We would all like to think that there is something that separates good people from evil people. We would all like to think that there is nothing that would make us behave like the people that we read about in our history books - people who slaughter the innocent, people who butcher children, people who kill not to protect their own lives or even to defend abstract concepts like glory and nation but out of a seeing glee to see the blood of other stain their hands and coat the streets.
But Christopher Browning, in his book Ordinary Men, suggests (and his research is of course not the only work to confirm this) that while there may be some people who are in fact very different from the rest of us (schizophrenics, for example, whose reality is not bounded by the same rules that govern others' lives) there is no easy way to sort those who are good from those who are evil. The potential for both good and evil lies within each one of us, Browning argues, and in most of us lies the potential for very great evil indeed.
Browning's book documents a group of "ordinary" middle-aged German citizens who took place in the wholesale murder of Jews and other people that the Nazi regime wanted to be rid of. As members of a paramilitary police squad - Police Battalion 101 - these men were transformed in the space of a few months from people who had ordinary lives with ordinary jobs, people who played with children and savored Sunday dinners and puttered in their gardens to men who were haunted by a desire for blood.
None of these men entered into service to their country and the Nazi regime willingly, so their later actions cannot be put down to an obvious and overwhelming zeal for the ideals of National Socialism. Each one of them was conscripted into Police Battalion 101, a process that (Browning notes) involved none of the indoctrination that (for example) S.S. officers underwent. Thus there was among these men neither any obvious predilecti...