"the cold-blooded, premeditated killing of one million human beings...Musmanno"

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The Exacting of Genocide

Various methods of killing the most people possible in the shortest time were experimented with by the Nazis. Early in the reign of the Third Reich, Hitler's men experimented in the T-4 programs with various ways to kill the mentally-ill and mentally retarded: injections, gassings and other types of poisonings were used in what was euphemistically called "Euthanasia" or Mercy Killing programs, but there was nothing merciful about the killings. (See First White Rose Pamphlets)

In the first "Aktions" [pronounced 'actions'] local police were often enlisted as well as townspeople to enter the communities they lived in and begin killing mostly Jewish males. Over time, there were no Jewish persons of any age or infirmity which were left out. While the first "aktions" were often voluntary, those who participated found they still had human limits: they sickened of their own cruelty at the killing of innocents quickly.; One such aktion was described near the time of Krystallnacht: a local police department with Nazi supervision, rounded up locals, many of whom were WWI veterans.  They had orders to kill all Jewish males over 14 and deport women and children.

Efficient ways of killing were discussed early in the Reich beginning with the T-4 Programs early in the 1930s. While we usually think only of the Jews as victims of the Nazis, the Nazi definition of who should be "Euthanized" was much broader and included mental 'defectives', the drunk, the chronically unemployed, gypsies, 'Bolsheviks', or communists, and political and religious 'degenerates' as well as those with sexual perversions. As mention, the first victims were killed by experiments with gassings, carbon-monoxide poisonings and lethal injections, and while other methods were explored, it was determined early that gassings were most effective.

Before gassings became the preferred method though, the early Aktions of the Nazis against the Jews, was often shootings. From Krystallnacht on, many of the early mass aktions/murders were by shootings. Firing squads would line up Jewish citizens during aktions, often taping mouths shut to muffle screams. Communique between Himmler, Heydrich and other officials discussed the need for an efficient paramilitary organization to go in in conjunction with the Wehrmacht to deal with local Jewish Civilian "problems". This usually translated into mass graves. The solution, was the EINSATZGRUPPEN,a carefully trained, organized group, an elite group of killers operating especially in German conquered Soviet territories [esp. the Ukraine]; and aided by police and civilians in the mass extermination of civilian Jews.

The Para-Military Einsatzgruppen

The Einsatzgruppen forces were not technically part of the Wermacht, or German Army, although their efforts were carefully coordinated. This was not unlike the rather schizoid relationship of the Nazis to the the Military: the Nazi Party was a philosophical political party which took over Germany; they hoped to see Germany and Nazi become one entity, but even into the war, this was not the case. One had to be a member of the Nazi Party in order to be in the German Military, but not all of the Military had Nazi, or National Socialist views. In the end this schism cracked the foundation of the despotism that held Germany, and became wider till the end of the war. The established German Military at the beginning of Hitler's Reign found it had to 'move over' in certain areas for strictly Nazi Organizations to take over. The SS Death Headers, elite Nazi soldiers were not traditional military but operated within the military. Likewise, Hitler quickly moved into place his own Secret Police and Military Intelligence Organizations, often displacing the traditional Abwehr, or German Military Intelligence organization. This preface is to paint the ongoing juxtaposition of a strictly Nazi organization and concept of the Einsatzgruppen corp with traditional Army, which while working together nevertheless had a undercurrent of separateness.

The Einsatzgruppen was headed by Himmler at the topmost rank, run from Berlin, but more pragmatically by Heydrich who took orders from Himmler. Heydrich was a self-hating obsessed, officer of stoic demeanor: he focused ardently on perfect physical conditioning of his men. [and Germany at large.] Known for his calculating, cruelty without conscience, his leadership of the Einsatzgruppen aktions won him the title of the "Butcher of Prague", as the tallies of innocent Jewish Civilian deaths in Czechoslavakia, the Ukraine and other Soviet territories climbed to 1.5 million. The problem, Heydrich noted, with the Einsatzgruppen was not genocide in his opinion, but the 'morale' problem of his men, some family men who had to attend to so many killings of women and children. It was this "problem" and not genocide, which led Heydrich and Himmler to greatly favor gassings instead of mass shootings.

The Organization of the Einsatzgruppen

Following the headship of Himmler and Heydrich, there were 4 main units of the Einsatzgruppen special forces. The Units were denoted as:

  • Unit #A

  • Unit #B

  • Unit #C

  • Unit #D

  • Associated with each of these units of specially and rigorously trained assasins, were support persons attached to each company. Within each Unit, there were subdivisions of "Einsatzkommandos" or 'sub-troops' which were given tactical assignments towards the goals of the Unit. The principle of "Befehlnotstand" and "Fuhrerprinzip" was seen most clearly in the Einsatzgruppen: no matter how distasteful the task of murder, individual responsibility was completely removed from the singular soldier, it lay completely with leadership. This mesmerization of the ability to carry on personal atrocities without conscience would continue until the end of the war, and the madness of virtual glee at constant killings is seen clearly from the photographic evidence of the time.

    Himmler & Heydrich: The Butcher(s) of Prague

    From directives written during the war, it is very clear that the orders for mass killings by the Einsatzgruppen came directly from Berlin. Himmler gave the directives, Heydrich made sure they were accomplished. The sheer physical feat of destroying 1.5 million persons in approximately 2.5 years, is overwhelming; the fact that it was done with such wanton violence and lack of conscience equally overwhelmed. The dynamic leadership of Heydrich was probably responsible for the efficiency of the genocide in that area. Heydrich was visciously anti-Semitic, but he also had terrible troublings, that he might have Jewish lineage as well: this was questioned at one point due to his grandparents Suss. He was career military, although he had been court martialed regarding his treatment of a young woman he had promised to marry. He was also deeply committed to the cause of Nazism. Heydrich became so central to the mass genocide in the Ukraine and Slavic states, that it was determined by the British that he should be taken down, assasinated, in order to greatly hamper those efforts. Only after hundreds of thousands of deaths had occurred did this finally happen, as two men were able to hit his vehicle in Prague with a grenade. Heydrich died several days later of complications from wounds. His assassins were found and executed, and the town of Lidice was murdered and then burned in retailiation for their alleged help in the incident---the children of the village sent to Chelmno. The iron leadership of Himmler and Heydrich left no room for flexibility---while the aktionsof the Einsatzgruppen will go down in history as one of the cruelest mass murders, it was also one of the utmost military efficiency, carried out from the top down with utter precision.

    The Rottweilers of the Third Reich

    The men who made up the ranks of the Einsatzgruppen were trained to kill without conscience. At times, in observation of the aktions, both Eichmann and Himmler made remarks as to this, one even wondering what kind of men Germany was preparing. (see Eyewitness Testimony:Eichmann) Those comprising the Einsatzgruppen ranks were not all career-military. Einsatzgruppen troops came from the ranks of Waffen SS, the Gestapo, the SD, the "Ordungpolizei" (order police) and the Kripo. While the Army took and controlled the front, once there, the Einsatzgruppen acted independently. In the Ukraine especially, the Einsatzgruppen would often engage local organizations such as the police, 'auxiliary' police (volunteers, of which there was no dearth), other members of the Waffen SS and higher ranking officers (non-Einsatzgruppen). The men were trained literally as 'attack dogs' of the third Reich: the business of killing was perfunctory as they moved into town and village repetitively in the same pattern, rounding up, moving, and shooting Jewish Civilians. They wrote of it as a 'clean-up effort' for the Wehrmacht. Alcohol abuse was rampant among the members. Both Eichmann and Himmler expressed thoughts at later times after witnessing the aktions, or a mass burial, about how the young soldiers would ever be normal again: even they felt they were training irreversible killers. 3

    The Aktions

    The order of the killings was almost always the same and was handled with precision. The website "Einsatzgruppen Archives" describes the Stages of the Aktions:

  • I. Invasion:

    Large numbers of troop would descend like a black cloud on a small quiet community. Their descent was anything but quiet.

  • II. Round-up of Victims

    This almost always took place with violence and assault. What few will mention in historical accounts is that this violent assault was accompanied with brutality, rape of women and children, and ridicule and mocking. In most cases, the victims were loaded on trucks or marched to the location of the killing. Attempted escapes resulted in shootings on the spot, and could endanger others as well. Not all were aware of their impending fate: some thought they were being relocated. In at least one circumstance, a change in an area of Russia was made from killings by gassings to roundups, marches and shootings: the reasoning was that the former handling of the bodies was labor-intensive for the soldiers, but when the victims were marched to and even made to dig their own graves and then shot, there was no 'carrying' of bodies. Genocide was handled as an efficient business.

  • III. March to the City Limit
    The Third step mentioned, was a March to the outskirts of the city. This was done both to veil the event from too many eyes, and for logistical purposes, as above: there would be no transport of corpses. In some instances, victims either knew or had a pretty good idea that they were marching to their death, in other instances, the shock of the brutal entry of the Einsatzgruppen in conjunction with the desire 'not to believe' led many victims to simply follow orders because there was not a choice.

  • IV.The Shootings.

    Many of the shootings were done in firing squad fashion, on the edge of town near a ravine or forest. Victims, men, women and children were forced to disrobe and were lined up on the edge of large deep rectangular graves, and the bodies fell into the grave. As bodies filled the ground floor of the grave, a thin layer of dirt was covered over, and the next 'layer' of bodies were killed and added to the graves, and so forth until the grave was filled. Thousands of shootings took place at a time, in front of the horrified victims looking on knowing they would be next. Because of the sheer number of victims and the time involved [in Babiyar, e.g. the shootings were done in 2 days]; a few victims remained alive buried among the corpses. As the Nazis left, they crawled to the surface, badly wounded and some escaped to the forests or wooded areas and were able to carry news of the mass executions. They were not always believed. If a victim refused to disrobe [most were Orthodox Jews, and this was a shaming]; they were beaten and molested, sometimes raped and then disrobed, and then killed. The Einsatzgruppen were so methodical in their killing, and so successful, that their own reports of numbers were at first questioned. The meticulous Nazi record keeping occurred here as well: the Einsatzgruppen documented close to 1.5 million deaths. The only reason the shootings and aktions ceased was because of a turn in favor of the killing centers such as Auschwitz, Sobibor, Chelmno and Belzec.

    The Places

    Most who know vaguely of the Einsatzgruppen aktions, know they operated on Soviet territory. The aktions were particularly heavy in the Ukraine, Baltic area, Latvia, Estonia, Kaunas and other slavic areas. The famous killings at Babiyar, were in a ravine/forest near Kiev: close to 34,000 deaths in 2 days by Unit C. While those whom history counts as the "Einsatzgruppen" operated in this area under Heydrich, there were troops which acted in the same way, earlier in the invasion of Poland.3 They were usually near the front in these areas, sometimes moving in before the Wehrmacht, and sometimes following closely.

    The Purposes

    The purposes according to the Nazis, ostensibly were that these special forces were clearing out partisans, and political dissidents and pockets of resistance. This allowed the forces to kill every Jewish citizen possible, of all ages. The true purpose, was both Endlosung, or in part the "Final Solution" or extermination of the Jews, along with confiscation of property. As soon as the Jews of a community were dead, their property could be easily confiscated by the Nazis. 2 Often this 'looting' served as a means of paying the Einsatzgruppen soldiers. Along with real property, everything from watches and coats to homes and bank accounts were confiscated. This was presumably for the war effort, but much spoil was divided. The question of whether these were merely war deaths and purposes and efforts to flush out resistance members, is discussed in "All Jews are Partisans" below. There were plans to continue the Einsatzgruppen aktions beyond the area, but these were never accomplished.

    The Victims

    The Victims were virtually all the visible Jewish inhabitants of the areas. This included men, women and children, even infants, none were spared. The reasoning behind the killing of children by the Nazis was that they would grow up and avenge their parent's deaths. The Nazis also misrepresented who they were killing at the time: 'Bolsheviks' or communists, political leaders and dissidents, Gypsies and Academics were targeted, and while these were also killed, arrested and deported, by far the greater numbers were Jewish. Unit 'D' headed by Ohlendorf, was responsible by itself for over 900,000 deaths3 Ohlendorf was executed in a later, post-war trial for his part in the killings. The sheer number of children killed was staggering: there remains photographic evidence of the killings, and in at least one report children comprised almost 50% of one of the aktions. Children were seen as mentioned before, as future 'avengers' to steel Nazi consciences. The Einsatzgruppen though did kill others such as those who aided the Jews or interfered with the aktions, and political dissidents. The definition of a political dissident was open to broad interpretation.

    All Jews are Partisans

    The Revisionists and Nazis have both tried to excuse the genocide of the Jews of Europe as the killing of enemies in a war, and nothing more. As such, All Jews became 'partisan's'. Children became avengers, and the innocent bore a look of potential danger. In Ohlendorf's trial after the war, though, it was brought out, that special forces were not often used in combating partisans, that was left to the order police and SS. In Nazi lists of victims, partisans and Jews are listed separately in statistics. Many Nazi 'justifications' for violence against the Jews were proposed early in the war: as the war and Anti-Semitism progressed, aktions did not need to be justified.

    Orders from the Top

    The killing of the Jews in the Einsatzgruppen was not only known by the top, orders for the killing came directly from Himmler, and Himmler's actions were completely cleared and known by Hitler. Had Himmler operated clandestinely on such an important decision, he would have been killed---there was no tolerance for dissension. Documents from the time, though veiled referred to the slavic genocide as an essential undertaking. In one meeting a directive was given for the murder of the Jews, referring to the area as a "hotbed for intellectual Bolshevism"2 which the Nazis always equated with Jewish Intellectuals. In other meetings, Heydrich and Himmler issue directives to kill the Jews. Olendorf said the following at his trial:

    "In late summer of 1941, Himmler was in Nikolaiev. He assembled the leaders and the men of the Einsatzkommandos, repeated to them the liquidation order and men who were taking part in the liquidation bore no responsibility for the execution of this order. The responsibility was his alone and the Fuhrer's"note

    There is no question of the knowledge of the killing of these 1.5 million Jews at the highest levels of command.


    Not Even an Eye for an Eye

    The most troubling aspect for many regarding the Einsatzgruppen killings, is that those tried for war crimes who were central to the killings, received far less than expected in just punishment. Dr. Michael Musmanno presided over the trial, an American Judge from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Twenty-four leaders were tried. Ohlendorf, the head of Unit D, responsible for close to 900,000 deaths, received a death penalty and was hung in 1952. The trials were from September 27, 1947 to April 9, 1948. While 14 initially were given the death penalty [those directly responsible for the deaths and orders to kill], only 3, including Ohlendorf were executed. Six had sentences commuted to life imprisonment, and others received 15 years or less for the mass murder of innocent Jews in the area. The judge was noted for his fairness in the courtroom by both sides. Little was accomplished in even justice.

    Shoah |Facts & History |Einsatzgruppen Organization |Einsatzgruppen Links |


    1Jewish Virtual Library: Einsatzgruppen archives
    2Jaeger Report, quoted in "Einsatzgruppen Archives" and JVL.
    3The Einsatzgruppen Archives

    4MTSU.edu/baustin: Source Document: SS. General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski.
    5http://feldgrau.com/ss.html The Waffen SS: German Military History Site:Feldgrau
    6Hitler's High Command.
    2004 Elizabeth Kirkley Best PhD; Shoah Education Project:Web; All Rights Reserved