Bad History Lessons with Prof. Jordan Peterson: Police Battalion 101
In May 1960, a team of Israeli Mossad agents kidnapped a man just outside his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and brought him back to Israel where he would stand trial, be found guilty of genocide, and hanged.
This man was Adolf Eichmann, an SS-Obersturmbannführer, and he had been in charge of the logistics network that made sure the trains ran on time during what would later come to be known as the Holocaust. (Incidentally, the American CIA had known of Eichmann’s location for two years, but judged it not worth pursuing him now that the war was long over — and because it panicked Nazi CIA informants and their handlers, who knew that this would be bad press gobbled up by the USSR).
Before standing trial, Eichmann was subject to a battery of psychological evaluations administered by six different psychologists, and the results have led to plenty of interest in the case. He was judged perfectly sane, and in fact quite a nice person. Most widely known is probably Hannah Arendt’s work, based off of her reporting on the trial for the New Yorker — “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”.
The case warrants some attention not just because of the surreal circumstances (Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian survivor of the Holocaust, had dedicated himself to “hunting” Nazis, and was the one who tipped off the Mossad as to Eichmann’s whereabouts — add to this the various conspiracy theories regarding prominent Nazis escaping to Argentina and you have a popular topic), but because the results of Eichmann’s psychological evaluation were very interesting.
Eichmann was not judged to be insane, nor a murderer, nor particularly smart — in fact, his personality was found to be rather sycophantic. He was good at his job, and he wanted to work hard so that he could perform well and be promoted. This isn’t the profile of a Charles Manson. Eichmann was a go-getter, a rule-follower, and follower in general who could get the job done — a model employee.
The lesson here was Arendt’s “banality of evil”. Eichmann was not a bad apple. He was not like Reinhard Heydrich, one of the chief developers of the Final Solution within the SS (and the SS-Obergruppenführer of the newly nationalized and SS-integrated police). He wasn’t like Friedrich Jeckeln, the commander of the largest Einsatzgruppen detachments (Einsatzgruppen were “task forces” which followed the Wehrmacht into Russia and its satellites, more aptly they were death squads).
In fact, most SS commanders who served with the Einsatzgruppen were professors (Otto Ohlendorf was an economics and law professor), or at least PhD holders (Ludwig Hahn, for example, held a doctorate in law). Generally smart people, most of whom had participated in extremist political activities in the past — some had served in the paramilitary Freikorps in the interwar period, or belonged to the extremist WW1 veteran’s paramilitary “Stahlelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten” (“Steel Helmet, League of Front Soldiers”).
Yet Eichmann, while not participating in any killings directly, facilitated the camp system in a grand manner — he was indispensable. But he was mysteriously normal.
Eichmann’s trial is in part responsible for the idea that anyone is capable of committing these sorts of crimes, because of systemic indoctrination and groupthink. This is embodied in the German film and book “The Wave”, which echoes the “social experiment” performed by Ron Jones, a high school teacher in California. In condensed form, all of these strive to show that if you give people uniforms, a hierarchy, and ranks and social status exclusive to a group, then they can be compelled to do just about everything. It serves as an important reminder and a warning that we are all potentially capable of the worst crimes. This is at the heart of why both Peterson and Arendt think that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were two sides of the same totalitarian coin (disregarding the inconvenient fact that the Soviet Union was responsible for over 80% of German war casualties in WW2, ultimately taking Berlin, and securing the surrender of Nazi Germany).
However, as exemplified by the various staffs of the SS and even the regular German Army, more often we find people resembling Heydrich and Jeckeln at the helm of a massacre, not Eichmann. Yet Eichmann was complicit in and a vital part of the concentration camp system .
And so it struck me as odd when Jordan Peterson mentioned, in his first interview with Joe Rogan, the following, after describing a Wave-like conditioning process (emphasis mine):
“…this is a horrifying book, if you want to read about how this process works, you can read a book called ‘Ordinary Men’ by Robert Browning [sic — he means Christopher Browning]. And ‘Ordinary Men’ is about — Browning was interested in how the Nazis trained their — how they trained people to kill, basically. And so Robert Browning studied this police battalion, it’s a very interesting book. So these were middle-aged German men, so they were raised and educated really before Hitler came to power, so they weren’t indoctrinated Nazis, they were policemen. And when the Nazis went through Poland and then needed to impose their brand of order on Poland, they brought policemen in. They brought this battalion, of middle-aged policemen in. And their commandant, their commander, was by all accounts a pretty decent guy. He told them that, because it was war time, they were probably gonna have to do some pretty terrible things — but that they could go home if they didn’t think they were up to it. So there was no compulsion, you know, this wasn’t a Milgram experiment, or an experiment where you had to obey orders. The guy who was giving the orders said look, this is going to be awful, you can back off, but the guys thought, well I’m not going to leave my comrades here to do the dirty work. Y’now, which is kind of a virtue, in a perverse way. And then Browning details how they went from ordinary policeman, to guys who were taking naked pregnant women out into the middle of the fields and shooting them in the back of the head. And they were physically ill, during most of the transformation process, y’now, they started up by rounding up the Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 65. Well y’now you can kind of understand that, because you’re at war. And then they put them in stadiums, and then well they had to shoot some of them. And they had to load them on cattle cars. It was like one step at a time. These guys were having a dreadful time of it. They didn’t stop. They didn’t stop.”
I can understand why most listeners would not feel the need to investigate this — it sounds perfectly reasonable. But since Jordan Peterson and I both share the same credentials within the field of historical research (absolutely none, but we have access to books), I felt the need to investigate when he stated that these were just regular policemen. Why is it important to do? Because I think it’s deeply irresponsible for a clinical psychologist to be teaching history — even worse, history he’s learned primarily from novels. And if you’re wondering why Joe Rogan should matter, his videos get about 2–3 million views, and Jordan Peterson has been a guest on this stoner power hour three times. Are viewers learning history? Or are they swallowing Peterson’s agenda?
So I investigated. Regular policemen in Poland? That didn’t sound right. Sure enough, Christopher Browning’s book is about [Reserve] Police Battalion 101, a unit of about 500 men. This Police Battalion was a formation within the Ordnungspolizei, or “Order Police” — and was in fact an SS paramilitary “police” unit. Perhaps Peterson was confused during the entire period he read this book, but the term police here does not necessarily denote peace time service in a police force — although certainly the majority of men were former police.
Oh, and that nice guy Peterson mentioned? Wilhelm Trapp, a veteran of the First World War and a middle-aged policeman who had joined the Nazi party in 1932. Trapp not only carried out his duty, but in at least one case exceeded his “quota” of murders. He was captured in 1946 by the British in Germany, and sent to Polish authorities in 1947. In 1948 he was executed. His battalion had exterminated 83,000 Jews, and a number of non-Jewish Poles.
The battalion’s deputy commander was one Julius Wohlauf — a policeman who had joined the Nazi party in 1933, and who joined the Nazi SS in 1936. He held the SS rank of Hauptsturmführer (“head storm leader”), a rank also held by Josef Mengele. After the war, during which he ordered a number of mass executions, he resumed his work as a police officer. In 1968 he was put on trial and sent to prison for eight years for the murder of 9,200 people.
The Ordnungspolizei (or “Orpo”) were created by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, for the precise purpose of serving as, essentially, colonial police — those colonies being the places designated for Lebensraum, or living space — Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, etc. The Orpo also represented the unification of all of Germany’s police forces into a nationalized force, co-run by the SS. Police membership in the SS was not mandatory. It is frankly a bit odd to pause and reflect that, prior to the SS taking control of the police, many of these men were just ordinary police officers. The Gestapo, after all, was formerly the Prussian Secret Police — an organization formed in 1848 in order to suppress political dissidents. And of course, most of the men in the regular German Wehrmacht were just ordinary men, who had never killed before.
Readers should be reminded that the regular army, the Wehrmacht, remained independent of the SS throughout the war — but was nevertheless forced to merge old Prussian nobility with the Nazi party doctrine. While many senior Wehrmacht staff saw the Nazis as a pro-military party and welcomed them, just as many officers were annoyed by the frustrating combination of military naivete and upstart preening — the Nazis were playing at being in the army. Franz Halder, Heinz Guderian, Erich von Manstein, Erwin Rommel, Gerd von Rundstedt, Walther von Brauchitsch — all at the top of the Wehrmacht command structure, most in direct contact with Hitler, were not formally part of the Nazi Party. Yet, in hindsight, most people barely find this an excuse or some kind of mystery. It was not the case that every Wehrmacht soldier or commander were part of the Nazi party — but it was the case that they both carried out the war for Hitler and, frankly, committed their share of independent atrocities. Franz Halder may not have liked the Nazis — but he did plan and coordinate the invasion of Russia (despite this, he was a key witness at Nuremberg, and testified against the Nazis in those trials).
And yet, in similar fashion to the “Ordinary Men” narrative, many Wehrmacht officers and generals sought to clear their names after the war. Halder wrote against Nazism in his book “Hitler as War Lord” (and was a primary source for William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, and Guderian wrote dryly and boastfully about the military tactics he had employed in Russia. Erwin Rommel was celebrated as a noble opponent rather than a servant of the Nazi regime. All of this was perhaps deemed important to the stability of the new state of Western Germany in the post-war environment, the Allies feeling uneasy about repeating the humiliation of the First World War. Strangely, even the SS attempted to rehabilitate themselves, forming HIAG, or “Mutual aid association of former Waffen-SS members”. They set up a publishing arm, and have had a great influence on popular media — turning the reality of their ill-trained and often poorly performing SS units (some of which had to be rescued from encirclement by Army units during the invasion of Poland) into a picture of elite and respectable warriors fighting for their country.
Returning to one of Peterson’s comments, that the men in the battalion were incredibly offered the option to simply leave — the truth is that the men of the Einsatzgruppen, death squads peopled by a combination of recruited police and volunteers, were also given this option. Members of the death squads were often transferred out of their units if they couldn’t commit the act, and the men who could were often given more cigarettes and alcohol by compassionate officers. Contrary to Peterson’s claims that “they didn’t stop”, some of them did indeed stop.
He also omits that, according to Browning, a number of men left immediately:
“ Trapp then made an extraordinary offer to his battalion: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out. Trapp paused, and after some moments, one man stepped forward. The captain of 3rd company . . . began to berate the man. The major told the captain to hold his tongue. Then ten or twelve other men stepped forward as well. They turned in their rifles and were told to await a further assignment from the major.”
Still more men were transferred to new units during the course of the killing.
Browning further contradicts Peterson’s statement that these men were simply not indoctrinated, but were caught up in some sort of hysteria:
‘[It is] doubtful that they were immune to “the influence of the times,” . . . to the incessant proclamation of German superiority and incitement of contempt and hatred for the Jewish enemy. Nothing helped the Nazis to wage a race war so much as the war itself. In wartime, when it was all too usual to exclude the enemy from the community of human obligation, it was also all too easy to subsume the Jews into the “image of the enemy.”’
“What remained virtually unexamined by the interrogators and unmentioned by the policemen was the role of antisemitism. Did they not speak of it because antisemitism had not been a motivating factor? Or were they unwilling and unable to confront this issue even after twenty-five years, because it had been all too important, all too pervasive? One is tempted to wonder if the silence speaks louder than the words, but in the end — the silence is still silence, and the question remains unanswered.”
However, even Browning falls prey to tunnel-vision:
“But in the end the most important fact is not that the experience of Reserve Police Battalion 101 was untypical, but rather that Trapp’s extraordinary offer did not matter. Like any other unit, Reserve Police Battalion 101 killed the Jews they had been told to kill.”
Bracketing for a moment all the men who did leave immediately, and the men who left during the killings, we should note that something else is typical of “any other unit” engaged in these missions of extermination: They were mostly policemen. The Einsatzgruppen — who killed about 2 million people of the recorded 6 million of the Holocaust — were primarily composed of policemen. Reserve Police Battalion 101 may have had the convenience of literally mentioning the word “police” in its designation, but it was the rule and not the exception that this mobile extermination work was carried out by police personnel.
Peterson also focuses on the age of these men — well above the age, he thinks, for the political indoctrination that Hitler deployed against the German nation. And yet, many Nazi devotees were not young — it is simply the case that military age for recruitment for front-line service hovered around the ages of 17–23. Battalion 101 was a “reservist” formation, and so was composed of older men. Thus many new recruits who joined the Waffen-SS or the Orpo were perhaps more ideologically motivated than those who joined the Wehrmacht. This did not prevent some of the older men in the Reserve Battalion from being Nazis — indeed, both their leaders, policemen, had been Nazis for almost 10 years by the time the unit was deployed to Poland.
These police units were composed of more middle-aged men because they were not intended to be sent to the front, and so were instead to be used for rear security or as “police” in conquered areas. Even when the invasion of Russia went into full swing in 1941, and the Germans found that they had to dip into the next generation of draftees prematurely thanks to casualties sustained fighting the somehow-still-standing Red Army, the Nazi regime favoured keeping older men out of combat. For the most part, it was when the Americans threatened invasion that Hitler began pushing middle aged men, the sick, and the elderly into front-line combat roles in the Volkssturm (designated a defense militia, many were not even given helmets).
And yet, the SS did deploy some middle-aged national police into the front line during the invasion of France in 1940, and against the Red Army in the Baltic states in 1942 after the initial invasion. This was the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division (formally a part of the Waffen-SS, but also composed primarily of policemen)— and it would go on to fight partisans in Greece, where it committed the Distomo massacre, infamously bayoneting babies, killing pregnant women, and beheading clergy. Reserve Police Battalion 101 did also see some conventional front-line combat in Poland, against Polish partisans and soldiers.
Many older SS men had served in the Freikorps between the wars — a volunteer paramilitary organization which fought abroad in the name of right-wing nationalist causes. It’s an important reminder that a large part of Nazi ideology, such as the Blood and Soil doctrine of Lebensraum, was not invented by Hitler, but assimilated by the Nazi party. The Nazi platform had some support in Germany for a reason — these were previously-held beliefs within some spheres of German society. Even the ominous Totenkopf skull seen on Nazi SS regalia was in fact a conventional Prussian symbol, resurrected and displayed by the Freikorps — a show of nationalistic respect for historical symbolism and Prussian military competence, borrowed again by the Nazis in their appeal to the forlorn soldiers who had suffered such an embarrassing defeat in 1918.
When Reserve Police Battlalion 101 was deployed to Poland, they were already integrated into the SS command structure, if not forced to actually enroll in the SS (they remained police)— assimilated against their will perhaps, but no mere police unit: they were deployed as one of many special “order” units to begin rounding people up. They were assisted in this by the Sicherheitspolizei (or “SiPo”), a combination of the Gestapo secret police and the “criminal investigations” police, which were to act as more of a paramilitary security force in the rear areas, much like military police.
They were also assisted in later massacres by the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police — and this is an important clue. Similar native security groups were recruited in most of the Russian satellite nations, and they were not all Nazis. However, most members exhibited two qualities that the Nazi regime valued: They were foreigners, and they hated Jews.
About point one, as Hitler’s behaviour toward middle-aged men reflects, it was not the aim of Nazi Germany to destroy its preferred classes of citizenry. Hitler imagined that he was going to have a short series of quick wars — as the Prussians had done with the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870. Later in the war, his generals would berate him in private for being soft, making decisions that seemed to save lives now, but were strategic errors — Hitler still remembered the killing fields of WW1, and wanted to spare the German people another lost generation. Even the war economy was designed in order to spare Germans the feeling that they were at war — only gearing up to a state of total war in the final years, when it should have reasonably been running at full tilt since the mid-thirties. Consistent with the doctrine of the preservation of Germanic minds and bodies, whenever they could, the SS had enthusiastic foreigners perform their executions for them — constant murder was a strain on the mental states of even the most committed Nazis, and the German men in death squads had their well-being protected whenever possible — they were perceived as enduring a necessary but noble hardship.
On point two, it’s easy to forget that anti-semitism was not an invention of Nazi Germany. Anti-Jewish pogroms have a long history in both Germany and Russia, and many of the surrounding nations. The SS did not have to busy themselves too much to find willing and mentally expendable foreigners to volunteer to do their killing for them.
The middle-aged policemen of Reserve Police Battalion 101 can also be contrasted with the much younger Police Battalion 310. The younger men of the 310 did have a much higher Nazi party membership, but they were also sent into real combat situations (rather than anti-partisan attacks), where they suffered heavy casualties fighting the Red Army.
Historian Edward B. Westermann characterizes the brutal coldness of 310’s executions as being influenced — ironically for a group with many more party Nazis — more explicitly by the mental stress and hardening of combat than sheer absorption of propaganda. The men of 101 in contrast had not seen this kind of fighting and death first-hand. This is a difference more key than the percentage of party membership, or the average age, in each unit.
And so we see the young, more ideological Nazis Peterson assumes are typically “worse”, carrying out executions while treating their victims as “political unreliables” rather than the “Jewish arch-enemy”— peasants to be cleared out of the way for German families when the Nazis colonized the East after the war. According to Westermann, the men of 101 were “naive” compared to 310 — yet they both committed the same crimes, but neither of them seem to fit the stereotype we assume for Nazi monsters. The reports are more cold than explicit or voracious. One report sees the commander of 310 lingering not on how many children they had killed that day, but how many cows they had secured.
Westermann wonders how Browning might explain what sort of difference there is supposed to be between the “reservist” police and the “regular” police who are portrayed as more fanatical Nazis.
The historian also notes the interesting state of affairs concerning SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, who was an SS and Police leader. His legacy was the “sardine packing” method of execution used to construct mass graves in Latvia (where he was captured by the Soviets and executed for war crimes by a Soviet military tribunal).
Westermann references senior SS correspondence demanding that the police stop killing gypsies and Romani people in the occupied territories, because it was not official racial policy. Granted Jeckeln was a certified monster (even some of his men were afraid of him) who was made a police official through the new SS command structure — he was not a former policeman — but it does show police units seeming to exhibit an eagerness to exterminate certain ethnic groups, and being bizarrely reprimanded by the Nazi SS leadership for doing so.
I believe Westermann’s ultimate conclusion is that “ideology” was not all that was at play — but the more brutal feeling of intent to be found in 310 and not 101, may be more properly attributed to the “trauma” of front-line combat, rather than simply following the party line like robots. True enough, the Allies themselves largely refused to accept the surrender of SS personnel in the Ardennes forest during the fighting in the West, due to their reputation, and against the dictates of international law. Often SS soldiers who did manage to surrender were later identified and shot. The Chenoge massacre in the Ardennes is an unusually documented example of even regular Wehrmacht prisoners being slaughtered by American troops. The headquarters of 328th Infantry Regiment issued the order:
“No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoners but will be shot on sight.”
No doubt the fact that that these were both reprisals for massacres committed against their own, and the blunt trauma of witnessing the deaths of friends regularly in combat contributed to these killings of unarmed men just as much as, if not instead of, ideological concerns. It was not just the “brainwashed” Germans and Russians who slaughtered captives.
Summarizing, Westermann writes:
“The historical evidence indicates that many among Himmler’s ‘knights,’ whether in the black of the SS or the green uniforms of the police, fit the description far better of ‘ideological soldiers’ than that of ‘ordinary men.’ In fact, the nature of warfare on the Eastern Front left little room for either ordinary men or ordinary life.”
Ironically, Peterson points out that the reality was not a Milgram-esque experiment, while the author of “Ordinary Men” does in fact argue for the points established by the (deeply flawed) Milgram experiment — that the men in this police battalion were just ordinary folk, tricked into committing crimes.
However, it is the same “trick” deployed by Wehrmacht apologists, such as Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer’s “Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying”. Like others before it, the book — perhaps honestly — attempts to develop the “ordinary” Wehrmacht soldier as just another schlump who has to lug his gear from A to B because The State told him to do so. There is truth to this. But it does develop a position in contrast that the spirit of Arendt’s work tried to show was illusory — not that there is no such thing as “real evil”, but that evil acts are all the time committed by normal, if perhaps often ignorant, people.
While I don’t believe Peterson is defending the acts of the policemen, he misunderstands the concept of “The Wave”. It is not simply that people can be conditioned to do what you want them to, incrementally upping the ante and reinforcing their behaviour as you go. It’s that inhuman violence is much easier to commit than you want to imagine, and it often does not take a lot of forcing or a group of sociopaths.
Consider that military forces prefer not to employ criminals or those with dangerous mental health issues — and even the least apparently ideologically motivated military forces commit atrocities. For instance, the German Army of WW1 executed civilians on its way through the Ardennes (they imagined this slaughter would protect them from potential Belgian partisan resistance). Or take the civilian response to the German invasion on the Greek island of Crete. There are accounts of old women grabbing their shotguns, and executing German paratroopers who had dropped in the trees near their villages.
The reprisals for this kind of civilian resistance were even more brutal, but we have to consider that these grandmothers did not have to be encouraged to kill, and were probably not pathological murderers. As well, we should consider that the German paratroopers who exterminated entire villages as reprisals to partisan actions on Crete were not under an SS command structure and were not primarily Nazis — the exterminations were motivated by both the offense taken at the deaths of friends, and the fact that international law declared execution an appropriate response to armed attack by combatants in civilian dress.
Peterson’s larger point is that the kind of politically correct norms we find in universities today are just the tip of a slippery slope leading us all downhill towards a kind of oppressive social conditioning. Besides that argument being independently flawed, I felt it was equally important to point out the dangers of conducting historical research through the lense of psychology alone, and with an agenda that distorts the facts. Whether Peterson’s crude view is intentionally one-dimensional in order to support his points or not, at the least it shows that he is attempting to operate authoritatively far outside of his academic domain.
In the Rogan interview, Peterson uses the example of a crude and early map in contradistinction with a more accurate modern map, to illustrate the “low fidelity” of an ideological viewpoint when compared to the intricate nuance of a more logical approach to theorizing. I can’t help but think that the historical maps Peterson continues to sketch in support of both his general view, and his claim that he is an “expert” on the Soviet and German regimes of the Second World War are, upon closer inspection, exactly these kind of vague approximate blobs, and not the intricate maps he claims to be capable of drawing.
Upon actual inspection of the details, rather than gesturing in their direction while we make our political points, it seems that, surprisingly, the young Nazis were more ordinary men than we imagine, and the ordinary men have more in common with the Nazis than we thought. It is a mistake to imagine that the Nazis invented the racial hatred they espoused or were even the first to formalize it, or that this hatred was more powerful an incentive to kill than the effects of indifference to killing produced by exposure to fierce combat situations on the battlefield.
Arendt also concludes that to attribute this violence solely to totalitarianism is to forget that we still do have agency over our actions, even in these situations (remember, many men did ask to be re-assigned from their genocidal duties):
‘[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.’
The lesson to be learned from the “banality of evil” is not that of “The Wave” — Arendt did not mean just that we are all capable of what the Nazis did, but that Eichmann ultimately chose to go along with — in fact volunteered for — it all. What she wanted us to glean from this is rather that normal people are perfectly capable of heinous murder, and it is our responsibility to prevent ourselves from being used — not that we are simply bound by some blinding, all-powerful, subconscious ideological motivations.