Years of Anti-Semitic Propaganda, Peer Pressure, and the Legitimizing Effects of Government Led the Men of Police Battalion 101 to Readily Commit War Crimes
By Thomas White
Long before the start of World War II “many Germans had come to believe in their complete superiority over other peoples” Many of the members of Police Battalion 101, much like most of German society, had embedded racial and ethnic prejudices, and these were easily exploited by Nazi ideology. The groundwork for such Nazi ideology had been “evolving since the nineteenth century” and Germans believed that conflict withEastern Europe and the Jews was inevitable. What enabled the Men of Police Battalion 101 to engage in the systematic murder of innocent non-combatants was a not a single factor, but a combination of stimuli. These stimuli consisted of the exploitation of existing prejudices, the need to conform to group expectations within the battalion, and most importantly, the legitimization of their behavior by way of government approval.
For many years leading up to the first reported war crimes of Police Battalion 101, German society had been a breeding ground for both ethnic and racial prejudice. The Nazi government was able to capitalize on these same prejudices, which existed within the battalion through its own anti-Semitic propaganda and indoctrination. This propaganda and indoctrination consisted of training ordered by Himmler and “set a premium on the ideological indoctrination of members of the SS and the police…all Order Police battalions were to be strengthened in character and ideology” which included anti-Semitic training on such subjects as “Race as the Basis of Our World View… [And] Maintaining the Purity of Blood”. The ideological training continued by all accounts on a regular basis, with Captains Hoffman and Wohlauf and Lieutenant Gnade carrying on much of the training in compliance with the National Socialism agenda. This anti-Semitic agenda was intended to make not just efficient police members, but motivated crusaders against “the political and racial enemies of the Third Reich”3 and played a contributing factor to the war crimes which the men of the battalion participated in.
Peer pressure also played a role in the willingness for members to engage in war crimes. The environment in which the men lived and worked was that of a military unit and within that unit would have been present a certain cohesion based upon a common goal. In the case of Police Battalion 101 there common goal was one of maintaining the security in the rear echelon of captured territory and protecting it against the enemy. The enemy in this case was “Jewish” and Eastern European, so consequently to show leniency to anyone within this group would be akin to showing favoritism to the enemy and this would have been viewed within the unit as weakness and unacceptable. The indoctrination training within the unit taught the members to kill one’s enemy and this view, which began early, was constantly reinforced. It is much easier to kill an enemy, as opposed to a Jewish woman fromHamburg. Peer pressure would have played an important contributing factor to the commission of war crimes.
One of the most significant factors for the battalion engaging in war crimes was the legitimacy that government approval lent. What the Men of Police Battalion 101 did was carry out “the methodically executed polices of government” The men of the battalion were able to commit war crimes with the full blessing of their own government, and adopt a policy of atrocity which allowed themselves to cloak themselves in a certain legitimacy. This government sanctioned legitimacy coupled with the dehumanizing aspect which was applied to the enemy, allowed the Men of Police Battalion 101 to engage readily in war crimes.
The answer to identifying the reasons why the Men of Police Battalion 101 readily committed war crimes is complex and not easily answered. To point to a single component as the cause is simply not possible. The men of the battalion had deep seated prejudices which were easily exploited by the Nazi’s anti-Semitic propaganda and indoctrination. The men within the battalion were also subject to peer pressure and felt a responsibility to the other men in their unit, which also acted as a contributing factor for carrying out the brutal actions assigned to the unit. Finally the last factor which looms particularly large, and works in perfect unison with the other components, is the air of legitimacy that government approval lent to the men of police battalion 101. Operating under the guise of government approval gave the men of police battalion 101 not only the justification for their crimes but approval. Years of anti-Semitic propaganda and deep set prejudices, coupled with peer pressure, and the legitimizing effects of government all directly attributed to the men of police battalion 101 committing war crimes readily.
Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men.New York: Harper Perennial, 1998
Megargee, Geoffrey P., War of Annihilation.New York: Bowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006