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Holocaust22nd June 1941

Einsatzgruppen killing squads start

Jewish women about to be killed by an Einsatzgruppe
Jewish women about to be killed by an Einsatzgruppe

Just as he had during the invasion of Poland, two years before, SS General Reinhard Heydrich ordered Einsatzgruppen (special task forces) of security personnel (mostly SS, Gestapo, Police and SD) to enter the Soviet Union in the wake of the German invasion in June 1941. Their task was simple – to kill those people who were believed to pose a threat to Nazi rule.

Hitler had announced that the war against the Soviet Union was to be a war of ‘annihilation’ and this time, unlike during the invasion of Poland, the army leadership were fully aware – and, indeed, complicit – in the criminal nature of the enterprise. Central to the army’s compliance were the ‘Commissar Order’ and the ‘Barbarossa Decree’. The first called for German soldiers to isolate and then kill any Soviet Political Commissars they found; and the second authorized the army to shoot out of hand any ‘partisans’ they saw, and also permitted the enforcement of collective reprisals against local communities. The German army leadership was in no doubt, therefore, that this was to be a war unlike the one in the west. ‘In Great Russia force must be used in its most brutal form,’ recorded General Franz Halder in his diary on 17 March 1941, after a meeting with Hitler. ‘The intelligentsia put in by Stalin must be exterminated.’i     

The army leadership also knew that there would be special units – the Einsatzgruppen – under the control of Heydrich and his boss, Heinrich Himmler, who would be doing much of the dirty work of killing away from the front line. So when, in May 1941, Heydrich briefed the 3,000 members of the Einsatzgruppen at their training base in Pretzsch in eastern Germany, the scale of the murderous task ahead of them was obvious. The overall vision of this war of ‘annihilation’ was so clear, and the threat posed by what Hitler called ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’ perceived to be so great, that Heydrich almost certainly did not find it necessary to be overly proscriptive about the exact categories of people the Einsatzgruppen should kill.  Indeed, the one document which exists – dated 2 July 1941 - in which Heydrich outlines the tasks of the Einsatzgruppen, mentions only the bare minimum of people to be killed (‘officials of senior and middle rank and ‘extremists’ in the party… the people’s commissars, Jews in the service of the party or the state’). That this was the least expected of the Einsatzgruppen is clear from another key passage in the document: ‘No steps will be taken to interfere with any purges that may be initiated by anti-Communist or anti-Jewish elements in the newly occupied territories. On the contrary, these are to be secretly encouraged.’ And since no one could predict the scale of these ‘purges’ that were to be ‘secretly encouraged’ it is safe to conclude that no Einsatzgruppe commander risked censure no matter how many people his unit shot.    

From the start of the war the men of Einsatzgruppe A, operating in the Baltic States, were the most murderous, often killing all the male Jews of military age they found. They also discovered they could, as Heydrich wished, successfully ‘incite’ purges. In Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, Jews who had just been released from prison were clubbed to death by a local ‘patriot’ known as the ‘Death Dealer’, who after he had killed them, climbed on the bodies and played the Lithuanian national anthem on an accordion.ii

Then, over the next few weeks and months across the whole of Nazi occupied Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen changed their policy and started targeting every Jew – including women and children. This change occurred after more manpower was allocated to the killing task by Himmler towards the end of July. Two SS brigades were ordered to assist in the ‘cleansing’ task so far pursued by the Einsatzgruppen – and eventually 40,000 people would be involved in the killings.

‘The transition from the killing of male Jews to the extermination of entire communities happens quite early, in August,’ says Professor Omer Bartov. ‘In August Himmler goes on a visit to the front and while he does that, in every place that he visits there seems to be a change in the policy. We don’t have orders by him, but it is quite likely that he orally transmits the order that now it is time to destroy entire communities. Whether that is the beginning of the ‘Final Solution’ or not is again another big debate, because what is happening there at that point in these communities is that people are being killed where they live. So a police unit marches into a town in Lithuania or Belarus, rounds up the Jews, takes them aside and shoots them. They don’t transport them to any other place, they kill them on the spot. That could be seen as the beginning of genocide, of course, and it’s easily defined as genocide, but it is different from what happens later on when there are extermination camps and people are shipped there from all over Europe and killed in extermination facilities.’

Professor David Cesarani believes that: ‘What happens in the Soviet Union between August and the summer of 1941 is arguably a limited and local genocide. It is ethnic cleansing of the kind that the Nazis have been practising elsewhere [but] on a more lethal scale. It also fits in with their plans for the destruction of much of the population of the Soviet Union. So what is the difference between engineering the starving to death of 900,000 people in Leningrad and shooting to death 900,000 Jews? I would say that the techniques are different but they are part of the same plan, which is to depopulate the Soviet Union of undesirable populations, populations unworthy of life. Useless mouths.’

One of the killers who carried out this work in the summer of 1941 was Hans Friedrich, a member of the 1st SS Infantry Brigade, a unit which operated primarily in Ukraine. In an interview he described the killing process: ‘They [the Jews] had to stand in such a way that when they were shot they would fall into the ditch. That then happened again and again. Someone had to go down into the ditch and check conscientiously whether they were still alive or not, because it never happened that they were all mortally wounded at the first shot. And if somebody wasn’t dead and was lying there injured, then he was shot with a pistol.’ Friedrich revealed that, as he pulled the trigger to kill the Jew in front of him, ‘I only thought: ‘Aim carefully so that you hit’… there’s only one thing, calm hand so that you hit well. Nothing else.’

As a committed anti-Semite, who believed that the Jews had harmed Germany in general and – economically – him and his family in particular, Hans Friedrich confessed that he had no ‘empathy’ for the Jews he killed. ‘My hatred towards the Jews is too great,’ he said.

The war in the Soviet Union – and the actions of the Einsatzgruppen – inevitably played a part in changing the overall Nazi policy towards the Jews. Since the killing of Jewish men, women and children was already taking place on Soviet soil – ‘genocide here and now’ as Professor Christopher Browning puts it – senior Nazis started to ask questions about what the fate of the rest of the Jews under German control should be.


i Quoted in Laurence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning from History, BBC Books, 2005, p. 159
ii See ibid., p. 298