“Whoever Saves a Life Saves the World”
I have some important news to share, but before telling you exactly what it is, let me give you some context.
You may have heard the sentence in the title above already. It originates in the rabbinical comments on the bible. There, in a discussion of the need to warn witnesses of the heavy responsibility resting on their shoulders in cases involving possible capital punishment, the Mishnah declares that they should be told:
“… whoever destroys a single life in Israel is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world and whoever saves a single life in Israel is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”
The Quran has taken over this principle. In the 32nd verse of the fifth Sura, or chapter, of the Quran is a retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. In it we read:
“… whoever kills a person, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he had killed all men. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all men.”
It would make sense to assume that this principle serves as a guiding principle for every society that calls itself ‘civilized”, wouldn’t it?
As I wrote on the page ‘Up Close and Personal’ of this website: “What still torments me, after all these years, is how it’s possible for masses to succumb to such hateful hysteria.” The evil committed by the common masses during the perpetration of the Holocaust has always fascinated me. Also, the inaction of the so-called innocent bystander is also something I find hard to deal with.
Actually ‘fascination’ is not the right word to describe my feeling and drive. It’s actually more of a preoccupation about the fate of humanity, the state of society and humanity. As a society, all too often we are confronted with behaviors of different degrees of vileness and indecency, without actually taking action about them.
By now, I have reached a point in my life at which I can almost focus fully on contributing to family, friends and society. So please, let me share with you the story of a book that was published in early 1992 ‘Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland’.
Its author is Christopher R. Browning. Since I read that book it has been at the forefront of my mind continually. In its essence this book is the shocking account of how a unit of average middle-aged Germans became the cold-blooded murderers of tens of thousands of jews.
After many months of getting to know Christopher Browning, time and again talking to him and his literary agent, I have recently managed to acquire the movie rights for this unique book.
What will follow from this still has to be determined more precisely and I do not want to make any false promises. But dear reader, I will undertake all I can to share the message from this book as much as possible over the coming years.
When we think about the various atrocities of history, something in our nature wants us to think of the perpetrators as being different from normal people. We envision brutes and sadists; stereotypical villains with no moral sensibility who indulge in killing like depraved beasts, killing the innocent for pleasure and thrills.
Browning begins his book by giving statistics on the particular importance of Poland to the Nazi Holocaust. “In mid-March of 1942,” he writes, “some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25 percent had perished. In mid-February 1943, the percentages were exactly the reverse. At the core of the Holocaust was a short, intense wave of mass murder. The center of gravity of this mass murder was Poland”.
Browning makes the case that such a task would require a massive mobilization of soldiers to carry out these acts, and that this mobilization of troops for the sake of carrying out genocide occurred at the same time that large numbers of German soldiers and material were committed to the battle for Stalingrad.
For Browning, this begged the following question: how did the Germans organize and carry out this assault on the Jewish community in Poland and where did they find the manpower to carry it out?
Monstrous deeds of the Holocaust juxtaposed with the human face of the killers
This line of inquiry led him to the State Administrations of Justice in Ludwigsburg, Germany, which is the office for coordinating the investigation of Nazi crimes in the Federal Republic of Germany. It was here that Browning first encountered the indictment of Reserve Police Battalion 101.
Browning then describes the particular effect this indictment had on him. “Though I had been studying archival documents and court records of the Holocaust for nearly twenty years, the impact this indictment was singularly powerful and disturbing. Never before had I encountered the issue of choice so dramatically framed by the course of events and so openly discussed by at least some of the perpetrators. Never before had I seen the monstrous deeds of the Holocaust so starkly juxtaposed with the human face of the killers”.
How do ordinary men commit these atrocities?
Browning attempts to answer this question. He first states that there are two kinds of atrocity which take place in war: those associated with a certain “battlefield frenzy,” in which brutalized and embittered soldiers seek to have revenge on those they deem their enemy, and those which occur as “standard operating procedure,” such as the fire-bombings of German and Japanese cities. Browning also touches on the issues of “dehumanizing the enemy,” “routinizing the task,” and other psychological functions which facilitated the state of mind needed for the carrying out of genocide.
In addition, he makes reference to two very important psychological studies, Milgram’s Obedience Study and Zimbardo’s Prison Study, which explain how normal human beings can be coaxed into perpetrating violence against others out of a natural tendency towards obedience, as well as how stressful or violent situations can awaken psychological pre-dispositions toward violent behavior in otherwise ordinary people.
Browning also addresses the impact of National Socialism on the police’s attitudes towards their victims. The book closes with the following statement and question: “Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets the moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”
Pressure to conform
Mr. Browning’s meticulous account, and his own acute reflections on the actions of the battalion members, demonstrate the important effect that the situation had on those men: the orders to kill, the pressure to conform, and the fear that if they didn’t kill they might suffer some kind of punishment or, at least, damage to their careers. In fact, the few who tried to avoid killing got away with it; but most believed, or at least could tell themselves, that they had little choice.
Each of these factors helped the policemen feel that they were not violating, or violating only because it was necessary, their personal moral codes.
But, let’s review the facts here. Did these ordinary men have a choice to perpetrate their crimes against humanity or not?The battalion commander, major Trapp, who was clearly distressed by the orders he had received, gave the men the option to not participate in the shootings. Several accepted that, and during the day, more men asked to be excused from shooting unarmed civilians. Despite peer pressure and being regarded as shirkers, perhaps 10-20% of the Ordnungspolizei men didn’t actively participate in that and subsequent actions. And those who didn’t participate were never punished for it.
Or does genocide become a personal sin that we are all capable of?
Browning’s book has done what few other genocide texts have: given a clear insight into who the actual perpetrators of genocide are. People hardly envision middle-age working class men in this position, and that is why the account of Reserve Police Battalion 101 is particularly unsettling. These men were practically the definition of normal; they aren’t thought of as particularly “young” or “old”; their social standing is pretty unremarkable. They epitomize the image of “the every man.” If these people are capable of committing mass murder, then we all are.
After reading this book the only possible conclusion is that no longer is genocide perpetrated by “those people,” the mysterious “other,” who is in no way like us. Genocide becomes a personal sin that a great many of us are capable of, and this is a reality that needs to be accepted before further genocides can be prevented.
The claim that “I was just following orders”, and that not doing so would invariably lead to grave consequences, doesn’t hold water as the facts reveal. The account is a chilling reminder of how thin the veneer of civilization can be. Which is exactly the reason why I see sharing this important message for humanity as my legacy.