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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

THE READER Urges Questions About the Holocaust

I recently saw the movie, The Reader. I actually had no idea what it was about going into the theater and was surprised at what the movie actually dealt with. I should have guessed when the movie opened in 1930s Berlin that it had something to do with the Holocaust. The lead female character, who we get to know intimately throughout most of the film, is later charged for her involvement with the Nazi party. The film brings us the same question that my own study of the Holocaust has brought up: Were all the Nazis evil people? Or were they just products of their circumstances?

One book we read in my Literature of the Holocaust class spoke to me clearly on this subject. Christopher Browning’s historical examination of Police Battalion 101 in Ordinary Men sheds light on some of the reasons Nazi soldiers participated in the atrocities that characterize the Holocaust. Police Battalion 101 was compiled of mostly middle-aged men who were not seen as qualified enough to fight in the German army. For the most part, they were not career soldiers nor police officers, but average people that had vastly different lives before the war.

This story is unique because when their commander delivered orders that they were supposed to murder the entire Jewish population of a rural Polish town, he mercifully gave them the opportunity to not participate. You might think that many would step down from the assignment given the opportunity, but most did not. It may seem like an overt sign of evil, but is it really?
Browning tries to rationalize why this group of ordinary men turned into murderers overnight. I think the most fundamental reason is that these men yielded their right (and duty) to think for themselves.

Many of the policemen justified their actions by the fact that these orders came from top ranking officials in the Nazi party. They were able to release themselves of guilt by just “doing what they were told” –which is a phrase we hear all to often in regards to the Holocaust and has been made famous by Adolf Eichman’s trial. And again, in The Reader, Kate Winslet’s character fails to see the wrong of her actions because she was simply following directions.

In other cases, Police Battalion 101’s excuse was alcohol, with many completing numbers of murders while completely intoxicated. To me this signifies the men’s desperate effort to forget what they were doing (or at least numb their emotions). It reminds me of stories of child soldiers in Africa that we hear about today in the media. In the movie, Blood Diamond, the only way the commanders are able to make the children kill is to get them so drugged up that they are unable to rationalize their actions.

In all cases, these people were simply trying to escape from their duty to think and to take responsibility for their actions. It makes me realize that not only did the Nazis deprive the Jews of their humanity, but they also deprived their own soldiers and police force of their fundamental rights as humans. We want to label the Nazis and everyone involved as evil. What happened was an isolated event involving morally decrepit people. However, as individuals they were often kind and ethical people who were put in a crappy situation.

I thought The Reader was a great movie to portray this question. It forces you to reevaluate some of those assumptions we make in regard to the Holocaust.

By Laura Woods


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