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Essay/Term paper: Society's influence on morals

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Research Papers

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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. 1988.


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