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Christopher Browning
Born May 22, 1944(1944-05-22) (age 78)
Occupation Historian, author

Christopher Robert Browning (born May 22, 1944) is an American historian of 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.[1]


He 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, used to massacre and round up Jews for deportation to the Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland in 1942. The conclusion of the book, which was much influenced by the experiments of Stanley Milgram, was that the men of Unit 101 were not demons or Nazi fanatics but ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg, who had been drafted but found unfit for military duty. In some cases, these men were ordered to round up Jews and if there was not enough room for them on the trains, to shoot them. In other, more chilling cases, they were ordered to merely kill a specified number of Jews in a given town or area. The commander of the unit gave his men the choice of opting out of this duty if they found it too unpleasant; the majority chose not to exercise that option, resulting in fewer than 15 men out of a battalion of 500 opting out of their grisly duties.[2] Browning argued that the men of Unit 101 killed out of a basic obedience to authority and peer pressure, not blood-lust or primal hatred. While the specifics of this book deal with killings performed by otherwise average men, the general implication of the book is that when placed in a coherent group setting, most people will adhere to the commands given, even if they find the actions morally reprehensible. Additionally the book demonstrates that ordinary people will more than likely follow orders, even those they might personally question, when they perceive these orders as originating from an authority, a hypothesis also studied in the Milgram Experiment.

Ordinary Men achieved much acclaim but was denounced by Daniel Goldhagen for missing what Goldhagen considered the importance of German culture for causing the Holocaust. In an extremely hostile book review in the July 1992 edition of The New Republic, Goldhagen called Ordinary Men a book of no scholarly value and accused Browning of manufacturing his evidence. Goldhagen's controversial 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners was largely written to rebut Browning's book, but ended up being criticized much more vehemently than Ordinary Men.[3]

When David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel in 2000, Browning was one of the leading witnesses for the defense. Another historian, Robert Jan Van Pelt, wrote a report on the gassing facilities at Auschwitz, and Browning wrote a report on the evidence for the extermination of the Jews on a wider scale.[4] 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 the reality of the Shoah) by replying: "We are still discovering things about the Roman Empire. There is no last chapter in history."[5] Browning countered Irving’s argument that the lack of a written Führer order disproved the Holocaust, maintaining that no such order need ever have been written down, 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.[6] Browning went on to testify that several leading 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 Holocaust.[7] Browning noted that Hitler’s secret speech to his Gauleiters on December 12, 1941, strongly alluded to genocide as the “Final Solution”.[8] Browning categorically 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.[9] Likewise, 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.[10] The American journalist D.D. Guttenplan, who covered the trial, considered Browning to be the most effective of the witnesses for Lipstadt.[citation needed]

Browning's interpretation of the Holocaust

Browning is a functionalist in the origins of the Holocaust debate, following the principles of the "moderate functionalist" school of thought, which focuses on the structure and institution of the Third Reich, moving the focus away from Hitler. Functionalism sees the extermination of the Jews as the improvisation and radicalization of a polycratic regime. Functionalists do not vindicate Adolf Hitler yet 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 3 million Jews (mostly Polish), whom the Nazis had forced into 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, in which after Germany defeated Britain, France was to cede Madagascar to Germany, and then all of the Jews of Europe were to be expelled to that island, was considered as an option. Germany's inability to defeat Britain prevented the execution of the Madagascar Plan. 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 World War II and to turf wars within the German bureaucracy, expulsion lost its viability such that, by 1941, members of the bureaucracy were willing to countenance committing mass murder against the Jews.

In a speech given in Paris in 1982, Browning summarized the state of the historiography as follows:

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.[11]

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 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 together with 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 disruptive of economic conditions.[12] An attempt to settle these difficulties at 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".[13] Himmler's memo, which called for expelling all of the Jews of German-ruled Europe into Africa and reducing Poles to a "leaderless laboring class", and Hitler's approval of the memo led, as Browning noted, to a major change in German policy in Poland along the lines suggested by Himmler.[12] Browning called the Göring/Frank-Himmler/Greiser dispute a perfect example of how Hitler encouraged his followers to engage in turf battles with one another without deciding for one policy option or other, but clearly hinting at the direction he preferred policy to go.[14]


  • 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


  1. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 21, 2011. 
  2. Browning, Chris. Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, New York : HarperCollins, 1992. - pg. 57
  3. Shatz, Adam. (April 8, 1998) Goldhagen's willing executioners: the attack on a scholarly superstar, and how he fights back Slate.
  4. Evans, Richard J. (2002). Telling Lies about Hitler. Verso. p. 35. ISBN 1-85984-417-0. 
  5. Guttenplan, D.D. The Holocaust on Trial, New York: W.W. Norton, 2001 page 210
  6. Guttenplan, D.D. The Holocaust on Trial, New York: W.W. Norton, 2001 page 211
  7. Guttenplan, D.D. The Holocaust on Trial, New York: W.W. Norton, 2001 page 212
  8. Guttenplan, D.D. The Holocaust on Trial, New York: W.W. Norton, 2001 pages 212-213
  9. Guttenplan, D.D. The Holocaust on Trial, New York: W.W. Norton, 2001 page 213
  10. Guttenplan, D.D. The Holocaust on Trial, New York: W.W. Norton, 2001 pages 213-214
  11. Christopher Browning La décision concernant la solution finale from Colloque de l.Ecole des Hautes Etudes en sciences sociales, L.Allemagne nazie et le génocide juif, Gallimard-Le Seuil, Paris1985, page 19.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Rees, Lawrence The Nazis pages 148-149.
  13. Rees, Lawrence The Nazis page 149.
  14. Rees, Lawrence The Nazis page 150


  • Bauer, Yehuda Rethinking the Holocaust, New Haven [Conn.] ; London : Yale University Press, 2001
  • Guttenplan, D. D. The Holocaust on Trial, New York : Norton, 2001.
  • Marrus, Michael The Holocaust in History, Toronto : Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1987
  • Rosenbaum, Ron Explaining Hitler : the search for the origins of his evil New York : Random House, 1998. ISBN 0-679-43151-9 OCLC 317866934

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