Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Five best books on genocide

Norman M. Naimark presently holds the Robert and Florence McDonnell Chair in East European History at Stanford University.

His books include a major study of the Soviet occupation of Germany, The Russians in Germany (Harvard 1995), a comparative study of ethnic cleansing and genocide in 20th Century Europe, Fires of Hatred (Harvard 2001), and Stalin's Genocides (Princeton, 2010).

One of five books on genocide he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Ordinary Men
by Christopher Browning

Please tell us about Christopher Browning's book, what it investigates and what its conclusions are.

Ordinary Men is a real classic of Holocaust and genocide studies. Christopher Browning is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina. He examines the history of the Hamburg Reserve Police Battalion 101 – as reconstructed primarily from the later trial materials of its members – and demonstrates that these individuals who committed mass murder were not necessarily vicious racists or active Nazis. They were mostly apolitical, middle-aged men of working class background who, on the whole, were not heavily influenced by Nazi propaganda. On the eastern front, a small minority even chose not to kill Jews and suffered no punishment as a result. But the overwhelming majority gradually became accustomed to their tasks of conducting mass murder and participating in the Holocaust.

What is the wider lesson about human psychology here?

The essential lesson of Ordinary Men is that genocide is not the exclusive preserve of fanatics, racist thugs and homicidal maniacs. It is part of the human condition, especially of humans living in society. It is far too easy to go along with authority and social norms, even when undertaking morally reprehensible deeds, rather than to refuse to participate – despite the fact that, as in the case of Reserve Police Battalion 101, it was unlikely that punishment would accompany a refusal to comply. This kind of conclusion is backed up by earlier social-psychological studies, like the Milgram experiment at Yale and the Zimbardo experiment at Stanford. The sheer power of authority figures and the need for social conformity among humans can turn otherwise peaceful and humane individuals into aggressive criminals.

And what of those who give the orders to exterminate a population? Is it valid to think of Hitler as "evil"?

I have no problem with thinking about Hitler and his chief helpmates as evil men. Their ideology was morally reprehensible and was used to justify their application of German state power to destroy the Jewish people – a criminal act of unprecedented proportions, for which they were responsible.
Read about another book Naimark tagged.

Ordinary Men is one of Robert Rozett's five best books for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

--Marshal Zeringue