States author Richard Rhodes in his excellent new book Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, “A woman in a small town near
Minsk” (in September 1941) “saw a young German soldier walking down the street with a year-old baby impaled on his bayonet. ‘The baby was still crying weakly,’ she would remember. ‘And the German was singing. He was so engrossed in what he was doing that he did not notice me.’”
The actual wide-scale killing of Jews had begun in Poland in September 1939, protested only by German Army Gens. Johannes Blaskowitz and Georg von Kuchler . Indeed, in some cases, the Army even aided the Death’s Head units of the SS in the Polish campaign in killing Jews under the guise that they were, in fact, partisans operating behind the German lines. This stratagem would later be vastly expanded when the Soviet Union was invaded on June 22, 1941, the rule being, “Where there is a Jew there is a partisan; where there is a partisan there is a Jew.”
In the USSR, however, the start of anti-Soviet operations and the chance to kill ever more Jews went far beyond their genesis of 1939, as SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office, established, organized and dispatched to the Baltic Republics and Western Russia six major units attached to the German Army for the specific purpose of killing “hostile elements”—above all, Jews.
These so-called Einsatzgruppen (Special Task Forces) were commanded by
young, motivated, highly-educated lawyers and consisted of members of Heydrich’s SD (Security Service), the General SS, the SA ,the German Regular Police, as well as, later, combat troops from the Waffen (Armed ) SS Death’s Head and Viking Divisions , according to Mr. Rhodes. Ever since the end of the war, the veterans’ organizations have vehemently denied that the combat arm of the SS had anything to do with atrocities such as carried out by the Einsatzgruppen.
And what were they ? According to The Holocaust Encyclopedia, “Although mobilized during the Polish campaign of 1939, their main activity took place in 1941 and 1942. Instrumental in killing hundreds of thousands of Jews in Russia and Ukraine, Einsatzgruppen—working together with local gendarmerie(police), Order Police and native collaborators—were the primary agent of the Final Solution prior to the establishment of the extermination camps.
“In addition to Jews, they also murdered Gypsies and Communist Party officials. Often assisted by local police, Einsatzgruppen gathered entire populations of fallen towns, shot them and threw the bodies into pits. They also utilized gas vans—trucks sealed shut into which exhaust fumes were piped—to kill prisoners during transport.”
Initially, Heydrich organized the Einsatzgruppen into six units that would eventually encompass some 20,000 men and women. Each unit included Waffen SS, motorcycle riders, administrators, SD personnel, Criminal Police, State Police, Auxiliary Police, Order Police, female secretaries and clerks, interpreters, teletype and radio operators—in effect, completely mobile and self-contained entities.
In addition, at a time when the German Army itself was only partially mobilized in June 1941 with much of its field artillery still being horse-drawn, Reichsfuhrer (National Leader) SS Heinrich Himmler made sure that his individual killing squads were fully mobile with a complement of 180 trucks each. The troops themselves were well-armed with either rifles or automatic weapons.
They would need to be, for Himmler and Heydrich—acting on the direct orders of Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Reich Marshal Hermann Goring---fully intended to kill not only Jews, but 25-30 million Slavs to the far-off Ural Mountains in Soviet Asia to clear the vast steppes for German colonization over a period of a trio of postwar decades, 1941-71.
At first, during the months June-July 1941, the SS themselves were not closely involved in the killings, instead encouraging the local populations of the invaded territories to kill their own Jews in “spontaneous” uprisings that they aided and abetted, however. Indeed, to further inflame the locals, the Germans opened up the jails and showed off the dead left behind by the retreating Red Army Commissars, blaming the grisly killings on the Jews.
But even as they were encouraging these killings, and also participating in them, the SS nervously approached their tasks: “We all said to one another, ‘what on earth would happen if we lost the war and had to pay for all this ?’” as early as July 1941.
This was precisely the problem that Gen. Blaskowitz had identified in German-occupied Poland in 1939 that Himmler as RFSS was now encountering: “As a consequence of the SS’s mass slaughters, ‘tremendous brutalizations and moral
depravity’ might spread ‘rapidly among precious German manpower like an epidemic.’”
It was well and good for Himmler to boast “If Hitler were to say I should shoot my mother, I would do it and be proud of his confidence,” as long as he wasn’t the man to pull the trigger, that is. He was---first, last and always—a desk murderer who ordered others to do the dirty work. The same was true of both Heydrich and his deputy SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eicmann. The story is told that when the RFSS witnessed an actual Einsatzgruppen massacre in the East put on for his benefit, he got sick and vomited.
His Special Task Force commanders were losing their minds and being relieved of duty, while the men who did the shooting were becoming alcoholics—and no wonder.
States Rhodes of one action on Sept. 15, 1941, “The police formed the remaining 12,000 people –those who could march—into columns and herded then down Brodsky Street toward the airport. Trucks loaded small children and the elderly. At the airport”(regimental Waffen) “SS men led the victims 50 yards across an open field to the pits in groups of 40 and murdered them with automatic weapons while the next in line watched from the road. The shooting took all day.” Quicklime and water were then poured in to dull the bodies’ stench, with the result being that the dead –and even the living--started to boil.
On one day---Sept. 22, 1941—the Einsatzgruppen killed 10,000 people in a single action. One commander, Artur Nebe—who would later be executed himself for plotting to kill the Fuhrer on July 20, 1944—wanted to dynamite Russian mental patients.
“In September 1941…Nebe conducted his dynamite experiment in Minsk. He justified it to his deputy…with the argument that ‘he could not ask his troops to shoot these incurably insane people.’ Nebe had Widman” (a chemist) “rig a pillbox—a reinforced concrete machine-gun emplacement—with dynamite, lock the Russian mental patients inside and detonate the dynamite. The experiment was not a success: the dynamite destroyed both the victims and the pillbox, catapulting body parts in every direction, and the experimenters had to retrieve arms and legs from the surrounding trees.”
It was Nebe who began experimenting with gas vans, in which the victims were placed into mobile trucks and then killed with the gas pumped inside. This was done not to be more humane to the victims, but as a means of making the killing more palatable to the executioners! Because pure carbon monoxide was found to be too expensive to use, Nebe decided to experiment with auto exhaust fumes. These, in turn, led to the death camps in mid-1942, where killing took place on a massive scale until late in 1944.
States Rhodes, “The notorious gas chambers and crematoria of the death camps have come to typify the Holocaust, but in fact they were exceptional. The primary means of mass murder the Nazis deployed during the Second World War was firearms and lethal privation,” i.e., death by starvation, working to death, or exposure to the elements.
“Shooting was not less efficient than gassing, as many historians have assumed. It was harder on the shooters’ nerves, and the gas vans and chambers alleviated the burden, but shooting began earlier, continued throughout the war and produced far more victims if Slavs are counted, as they must be, as well as Jews.” Van gassing began in late 1941.
The men of the Einsatzgruppen carried out their orders willingly, if uneasily, for no judges looked over their shoulders and they were told they acted on the orders of their Fuhrer, the Supreme Justiciar of the German State. The were, in Rhodes’ phrase, “Judge, jury and executioner all in one.” As for the German Armed Forces, “The Wehrmacht looked the other way when it was not actually complicitous.”
One of the commanders, Friedrich Jeckeln, invented the “packing” method of killing, wherein the victims were funneled in groups of 50 by gauntlets of troops with shouts and blows. “Packers would have been stationed in the pit, as at Babi Yar, to position the victims lying down on the bodies of those who had preceded them. A Genuckschuss(shot to the back of the head) by one of Jeckeln’s bodyguards ended their suffering. When a killer had emptied a clip, another man replaced him and he took a break.”
On Jan. 20, 1942, Heydrich and Eichmann convened their secret meeting at Wannsee outside Berlin to take the Final Solution of the Jewish Question to its next level: the deportation by rail of all Jews “to the East” and their extermination there in gas chambers, starting in earnest in mid-1942.
The first camp was at Auschwitz-Birkenau that same month in UpperSilesia, followed by three more in eastern Poland: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Extermination at Belzec started on March 17, 1942. In time, other SS death camps would include Chelmno and Majdanek as well, for a total of six in all.
The notorious prussic acid insecticide Zyklon (Cyclone) B was used only at Auschwitz. Asserts Rhodes, “Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka all used carbon monoxide from engine exhaust to poison victims.” Majdanek used at times either Zyklon B, he states, or pure bottled carbine monoxide.
Heydrich died in June, 1942, but RFSS Himmler lived to tour their brainchild at Auschwitz during July 17-18, 1942. He watched a Zyklon B extermination, recalled the camp commandant, Rudolf Hoss: “He just looked on in total silence.” The following February, his aides noticed that the priggish Himmler “Had come to take pleasure in seeing women tortured.” As a special demonstration for Himmler at Sobibor, 300 young Jewish women were sent on “the road to heaven”—from Camp 2 into the gas chamber at Camp 3. It is reported that after this event, the RFSS had wine and cigarettes with his aides.
The catastrophic defeat and surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in early 1943 put all Nazi plans for colonization of the East on hold—but not the killing of the Jews. States The Holocaust Encyclopedia, “The Einsatzgruppen were disbanded in 1943, and efforts were made to conceal evidence of their work.” To Hitler, however, by June, the “Murdering of the Jews had become more important than the winning of the war, even if it brought down ruin on Germany,” according to Rhodes.
Both Hitler and Himmler committed suicide, leaving their bloody minions behind to pay for their deeds in the Einsatzgruppen and elsewhere.
The Military Government of the United States in West Germany brought to trial 24 former commanders and officers of the Special Task Forces in the ninth of 12 war crimes trials held at Nuremberg. Otto Ohlendorf et al was heard by a panel of three judges from Sept. 15, 1947 to Apr. 10, 1948 with Judge Michael Musmanno (author of 10 Days to Die on the Fuhrer in 1945) presiding.
States Rhodes, “According to the chief prosecutor, no trial of the Einsatzgruppen had originally been planned. The Einsatzgruppen reports—one set, the only set that survived the war—had been scooped up among two tons of documents found on the fourth floor of the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin in September 1945. They escaped prosecutor attention
for more than a year; a thousand tons of documents captured throughout Germany had to be sorted. The Einsatzgruppen figured into the”(previous) IMT(International Military Tribunal) Nuremberg trial—Ohlendorf notoriously admitted in open court that his Einsatzgruppen D had murdered 90,000 people—but the full range and scale of Einsatzgruppen activity did not emerge.”
Having participated as a US Third Army sergeant in the liberation of Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Dachau, Ferencz was also chief of the Berlin branch of the Office of Chief of Counsel for War Crimes, and it was he who carried the reports to Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor of both the IMT and the subsequent Nuremberg Trials.
The 24 accused included Otto Ohlendorf, Heinz Jost, Erich Naumann, Otto Rasch, Edwin Schulz, Franz Six, Paul Blobel, Walter Blume, Martin Sandberger, Willy Seibert, Eugen Steimle, Ernst Bilberstein, Werner Braune, Walter Hansch, Gustav Nosske, Adolf Ott, Eduard Strauch, Emil Haussmann, Woldemar Klingelhofer, Lothar Fendler, Waldemar von Radetsky, Heinz Schubert and Matthias Graf.
Four of the accused were hanged in 1951, including Otto Ohlendorf..
However, as Rhodes concludes, “Most Einsatzgruppen, Orpo, Totenkopf (Death’s Head), Waffen SS and other SS members who perpetrated mass murder in the east during the Second World War were neither indicted nor convicted”---much less confined nor hanged for their nefarious crimes.
On the other hand, Artur Nebe was a broken man by November 1941, writing, “I have looked after so many criminals, and now I have become one myself.” His driver
committed suicide. Other killers suffered nervous breakdowns and wept: “I did not laugh
anymore,” noted one. “I was degraded into a hangman.”
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