Reserve Police Battalion 101: How Did Ordinary Citizens Become Killers Under the Third Reich

Police Battalion 101 being inspected, circa 1941.

In the preface to his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher R. Browning makes it abundantly clear that “Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving.”[1]

Throughout this aptly titled book, this account of Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101 supports Browning’s position that these predominantly working-class men from Hamburg were transformed into killers; most reluctantly, yet some eager. No single event changed them, the transformation was multi-causal in nature. As is true with all individuals, one responds to crisis according to his abilities. The men of the 101st were no different. Some became avid———even sadistic———in their killing while most became obedient killers. The ten to twenty percent of the group who did not kill became courageous. Regardless of the results of the changes in the men, each individual had to become something foreign to his fundamental nature. Browning supports this thesis throughout his work and is convincing in his opinion that the ordinary men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 became killers as a result of deflection, the weight of conformity and obedience, and most significantly through desensitization.

Life Before the 101

Heinz Buchmann, the proprietor of a lumber business in Hamburg, was drafted into the order police in 1939. [2] He did not volunteer for service in the battalion nor did he have aspirations to become an officer. He was selected for officer training as he was well educated and considered middle-class, as opposed to the 63 percent of the battalion who were deemed working-class.[3] This middle-aged group of civilians had jobs, homes, families, and friends. Their societal participation was conducted in relative anonymity as they undertook no exceptional acts; they were average men. Though he was ranked in the middle-class, Buchmann was no different. Browning clearly notes that Buchmann was described as a “‘typical civilian’ who had no desire to be a soldier.”[4] This became evident in the summer of 1940 when he asked to be discharged after serving as a driver in Poland less than a year after the German invasion on September 1, 1939.

By utilizing the timeframe noticeably provided by Browning, it can be extrapolated that Buchmann witnessed a great amount of violence and carnage that was incompatible with his moral composition. It is illogical to conclude that Buchmann wanted to be discharged if he was innately inclined to kill. His discharge was summarily denied, thereby placing him in a situation where he had to become either a killer or one courageous enough to adhere to his humanity as the Order Police, Einsatzgruppen, or any other killing squad was not an environment conducive to stagnation. Men such as Buchmann were the exceptions, whereas 80-90 percent of the battalion committed murder. Without employing their own forms of psychological tools, they may not have possessed the ability to kill. One method utilized as a form of rationalization was to deflect the act of execution onto a higher authority.

In contrast to Buchmann, First Company commander Captain Julius Wohlauf, having spent his pre-war years joining Hitler's National Socialist Party, SA, and SS, was an established soldier prior to the onset of the Final Solution. The inculcation of Hitler's ideology combined with the SS doctrine of strength and obedience determined Wohlauf’s existence as a soldier and fostered a sense of loathing toward weakness. He refused to entertain the idea of excusing his subordinates from the duty to which they were assigned; killing Jews. He responded to any such request by indicating that those who wished to be excused, “could lie down alongside the victims.”[5]

Policemen under Wohlauf’s command who were opposed to the idea of killing innocent victims, yet very well aware of their commander’s intolerance of “cowards,” were thus faced with a moral dilemma. Executing civilians, regardless of ethnicity, political agenda, or religion, did not coincide with the humane composition of certain individuals, yet the alternative, implied by officers such as Wohlauf, was to face corporal punishment, imprisonment, or even death. In order to appease these concurrently existing opposing ideas, reservists of this ilk deflected their actions and subsequent consequences onto their superiors, thereby alleviating their sense of guilt over murdering unoffending civilians. A stark example of this is put forth by Browning when discussing the actions of Major Wilhelm Trapp after the conclusion of the massacre at Jozefow.

Jozefow Massacre

Graves of the victims of the Jozefow Massacre.

Reserve Police Battalion 101 executed 1500 Jewish civilians in the woods outside of Jozefow, Poland in July 1942.[6] It was not until the night before the shootings were to begin that Major Trapp reluctantly conveyed the orders to his policemen. A veteran of the Great War and recipient of the Iron Cross First Class, Trapp was nonetheless not considered to be an appropriate SS candidate. Customarily, SS men were career oriented, professional soldiers who accepted authority without question and held an unwavering belief in Hitler's ideology and the wisdom of their führer. Participating in the First World War provided Trapp with experience in killing: however, the lives he took during military operations were those of enemy soldiers. Jozefow was an event for which an ordinary soldier could not prepare.

Trapp’s voice cracked with emotion while giving the order to round up and kill Jewish women and children and he even went so far as to offer his men the opportunity to excuse themselves from the imminent slaughter. By doing this, Trapp tacitly asserted his opposition to the killings, thereby deflecting the responsibility to his superiors and cleverly disallowing his men of deflecting the burden onto him. Those who did not excuse themselves due to haste and pressure (all but a dozen men) no longer had the ability to assert they were forced into killing as Trapp did indeed give them a choice. However, at the end of the day when his policemen were numbing themselves with alcohol in their barracks, Trapp walked amongst his men and in an attempt at consolation placed “responsibility on higher authorities.”[7] He was witnessed crying throughout the day. While his men were in the woods committing murder, Trapp was seen weeping “bitterly.”[8] Tears and excuses were not the normative traits of willing murderers. Browning emphasizes that German society was filled with individuals no different than any other society.

For seventeen hours the Reserve Police Battalion 101 participated in mass murder in July 1942. The inexperienced marksmen, performing under surreal circumstances, turned what was expected to be a “routine” execution into a gruesome nightmare. One account provided by Browning is from policeman August Zorn* who remembered shooting “‘too high,’” with his first victim so that the “entire back of the skull of [this] Jew was torn off and the brain exposed.”[9] This was not the only such case as the novice shooters were given improper instruction, thus mutilating their victims and causing the men to emerge from the woods “gruesomely besmirched with blood, brains, and bone splinters.”[10]

Psychological Effects

The horrors of July, along with a steady stream of alcohol, desensitized the men of the 101st for future tasks. Whereas Major Trapp gave his men an opportunity to avoid killing Jews at Jozefow, subsequent participation in the Final Solution was mandatory, thus removing the factor of choice. Once the onus of making a decision was removed, the policemen were then able to utilize deflection and become obedient participants in the genocide of the European Jewish population. Murder became more palatable for some after Jozefow as they no longer were forced to confront their victims in a face-to-face manner, which afforded the reservists the opportunity to dehumanize the Jews and distance themselves through fragmentation. Working as part of the deportation process, the men of the 101st no longer had a direct hand in the killings thereby providing these civilian reservists a chance to depersonalize their involvement and detach themselves from the children they killed. Without the employment of these psychological tools, these people may not have been able to carry out such atrocities; what they had done at Jozefow provided the desensitization.

For most, Jozefow was the first occasion wherein these men had to kill and the procedure devolved into such a gruesome catastrophe that it forever altered the perpetrators. After such an indoctrination it is easy to understand that future endeavors of the like seemed easier to perform, both in method and conscience. After murdering for almost a full calendar day, the men retired to the barracks without speaking a word of what had just transpired and plunged quickly into the act of psychological repression. After successfully hiding the magnitude of their participation at Jozefow, subsequent killings in and around Serokomla became routine. In stark contrast to the somber mood after their first killings, the event in Serokomla was treated by most as just another day of work. Regardless of the fact that “bodies of dead Jews were simply left lying in the gravel pits,” the men seemed unfazed as they “stopped in Kock, where they had an afternoon meal.”[11]

Members of the 101 marching Polish Jews to cattle trains for deportation, 1941.

Repression apparently worked towards desensitization in the immediate aftermath; however, long term psychological consequences were not to be avoided. The men suffered what we today refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which manifests in various forms including physical symptoms, nightmares, and outright psychosis. Commander of the HSSPF Central Division, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was diagnosed with an “‘incapacitating illness’” and also suffered from “‘visions in connection with the shootings of the Jews…and from other difficult experiences in the east.’”[12]

Browning provides examples such as these as a means by which the reader can equate PTSD and other psychological ramifications to modern, non-Fascist societies, thereby magnifying his position that most men of the 101st were in fact ordinary and common to us all. For example, American veterans of the Vietnam “conflict” still exhibit symptoms of PTSD more than four decades after experiencing combat and killing. Like the Hamburg men in Poland, the Americans in Southeast Asia became killers of varying degrees; eager, obedient, and empathetic. The becoming of an identity costs the individual the previous assumed identity he once held, thereby producing an essentially new person at the expense of the old. For example, Lieutenant Buchmann was once the owner of a lumber yard in Hamburg, Germany prior to 1939. Once drafted into the Order Police he was no longer capable of defining himself as a civilian as he was forced to become a militant operative. Major Wilhelm Trapp was once a decorated and honorable soldier, yet in 1942 it was ordered that he become the leader of a squad that murdered innocent and helpless civilians. Perhaps some of the tears he shed that day in Jozefow were a sign of mourning for the loss of his identity and the picture he painted of the actions of an honorable soldier.

Different Types of Killers

At the conclusion of World War I, Germany was effectively in a state of reconstruction. National morale was at its lowest and hunger and poverty were widespread and in some instances, devastating. The triumph of the National Socialist Party and the ensuing war rejuvenated German national spirit. In the eyes of many civilians, this was to due Adolph Hitler and his minions, thus prompting those in society who benefitted from Hitler's regime to succumb to the preponderance of ideological propaganda. As is posited by Browning, “more Germans voted National Socialist for reasons other than anti-Semitism.”[13] However, after being conscripted and exposed to the ultimate mission of the Party, some of the reservists from Hamburg became something other than being Hitler supporters. After learning the true nature of the battalion’s mission in Jozefow, Heinz Buchmann stated he “would in no case participate in such an action, in which defenseless women and children are shot.”[14] He was in the vast minority of men who did not shoot, whereas some who did kill once were then unable to continue, as is evidenced by the recollection of a policeman who had “become so sick that I [he] simply couldn’t anymore.”[15]

In contrast to men that became both physically and mentally ill due to killing another human being, a small percentage of men devolved into sadists. For instance, while rounding up Jews to be killed in Lomazy, Lieutenant Gnade forced the elderly Jewish men to “‘crawl on the ground in the area before the grave’” and forced his non-commissioned officers to retrieve clubs and beat the victims before they were killed.[16] Prior to this, Gnade had been so loathsome at the prospect of having to witness the actions taken against the prisoners he and his men assisted in deporting, he took a midnight train from Minsk back to Hamburg so as to avoid witnessing their execution. This is but one example Browning utilizes to support his thesis that the men of the 101st were not eager to assume the role of unfeeling murderers, but rather they had to become killers.


Memorial to the victims of Jozefow.

Reservists in Police Battalion 101 were ordinary citizens before they became killers for the Reich. They were initiated into the world of murder via the most horrific means imaginable, resulting in a stoic resolution for most to continue with their duties. The primary subgroup of killers was comprised of men who “did whatever they were asked to do, without ever risking the onus of confronting authority.”[17] Nor did these men wish to suffer the detrimental judgment of their peers who confused courage with conformity. Men such as Buchmann, who refused to kill without sound justification, became courageous, whereas men akin to Gnade became sadistic and unfortunately were used as models of stereotypical Germans during World War II.

The men of the 101st who were killers, on any level, had to become killers through self-enacted psychological manipulation and other numbing agents such as alcohol, as “such a life was intolerable sober.”[18] Conversely, those who did not kill became something contrary to the Reich's ideology; they became courageous, as it takes some modicum of valor to adhere to one’s innate humanity and fundamental moral code under such inhumane and immoral circumstances.


  1. Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), xx.
  2. Browning, 56.
  3. Browning, 47.
  4. Browning, 103.
  5. Browning, 62.
  6. Browning, 225.
  7. Browning, 67.
  8. Browning, 58.
  9. Browning, 67.
  10. Browning, 65.
  11. Browning, 100.
  12. Browning, 25.
  13. Browning, 198.
  14. Browning, 56.
  15. Browning, 67.
  16. Browning, 83.
  17. Browning, 215.
  18. Browning, 82.

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