Saturday, October 28, 2017

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

by Christopher R. Browning
271 pages / 1992

reviewed by James Dykstra

This is a really horrifying book.

Ordinary Men tells the World War II story of German Reserve Police Battalion 101. Police battalions were units sent into occupied territory to quell civil unrest and to take care of any remaining partisan forces. They generally consisted of men too old for the regular military draft, or sometimes volunteers attempting to avoid conscription into an active military unit. They were formed of men with families and careers, the sort of men you might meet at the grocery store, or perhaps go bowling with. The men in police units were not normally those you'd consider likely to become mass murderers.

On July 13, 1942, that all changed. The nearly 500 men of the battalion were sent to Jósefów in Poland. Upon arrival, Major Wilhem Trapp, the battalion commander gave the men their instructions. In tears he told them that they were to round up the 1500 or more Jews in the town and execute them. In an unusual move, Trapp invited anyone to step forward who did not want to carry out the task at hand and be assigned to other duties. Only 12 of the nearly 500 took Trapp up on his offer.

Those who didn’t stepped forward were set to work, and an initially small group of them was brought to the nearby woods where they were instructed on how to execute the Jews in as swift and tidy a way as possible. With their victim lying face down on the ground, the policemen were instructed to place the bayonets of their rifles at the base of their victims' necks, and then fire. This method ensured a swift death for the victim, and was as clean and tidy as a mass execution could be.

Later groups that carried out the executions that day were not given the same precise instructions, and often shot wildly. This meant that the victims' skulls were frequently blown apart, splattering the formerly tidy uniforms of the police with blood and brains of the victims. As might be expected, many of the shooters were unable to continue and were allowed to assume other less distasteful duties. Unit discipline was surprisingly loose that day, and many of those doing the shooting simply abandoned their posts without permission and slipped off into the woods. They were able to do this without any punishment from their superiors. Despite how easy it was to avoid being one of the executioners, 80 per cent or more of the battalion continued rounding up and executing the Jews until the job was completed.

Upon returning to their barracks, most of the men of the unit quickly got drunk.

As with most tasks that assault our conscience, repetition numbs our response – executing the Jews became easier, and even a source of merriment at times.

Battalion 101 did few actual executions on their own, generally providing police cordons to prevent doomed Jews from escaping their fate. While Lithuanian "Hiwi" units did much of the actual shooting, the men of Battalion 101 were involved in the execution either directly or by providing a security cordon to at least 38,000 Jews from July 1942 until November 1943. Additionally, they forced at least 45,200 other Jews onto trains bound for death camps like Treblinka.

Story of those that killed

This is a horrifying book, but not so much because of the number of men, women and children who were innocently executed. This book is not the story of those who died, but of those who killed them. After the initial incident at Jósefów, battalion discipline was tightened. Despite this, men who didn't want to be involved in the executions had little trouble avoiding the duty. When officers set up details, they generally picked volunteers. On those occasions when they simply chose people at random, it was still easy to avoid the duty by moving to the back of the crowd. It quickly became apparent that men in close proximity to the officer got picked, so avoiding this unpleasant job was a relatively simple affair.

The horrifying part is that despite it being easy to avoid execution duties, it was never a problem finding volunteers, eager to go out and join the latest squad. There were always other more seemingly honorable tasks available for those who chose not to join the execution squads, such as joining a patrol to eliminate partisan resistance fighters. None the less, there was a conspicuous number of men in the unit who appeared to prefer the task of killing unarmed civilians.

In reading a book like this, one has to ask how an average man could become a mass murderer. The author is quick to emphasize that these were not men trained to kill. As police officers, their military training was no better than the average. They had received no special indoctrination that prepared them for their task. Being, for the most part, middle aged men set in their ways, they were, if anything, less susceptible to the worst of the Nazi propaganda than most of the younger soldiers conscripted into military units. Only about 25 per cent of the policemen were members of the Nazi party and most of those were late joiners, coming into the party after National Socialism had become well established in Germany. In other words, most of these men weren't even committed Nazis. The author emphasizes that in almost every conceivable way, the men of Battalion 101 were average. They were, quite literally, ordinary men. They could well have been your neighbor next door, or the guy from down the street.

So how do you explain something like this, when ordinary men become willingly involved in extraordinary evil? The author notes that psychological experiments suggest humans will readily inflict severe pain on other human beings when ordered to do so by an authority figure. It seems that the average man's conscience can be put at ease if someone else has told him to cause pain, for perhaps then he might be able to convince himself he is not morally responsible.

In the case of Battalion 101, however, the normal stern authority figure who ordered the killings was a kindly older man, so distraught about the orders he brought that he was literally in tears. His instructions to clear out the ghetto in Jósefów came less as an order from an authority figure than as a request from a man deeply uncomfortable with his task. The standard explanation of many accused of heinous crimes - "I was merely following orders" - simply doesn't apply here for it was almost always possible to avoid the order with no adverse consequences. The authority figures of the battalion never took a stern line and never forced the men to kill.

Rationalizing evil

Some of the men of the battalion rationalized their actions in strange ways. One explained that he always paired himself with another policeman who would shoot the parent of a child. Since the child was now an orphan, it seemed only merciful to this individual to also shoot the child, for this would "deliver" him from the lonely, miserable life that orphans have often experienced. It may not have been intentional, but the policeman justifying his actions used a perverse pun. The same German word he used to suggest he delivered the child, also means "to redeem." It seemed shooting these Jews almost took on a religious significance for him.

The author also contrasts the policemen with the bureaucrats in Berlin who issued the orders that Battalion 101 followed when they executed civilians, or forced them onto death trains. These bureaucrats, he notes, were able to issue their directives with relative ease because they never actually had to face the people whose deaths they were responsible for.

The men of this police battalion never had that excuse. They couldn't claim that they were emotionally distant from their victims as they escorted them, one by one, to the areas in the forest where the killing was taking place. The policemen saw their victims close up, and were able to look them in the eye. The men of the battalion indicated they even struck up conversations with the men, women, and children they were about to kill though one is left to wonder what kind of a conversation could possibly have occurred. The policemen could not claim a moral distance from their victims like the bureaucrats in Berlin could. They looked many of their victims in the eye and treated them like human beings until the very last possible moment.

True cowardice

So what could be the cause? There is, perhaps, only one explanation that makes sense and even partially accounts for what occurred. Twenty years after the fact, when facing criminal prosecution for their actions, men of the battalion were asked why they didn't step forward and avoid becoming a mass murderer when offered the opportunity by Trapp. Most explained they didn't want to appear cowardly. It was one thing to start with the executions and then be unable to finish. It was quite another to not do the executions at all. That was cowardly. Only one individual seemed to understand his own motivations clearly. When asked why he didn't step forward when given the chance, he didn't say that he was trying to avoid being a coward, but that he didn't step forward precisely because he was a coward. He was less afraid of killing innocent children than he was of the peer pressure exerted by his comrades.

The true story of Battalion 101 is a horrifying tale. There was, no doubt, enormous pressure from the rest of the battalion to conform and to join the executions. Yet peer pressure is not an excuse. We don't excuse kids at school caught smoking who gave in under pressure from their peers, and, though the crime is larger, people caught in the situation of the battalion cannot be excused either. Peer pressure helps to explain their actions, but it doesn't take away the guilt.

Perhaps the most obvious element lacking from all the excuses provided by the policemen is any sense of morality. Twenty years after the fact when criminal investigators interviewed these former policemen, there was no longer an immediate sense of peer pressure. The rest of their unit no longer had the same sway over them, and even that long after the events the policemen overwhelmingly indicated they had done what they did because they didn't want to appear weak in front of their comrades. They hadn't been motivated by a belief in Nazi values. Twenty years after the fact they expressed little remorse for what were clearly morally repugnant actions. Even those who had not been involved in the killing did not claim to be "too good" to kill, but they were "too weak." It is almost unbelievable that crimes of this magnitude could be discussed without any reference to morality.

In all of us

Though this is a work of history and not theology, and though the author reveals no obvious religious bias, his conclusion sounds like something straight out of the Bible. He warns against the smugness many feel when discussing the evil actions of others. As he notes in his final sentence, if under these circumstances the very ordinary men of Battalion 101 could become mass killers, "what group of men cannot?"

It is in this last comment that it might be possible to finally understand the actions of these men. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that we are "incapable of any good and prone to all evil" and the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confessions states that mankind is "wholly inclined to all evil." This is why the tale of Battalion 101 is so utterly horrifying. Their actions are not horrifying because they're so unusual, and so implausible, but because they're something we're all capable of. The level of evil to which they descended - the same evil we've seen repeated in places like Rwanda, or by individuals like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahlmer, or Clifford Olson - is something that lies in the hearts of all of us.

Reading a book like this is not for the faint of heart, or those prone to nightmares. As one of my grad school colleagues commented, it is almost senseless to talk about preventing these kinds of actions, for without the regenerating work of God the cause of the evil remains unsolved. Despite its disturbing story, the book is one well worth reading for it illustrates in a brutally clear fashion why reaching out to our neighbors is so urgent. If you ever needed a slight push to talk to co-workers, or the people just across the back hedge, to explain to them "the reason for the hope that you have," this book will do that for you.

You can pick up Ordinary Men at here and here.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Two novels that ask, "What if we found Jesus' bones?"

In 1906 a momentous discovery was made. While digging in Turkey, Hugo Winckler, a German archeologist, discovered the ancient ruins of the Hittite capital city of Hattusa.

This discovery was momentous because, up until that time, many had been sure that Hittites didn’t exist. The only mention of them was in the Bible, but since no solid archeological evidence of Hittites had been found, there was a growing speculation that the Bible had made them up. It was seen as evidence, then, that the Bible was in error.

Prior to 1906, conservative Christians still believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, even though the archeological evidence (or lack thereof) seemed to be stacked against them. In a way the 1906 find was hardly relevant to them – they believed before this discovery and continued to believe afterwards. The discovery did, however, illustrate two important points:

  1. Archeological, and other evidence, continues to verify parts of the Bible.
  2. It is illogical to base our faith on the latest scientific or archeological, finds since some evidence might seems – at least for a time – to differ with the Bible.

It is the logic and limit of trying to prove the Bible that is the focus of these two novels. Both books are built on a very similar premise: What if the bones of Jesus were discovered? Or to put it another way, what would the Church, and world do if the archeological and scientific evidence was stacked against Jesus’ resurrection?

Wil’s Bones
by Kevin Bowen
Engage Publishing, 2000, 244 pages

With short chapters (frequently two and three pages), this novel is a quick read. Wil Wilson has grown up to be the preeminent Biblical archeologist of the day. He is not a Christian though. The hypocrisy of his father, a respected deacon in his church, and an abusive womanizing drunk at home, has killed Wil’s faith. In fact, Wil first becomes interested in archeology as a way to hurt his father. If Wil can only find Jesus’ bones he can destroy his father’s church, his faith, and his respected position as deacon.

When the bones of a crucified man are found in a hidden section of the Garden Tomb, Wil thinks he has found what he is looking for. However, the enormity of this find leaves many highly placed people nervous. How will the world’s 2 billion Christians react when they hear the news? This is the most interesting part of the book, as ministers specializing in apologetics suddenly start wavering. Liberal Christians start winning more and more recruits and the President of the USA renounces his Christianity and launches his reelection campaign with the slogan “Leading you into the Post-Christian age.”

A solid, entertaining book that deals with some very serious ideas, this novel is still a pretty light read – parts of it might even be described as corny. I definitely recommend it, but not as some sort of great work of literature. If you are the type of person who only reads weighty fiction, then this is not the book for you. But if you are looking for something fun and intriguing, in which the writing, while middling, doesn't get in the way of the story, then I think you may enjoy this as much as I did. 

You can pick up a copy at by clicking here and here.

A Skeleton in God’s Closet
by Paul Maier
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994, 336 pages

The hero of this story is Dr. Jon Weber, a biblical scholar, and son of a pastor. Invited to a dig in Israel, he discovers what he thinks are the bones of Joseph of Arimathea. However, as the dig proceeds his first evaluation changes and he starts to wonder if these bones might instead be the bones of Jesus.

This is in many ways a mystery novel. As this is a Christian book, readers know from the start that this must be a hoax (I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that) but how could a fraud of such magnitude be pulled off?

The author, Paul Maier delves a good deal deeper into the world’s reaction to this find. When it is first revealed the evidence seems to be utterly beyond question, and even Jon Weber’s father, a Lutheran pastor, is disturbed. But while some people start renouncing their Christian faith, Pastor Weber, continues on, knowing that the find must not be true. This is a very intriguing element in this story, since Pastor Weber knows that his own son believes that the bones belong to Jesus. So even though his son found the bones, Pastor Weber’s faith remains steadfast. And of course, in the end, he is proven right.

Another intriguing part of the book: Maier is an Old Testament scholar and his expertise comes out. Throughout the story we learn many fascinating details about how archeology is done, and what both ancient and modern Israel looks like.

So which of these two books is best for you? Both are fun, but Skeleton is the more sophisticated – it would be Adult Fiction, whereas Wil's Bones is more Young Adult.

If you like it you'll certainly enjoy the rest of Paul Maier's fiction. In fact, the only book that doesn't quite measure up is a sequel he wrote to this one called More than a Skeleton - the same characters return, which is great, but they run through the same plot, which is not.

You can pick up A Skeleton in God's Closet at by here and at here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare

by David Powlison
160 pages / 1995

Powlison's book references two reasonably good reads by Frank Peretti: This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. Peretti wrote his novels partly to sensitize Christians to the spiritual warfare going on all around us. The problem that arose was that people began to believe that we could fight  our spiritual battles using methods that are closer to occult than Christian.

Powlison, a frequent contributor to the work of the Christian Counseling Education Foundation, begins by showing how "claiming the power of Christ" over demons glorifies our will rather than God's work and actually makes a mockery of Christ's name by assuming that our sin is the result of God's not acting (yet) to counter the supposed demons of lust, anger, and other sins. He then defines the term EMM (ekballistic mode of ministry) - describing an emphasis on the casting out of demons or their influence rather than repenting of sin and seeking guidance and strength to fight temptation from God in prayer and Biblical meditation.

Powlison next looks at some errors made in reading the Bible that lead to a misinformed hunt for demons rather than disobedience in situations of habitual sin. With better reading of Biblical texts in context, he leads us through the Old Testament, the ministry of Jesus Christ, and the work of the apostles to show how a focus on the dark powers was typically one of the problems rather than the solution in the rebellion of God's people against His will.

Then Powlison takes the discussion into the current situation - how focusing on our own sin and God's grace and power equips us for spiritual, ending with two case studies that show how fighting against sin, day by day, hour by hour, yields fruitful growth in obedience to God and fruitful relationships with others - to God's glory.

Only two problems with this book: It is definitely dated, and so is more of an introduction, rather than a comprehensive guide, to the problems with seeing demons, rather than our own sinful hearts, as the source of sin in our lives. The other issue is that the book is out of print, and may be hard to find.

With that said, if you think that Powlison's book could help Christians reclaim spiritual warfare from a Biblical perspective, you can purchase used copies at or

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Katharina, Katharina

by Christine Farenhorst
328 pages / 2017

In the past year, inspired by the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing up his 95 theses (or did he?) I've read about a dozen works on Luther. This is a favorite.

One reason I love it so, is because it offers something very different from the others – this about is Luther and his time, but he isn't the main character. He isn't even a minor character, never making an in-story appearance. The events take place miles away from Luther's Wittenberg, in the French city of Strasbourg, on the border with Germany. The story centers around a middle daughter of the middle-class Schutz family. Like their neighbors, the Schutz's read and discuss Luther's pamphlets.

By taking a step back from the man himself, author Christine Farenhorst (a long-time contributor to the magazine I edit, Reformed Perspective) give her readers the opportunity to encounter Luther's ideas in much the same way as the people of his time did. They didn't debate his ideas at the start, so much as wonder what to think of them. Some of his points they could readily agree with – many saw a need for at least some sort of reformation of the Church. But his thoughts on indulgences... might he be right?

We follow the title character from childhood up until her mid-twenties. Though Katharina Schutz is a real person, this is historical fiction – all the big events are true, but the day-to-day details of Katharina's life have been made up. This is why, even as a background character, Luther still dominates the story. Katharina's life is fascinating reading but because much of it is speculative, it serves as the foundation while what we learn about Luther here is his real, actual history.

One of the strangest bits of true history in the book is the dancing plague of 1518 that hit Strasbourg. Victims couldn't help but dance. It would have been funny except that this stilted, clumsy dancing never stopped - as many as 400 dancers kept going for days and days, beyond exhaustion, and even to the point of heart attacks and strokes.

Target audience

This is a teen to young adult book, but like any good children's book, adults interested in their church history will find it fascinating. However, as a third of all children at that time died before they hit age 5, there are some parts to Katharina's story that would be bawl-inducing to anyone under, say, 10.

The somewhat slow beginning – it took until chapter 4 to really grab me – also makes it better suited for readers with a little maturity to them.


There is a real benefit to learning about Luther in this one-step-removed fashion. I was fascinated by what I learned about the people and culture of that time. It gave me a deeper understanding of the pressures that Luther faced, and insights into how God prepared the ground for the Reformation Luther sparked.

In the US you can pick up a copy at, and in Canada here at