A few months ago I finished reading Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. After having read books both about the nazi and the communist destruction in the 20th century, this was yet another depressing book and I didn’t even want to write about it. There are many brutal details in the book that I still don’t want to write down.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its tone.
But I ran too far ahead. What is Ordinary Men about? It’s about how average people became killing machines in WWII. We don’t talk about the soldiers on the fronts, but about those people who helped the Third Empire to implement its final solution by murdering Jewish people (and other minorities).
Interestingly what made this book one of the bests on this topic was to stop demonizing these people. In fact, it even tries to empathise with them at a certain level. “Empathise” might be a strong word, but don’t get me wrong, it’s not about ignoring the deeds. It’s about trying to understand what happened, how and why many people became killing machines and why others did not.
Many of these (reservist) soldiers and policemen tried to avoid shooting others. There were officers who gave the possibility for their subordinates not to do that, some just always went away or shot wide, etc, etc. Some acted so out of conviction, some simply thought that economically it didn’t make sense - this sounds so horrible. Of course, there were officers insisting that everyone took part in the shootings.
Under such officers, it became a question of life and death to obey or resist. Judging is easy, sacrificing your own life - or at least thinking so - for others is not so easy.
When soldiers were in direct contact with their victims, when they had to talk to each other, the massacres didn’t proceed as it was expected. It turned out that no matter how much they were forced from the top, no matter how much alcohol or other substances they were given, human interactions were making massacres way more difficult.
So those who organized the shootings tried to dehumanize these horrible events even more. They reduced human interactions to the bare minimum.
When researchers analyzed who became killers, they found that anyone could. People who you’d have never picked. There were people joining the forces who wanted to become decent policemen and were afraid for their careers and people who essentially had to join.
If you read this book and you’re also an avid reader/listener of Jordan Peterson, you connect some dots.
Anyone can become a monster. The monster is in all of us as Jordan Peterson says and the devastating events of the 20th century showed how true that is. Great are those who can resist and remain human in the most demanding circumstances.
Most of us would not. Most of us would become one of those ordinary men.
That’s also why it’s very difficult to judge once a tyranny is overthrown.
Of course, there are the leaders, the visioners, and the responsible ones for setting the directions. They must be punished as severely as possible. They must be punished even though it’s often said that the room for manoeuvre for politicians always depends on the people. Still, it’s their responsibility how use that room and whether they try to enlarge the room.
There are the people in the middle who organized everything so that the leaders’ vision became achievable. And there are those at the bottom who implemented the orders and made the nightmares become reality.
How do you punish the people at each level and why? How many can you punish? Can you replace full layers of officers at the administration?
How fast do people change and even forget and deny what they did?
Seemingly the worse they did, the faster they change and deny. It’s psychological. It’s automatic. This denial happened mainly to those who didn’t act out of conviction.
Of course, there are those evil opportunists who went from one extreme to the other. There were way too many nazis becoming communists in Hungary, or in any other countries of the countries left as prey for the Soviet Union. Of course, they came in handy…
That’s another question when a country moves from a tyranny to a free state as it happened in Germany, Italy, or in cooperative, yet victorious countries… What did happen in those countries? What happened after the Iron Curtain fell? How could servants of dictatorship remain in position or come back so fast?
What can and should we forget?
Ordinary Men will not give you the answers, but will make you think about these moral questions.