In the early morning hours of July 13, 1942, the men of Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101 were roused from their bunks, put on trucks, and driven to the small Polish town of Józefów. These were middle-aged family men of working-class backgrounds. After they had climbed down from the trucks and gathered in a semi-circle around their commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp (a fifty-three-year-old career policeman affectionately known as “Papa Trapp”), they received their orders. They were to go into the town below, in which there were 1,800 Jewish men, women, and children, and separate the able-bodied men for transportation to a work camp. Then they were to take the rest, mostly women, children, and elderly men, in small groups into the forest, lay each one face-down on the ground, place their bayonets between their shoulder blades, and shoot them in the head. After relaying the order, Trapp made an extraordinary offer: anyone who did not feel up to the task could step out. In a battalion of 500 men, only twelve did. Within hours, the entire Jewish population of Józefów—but for those men transported to the work camp—was dead.

While the “ordinary men” of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were exterminating Jewish women and children in Poland, some poor mountain villagers in the little French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon were risking their lives to shelter hundreds of Jewish refugees until they could be smuggled across the border into Switzerland. Sometimes this meant “hiding,” nearly in plain sight, dozens of Jewish men, women, and children in a house built for three or four. This effort to shield Jews from persecution had begun several years earlier with the creation of a school in town for the children of Jewish refugees. But as the Nazi transport of Jews out of France progressed, their rescue efforts expanded to include adults. The entire town conspired in the effort, although they never spoke aloud about it, and no one but the Protestant pastor of the town knew where all the Jews were being hidden. Some estimates put the number of Jews saved by the villagers during the war at over 5,000.

Are We Really Different from the Nazis?

Why do some ordinary men and women commit horrible atrocities, while others resist at the risk of their own lives? There have been many answers suggested over the years. Some have said the Holocaust was just “something about the Germans.” The killers must have suffered from some psychological damage, parental abuse, the dehumanizing effects of the war, or Nazi propaganda. None of these explanations has been convincing, and none applied to the “ordinary men” in Reserve Police Battalion 101.

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Studies of the Holocaust and of the dispositions contributing to it offer a potent critique of our customary approaches to moral education. Those “enlightened” moral systems did not prevent the Holocaust, and I fear our current approaches are not only no better, but probably much worse.

I teach moral theology at a Catholic university, and each semester, after presenting the studies I am about to discuss below and in tomorrow’s essay, I ask my students whether they can say with confidence that the moral education they have received, including the one we give them at my university, has reliably produced people who are more likely than most to become “rescuers” like the villagers of Le Chambon and less likely to end up acting like the “ordinary men” of Reserve Police Battalion 101. Their education may have left them confused about many moral questions, but about this they have little doubt. Having read the studies, they are honest enough to admit that they share many of the dispositions that led the “ordinary men” to agree to murder thousands and lack many of those needed to act as did the courageous French villagers of Le Chambon.

Ordinary Men and Women: Extraordinary Good and Evil

So what lessons can we learn about modern moral education from studies of the Holocaust’s many moral failures and minority of moral victories? We begin with the “ordinary men” of Reserve Police Battalion 101. Why was the number of men who accepted the offer not to take part in the killing so low?

Interviewed years after the massacre, those who took part suggested that they were taken by surprise by the assignment and had no time to reflect. Unless they were able to react to Major Trapp’s offer on the spur of the moment, the opportunity was lost. At a safe distance, we might wonder how much time they needed to decide whether they would agree to shoot thousands of innocent women and children in the head. Other factors were at work, about which I will have more to say in a moment. Still, this comment about “suddenness” might make us question whether our current approach to ethics education is adequate to many crucial real-life moral decisions. When one has little more than fifteen seconds to make a crucial decision, this is not enough time to “do the math” on whether one’s action would result in “the greatest good for the greatest number” or result in a necessary maxim that could be universalized for all times, places, and people. This comment about the suddenness of the choice suggests that if an agent has not prepared himself in advance and acquired a settled disposition to act or refuse to act in certain ways, then he is likely to fail when the critical moment comes. Even a settled disposition will not guarantee success, but the lack of one will nearly guarantee failure.

Were these men bound together by strong bonds of military comradeship? Had they been desensitized by the horrors of war? The answer to both is no. As Christopher Browning reports in his extraordinary book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, the battalion had only recently been formed, and none had seen combat. Nonetheless, stepping out of the ranks that morning meant leaving one’s comrades to do the dirty work and admitting that one was too weak to carry out orders. “Who would have dared,” said one policeman, “to lose face before the assembled troops?” “I did not want to be thought a coward,” said another. A third, more aware of what truly required courage, said after some time for reflection, “I was cowardly.”

Some of the men interviewed said they “didn’t remember” Trapp’s offer or “hadn’t heard it.” Several of those who admitted hearing it struggled to find an explanation: “it was a different time and place.” It was “as if they had been on another political planet,” writes Browning, “and the political values and vocabulary of the 1960s were useless in explaining the situation in which they had found themselves in 1942.” Another man admitted that, “Truthfully, I must say that at the time we didn’t reflect about it at all. Only years later did any of us become truly conscious of what had happened then…. Only later did it first occur to me that had not been right.” 

Moral Relativism Leaves People Confused and Vulnerable to Manipulation

Confusions of this sort are fostered by modernity’s widespread moral relativism, which insists that the moral norms of one culture and one period do not apply to another. A certain sort of man might have said to himself, “We were heroes then. You look upon us as criminals now because we lost the war. Someday, we may be remembered as heroes again.” Add this possibility to the pain attached to being thought a “coward” by one’s comrades and leaving a distasteful task to them, and the utilitarian calculus was unlikely to come out in favor of the Jews.

“What is clear,” writes Browning, “is that the men’s concern for their standing in the eyes of their comrades was not matched by any sense of human ties with their victims. The Jews stood outside their circle of human obligation and responsibility”—a problem that would not have been addressed by providing seminars for “values clarification.” Their “values” were clear: German commanders and comrades first; Polish Jews somewhere way down the line.

There is little doubt that this capacity to dehumanize others was fostered by a culture that accepted that certain humans were “unworthy of life” and thus outside the normal circle of human obligation. This notion was as crucial to the Nazi euthanasia program as it is to the modern abortion regime. Either all human life is sacred and beyond utilitarian calculations, or none is.

“Even if the men were not consciously anti-Semitic,” writes Browning, “they had assimilated the Jews into the image of the enemy.” Major Trapp told them that they should remember that the enemy was killing German women and children by bombing Germans. This comment betrays a fascinating, if beguiling, illogic. English and American crews were bombing cities in Germany, so the police battalion should shoot 1,500 innocent Polish women and children in the head. But how would that help people in Germany? Did these women and children make the bombs, transport the bombs, or have anything whatsoever to do with those bombs? Clearly not. And yet, this simulacrum of an argument was taken as a real argument. A culture that has lost its grasp of basic logical entailment and a respect for good arguments over bad can expect this sort of confusion when clarity is most needed.

“They Had Reasons”: Moral Logic and Moral Reasoning

In defense of their moral relativism, students will sometimes say about the Germans who murdered Jews: “they had reasons.” Yes, they did. Let’s listen to two. One policeman, a metal worker from Bremerhaven, explained that he shot the children because “I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer.” So in killing them, he was “releasing” them. As Christopher Browning points out, the German word this man used for “release” (erlösen) also means to “redeem” or “save” when used in a religious sense. He “saved” them from their fate. Another said, “I thought that … without me the Jews were not going to escape their fate anyway.”

Claims such as “it is going to happen anyway” and “it won’t make any difference” are common enough, encouraged by a certain pragmatic utilitarianism which reasons thus: “Let’s say I refuse to take part, and no Jews are saved, but I get caught up in their fate, how has that made things better?” I ask my students, “Would it make a difference if you refused to take part in the shooting, but all the Jews died anyway?” Most are smart enough to answer: “It would make a difference to me.”

Echoing a question that goes back to Plato’s Gorgias, I ask: “Which is worse, suffering an injustice or doing an injustice? Being punished unjustly, perhaps even killed, for not carrying out a murder, or murdering someone unjustly?” This is a hard question for them, but not because they don’t know the answer. They know the kind of person they want to be. They just don’t know whether they have what it takes to be that person. Perhaps, then, we should help them develop the strength and dispositions to be the person they know they should be rather than filling their heads with modernity’s moral confusions.

Aspiring to Become a “Somebody” in a Corrupt Culture

Two men who refused to participate in the shooting explained that they were freer than the others because they had no career ambitions. “Because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one,” said an older businessman, “thus it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.” Those who participated, another explained, were “young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.” This notion of “becoming something” ought to trouble us, especially in a culture where, as Pope John Paul II warned in Centesimus Annus, large numbers of people mistake “having” with “being,” and where not having the right kind of job, car, or clothes is too often interpreted as “being a nobody.”

My students are rightly repulsed by the story of these “ordinary men,” often reporting that it is their least favorite reading in the course. They prefer the story about the little village in France that saved Jews. Their responses to the tragedy, however, are not reassuring. The crass rationalizations of some of the policeman simply deepen their skepticism about the value of moral arguments. And in accord with the widespread “moral individualism” of our culture, they often claim that what this story shows is that people should never conform to any authority but their own.

But the reality is rather more complicated. As I will argue tomorrow, although the character of one’s culture and society can facilitate the doing of evil, it also plays an important role in facilitating good. To “free” oneself from the constraints of culture and inherited moral hierarchies, even if it were possible, would not leave us “more free” or “more civilized,” but decidedly less so.