When we think about the genocides and mass killings throughout history, human nature wants us the think of the perpetrators as being antithesis to ordinary people. They are endowed with sub-loving stereotypical villainous names like sadist, evil, and monstrous, all with no moral code, enjoy killing people for entertainment. We like to think this, because we can’t fathom perpetrators of genocide as being ordinary like ourselves. What is inevitably true of the most horrific genocide in the past century (the Holocaust) is that ordinary people are capable of committing the most heinous crimes imaginable.
The myriad of events that took place throughout World War II, that constituted the destruction of the Jewish people, were carefully constructed pogroms instituted, commonly by average people, out of fear of retribution, self annihilation, and greed. The catch-22 situation that was present for the perpetrators of Battalion 101 and the Poles of Jedwabne, illustrate the lengths at which ordinary people will go, to conform to those around them and protect themselves from harm.
In almost every careful analysis of individuals who committed violent actions, past history and characteristics have been analyzed, usually with some event being a trigger for such negative behavior. In the case of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 And The Final Solution in Poland and Neighbors, the perpetrators commonly had very normal backgrounds. In Ordinary Men, the men of the Battalion consisted mostly of working class, middle-aged men from Hamburg. Browning found that 63% had working class backgrounds with few being skilled laborers (Browning, 1998, p. 47). Browning quoted saying:
These were men who had known political standards and moral norm...
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... study and the Stanford Prison experiments simulated many of environments in which seemingly regular individuals can perform heinous crimes, drawing a parallel to the events at Jedwabne and Jozefew has its complication. While the premise of compliance and obedience for both was the same, the shear complexity of war and combat could never truly be tested unless on the battlefield. Inherent in the experiments was control. While the Stanford Prison experiment deviated from its original course, the severity of consequences doesn’t come close to those faced with imminent death or the order to kill.
Browning, C. R. (1998). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: HarperPerennial.
Gross, J. T. (2002). Neighbors: the destruction of the Jewish community in Jedwabne, Poland. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books.