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  • Ordinary Organizations: Why Normal Men Carried Out the Holocaust by Stefan Kühl
  • Augustine Brannigan (bio)
Ordinary Organizations: Why Normal Men Carried Out the Holocaust By Stefan Kühl. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016. 322 pp.

Stefan Kühl's study of Ordinary Organizations was undertaken to explain, in the words of the subtitle, "why normal men carried out the Holocaust." His study introduces a new wrinkle in the recent literature on the role of individual agency in the perpetration of mass murder. Although the "final solution" to the Jewish population was a policy evolved at the apex of the Nazi dictatorship, it was carried out by hundreds of thousands of "ordinary" people. Why would anyone assent to such depraved policies? In the 1990s, Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen tackled this question in their respective histories of Police Battalion 101. Police battalions were manned by those who were too old for conscription for regular combat. In Poland, these "ordinary men" were frequently assigned the task of massacring entire Jewish communities. Browning raises the question of the motivation of the participants when he recounts the situation of Battalion 101's first murderous assignment in Józefów. Before the operation, Colonel Trapp assembled his men and explained that he had received orders from the highest authorities to clear the Jews from the village, that the able-bodied men were to be transported for forced labor to a concentration camp, and that the remainder of the community was to be liquidated. Trapp suggested that anyone who was uncomfortable with the orders could be reassigned. About 10 to 20 percent of the men opted out. This raised the issue of voluntarism in a provocative way. It implied that the majority who engaged in the murder of Józefów's unarmed Jewish civilians did so voluntarily. Battalion members would later undertake countless "Jew hunts" of families living surreptitiously in the forests. These execution squads were staffed primarily by police volunteers. A number of factors contributed to the transformation of ordinary men into mass murderers: habituation, peer pressure, and the legitimizing effect of orders originating from government. Goldhagen, [End Page 95] who recounts the same incidents, says that the men participated because they thought it was the right thing to do. Widespread "eliminationist antisemitism" in the Third Reich led Germans to think that the Jews deserved to die. These two studies evoke the issue of agency in the ordinary soldiers' complicity in mass murder.

For Kühl, neither perspective is satisfactory. For him, the key factor is the organizational context in which the men acted. When individuals enter "ordinary organizations," they manage "zones of indifference," including killing civilians, in which they fulfill organizational goals that they themselves may not share. Organizations can mediate the gulf between such state-initiated goals and individual motivations in five specific ways. First, organizations attempt to indoctrinate their members with a goal that they find compelling. Propaganda about the threat posed by the Jewish "race" to the purity of the German volk and the achievement of its survival and expansion into the East were seductive ideas that invited compliance with actions that would otherwise be reprehensible to individuals acting on their own. Second, organizations employ coercion to discipline noncom-pliant behavior. In military and quasimilitary organizations, subordinates fear the consequences of noncompliance. However, Kühl emphasizes that the effectiveness of organizations in achieving compliance results from giving actors significant leeway in accommodating expectations that they find unsavory. Third, organizations evolve networks of comradeship that create informal expectations based on group loyalty. In Józefów, the killing of unarmed and defenseless old men, pregnant women, and children was undertaken "for the team." Fourth, the police battalion members who participated in the murder of the Polish Jews frequently benefited from looting the wealth of those they killed, in spite of SS directives against such private gain from the victims of Nazi policies. And fifth, the barbarous activities of the police battalion became attractive to its members as the opportunities for cruelty and dominance stimulated normally suppressed sadistic appetites among the perpetrators. These five conditions form the core of Kühl's book.

The last two chapters raise more...


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pp. 95-98
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