Christopher Browning’s narrative of the Jozefow massacre is unquestionably tragic and harrowing. It details a group of men plucked from the muddled mass of German society, Reserve Battalion 101, and shows how they had no choice but to carry out the indiscriminate murder of 1,500 Jewish women, children and elderly. Browning’s argument can certainly make some sense of the scenarios that Battalion 101 faced. But what it cannot do, and what nothing can do, is provide any justification.
Browning states up front that the men of Battalion 101, who hailed from lower-class or lower-middle class backgrounds and lacked substantial education, “would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers of the Holocaust”. The picture painted is that these men were simply following orders that they knew were unjust and beyond their capacity to fulfill. As citizens in today’s world, we don’t have the ability to judge these men and the situations they personally faced. We have no idea what was going through the head of the policeman who missed his target and ran off into the woods to vomit, or the policeman who shot his target too high and asked to be excused from the mission. But we can judge their actions – while they personally were unable to murder innocents, they did nothing to protest the orders themselves, despite knowing how brutal and inhumane they were. This was recognized, yet nothing was done. The Holocaust is simply not something that can be justified.