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The Capacity of Ordinary Citizens to Do Evil

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In his Washington Post column today, “The Ultimate Casualty,” Richard Cohen makes a reference to a fascinating book entitled “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” by Christopher R. Browning, published in 1992. The book is about ordinary German citizens who loyally and obediently followed orders to murder people while serving as soldiers in the German army.

Consider the following excerpts from a New York Times review of the book:

“This group of 500 policemen, most of them from Hamburg, was made up of truly ordinary men. Most were in their 30′s and 40′s — too old for conscription into the army — and of middle- or lower-class origins. They included men who, before the war, had been professional policemen as well as businessmen, dockworkers, truck drivers, construction workers, machine operators, waiters, druggists and teachers. Only a minority were members of the Nazi Party, and only a few belonged to the SS. During their stay in Poland they participated in the shootings, or the transport to the Treblinka gas chambers, of at least 83,000 Jews….”

“In the end, what disturbs the reader more than the policemen’s escape from punishment is their capacity — as the ordinary men they were, as men not much different from those we know or even from ourselves — to kill as they did.”

“Battalion 101′s killing wasn’t, as Mr. Browning points out, the kind of ‘battlefield frenzy’ occasionally seen in all wars, when soldiers, having faced death, and having seen their friends killed, slaughter enemy prisoners or even civilians. It was, rather, the cold-blooded fulfillment of German national policy, and involved, for the policemen, a process of accommodation to orders that required them to do things they would never have dreamed they would ever do, and to justify their actions, or somehow reinterpret them, so that they would not see themselves as evil people….”

“…The Jews were presented not only as evil and dangerous but also, in some way, as responsible for the bombing deaths of German women and children.”

“…Blame lies with those who kill and those who order them to kill, no matter what the psychological rationales may be that allow the killings to take place.”

Ever since 1945, there have been those who have suggested that only ordinary German citizens during World War II were capable of committing heinous crimes in loyal and obedient service to their government in time of war.

Not so. The capacity to do evil in the name of loyal and obedient “patriotic” service to one’s own government exists in all men regardless of nationality.

Moreover, even in the midst of World War II, the capacity to oppose perverted patriotism existed among Germans, as the members of the White Rose organization demonstrated.

In the long run it is only the dictates of one’s conscience, not the orders or needs of one’s government, that matter. That’s why everyone, regardless of nationality, must constantly search his conscience in response to orders of his government or calls to support his government, especially during time of war, when the capacity to do evil is greatest.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.