Modern Europe Journal: Ordinary Men

Browning, Ordinary MenLast week students in Prof. Chris Gehrz’s Modern Europe course read Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men, the acclaimed history of a reserve military police unit in the German Army that in 1942-1943 took part in the slaughter and deportation of thousands of Jews in Poland. On Wednesday, class consisted of a mock trial of three of the “ordinary men,” with students playing the roles of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and jurors. The “lawyers” wrote “briefs” ahead of time for their journal entries, then after the scenario was completed, “jurors” were asked to vote on verdicts (and, if guilty, appropriate punishments) for each defendant and to write a 250-word reflection on the hardest decision they faced.

Here are the three cases, the verdicts, and (with student permission) some of the arguments that the jurors agonized over.

The People v. First Sergeant Artur Kammer

Charge: Crimes against humanity

Summary: The highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in Reserve Battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei, Kammer helped implement the ordered execution of over 1500 Jews in and around the village of Jozefow, on July 13, 1942. He also (as far as Browning could discern) readily excused soldiers who begged out of this particular duty. (The unit’s commander had earlier extended such an offer to his men before the killings began.)

Verdict: Guilty (9-2), with five Guilty votes opting for capital punishment (death penalty or life in prison) and four for a lesser sentence [in reality, Kammer spent three years in a Polish prison]

Juror Comments:

[from a student voting Guilty and recommending life imprisonment] We talked in class about the question of where does the line of guilt end within the chain of command. The reason I ended up finding Kammer guilty was because I compared his case to that of Private Niehaus. It is the difference between following orders and being the one giving orders that sets apart the guilty from the not guilty. The decision on Kammer was also difficult for me because the situation was during a time of war. While the casualties of the Holocaust are more numerous than those of other wars, it is important to realize that in times like that, we cannot punish every single person who was involved. The reason Kammer is guilty is because he was partially in charge of the events in Jozefow. He could have called off the orders and taken the punishment for that rather than allowing a mass killing of Jews. Kammer was fully aware of the implications of the orders he was handing out. I had to find him guilty because of that. My decision of what his sentence should be was not difficult because while I believe that his crime was great, I do not think that he should have to die because of it. In looking at crimes during a war, it is difficult to make sentences because so many people would then have to be found guilty.

The People v. Private Walter Niehaus

Charge: Premeditated murder

Summary: A former cigarette salesman who is standing in for the other enlisted men in the battalion, Niehaus (not his real name, but the one used by Browning) shot one person and then asked to be relieved of duty.

Verdict: Not Guilty (6 of 11 votes for Guilty, but by the rules of this tribunal, a two-thirds supermajority was necessary for conviction)

Juror Comments:

[Guilty, but with a light sentence] On one hand, he shot a woman, from an order. Taking his comrades into consideration, he could have done a lot more damage.  However, taking some of his other comrades into consideration, he could have stepped away from the situation all together. A tough aspect of being a historian is empathy, and the attempt to reach into the minds of those who were faced with a certain decision. As a female student, living in 21st century (safe) America, I have absolutely no clue what it means to partake in warfare or violence. Furthermore, I have no valuable perspective into the minds of soldiers, who dealt with the pressure of comradeship. Although other soldiers were known to walk away from the shootings, I would imagine there was pressure to follow the orders and be “a man about it”. Moreover, he shot one person. Now, I am not degrading the value of an individual’s life, particularly one that was entirely innocent and vulnerable, but Niehaus drew the line at one, which in some ways is much better than those who chose to repeatedly kill. But the principle of the matter is that he chose to carry out the order. Sure, someone else would have done it, regardless if he chose to or not, but he was nonetheless given the option. Because this was controversial, I granted him a small sentence. He performed the deed, yet there were many external influences and reasons to believe that this was not entirely his responsibility.

[Guilty, but with a lesser sentence] Although the realities of conformity and peer pressure were pervasive in men like Niehaus, they still do not justify any killing of any sort. In spite of, in my mind, his obvious guilt, his sentencing was a little more difficult. In comparison to his peers, Niehaus did everything he could to avoid the killing of innocent Jews following his initial murder. He realized his mistake, and turned from these actions and asked to partake in different activities. Should he be rewarded for recognizing the injustice of the situation and avoiding more shooting as best as he could? Or is comparison obsolete in assessing and judging those involved in the Holocaust? Again, these questions are multifaceted and complex, which made the case of Niehaus more difficult than the others. It was my inclination to believe that Niehaus may have been less guilty because of the heinous actions of his peers, but at the same time, some men did not even participate in the initial shooting, and Niehaus did not take advantage of this opportunity.


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