I will be honest: I have a great deal of trepidation about doing this review. Not because I think the book is flawed in any way, but because it’s the most traumatising book I have ever read. For the sake of being completely candid, I do not think I (personally) made a good decision reading it- so that may cloud this review. Before I get into talking about it, however, I would advise that this post contains explicit references to the Holocaust. I do not normally issue disclaimers for books, but in this case I will be discussing very harrowing accounts and there will be graphic content in this review as I will be quoting the book. Please feel free to look away now.
“those who killed cannot be absolved by the notion that anyone in the same situation would have done as they did”
The reason I picked this book up is simply because of my interest in moral psychology and the fact that I saw this was referenced multiple times, such as in the work of Baumeister. I did learn an awful lot about the subject and I do not believe I could have got a more thorough inside-view of the minds of Nazi killers. Not only does it apply the lessons of Zimbardo, but I felt it went further than many other books on similar topics. It explored the topic of conformity, whilst acknowledging the choice that people had to step away, which was very rarely taken. Crucially, this acknowledged a perpetrator’s willingness to lie and to obfuscate guilt. It acknowledged the psychological mechanisms employed to deal with mass murder and the propaganda (from the casual view of it as boring work to the view of Jews as inferior) to boost morale. Simultaneously it drew on the fact that while killing can make a person physically ill, it is also something that people can, and did, get used to.
“The Jews of Miedzyrzec did not march “like sheep to the slaughter”. They were driven with an almost unimaginable ferocity and brutality that left a singular impact even on the memories of the increasingly numbed and callous participants from Reserve Battalion 101. This was not a case of “out of sight out of mind””
There are many lessons in this book, but a couple I wish to stress. One is the truth about civilian victims. I often see a horrible trope in Hollywood of unarmed men and women somehow beating armed officers- personally I have never been able to suspend my disbelief for this because it’s a false message. No war has ever been won without access to weapons, most notably guns. It is also not possible to believe this myth if you ever read an historical account of people being dragged from their bed, shot if they fight book or just don’t move fast enough, and are then separated from their families on a march to their death. This book dispels that idea on multiple occasions, particularly when it describes how people were “chased with guns to shooting site, or made to look into pit full of loved ones and then shot in the back of the head”. The power play of the sadistic killers evidently highlights the powerlessness of the victims.
“The Holocaust, after all, is a story with far too few heroes and all too many perpetrators and victims”
There was also a description of 78 expendable Poles being killed- which I point out for the specific reason that there is a notion Hitler and the Nazis would have stopped killing had they won the war. This casual murder dispels that idea- indicating that Lebensraum would have been found at the expense of other people’s lives once they were done with the groups of “undesirables” they were already persecuting (it has always been illogical to me anyway, since the Nazis were already wasting time and resources while they were losing a war- I do not imagine that they would have been less fanatical had they had more power). This is not to say- as the book points out- that atrocities were limited to just the Nazis or that the German tales of Polish complicity were false (though it was useful to the Germans to alleviate guilt, there were still collaborators)
“I must recognise that in the same situation, I could have been either a killer or an evader- both were human- if I want to understand the behaviour of both as best they can.”
While all of this is disturbing, none of this is why I was left feeling so hollowed out by this book. What is most unsettling about Ordinary Men is that a lot of this is made up of first-hand accounts by the perpetrators. To read this book is to look into the abyss of the worst parts of the human soul. There is no way around the fact that, if you read this book correctly, you will come away seeing yourself in the killers and realising that we are all capable of such atrocities. The acts described are horrific and anyone would have a hard time to understand them… and yet I was disgusted by myself because I could see, yes, it was possible. Reading this book alone would be enough to fill anyone with the kind of monstrous anger that unlocks that beast-like part of ourselves we all try to hold in. There’s no way around the fact that such emotions are the path to destructive behaviour- and yet simultaneously that self-knowledge is the only remedy. Still, I cannot deny that there’s nothing worse than looking into the chasm of human evil and seeing yourself reflected back. As the title would suggest, this is the story of ordinary men after all.
“The grass-roots perpetrators became “professional killers”.”
That is why I am sickened every time I think of this book. And I fear that everything I’ve said will be taken the wrong way and could be viewed in the worst possible light. But I feel it is too important to make this point: we all have the capability to do good or evil. The biggest mistake we can make is to think we’re not capable of evil or see ourselves as the perpetual “good guys”. I know that there is a habit to view atrocities from the eyes of the victims- and of course it’s important to hear their stories- nonetheless I think it is more important to incorporate the lessons of how people can become a perpetrator lest we ever find ourselves in their shoes.
I know that this is a grim view of humanity, but I also think it is a highly necessary one. I will not lie: I had to physically will myself to the end and I cannot say that I have ever felt so tormented by a book before. That said, I think that it is an important book, and especially a must-read for psychologists and people with an interest in moral psychology. I’m not going to put a rating or urge you to read it- you will have to make your own minds up in that regard.