Reviews of Browning’s “Ordinary Men”

October 10, 2018 |  Tagged | Comments Off on Reviews of Browning’s “Ordinary Men”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 New scholarship and popular books on the Holocaust continue to be written every year as the events of the genocide continue to spark interest and debates throughout the world. A leading figure of Holocaust studies, Christopher Browning, wrote his most popular book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland in 1992 and since then it has been widely read and discussed in both academic and public circles. I will attempt to discuss some of the reviews and debates that have been produced in response to his work which has opened the door to the idea that a large number of the mass killings of Jews in Poland were done by middle-aged, ordinary men.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In 2010, The Red Phoenix, the voice and newspaper of the American Party of Labor, wrote a review of Browning’s book on their online website. Based on their views and political affiliation, it is not surprising that their review sought to highlight the parts where Browning emphasized that middle class, middle-aged men primarily made up Battalion 101. The review found the book to be an important glimpse into how the everyday man got caught up into the bigger cog that was the Nazi killing machine. The Red Phoenix gave no criticisms to Browning’s controversial book, and instead provided an in-depth summary of the chapters and what the reader can expect to learn.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In a 1992 New York Times article, Walter Reich, reviews the book with a eye focused on Browning’s “meticulous” research and interpretation of the court documents he used to craft his book. While this review also provides a good summary of the book, it also included a more analytic discussion of the issues that Browning writes about. For example, it explains why and how some soldiers were excused from the killings as well as why and how the majority of men chose to continue on with mass murder. The review ends by complimenting Browning for bringing to light the fact that so many ‘ordinary men’ carried out atrocious deeds and how this kind of work should be a reminder to society that anyone is capable of this type of evil. I find that this review, as well as the one from The Red Phoenix, lacks a deeper understanding of what Browning has brought to the field of Holocaust research. Since Ordinary Men has done a great job of reaching the public, the book tends to be reviewed as a call to remember our humanity as well as a reminder that any society is capable of this type of evil. Browning, I feel, intended this work to question some pre-existing notions that only Hitler and top Nazi members were responsible for the Holocaust and that this work should encourage other historians to review more micro histories of the Holocaust in order to better understand how Germany was able to fight a two-front war at the same time they sought to exterminate the European Jewish population.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Turning toward a couple reviews of a more academic status, we will first look at Browning’s biggest critic, Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen is also a Holocaust historian and would come to write his own book on this topic, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust in 1996, which many people at the time believed was in response to Browning’s book. Goldhagen writes, in his review published in 1992, that Browning has done has an important job bringing forward new evidence that regular, normal Germans participated in the mass killings. Goldhagen, however, feels that Browning did not take it far enough, and argues that even after all its’ virtues, the book did not succeed in its main interpretation of the documents and evidence it pulled from. After reviewing the same documents Browning did, Goldhagen argues that Browning had falsely interpreted many of the first hand accounts from the men of the battalion as fact and ‘truth’ when in reality these accounts should have been portrayed as a more dubious set of information. Goldhagen believes that many of these men would have sought to portray themselves in a better light and argues that Browning is too quick to believe their feelings and motives, which were written down in these court documents. All in all, this review provides a tempting, counter-argument to Browning’s research and opened up a healthy debate on the topic.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Lastly, we will take a look at H.A. Turner’s review from 1995 published in the Journal of Modern History. Turner was a German historian from Yale who, in his very short review, writes that Browning produced a well researched, and organized history of Battalion 101. He seems to agree with Browning’s assessment and interpretation of the evidence and events, but very briefly questions that there might have been missing an argument against the assumed German ‘need’ to obey orders. Turner also dislikes the use of the word ‘ordinary, arguing that it misleads the reader and does not acknowledge that the Battalion was primarily composed of former policeman and and commanded by officers who were members of the Nazi Party. Turner definitely falls into the group of academics who enjoyed Browning’s work and supported his historical findings, while Goldhagen obviously represents the other side of the academic sphere which applauded the attempt and content, but questioned the methodology.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 From these reviews, it is clear it is clear to see the differentiating points of view varying between the academic critics and the popular writers. The popular reviews seem to care more about how the book made them feel and how it offered up a different world view, while the academic reviews focused on the methodology of historical research and whether or not they believed the documents and sources were properly evaluated and represented in Browning’s book. I do not, however, feel as if the popular reviews are of less importance; both sets of views offer up dynamic commentaries on Browning’s work and they should both be evaluated and read if one is seeking the big picture of Ordinary Men.


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