Berlin Nazi sign
Photo from the German Federal Archives

Ordinary men.

In the past two weeks since Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, I have heard two speakers – a senior in my public speaking class and a Holocaust survivor presenting at an event of the student organization Christians United for Israel – emphasize that the soldiers involved in the Holocaust were ordinary men.

In 1998 Christopher R. Browning conveyed this reality in a shocking account called Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution for Poland. Browning tells the story of the middle-aged, working Germans who became the participants in one of history’s greatest human crimes.

The idea is unsettling. We don’t want to think of the men who killed millions of Jews as people just like us. Demonization allows us to separate ourselves from them; obviously we wouldn’t commit such atrocious crimes. We are incapable of that savagery.

By and large, the Nazi soldiers were ordinary men, not psychopaths or monsters. They were ordinary men placed at a certain place and a certain time under certain circumstances that drove them to their infamous actions. If you have studied the Holocaust to any degree, you have likely encountered this line of thought.

The atrocity of the Holocaust is undeniable but for a select few. To recognize the humanity of the Nazis involved by no means condones their actions. Rather, it motivates re-evaluation of what humanity is. Humanity is a body capable of great good, which means that it is also capable of great evil.

Dr. Henri Zukier at the New School for Social Research describes a Freak Theory of the Holocaust, which posits that “[c]ertain ‘kinds’ of acts are only committed by certain ‘types’ of people.” In this view, the Nazis were mad, sadistic, authoritarian monsters whose behaviors have “no implications for us.”

On the contrary, Zukier reports that, according to accounts from observers, psychologists, and victims, “the Nazis were not crazed, bloodthirsty monsters.” Those who did act on instinctive sadism fell among the minority.

If we can’t explain the Holocaust away as being the product of psychological imbalance, then what can we say?

The truth is, mass hate is not exclusive to the Nazis of the 1940s:

The Roman Empire would persecute the Christians living within its borders.

Through the early centuries after Christ anti-Semitism permeated the Gentile church as many non-Jewish Christians viewed the Jews as murderers of Christ and, during the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, murdered them in turn.

When Europeans colonized the New World, belief in the inferiority of the native peoples led to widespread massacre and death.

In the United States, between 1882 and 1968 almost 5,000 people were lynched, most of them black.

Less than 30 years ago, a rivalry between the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda led to the 100-day massacre of 800,000 Tutsis.

Once you dehumanize another people, you can do anything to them. Dehumanization of others is what makes ordinary men, monsters. What is jarring about the Holocaust is not that it showed the modern world the worst of human beings; the Holocaust showed it the worst in human beings. The worst in ordinary men.