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Essay/Term paper: Society's influence on morals

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Narrative Essays

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Society's Influence on Morals

The atrocities of the Holocaust have prompted much inquiry by
researchers to understand how humans can behave so cruelly toward their fellow
man. Theories have been formed that cite the men of Battalion 101 as "
exceptions" or men with "faulty personalities," when, in fact, they were
ordinary men. The people who attempted to perform a genocide were the same
people as you and me with the only difference being the environment in which
they worked. The behavior of the men in Battalion 101 was not abnormal human
behavior, rather, their actions are testament to the premise that when humans
are exposed to certain environmental and psychological conditions, extreme
brutality is highly apt to occur.
The members of the Police Battalion 101 had the same ideas and
influences as the rest of the German citizens. Because of the racist teachings
produced by the German government, the entire German society was uniform under
the belief that they were the master race. The German were taught that anyone
different from their own kind (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) needed to be
removed from their society in order for it to prosper. The Police Battalion men
shared the same beliefs as everyone else, but they had to perform the dirty work
of killing approximately 83,000 Jews. Christopher Browning states in his book,
Ordinary Men, that, "...the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, like most of
the German society, was immersed in a deluge of racist and anti-Semitic
propaganda" (Browning 184). Unless placed in the Battalion men's situation, one
can not fathom how a population of people can so evilly turn against another.
People in every culture are susceptible to the ideas and beliefs brought
upon them by propaganda. Whenever an idea is accepted as the "norm', people
will find a way to justify it and follow it despite the evil implications it
might entail. Humans have faced these situations throughout the last two
centuries numerous times. For example, the American slave trading was totally
acceptable to the southerners because the blacks were perceived to be lesser
human beings. The slave owners did not mind controlling and abusing a slave
like it was an animal since in their mind the slave was comparable to an animal.
This was true in Germany with the only difference being that the Anti-Semitics
thought the Jews should be eliminated. A more recent example would be the
American's attitudes toward the Russians during the Cold War. Children were
taught that the Russians were evil and while the Russian children were being
taught the same ideas about the Americans. Propaganda was used by our
government to make us believe that we were the good side while they were the bad
side. Before anyone had time to sit back and think about the situation
rationally, our entire society hated the Communists. The same situation applied
for the German citizens except, their attitudes illustrated the effectiveness of
propaganda even when it has the evilest of implications.
It must be understood that the men who transported or participated in
the killings of 83,000 Jews were not selected as men who were thought to be
capable of acting inhuman. They were ordinary men in their 30's and 40's who
were too old to fight in the war but they were still capable of carrying out
orders. Before the war, the men worked as businessmen, truck drivers, medical
workers, and even teachers who came from middle to lower class backgrounds. It
is difficult to imagine an individual, such as a teacher, who dedicated his life
to the enhancement of a child's education and well-being, participated and
tolerated the killing of thousands of children. But it is true that the same
men, who the Jewish society trusted as workers and professionals, willfully
tried to kill them off.
The political environment which surrounded the Police Battalion made
their vicious job less difficult. But those men who did not wish to partake in
the killings could be given a different assignment. In fact, a minority did
walk a way from the slaughters, but the remaining 80% to 90% carried out their
orders. Reich, in his summary of Ordinary men, suggests that, "For many, the
pressure to conform to a group, and not to seem like cowards, played a major
role in their continuing to shoot" (Reich 1B). If a minority group differs from
a majority group that has the same beliefs, they are looked upon with shame and
disdain. If a soldier were to disagree with their orders, they were the object
of ridicule and scrutiny. It is much easier for a person to follow the beliefs
of their society or else they will stand out. An example of the fear to follow
your beliefs if they differ from the norm, is an account from Tim O'Brien's true
story titled, "On The Rainy River." After being drafted for the Vietnam War, he
wanted to flee to Canada to avoid being sent to the war. O'Brien recalls before
he was about to swim to the shores of Canada that "My conscience told me to run,
but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me
toward the war" (O'Brien 54). Like some members of the Police Battalion,
O'Brien wanted to follow his conscience and leave the situation, but instead he
chose to go to the war and follow the "norm' where he would be like everyone
else. Following the views that your particular society accepts is much easier
than standing out and practicing the opposite. For the Battalion men,
responsible decision making was hindered among the wartime chaos.
Many soldiers found their task to be psychologically burdening until
they found ways to overcome their uneasiness. Killing Jews even became a
routine chore for the Battalion men. Eventually, one kill was the same as the
next so it really did not have an affect on the shooters. After the Battalion
men got adjusted to the initial shock of the extreme gore and disgust from
shooting Jews at point blank range, their job was habitual. Their job even
became fun when the police could participate in "Jew hunt" (Browning 123) which
was exactly what the name implies. Jews who managed to escape from their camps
were hunted by the police who would shoot them for target practice. Browning
quotes an officer named Adolph Bittner as saying "'In summary one could perhaps
say that in small [hunts], when not so many shooters were needed, there were
always enough volunteers available'" (128). The "Jew Hunts" represent the
extreme desensitizing that the war causes.
When victims, like the Jews, are dehumanized, the aggressor can feel
less disturbed by ending its life. The Jews were numbered and gathered like a
herd of sheep going to a slaughterhouse (Jacobs). For the Battalion 101 group,
it was much easier to kill with the mentality that their victims were less
significant and even detrimental to the human race. The men who transported the
Jews to the death camps felt at ease because they were not doing the actual
killings. Even the men who directed the Jews into the gas chambers did not feel
responsible because they were not doing the actual killings first hand. Reich
concludes that, "Each of these factors helped the policemen feel that they were
not violating, or violating only because it was necessary, their moral codes"
(Reich 1D). When choices are presented that are morally burdening, it is human
nature to find ways to rationalize their decisions. For many of the Police
Battalion 101, rationalization for their brutal actions occurred repeatedly.
Despite the evil propaganda that was spread about the Jews, there are
examples of how ordinary people took it upon themselves to help the desperate
Jews hide from the Germans. Among the brutal wartime chaos, certain groups of
people rose above the mainstream beliefs of their society to show that human
courage and morality can prevail when all odds are against them. In his book,
Conscience and Courage, Eva Fogelman terms these types of people as "moral
rescuers" (161). These are people who follow their own conscience despite the
pressures from their surroundings to do what they believe is morally correct.
Fogelman states in his book that, "Their values were self sustaining, not
dependent on the approval of others. To them, what mattered most was behaving
in a way that maintained their integrity" (162). In both Le Chambon, France and
Denmark, accounts have been made of groups of people following their consciences
and doing what necessary to save another person's life.
The civilians living in the small town of Le Chambon successfully hid
over 5,000 Jews from the Germans. Their heroic effort to save the Jews' lives
is a perfect example of how the human conscience is capable of making morally
correct decisions even during a time of war. In the movie, "Weapons of the
Spirit", the effort put forth by the Chambonais was not a town endeavor but an
individual undertaking by each individual family. The families were only acting
on what they believed was the morally correct thing to do. This example is
similar to the Danish people who found it their patriotic duty to save their own
people from the wrath of the Germans. In her magazine article titled, "Dallas
Honors a Righteous Nation", Rachel Amado Bortnick tells of the Danish effort to
save the Jews. The Danish did not separate the Jews in their minds from the
rest of the Danes. It was never taught or led by example that the Jews were
different from the rest of the Danish community, therefore, children were never
exposed to the Anti-Semetism that the German children were exposed. In
Bortnick's article, Mr. Petersen explains that "'What we did for the Jews wasn't
any different than what we would have done if the Germans had decided they were
going to deport all postmen or people who wore glasses or who had red hair'".
This mentality was obviously on the opposite end of the spectrum from the
citizens of Germany.
In Browning's book, Ervin Staub made the assertion that "'cruelty is
social in its origin much more than it is characterological'...most people "
slip' into the roles society provides them..." (167). Evil ideas and beliefs
are molded onto a person by their surroundings rather than inherent in their
personalities. With such a strong influence on our behavior, propaganda can
lead a society to think and belief the unimaginable. The men of Police
Battalion 101 are a testament to the idea that people are capable of not only
thinking the unimaginable, but they can act upon it.

Works Cited

Bortnick, Rachel Amado. "Dallas Honors a Righteous Nation." Dallas Jewish Life
Nov. 1993.

Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men. New York: Aaron Asher
Books/HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993.

Fogelman, Eva. Conscience and Courage. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday,

Jacobs, Mike. Speech to Class. Dallas, 31 Mar. 1997.

Reich, Walter. "The Men Who Pulled the Triggers." The New York Times 12 Apr.

Weapons of the Spirit. Writ./Dir. Pierre Sauvage. The Friends of Le Chambon.


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