On Monday, February 19 at 5 pm Eastern Time (US), UNC Professor Emeritus Christopher R. Browning will join us for a Casual Conversation on Zoom courtesy of the efforts of classmate Bruce Albert, Chair of the Jewish Culture Group. Professor Browning is author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, revised edition published 2017, after being originally published in 1992 and reissued with a new Afterword in 1998).
Professor Browning’s faculty listing at the UNC website is https://history.unc.edu/emeritus/christopher-r-browning/ . His 19-page cv is linked thereto, but here it is for those who want easy access: https://history.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/804/2018/06/Browning.pdf .
His book Ordinary Men is a careful study of a Reserve Police Battalion of the German Order Police that examines the background of the 500 men who became active and willing participants in the slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children to effect Hitler’s plan to murder all the Jews in Europe. The number of Jews shot by the men of 101 is estimated, at a minimum, to be 38,000. The number of Jews deported to the extermination camp Treblinka by 101 is estimate, at a minimum, to be 45,200. The 101 had the fourth highest killing record of all police battalions.
Professor Browning asks three questions about the men of RPB 101: Who were they? What did they do? and How were they capable of committing such horrible crimes? He focuses on 101 because the records of the investigation of these men, including the interrogations, are unusually complete for a Nazi killing unit. The 101 consisted of 11 officers, five administrative personnel, and 486 NCOs and enlisted men. The majority of the men were from the Hamburg area, and the enlisted men held typical working-class jobs. This is from the New York Times Review of the book upon its initial publication:
This group of 500 policemen, most of them from Hamburg, was made up of truly ordinary men. Most were in their 30's and 40's -- too old for conscription into the army -- and of middle- or lower-class origins. They included men who, before the war, had been professional policemen as well as businessmen, dockworkers, truck drivers, construction workers, machine operators, waiters, druggists and teachers. Only a minority were members of the Nazi Party, and only a few belonged to the SS. During their stay in Poland they participated in the shootings, or the transport to the Treblinka gas chambers, of at least 83,000 Jews.
Professor Browning offers a portrayal of the battalion that is multilayered. The smallest group comprised the nonshooters. Then there were the “eager killers” whose numbers grew over time. “The largest group . . . did whatever they were asked to do, without ever risking the onus of confronting authority or appearing weak, but they did not volunteer for or celebrate the killing.”
But kill they did, over and over again.
In each successive edition, Professor Browning returns to the question Why:
The fundamental problem is to explain why ordinary men—shaped by a culture that had its own particularities but was nonetheless within the mainstream of western, Christian, and Enlightenment traditions—under specific circumstances willingly carried out the most extreme genocide in human history.
In reading the book, I was taken with the thoroughness of Professor Browning’s research of the literature trying to come to grips with the motivation of the men who participated in the Final Solution. If you want to find out where Professor Browning stands on this problem--and his returning again and again to this “fundamental problem” suggests he struggles to grapple with it and the sources of the depravity exhibited by the 101 and all the other killers, German and otherwise--come to the Casual Conversation.
The usual rules apply. Let me know if want to be with us by emailing me by Saturday, February 17, at firstname.lastname@example.org . Although sponsored by the Jewish Culture Group, all are invited of all faiths and no faith.
P.S. For “extra credit” you may want to read Professor Browning’s review in the May 27, 2016 issue of Times Literary Supplement, reviewing The Right Wrong Man by Lawrence Douglas. Here is a snippet of the review:
But all too often, German judges . . . not only maximized the limiting technicalities of the law but also exercised their considerable discretion to speciously discredit inconvenient testimony and to embrace even the most transparently mendacious accounts of the accused. And they presided over such egregious miscarriages of justice, preserved in nausea-inducing written verdicts, without the slightest repercussion or damage to professional reputation among their peers. Hence the acquittal of Karl Streibel, commandant of Trawniki (on the grounds that he did not know the purpose of the camp he commanded) and of Erich Lachmann, the commander of the Trawniki guard unit at Sobibor (for “putative duress”). In cases such as these, judges had a law, however imperfect, that enabled them to convict and evidence that justified conviction, but they nonetheless chose to acquit.