In his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland Christopher Browning tells the chilling story of the German Order Police Reserve Unit 101.

Police Battalion 101 was made up of 500 mostly middle-aged men of working-class background recruited from Hamburg. They had been found unfit for front line military service and so were pressed into service to round up Polish Jews for deportation or immediate slaughter.

In 1941 and 1942 they shot and killed 38,000 Jews and rounded up 45,200 others for deportation to death camps.

According to Browning’s account, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 did not start out as cold-blooded murders. They were eased into their ultimate task starting with what were portrayed as legitimate actions against people who were guilty of illegal actions. Only gradually did they progress to wholesale slaughter of obviously innocent men, women and children.

On 11 July 1941 Colonel Montua of the Police Regiment Center issued an early order framed to give the impression of a just action in the interests of preserving law and order. He wrote:


By order of the Higher SS and Police Leader… all male Jews between the ages of 17 and 45 convicted as plunderers re to be shot according to martial law.

But, even in this early order, Montua attempted to insure that, as much as possible, the police actions would go undetected. He went on to instruct the police:

The shootings are to take place away from cities, villages, and thoroughfares. The graves are to be leveled in such a way that no pilgrimage site can arise. I forbid photographing and the permitting of spectators at the executions. Executions and grave sites are not to be made known.

These are not the instructions of a legitimate police force attempting to insure that justice is effectively carried out. Montua’s directives were laying the groundwork for the eventual massacre of Jews by police units in which Jews would be forced to lay face down in a grave before being shot at close range at the base of the skull.

Even at this early stage, when the illusion of justice was being maintained, there was an awareness that these actions would be difficult for the police who would be called upon to shoot people they had personally taken from their homes and paraded out of their villages into the woods for execution. Out of concern for his police, Montua went on to instruct that

The battalion and company commanders are especially to provide for the spiritual care of the men who participate in this action. The impressions of the day are to be blotted out through the holding of social events in the evenings. Furthermore the men are to be instructed continuously about the political necessity of the measures.

This is a haunting paragraph. The “spiritual care” offered consists of promoting amnesia through “social events in the evenings”, and providing on-going indoctrination “about the political necessity of the measures.”

For many people Montua’s directions constitute a description of religion. Religion can be an anesthetic against the pain of life and propaganda promoting ideology and dogma. But, at its best, religion calls us to face the realities of life with courage, honesty and openness and to find in the midst of the darkness those shards of light that are always visible to the discerning eye.

“Spiritual care” is not a tool to avoid the horrors of reality. It is an instrument to open the seeker to the beauty that is always present even in the deepest shadows. Religion is not propaganda it is support for hearts to open to the profound mystery of life. Anything less than this risks becoming a tool for the violence of which religion is so often guilty.