The current wave of antisemitism in the United States, the destroyed cemeteries, the threats, has made me think more about why it is that people do horrible things. This isn’t a new train of thought for me.
Sometime between working with libraries and finding a position in the publishing industry, I earned my graduate degree in modern German history. Though I primarily focused on Imperial Germany and archaeology, the specters of WWII and the Holocaust haunted my education. They had to.
As a result, I became well acquainted with the study of genocide, the study of why people do terrible things. One book in particular stuck with me. Maybe because it was the first one that I read on the subject. Maybe because it really was that profound.
That book was Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning.
(Though Chris Browning was a professor of mine, I read Ordinary Men before I ever met him. Life is funny that way.)
Ordinary Men explores the members of Police Battalion 101 as they participated in the Holocaust. The unit consisted of middle aged, German draftees who came from assorted backgrounds. Before the war, their neighbors would not have described them as evil. The men of Battalion 101 were loyal to each other, afraid for themselves, nationalistic, dutiful, and completely willing to kill for each of those reasons. They were ‘ordinary’ men. And these ordinary men nearly caused the destruction of an entire people.
Jewish thinker Hanna Arendt described a similar mindset as “the banality of evil”. Horrific actions, this theory says, occur in the name of duty, law, and order just as easily as they occur in the name of ideology.
Browning and Arendt’s theories don’t paint a very optimistic vision of humanity. They indicate that ‘normal’ men and women can cause genocide again. Other books deal with this both this idea as well as the possible ways that we can prevent mass murder. You can see some of them in the list that I pulled together for Book Riot.
A word to the wise: none of the books there are what I would describe as light or fun reads. They deal with death. They deal with the worst parts of mankind. And often they conclude that these worst parts aren’t anomalies but rather are things that just happen given the proper circumstances.