Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > History / Biography > History

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★★ (7/7) (life-changing)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Challenge Level: 3/5 (Intermediate)  | ~190 pages ex-notes (384 official)

Blurb/Description: In a compact and concise book, historian Christopher Browning asks and answers a profoundly important question: how did a group of “ordinary men” turn into mass murderers during the Holocaust?

Summary: History’s a category I struggle with: I know there’s a lot of learning potential, but at the same time, the insights are far too often buried too deep by authors who seem to be collectors rather than curators, spilling needless ink cataloguing trivia that obscure rather than clarify the important point.  (For example, despite my admiration for Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson’s truly awful biography thereof is one of the worst books I’ve ever slogged through.)

If you’re nodding (or groaning) along with my struggles, then rejoice, for Browning’s “Ordinary Men” is precisely the opposite of that sort of history book: I read it in high school as part of the assigned reading for a history class at a local community college, and it blew me away and forever changed my perspective on history.  In fewer than 200 pages – closer to 150 if you skip some of the context – Browning delivers a paradigm-shifting view into how, under a certain set of circumstances, “ordinary men” can turn into mass murderers.  In his own words:

“If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”

Browning follows the trail of the German Reserve Police Battalion 101 – a group of men actually very unlikely to turn into mass murderers, unearthing insights that – like Tavris/Aronson’s Mistakes were Made (but not by me) – will leave readers pondering the narrower-than-we-think gap between “good guys” and “bad guys,” “us” and “them,” and drive home the importance of maintaining vigilance.

Highlights: Three things stand out to me as phenomenal about Browning’s approach here.

First and foremost, he’s the opposite of a man with a hammer: he’s cautious in the way he interprets evidence, allowing for the flaws of memory, and recognizing the inherent multicausality of a complex phenomenon.  He weighs various counterfactuals and comes up with what seem like the most likely conclusions, while acknowledging the potential for other explanations.  Philip Tetlock would be proud.

Second, Browning does a good job of bringing in lots of important outside context such as major concepts from psychology, while not getting bogged down in details or simply cataloguing horror after horror (which would be, quite literally, nauseating).

Third and finally, I think Browning manages to walk the tightrope he discusses in the preface: i.e., trying to understand the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and learn something about human nature without condoning their horrifying and inexcusable actions.

Lowlights: This isn’t whatsoever Browning’s fault, but given the subject matter and the necessary,vivid descriptions of unimaginable brutality… this is a tough book to read and certainly not bedtime/relaxing weekend/vacation reading.  He handles it well, in my view.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: authority bias, contrast biassocial proof, in-group / out-group behavior, culturestatus quo biasincentivesself-justificationsaliencevividness bias,agency / learned helplessnessstresshabitfundamental attribution error

You should buy a copy of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland if: you have the courage (and the stomach) to read a very important book that drives home some very important points about how evil, horrifying behavior is something we’re all quite capable of if we don’t watch out.

Reading Tips: The real story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 doesn’t actually start until Chapter 5 / page 38; I find the preceding pages of the book to be helpful/interesting context, but you are welcome to skip those.  However, I think the Preface is really good, so please don’t skip that.

NOTE: I am working off the older version of the book without the new afterword, so I can’t speak to that… certainly I’m a fan of Browning so I would recommend reading it.

Pairs Well With:

Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” by Tavris/Aronson (MwM review + notes).  If you want a less brutal / in-your-face and more individual-psychology-oriented analysis of some similar topics, this is the closest “comparable” that will help you understand how narrow the gap between “us” and “them” is.  I think the two books are complementary.

Nudge” (Ndge review + notes) and “Misbehaving” (M review + notes) by Richard Thaler (and, for the first one, Cass Sunstein).  The best books on cognitive biases; they provide a lot of theoretical depth on the psychological phenomena that Browning discusses.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes (TMAB review + notes).  Along with some great examples of illustrating scientific thinking, Rhodes does a terrific job of tying in the wartime context and the human element: there are certainly some parallels between the behavior of the men of 101 and the behavior of some on our side… Browning briefly references firebombing, for example, which Rhodes hits in quite some depth.  The underlying psychological mechanisms are similar, even though (obviously) the Allies held the moral high ground in terms of objectives.

Superforecasting” by Philip Tetlock (SF review + notes).  This is less related to the content and more to the approach: Browning does a terrific job of not being a “bull in a china shop,” but rather carefully and cautiously recognizing the limitations of the data he’s working with, and attempting to thoughtfully piece it together by considering counterfactuals and not drawing overreaching conclusions.  I think it’s highly analogous to the approach of top-percentile forecasters described by Tetlock in his wonderful book.

This video detailing the (impactful and touching) family story of the phenomenal history professor, Dr. Roy Vu, on account of whom I read this book all those years ago.  (I loved his class so much that I signed up for another one of his classes as an elective, even though, if I recall correctly, I didn’t need to take it… he changed my perspective on history.)

Reread Value: 5/5 (Extreme)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Pages xv – xvi: Browning  notes that over half of the victims of the Holocaust perished over a brief span between March 1942 and February 1943.  Though he’d been studying the Holocaust for almost 20 years, the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 was “singularly powerful and disturbing” – so he followed the thread.

Pages xvii – xx: With the usual caveats about the flaws of memory and so on, the testimony relating to Reserve Police Battalion 101 (hereinafter “101” for short) struck Browning as unusually candid; it illustrates, in Browning’s view, the fact that while the Holocaust may have been conceived by evil villains, it was executed by ordinary men.

Browning admits that his reconstruction, as with all historical reconstructions, might not be perfectly accurate (memory) – but I don’t think it has to be to be relevant or useful.

Browning also discusses here and elsewhere the thorny problem of trying to understand and even empathize with the actions of those such as the men in 101, without condoning their behavior.  He notes that mass murder, during the Holocaust, became “routine […] normality itself had become exceedingly abnormal.”

Browning doesn’t forgive the men of 101 for their hideous crimes, but he doesn’t demonize them either: he tries to understand how he, in the same situation, might have chosen to do the same.  Empathy.

 (Browning does note, throughout the book, examples of those who overcame the psychological dynamics at play and refused to participate in one way or another – but chillingly, all too few did this.)

See also John Lewis Gaddis talking about understanding without condoning in The Landscape of History” (LandH review + notes).

Pages 1 – 2: Browning briefly introduces 101: a police (not army) battalion of reservists comprised of:

middle-aged family men of working and lower-middle-class background from the city of Hamburg.”  

Their commander is none too fond of their mission, but they have to carry it out nonetheless… he makes it easier by invoking in-group vs. out-group, “us or them” language.  

Page 6: The “order police” were not active fighters, but rather tasked with holding down the occupied territories, so the army could go on doing its thing.

Page 11, 12, 14: These order police were recruited into carrying out mass killings of Jews (and others), often with accompanying indoctrination and us-vs-them motivation.  

Pages 36 – 37: Browning surveys some of the well-known brutality of the Holocaust… but goes in a different direction: he wants to explore the:

“personal dynamics of how a group of normal middle-aged German men became mass murderers.”  

He notes that these men were not sitting behind a desk somewhere… they were up close and personal.

Page 40: Interestingly, sometimes the orders were indirect, and killing was treated as a matter of convenience… we’ll return to the idea of time/schedule-induced stress later, but here, Browning cites testimony by one reservist noting that in one mission (to retrieve, not kill), the old and the sick were “burdens” per the higher-ups… it was suggested that they not slow the operation down.  Which is, you know, still an order to kill them, even if it’s not explicit.

Pages 44 – 45: There were just over 500 men in 101, and few had prior military service.

Pages 47 – 48: Browning goes into more detail on 101’s demographics: roughly 65/35 working/lower-middle class, with a very small number of middle-class professionals.

 Most were blue-collar or sales workers. They were heavily clustered around 40 years old; Browning notes that due to their age, they grew up before the Nazi era, so they:

“were men who had known political standards and moral norms other than those of the Nazis.”

In other words, they’d hadn’t grown up in Nazi culture.  The men were also from Hamburg, which Browning describes as “one of the least nazified cities in Germany.”  Finally, he notes that the working/middle class was typically anti-Nazi in general.

The point, obviously, is that these weren’t sadistic anti-Semitic baby-killers who couldn’t wait to go on a rampage… they were, more or less, normal people.  And they turned into mass murderers.  It’s the right kind of sample size.

Pages 49, 54: Browning notes that concentration camps were designed to make the “Final Solution” more efficient, less public, and less burdensome psychologically for the killers.”  

Unfortunately, logistical issues end up getting in the way… so 101 ends up becoming a death squad.

Pages 56 – 58: It is worth noting here that one of 101’s lieutenants, as well as about a dozen of its men, refused to participate when they were told the assignment and, as best can be determined, were not punished in any way.  More did do this over time, but the total number ends up being surprisingly few.

What is the assignment that 101 faces?  They were instructed to round up the Jews and shoot any who attempted to escape.  Thereafter, they would be transported to another location to be executed by a firing squad of one company of 101.

The dude in charge – Trapp – was apparently literally crying, and he didn’t like these orders at all.  (Luckily for him, he didn’t have to participate.)

Pages 61 – 62, 64 – 66: This is one of those Holocaust-brutality moments that’s hard to read… Browning notes that other than a lunch break, the firing squads were literally going all day; by night, the men:

 “completely lost track of how many Jews they had each killed.”  

Browning notes that as reality starts to sink in, more men follow the lead of the earlier dozen and say “nope” – some explicitly, by asking permission for another assignment, either prior to commencement of the shooting or after a little bit of shooting. 

As the shooting went on, Browning notes that it was clear to the group that if they wanted to opt out, they could (with no repercussions, at least immediately). Others participated but shot past their victims, or shot to wound instead of kill.

Nonetheless, we’re talking about a handful here… the majority of the men went along with it.

Page 69: How did the men take it?  Not well – that night, they “ate little but drank heavily and “a sense of shame and horror […] pervaded the barracks.”  The men – as men do – didn’t want to talk about it.

Pages 71 – 73: Browning is on a mission here: he explicitly asks why so few men opted out despite the opportunities to do so, their inexperience, and the fact that this wasn’t some longstanding “team” with deep bonds to each other.  

He explores this question throughout the book, but at least in the initial massacre, he points to social proof and in-group / out-group behavior, as well as maybe some authority bias, specifically that men didn’t want to be viewed as cowardly and that the actions were framed as “us vs. them” – even if the men weren’t anti-Semitic, they accepted Jews as part of the enemy group.

Browning does note (via one of the men’s testimony) that it was difficult for them to later enter that mindset again… but I think most of us today could think about, for example, the Middle East and the way many of us are not explicitly anti-Muslim and might even have Muslim friends, but could probably be pretty easily convinced (under the right circumstances) that some countries in the Middle East should be viewed as enemies of state who threaten our right to survival.

Some men also went the cognitive dissonance reduction / self-justification route, arguing that the same outcome would prevail whether or not they participated; Tavris/Aronson, authors of “ Mistakes were Made(but not by me” – MwM review + notes would have a field day with this.

One man even managed to convince himself he was doing Jewish children a favor by ending their lives, because they wouldn’t be able to live without their parents.  He subsequently only shot children…

Pages 74 – 75: Browning notes here that somewhere between 10 and 20% of the men – a shockingly small number – either explicitly requested reassignment or simply avoided participating.  

Interestingly, he also notes that even of those who did step aside, the rationale was not ethical/moral, but rather simplysheer physical revulsion.” 

(Browning notes, in gruesome detail, that these shootings resulted in lots of blood and brain going everywhere.)  Ahem  salience / vividness.

Some of the men who stepped aside for ethical reasons felt that they had economic freedom to do so… it is implied that others, for whom their careers were perhaps more dependent on their decisions here, had an incentive to shoot.

Page 77: Unsurprisingly, there ended up being backlash and it was agreed that 101 would not do most of the “dirty work” going forward – they’d just round up and transport and most of the killing was to be done by another group, the SS-trained Trawnikis.  

Logistical issues again get in the way, and 101 does end up killing a lot more than it seems like was expected… we’ll get to why soon.

Pages 82 – 83: It is worth noting that there were some sadists but they didn’t seem to be the majority whatsoever of the men.  Even the seemingly hardcore Trawnikis were drinking while doing this, to the point of not being able to stand while they shot the Jews… (these pages are just horrifying.)

Pages 85 – 87: Browning cites a few psychological factors here.

The first is salience / vividness – it was easier for 101 to play a part in transporting the Jews given that the Trawnikis were doing most of the killing; Jews were also shot in the back of the head this time so it wasn’t face-to-face.

The second is what Browning calls “habituation.”  At this point, I’m not sure habit actually kicks in (although it clearly does somewhere along the line.)  I think this is actually more contrast bias – after the horror of what 101 did the first time (shooting Jews face-to-face), simply transporting and maybe shooting a few in the back of the head doesn’t seem so bad.

Indeed, one sergeant reported that his men were “overjoyed” about their non-shooting participation (that of course didn’t change the fact that they were still playing a vital role.)

Third, this time the men weren’t given the option of not participating, so there was probably some lack of agency / learned helplessness here.

Fourth and finally, back to the social proof and in-group / out-group behavior.

Page 90: Salience / vividness comes up again here… the men of 101 found it pretty easy to participate when they weren’t actually doing the shooting, even if they were helping kill more people than they had in previous iterations.

Page 95: An interesting note here on time/objective-caused stressBrowning notes that on a day when 101 was understaffed for the job (same number of people, a lot more Jews to round up), the roundup proceeded “with an almost unimaginable ferocity and brutality” – close to 10% were killed during the roundup in Miedzyrzec, vs. 2% in Warsaw.

It seems somewhat callous to make a comparison between this and human behavior in other circumstances, because the difference in scope/impact is obviously so large that it wouldn’t register on a non-logarithmic graph.  

But for the sake of learning, I’d point to Laurence Gonzales’s “Deep Survival” (DpSv review + notes), in particular the parts where he discusses the idea of “bending the map” while being lost, as well as the climbers who stuck to the plan even though it got them to the peak just in time for afternoon lightning.

I think there are parallels: stress caused by being “behind” … there may even be some loss aversion here.  Hard to say.

Page 100: It’s interesting (in a morbid way) how standards, and the facade, dropped pretty quickly as this went along.  Now we’re to the point of not doing any burial… just shooting.

Page 103: Again, Browning notes that men who opted out were sometimes berated, but not actually punished… since enough participated to allow 101 to do its job, it was easier to not press the issue.  

(Browning elsewhere notes, IIRC, I may be wrong, that it was actually easier to not have dissidents in the mix but rather to have them quarantined elsewhere so the shooting proceeded efficiently and without disruption.  

Again, with the caveat that comparisons are hard to make on any reasonable scale here, it reminds me a bit of Thaler noting dryly on page 131 of “Misbehaving” (M review + notes) that one advantage of laying off people rather than cutting everyone’s wages is that the people who are angry aren’t around to complain…

Pages 112, 126: Murder is definitely now a routine/ habit for 101.  Bayonets are used as aiming guides to make the process efficient.  Jew-hunting patrols became “daily bread,” per some of the policemen.

Page 128: At this point, the policemen are well down the Tavris/Aronson “pyramid” – they are callous to the point of even joking about their muders.

Page 130: Still, there were some who avoided shooting, and they weren’t really forced into it.

Pages 135 – 137: Browning doesn’t really dwell on this, but at the bottom of page 135, there’s what I view as an important note:

“Because of a the high rate of turnover and reassignment, only a portion of the policemen who had taken part in the first massacre at Jozefow were still with the battalion in November 1943, when its participation in the Final Solution culminated in […] the single largest German killing operation against Jews in the entire war[,] with a victim total of 42,000 Jews.”

I

think that’s actually a profoundly important statement on  culture / status quo bias vis-a-vis the research cited by Sunstein/Thaler around pages 58 – 59 of “Nudge” (Ndge review + notes).

You should grab your copy of Nudge and reread that part if it’s nearby, because it ties in phenomenally well.  The summary is that, basically, in lab experiments, group behavior can persist even if all the members of the group are swapped out.

It seems like something similar went on here.  Anyway, Browning notes the surprising power of ideology here: up until the fall of 1943, many “Work Jews” (craftsmen who were critical to the economy) had been exempted from killing.  But the Germans were willing to commit economic suicide…

Page 141: This is one of those really hard bits to read…

“The other policemen were long inured to the mass killing of Jews […] what they did find new and impressive, however, was the problem […] of disposing of so many courses.”

I mean, man, what do you do with that.  This is kind of like the end of Richard Rhodes’ “ The Making of the Atomic Bomb ( TMAB review + notes) – setting aside any conceptual learning, it’s very perspective-altering (in a good way).

Pages 147 – 148: Browning does a good job of pointing out the flaws of memory and the problem of selective disclosure in using testimony to tell this story – building his credibility, in my view.

Interesting example of self-justification here; the testimony of the men of 101 displays some sleight of hand where basically-imaginary “bandits” are presupposed as a problem that the Germans are helping clean up, thus making the Germans the heroes protecting the Poles and making the whole issue of the Jews secondary…

Pages 150 – 151: Again, Browning highlights – with some firsthand testimony – how it was later difficult for members of 101 to understand their mental state and actions during the Holocaust.  A powerful statement on memory, among other things.

Page 153: Interesting example of salience / vividness here: Jews who were from Germany, or those who worked for Germans, were the few individually-recognized/remembered exceptions to the Jews’ general status as an “anonymous collective.”

Pages 155, 157 – 8: Again, intriguingly, the testimonies of the men of 101 make it sound like they weren’t anti-Semitic, but Poles were… it’s more self-justification.  

Browning does point out that Poles were, in many cases, helping the Germans, but that the policemens’ portrayal thereof displayed lots of fundamental attribution error at best and complete lying at worst.

Page 159: Browning returns again, explicitly, to the original question, with a twist: why did most men in 101 become killers, while a small minority did not?

Pages 161 – 163: Browning does a good job of cautiously separating potential causes from likely non-causes – multicausality and  scientific thinking – noting the difficulty in evaluating them.  He starts by noting that wartime brutalization happened, but didn’t allow the initial step at Jozefow, given their lack of previous experience before then.

More compelling is the idea of “distancing” – which allowed Allied firebombing, as Browning notes, and I would note atomic bombs as well – see, for example, the phenomenal “The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (TMAB review + notes).

Browning notes that especially after the brutality of Jozefow, doing less-brutal things (like just transporting, or shooting in the back of the head) was easier thanks to contrast biashabitself-justification, and of course, saliencevividness bias.

Pages 164 – 167: Here’s what’s really alarming: Browning circles backs to demographics and notes that 101 shouldn’t even be viewed as a random sample: it should be viewed as a negative sample of Germans even less likely than average to turn into mass murderers.   Sample size.

Browning rejects the idea that the men of 101 were unusual, or sociopathic: rather, he follows Ervin Staub’s train of thought.  Staub’s take:

“Evil that arises out of ordinary thinking and is committed by ordinary people is the norm, not the exception.”

Interesting example of fundamental attribution error.

Browning goes on to cite the Stanford prison experiment, which has recently been called a complete fraud.

Pages 168 – 172: Browning here draws parallels between the prison experiment and 101; I’d point again to S/T’s reference to the group research, as well as some stuff by Tetlock, that suggests confident “leaders” can influence the direction of a group.

Browning actually here sort of questions the idea of career incentives, noting that this was most clearly articulated” by those who didn’t shoot rather than by those who did.  He concludes that it plays some part, though.

He thinks that authority bias and learned helplessness are weak explanations as well: both in the stories as well as more broadly in history, he notes that there has not been a documentable case of dire punishment for soldiers refusing to kill unarmed civilians.

Browning also cites the Milgram experiment and goes into some depth here…

Page 184: Browning notes that 101 was certainly propagandized, but not extensively so.  He views social proof / status quo bias as a more likely explanation…

Page 185: Ah, here we go, here’s where he notes that somewhat perversely, the fact that people dropped out beforehand increased the pressures to conform while shooting because nobody was complaining about it…

Page 189: “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”

 

First Read: a decade ago… sometime in high school

Last Read: spring 2018

Number of Times Read: 3

Planning to Read Again?: yes

 

Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018