Einsatzgruppen: Genocide in the Making
In the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. there is an installation entitled “Tower of Life.” Gathered over nineteen painstaking years, Yaffa Eliach has created a montage of over 1600 photographs of victims of the Einsatzgruppen; the special action troops attached to Nazi military units that befell Eastern Europe . These photographs, representing a life cut short, bring a presence into the space and it is within that presence that a haunting sense of absence is also experienced. Each person represented in the installation fell victim to the Nazi’s final solution to the Jewish question and yet they are but a mere fraction of the actual number of those lost to this early phase of the final solution.
For most of us the phrase final solution or Holocaust congers up images of emaciated men with large lifeless eyes staring from behind Nazi erected barbed wire fences in concentration camps. In these camps, built across Eastern Europe, millions of men, women and children were victim to the ideology of one man. As brutal as their death was, it was impersonal in fact almost mechanical. This is not the case with the Eisatzgruppen. These special battalions of men attached to the Nazi troops that invaded Eastern Europe were charged with gathering and killing the Jews in each city. It was an intimate assault with barely a few yards separating victim from executioner. Despite copious amounts of blood and heart wrenching cries the killing continued until more than 1.3 million Jews would fall victim to their bullets .
There is an unfathomable literature base that has evaluated, researched, and questioned the operations of the Einsatzgruppen and yet comprehension eludes us. Two such works, Ordinary Men, by Christopher Browning and Masters of Death by Richard Rhodes enter the debate as excellent examples and though both approach this common topic from very different perspectives both agree this was mass murder on a personal level. Christopher Browning focused his research on the Ordnungspolzei, (Order Police), Reserve Battalion 101 in Poland whom he contends was comprised of middle aged lower middle class men considered otherwise useless for military duty . This is an important distinction on which rests his thesis; these were, as the title indicates, ordinary men who simply followed orders out of obedience to their commanders and not loyalty to the Nazi Regime. While Browning (1998) further indicates that though given the option to be reassigned less than fifteen men originally assigned to the Battalion did not fulfill their duties. This observation opens Browning’s assessment to criticism. Understanding how a group of ordinary men would agree to partake in vicious and individual murder again and again seems to run counter to the contention they were in fact ordinary men and not specially trained killing battalions.
Richard Rhodes does not focus on one particular unit of the Einsatzgruppen but rather the group as a process or component within the Nazi Regime. Hindsight shows us these men were a factor in the early stages of the Holocaust and for Rhodes they led to its escalation from mass murder into genocide. Make no mistake; these men were efficient at their job, killing over 33,000 in a single spree at Babi Yar, but as Rhodes points out they were also unorganized and sloppy . For Rhodes there was little forethought in some cities which required modifications and alterations. Fitting the total number of victims into previously dug graves was a logistical problem that would be solved in the next city; overcoming the challenge of small children was yet another. Rhodes illustrates time and again that as a process, the Einsatzgruppen was a work in progress.
One common thread among research regarding the function of the Einsatzgruppen and the analysis of it by every historian, including Browning and Rhodes, is the undeniable level of depravity exhibited by these men, ordinary or exceptional. The scope and volume of this assault defies imagination and yet continued with the direct involvement of thousands of soldiers, police, and administrators . Of course mass murder, especially conducted during the course of war is not new and the German’s do not hold a monopoly on its undertaking. Unique in Germany however was the involvement of a single government in the creation of an ideological program of persecution that focused on a particular group but would happily include others who did not meet constructed standards.
Historians will approach these subjects from a position of detachment and yet a sense of overwhelm permeates the literature; both Browning and Rhodes make clear the moral ramifications this chapter of the final solution had on the Holocaust in general and mankind’s understanding of it in particular. While there can be little dispute that the actions of the Einsatzgruppen were heinous they were conducted by identifiable individuals, real men who were charged with a very specific task. What followed in Auschwitz and the other concentration camps in Eastern Europe was impersonal and mechanical and while that does not reconcile the outcome it does diffuse our focus on a single perpetrator. We are forced to look back again to those men who were groomed as a special unit that resided outside the “constraints of German law” with the sole purpose of shooting their unarmed and helpless victims one bullet at a time .
Rhodes does an excellent job of immediately disclosing to the reader that Masters of Death contains reference to unspeakable violence; in fact violence is a keep component of his thesis. Using data that includes multiple firsthand accounts of these events as recalled by survivors as well as actual perpetrators, Rhodes paints an ugly picture of this true transition from racial murder to genocide. He enlists the aid of psychological understanding to illustrate for the reader the abhorrent actions of these men and their abnormal fixation on violence. This was a people driven process where men agreed with and adopted the ideological tendencies of one man; a top down process from start to finish. Browning does not approach the Einsatzgruppen from this perspective.
Browning subscribes to the functionalists train of thought regarding the Holocaust. He does not see Hitler at the center of an elaborate master plan to execute all the Jews from Europe but rather the Nazi’s as a whole in planning to clear the German sphere of influence of Jews by evacuating them into the east and that other conditions, the volume of Jews, the war in the Soviet Union, limitation of resources only to name a few, forced them to resort to genocidal tendencies. John Plowright (2007) calls this the crooked path to Auschwitz (Browning, 1998). This approach does not remove Hitler from the position of chief instigator but also does not empower him with supreme authority over the minds of a nation. He was, for Browning, a vital component in the radical totalitarian government that saw extermination as a plausible alternative and natural outcrop to conditions as they were evolving in Eastern Europe . Where Rhodes sees Hitler orchestrating the events of the final solution and Holocaust from the conductors podium Browning sets him at the head of a conference table working with the heinous committee of killers.
Regardless of the differences Browning and Rhodes see in the motivation behind the Einsatzgruppen both do an excellent job in placing this initial period of the final solution within the context of the war. This point seems to lend credence to the notion that death via concentration camp was in fact an evolved circumstance of the efforts of the Einsatzgruppen and can be supported by the apparent accelerated and cumulative efforts by Himmler to fashion a more efficient process for mass executions. Whether his acceptance of the psychological ramifications put on these men as they engaged in person to person murder on a daily basis was in fact born of his own distaste for the process or instead a more congenial concern for his men is unimportant to this point. What is important is that by the fall of 1941 Himmler and other Einsatzgruppen commanders considered their attempts worthy but not capable of accomplishing the goal of exterminating the Jewish population from the German sphere of influence . Both Browning and Rhodes clearly identify the discernible change in process from the first sweep of the Einsatzgruppen from that of second sweep of the Einsatzgruppen . By early 1942 mobile gas units became more frequently employed and their benefit was immediately acknowledged.
This preliminary phase of the final solution cannot be understood outside the context of the war itself. While their formation in our review has their roots in the Einsatzkommando established by Heydrich in 1938, their departure rests on the shoulders of Himmler through Heydrich . No longer focused on securing government buildings and documents, the Einsatzgruppen that accompanied the invading troops into Poland were given carte blanche to kill all members of the ever growing list of German enemies; Jews, Communists, Bolsheviks, priests, teachers, and in general the intelligentsia of the city . It is interesting to note that both Browning and Rhodes indicate that this early transformation revealed concerns of a potentially detrimental impact to the military personnel that did not become seriously addressed until the Einsatzgruppen had already killed several hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children across Eastern Europe. As attachments to military units and regardless of the magnitude of their actions, these men were seen as direct participants in the war effort, little different from the other military units engaged against the Poles first and then the Soviet Union in the east. From this perspective Rhodes contention that their departure from standard military practices into an execution style of mass murder could have only been accomplished by direct order from the highest authority is in fact plausible .
From Rhodes “big picture” perspective of the Einsatzgruppen to Browning’s razor sharp focus on Reserve Police Battalion 101 the reader is able to paint a picture of this early period of the final solution that is general enough to understand its chronological placement within World War II and detailed enough to be assured it was genocide in the making. In the end the evidence seems to lean more toward an incremental development of genocide rather than an orchestrated fulfillment of a long held Hitler initiative. Regardless of the motivations, the Einsatzgruppen as a process and as a battalion within a military assembly reveal the truly contemptible nature of the Nazi ideology.