This year I had the opportunity to visit Bruly-de-Pesche in Belgium, close to the French border. In my time I have visited many battlefields and related sites, but this one felt different. Bruly-de-Pesche was where Hitler’s forward headquarters for the 1940 France campaign was situated and where he dictated the terms of the French surrender. Hitler spent some three weeks here, and the village has changed little since then – disconcertingly so. One can walk, recognisably so, in Hitler’s footsteps both in the village and in the woods. In the woods Organisation Todt landscaped a woodland walk for Hitler’s relaxation which still stands. To see pictures of a jocular Hitler with his staff there, or to quietly sit on a landscaped wall where quite likely Hitler sat, is to understand how banal evil is.
Evil often only seems black and white in hindsight. We are all guilty of moral compromise, and we all like to think that we would not compromise in the important things. That there are red lines we would not cross. The truth is rather more prosaic. Our society is characterised by moral relativism and significant moral fissures over such issues as abortion, transgenderism and immigration. Moral relativism is inherently susceptible to manipulation and extant moral fissures can be exploited and compromise can lead to complicity. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. White turns grey and grey turns black gradually over time, and the urge to conform is strong.
This can all too clearly be seen in Christopher Browning’s excellent book ‘Ordinary Men‘, the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.
Browning’s work clearly shows how ordinary men can do unspeakable things.
“At Józefów a mere dozen men out of nearly 500 had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder.“
“As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity – the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out.” (page 71)
“The battalion had orders to kill Jews, but each individual did not. Yet 80 to 90 percent of the men proceeded to kill, though almost all of them – at least initially – were horrified and disgusted by what they were doing. To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behaviour, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot.” (page 184)
Mostly Brown’s book is short on the details of the killing work. But for their work, and for others like them, there were witnesses and helpers, some willing and some ‘requisitioned’. Two of the most harrowing books that I have read on the Holocaust provide eyewitness accounts to these so called actions, in Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Belarus and Russia). These killings were carried out largely by shooting, and largely in public, absent the euphemisms of deportations and work camps. It is important to read these accounts because they lay bare the lie that few knew of the killings. It is also important to read these to realise how low ordinary people can stoop when violence is legitimised by both law and prevailing social standards. They are hard reading indeed.
“These peasants also spoke to me of the pits as if they were alive. How was I to understand what they meant? How was I to accept the witnesses’ repeated assertion that the pits “breathed” for three days afterward? I attributed it, without yet having explained it, to the deterioration process of the bodies. And then, on a different day in another village, someone who had been requisitioned as a child to dig that pit told us that a hand coming out of the ground had grabbed hold of his spade. I understood then that all the witnesses who had told us about the pits moving, accompanying their words by an up and down movement of their hand, had signified in fact that a pit took three days to quiet down because many of the victims had been buried alive. After understanding that, I accepted as the true meaning of these words: “The pit took three days to die…” “The well shouted for three days.” Some victims were only wounded or had even been thrown alive into the pits.” (page 65)
“Dora was a little girl who lived in Simferopol in Crimea. She was Krymchak. Dora died at the age of four and a half, assassinated.
Dora was taken off with two other members of her family. Those who had escaped the raid begged two neighbours to go to the extermination site to try and negotiate with the Germans for her not to be killed. When the neighbours arrived at “Kilometer Eleven,” they found that the Germans had put up a road block. Traffic was stopped during the shootings. Only the trucks willed with Jews were authorised to pass. On the other side of the barricade, they caught sight of little Dora. She was naked. In the icy cold, she was begging the Germans to give her back her coat: “Give me my jacket, I’ll give you my shoes in exchange!” But the Germans listened to no one’s requests. Dora was shot.” (pages 211-212)
“Then I noticed a very handsome couple with two small children. The husband and wife were very well dressed. You could see right away that they were fine people … This couple was in one of the groups that a Russian civilian was bringing toward the firing squad. The woman had a child of about one in her arms, and the couple was leading another child of three or four by the hand. Once they were facing the firing squad I saw the man ask for something. He had probably asked for permission to hold his family in his arms one last time, because I saw him embrace his wife and the child she was holding. But at the same time the shots were fired and everyone fell to the ground. I watched those people all the way to the firing squad because they were such a handsome couple and they had two children.“
“Most of the time, the children knocked over by their falling mothers sat on the ground or on their mothers’ bodies without really understanding what had just happened. I saw how they climbed on their mothers among the dead women. They looked around and definitely did not understand what was going on. I still have the image very clearly before my eyes: they looked up with their big eyes and scared expressions at the shooters. They were too terrified to cry. Twice I saw an SS go down in the ditch with a rifle and kill the children, who were sitting on the dead or on their own mothers, with a shot to the nape of the neck. As I’ve said, they weren’t crying, but looking around in shock . . . The children I saw struggling to move here and there ranged from babies to children of two or three years.“
“While I was watching the massacre, a young girl came up to me suddenly, grabbed my hand, and said: ‘Please, please, they have to let me live a little longer, I’m so young. My parents have already fallen. We don’t have any radio at the house, and we didn’t have newspapers either. The rich Jews left a long time ago with cars and planes. Why are they shooting the poor Jews? We have never insulted the Germans. Tell them that they have to leave me alive a little longer. I’m so young!’ The girl had her hands in front of her face , as though praying, and she was looking me straight in the eyes. From what I remember, she was still a schoolgirl or student. She spoke German fluently, without an accent. One of the shooters with an automatic pistol saw us and called out to me ‘Bring her!’ I answered that I would not do it. The girl, who had heard, begged me, terrified: ‘Please, please, don’t do it!’ Since I was making no move to bring the girl to the firing squad, I saw the SS coming toward me. He had his automatic pistol ready at his hip. At this point all I could think was: ‘Let’s hope that the girl doesn’t turn around, that she keeps looking me in the eye and that she does not see her killer approaching and have to face death.’ I kept comforting her over and over, even though I could see the shooter approaching her back. The girl was still begging me and surely didn’t hear the shooter coming. Once he right behind the girl, he pulled the trigger. He shot her behind the ears and she fell to the ground in front of me, without a sound. I think that she even fell on my feet. I will never in my life forget this image of the girl lying at my feet. Her right eye had been torn out. It was still held by the optic nerve and lay on the ground ten to fifteen centimetres from her head. The eye was still whole. The shot had just ripped it from her head. I can still that white glove today. Her head wound barely bled.” (pages 164-170)
Holocaust reading is hard. The necessary things in life often are. We would do well to do more hard reading, recognising that we too are ordinary men and women, with all that entails.