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The Role of the Einsatzgruppen in the Holocaust Mention of Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Dachau brings back memories of the obscene

capacity of humans to inflict murder and destruction on fellow humans unparalleled in the annals of history. However, these Nazi concentration and death camps had their foundation in an even more gruesome progression of events, which Richard Rhodes traces in his book, The Masters of Death. Rhodes says, The notorious gas chambers and crematoria of the death camps have come to typify the holocaust, but in fact they were exceptional ... Shooting was not less efficient than gassing, as many historians have assumed. It was harder on the shooters nerves, and the gas chambers alleviated the burden.1The shooting he talks of is the preferred method deployed by the SS Einsatzgruppen, a special force created under Nazi Germany to carry out the Final Solution, which sought to kill all Jews, gypsies, Polish intellectuals, and others added to the list as the Second World War raged in Europe. The Final Solution was a euphemistic term used by the Nazis to disguise the true nature of their plan to annihilate all Jewish people in Europe and a shortened form of what Hitler termed the final solution of the Jewish question. Hitlers own view of war and violence comes across clearly in his talk to his generals in the spring of 1941. He said, 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 ... A humane war exists only in bloodless brains.2 The Einsatzgruppen (task force) took first form in Pretzsch, a town about fifty miles southwest of Berlin, where Reinhard Heydrich assembled a team consisting of men drawn from different secret police (the Gestapo), the Waffen-SS, and from diverse other

Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2002), 156 2 Rhodes, 4

organizations and professions. The only common factor was that many had served in Einsatz units that followed the German Army into Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland and many spoke Russian. Between June 1941 and late 1942, this task force, or mobile killing squads, grew in numbers and followed the invading German army into Russia. It went on to kill about one and a half million Jew men, women, and children and others seen by the Germans as enemies. In describing how the Einsatzgruppen approached their task, Rhodes demonstrates who these men were, and what they did. To them the killing became more of a question of logistics and productive use of resources rather than any human consideration of the horror they perpetrated. An example is the concept of Sardinenpackung evolved by Friedrich Jeckeln who saw that when his troops shot people on the edge of a pit the victims would fall in randomly leaving spaces in between which meant inefficient use of the pit and additional effort in digging new pits. Rhodes quotes August Meier, an eyewitness, The Jews had to lie layer on layer in an open grave and were then killed with neck shots from machine pistols, pistols, and rifles. That meant they had to lie face down on those previously shot ... ignoring the victims terror and horror in the interest of efficiency ... The result was that by August 1941 ... Jeckeln had personally supervised the murder of more than 44,000 human beings. 3 No account of the massacre perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen is complete without mention of Babi Yar, a natural ravine on the western edge of Kiev in Lithuania, where Paul Blobels Einsatzgruppe C murdered more than 34,000 people in two days. The Einsatzgruppen found a convenient window dressing to justify these murders as retaliation for the massive explosions that gutted Kiev following its fall in September 1941 because the Jews of Kiev would have been murdered anyway. 4 As the Jews, assembled on the pretence

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Rhodes, 114 Rhodes 172

of their relocation, walked to Babi Yar a gauntlet of soldiers with dogs and brandishing a truncheon or a club awaited them. Blows rained down on people as they passed through. There was no question of being able to dodge or get away. Brutal blows, immediately drawing blood ... the soldiers kept ... laughing happily, as if they were watching a circus act ...5 The Jews were stripped of their clothes and shot in a repetition of the infamous sardine packing. Many Jews cried out in terror. It is almost impossible to imagine what nerves of steel it took to carry out that dirty work down there. It was horrible ...6 And these instances were not alone, there were dozens of Babi Yars. Hundreds of killing sites mark massacres from Tallinn ... to Odessa.7 Elsewhere, Rhodes, writes, Many of the men assigned to mass killing found it difficult to do8This raises the questions: who were these people, what compulsions forced them to do what they did, and what made it possible to for ordinary men to kill so many ruthlessly and continuously? Writing about the reaction of the victims themselves, Rhodes says that initially the Germans themselves did not know about the plan to murder the Jews and therefore neither could the Jews themselves. When the intentions of the Germans became clear, a very small minority of them chose to run, hide, offer armed resistance, or attempt to find jobs essential to the Germans. However, the majority appeared to show a stoic acceptance of the inevitable death that they faced. Others before them, such as the Polish and Russian peasants, French resistance fighters caught and sentenced to death, and Serbian villagers had demonstrated similar reactions. When confronted with no reasonable choice for whatever complex reasons of patriotism, military discipline, or mortal threat people do what they are told.9 It is
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Rhodes, 174-75 Rhodes, 177 7 Rhodes, xi 8 Rhodes, 161 9 Rhodes, 279

entirely possible to extrapolate the same logic to include a majority of the German soldiers that took part in the massacres under the Einsatzgruppen or in the Holocaust that followed. It is obvious that they too did not have any reasonable alternative but to follow orders despite their individual proclivities. Little surprise that many showed symptoms of stress and revulsion at what they were doing. The constant face-to-face killing, day after day, took its toll and some had nervous breakdowns necessitating their transfer closer home. As increasing numbers of the task force became mentally disturbed Himmler set up special hospitals and rest camps for them. Even among those that did not have nervous breakdowns, the stress was severe. One Einsatzgruppen soldier records, We have to eat and drink well because of the nature of our work ... otherwise we would crack up ... It's not very pleasant stuff. I would far rather sleep.10 However, many appeared to enjoy and take pleasure from the killings. Rhodes records instances where others became animalistic killing machines taking pleasure in killing and developing new ways to murder. The Nazis themselves appeared to find their victims acceptance of fate inexplicable and Rhodes suggests that to an extent the victims were to blame. The reason for such acceptance could be the unexpected horror at the brutality they witnessed, loss of will to resist when stripped naked, or a lack of weapons. However, the most important factor was the effect of the civilized Jewish society wherein Preventive attack, armed resistance, and revenge were almost completely absent in Jewish exilic history.11 It is apparent that the German soldiers did not have any of these reasons to hide under. The central figure in Rhodes account of the mass murders was Heinrich Himmler while Hitler appears as a secondary actor. Rhodes says that both men did not have it them to commit violence themselves. For Hitler murdering the Jews was equivalent to winning

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Rhodes, 220 Rhodes, 251

the war, even if it brought down ruin on Germany12 and therefore he directed his generals to carry out the extermination of European Jewry. Nevertheless, what prompted Himmler, the man who supervised the murder of millions of humans? Here is a man who on one level comes across as a person unable to countenance violence. Consider his remark on a deer hunt, who had the obsession that "How can you find pleasure in shooting from behind cover at poor creatures browsing on the edge of a wood, innocent, defenseless, and unsuspecting? Properly considered, it's pure murder."13 The answer to this, according to Rhodes comes from his mortal fear of Hitler that even caused severe stomach pains when Hitler made an unfavorable comment on his work. Himmler had nothing in him to counterbalance the effect of Hitler's personality."14 He saw the executions as necessary for purely political motives compared to men acting out of self-seeking, sadistic, or sexual motives.15As his work progressed, he himself had come to take pleasure in seeing women tortured.16 The dehumanizing effect of the murders on his troops was not lost on Himmler prompting him to find new and more efficient ways to carry out the mass murders. He ordered the Einsatzgruppen to find alternate methods for murder, which would not involve the troops in a direct contact with the victims. The new methods developed included cramming people into closed bunkers and dynamiting the bunker and putting people into pits filled with quicklime and then adding water to the pit. Hydration of quicklime releases a tremendous amount of heat and the people in the pit literally boiled. Another method was to put people in closed vans and have the exhaust piped into the enclosed space. As the vans moved from place to place, the passengers would be asphyxiated to death. These experiments evolved to develop into the gas chamber installed at the fixed concentration

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Rhodes, 265 Rhodes, 198 14 Rhodes, 101 15 Rhodes, 187 16 Rhodes, 264

camps that would receive and gas trainloads of Jews, gypsies, Poles, Russians, and other people considered undesirable by the Nazis. The Holocaust had gathered full momentum and would only stop with the fall of the Third Reich. Rhodes draws on the research of Lonnie Athens that identifies violent socialization as a root cause of violent criminal behavior. Athens, according to Rhodes, believes that violent socialization follows a four-stage process that begins with the actual or threatened brutalization by an authority figure, observing violent behavior among others, and receiving instructions in violence and the need for violence by violent people. The realization that violence is sometimes necessary in this world and making personal determination to use violence when provoked or in the face of imminent danger follows. The third stage comes when the person actually uses violence. In the final stage, the person now firmly resolves to attack people physically with the serious intention of gravely harming or even killing them for the slightest or no provocation whatsoever.17 The massacre of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen followed by the holocaust that consumed an estimated 13 million lives18 stands alone only in its scale. The world has stood as mute witness to ethnic cleansing in different countries at different times. Some that occur to immediate recall are the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Bangladesh, and the anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim riots in India in 1984 and 2002 respectively. The perpetrators of these genocides, particularly in Bangladesh, brought similar mentalities as the Germans where Blind men who carry out commands that say to sacrifice a nation for a land.19 However, it would be difficult to explain their behavior and purpose using violent socialization as a fundamental explanation for violent criminal behavior. It appears difficult to imagine that all people in the

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Rhodes, 26 The Telegraph, The Holocaust death toll, online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1481975/TheHolocaust-death-toll.html 19 Joan Baez, in her ballad Bangladesh

Einsatzgruppen as also in the mob violence situations have gone through a process of violent socialization. Perhaps Hitler had it better when he exhorted his med to battle referring to the lust for blood as a primitive response of men. While Rhodes does humanity a great service, in chronicling the events that led up to the holocaust in Europe, his limited view of the inhuman behavior based on a single theory appears rather restricted. These Nazis were under duress to follow orders of their seniors, but what comes across as surprising is the role of the local non-Jewish citizenry of the affected areas. Rhodes narrates several incidents that show not abhorrence or resistance to the murders but rather an active voluntary participation and abetment of the crimes. In Latvia, a local police chief reported that ... During the liquidation of the Jews, there was no lack of volunteers in the precinct to carry out this unpleasant task. [It] was carried out without hatred or shame, the men understanding that it would help all Christian civilization.20In Poland, a Krakow police officer testified in the Nuremberg trials that members of the border police, with a few exceptions, quite happy to take part in shooting the Jews ... they had a ball! This witness went on to add that there was a great hatred against the Jews. 21 While Rhodes records several other incidents where the local populace, the clergy, and local officials actively collaborated with the Einsatzgruppen to identify, isolate, and indeed execute the murders, he does not delve into what caused such collaboration. It was obviously not fear because in most cases the help came voluntarily. The answer perhaps lays in the testimony of the Krakow police officer cited above i.e. the great hatred people all over Europe secretly harbored against their Jewish neighbors. Rhodes closes his account of the atrocities perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen quoting from a letter a Jewish survivor wrote. It read, What I have to tell you is not vain talk but the
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Rhodes, 122 Rhodes, 169

naked truth when I remember our suffering the terrible shocking tragedy! it is so awful, savage, dreadful that there is no prophet or writer who ever described, even in his imagination at the richest, such a horrible reality.22 Perhaps Richard Rhodes has come close to describing and recording this ugly phase of human history for posterity.


Rhodes, 282