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors.” He argued passionately, “It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.” The time had come to examine the inhabitants of the “gray zone” between the simplified Manichean images of perpetrator and victim. Levi concentrated on the “gray zone of protekcya [corruption] and collaboration” that flourished in the camps among a spectrum of victims: from the “picturesque fauna” of low-ranking functionaries husbanding their minuscule advantages over other prisoners; through the truly privileged network of Kapos, who were free “to commit the worst atrocities” at whim; to the terrible fate of the Sonderkommandos, who prolonged their lives by manning the gas chambers and crematoria. (Conceiving and organizing the Sonderkommandos was in Levi’s opinion National Socialism’s “most demonic crime”.)

While Levi focused on the spectrum of victim behaviour within the gray zone, he dared to suggest that this zone encompassed perpetrators as well. Even the SS man Muhsfeld of the Birkenau crematoria—whose “daily ration of slaughter was studded with arbitrary and capricious acts, marked by his inventions of cruelty”—was not a “monolith.” Faced with the miraculous survival of a sixteen-year-old girl discovered while the gas chambers were being cleared, the disconcerted Muhsfeld briefly hesitated. In the end he ordered the girl’s death but quickly left before his orders were carried out. One “instant of pity” was not enough to “absolve” Muhsfeld, who was deservedly hanged in 1947. Yet it did “place him too, although at its extreme boundary, within the gray band, that zone of ambiguity which radiates out from regimes based on terror and obsequiousness.”

Levi’s notion of the gray zone encompassing both perpetrators and victims must be approached with a cautious qualification. The perpetrators and victims in the gray zone were not mirror images of one another. Perpetrators did not become fellow victims (as many of them later claimed to be) in the way some victims became accomplices of the perpetrators. The relationship between perpetrator and victim was not symmetrical. The range of choice each faced was totally different.

Browning then places various characters in the Police Battalion on this spectrum, with Lieutenant Gnade near the black end, Lieutenant Buchmann closer to the white end, who refused to participate although his hands are not clean by any means. “And at the very center of the perpetrators’ gray zone stood the pathetic figure of Trapp himself, who sent his men to slaughter Jews ‘weeping like a child,’ and the bedridden Captain Hoffmann, whose body rebelled against the terrible deeds his mind willed.”
The behaviour of any human being is, of course, a very complex phenomenon, and the historian who attempts to “explain” it is indulging in a certain arrogance. When nearly 500 men are involved, to undertake any general explanation of their collective behaviour is even more hazardous. What, then, is one to conclude? Most of all, one comes away from the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 with great unease. This story of ordinary men is not the story of all men. The reserve policemen faced choices, and most of them committed terrible deeds. But those who killed cannot be absolved by the notion that anyone in the same situation would have done as they did. For even among them, some refused to kill and others stopped killing. Human responsibility is ultimately an individual matter.

At the same time, however, the collective behaviour of Reserve Police Battalion 101 has deeply disturbing implications. There are many societies afflicted by traditions of racism and caught in the siege mentality of war or threat of war. Everywhere society conditions people to respect and defer to authority, and indeed could scarcely function otherwise. Everywhere people seek career advancement. In every modern society, the complexity of life and the resulting bureaucratization and specialization attenuate the sense of personal responsibility of those implementing official policy. Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behaviour and sets moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?
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