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Ordinary Men summary

Christopher R. Browning

Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

4.7 (25 ratings)
17 mins
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    Ordinary Men
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    A Frightfully Unpleasant Task

    It was a hot July morning in 1942 when the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were awoken and summoned into the trucks awaiting them. They would soon be shuttled, atop a bumpy gravel road, to the Polish town of Józefów. 

    When the men clambered down from the vehicles, they were met with the sight of a typical Polish village: white houses, thatched straw roofs. They also saw their commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp –⁠ or “Papa Trapp,” as the men affectionately called the fifty-three-year-old.

    When Trapp began to speak, he didn’t do so with hate and anger in his voice. Instead, his words were choked, and his eyes were full of tears. On this day, he told them, the battalion would have to complete their first major action, and it would be a frightfully unpleasant task. Trapp did not like the assignment at all, yet it had come from the highest authorities. 

    What was the task? Well, as one policeman recalls Trapp saying, there were Jewish people in the village of Józefów involved with the “partisans” –⁠ members of the anti-German resistance. The battalion now needed to round them up and separate the young males, who would be taken to a work camp. The rest –⁠ including women, children, and the elderly –⁠ were to be shot on the spot. 

    Suddenly, a battalion of middle-aged, reserve policemen found themselves faced with a murderous task for which they were, by all appearances, unlikely candidates. How did this happen?

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    What is Ordinary Men about?

    Ordinary Men (1992) tells the disturbing tale of how a group of men went from “ordinary” to brutal, hardened killers executing the Nazi mission during the Holocaust. It examines in detail the evolution of these men’s attitudes, from the beginning when most experienced disgust at the gruesome tasks they were asked to carry out, through to the end when almost all had become accustomed to the cruelty and some even came to delight in it. Above all, it is a warning and a reminder of what humanity is capable of in its darkest moments.

    Who should read Ordinary Men?

    • World War II and Holocaust historians
    • Survivors of the Holocaust and their relatives and ancestors
    • Anyone who thinks themselves incapable of acts of cruelty

    About the Author

    Christopher R. Browning is the professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2006, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He won the National Jewish Book Award three times, including for Ordinary Men in addition to The Origins of the Final Solution and Remembering Survival.

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