In the 20 years after WWI, Germany began recruiting zealous, young men into large, militarized “police battalions” hundreds of thousands strong. This was to circumvent the global imposition against a militarized Deutschland. When WWII broke out, almost all of these “police officers” were transferred to the regular army or SS units as planned. But as the war went on, police were still needed to maintain order, especially in newly conquered territory. So, Germany began drafting average, older people to fill the void. These reserve police battalions were made up of school teachers, lumber mill operators, and insurance agents, ranging from their late 30s to mid-50s in age. They had families and jobs and didn’t necessarily want to get caught up in Hitler’s designs. They were very normal.
So how, in the particular case of Police Battalion 101, do 500 average men, along with associated bureaucrats and public health officers, murder almost 85,000 Jews in 16 months? The answer has been widely debated and investigated. For instance, you may be familiar with the “Stanford Prison Experiment” from 1971. In it, groups of normal people were given the role of guard and prisoner in a pretend prison. Over time, the “guards” became cruel and brutal. This experiment was run a few years after Battalion 101’s trial in an effort to explain their actions. Was it power that made normal men evil? Or you might also know about Milgram’s 1961 experiment at Yale, where normal people were ordered to give increasingly painful electric shocks to innocents. This experiment was conducted during Adolf Eichmann’s trial, trying to answer the question, “How could the holocaust happen?” Was it authority that pushed average people to commit atrocities?
You often see similar explanations like this for crimes in the news. “He just snapped”, “There is no way she could have done this”, and “He was always a good kid.” But like we saw with the German reservists, evil people aren’t the crazy ones. They aren’t special or unique. They aren’t born that way. Everyone is capable of great evil.
We are still left with the question, “What makes normal people commit evil?” Is it power? Authority? Social pressure? Racism? Greed? Pride? Fear? All of the above and more. Solomon tells us “God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices” (Eccl. 7:29). That includes you and me normal people. James says “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren” (Jas. 1:14-16). People like to say “I could never do such an evil thing.” A lot of the German order police felt the same way. And there is the deception. The reality is – you could.
May God deliver us from evil!