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In Masters of Death, Rhodes gives full weight, for the first time, to the Einsatzgruppen’s role in the Holocaust. These “special task forces,” organized by Heinrich Himmler to follow the German army as it advanced into eastern Poland and Russia, were the agents of the first phase of the Final Solution. They murdered more than 1.5 million men, women, and children between 1941 and 1943, often by shooting them into killing pits, as at Babi Yar.
These massive crimes have been generally overlooked or underestimated by Holocaust historians, who have focused on the gas chambers. In this painstaking account, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes profiles the eastern campaign’s architects as well as its “ordinary” soldiers and policemen, and helps us understand how such men were conditioned to carry out mass murder. Marshaling a vast array of documents and the testimony of perpetrators and survivors, this book is an essential contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust and World War II.
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Eastward from Pretzsch
In the spring of 1941 a police academy in Pretzsch, a town on the Elbe River about fifty miles southwest of Berlin, became the site of a sinister assembly. Several thousand men from the ranks of the SS-the Nazi Party's Schutzstaffel, or defense echelon, a police and security service that answered directly to Adolf Hitler and operated outside the constraints of German law-were ordered to report to Pretzsch for training and assignment. They were not told what their assignment would be, but their commonalities offered a clue: many of them had served in SS detachments in Poland, which Germany had invaded and occupied in 1939, and preference was given to men who spoke Russian.
Assignment to Pretzsch emptied the SS leadership school in Berlin-Charlottenburg and depleted the professional examination course of an SS criminal division. It drew in lower- and middle-ranking officers of the Security Police (the Gestapo and the criminal police), some of them passed on gratefully by their home regiments because they were considered too wild. The Waffen-SS, the small but growing SS army, contributed enlisted men. High-ranking bureaucrats within the shadowy Reich Security Main Office,* an internal SS security agency, were posted to Pretzsch as well. They had been handpicked for leadership positions by Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the RSHA and the second most powerful man in the SS, and his superior Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS. Most of these handpicked leaders were lawyers, and a few were physicians or educators; most had earned doctoral degrees. Among the more exotic specimens were Otto Ohlendorf, a handsome but argumentative young economist who had fallen into disfavor with Himmler; Paul Blobel, a rawboned, highstrung, frequently drunken architect; Arthur Nebe, a former vice squad detective and Gestapo head who had enthusiastically volunteered; and Karl Jäger, a brutal fifty-three-year-old secret police commander. A reserve battalion of the regular German Order Police (uniformed urban, rural and municipal police) completed the Pretzsch roster.
Soon the men learned that they would be assigned to an Einsatzgruppe-a task force. Einsatz units-groups and commandos-had followed the German army into Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland when Germany had invaded those countries successively in 1938 and 1939. Einsatzgruppen secured occupied territories in advance of civilian administrators. They confiscated weapons and gathered incriminating documents, tracked down and arrested people the SS considered politically unreliable-and systematically murdered the occupied country's political, educational, religious and intellectual leadership. Since Germany had concluded a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in August 1939, many of the candidates at Pretzsch assumed they would be assigned to follow the Wehrmacht into England. Some of them had previously trained to just that end.
By the spring of 1941, Poland had already been decapitated. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and later his munitions and armament minister, remembered that on the night of 21 August 1939, when news of Josef Stalin's agreement to the nonaggression pact had settled Hitler's decision to invade Poland, the Führer and his entourage had drifted out onto the terrace of his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg to watch a rare display of Northern Lights vermilioning the mountain across the valley. "The last act of Götterdämmerung could not have been more effectively staged," Speer writes. "The same red light bathed our faces and our hands. The display produced a curiously pensive mood among us. Abruptly turning to one of his military adjutants, Hitler said: 'Looks like a great deal of blood. This time we won't bring it off without violence.' "
The next day the Führer belabored the generals and field marshals of the Wehrmacht for hours with an impassioned harangue. He told them Germany needed room to expand and as a buffer against the Russians. Therefore he meant not merely to occupy Poland but also to destroy it; in its place a new German eastern frontier would arise. "The idea of treating war as anything other than the harshest means of settling questions of very existence is ridiculous," he challenged the army commanders. "Every war costs blood, and the smell of blood arouses in man all the instincts which have lain within us since the beginning of the world: deeds of violence, the intoxication of murder, and many other things. Everything else is empty babble. A humane war exists only in bloodless brains." A field marshal who attended the conference reported Hitler warning them "that he would proceed against the Poles after the end of the campaign with relentless vigor. Things would happen which would not be to the taste of the German generals." The field marshal understood the warning to mean "the destruction of the Polish intelligentsia, in particular the priesthood, by the SS."
When Germany had attacked Poland on 1 September 1939, beginning the Second World War in Europe, five Einsatzgruppen that Heydrich had organized followed behind the five invading Wehrmacht armies, each group subdivided into four Einsatzkommandos of 100 to 150 men. These advance cadres were augmented with Order Police battalions, Totenkopf* concentration-camp guard regiments and Waffen-SS, producing a combined SS force approaching twenty thousand men. The commander of one of the Polish Einsatzgruppen in 1939, Bruno Streckenbach, would become the head of SS personnel responsible for recruiting the new Einsatzgruppen forming at Pretzsch in May 1941.
Himmler's SS was famously thorough. Heydrich, a tall, horse-faced, sneering former naval officer whom even his own subordinates called "the blond beast," had started his career organizing elaborate card indexes on Nazi Party enemies, a system Hitler had instituted in the early days of the party to keep tabs on his own supporters. If the Einsatzgruppen in Poland followed standard SS practice, the lists Heydrich's staff compiled of Polish enemies would serve them well. An SS officer on a later mission to the Caucasus describes how the system worked:
As a group leader I was sent supplementary documentation. By far the most valuable was a slim little book, part of a limited, numbered edition, which I never let out of my sight. The typeface was tiny, I remember, and the paper was extra thin, in order to pack the most information into the smallest possible space. . . . It consisted of a series of lists, including the names of every active member of the Communist party in the Caucasus, all the nonparty intelligentsia, and listings of scholars, teachers, writers and journalists, priests, public officials, upwardly mobile peasants, and the most prominent industrialists and bankers. [It contained] addresses and telephone numbers. . . . And that wasn't all. There were additional listings of relatives and friends, in case any subversive scum tried to hide, plus physical descriptions, and in some cases photographs. You can imagine what the size of that book would have been if it had been printed normally.
All these categories of people in Poland, and the Polish nobility as well, were marked for murder. During the first weeks after the invasion, while the Wehrmacht still controlled the occupied areas, a historian of the Polish experience summarizes, "531 towns and villages were burned; the provinces of Lodz and Warsaw suffered the heaviest losses. Various branches of the army and police [i.e., Himmler's legions] carried out 714 [mass] executions, which took the lives of 16,376 people, most of whom were Polish Christians. The Wehrmacht committed approximately 60 percent of these crimes, with the police responsible for the remainder." The historian cites an Englishwoman's eyewitness account of executions in the Polish town of Bydgoszcz:
The first victims of the campaign were a number of Boy Scouts, from twelve to sixteen years of age, who were set up in the marketplace against a wall and shot. No reason was given. A devoted priest who rushed to administer the Last Sacrament was shot too. He received five wounds. A Pole said afterwards that the sight of those children lying dead was the most piteous of all the horrors he saw. That week the murders continued. Thirty-four of the leading tradespeople and merchants of the town were shot, and many other leading citizens. The square was surrounded by troops with machine-guns.
Three weeks after invading Poland, the Wehrmacht washed its hands of further responsibility for the decapitation, leaving the field to the specialists of the SS. Heydrich met with Quartermaster General Eduard Wagner to agree on an SS "cleanup once and for all" of "Jews, intelligentsia, clergy, nobility." Heydrich then wrote the Einsatzgruppen commanders specifically concerning the "Jewish question in the occupied territory." Cautioning strict secrecy, he distinguished between "the ultimate aim (which will take some time [to accomplish])," and "interim measures (which can be carried out within a shorter period of time)." In the short term, Jews living in territories in western Poland scheduled to be annexed to Germany were to be "cleared" by shipping them eastward; Jews in the remainder of Poland were to be concentrated into ghettos in towns with good railroad connections. Heydrich's letter did not specify what measures the "ultimate aim" would require. Long after the war, when Adolf Eichmann saw this 1939 document, he concluded that it embodied the "basic conception" of "the order concerning the physical extermination of the Jews" of the occupied territories. Large numbers of Polish Jews were murdered in any case, because they were politically suspect for reasons other than their religion; at this early point in time, Heydrich was basically assigning his Einsatzgruppen the transitional task of bringing the Jewish population of Poland under SS control.
An incident in the town of Wloclawek during the last week of September was unusual only in its conflict between authorities. A Totenkopf unit had arrested eight hundred Jewish men. Some of them had been "auf der Flucht erschossen"-"shot while trying to escape"-a standard euphemism for extrajudicial killing in the concentration camps guarded by Totenkopf regiments. The SS unit leader had planned to arrest every Jewish male in town, but the local Wehrmacht commander had overruled him. "They will all be shot in any case," the SS leader had countered. In his innocence the commander had responded, "The Führer can hardly intend us to shoot all the Jews!" Warsaw fell on 28 September 1939, and the day before, Heydrich could already report that "of the Polish leadership, there remained in the occupied area at most 3 percent."
SS brutality in Poland descended to unadorned slaughter in October, when Himmler extended executions to the mentally and physically disabled. The so-called euthanasia program was just beginning in Germany, to be directed initially against children, but the first SS killings preceded any euthanasia murders. The SS's victims were German, removed from hospitals and nursing homes in the Prussian province of Pomerania and transported by train across the border into occupied Poland. The euthanasia program in Germany had to proceed by stealth, but occupied territory was no-man's-land, beyond German law and public scrutiny. Just as it would be easier to murder Jews in the subjugated lands east of Germany, so it was easier to murder the disabled there, including German citizens.
A large SS regiment had been resident in the Free City of Danzig before the war, commanded by SS Sturmbannführer* Kurt Eimann. Eimann recruited several thousand members of the regiment into an auxiliary police unit that bore his name. Late in October 1939, the Pomeranian disabled were crowded into cattle cars and shipped into occupied Poland. The Eimann Battalion met the train at the railroad station in the town of Neustadt. In a nearby forest, Polish political prisoners labored to dig killing pits to serve as mass graves. Trucks delivered the disabled to the forest. The first victim was a woman about fifty years old; Eimann personally dispatched her with a Genickshuss, a shot in the neck from behind at the point where the spinal cord enters the skull. Historian Henry Friedlander quotes from postwar trial testimony: "In front of the pit [Eimann] shot the woman through the base of the skull. The woman, who had walked in front of him without suspecting anything, was instantaneously killed and fell into the pit." During November 1939, further victims were transported from Danzig, filling the Neustadt pits with some 3,500 bodies. To eliminate witnesses, Eimann had the political prisoners who dug the pits murdered and the pits covered with dirt.
Friedlander found that essentially all the disabled in the Polish districts annexed to the Third Reich were shot into mass graves: 1,172 psychiatric patients in Tiegenhof beginning on 7 December 1939, for example; 420 psychiatric patients from the hospital in Chelm, near Lublin, on 12 January 1940. A Sonderkommando* formed of German security police from Posen and Lodz by an Einsatzgruppe leader, Herbert Lange, used moving vans fitted with tanks of pure carbon monoxide to murder patients throughout a former Polish province that was annexed to Germany as Wartheland. "After killing handicapped patients in 1940," Friedlander adds, "the [Lange commando] possibly also killed Jews in the small villages of the Wartheland with these early gas vans." "Little by little we were taught all these things," Eichmann would explain without apology. "We grew into them."
A secret annex to Germany's nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union had divided Poland between the two powers. To claim Russia's share of the spoils, the Red Army had invaded Poland from the east on 17 September 1939. Hitler assigned Himmler the work of expelling eastward more than eight million non-Germans from what had been western Poland and moving ethnic Germans westward out of the Soviet-occupied Baltic states to settle in their place. To launch the grandiose winnowing, Himmler ordered Eichmann to organize transportation for a half million Jews and another half million Gentile Poles. "I had to set up guidelines for implementation," Eichmann recalled, "because those were the ReichsfÃ?hrer's orders. For instance, he said, 'No one is to take any more with him than the Germans who were driven out by the French.' After the First World War, he meant, from Alsace-Lorraine, or later from the Rhineland and the Ruhr. I had to find out; at that time, fifty kilos of luggage were allowed [per person]." Himmler issued his expulsion order on 30 October 1939, setting February 1940 as a deadline. After 15 November 1939, the entire railway network of the area of occupied Poland that the Germans had named the General Government-central and southern Poland-was reserved for resettlement transports. Trainloads of Jewish and Gentile Poles began moving east in December. The victims were dumped in the General Government in the middle of Polish winter with no provision for food or shelter. An uncounted number died of exposure or starved, results that led the newly appointed and histrionic head of the General Government, Hans Frank, formerly Hitler's personal lawyer, to declare in a public speech, "What a pleasure, finally to be able to tackle the Jewish race physically. The more that die, the better." Himmler himself alluded to the devastating consequences of resettlement in a speech the following autumn to one of his battalions, bragging that Poland had been the place