The Truth About Ordinary Men

ordinary menI 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.

49 thoughts on “The Truth About Ordinary Men

  1. I want to comment but at the same time I don’t want to cheapen what you experienced with this book.
    I guess I’d say we all need to read at least one book in our life that leaves us feeling sick. A yardstick, as it were. For when you no longer feel sick about certain things, your conscience is gone and you are doomed to become what used to make you sick.

    Trust you’ll be able to move on from this with little trauma…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree about reading things that make us uncomfortable – even though I don’t often.
      Not wishing to trivialise, I also believe that we shouldn’t read a daily newspaper we agree with politically. It fosters the impression that everyone feels this way and closes the mind to other opinions. (Also… you have to understand others’ opinions to be able to argue against them.)

      Liked by 4 people

  2. “we all have the capability to do good or evil.”
    I greatly appreciate the honesty of your review here. It’s a great strength to be able to recognize that we, loving and kind people, are no different than those who have committed indescribable atrocities. Each of us has great darkness and great light…

    Liked by 4 people

  3. The way you summed it all up- you are absolutely right. I am definitely interested in this subject, but will definitely have to find the right time to read it. Just by reading your review, my thoughts are churning. Your writing is honest and important, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Once again, a very thoughtful review and I daresay I cannot read this book because there is too much sadness going on in the world right now, but I will take your review to heart and shelve the book in my mind for further reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow. Is this a novel? The way you described it, it sounds like it was written from actual interviews or memoirs from the perpetrators. In my senior year in college I took a class on –and wrote my senior thesis on — Literature of Witness, specifically from those who’d witnessed and experienced the Holocaust. It was certainly the most intense class I’ve ever taken. I definitely understand why you still feel traumatized; it’s not easy stuff to read, and it conjures so many powerful emotions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No I should’ve clarified, it’s non fiction. But it does use actual accounts, letters and such from the view of the perpetrators, describing events and views. It certainly gives a psychological view of their perspective. And that sounds like a really tough class. I definitely agree with you there- it’s a very difficult subject to read about. Thanks very much for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “we all have the capability to do good or evil.”
    That is something I wholeheartedly agree with. Simplifying characters as either good or bad is purely for the “let’s make them into ‘them’ vs ‘us’ argument” so we can feel better about ourselves.

    I think evil is rather made than born and addressing that is extremely important. Not to condone that behaviour at all but to find compassion and address why it is happening and how we can change that.

    I’m so sorry this book deeply affected you. I think being able to see complexity is our human nature cultivates great awareness – even what that doesn’t feel good at times. ❤️ It does sound like a very powerful book and thank you for writing such a thoughtful review. I will definitely read it as psychology is something I can never get enough of. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really agree with you there. And I think you put that brilliantly- I think a lot of the time we make out like it’s a simple discussion just to feel more comfortable in our own skin.

      And I definitely agree that evil is made and not born. And I one hundred percent agree with you- we can’t learn from it if we don’t try to address how or why it gets to that point.

      Thank you- you’re very kind ❤ I do agree with that- sadly I think it's impossible to avoid these things sometimes. And I'm really glad that you want to read this now too. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It is a great review and you did well in reading about such a difficult and traumatising subject. This is where history beats horror fiction. As a (kind of) history buff, especially war history, I am well versed in the atrocities of various wars and I totally agree with your remarks. I feel though that more people should read books like this since history has an uncanny capacity to repeat itself (that’s just natural since people and their motives and behaviours haven’t really changed that much through the centuries) and we live in an age where ignorance is a very poor excuse. Congratulations again for reading this book.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you very much. And yes I do agree with you. And I absolutely do agree that people should read historical books as much as possible and definitely that it’s a horrible reality that history repeats itself. And yes, to my mind education seems the only way to combat it. And thank you very much again for your very kind comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think a lot of people were quite shocked recently by the Polish government’s decision to make it punishable by law to refer to the camps in Poland as anything other than German camps. Though books like these do, and should, make us ill, we need them in the world to remind us that it’s not just about Good vs. Evil, things are not just black and white. I’m sure the people quoted in the book did not say, ‘Yes, we’re the bad guys and that’s fine by us.’ In their eyes, I would imagine they became the “good” guys.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @ Eva O’Reilly – I had just read the Tattooist of Auschwitz and then heard about the Polish law immediately after reading it. I even had to write a follow-up post after that to process my thoughts. It still makes my stomach churn that such a hateful law could be passed. It is why I think reading books like this are important. I read them to remember and acknowledge what happened but they do stick with me and so have to space them out.

      @ orangutanlibrarian – This book sounds like a fascinating read but tough. I also took a Holocaust class where a part of it was to “get into the minds of Nazis” and it was my least favourite part of the class. And then reading about how “ordinary” people “turn” evil is harrowing. I seriously know that I wouldn’t survive such atrocities but am still impressed by the people who survive them. And I know that sometimes good people make bad choices for survival. And then there is mob mentality elements and such. I can’t say that I will read this book. But in general I find the more first person accounts to be interesting and hard. And we are losing the last of the people who can give first person accounts so they will become even more precious. So I will put this on me list because I feel it could be an important read. I worry about what such a read will do to me though.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think it is shocking that they did that. That’s definitely not the way the accounts look at themselves (one example sticks in my mind where a commanding officer is talking about how they will have lost the trust of the locals after recent events and have concerns like the loss of morale) so it really does demonstrate that people don’t generally see themselves as the bad guys. Thank you for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A retired policeman I know was asked on his firearms course if he could kill someone (I was reminded of this by a recent TV programme about training for the SOE in wartime Britain, who were asked the same question). He said he’d have no problems shooting a man, but he couldn’t kill an animal. Of course, he was thinking in terms of criminals, not innocents, and of self-defence, – he may view an advancing tiger differently.
    On reading your review I was reminded of how I avoid – for instance – dog rescue programs because they upset me so much. I couldn’t read this book.
    I identify with the dogs – I’ve had so many. How can people do this? What kind of people are they?
    This is a question that the book you’ve reviewed tackles, in a way. True, the case of an officer under orders, risking disciplinary action and possibly his own death, is different from the case of a sadistic animal torturer (or child killer, or casual homicidal burglar).
    What an opportunity for the sadist though! And how would that kind of acceptance – enjoyment even – affect his or her colleagues. And how relevant is this to civilians today who harm others so casually?
    Coward that I am, I think I’ll have to read the book

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand that- I think sometimes I would rather avoid this topic- it’s not something that is easy for me to read in general by any stretch of the imagination. Yeah true (although sadly a lot of these men had the offer to be reassigned- a lot of this book covers the fact that the men felt they couldn’t leave their colleagues to the unpleasant work). I do recommend it- even if it is hard.


  10. If you’re not already familiar with the “Stanford Prison Experiment” it speaks to the reality that humans easily justify evil acts if told to do them by a “superior” or it’s “their job”. I’ll have to find this book and read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I am actually- I referred to it in the post actually (because Zimbardo is the person who ran that experiment)- so this book actually refers to that and applies its lessons in relation to the subject of conformity. Definitely recommend this if you have an interest in the subject.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Wonderful and thoughtful review. I think that reading this book and acknowledging that we all have the capacity for good and evil tales a tremendous amount of courage. The human capacity to justify evil is honestly astounding and that is by no means a good thing. I don’t think I’d be able to read this book just yet. I don’t think I could sit through it at this time but I will definitely be keeping it in mind because I think that it’s a story that needs to be told.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I don’t think I could stomach this book. WWII is already a sore topic for me that I struggled with during my entire school career and beyond, but I do recognise the value in it as well. And I really hope people don’t read the wrong thing into your review, but for me it was pretty clear what you wanted to say and I thank you for talking about the book even if I won’t be picking it up myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for the honest/traumatic review! I think it is so important to try to understand where other people are coming from…including people whose views/actions we find morally repugnant. As you say, it helps us recognize our own capacity for evil. Recognizing that capacity within ourselves can help us show grace and compassion to those with widely divergent views (counterbalanced by refusal to affirm or aid injustice/immorality). It also helps us recognize the path to great injustice more quickly and oppose it more intelligently and persuasively.

    I just started a book (“Darkness Over Germany” by E. Amy Buller) that sound like any interesting companion to this one. It shares the stories of how Nazism was allowed to progress with a focus on Germans who were opposed to it but may not have done much to oppose it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks for that review! It must’ve been a difficult experience, but on the other hand it seems like a forming one – and that never comes easily. Not sure if I’ll be reading this book anytime soon – I’ve heard about it a lot and it indeed seems like a book you need to be mentally prepared to read – but I will definitely bear in mind your review.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. A very fair review on such a tough book. It’s not exactly something one would pick up to “enjoy” but certainly something educational and an important look at history.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I really applaud you for getting to the end of this book. Without reading it myself I don’t really feel qualified to comment but it does sound like a fascinating read, if you can stomach the repulsive real life content. Big hug ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is a such a stellar review. It honestly touches on every aspect of why I continue to challenge myself with reading. I cannot offer much in terms of insight since I have no personal experience with this one, but I am thankful you chose to share your own, as difficult as it was.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I just finished reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, and that was tough enough to read… but only because I knew what happened, not because any of the horrors were truly shown in the diary. She made a point to be as optimistic as she could in the circumstances, I think. This book sounds like it made a point to show everything as realistically as possible… Not something I can stomach at the moment, though I respect your desire to read it, and then courage to write about it. It would be easier to have declared it to be “too hard to talk about” and left it at that.

    Still. I came away from Anne Frank’s Diary wondering if I would have had the courage to do good the way her helpers did. I know that reading a book like this one would leave me devastated in knowing that under the wrong circumstances I could do much worse than doing nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I totally understand the feeling of being broken inside from reading a book, particularly one about the Holocaust. This one really touches on a very different perspective than most though. All the Light We Cannot See also gets into on this concept of being a party to these atrocities and not stopping them. Another book, The Reader, delves a bit into that concept of “under different circumstances that could have been me” or “under different circumstances it wouldn’t have been.” I think these are really important concepts to think about, especially these days. We all think “I could not do that.” But that is a dangerous way to think, honestly it’s not really thinking. And we need more thinking and self evaluation in this world, even if it’s hard. Thanks for the review! Sorry to get on a soapbox!! Very “triggering” topic, as my daughter would call it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes it really does. And yes I’ve read both of those- you make great points about them. And yes I really agree that it’s dangerous to think that we couldn’t do the same- I think self-evaluation is the best thing we can do and to ignore our own faults is dangerous. No worries! One of those rare occasions where I might use the term triggering too.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Yeesh, sorry about the harrowing experience you had with this book. The most exhausting and depressing books are those that kind of disillusion us about ourselves, though I agree it’s absolutely necessary to recognize we’re capable of evil since it’s the only way to catch our flaws. In fact, one of the characters (Lancelot) from The Once and Future King actually says this: that he’s so actively kind and gracious to people BECAUSE he recognizes that he has a stronger capacity to be violent and cruel than others. I guess it’s a necessary struggle slash burden that we have to live with in order to be good human beings. :/

    Liked by 1 person

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