Society’s Influence on Morals
The atrocities of the Holocaust have prompted much inquiry by researchers to
understand how humans can behave so cruelly toward their fellow man. Theories have
been formed that cite the men of Battalion 101 as “exceptions” or men with “faulty
personalities,” when, in fact, they were ordinary men. The people who attempted to
perform a genocide were the same people as you and me with the only difference being
the environment in which they worked. The behavior of the men in Battalion 101 was not
abnormal human behavior, rather, their actions are testament to the premise that when
humans are exposed to certain environmental and psychological conditions, extreme
brutality is highly apt to occur.
The members of the Police Battalion 101 had the same ideas and influences as the
rest of the German citizens. Because of the racist teachings produced by the German
government, the entire German society was uniform under the belief that they were the
master race. The German were taught that anyone different from their own kind (white
Anglo-Saxon Protestant) needed to be removed from their society in order for it to
prosper. The Police Battalion men shared the same beliefs as everyone else, but they had
to perform the dirty work of killing approximately 83,000 Jews. Christopher Browning
states in his book, Ordinary Men, that, “...the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, like
most of the German society, was immersed in a deluge of racist and anti-Semitic
propaganda” (Browning 184). Unless placed in the Battalion men’s situation, one can not
fathom how a population of people can so evilly turn against another.
People in every culture are susceptible to the ideas and beliefs brought upon them
by propaganda. Whenever an idea is accepted as the ‘norm’, people will find a way to
justify it and follow it despite the evil implications it might entail. Humans have faced
these situations throughout the last two centuries numerous times. For example, the
American slave trading was totally acceptable to the southerners because the blacks were
perceived to be lesser human beings. The slave owners did not mind controlling and
abusing a slave like 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-Semitics
thought the Jews should be eliminated. A more recent example would be the American’s
attitudes toward the Russians during the Cold War. Children were taught that the
Russians were evil and while the Russian children were being taught the same ideas about
the Americans. Propaganda was used by our government to make us believe that we were
the good side while they were the bad side. Before anyone had time to sit back and think
about the situation rationally, our entire society hated the Communists. The same
situation applied for the German citizens except, their attitudes illustrated the effectiveness
of propaganda even when it has the evilest of implications.
It must be understood that the men who transported or participated in the killings
of 83,000 Jews were not selected as men who were thought to be capable of acting
inhuman. They were ordinary men in their 30’s and 40’s who were too old to fight in the
war but they were still capable of carrying out orders. Before the war, the men worked as
businessmen, truck drivers, medical workers, and even teachers who came from middle to
lower class backgrounds. It is difficult to imagine an individual, such as a teacher, who
dedicated his life to the enhancement of a child’s education and well-being, participated
and tolerated the killing of thousands of children. But it is true that the same men, who
the Jewish society trusted as workers and professionals, willfully tried to kill them off.
The political environment which surrounded the Police Battalion made their
vicious job less difficult. But those men who did not wish to partake in the killings could
be given a different assignment. In fact, a minority did walk a way from the slaughters,
but the remaining 80% to 90% carried out their orders. Reich, in his summary of Ordinary
men, suggests that, “For many, the pressure to conform to a group, and not to seem like
cowards, played a major role in their continuing to shoot” (Reich 1B). If a minority group
differs from a majority group that has the same beliefs, they are looked upon with shame
and disdain. If a soldier were to disagree with their orders, they were the object of ridicule
and scrutiny. It is much easier for a person