A graphic story of a German reserve police battalion's participation in the extermination of a Jewish village in Poland during World War II was the topic of a panel discussion, "Conscience vs. Compliance," at the University of Utah.
The 1 1/2-hourlong discussion before an audience of about two dozen students Thursday was one of several events scheduled this week at the U. to mark Holocaust Memorial Week.Both the panelists and the audience sat transfixed as visiting professor Christopher Browning of the Pacific Lutheran University history department described an incident he uncovered while doing research in Germany last summer.
None of the panelists, who included three university professors, an administrator and a student, said they could offer an acceptable explanation for the actions of the 900-member reserve order police battalion, whose members ranged in age from 35 to 45.
Browning said the battalion's first assignment was to kill all the women, children and elderly of a Jewish village in Poland. The railroad tracks leading to the nearest concentration camp were under repair, so only the male members of the village would be taken prisoner.
Battalion members were told by their commanding officer that they did not have to participate "if they did not feel up to it," Browning said. But only 12 of the 900 men chose not to go ahead with the assignment.
Of the 1,700 village residents, 1,300 died at the hands of members of the battalion. After the war, two officers in the battalion were convicted of war crimes. No rank-and-file members of the battalion were indicted, Browning said.
He called their participation especially troubling because the recruits had not yet been exposed to the atrocities of war, came from an area of Germany considered unsympathetic to the Nazis and were old enough to remember the country before Hitler came to power.
During the discussion, Edwin Firmage of the U. College of Law suggested that the impulse to obey authority was stronger than any reluctance to participate. Ronald Smelser, a U. history professor, said that anti-Semitism had been ingrained in the culture long before the Nazis came to power.
Bruce Landesman of the U. philosophy department said the Holocaust represents a form of evil that cannot be made humanly comprehensible. History student Yuri Boguslavsky said that many Germans perceived the Jewish people as a real threat to their security.
Jackson Newell, the dean of U. liberal education, concluded the panel discussion by reminding the audience that individuals have the ability to act on conscience rather than automatically comply with authority, a lesson that should be learned from a study of the Holocaust.