Christopher Robert Browning (born May 22, 1944) is an American historian, known best for his works on the Holocaust. Browning received his bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in 1968 and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1975. He taught at Pacific Lutheran University from 1974 to 1999, eventually becoming a Distinguished Professor. In 1999, he moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to accept an appointment as Frank Porter Graham Professor of History. Browning was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006. Browning retired from teaching in Spring 2014.
Browning is best known for his 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, a study of German Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) Reserve Unit 101, which committed massacres and round-ups of Jews for deportations to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland in 1942. The conclusion of the book, influenced in part by the famous Milgram experiments popularized in the 1970s, was that the men of Unit 101 killed out of obedience to authority and peer pressure, not blood-lust or primal hatred.
As presented in the study, the men of Unit 101 were not ardent Nazis but ordinary middle-aged men of working class background from Hamburg, who had been drafted but found ineligible for regular military duty. After their return to Poland in June 1942 the men were ordered to terrorize Jews in the ghettos during Operation Reinhard and committed massacres of Polish Jews; men, women and children, in the towns of Józefów and Łomazy. In other cases, they were ordered to kill a number of Jews in a town or area, usually helped by Trawnikis. The commander of the unit gave his men the choice (once) of opting out if they found it too hard and almost all of them volunteered. Fewer than 12 men opted out in a battalion of 500 willing executioners.
The book deals with the details of killings performed by otherwise average men, the implication of the book, consistent with the theories advanced by Stanley Milgram, is that when placed in a coherent group setting, most people will obey orders, even if they find them morally reprehensible. The book demonstrates that ordinary people will more than likely follow orders, even those they might question, when they perceive that the orders originate from authority.
Browning provides evidence to support the notion that not all of these men were hateful antisemites. He includes the testimony of men who say that they begged to be released from this work and to be placed elsewhere. In one instance, two fathers claimed that they could not kill children and thus asked to be given other work. Browning also tells of a man who demanded his release, obtained it and was then promoted once he returned to Germany.
Ordinary Men achieved much acclaim but was denounced by Daniel Goldhagen for missing what he called a specifically German political culture, characterized by "eliminationist anti-semitism" in causing the Nazi genocides. In a review published in the July 1992 edition of The New Republic, Goldhagen called Ordinary Men a book that fails in its central interpretation. Goldhagen's controversial 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners was largely written to rebut Browning but ended up being criticized much more.
Witness in Irving vs. Lipstadt
When David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel in 1996, Browning was one of the leading witnesses for the defense. Another historian, Robert Jan van Pelt, wrote a report on the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Browning wrote a report on the evidence for the extermination of Jews. During his testimony and a cross-examination by Irving, Browning countered Irving's suggestion that the last chapter of the Holocaust has yet to be written (implying there were grounds for doubting its reality, "We are still discovering things about the Roman Empire. There is no last chapter in history".
Browning countered Irving's argument that the lack of a written Führer order contradicted the Holocaust, maintaining that such an order need never have been written, given that Hitler had almost certainly made statements to his leading subordinates indicating his wishes in regards to the Jews of Europe during the war, thus rendering the question of an extant, written order irrelevant. Browning gave evidence that several experts on Nazi Germany believe that there was no written Führer order for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" but no historian doubts the reality of the Nazi genocides. Browning noted that Hitler's secret speech to his Gauleiters on December 12, 1941, alluded to genocide as the "Final Solution".
Browning rejected Irving's claim that there was no reliable statistical information on the size of the pre-war Jewish population in Europe or on the killing processes; he asserted that the only reason why historians debate whether five or six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust is a lack of access to archives in the former Soviet Union. Browning argued that it was possible to become soaked in human blood after shooting people at close-range and dismissed Irving's argument that accounts of German personnel being soaked in blood were improbable because it is not possible to have a blood-splattered uniform after shooting people at close range.
Browning's interpretation of the Holocaust
Browning is a functionalist in the debate about the origins of the Holocaust, of the "moderate functionalist" school of thought, which focuses on the structure and institution of the Third Reich, rather than Adolf Hitler. Functionalism sees the extermination of Jews as the improvisation and radicalization of a polycratic regime. Functionalists do not exonerate Hitler, they recognize that many other factors were involved in the Final Solution.
Browning has argued that the Final Solution was the result of the "cumulative radicalization" (to use Hans Mommsen's phrase) of the German state, especially when faced with the self-imposed "problem" of three million Jews (mostly Polish), whom the Nazis had imprisoned in ghettos between 1939 and 1941. The intention was to have these and other Jews resident in the Third Reich expelled eastward once a destination was selected. For a time in 1940, the Madagascar Plan, to which the Jews of Europe were to be expelled, after Germany defeated Britain and France was to cede Madagascar to Germany. The German failure to defeat Britain made the Madagascar Plan redundant. Browning has been able to establish that the phrase "Final Solution to the Jewish Question", first used in 1939, meant until 1941 a "territorial solution". Owing to the military developments of the Second World War and to turf wars within the German bureaucracy, expulsion lost its viability such that, by 1941, members of the bureaucracy were willing to countenance the mass murder of Jews. In a speech given in Paris in 1982, Browning said:
In recent years the interpretations of National Socialism have polarized more and more into two groups that Tim Mason has aptly called Intentionalists and Functionalists. The former explain the development of Nazi Germany as a result of Hitler's intentions, which came out of a coherent and logical ideology and were realized due to an all-powerful totalitarian dictatorship. The Functionalists point out the anarchistic character of the Nazi state, its internal rivalries and the chaotic process of decision-making, which constantly led to improvisation and radicalization ... These two modes of exposition of history are useful for the analysis of the strongly divergent meanings that people attribute to the Jewish policy of the Nazis in general and to the Final Solution in particular. On the one hand, Lucy Dawidowicz, a radical Intentionalist, upholds the viewpoint that already in 1919 Hitler had decided to exterminate European Jews. And not only that: He knew at what point in time his murderous plan would be realized. The Second World War was at the same time the means and opportunity to put his war against the Jews into effect. While he waited for the anticipated moment for the realization of his great plan, naturally he tolerated a senseless and meaningless pluralism in the Jewish policies of the subordinate ranks of state and party.
Against the radical Intentionalism of Lucy Dawidowicz, which emphasizes the intentions and great plan of Hitler, the Ultrafunctionalism of Martin Broszat constitutes a diametrically opposed view of the role of the Führer, especially with respect to the decision on the Final Solution. It is Broszat's position that Hitler never took a definitive decision nor issued a general order for the Final Solution. The annihilation program developed in stages in conjunction with a series of isolated massacres at the end of 1941 and in 1942. These locally limited mass murders were improvised answers to an impossible situation that had developed as a result of two factors:
First the ideological and political pressure for the creation of a Jew-free Europe that stemmed from Hitler and then the military reverses on the Eastern Front that led to stoppages in railway traffic and caused the buffer zones into which the Jews were to be removed to disappear. Once the annihilation program was in progress, it gradually institutionalized itself until it was noticed that it offered the simplest solution logistically and became a program universally applied and single-mindedly pursued. From this standpoint, Hitler was a catalyst but not a decision-maker. For Lucy Dawidowicz, the Final Solution was thought out twenty years before it was put into practice; For Martin Broszat, the idea developed from the practice of sporadic murders of groups of Jews, which produced the idea of killing all Jews systematically.
Browning divides the officials of the Government-General of occupied Poland into two factions. One, the "Productionists", favored using Jews of the ghettos as a source of slave labor to help with the war effort. The other, the "Attritionists", favored letting the Jews of the ghettos starve and die of disease. At the same time, there were struggles between the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Hans Frank, the Governor-General of Poland. The SS favored "The Nisko/Lublin Plan" of creating a "Jewish Reservation" in Lublin, Poland, into which all the Jews of Greater Germany, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia were to be expelled. Frank was opposed to the "Lublin Plan" on the ground that the SS were "dumping" Jews into his territory. Frank and Hermann Göring wished for Government-General of Poland to become the "granary" of the Reich and opposed the ethnic cleansing schemes of Heinrich Himmler and Arthur Greiser as economically disruptive.
An attempt to settle these difficulties at a conference between Himmler, Göring, Frank and Greiser at Göring's Karinhall estate on February 12, 1940, was scuttled in May 1940, when Himmler was able to show Hitler a memo entitled "Some Thoughts on the Treatment of Alien Population in the East" on May 15, 1940, which Hitler called "good and correct". Himmler's memo, which called for expelling all of the Jews of German-ruled Europe into Africa, reducing Poles to a "leaderless laboring class" and Hitler's approval of the memo led, as Browning noted, to a change in German policy in Poland along the lines suggested by Himmler. Browning called the Göring/Frank-Himmler/Greiser dispute a perfect example of how Hitler encouraged his subordinates to engage in turf battles with one another without deciding for one policy or another but hinting at the policy he wanted.
- The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office : a study of Referat D III of Abteilung Deutschland, 1940–43, New York : Holmes & Meier, 1978.
- "Zur Genesis der "Endlösung" Eine Antwort an Martin Broszat" pages 96–104 from Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Volume 29, 1981.
- Fateful Months : Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution, New York : Holmes & Meier, 1985.
- Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, New York : HarperCollins, 1992.
- The Path to Genocide : Essays on launching the Final Solution, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1998, 1992.
- Nazi policy, Jewish workers, German killers, Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Collected memories : Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony, Madison, Wis. ; London : University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
- The Origins of the Final Solution : The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939 – March 1942 (With contributions by Jürgen Matthäus), Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2004. ISBN 0-803-25979-4 OCLC 52838928
- Everyday Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence from Poland, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. ISBN 0-393-07019-0 OCLC 317919861. This book earned Browning the 2011 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research.
- The Suffocation of Democracy. The New York Review of Books. 65 (16). October 25, 2018.