Society’s Influence on MoralsThe atrocities of the Holocaust have prompted much inquiry byresearchers to understand how humans can behave so cruelly toward their fellowman. Theories have been formed that cite the men of Battalion 101 as exceptions or men with faulty personalities, when, in fact, they wereordinary men.
The people who attempted to perform a genocide were the samepeople as you and me with the only difference being the environment in whichthey worked. The behavior of the men in Battalion 101 was not abnormal humanbehavior, rather, their actions are testament to the premise that when humansare exposed to certain environmental and psychological conditions, extremebrutality is highly apt to occur. The members of the Police Battalion 101 had the same ideas andinfluences as the rest of the German citizens. Because of the racist teachingsproduced by the German government, the entire German society was uniform underthe belief that they were the master race.
The German were taught that anyonedifferent from their own kind (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) needed to beremoved from their society in order for it to prosper. The Police Battalion menshared the same beliefs as everyone else, but they had to perform the dirty workof killing approximately 83,000 Jews. Christopher Browning states in his book,Ordinary Men, that, . .
. the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, like most ofthe German society, was immersed in a deluge of racist and anti-Semiticpropaganda (Browning 184). Unless placed in the Battalion men’s situation, onecan not fathom how a population of people can so evilly turn against another. People in every culture are susceptible to the ideas and beliefs broughtupon them by propaganda. Whenever an idea is accepted as the norm’, peoplewill find a way to justify it and follow it despite the evil implications itmight entail.
Humans have faced these situations throughout the last twocenturies numerous times. For example, the American slave trading was totallyacceptable to the southerners because the blacks were perceived to be lesserhuman beings. The slave owners did not mind controlling and abusing a slavelike it was an animal since in their mind the slave was comparable to an animal. This was true in Germany with the only difference being that the Anti-Semiticsthought the Jews should be eliminated.
A more recent example would be theAmerican’s attitudes toward the Russians during the Cold War. Children weretaught that the Russians were evil and while the Russian children were beingtaught the same ideas about the Americans. Propaganda was used by ourgovernment to make us believe that we were the good side while they were the badside. Before anyone had time to sit back and think about the situationrationally, our entire society hated the Communists. The same situation appliedfor the German citizens except, their attitudes illustrated the effectiveness ofpropaganda even when it has the evilest of implications. It must be understood that the men who transported or participated inthe killings of 83,000 Jews were not selected as men who were thought to becapable of acting inhuman.
They were ordinary men in their 30’s and 40’s whowere too old to fight in the war but they were still capable of carrying outorders. Before the war, the men worked as businessmen, truck drivers, medicalworkers, and even teachers who came from middle to lower class backgrounds. Itis difficult to imagine an individual, such as a teacher, who dedicated his lifeto the enhancement of a child’s education and well-being, participated andtolerated the killing of thousands of children. But it is true that the samemen, who the Jewish society trusted as workers and professionals, willfullytried to kill them off. The political environment which surrounded the Police Battalion madetheir vicious job less difficult. But those men who did not wish to partake inthe killings could be given a different assignment.
In fact, a minority didwalk a way from the slaughters, but the remaining 80% to 90% carried out theirorders. Reich, in his summary of Ordinary men, suggests that, For many, thepressure to conform to a group, and not to seem like cowards, played a majorrole in their continuing to shoot (Reich 1B). If a minority group differs froma majority group that has the same beliefs, they are looked upon with shame anddisdain. If a soldier were to disagree with their orders, they were the objectof ridicule and scrutiny. It is much easier for a person to follow the beliefsof their society or else they will stand out.
An example of the fear to followyour beliefs if they differ from the norm, is an account from Tim O’Brien’s truestory titled, On The Rainy River. After being drafted for the Vietnam War, hewanted to flee to Canada to avoid being sent to the war. O’Brien recalls beforehe was about to swim to the shores of Canada that My conscience told me to run,but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing metoward the war (O’Brien 54). Like some members of the Police Battalion,O’Brien wanted to follow his conscience and leave the situation, but instead hechose to go to the war and follow the norm’ where he would be like everyoneelse. Following the views that your particular society accepts is much easierthan standing out and practicing the opposite. For the Battalion men,responsible decision making was hindered among the wartime chaos.
Many soldiers found their task to be psychologically burdening untilthey found ways to overcome their uneasiness. Killing Jews even became aroutine chore for the Battalion men. Eventually, one kill was the same as thenext so it really did not have an affect on the shooters. After the Battalionmen got adjusted to the initial shock of the extreme gore and disgust fromshooting Jews at point blank range, their job was habitual. Their job evenbecame fun when the police could participate in Jew hunt (Browning 123) whichwas exactly what the name implies. Jews who managed to escape from their campswere hunted by the police who would shoot them for target practice.
Browningquotes an officer named Adolph Bittner as saying ‘In summary one could perhapssay that in small hunts, when not so many shooters were needed, there werealways enough volunteers available’ (128). The Jew Hunts represent theextreme desensitizing that the war causes. When victims, like the Jews, are dehumanized, the aggressor can feelless disturbed by ending its life. The Jews were numbered and gathered like aherd of sheep going to a slaughterhouse (Jacobs). For the Battalion 101 group,it was much easier to kill with the mentality that their victims were lesssignificant and even detrimental to the human race. The men who transported theJews to the death camps felt at ease because they were not doing the actualkillings.
Even the men who directed the Jews into the gas chambers did not feelresponsible because they were not doing the actual killings first hand. Reichconcludes that, Each of these factors helped the policemen feel that they werenot violating, or violating only because it was necessary, their moral codes(Reich 1D). When choices are presented that are morally burdening, it is humannature to find ways to rationalize their decisions. For many of the PoliceBattalion 101, rationalization for their brutal actions occurred repeatedly. Despite the evil propaganda that was spread about the Jews, there areexamples of how ordinary people took it upon themselves to help the desperateJews hide from the Germans. Among the brutal wartime chaos, certain groups ofpeople rose above the mainstream beliefs of their society to show that humancourage and morality can prevail when all odds are against them.
In his book,Conscience and Courage, Eva Fogelman terms these types of people as moralrescuers (161). These are people who follow their own conscience despite thepressures from their surroundings to do what they believe is morally correct. Fogelman states in his book that, Their values were self sustaining, notdependent on the approval of others. To them, what mattered most was behavingin a way that maintained their integrity (162).
In both Le Chambon, France andDenmark, accounts have been made of groups of people following their consciencesand doing what necessary to save another person’s life. The civilians living in the small town of Le Chambon successfully hidover 5,000 Jews from the Germans. Their heroic effort to save the Jews’ livesis a perfect example of how the human conscience is capable of making morallycorrect decisions even during a time of war. In the movie, Weapons of theSpirit, the effort put forth by the Chambonais was not a town endeavor but anindividual undertaking by each individual family. The families were only actingon what they believed was the morally correct thing to do.
This example issimilar to the Danish people who found it their patriotic duty to save their ownpeople from the wrath of the Germans. In her magazine article titled, DallasHonors a Righteous Nation, Rachel Amado Bortnick tells of the Danish effort tosave the Jews. The Danish did not separate the Jews in their minds from therest of the Danes. It was never taught or led by example that the Jews weredifferent from the rest of the Danish community, therefore, children were neverexposed to the Anti-Semetism that the German children were exposed. InBortnick’s article, Mr.
Petersen explains that ‘What we did for the Jews wasn’tany different than what we would have done if the Germans had decided they weregoing to deport all postmen or people who wore glasses or who had red hair’. This mentality was obviously on the opposite end of the spectrum from thecitizens of Germany. In Browning’s book, Ervin Staub made the assertion that ‘cruelty issocial in its origin much more than it is characterological’. . . most people slip’ into the roles society provides them.
. . (167). Evil ideas and beliefsare molded onto a person by their surroundings rather than inherent in theirpersonalities. With such a strong influence on our behavior, propaganda canlead a society to think and belief the unimaginable.
The men of PoliceBattalion 101 are a testament to the idea that people are capable of not onlythinking the unimaginable, but they can act upon it. Works CitedBortnick, Rachel Amado. Dallas Honors a Righteous Nation. Dallas Jewish LifeNov. 1993.
Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men. New York: Aaron AsherBooks/HarperCollinsPublishers, Inc. , 1993. Fogelman, Eva.
Conscience and Courage. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday,1994. Jacobs, Mike. Speech to Class. Dallas, 31 Mar. 1997.
Reich, Walter. The Men Who Pulled the Triggers. The New York Times 12 Apr. 1992. Weapons of the Spirit.
Writ. /Dir. Pierre Sauvage. The Friends of Le Chambon.1988.