I have a tendency to read books which make me deeply uncomfortable with the world. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to this, but Ordinary Men (affiliate link) is one of these books.
It would be both fair and unfair to call my thoughts on this book a review. I am not qualified to critique the historical methods, factual accuracy, or mass appeal of such a book, but I can say that it is a compelling, necessary read, in the vein of Solzhenitsyn’s work.
What is it that makes Ordinary Men so compelling?
Despite its lack of moralized language, it is a conviction. This conviction extends not only to the “ordinary men” who were transformed into murderers, but also to the reader.
The reason for this is simple:
Ordinary Men does not attempt to excuse its subjects through any simple explanation. There is no presence of a mitigating factor, some unique 1930s and 1940s German zeitgeist that explains away the presence of evil.
Instead, reading the book (which does not at all shy away from the full extent of the horrors, even while presenting a very human account of many of the killers), one is struck by an impression that the failure of so many to condemn the mad and villainous actions of a ghastly majority is something that would occur even in our present society.
Important details are included about the demographics of the killers; these were not hardboiled Nazis, but the average German whose cultural attitudes were not fully influenced by any sort of indoctrination–Browning is critical of the indoctrination efforts, many of which he believe would have been wasted on the reservists.
And, perhaps more importantly, Ordinary Men does not condemn the killers for their being German. He assesses them not as misguided children, but as morally responsible individuals who should have known better. The semblance to our modern day, our selves, is uncanny.
Ordinary Men does not seek to rationalize the Holocaust so much as it seeks to force a confrontation with its horrors. Of all the men in the battalion, none were formally and officially disciplined for refusal to participate (though a few expressed accounts of other coercion, which may or may not be reliable)
Shockingly, only one person expressed moral outrage at the events unfolding around them; they did not face any more repercussion than the majority of objectors, who expressed disgust rather than indignation at their grim work.
Browning’s work is a catalogue of this history, a retrospective into one of the darkest parts (if not the darkest part) of humanity’s nature. It shows the full extent of what people who should have objected went along with–or worse, actively sought out.
The afterword in which Browning recounts his experience in following the accounts of Luxembourgers who had joined in the German-led killings is no less harrowing.
Ordinary Men presents a portal into the human mind that is chilling, haunting, and necessary. It would not be right to say that I recommend it–its very existence is predicated on woe, and there are parts of me that wish that I could remain ignorant to the conclusions that it has forced me to draw.
However, I believe it is important: important to help us remember, important to help us see through hollow justifications, important to strip away pretense. It is a dreadful work, a work of necessity.