Hitler's unexpectedly swift conquest of France and the Low Countries in the summer of 1940 had provided him with time to pause. What was the real reason for his headlong descent into war? It certainly wasn't conquest in the West, achieved as of necessity for strategic reasons. It was Lebensraum, living space in the East, and the extermination of the Jewish Race from the face of the earth and how best to achieve this now became the primary concern of the Nazi hierarchy.
The Einsatzgruppen, or Task Forces were Commando Units made up of SS Volunteers formed following the invasion of Poland in September 1939 to seize strategic targets and secure key Government buildings. There role was soon adapted however to include the elimination of undesirable elements behind the front-line. When the German Army invaded the Soviet Union on 22 July 1941 the Einsatzgruppen followed quickly in their wake.
There were four Einsatzgruppen assigned the task of eliminating primarily the Jewish population but also Gypsies, Communists, Homosexuals and any other suspected opponents of the regime. They were each provided with a specific region to clear and came under the overall command of Heinrich Himmler's Deputy, the cold-bloodied, sinister, and much-feared Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, and they were to set about their task with an efficient ruthlessness devoid of compassion.
Einsatzgruppen A commanded by Dr Franz Stahlecker was assigned the Baltic region.
Einsatzgruppen B under Dr Otto Rasch was given the task of clearing central and northern Ukraine.
Einsatzgruppen C under Dr Otto Ohlendorff was responsible for South Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula.
Einsatzgruppen D under Arthur Nebe were ordered to clear Moldova and Belarus.
None of the men assigned to command the Einsatzgruppen can be described as ignorant or naive men easily led and neither did they follow their orders out of blind fanaticism or as a result of uninformed hatred. They were intelligent, well-educated and cultured men who carried out the roles assigned to them out of choice and to the utmost of their abilities.
Dr Stahlecker, in the Ukraine reported to Berlin that he was delighted with the cooperation he had received from the Wehrmacht, the German Regular Army. It had been feared that the Wehrmacht would object to the round-up of civilians and place obstacles in the way. But this could not have been further from the truth. Field-Marshall von Leeb, in command of Army Group North, was concerned that any direct involvement in the activities of the Einsatzgruppen might damage the morale of his troops but was otherwise happy to provide as much logistical support as he could.
Stahlecker, who was always bemoaning the fact he had too few men at his disposal had no reason to fear. The enthusiasm of the local populations to assist more than made up for any short-fall in numbers. They indicated where the Jews in their community lived and took revenge on the local Communist Party Apparatchiks as the Germans stood by and watched.
Before long Stahlecker had some 300 Lithuanians in his ranks, within seven months there were 8 Lithuanians to every 1 German in Einsatzgruppen A. Indeed so many were there that they were soon being organised into their own regiments, formed into Police Squads, and being used to guard the Concentration Camps.
Having to kill so many people proved problematic. In the city of Vilna for example more than 25,000 so-called undesirables had been rounded-up and Stahlecker had to organise a way of ensuring their systematic extermination. He could not simply start randomly killing them, too many would undoubtedly escape and anyway some might choose to resist. So he arranged for them to be taken from their places of incarceration in batches of 100 at a time to the nearby holiday resort of Ponary.
The prisoners were permitted to take their belongings with them but on the march were quickly robbed of these possessions by their Ukrainian guards before being stripped and beaten. They were also subjected to the jeers of onlookers who particularly enjoyed abusing the women.
Between June and December 1941, more than 45,000 people were killed in Vilna alone but the most notorious massacre occurred at Babi Yar just outside Kiev in the Ukraine. Between 29 and 30 September 1941, 33,771 Jews were murdered. We can be sure of these figures because the Germans kept such meticulous records.
The decision to kill all the Jews in Kiev was taken by the Commander of Einsatzgruppen C Otto Rasch, the Military Governor Friedrich Eberhardt, and the Chief of Police Friedrich Jeckeln. To kill so many people in such haste was a tall order however and so they decided that a little duplicity was required so the Jews were informed that they were to be resettled and posters went up throughout the city ordering them to gather at certain assembly points in the city. One such poster read:
"Kikes of the city of Kiev and the vicinty! On Monday 29 September, you are to appear at 08.00 with your possessions, documents, and valuables at Dorogozhitskaya Street, next to the Jewish Cemetery."
It was made clear that non-compliance with the order would result in death.
The response to the order was better than they could have hoped and many thousands of Jews gathered at the various assembly points stipulated laden down with all they could carry. Though they knew the reputation of the Nazi's and their well-publicised anti-Semitism very few of them imagined they were going to be killed. After all, anti-Jewish pogroms were not uncommon indeed they had been part and parcel of Jewish life for centuries and most believed the resettlement lie right up to the point of execution.
Yet again it was locally recruited Ukrainian Police Units, many of whom would have known their victims, who did the dirty of work of collection and delivery.
The short march to Babi Yar was brutal with women dragged by their hair and children kicked down the road like footballs. Those who could not keep up were beaten and shot.
Once they reached their destination they were forced to hand over their valuables and stripped naked before being herded into groups of ten and forced to line up before a series of pits where an SS man would shoot them in the back of the neck. Every so often the bodies in the pits would be raked with machine gun fire to ensure no one had been left alive. Once the pits were full they would be covered with soil.
It was dirty and unsatisfactory work and many of the Kommandos would be intoxicated when carrying out the executions. In fact drunkenness was actively encouraged and alcohol made freely available. The alcohol inured the participants to the horrific reality of what they were doing.
A Wehrmacht Officer who witnessed the killings was heard to remark:
"What on earth is going to happen if we lose this war and have to pay for this?"
The murders continued, however. A little later, 70,000 Roma Gypsies were also massacred at Babi Yar.
In August, 1943, as the Germans were retreating on the Eastern Front, Russian prisoners-of-war were forced to dig up the bodies, burn the remains and then scatter the ashes in the surrounding fields in an attempt to hide the evidence of the Nazi's crimes.
Earlier in August 1941 Heinrich Himmler, the bloodless advocate of racial purity visited the Russian city of Minsk to witness the work of the Einsatzgruppen for himself. Attending the execution of a hundred or so Jews he suddenly became unsteady on his legs and had to be prevented from passing out. According to SS General Karl Wolff:
"Himmler's face turned green. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his cheek where a piece of brain had squirted up onto it. He then vomited."
Afterwards, Himmler was to praise the hard work of the Einsatzgruppen and to extol the nobility of their mission. It was, he said, an example of their inner-strength that despite everything they had remained decent.
All of the Einsatzgruppen shared the same modus operandi. By December, 1941 they had murdered more than 300,000 men, women, and children. By the end of the war the total would stand at more than 1.5 million. Even so, the shooting of victims was considered inefficient and unnecessarily time consuming. Also the news had spread that the Germans claims of resettlement were nothing but a hoax and some Jews had taken to resisting. German troops were shot at in the street and knives were taken to the places of execution and guards attacked. A quicker and more efficient way of disposing of their victims had to be found.
Regardless of whether or not the Germans won the war the extermination process would be completed. Gas vans were tried out but these were still not considered efficient enough. In January 1942 after the German Army had been repulsed before the gates of Moscow, Reinhard Heydrich called a conference in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.
As the war on the Eastern Front descended into a life and death struggle for the Wehrmacht, the Einsatzgruppen were reduced in size and many of the troops absorbed into the regular army. The task of eliminating the Jews and other so-called undesirables was now the work of the Concentration Camp and the Gas Chamber.
The Einsatzgruppen were to continue to operate right up to the end of the war though executions were by now just as likely to be carried out by the regular army. Many of those Einsatzgruppen Kommandos captured on the Eastern Front and recognised as such were executed on the spot. Many others who escaped west were simply absorbed back into civilian life.
The fate of the Commanders of the Einsatzgruppen is well documented, however:
Dr Franz Stahlecker, was killed in an ambush by Russian partisans in March, 1942.
Dr Otto Rasch, died of natural causes in 1948 before the conclusion of his War Crimes Trial.
Dr Otto Ohlendorff was hanged on 7 June 1951 for war crimes.
Artur Nebe, became involved in the Operation Valkyrie Plot of July 1944 against Hitler. Following its failure he went into hiding but was discovered, with some irony in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. Tried before the People's Court he was found guilty and hanged from a meat hook with piano wire at Ploetensee Prison on 2 March, 1945.