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What best explains the motivations of the men who perpetrated the Holcaust? Ideology
– or tribal loyalty?
Christopher Browning’s 1992 book, Ordinary Men considered how the men of German Reserve
Police Battalion 101 were able to carry out instructions to murder thousands of Jews in
Nazi-occupied Poland during 1942 and 1943.
Opinion is split as to whether the Holocaust was part of a long-term plan or a product
of the war administration. The “Intentionalist” school argues that these actions were a culmination
of a long-term plan, with its basis in Nazi ideology, whereas the “functionalists”
believe they emerged as the war developed and were not planned from the outset.
Researching the statements of men tried for war crimes in the 1960s, and taking a ‘moderate
functionalist’ stance, Browning believed the men fulfilled their duties out of obedience
and peer pressure – not because they had a primal hatred for Jewish people. He argued
that people are far more likely to be motivated by human factors such as camerarderie, than
they are by ideologies or belief systems.
To consider why this may be so, let’s image the motivations of a football supporter.
What influences a football fan to support a certain team?
Is his decision based on the belief that one team has a greater ability, higher quality
players or better management than another?
Browning’s theory would suggest that a football fan is more likely to choose because of a
human or relational factor such as a family member or friend supporting the team. Before
you know it, they’re absorbed into a certain way of thinking, influenced by those around
them. A ‘tribal loyalty’ takes over.
For instance, a fan may work or socialise with fans of opposing teams – and have no
problem getting on with them. But put them together at a match and the dynamics change
completely. Tribal loyalty kicks in – and they become rivals.
Surrounded by their own team, a ‘group mentality’ takes over. Rival groups of fans abuse each
other, and may even fight.
Browning’s examination of the forces behind human motivation suggested that far from being
committed Nazis, the sense of loyalty the men of Battalion 101 felt to their colleagues
outweighed all else. They felt a duty to stand by them when on duty. And even though they
were offered the option not to take part in killings, few took this up. They knew that
if they refused to carry out their tasks, a colleague would have to instead.
Browning opened up an important discussion about how ‘ordinary’ everyday people can
be manipulated to commit heinous acts of cruelty, regardless of their beliefs.
A more detailed examination of his ideas can be found in the MACAT analysis.
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An Introduction to Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men- A Macat History Analysis

799 Folder Collection
周杰 published on June 29, 2015
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