Are we all just “ordinary men” and women?

As a professor of history at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, my ultimate goal is to apply the four pillars (the Primacy of Christ, the Priority of Scripture, the Pursuit of Truth and the Practice of Wisdom) to historical study. In doing so, I want to show students how to interpret history from a Christian worldview. Too often, society embraces a revisionist viewpoint of the past by teaching students to distance themselves from the players. An arrogant mentality of “that could never happen today” or “I would never do that” develops and people forget (or disregard) the biblical truth of human nature. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we teach students how to defend the existence of absolute truth. Discussing our world’s history serves as a perfect way of training students how to respond when their contemporaries challenge that existence.

An example lesson plan may help clarify:

Each semester, I lead my students in a discussion entitled “Would you have been a Nazi?” The initial introduction to the topic always provides a good shock value. Students immediately take the offensive with incredulous faces, as choruses of “never” and “of course not” echo throughout the room. I then instruct the students to read excerpts from Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. In his book, Browning traces the route of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 through Poland as they murder and maim Jews in the ghettos during Operation Reinhard. The Battalion even massacred entire Jewish populations of two different towns.

Most of these men were not ardent Nazis who bought into Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda; they were ordinary, middle-aged, working-class men who had been found, for some reason or another, unfit for regular military duty. Browning concluded that the men of Reserve Unit 101 killed Jews out of obedience to authority and peer pressure, not an inherent hatred. He posits that “within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” 1

I propose the opening question again, and the answers are not as emphatic. We can study Europe during the Holocaust as much as we want, but unless H.G. Wells’ plans for a time machine are realized successfully, we will never obtain firsthand experience of life in that time period.

One bit of absolute truth we know for sure pertains to the nature of man. Men are born sinful; therefore, it is arrogant, and frankly wrong, to assume that we, too, could not be swayed or pressured into committing murder. I pray I would have not participated in the violence, but the truth is, we just don’t know. By leading students through this discussion, my goal is to show them that the nature of man transcends time and space, that absolute truth does exist and that we as Christian historians must judge the past based on biblical standards alone.

 

 

 

  1. Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York, Harper Perennial, 1998.

 

Featured photo: German and Jewish police guard an entrance to the Łódź Ghetto. 1941. Public Domain.

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