Why the ‘smart’ middle class became killers

[Reporter Kim Hyeong-wook]

Poster image of the Netflix original documentary film “Very Ordinary People: The Forgotten Holocaust”
ⓒ Netflix

A documentary showing the ‘banality of evil’ came to us during the Holocaust of World War II. This is the Netflix original documentary film <Very Ordinary People: The Forgotten Holocaust>.

It is based on Professor Christopher Rogers Browning’s monumental book, “Very Ordinary People”(published in three editions since the first edition in 1992). How did ordinary men from the lower social classes massacre tens of thousands of people and forcibly move them to death camps?

We have to go back to 1942. Nazi Germany, which has run out of manpower due to the war with Russia, recruits manpower to govern the territory of its ever-growing empire. Among them were middle-aged men with families. The majority were neither sympathized with the Nazis nor overly hostile to Jews. Moreover, he had a job that was nothing short of ordinary. They are transferred to the 101st Reserve Police Battalion and move without knowing anything. Then one day, we gather early in the morning.

The battalion commander, Major Trapp, said that 1,500 Jewish men, women, and children should be shot. It was a terrible experience for both those giving the orders and those receiving them. At that time, the major suggested that if anyone was unwilling to do this, he would let them go. A little more than 10 people were excluded by their own choice, and they did not suffer the terrible retaliatory punishment as commonly thought. This is a very interesting case, and it is surprising that the option of not following the order to massacre the Jews was given. It’s even amazing. This is a case against Eichmann’s massacre ‘only by order’.

It shouldn’t be any different from the devil, but it’s ordinary.

According to the original author, Professor Christopher Browning, who also appeared in the documentary, of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, 3 million died in the gas chambers of the death camps and 1 million died in confinement. And 2 million people were killed by firing squads. Could you do something like this if you weren’t a horned devil or monster? Is it really possible to kill people endlessly while confronting them directly?

However, looking at the faces of the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen (a unit of the Nazi SS specializing in killing civilians, created with the sole purpose of genocide) who were brought to trial for war crimes after the end of the war, it is beyond absurd. I’m somewhat embarrassed. They were often known as ignorant, incommunicado, killing machines obsessed with alcohol, women, and gambling, but in reality, they were highly educated, middle-class people who were very sophisticated and knowledgeable. It looked far from a devil or a monster.

Among them is a man named Otto Ohlendorf. As commander of Einsatzgruppen D, he ordered 600 men to kill 90,000 people in one year. It is truly the pinnacle of atrocities. However, almost everyone thought of him as a ‘decent person’. After all, he was handsome, well-spoken, honest, and charming. He was the exact opposite of the ugly, old, crazy, pathological, sadistic, and idiotic misfit we often think of.

It’s shocking. If you are a devil, you must be devil-like, and if you are a monster, you must be monster-like. I wish it were that way. Only then will you feel at ease. I think I will feel at ease if I draw a thorough line and distinction between me and us and him and them. But is it true that I and he are no different and that we and they are equally ordinary? It is a fact that is not easy to accept and a fact that one does not want to accept.

Monster Potential vs. a conscious decision

Still image from Netflix original <Very Ordinary People: The Forgotten Holocaust>
ⓒ Netflix

The 101st Police Reserve Battalion begins an operation to kill Jews following orders from superiors. After the first operation, which left me with severe stress and trauma, several times are vivid enough to remain in my memory. It makes me think of each and every Jewish face I met and killed. However, subsequent operations are hazy. You will gradually adapt. They say, ‘Someone has to do it. They feel burdened and continue the massacre for two reasons: ‘We do it’ and ‘If you are a coward, you can refuse, but your comrades must take your place’.

Perpetrators justify the terrible things they have done in their own way. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have been able to continue and I wouldn’t have been able to lead a life after doing that. ‘Someone has to do the dirty work’, ‘We must fulfill our historical duty’, ‘I am better at this job than others’, etc. In other words, they were not mindless killing machines, but people who knew and understood what they were doing.

Meanwhile, the battalion is largely divided into three groups. A group that learned to enjoy killing, a group that did as they were told when asked to participate in an operation, but did not get out on their own or do more, and those who refused. The refuseniks are interesting; one unit of the battalion returns to its training center after only a few days. But the reason they could never become heroes is because the government found a way to make them participate in the genocide of the Jews in some way.

The 101st Police Reserve Battalion boasted the fourth highest murder rate among the 130 police battalions in Nazi Germany during World War II. We are reminded once again that it is possible to commit massacre even if one does not act according to extraordinary beliefs or be guided by ideology. In other words, anyone can become a murderer under certain circumstances. This means that he has the potential to become a monster. Nonetheless, we have the power to control ourselves and make conscious decisions.

Copyright (c) OhmyNews (citizen reporter), unauthorized reproduction and redistribution prohibited

Additional text | This article is also published on citizen reporter Kim Hyeong-wook’s personal blog singenv.tistory.com.

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