UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Police Battalion 101: The Hazy Truth

Book Essay on: Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
( New York: Harper Perenial, 1998), 271pages.
UCSB: D804.3 .B77 1998

by Michelle Gorback
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at UCSB Library page

About Michelle Gorback

Michelle Gorback is a graduating senior at University of California, Santa Barbara. In March, 2010 she will complete her degrees in Communication and History, the culmination of 18 years of schooling.

She is rounding out her college education with History 133D, The Holocaust in European History. She chose this course because she realized that she knew very little about suffering which took place throughout history and what circumstances led to one of the great atrocities of human history, the Holocaust. She chose to research and analyze Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland because she hopes to gain a new understanding of why rational people would commit acts of genocide.

While Gorback is still clueless as to what career path she will pursue, she plans to stay in Santa Barbara throughout the summer and then pursue an event planning internship with a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is currently enjoying the beautiful Mediterranean climate of Isla Vista, California, where she is sharing a small and messy apartment with her three phenomenal roommates.

Abstract (back to top)

In “Police Battalion 101: The Hazy Truth,” I analyze Christopher Browning’s assessment of what factors motivated the police officers of Battalion 101, who actively carried out the Final Solution in Poland. I assert that Browning fails to research the topic thoroughly by analyzing many sources of information, instead relying solely on the personal accounts of the men of the battalion and not considering conflicting testimonies. However, despite these methodological flaws, I agree that Browning’s final assessment of the motivations of the men is accurate. He convincingly argues that the men were driven by the need to be accepted, rather than antisemitism, obedience to authority, or the dehumanization of Jews due to Nazi indoctrination.

Essay (back to top)

In Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher Browning investigates how ordinary, middle-aged German police officers could be recruited to commit human atrocities. Browning focuses on Reserve Police Battalion 101, relating their assignments and their gradual acceptance of the horrors they perpetrated. Browning discusses the psychological and social reasoning behind the police officers’ willingness to commit murder. He concludes that their actions were not the result of antisemitism, but rather the social setting. He asks in the conclusion of the book, “If the men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” (pg 189) Thus he declares this event more the product of social circumstance rather than the cruelty of these men in particular. While his conclusions may be apt, his research is up for debate. He bases all of his conclusions upon the testimonies of the men of the battalion, given to prosecutors in the trial against them over twenty years later. He treats these accounts as fact and, while he does address some of the problems in verifying their accuracy, he does not doubt the truthfulness of these accounts, nor does he address other sources at length.

Daniel Goldhagen (1992) introduces these methodological problems in his critique of Browning’s work. He states that Browning ignores the doubts as to the authenticity of the claims, as well as omits several instances of voluntarism in the force. H.A. Turner, too, questions Browning’s research, stating that more attention should have been paid, and more credence given to the officers’ willingness to follow orders rather than have to face tough individual choices (Turner, 239). Finally, a review by John Fox also critiques Browning’s conclusion that personal choice influenced the officers’ actions and judges Browning’s assessment of the officers’ duress the officers incomplete (Fox, 155). Through Goldhagen’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s reviews, we can conclude that while Browning’s research methodology and the content of his text may be shoddy, his conclusions remain unscathed by the questions raised. Browning’s assessment of the causes of genocide withstands criticism because he sensibly analyzes the source material he does use to find that situational and social pressures, such as the need to be accepted, prompted the men of Police Battalion 101 to carry out murder.

Source Biases

In the trial of the Police Battalion 101 in the 1960s, the prosecutors collected a series of the testimonies from the police officers of the Battalion. These reports formed the basis for Browning’s conclusions in his book. These reports give a viewpoint of the horrors of the Holocaust that is too often ignored: that of the perpetrators themselves. The reports reveal the mindset of the officers and their views of the atrocities they committed. However, as can be expected, they are subject to inaccuracies and biases. One must first remember that the reports were given over twenty years after the crimes were committed and thus likely to be affected by the memories of the police officers and the ravages of time. Further, as Goldhagen reminds us, the officers have much incentive to stretch the truth. The reports are, after all, to an investigator looking to prosecute the men for their crimes (1992). Browning even concurs that the men lied in order to avoid punishment (Browning p. xviii). Despite the fact that the officers may have had ulterior motives behind their testimonies other than relaying the absolute truth, Browning bases all of his conclusions upon these testimonies.

Methodological Biases

The inaccuracies are not merely in the content, however. Browning’s treatment of his sources, too, leaves much to be desired in a comprehensive history. In the beginning, Browning portrays the police officers as disgusted at the work they had been asked to do and reluctant to perform it. However, this is not the whole truth according to the accounts. As Goldhagen reports, several of the men gave accounts in which they were boastful of the killings they performed and treat the massacres lightly (Goldhagen, 52). Even the officers who were disgusted with their tasks, were not necessarily sickened because of the inhumane treatment of the Jews, but rather, as Goldhagen points out, disliked of the gore which it produced (52). As even Browning points out, they were nauseated as inaccurate shots caused the heads of the victims to blow apart. As an officer states, “At first we shot free hand. When one aimed too high, the entire skull exploded. As a consequence, brains and bones flew everywhere” (Browning, 64). This is not a testament to the humanity of the officers, but rather their queasiness. Browning further proves this when he writes that in later “Jewish actions” the men felt more secure because they were not shooting Jews one on one and at times they were merely deporting them to their deaths, not killing the Jews themselves. Again, this does not necessarily testify to the soldiers’ growing acceptance of their duties, but that they were not comfortable when immersed in gore.

Accuracy of Browning’s Conclusions

Nonetheless, Browning’s conclusions remain intact, despite his mistreatment of the sources. While he misses some deeper layers of analysis of the sources, he accurately identifies the overall theme: the actions of the men of Police Battalion 101 do appear to be motivated by their social environment, not just pure antisemitism.

The Failings of the Racism Theory

Goldhagen asserts that antisemitism is ingrained in every member of the German race, alongside Hitler (1992). However, this is quite a stretch and lacks concrete evidence. In many accounts, the policemen are nonchalant about the Jews themselves, never blaming racism solely for their treatment. Indeed, the men often treated Poles with contempt as well, in one instance shooting 78 Polish “accomplices” alongside 180 Jews (Browning, p. 102). Turner agrees with Browning’s rejection of antisemitism as the leading cause for genocide, stating that “the manner in which the Reserve Police Battalion 101 was recruited ruled out any process of systematic self-selection” (Turner, 239). The police officers did not elect to shoot the Jewish victims out of racist ideology, but instead they were given the task, whether or not they believed in it.

The Peer Pressure Theory

Rather, it is far more likely that the motivation for the murders came, as Browning aruges, from the psychological desire to be accepted and part of one’s group, the desire to not be singled out as different or as a protester (Browning, 185). Indeed, Browning writes, “Those who did not shoot risked isolation, rejection, and ostracism - a very uncomfortable prospect within the framework of a tight-knit unit…” (Browning, 185). Browning logically argues that the very prospect of social isolation was enough to deter any protests.

Fox (1995) rejects this theory as a fanciful stretch of the imagination, lacking any concrete support. He states that while “some may be able to accept this somewhat fashionable view- reminiscent of the “‘buddy- buddy’ syndrome of an American college football team in the locker room,” the documentary evidence does not support such a claim (Fox, 155). However, Fox declines to state what the documentary evidence does support, nor does he state why peer pressure should be ruled out altogether, simply because facts relating to the similar Einsatzgruppen, or SS death squads, does not include it.

The reality of the power of peer pressure need not be discussed: the fear of ostracism is very much a reality, in the football team locker room and elsewhere. Browning convincingly argues that refusing to shoot meant leaving the task to their comrades. It meant shirking on one’s duty and on the collective obligation of the force. In a tight-knit community amongst a seemingly hostile population, appearing to be such a drain on the unit would not be an attractive option (Browning, 185).

Obedience to Authority Theory

Instead, Fox is a proponent of the theory that deference to a higher authority drove most of the men of the unit to murder. He concludes that far from personal choice, the men were subject to “punitive duress” should they refuse an order from a commander (Fox, 155). He concludes that “these were crimes of obedience, not of anarchic choice” (Fox, 155).

Browning addresses this argument, stating that such a defense of “orders are orders” is a reasonable one, especially within the context of the authoritarian Nazi government (Browning, 170). Indeed, he reviews the famous Milgram study, in which participants willingly turned a dial, knowing full well it was “harming” another person, simply because they were being told to do so (Browning, 184). However, he reminds us that in all of the research into the history of the Holocaust, there has not been one documented case in which a soldier or police officer was punished for refusing to commit murder (Browning, 170). Indeed, Browning’s biography of the unit reveals several instances in which police officers were granted the choice as to whether to carry out the Jewish actions or not, and they willingly proceeded. Browning thus renders the obedience argument, based on the Milgram studies, irrelevant.

Dehumanization of the Jews

Finally Browning addresses a final factor prompting the men’s actions. He reports that the police officers defended themselves by saying that that the dehumanization of Jews further explains their willingness to perform murder. These are the reasons the men identify as factors motivating them to murder. It is for these reasons that they felt justified in committing their crimes. Many policemen claimed that the Nazi propaganda and indoctrination represented the Jews as less than human. Indeed Goldhagen writes, “The Jews have been dehumanized by the pervasive antisemitism of Nazi Germany… During a “race” war…it is easy to turn civilian populations into “the enemy” (Goldhagen, 51). Browning agrees that “In wartime, when it was all too usual to exclude the enemy from the community of human obligation it was also all too easy to subsume the Jews into the ‘image of the enemy.’” He again argues that the men of the Battalion were capable of independent thought and action (Browning, 186). He writes, “Much of the indoctrination material was clearly not targeted at older reservists and in some cases was higly inappropriate or irrelevant to them” (Browning 184). He therefore rejects dehumanization in the same strain as inherent racism by conceding that while the men of the battalion were not immune to Nazi propaganda, they were still not trained to kill.


Thus, despite Browning’s deficiencies in fully analyzing the sources, his conclusions are reasonable. While his reliance on the accounts of the police officers as complete truths is foolhardy, and he omits several important facts and accounts in the formation of his conclusions, his citation of the reasons behind the massacres is more convincing than Goldhagen’s justification of racism alone. Indeed, Browning’s analysis of the causes of murder is complete, even if his research is not. He entertains the ideas that antisemitism or the dehumanization of Jews is a possibility, and indeed concedes that Nazi indoctrination does play a role in the psyches of the officers. However, he ultimately rejects such theories, arguing that the officers were indifferent to the Jews themselves and capable of independent thought and action. Instead, Browning turns to fear of isolation and punishment as far more reasonable motivating factors. With the persistence of genocide being committed the world over, we must continue to analyze, not only the unique, isolated circumstances of each instance of murder, but rather the social reasoning behind the atrocities and the patterns that underlie each.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Daniel Goldhagen, The Evil of Banality New Republic (1992): p. 49-52

    •Mr. Goldhagen offers a critique of Browning’s text. He comments that while it is a thorough biographical narrative that offers insight into the minds of those who committed genocide, it was also incomplete. Goldhagen remarks that Browning fails on several levels: methodological, substantive, and interpretive.

  • H. A. Turner, Review of Browning, Ordinary Men The Journal of Modern Medicine 67, no 1 (1995): p. 238-240

    •Turner summarizes Browning’s narrative of the murders committed by Police Battalion 101. He then proceeds to applaud Browning’s dismissal of the wartime environment and sadistic personality types as a cause for Nazi brutality. He reiterates his admiration for Browning’s work, but concedes that more attention should have been paid to theories about German characteristics as well as German willingness to follow orders. He then criticizes Browning’s use of the word “ordinary” when referring to mass murderers.

  • John Fox, Review of Browning, Ordinary Men The Slavonic and East European Review 73, no. 1 (1995): p. 154-155

    •Fox critiques Browning’s emphasis of the officers’ personal choice to commit murder and his downplaying of the duress they would undergo should they refuse. He rejects Browning’s notion that personal choice could be applicable to other situations in the Holocaust and that peer pressure was a main driving force behind the killing.

Books and Articles

  • Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1992)

    •Staub argues that social, psychological, cultural, economic, and political conditions all play roles in promoting genocide and group violence. Far from arguing that the conditions in Nazi Germany were unique, he shows that such conditions reoccur as prerequisite for many circumstances of modern genocide. He concludes by arguing that these patterns can be anticipated and prevented, bringing an end to violent cultural traditions.

  • James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. (Oxford Press, 2002)

    • Waller’s text delves into what psychological factors prompt individuals to commit genocide. He divides the catalysts for murder into four categories: familial belief systems, individual cultural beliefs and morals, a “culture of cruelty,” and the dehumanization of victims. Though he and Browning differ as to what factors play a role—and to what extent—in prompting genocide, both agree that anyone, not just those with homicidal tendencies, can fall victim to social setting and play a role in committing human atrocities.

  • John Weiss, Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany

    •Weiss argues that the Nazi Holocaust was a product of antisemitism ingrained in the upper echelons of German society in the early twentieth century. He examines the history and extent of European antisemitism and how it culminated in the mass murders of the Holocaust. He argues that all of the European society knew and passively approved of the murders, despite post-war denials.

Relevant Websites

  • Firstname Lastname, “Nazi Perpetrator Testimony.” (Created 2005, Accessed March 4, 2010)

    •This website compiles several quotations from self-acclaimed perpetrators of the Holocaust. Each describes how he was involved in acts of mass murder. Some, such as SS private Boeck, admitted feelings of guilt and shame, thereby taking on some personal responsibility, whereas others, such as the infamous Adolf Eichmann, claim to be “the victim of an error of judgment” and assert that all blame lies with the leaders of the Holocaust, and all others were simply following orders.

  • Multiple authors, “What Causes People to Commit Genocide?” (Created 2008, Accessed March 4, 2010).

    •This debate comes from Wikianswers, an untraditional source, to be sure. However, it is interesting because it displays what common individuals think causes people to commit genocide. Their answers are just as relevant to my field of study as the answers of scholars, and they are at times more creative. The highest rated answer was given by “Edith Clarke,” who wrote, “if you demonize and dehumanize a group of people, so they are not valued as much as the rest of society, they are an easy group to separate from the rest of society to scapegoat, blame, mistreat, abuse, and kill.” Her theory addresses one of the points addressed, and dismissed, by Browning.

  • HakopTataryan, “Dr. James Waller Discusses Why Ordinary People Commit Genocide.” (Created May, 2003, Accessed March 4, 2010).

    •This article, written for the Armenian Studies Program of California State University, Fresno, reviews a lecture given by Dr. James Waller, author of Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Can Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. The summary is brief, only touching on very basic themes of Waller’s speech, without offering the more comprehensive that he assuredly provides. For example, the author states that Waller’s book addresses the psychological state of people who commit genocide, without saying what that comprehensive state entails. Nonetheless, the review does offer some interesting caveats of Waller’s speech, such as the three types of perpetrators: the leaders who endorse murder, the bureaucrats who come up with the logistics of murder, and the men who actually carry out murder.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Michelle Gorback on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
back to top, to Hist 133D homepage, 133B+D Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage