I just saw the Netflix documentary Ordinary Men — The “Forgotten Holocaust”, directed by Manfred Oldenburg. It was disconcerting to see — but essential to watch.
It wasn’t so much a film about the Holocaust and its history but a dissection of the dull and mundane reasons for how it all happened and why. It evoked a haunting memory from my youth that has been bothering me for decades.
In this article, I will reflect on my thoughts, reactions, and feelings that surfaced.
A perfectly ordinary Saturday
I could have chosen something else to watch, but because it was a cloudy, windy, and chilly day, the appearance of the Nazi police squads, Einsatzgruppen, grabbed my attention. The title photo of the film had the same colour palette as the clouds that hung low and menacing.
Or maybe the algorithm knew I was in the right mood for this kind of “entertainment”.
Or it was this fleeting memory from the summer of 1973 when I was in Germany brushing up my German language skills at the tender age of 16. I worked the whole summer at the small hospital in the picturesque village of Werther, not far from Hamburg.
Be that as it may, one of the squad members on the cover photo of the Netflix documentary reminded me of somebody. Let’s call him Heinrich.
It was coincidentally Saturday evening when one of the male nurses invited me to a dinner.
This unexpected offer surprised me, but I gladly accepted the invitation for dinner after my Saturday shift. Because I knew I could sleep in on Sunday, good old German beer lured me like Sirens’ song.
The dinner was good, but what followed makes me still today shiver.
Curiosity almost killed the cat
We sat on the couch, and Heinrich was generous with the beer. At first, I thought he was more into boys than beer, but I was wrong. He was into history. I sighed in relief and accepted the third beer.
Because Finland fought Russia, Heinrich felt the Finns were also sympathetic to the other stuff. He had a thick album of photos on the coffee table, and the more he drank, the more those photos came alive. Heinrich was a brilliant narrator even after many, many beers.
Hearing about the German side of the war from the lovely, friendly, yet quite drunk Heinrich was fascinating. He also asked about my father and his wartime stories.
I told how my father was wounded three times at the front and always sent back to fight the overwhelming enemy. I described how I listened as a small boy to the stories from the war when the thick smoke of cheap cigarettes filled the room, and the low voices of those broken men filled it with dense stories.
Heinrich became melancholic — my father’s story made him so. “You are a good lad, Jussi,” he slurred. “You understand old men, don’t you?” And indeed, at the hospital, I was famous for getting old patients to talk about their lives. I was curious.
Some of Heinrich’s photos showed him as a Hitler Jugend member before the war. “You know,” he explained, “we all were members, and mostly it was fun, like going camping and wandering in nature. Great fun for us who otherwise might have been doing not-so-good things on our own”.
“I have not told these stories to anyone except you,” confessed Heinrich. Photo after photo, his journey through WWII unfolded. “I have to show you this,” he said, taking another album from the cupboard. And now I was facing the real war.
In those pictures, I saw Heinrich as a young man, not more than an adolescent like me. “I was 16 when Germany invaded Poland and keen like mustard to go there to gain some glory and kill some enemies,” he explained, “but I was still too young”.
As a pacifist and active one, I started to feel uneasy, but Heinrich’s captivating stories kept my drunken ears and eyes wide open.
“But then, in 1941, I joined the Einsatzgruppen and was sent to Poland and even further to the East,” explained Heinrich. I didn’t know what that was. And he explained, “Einsatzgruppen was like a police squad for the Reich”. I relaxed, and I thought my lovely older friend had not been, after all, in the gas chamber business.
In one of the photos, I saw a group of these Einsatzgruppen members with neat uniforms standing at an open mass grave filled with bodies. Heinrich was facing the camera, and the brutal pile of bodies was a macabre backdrop for this handsome young man.
I took a deep breath, and suddenly, I was sober and scared like hell.
I looked at Heinrich.
The time stood still.
And I knew what Heinrich had been doing during the war. It didn’t take long for me to leave his house and return to my dormitory room at the hospital. There I vomited: the beer and the photos were too much. Heinrich’s last words still rang in my ears, “Your father knows, and so should you — we had no choice but to do what was necessary and right”.
My father never murdered any civilians or POVs, and he didn’t seek justification for war and fought to protect the country, not to conquer others.
The hangover of the century
On Monday, I pretended I didn’t remember anything when I saw Heinrich. He acted similarly but showed no remorse or shame. I kept my distance for the rest of the summer, and no more dinner invites came.
Heinrich was 51 and a sporty man. He looked after himself and was still a catch, according to some female nurses giggling at the staff cafeteria.
In my eyes, he was a murderer — and a very ordinary man.
Germany had to come to terms with these historic events that happened not so long ago. The hangover from the intoxicating Nazism has taken decades to wear off. However, in that summer of 1973 in Germany, there were still thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of these ordinary men who had been with Heinrich and doing the same atrocities without even having proper nightmares. Now, they lived perfectly ordinary lives, raising perfectly ordinary kids and building a new, perfectly peaceful Germany.
Back to this Saturday
When I saw the documentary, in my mind, I flew back in time to the summer of my dreams. This only dinner with Heinrich was the stuff of nightmares. The rest of it was pure bliss. Still, the memory of Heinrich is one of the strongest ones.
When you sit next to somebody who has murdered maybe thousands of people and escaped any trials, your head starts to hurt. You begin to ask where the rest of them are and why the courtrooms are empty.
In its calm and matter-of-fact style, the documentary delivers a powerful warning: these seemingly ordinary men and women live among us.
If a regime like the Nazis were to come to power with a murderous agenda, these ordinary individuals could easily become butchers themselves. It’s a chilling reminder that one doesn’t need to be a fanatic to participate in genocide; being an ordinary, law-abiding citizen is enough.
What happened in Vietnam, Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and many other places is closer to today’s reality, and most murderers are at large. They are perfectly ordinary men.
Watching this documentary should be mandatory at every college and high school. And to you, too.
It takes extraordinary men and women to be different and stand against destruction, war, and violence. It takes diversity to be a human — uniformity to be an ordinary killer.
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