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  • Ordinary Organizations: Why Normal Men Carried Out the Holocaust by Stefan Kühl
  • Timothy L. Schroer
Ordinary Organizations: Why Normal Men Carried Out the Holocaust. By Stefan Kühl. Translated by Jessica Spengler (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016. vi plus 322 pp. $24.95).

Stefan Kühl takes a sociological approach to the familiar question of why seemingly normal men engaged in the rounding üp and killing of Jewish men, women, and children in the Holocaust and offers "a decidedly sociological answer" (2). Applying organizational sociology drawing from systems theory, he argues that the organizations to which the perpetrators belonged played a crucial role in bringing individuals with a variety of different motives together "to do things they would not have done outside the organization" (170).

As readers of this journal know well, historians have repeatedly borrowed from sociologists. Here Kühl, a sociologist, seeks to improve on the interpretations offered by historians, most notably Christopher Browning, who applied sociological insights in his study of Reserve Police Battalion 101, the group that Kühl likewise places at the center of his inquiry. Kühl finds much to admire in Browning's account, but faults it for failing to clarify exactly how all the multiple motivating factors that Browning identified should be weighted and related to each other.

Perhaps the most important sociologically informed premise of Kühl's analysis is that a person's account of that person's motivations for any action reflects the social situation in which that account is produced and the interlocutors for whom it is produced. Kühl thus notes that audio recordings of conversations among German prisoners of war, made without their knowledge, in which they discussed their thoughts and feelings, do not, in fact, offer the ünmediated access to the truth that one might hope for. Rather, those recordings reflected the social setting in which those speakers addressed their comrades. That context tended to produce narratives emphasizing the importance of comradeship in the speakers' experiences and motivations. Kühl makes an excellent point here, underscoring the need to take perpetrators' descriptions of their motives with a grain of sociological salt. The best historians have often done so.Christopher Browning, for example, noted that in the context of a criminal inquiry, former policemen had every reason to play down their antisemitism, which would constitute a base motive for killings with potentially severe legal consequences for anyone who admitted to it. Büt Kühl then pushes this insight to its logical endpoint, explaining: "it is not possible for sociology to say anything about a person's true motives" (38). Here he goes further than most historians would go, and further than is warranted. Despite the difficulties of discerning historical [End Page 983] actors' real motives, historians can draw reasonable conclusions about why the perpetrators acted as they did.

In thematically-organized chapters, Kühl probes various ways in which the organizations like the Order Police attempted to motivate their members. He explores the Order Police's expressed organizational goals; its use of coercion toward its members; the ways it attempted to foster collegiality; the monetary incentives (both acknowledged and illicit forms such as loot) it provided; and the degree to which its activities intrinsically attracted members. Applying insights from organizational sociology, Kühl clarifies that organizations, particularly strong organizations such as the Order Police, seeking to lead their members to carry out the organization's program do not need to inculcate a full embrace of the goals. Between full acceptance and complete rejection of the mandated actions lies "a zone of indifference" (42), which encompasses a sphere of activities that may be unpleasant for organizational members, but which they will nevertheless fulfill, albeit indifferently. In the case of the killers in the Order Police, there were indeed men who, despite inner reservations, carried out the Reich's genocidal policy with horrific effectiveness.

A particularly interesting avenue of Kühl's analysis explores the legal framework of the Order Police. Practitioners of perpetrator studies have not troubled themselves overmuch with examining the Reich's rules governing the perpetrators' actions during the genocide. Kühl sketches quickly the ways in which the Third Reich...


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pp. 983-984
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