Book Review: Masters of Death

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust by Richard Rhodes

In the introduction of his work Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust author and historian Richard Rhodes asks whether or not it is worth it to submit one’s self to reading such disturbing material. In answer to his own question the author explained, considering the horrible suffering of the victims, that the “least I could do, it seemed to me, was work out a narrative of Einsatzgruppen crimes, and if reading about those crimes was painful, it did not even remotely compare to what the victims went through.” The result of Rhodes’s endeavor is the most thorough publication produced to date on the history of the Nazi killing squads that roamed across Eastern Europe during World War II. In particular Rhodes highlights the role of the Einsatzgruppen in the Nazi’s planning, perpetrating, and eventual streamlining of the Holocaust killing process within the broad context of their war of extermination in the East. The author also dissects the command structure and participation of military and paramilitary groups such as the Waffen-SS, Order Police, and foreign auxiliaries in the perpetration of Einsatzgruppen atrocities.

Nazi Germany’s preparations for war against the Soviet Union, in addition to traditional military objectives, included grandiose plans for enslaving, forcefully removing, or eliminating tens of millions of people whom the regime considered racially or politically undesirable. By virtue of the author’s work we now know the significance of the role played by the Einsatzgruppen in these Nazi plans for the East beginning in the aftermath of the invasion and partition of Poland in 1939-1940. The Einsatzgruppen first became active in the East in the wake of the Wehrmacht’s 1939 victory over Poland and subsequent partition of that country with the Soviet Union. During the Polish campaign the Wehrmacht had carried out mass executions, however military officers viewed the actions as disciplined and justified. The Einsatzgruppen however carried out the systematic mass murder of a variety of individuals including intellectuals, politicians, members of the Catholic clergy, Jews, and others. Over 100 such slaughters were recorded during the last months of 1939 alone. This seemingly wanton and undisciplined killing conducted by the Einsatzgruppen troubled the Wehrmacht and aroused concerns that it would foment unrest and resistance by the local population. Reports containing damning descriptions of drunken Einsatzgruppen massacres and gratuitous violence flowed from military field commanders back to Berlin where they were compiled into a dossier of accusations against the SS. Consequently in January 1940, only a few months after the Polish campaign, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler was forced to meet with Wehrmacht Commander in the East Walther von Brauchitsch to work out a truce between the SS and Wehrmacht regarding the Einsatzgruppen atrocities. 

Rhodes points out that Einsatzgruppen actions in Poland served as a learning experience for Himmler and the SS leadership in planning for Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was to be a calculated war of extermination in which millions of people would “perish through military actions and crises of food supply.” Himmler would ensure that this time there would be no discord between the Wehrmacht and the SS Einsatzgruppen. Three months before the invasion Himmler, acting with Hitler’s backing, issued a directive to the Wehrmacht high command regarding “special tasks” to be carried out by the SS. The document clarified the fact that Einsatzgruppen would operate independently “in the field of operations of the army” under orders directly from Hitler himself through the authority of Himmler. In a speech to Wehrmacht commanders the same month that the directive was issued Hitler told them bluntly: “It is a war of extermination.” 

Even after delineating Einsatzgruppen freedom of action from the Wehrmacht chain of command Himmler was careful to escalate violence and mass killing incrementally. Initially Einsatzgruppen limited their killing mainly to communists and male Jews of age for military service; they also had orders to promote “self-cleansing” in the conquered territories by secretly organizing pogroms that would appear spontaneous. The author suggests that this was due to the experience of past conflicts between the SS and Wehrmacht and that Himmler wanted to first assess whether or not the army would support and ignore the SS’s “special tasks”. 

As the German military rapidly rolled eastward in June-July 1941 it appeared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent. Vast swaths of territory containing millions of people considered a threat by the Nazi regime, namely Jews, lay in the rear of the advancing armies. Rhodes explains that in light of this situation, only days after the invasion, Himmler consolidated the Einsatzgruppen command staff and those of various other police and SS units into what essentially amounted to a 30,000 man private army accountable directly to him alone and by default his immediate superior – Hitler. As it became obvious that this time the Wehrmacht would not hinder the SS Himmler and his number two, Reinhard Heydrich, issued orders to the Einsatzgruppen to begin the outright mass murder of Jews and others, including women and children.

Executions of Jews by German army mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) near Ivangorod, Ukraine. The photo was mailed from the Eastern Front to Germany and intercepted at a Warsaw post office by a member of the Polish resistance collecting documentation on Nazi war crimes. The original print was owned by Tadeusz Czesław Mazur and Jerzy Tomaszewski. The photograph is now preserved in the Historical Archives in Warsaw, Poland. The original German inscription on the back of the photograph reads, “Ukraine 1942, Jewish Action [operation], Ivangorod.”

In the resulting slaughter Rhodes points out that German fighting men, of both the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, when they did not look the other way were often complicit in the murders. Contrary to post-war assertions that the Wehrmacht was free of culpability in perpetrating the Holocaust – no German organization that operated in the East, military or paramilitary, was free from responsibility in the atrocities. At very least the Wehrmacht ignored the killings while providing logistical support for Einsatzgruppen without which it would have been impossible for them to carry out their murderous tasks. 

The author also records various instances in which German army soldiers witnessed and participated in the killings. In Lvov Wehrmacht officers and men alike participated in beating and shooting Jews. In many cases Wehrmacht soldiers were encouraged to murder and commit disproportionate reprisals against Jews. After the war one Holocaust survivor related how his friend, a young married man, was murdered by a Wehrmacht officer. The young man opened his front door as the first German troops rolled into town to see what was happening. An officer passing by on a motorcycle stopped, asked him if he was a Jew and shot him dead on the spot simply because he answered yes. Thousands of similar scenarios would play out across the East. 

When the Wehrmacht was not complicit, its rear echelon troops were sometimes used to provide security for the killings and thus became indirect participants and witnesses to Einsatzgruppen atrocities. At Uman one German officer, Oberleutnant Erwin Bingel, who was tasked with such security responsibilities was deeply disturbed by what he and his men saw. Bingel left his own witness as well as clandestine photographs. He described how his unit was ordered to cordon off the airport to all traffic, including that of the Wehrmacht. According to Bingel’s testimony Ukrainian auxiliaries, military police, and a unit of SS men flown in on Luftwaffe Ju-52 transport aircraft proceeded to slaughter thousands of Jewish men, women, infants, and children in the most heinous manner imaginable. By including this account the author not only illustrates first hand the chilling Einsatzgruppen methods of mass murder but also the complicity of both military and paramilitary units. In the case of the Uman massacre German army units provided a security cordon while military police assisted with security in the immediate vicinity of the killing pits. The German air force provided transport for the SS unit tasked with shooting the victims and Ukrainian paramilitaries assisted in digging graves and murdering victims. 

Soviet POWs covering a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, Kiev, Ukraine, October 1, 1941. Johannes Hähle – https://loznitsa.com/

In his book Rhodes also explores the emotional and psychological effects on those who perpetrated Einsatzgruppen killings. As the killing escalated in the East many of the killers, including their commanders, experienced a wide range of negative consequences including: nervous breakdowns, mental illness, acts of violence against their own comrades, substance abuse, and suicide. Himmler himself had become squeamish and visibly shaken upon witnessing the murder of 120-190 Jews, mostly young men and a few women at Minsk in the summer of 1941. The author points out that Hitler and his cronies did not make the decision to murder the entire Jewish population of Europe until sometime in 1941. How exactly they were going to accomplish this was unclear. Initially the plan was to use the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen killings therefore were unprecedented in scale and in many ways experimental in nature. The psychological repercussions combined with logistical difficulties caused the Himmler and the SS to begin looking toward other more effective means of mass murder. In the summer of 1941 Himmler summoned Rudolf Hoess, commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and ordered him to prepare the facility for mass murder using poison gas. The Einsatzgruppen also experimented with various other means of killing including the use of specially designed gas vans that killed with the carbon monoxide in exhaust fumes. It was through the experience of the Einsatzgruppen killing squads in the East that the SS eventually decided to streamline the killing and created mass extermination sites in Poland.

In his work Rhodes has reconstructed the Holocaust narrative and put the actions of the Einsatzgruppen in their appropriate place within it. In so doing he has honored the memory of the 1.5 million innocent victims who were slaughtered at the edge of countless pits across the East.