During the Holocaust, more than a third of Nazi Germany’s Jewish victims never boarded deportation trains and did not die in gas chambers. Jewish men, women, and children were murdered near their homes in surrounding fields and forests by German police forces and their local helpers. Historians estimate that these so-called mobile killing units shot almost 2 million people during World War II. After the war, when some of the shooters and their commanders were put on trial, they claimed that they had to follow orders. Decades later, however, historians studying the interrogation files of one of these police battalions made a startling discovery. Not only did many ordinary Germans participate in the mass murder of Jews, they did so voluntarily.
In his book on one group of reserve policemen from the German city Hamburg, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, historian Christopher Browning shows that while the men were expected to follow orders when it came to killing civilians, they could have refused to do so. In July 1942, before their induction into the mass shooting of civilians in the small Polish town of Józefów, their commander gave battalion members a choice. If any of the men were “not up to the task,” they would be assigned to do “other duties,” such as guarding or transportation. When given the opportunity to opt out, only a very small number of men did. Even though this option remained in the months that followed, the majority of reserve policemen chose to kill—to do the “dirty work” even if just for a short time before being relieved of duty—rather than separate themselves from their unit by refusing to murder civilians.
Most of these ordinary, middle-aged German men became willing, although not enthusiastic, killers. A small minority consistently excused themselves from the task at hand. Browning argues that those who killed, did so because of:
“[T]he pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out… [The] act of stepping out…meant leaving one’s comrades and admitting that one was ‘too weak’ or ‘cowardly’.”