Organising Hell in the East

While the German armies had been desperately trying to carve out this new empire in the East, the tentacles of the SS and its various subsidiary organizations had been assiduous in their allotted task of securing the civilian population. In Russia their first move was to deprive the people of their local party officials. Hitler ordered that all political commissars were to be liquidated, and instructions went out to the ‘special units’, who acted independently of the army, that some were to be decapitated and their heads brought back to Berlin for further study. The SS were obviously intrigued with the cranial characteristics of those who were classed as untermenschen, a species of Slavic sub-humanity. But this was only the preliminary stage – a mere curtain-raiser to what was to come. This barbaric treatment of prisoners of war became a byword even among some Germans themselves. The Wehrmacht was sometimes involved, but almost invariably these tasks were left to the not so tender mercies of the special units. A report of the Soviet Chief-of-Staff at Sebastopol in December 1941 gives us some idea of the situation: he states

as a rule troop formations exterminate prisoners without interrogation…the shooting of prisoners at the place of capture or at the front line, which is practised most extensively, acts as a deterrent to soldiers of the enemy wanting to desert to us. (Hohne 1969:432)

The special units usually comprised Security Service (SD) personnel plus contingents of the Armed (Waffen) SS who were normally engaged on straightforward military duties, assisted by local militia. Some idea of the more general involvement of the military SS can be seen from a few random instances. Only two weeks after the opening of the Russian campaign, the ‘Viking’ Division shot 600 Jews in Galicia as a reprisal for ‘Soviet crimes’. On some occasions entire villages were destroyed as a form of reprisal, and this kind of ‘action’ was by no means confined to the East. Lidice in Czechoslovakia was destroyed in 1942 in retaliation for the assassination of the Reich-Protector Heydrich. The ‘Prinz Eugen’ Division liquidated the inhabitants of Kosutica in 1943; and in 1944 came the destruction of Klissura in northern Greece. The year 1944 also witnessed the notorious murder of the inhabitants of Oradour-sur- Glane in France by the ‘Das Reich’ Division, and the killing of Canadian and British prisoners of war by members of the ‘Hitlerjugend’ Panzer Division during the battles in Normandy.

The worst of the atrocities were carried out by the re-formed Einsatzgruppen. There were four such units each comprising about 1,000 men, including support personnel such as wireless operators, drivers etc., and detachments from the Waffen SS and the police. Their instructions were couched – quite deliberately – in extremely vague terms. They were to act on their own responsibility to take ‘executive measures against the civilian population’ (quoted in Krausnick and Broszat 1970:78). The implicit intention of shooting Jews is not stated overtly, and it is not clear to what extent the army itself was always aware of these plans, although the chiefs may well have guessed what was going to happen. According to the evidence of Otto Ohlendorf, the commander of one such Einsatzgruppe, when the groups were being formed in May 1941 in preparation for the invasion of Russia, they were told of the secret decree of ‘putting to death all racially and politically undesirable elements where these might be thought to represent a threat to security’ (Krausnick and Broszat 1970:79). During the Nuremberg trials after the war, it transpired that at the time this was understood to include communist officials, second-class Asiatics, gypsies and Jews. Despite the care taken in disguising their intentions, members of the Nazi hierarchy were sometimes quite explicit in their planning on occupation policy. At one conference held in July 1941, the officials were told ‘we are taking all necessary measures — shootings, deportations and so on…[the area] must be pacified as soon as possible, and the best way to do that is to shoot anyone who so much as looks like giving trouble’ (Krausnick and Broszat 1970:82). It does not take much imagination to realize that almost any measures, no matter how ruthless and bestial, could be justified in the name of security even where the victims – especially women and children – could be shown to pose no real threat to security at all.

There is very little evidence as to what actually took place during one of these ‘actions’. For example there is no documentary material for the events leading up to the destruction of the small town of Tuczyn in eastern Poland, although a vivid picture has been ‘recreated’ by eight of the survivors – who gave their testimonies at different times in different places. There were only fifteen survivors in all out of a population of 3,500, and the stories that were told apparently have an amazing degree of consistency. For economic reasons Tuczyn was not destroyed at the same time as many of the surrounding Jewish settlements, so when the time came – as the inhabitants knew it must – they were ‘prepared’. The head of the Jewish Council organized the people for resistance, but they had no weapons, only petrol, matches and bars. When the Germans came in the summer of 1942, the Jews set light to their own wooden houses, and the old and sick – led by the rabbi – jumped into the fire. Others tried to break out of the trap, and a thousand or so fled into the nearby Ukrainian forest. Only fifteen survived because of the actions of Ukrainian peasants who either killed them or handed them over to the Germans. Those who were saved were helped by the Baptist minority among the Ukrainians (Bauer 1976).

The actual executions were carried out on a massive scale by the members of the Einsatzgruppen, often with the active co-operation of local ‘partisans’ as, for example in Lithuania and the Ukraine. Thanks to the meticulous records kept by some of those involved, we often have complete breakdowns and statistics of their programme of mass murder. By 25 November 1941, Einsatzgruppe A had already executed 229,052 Jews; Einsatzgruppe B had killed 45,467 by 14 November 1941; Einsatzgruppe C 95,000 by the beginning of December of that year; and Einsatzgruppe D 92,000 by 8 April 1942. The speed at which these executions took place was frightening. For instance, in Kiev alone in two days in September 1941, reports showed that 33,771 persons were executed, mainly Jews. In fact, it is probable that by the end of 1942, as many as a million Jews had been killed. And this was just the beginning. The whole grisly process was about to be rationalized with the introduction of the gas chambers. Five extermination camps were set up for this specific purpose, as distinct from the other concentration camps which often functioned as labour industries for some eminent German firms.

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