** August 31, 2020 | DR. JORDAN B. PETERSON
** Hell, One Step at a Time
The following is from a previous draft of
Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life
(Estimated Read: 18 Minutes)
In 1991, the American historian Christopher Browning wrote a book called Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland about the Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) Reserve Unit 101. The book detailed in a very psychologically plausible manner the terrible transformation of conventional and essentially well-socialized working men—most with families—into killers capable of taking naked pregnant women into the Polish countryside and executing them with a pistol shot to the back of the head. Such a book is best read with caution—and, more importantly (with that caution firmly in mind), read as a potential perpetrator, rather than as a hypothetical victim or, worse, hero.
The men of Police Battalion 101 were tasked with mopping up after the Nazis had marched through and subdued Poland. Their commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, was by all accounts a decent man, considering the times. Furthermore, the men in the battalion were all middle-aged citizens of Hamburg with no military experience, drafted but found ineligible for regular duty, who had matured prior to the intense propagandizing of young people typifying the Hitler Youth. They were not abnormally cruel, nor were they were in the main ardent anti-Semites. No simple explanations (sadism; prejudice) were going to suffice as Browning attempted to account for their behavior.
Within the unit were a few professionally trained SS men, cruel and psychopathic, who tended to regard their commander Trapp as weak, unmilitary, and prone to interfere inappropriately in the duties of his officers. A few others were reservists, rather than career policemen. The majority, however, were working-class men of the less professionalized sort, warehouse and construction workers, machine operators, waiters, and seamen, among others. They averaged almost forty years in age—too old for general conscription. They weren’t even particularly likely to be Nazi party members (about 25% percent). As Browning points out, “these men would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers on behalf of the Nazi vision of a racial utopia free of Jews.” Some of them, after being informed to a certain degree of the intensity of what they might be required to do in a now-subdued country, asked to be released from their work and placed elsewhere—and the option to
leave appears to have been offered to them by their commander. Indeed, Browning even recounts the story of a police officer who requested and was granted his release, and who obtained a promotion on his return to Germany. Nonetheless, only 12 men in the 500-man strong battalion would choose to withdraw as they learned the true nature of the jobs. Furthermore, by all accounts, the majority of them would suffer terribly as they transformed themselves into the monsters they would soon become.
Ordinary Men is horrifying not least because of its graphic accounts of the actions undertaken by the now-policemen, once transported to Poland. But what makes it truly terrible is its aforementioned psychological plausibility. These men were indeed “ordinary.” They weren’t following orders under threat of punishment. With this firmly in mind, Browning confronts and articulates the moral conundrums associated with the study of history. It is all-too-tempting (and also something that provides a certain degree of naïve psychological security) to read the past and to cast the villains as all-villainous and the heroes as all-virtuous. But that’s propaganda, not history. Even in the literary world, the work of quality presents the ever-present moral battle not as raging between purely evil states and good, or purely evil people and good, but as a consequence of the complex and paradoxical forces of good and evil working themselves out in terrible conflict within each soul, between individuals,
and in the battle between states. This is not to say that darker forces do not sometimes dominate at one or more of these levels. I’m not equating the Axis powers with the Allies, or the Soviet or Maoist communists with the free West. But the temptation toward deceit, arrogance, resentment, ideological possession, and the projection of all evil onto something conveniently other than a combination of self, compatriot, family, and state is dangerously alluring. At the very least, it interferes with the kind of introspection that might produce genuine moral progress—which is something still required, no matter how good the current state—on the part of individual and society alike.
The Order Police were placed under the auspices of four special mobile units of the SS known as Einsatzgruppen, described by Browning as “the thin cutting edge of German units that became involved in political and racial mass murder in Russia” and elsewhere. In 1941, after the staggering initial successes of the Nazi blitzkrieg, Hitler ordered an intensification of the pacification program behind advancing German lines—part of his desire to create a permanent “Garden of Eden” for the Aryan race east of Germany. The actions of Battalion 101 were to be part of that program, which involved, in Hitler’s own words, “shooting anyone who even looks askance at us.” The fundamental problem facing the giant bureaucracies overseeing the Final Solution was transport: the massive camps, equipped for mass murder, mostly in the form of poison gas, were set up in 1941 at Auschwitz/Birkenau, Chelmno, Birkenau (as well as Sobibor and Treblinka, a bit later). This raised the joint problems of staffing these
enormous institutions, as well as moving those destined for work and death to the camps. There were 2,000,000 Jews under General Government command in what was once Poland, and 300,000 in the Lublin district alone.
Himmler himself provided no resources to implement these programs; the man charged with a leading role in the Polish extermination project, Austrian Odilo Globocnik, was therefore forced to raise private armies to undertake the task himself. He buttressed his thin quasi-professional resources with the Trawnikis, non-Polish “auxiliaries” drawn primarily from the Ukrainian, Latvian, and Lithuanian POWs who were screened for anti-communism, offered a reprieve from starvation, and promised that they would not be sent as front-line combatants against the Soviets. It was into this milieu, replete with an oversupply of Jewish transportees brought in from other areas to replace those who had already been deported, that the men of Battalion 101 arrived in Lublin. Their orders indicated they would be performing guard duty. As Browning points out, “there is no indication whatsoever that even the officers suspected the true nature of the duties that awaited them.”
The Battalion men began by collecting Jews in smaller settlements and consolidating them in larger camps and ghettos, sometimes using trucks, sometimes on foot. None of this involved mass execution, although Jews who were frail, old, and sick were shot, at least in some instances. That might be considered the beginning (although even the mass deportations constituted a clear step down a bad road). However, Globocnik quickly realized that the speed of merely collecting people was insufficient, and determined to hasten the eradication process with onsite mass execution by firing squad. Things changed dramatically for the worse in Józefów, a small town in east central Poland, which had at that time a population of about 1800 Jews. Globocnik or someone close to him informed Trapp that these people were to be rounded up, as usual, but that only the males capable of working were to be transported. The elderly, women, and children were to be executed on the spot.
One Lieutenant Heinz Buchmann refused, forthrightly, stating that “he would in no case participate in such an action, in which defenseless women and children are shot.” Lieutenant Hagen, Trapp’s representative, agreed to reposition Buchmann and placed him in charge of the male Jews selected for work. This is a very telling episode, in my estimation. Buchmann made his move under very dire and dangerous personal circumstances, and was not punished for it: He was merely reassigned. Although there were undoubtedly times when moral objection to an unacceptable order (the massacre of unarmed women and children certainly topping the bill) would have resulted in extreme personal danger, and perhaps even danger to family members, we don’t know how common such retaliatory threats actually were, nor how often such malevolent orders could have been successfully refused.
It may be, after all, that under such circumstances the resistor has such a clear upper hand, morally speaking, that it is difficult to effectively criticize or to discipline him. In any case, the next morning, when the truck convoy arrived in Józefów, Trapp made another extraordinary offer: “any of the older men who did not feel up to the task that lay before them could step out.” A dozen men abandoned the operation, after facing some abuse from Hoffmann. Is it too much to point out that a decision of that sort, even when accompanied by accusations of betrayal and cowardice, appears far preferable to outright participation in mass murder of the most conscience-betraying sort? And to note also how tiny the minority of men was who stepped voluntarily aside, and how few followed in their footsteps, even after the example of resistance had been made?
The remaining men were ordered to surround the village, shoot any escapees, escort the Jews to the marketplace, and shoot all too resistant, sick, or frail to comply (as well as infants incapable of the journey). This meant the massacre of the weakest and least able to defend themselves. Something less in keeping with any sense of military honor could hardly be imagined. Trapp himself did not witness the executions: “Oh, God, why did I have to be given these orders,” he said, in a clearly heartfelt manner. His tears flowed copiously. He asked a subordinate if he felt that what was happening was in any manner justified. “No, Herr Major!” he replied. Most telling, perhaps, are the words he stated later to his driver, “If this Jewish business is ever avenged on Earth, then have mercy on us Germans.” There is every bit of evidence that Trapp—and not only Trapp—suffered dreadfully because he betrayed his conscience, despite undertaking his duty, showing full well that obedience to God, so to
speak, transcends the duty placed even on conventionally disciplined men by their superiors (just as the later Nuremberg trials insisted).
Culture itself can become corrupt. Obeying its dictates under such circumstances is merely to participate in the corruption, as well as a genuine and serious dereliction of duty (even with regard to the culture itself, regardless of its collective opinion), given that the true duty of the patriot and citizen is revivification of the dead past, lost in chaos, and restoration of its vision. Under such circumstances, there are no zero-risk options: we can choose expedience and its illusory safety, or the great dangers of a long-running pathological game that degenerates into hell.
The evidence regarding the actual shooting of infants is mixed. Some claimed that there were bodies of very young children among the elderly and sick left lying in the doorways, houses, and streets. Others claimed that “almost tacitly everyone refrained from shooting infants and small children.” Nonetheless, once the Jewish inhabitants of Józefów were marched to the train tracks, the slaughter began in earnest. Workers were separated from their families, weeping as realization dawned among them. The Battalion men were instructed to place their bayonets on the backbone above the shoulder blades, and to fire, in unison on order. Excepting a short break, the shootings proceeded until nightfall. It is worthy of note that several additional men (but, again, not too many, refused to take part in this process, after its details had been outlined. These men were merely assigned to alternative duties). Others shot past their victims or hid in a local Catholic priest’s garden until they became afraid
they might be noticed. Some spent undue time searching houses.
The executions were a bloody and horrific affair. Using fixed bayonets as aiming guides was of little use: “Through the point blank shot that was thus required, the bullet struck the head of the victim at such a trajectory that often the entire skull or at least the entire rear skullcap was torn off, and blood, bone splinters and brains sprayed everywhere and besmirched the shooters.” Many additional men, including Lieutenant Hergert, an officer overseeing the operation, simply had to—and were allowed to—stop, “I myself took part in some ten shootings, in which I had to shoot men and women. I simply could not shoot at people anymore, which became apparent to my sergeant, Hergert, because at the end I repeatedly shot past… Other comrades were also relieved sooner or later, because they simply could no longer continue.” Those who did refuse to partake in the process were showered with epithets but, as one non-participant indicated, “It was in no way the case that those who did not want to or
could not carry out the shootings of human beings with their own hands could NOT keep themselves out of the task. No strict control was being carried out here.”
And here is an account of the response of several people who did follow orders, at least to some degree: One soldier, Franz Kastenbaum, had shot four victims: “The shooting of the men was so repugnant to me that I missed the fourth man. It was simply no longer possible for me to aim accurately. I suddenly felt nauseous and ran away from the shooting site…. I then ran into the woods, vomited, and sat down against a tree…. Today I can say that my nerves were total finished.” Could there be any clearer indication of violation of some inner sense of right and wrong? He then returned to the wood’s edge and rode an empty truck back to the marketplace, suffering no consequences for his actions. Perhaps 20-30% of men engaged in such covert avoidance—although the terrible corollary of that is that 70 to 80% complied. Browning states, “When the men arrived at the barracks in Bilgoraj, they were depressed, angered, embittered, and shaken.” They ate little, drank copiously, and listened as Trapp
attempted to place the responsibility on those higher in the chain of command. But the horror remained, and the nightmares began, and the men agreed silently not to discuss what had taken place.
When the policemen were later interrogated about their participation in the events, many denied that they’d had any choice. A smaller fraction attributed their participation to outright cowardice or an unwillingness to lose face. Others rationalized their actions: “I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to only shoot children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbour then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the children could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers.” Browning also notes a remarkable dearth of any discussion whatsoever of anti-Semitism as a motivating factor. Furthermore, “politically and ethically motivated opposition, explicitly identified by the policemen in question, was relatively rare.” It was a matter of personal repugnance, by all
appearances, motivated by conscience, often overridden, much to the detriment of not only the victims (with whom our fundamental sympathy should obviously lie) but the perpetrators themselves.
As the work undertaken by Police Battalion 101 continued, those in charge became more psychologically canny. They removed the men from the worst of the work, returning them to the rounding up of the Jews in question and assigning the actual killing to the POW Trawnikis. No doubt, by comparison, this was a great relief, allowing at least one step to be placed between the direct action and the inevitable consequences. The next time the Battalion men were called upon to act as executioners, the Trawniki did the dirtiest of work, drunkenly massacring women and men alike in shallow graves full of water, often after torturing and humiliating their victims, while the Battalion men were “overjoyed” that they “were not required to shoot this time.” Even the small proportion of policemen who were required to shoot did so firing-squad style, and did not have to directly face their victims. Over time, they became increasingly accustomed to the role they were playing in the Nazi actions between Polish
lines as agents of massacre.
After such training, conducted at the very expense of the souls and the consciences of the men involved, the mere requirement to round up Jews for the death camps seemed very tame indeed, and this took place at towns such as Radzyń, Łuków, Parczew and Międzyrzecz. By this time, the training (and the self-deceit and self-betrayal) had proceeded to the point where many of the men retained as their cardinal memory the fact that they had to stand at Parczew in a swampy meadow and suffer wet feet. A newly recruited officer, one Captain Wohlauf, even brought his new bride, four months pregnant, to witness the events (specifically at Międzyrzecz), much to the shame and chagrin of the more seasoned men. Frau Wohlauf, now devoid of the military coat she had been wearing, evident to everyone in her dress, watched the events closely—and the military police were now in the thick of it, packing the transport railcars, using whips and guns when necessary and, once the loading had finished, nailing the
doors shut. The ratio of deportees to deaths at Międzyrzecz was 10 to 1, compared to the much more well-known deportations at the Warsaw ghetto of 50 to 1.
As Browning reports, the Jews of Międzyrzecz did not march like “‘lambs to the slaughter.’ They were driven with an almost unimaginable ferocity and brutality that left a singular imprint on the memories of even the increasingly numbed and calloused participants of Reserve Police Battalion 101. This was no case of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” And the situation only worsened from there. At Serokomla, in the northern Lublin district, under the command of Captain Wohlauf, the 200 to 300 Jews who had been gathered and cordoned were ordered, suddenly, to be shot. Each policeman directly faced the individual he was to execute. “Following each round, the next group of Jews was brought to the same spot and thus had to look down at the growing pile of corpses of their family and friends before they were shot in turn. Only after a number of rounds did the shooters change sites.” It is exactly that additional staggeringly callous cruelty that is the true sign that corruption has attained its ultimate
By this time, the once compassionate Trapp appeared to have had little compunction about carrying out his duties. There is no reason to be triumphant about this, or to feel comparatively morally superior: it is an indication that even those who are not temperamentally or, shall we say, philosophically or theologically inclined to delight in mayhem can certainly train themselves to participate in it. This should be an object lesson to us all, given that it is far from obvious that the typical person would have been as merciful as Trapp was to begin with. To me, what the story of Trapp produces is excess and deeper horror, providing evidence as it does for the hell that can await anyone willing to move forward, despite themselves, one terrible step at a time.
Heinz Buchmann, however, continued with his refusal and, although he was not returned to Germany, he was given jobs that kept him isolated from the carnage, and was, indeed, promoted with some regularity during the remainder of his military career. Some made their disapproval of his actions known through curses and insults, but others followed his example. Was it the desire to cling to some sense of propriety, however residual and rationalized it may have been, that allowed Trapp to tolerate and to protect those unwilling to participate in the ordered destruction?
It was not long after this that the gangland style of murdering women and children, kneeling or lying face down, became standard practice, often after the victims had been stripped to their underclothes in the cold autumn weather. This was following the orders of one officer, of whom a later witness testified, “To my regret, I must say that First Lieutenant Gnade gave me the impression that the entire business afforded him a great deal of pleasure.”
It might be apropos to close this section with some of the most chilling words that Browning penned. In the course of all this—let’s call it training—“many had become numbed, indifferent, and some eager killers; others limited their participation in the killing process, refraining when they could do so without great cost or inconvenience. Only a minority of nonconformists managed to preserve a beleaguered sense of moral autonomy that emboldened them to employ patterns of behavior and stratagems of evasion that kept them from becoming killers at all.” Indeed, as the slaughter progressed, and when volunteers were called to carry out the necessary actions, there quickly came a time when there were more available than needed, so that many were turned away.
How does hell emerge on Earth? First, because people act in spite of their conscience, even to their own detriment, even when they know it; second because hell arrives step by step, one action of betrayal after another. And it should be remembered that it is very rare for people to stand up against what they know to be wrong even when the consequences are comparatively very slight. And this is something to deeply consider, if you are concerned with leading a moral and careful life: if you don’t object when the transgressions against your conscience are (comparatively) minor, why would you possibly presume that you will not participate when asked to when things truly get out of hand? This is not to say (as we have noted) that everyone capitulates, and thank God for that: Consider the testimony of one Adolf Bittner, police battalion member: “I must emphasize that from the first days I left no doubt among my comrades that I disapproved of these measures and never volunteered for them. Thus, on
one of the first searches for Jews, one of my comrades clubbed a Jewish woman in my presence, and I hit him in the face. A report was made, and in that way my attitude became known to my superiors. I was never officially punished. But anyone who knows how the system works knows that outside official punishment there is the possibility for chicanery that more than makes up for punishment. Thus I was assigned Sunday duties and special watches.” But, as Browning points out, no one assigned Bittner to a firing squad for his insubordination.
Tyranny grows slowly, and asks us to retreat in comparatively tiny steps at a time. But each retreat increases the possibility of the next retreat. Each betrayal of conscience, each act of silence (despite the felt resentment), and each rationalization weakens resistance and increases the probability of the next tyrannical move forward. This is particularly the case when a certain percentage of those pushing forward truly delight in the irresponsible power they have now been granted—and such people are always to be found. Better to stand forward, awake, when the costs are relatively low—and, perhaps, when the potential rewards have not yet vanished. Better to stand forward before the ability to do so has been irretrievably compromised. This is the terrible lesson of the Holocaust and, I would say, of all the twentieth-century tyrannies.
How are men who were by all means ordinary and decent citizens of their type (or at least no worse than others, and somewhat randomly selected) transformed into the heartless wolves of destruction who obeyed the terrible orders they were delivered? The answer is not pretty. It’s far too personal, for those who think clearly and realistically while they read and reflect. It’s far too indicative of the terrible dangers of mere order, and the loss of soul and spirit that is the price for sacrificing conscience to the state. It’s far too frightening to consider the terrible places at which it is possible to arrive following one careless and willfully blind step at a time. But it’s necessary to contemplate, if we are to stop, once and for all, the catastrophe of the unconscionable social conformity that accompanies the sacrifice of the still small voice.
There are consequences for following the rules, as this sequence of stories clearly relates. There are consequences to adhering to the order established by social consensus when the social consensus and, therefore, the order, has become pathological. The consequences in this case involved the persecution and torture and death of thousands of people as well as the perversion of the souls of those who were involved in carrying out their unconscionable acts.
If you decide to stand up and refuse an order; if you do something that others disapprove of but you firmly believe to be correct, you must be in a position to trust yourself. This means that you must have attempted to live an honest, meaningful, productive life (of precisely the sort that might characterize someone else you would be inclined to trust). If you haven’t done that, you may not be able to trust yourself when push comes to shove. But if you have acted in an honorable manner, so that you are a trustworthy person, it will be your decision to refuse or to act in a manner contrary to public expectation that will help society itself maintain its footing. By doing so you can be part of the force of truth that stops order itself from becoming corrupt and tyrannical. It has always been so. The sovereign individual, awake and attending to his or her conscience, is the force that prevents the group, as the necessary structure guiding normative social relations, from becoming blind and
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