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Netflix recently released a new Documentary titled Ordinary Men: The Forgotten Holocaust. It's based on Christopher Browning's book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland .
Reserve Police Battalion 101 was a unit sent to the Eastern Front by the Nazi Reich in 1942. It consisted less than 500 men.
They killed at least 83,000 Jewish civilians in firing squads.
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Other than a higher body count than most of their peers, they weren't especially unique, about two million of the Jews killed during the Holocaust were killed by firing squad. These executions are the "Forgotten Holocaust" in Netflix's subtitle.
Like most of the "police" sent east, the men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 were draftees. By 1942, the regular Army was heavily engaged on two fronts and Germany was already feeling the manpower shortage that helped them lose the war. These men were not true believers that wanted to help "protect" the Reich or "cleanse" Europe. They were office workers, shopkeepers, and tradesmen that had stayed home from the war for years before being coerced into service. Many were not even members of the Nazi party.
The Reich ordered these men to go to Poland and execute civilians. There was no punishment for refusing to kill. But the overwhelming majority followed those orders.
Those that refused to kill stayed on the front and performed duties like working in the kitchen and cleaning latrines. The Reich didn’t execute them alongside the victims. They even court-martial them. Their officers didn’t beat them. They sent no man to prison for not following orders.
The rest of the unit killed. And continued to kill. This particular battalion was quite proficient at it.
It's easy for me to say that I would have refused. It's especially easy for me to say it as a 59-year-old man whose well beyond falling to peer pressure, has an empty nest, and an insurance policy that would cover "executed for refusing to execute" and take care of my wife.
But would I have refused when I was in uniform in my early twenties? Or would I have caved? Would I have been susceptible to the admonishments about "letting my unit down" that the Germans heard just before their first mission?
Nearly every fiber of me says "No!" But there's an honest (and cynical) voice that asks "Are you sure, Eric?"
I've had trouble finding a science fiction story that takes this kind of situation head-on, but the genre is rife with similar ideas.
Vonnegut deals with soldiers, orders, and brutality, in Slaughterhouse-Five. For example, he draws an especially interesting contrast between Roland Weary and Werner Gluck. Weary is a brutal and heartless American that terrorizes fellow prisoner Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist. On the other hand, Gluck is a 16-year-old German draftee that's charged with guarding the prisoners. He treats them well. Weary is brutal, frequently threatening to kill Pilgrim, without the need for any orders at all. Gluck holds doors open for his prisoners.
I wrote about Starship Troopers and Heinlein's his characterization of the enemy "Bugs." In the eyes of the book's soldiers, they're less than human and each and every one deserve to die. The movie, which is a thinly veiled satire of the novel (although many viewers seem to miss the point), takes this attitude to such extreme lengths that you end up feeling at least a little sorry for the "Bugs" by the end of the film.
Programming note: Next week is the last bike tour of the season! I may not have a post.