The German Order Police under Nazi officials' inspection.

Banality of Evil: The Story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Relation to Thinking and Judgement

This is a case study of man’s capacity for brutality and bloodshed. 13th July 1942, in the Polish town of Józefów, a police battalion of 500 men slaughtered 1500 Jews. A year later, the same battalion participated in the horrendous Aktion Erntfest along with the Schutzstaffel. They murdered up to 43,000 innocent Jews in two days of mass shootings. They were the Reserve Police Battalion 101. What was extraordinary, or rather, deeply disturbing about this group was that they were not Schutzstaffel officers or Wehrmacht soldiers, but inexperienced ordinary men.

Strangeness and significance of the case

Before 1939, most battalion 101 members were of the lower-middle classes and held occupations such as baker, shopkeeper, and salesman. Only 25% were Nazi party members. With an average age of 40, they were too old to serve in the military. This average age also suggests they lived in the relative Weimar republican normality before the 1930s depression years, political upheaval, and the rise of Hitler. The logical inference one draws from these facts is that those in Police Battalion 101 were not conditioned hangmen with a capacity for murder. Nor were they ardent Nazi supporters or fierce anti-Semites who would use all necessary means to wipe the Jewish race off the surface of Europe.

Leading members of Police Battalion 101 celebrating Christmas, drinking lavishly.
The leading members of Police Battalion 101 celebrating Christmas. Credit @ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

An offer to quit

Major Wilhelm Trapp led the battalion. He was a Great War veteran and a careerist policeman. At the dawn of 13th July 1942 in Józefów, he gave a speech that included an unconventional offer to his men. For those who are not up to comply with the killing orders from above, they may step out. Witnesses note that Trapp himself did not participate in the killings. He spent the day in town, mainly in a schoolroom converted into headquarters, where he bitterly complained about the orders he had been given and wept like a child. Nevertheless, by calling his men to perform their duties, he reaffirmed the soldier principle and said in his own words – ‘orders were orders’.

Murder at Józefów

It is strange that a soldier like Trapp expressed great hesitation whilst his inexperienced men pressed on with murder. A third of the men surrounded the town; they were told to shoot anyone trying to escape, while others gathered the Jews at the central marketplace, where some are selected and taken to the forest where the battalion firing awaits.

Professor Christopher Browning has done extensive research on this battalion and reconstructed the facts based on survivor statements and the prosecuted battalion members’ court testimonies in the 1960s in West Germany. He notes that many men had reservations; they were willing to shoot those Jews too weak to move but still shied for the most part from shooting infants and children. Many also broke down after the shooting, resolving to drink vodka. Nevertheless, most police battalion 101 members continued mass murder to the end, finding each mission easier to perform as the death toll rises.

The brutality and callousness of the battalion’s action mark a stark contrast with their supposedly civilian identity, which in turn raises a series of historical, psychological, and philosophical questions: Why do ordinary men kill? What is the psychological role of obedience? Or, according to Daniel Goldhagen, is there a deep-rooted antisemitic culture in Germany that empowers these men to kill?

Why do ordinary men kill? A historiographical debate between Browning and Goldhagen

In Ordinary Men, Browning argues that the killers of Police Battalion 101 are like the US soldiers on the Pacific front in World War II and in Vietnam; they kill because of the frenzy of war, careerism, peer pressure, and a degree of men’s inherent obedience to authority. On the last two factors, Browning’s interpretation was heavily based on scientific empiricism from The Milgram Experiment.

In the 1960s, Yale Psychologist Stanley Milgram attempted to understand why so many Germans participated in the mass murder of Shoah. He set up a controlled experiment at Yale and recruited 40 volunteers, aged from 20 to 50, and paid them decent money just for attendance. They were told the purpose of the experiment was to investigate the process of learning. There were three roles in the experiment; an experimenter played by Milgram’s confederate, who briefs volunteers on procedures and represents the sole authority. There is also a teacher and a learner. Milgram tactically manipulates the straw-drawing process to make sure volunteers only get the role of the teacher whilst a paid actor plays the learner.

Picture explaining the methodology of the Milgram experiment. The subject is the equivalent of police
A visual explanation of The Milgram Experiment. Credit @ Simply Psychology.

Methodology of The Milgram Experiment

As figure 3 shows, Milgram strapped the learner to a chair with electrodes. The learner learns a list of word pairs. The teacher, namely the volunteer, tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall the pair from a list of four possible choices. As Saul McLeod records, the experimenter tells the teacher to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts to 450 volts. The latter is a severe shock that endangers life.

Of course, the electrodes were fake, the learner did not receive a shock, and the groans of agony from the learner were pre-recorded. Nevertheless, the volunteer teacher does not know that. The learner gave mainly wrong answers on purpose, and for each of these, the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher shows reluctance, the experimenter gives a series of orders with increasing seriousness each time:

1. Please continue.

2. The experiment requires that you continue.

3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.

4. You have no other choice.

Parallels of Human Behaviour

Psychologists predicted that around 1 in 100 teachers would inflict the maximum voltage, disregarding the order. The experiment result was the complete opposite: 65% of the teacher continued to the maximum voltage, and all volunteers went up to 300 volts. When Milgram additionally conducted several variations of the experiment, obedience to authority significantly drops when the experimenter is not wearing a serious-looking lab coat and when the location of the experiment is not in Yale, showing the status of the authority figure and location or environment has an underlying impact on man’s willingness to comply. In Browning’s view, this partly explains why the policemen obeyed the general orders of killing from above; for them, the Nazi authorities and the SS in Aktion Erntfest were absolute.

Picture explaining the methodology of the Milgram experiment, teacher variation. The subject is the equivalent of police
A visual explanation of the ‘teachers’ variation in The Milgram Experiment. Credit @ The Gruesome.

Nevertheless, what is said does not explain why battalion 101 members continued murder when they are offered opportunities to step down at Józefów. Another experimental variation conducted by Milgram involving two teachers explains this. When two teachers pressed the switch, and one participant could instruct another (Milgram’s confederate) to press the button, 92.5% of volunteers went to the maximum 450 volts. This not only suggests that when there is less personal responsibility, obedience increases, but also implies that when a person’s peer is performing a task specified by an order, the person will feel socially inclined to do the same.

Browning’s Verdict

Browning hence suggests peer pressure meant that in front of their comrades, battalion members were unable to refuse participation in killing operations openly. Refusing to kill meant leaving the task to other members. Such shirking back from one’s duty to execute orders would undoubtedly make him look cowardly, which would lead to group isolation. The testimonies of some battalion members reinforce this view:

One said that he had not wanted to be considered a coward by his comrades. Another—more aware of what truly required courage—said quite simply: “I was cowardly.”

(Browning, “One Day in Józefów: Initiation of Mass Murder”, Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Goldhagen’s Verdict

In his controversial book – Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Goldhagen rejects Browning’s conclusion. He does not think that peer pressure and obedience compels ordinary men into mass murder. Instead, he takes an anthropological view and traces the transformation of anti-Semitic ideology in Germany. Goldhagen argues that the Police Battalion 101 and the wider German perpetrators kill with gusto and pleasure because of eliminationist anti-Semitism. This has been a distinctively German cultural norm since the 19th century, based on the biological concept of race. Many Germans viewed the Jews as the principal source of the ill that undermines Germany. Hence, an exterminationist solution was proper for the protection of the fatherland. When the Nazis seized power, they enhanced this belief further.

Daniel Goldhagen. His thesis was that German perpetrators in WWII murdered Jews willingly
Political scientist Daniel J Goldhagen. Credit @ John Zich, Associated Press.

Undoubtedly, this is an ambitious argument. I think Goldhagen put too much emphasis on the imperative role of ideology and overstated the hold of German anti-Semitism over Police Battalion 101 and other ordinary perpetrators. Many pieces of evidence oppose his interpretation. Anti-Semitism was obviously present, but it was arguably latent.

Claims vs Facts

In German political history before the Nazis’ rise, anti-Semitic parties were not successful. Historian Schrafstetter researched extensively on this. In the 1893 election, anti-Semitic parties performed appallingly. Along with 7 candidates who ran anti-Semitic campaigns but sat in the Conservative Party, total anti-Semitic votes were 342425, merely 4.4% of total votes. Election results reflect where voters’ interest lies; this shows that a minority of Germans exhibited interest in anti-Semitism.

The achievements of Jewish people in the Weimar Republic also contradict Goldhagen’s claim that eliminationist mindsets have deep roots in society. Many Weimar Jews were immensely successful. For instance, Hugo Preuß was the interior minister in the 1919 SPD government, Walther Rathenau was the head of the DDP and foreign minister in 1922. Out of 17 German Nobel Prize winners, 5 were Jews. It is unimaginable that Jews would be this successful had they lived in a society where every Nordic German was deeply anti-Semitic.

Therefore, although racial hate may be a salient motivation for anti-Semites in the SS and younger perpetrators who took onboard Nazi indoctrination, it certainly was not the sole factor that aroused ordinary men like Police Battalion 101 or many other civilians, who turned perpetrators into committing murder in the holocaust.

Browning’s view is convincing in that it has been scientifically proven. But I will not dismiss Goldhagen’s fascinating view that ideological hatred empowers mass murder. This is a strong motivational factor in many other genocides in the 20th Century, despite its comparative limitation in the Holocaust. What makes the Khmer Rouge’s decimation of Cambodians and the Tutsis’ destruction by Hutus in Rwanda similar is ideological hatred. Overall, Browning and Goldhagen both offer insightful accounts of the potential motivations of human cruelty. Both theses are thought-provoking.

‘The Banality of Evil’ – Final Thoughts on Police Battalion 101

What trait characterises men of battalion 101? Instinctively following orders, their comrades, and the inability to think and judge as an independent being.

In Hannah Arendt’s  Eichmann in Jerusalem, she famously coined the phrase – ‘the banality of evil’. Arendt is a philosopher who attended senior SS official Adolf Eichmann’s trial, where she made several critical observations.

The Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem
Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Credit @

Many perceived Nazis and Holocaust perpetrators as inherently evil. But to Arendt, Eichmann was not an intelligent mastermind, a fanatic, nor psychopathic. Indeed, during the trial, he frequently used stock phrases and cliches to defend his actions instead of reason. With scrutiny, one realises Eichmann did not complete high school and vocational training. He does not appear fiercely anti-Semitic. Importantly, Israeli psychologists found no traces of personality disorder and psychopathy. Instead, they found Eichmann’s personality to be desirable.

Thinking and Judgement

Arendt argues that Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the Holocaust through careerism and a failure or absence of sound thinking and judgment faculties. Eichmann did not exercise his capacity for thinking. He simply followed orders, carried them out with no consideration of the righteousness of the act. Thinking would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. Consequently, as Majid Yar explained, ‘this amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims.’

Hannah Arendt
Philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, a protégé of Martin Heidegger. Credit @

The case of Eichmann is strikingly similar to Police Battalion 101. Major Trapp offered those policemen the opportunity to quit without serious consequences; they did not take it. There was no stick forcing these men to pull the trigger; they carried on slaughtering regardless. Peer pressure, obedience, careerism, whatever the explanation. One thing is certain, their inability to think and judge rationally resulted in complicity with political evil.

Police Battalion 101 is ultimately an unsettling case. When inexperienced and ordinary Germans can turn into willing executioners for personal gains and group conformity, given similar circumstances, who among us can resist?

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