Nazi Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101 executed tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children during World War II. These reserve police officers were responsible for mass shootings and roundups of Jewish people deported to Nazi death camps in 1942 during the German occupation of Poland.

The group dynamic at play within this force turned otherwise ordinary, working-class German men into cold-blooded killers, said world-renowned Holocaust historian and author Christopher Browning.

Browning delivered a Zoom lecture February 11 in an event sponsored by the Illinois State University’s Department of Criminal Justice Sciences, Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

Browning, who wrote Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, has extensively researched why people commit such atrocities, which was the theme of his lecture. The unit had only about 450 members, but they were responsible for shooting 39,000 Jews and deporting another 44,000 to Treblinka extermination camp in just 16 months of occupation.

In his talk, Browning noted that most of these men had not received more than a junior-high school education and were drawn from the lower socioeconomic class of German society.

“It was a lesson in how even the most primitive division of labor was used to rationalize one’s responsibilities of the ultimate outcome of their actions,” Browning said.

Many of the men did not want to participate in the atrocities, and as many as 20 percent chose not to. But to not accept the assignment of executing the Polish citizens was accepting weakness. While some were OK being known as weak, others in the battalion succumbed to the conformity to carry out the actions.

“They would accept that stigma as a way of getting out of their shootings without criticizing their regime or comrade,” Browning said.

Ordinary Men, which won the 1994 National Jewish Book Award, followed the trials of more than 200 of these men in the 1960s. Browning said in his talk that many of these men showed an “astonishing capacity for repression,” but not much remorse for the victims. He said there was a lot of self-pity and that many have tried to pretend that their actions never happened.

His research showed that these men killed because of obedience to authority and peer pressure. 

“For citizens more generally, one lesson we learn that governments that want to commit genocide don’t fail because of a shortage of executioners,” Browning said.

The prominent historian said his work has been used by all military academies in the United States. “They are more intentional in training all of their officers and what you do when you get an unlawful order,” Browning said, noting he was grateful that his book fostered that type of conversation.

Browning ended his talk by challenging society to find a way to “preserve a culture based on the value of human life and democratic values” without adapting policies of human devastation and turning otherwise ordinary people into destructive members of society.

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