Holocaust History: A Sinister Organization

Heinrich Himmler and a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp, 1936. Bundesarchiv.

Schutzstaffel SS – Institutionalized Evil

By the time Operation Barbarossa kicked off in June 1941 and rolled across the East, Heinrich Himmler’s Schutzstaffel, or SS for short, controlled law and order in the police state that was the Third Reich. It all began in 1936 when Hitler appointed Himmler Chief of the German Police; he also retained his position as head of the SS.[1] Himmler immediately set about creating new ministries under the umbrella of the SS that eventually controlled all aspects of policing in the Reich. These included the Order Police under Kurt Daluege and the Sicherheitsdienst, SS Security Service or SD for short under the command of Reinhard Heydrich – who also became known among fellow SS men as the “Blond Beast.”[2] Eventually the SS expanded to include units of the Waffen SS that fought alongside the Wehrmacht and the SS-Totenkopfverbände which ran and administered the concentration camp system. All these units under the general oversight of the SS, including police, at some time or another participated in perpetrating that Holocaust. Himmler’s SS provided the ideal framework necessary for committing the mass murder of Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis.

Leaders of the men tasked with exterminating “undesirables” in the East were by and large educated and included: doctors, lawyers, architects, economists, and university professors.[3] In his work Army of Evil: A History of the SS, author Adrian Weale pointed out that the SS’s ideology gave its leadership a “common doctrinal framework in which to operate” however they were allowed to use their own initiative to achieve specific objectives.[4] This was evident in the actions of the Einsatzgruppen in 1941-1942 as well as in the experimentation that led to the streamlining of the death camps in Poland.

Such was the power of the SS, that Himmler’s chief of intelligence Reinhard Heydrich and the comparatively low-ranking SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Adolf Eichmann were able to organize the now infamous Wannsee Conference attended by representatives of the political and civil authorities whose cooperation would be needed to murder all the Jews remaining in territories under Nazi control.[5]

A Sinister Phalanx Unleashed – Einsatzgruppen and the Nazi War of Annihilation in the East

Murder of Lithuanian Jewish women and girls by Ensatzgruppe A, December 1941. Bundesarchiv.

From the very beginning the Nazi campaign in the East was intended to be a war of annihilation of those whom the regime considered undesirable subhuman races, namely Jews and Slavs. Hitler made it very clear from his earliest writings and rants that he believed a showdown between Germany and the Soviet Union was inevitable and necessary to secure “living space” for the Aryan race. The fact that this war was to be different was reiterated on multiple occasions to high-ranking personnel in the Army, SS, and German Order Police. In March 1941 Hitler told his generals among other things that the war would be “one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness.”[6] Less than six months before the invasion of the Soviet Union Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of occupied Poland, explained to his subordinates in a cabinet meeting that, “As far as the Jews are concerned, I want to tell you quite frankly that they must be done away with in one way or another…” and that even though it would be difficult they must “shoot or poison the three and a half million Jews in the General Government… we shall be able to take measures which will lead, somehow, to their annihilation.”[7] Addressing the leaders of SS and Order Police units that formed the core leadership of the Ensatzgruppen unleashed in wake of the advancing Wehrmacht, Heinrich Himmler told them bluntly that the campaign was “a question of existence, thus it will be a racial struggle of pitiless severity, in the course of which 20 to 30 million Slavs and Jews will perish through military actions and crises of food supply.”[8] It is obvious that among the Nazi leadership there was no question that the extermination of large numbers of people was imminent even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

Rife with his victories in the West, Hitler believed that the campaign against the Soviets would also be a quick one as he had told General Jodl: “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”[9] Nazi leaders were confident that the war in the East would be won quickly. Also, the fighting would take place in vast expanses of Soviet territory – far from the spotlight that had been on them in their western campaigns where they had allowed journalists from neutral nations access to the battlefields and front lines. These factors caused Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy to believe that they could carry out mass murder, starvations, and plunder with impunity.

Himmler and SS officers inspect a Russian boy in Minsk, Ukraine, August 1941. On August 15, 1941 Himmler personally witnessed the Einsatzgruppe murder of 300 local Jews. US Holocaust Museum.

It was with this in mind that the Einsatzgruppen killing squads were formed and tasked with “pacifying” rear areas.[10] In the initial stages of the campaign against the USSR these groups, among other things, organized locals to carry out “spontaneous” pogroms against their Jewish neighbors; Nazis had the most success in Lithuania and the Ukraine with this tactic.[11] As the Germany military machine rolled eastward in June 1941 SS Chief Heinrich Himmler and his top assistant Reinhardt Heydrich made an inspection tour, including impromptu visits to the various Einsatzgruppen. In these they gave explicit orders to begin murdering Jewish civilians wholesale.[12] One such order to begin mass murdering of Jews, issued by Himmler in early July 1941 to the commander of Order Police Battalions 316 and 322 operating in Byelorussia, stated in part:

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.[13]

These orders also coincided with Stalin’s partisan order in his famous July 3, 1941 speech to the Soviet people. In the mind of the Nazis Stalin’s call for partisan action behind German lines gave them carte blanche to commit acts of murder. According to Hitler, the order “…enables us to eradicate everyone who opposes us… Naturally, the vast area must be pacified as quickly as possible; the way to do that is to shoot dead anyone who even looks at us sideways.”[14] To Hitler Jews in general were the enemy and the partisan order was just another pretext to murder them down the last woman and child. The killing unleashed by the Einsatzgruppen eventually took the lives of approximately 1.5 million innocent men, women, children, and infants at hundreds of killing sites across the western Soviet Union. No town or village where Jews lived was left untouched.

German Fighting Men and the Holocaust

3rd Waffen SS “Death’s Head” Division, France, June 1940. Bundesarchiv.

German soldiers in the East from all branches of the service were aware of atrocities being committed to one degree or another. Regarding the Wehrmacht high command involvement in the Einsatzgruppen atrocities, the German brass was either directly complicit (usually by providing security and logistical support), and when not involved simply turned a blind eye to it.[15]

The reactions of individual soldiers, however, varied. In August 1941 regular Wehrmacht soldiers became aware of a houseful of Jewish children that were to me murdered and took the issue to the local military commander who subsequently refused to hand the children over to the SS. The commander along with German military chaplains pushed the issue up the chain of command to the divisional level. The division staff appealed to Sixth Army Headquarters and General Walther von Reichenau. The general ordered his men to surrender the children to the SS for execution.[16]

Some individual soldiers expressed disgust, others were spectators at killings, while most could be described as indifferent. Johann Voss, a young Waffen-SS soldier, told of his first encounter with Jews in Eastern Poland while on his way to Finland with the 11th SS Mountain Regiment. The young soldiers handed bread to a starving Jewish boy in a work gang along the train tracks only to see the boy brutally beaten by one of the guards afterward. Officers intervened to stop the beating however Voss later learned that the boy had been shot for his “insolence.”[17] His only crime having been to accept bread from the soldiers. Voss described his feelings after this event:

This incident was my first encounter with the dark side of the Third Reich, cruel and inhumane. I had seen a concrete example of what the persecution of the Jews was like, what was being done to subjects who were regarded as public enemies or as scum of the earth. At that time, however, I played down my feelings.[18]

His reaction is probably the most common, that of indifference. Another young Waffen-SS enlisted man in the elite Leibstandarte Division, Erwin Bartmann, told of how after his unit was pulled off the front line near Rostov in 1941, a group of men from another company were ordered to assist the SD in rounding up and murdering Jews after which they got very drunk. Bartmann’s own reaction was one of compassion for his comrades who had to do the “dirty work,” mingled with disgust and fear of the SD – and relief that he had not been selected for such duty.[19] Again, indifference is the underlying theme.

Some of the German soldiers who served in the East fully grasped the big picture of what was going on and were greatly disturbed by it, however those were probably few and far between. One of these was infantryman Willy Reese, who fought in the Wehrmacht 95th Infantry Division in the East until he was killed in action in 1945. He recorded the following in his war diary, which he kept illegally and left at home with his mother in 1944 while on leave from the Eastern Front.

We are war. Because we are soldiers.
I have burned all the cities,
Strangled all the women,
Brained all the children,
Plundered all the land.
I have shot a million enemies,
Laid waste the fields, destroyed the churches,
Ravaged the souls of the inhabitants,
Spilled the blood and tears of all the mothers. I did it, all me. – I did
Nothing. But I was a soldier.[20]

Willy Reese, 1943

End Notes

[1] Adrian Weale, Army of Evil: A History of the SS (Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2010), 114.

[2] Ibid. 83, 133.

[3] Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2002), Kindle Locations 94-99.

[4] Weale, 3.

[5] Rhodes, Kindle Locations 4646-4652.

[6] William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 19579-19583.

[7] Ibid. Kindle Locations 15669-15675.

[8] Rhodes, Kindle Locations 377-378.

[9] Shirer, Kindle Locations 20269-20270.

[10] Rhodes, Kindle Locations 250-255.

[11] Ibid. Kindle Locations 893-898.

[12] Ibid. Kindle Locations 923-930.

[13] Chrisopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, 2017), Kindle Locations 617-620.

[14] Rhodes, Kindle Locations 2053-2057.

[15] Ibid. Kindle Location 3178.

[16] Ibid. Kindle Locations 2558-2582.

[17] Johann Voss, Black Edelweiss: A Memoir of Combat and Conscience by a Soldier of the Waffen-SS (The Aberjona Press. Kindle Edition, 2013), Kindle Locations 1457-1501.

[18] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1502-1504.

[19] Erwin Bartmann, Für Volk and Führer: The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (Helion and Company. Kindle Edition, 2013), 56-57.

[20] Willy Peter Reese, A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 150-156.