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The Holocaust History Project.
The Holocaust History Project.

An Introduction to the Einsatzgruppen.

an essay by Yale F. Edeiken

Like every historical event, the Holocaust evokes certain specific images. When the Holocaust is mentioned most people immediately think of the concentration camps. They immediately envision emaciated victims in dirty striped uniforms staring incomprehensibly at their liberators or piles of corpses, too numerous to bury individually, being bulldozed into mass graves.

Those are accurate images. Those horrific scenes are real. They happened. But they are not all of the Holocaust. They are merely the end product of the systematization of the genocide committed by the Third Reich. The reality of that genocide began not in the camps or in the gas chambers but with four small groups of murderers known as the Einsatzgruppen formed by Himmler and Heydrich immediately before the invasion of the Soviet Union. They operated in the territories captured by the German armies during the invasion of the Soviet Union and, with the cooperation of German army units and local militias, murdered over a million men, women, and children. It was a story that did not end until 1952 when Otto Ohlendorf, the last surviving commander of an Einsatzgruppe (Einsatzgruppe D), climbed the steps of the gallows to pay for the more than 90,000 murders his command committed.

I. The Einsatzgruppen
II. The Purpose of the Einsatzgruppen
III. The Composition of the Einsatzgruppen
IV. The Victims of the Einsatzgruppen
V. The Best Evidence of the Crimes of the Einsatzgruppen
VI. These Reports are Authentic
VII. There Is Other Evidence As Well
IV. Other Participants
X. The Victims of the Murders Were Not Partisans
XI. We Know That These Reports Were Not Exaggerated
XII. We Know That These Men Were Not "Overreacting"
XIII. The Methods of the Einsatzgruppen
XIV. The Shooting Was Efficient, But Other Methods Were Tried
XV. There Is No Way to Rationalize and Justify These Crimes

The Einsatzgruppen

The Einsatzgruppen were four paramilitary units established before the invasion of the Soviet Union for the purpose of "liquidating" (murdering) Jews, Romany, and political operatives of the Communist party. Ultimately three of these groups (Einsatzgruppen A, B. and C) were attached to army groups taking part in the invasion. A fourth group (Einsatzgruppe D) was sent to the Ukraine without being attached to any army group. All operated in the territories occupied by the Third Reich on the eastern front. Most of the crimes perpetrated by the Eisnsatzgruppen took place in the Ukraine and the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

After negotiations with the German army conducted between Eduard Wagner, the Quartermaster of the Army, and Heydrich, it was agreed that in the front lines the Einsatzgruppen would be under army control but that in the operations area and in the rear areas the army's authority would not extend beyond tactical matters. (Harris, p. 176-7, IMT III, 246,290) Ohlendorf was one of the particiants at ths meeting. In effect the Einsatzgruppen were almost always operationally independent taking their orders directly from Heinrich Himmler and, until his death, Reinhard Heydrich. While there were plans to establish similar units in other territories controlled by the Nazis (Ohlendorf; Nuremberg testimony), these plans were never implemented.

This was not the first time that "Einsatzgruppen" were used by the Third Reich. During the invasion of Poland in 1939, similar units, also known as "Einsatzgruppen" accompanied the invading armies and performed similar tasks such as the arrest or "liquidation" of priests and other Polish intelligentsia. They were not, however, given a task of mass murder like that carried out by the Einsatzgruppen during the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Einsatzgruppen who took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union were new units, formed and trained immediately before that invasion with no organizational history connecting them to the Einsatzgruppen that existed during the invasion of Poland.

The Purpose of the Einsatzgruppen

The most succinct description of the purpose of the Einsatzgruppen was given at the trial of Adolph Eichmann by Dr. Michael Musmanno, Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who presided over the trial of 23 of the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen. He stated "The purpose of the Einsatzgruppen was to murder Jews and deprive them of their property." SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski confirmed this at the main Nuremberg Trial when he testified that "The principal task [of the Einsatzgruppen] was the annihilation of the Jews, gypsies, and political commissars." (Taylor, Anatomy, p. 259)

The Einsatzgruppen were given orders directly by Himmler and Heydrich on several occasions. There were at least two meetings of the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen in June, 1941 in which they were briefed as to their duties. In a third meeting, which probably took place on June 22, 1941, Heydrich briefed the commanders on the plans for their operations. Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D and a close associate of Himmler, confirmed these orders when he testified at the Nuremberg Trial:

COL. AMEN: Did you have any other conversations with Himmler concerning this Order?

OHLENDORF: Yes, in late summer of 1941 Himmler was in Nikolaiev. He assembled the leaders and the men of the Einsatzkommandos, repeated to them the liquidation order, and pointed out that the leaders and men who were taking part in the liquidation bore no responsibility for the execution of this order. The responsibility was his, alone, and the Fuhrer's.

COL. AMEN: And you yourself heard that said?


Tracing the process by which the orders of the Einsatzgruppen to eliminate the Jews in the captured territories were developed is difficult. The process seems to have begun in March, 1941, while the plans for Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union ordered by Hitler on December 18, 1940) were being made.

The decision to use units from the SD (security services) to perform special political actions was made early in the planning stages of the invasion. On March 13, 1941, Gen. Keitel, the commander of the OKW, issued a supplement to Barbarossa which discussed special tasks, independent of the military needs of the invasion, that would be supervised by Himmler. Keitel wrote:

"In the theater of operations of the Army, the Reichsfuehrer-SS has special assignments from the Fuehrer for the preparation of the political administration, which special assignments result from the final and decisive struggle between two opposed political systems. In the conduct of these assignments, the Reichsfuehrer-SS acts independently and on his own authority.

*   *   *

"At the beginning of the operations, the German-Soviet Russian border is to be closed to non-military personnel traffic, with the exception of the police units to be deployed by the Reichsfuehrer-SS on order of the Fuehrer."

"Hitlers Weisungen fuer die Kreigfuehrung" [Hitler's Directives for the Conduct of the War], edited by Walther Hubatsch, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am main, 1962, pp. 102-3, translation by Gord McFee.

The initial policy was orally communicated to the officers of the Einsatzgruppen. They were later embodied in the "Commissar Order" issued by Heydrich Himmler and never revoked. (Harris, 241) The Commisar Order issued on July 17, 1941, called for "the separation and further treatment of . . . . all Jews." (TMWC IV 258-9)

The Composition of the Einsatzgruppen

There were approximately 600 to 1000 men in each Einsatzgruppe, although many were support staff. The active members of the Einsatzgruppen were drawn from various military and non-military organizations of the Third Reich. The bulk of the members were drawn from the Waffen-SS, the military arm of the SS. In Einsatzgruppen A, for example, the breakdown of active members was:

Waffen-SS:  340
Gestapo: 89
SD (security service): 35
Order Police: 133
Kripo: 41
(Taylor, Anatomy, p. 510.)

Each of the Einsatzgruppen were further broken down into operational subunits known as Einsatzkommandos or Sonderkommandos.

The Victims of the Einsatzgruppen

The overwhelming proportion of the men, women, and children murdered by the Einsatzgruppen were Jews. The Einsatzgruppen also murdered Romany (gypsies), those identified as functionaries of the Communist Party, those accused of defying the occupying armies of the Third Reich, and those accused of being partisans or guerilla fighters against the invading armies. In all cases the murders were contrary to accepted law.

Although an exact figure will never be known, approximately 1,500,000 people were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen submitted detailed and specific reports of their actions to their superiors both by radio and written communication; these reports were checked against each other for accuracy at Heydrich's headquarters. According to those reports approximately 1,500,000 people were murdered. In evaluating this large number Justice Michael Musmanno, who presided at the trial of the Einsatzgruppen wrote:

One million human corpses is a concept too bizarre and too fantastical for normal mental comprehension. As suggested before, the mention of one million deaths produces no shock at all commensurate with its enormity because to the average brain one million is more a symbol than a quantitative measure. However, if one reads through the reports of the Einsatzgruppen and observes the small numbers getting larger, climbing into ten thousand, tens of thousands, a hundred thousand and beyond, then one can at last believe that this actually happened -- the cold-blooded, premeditated killing of one million human beings.

The Best Evidence of the Crimes of the Einsatzgruppen

The reports of the Einsatzgruppen which report in detail their murder and robbery are the best evidence that we have of what the Einsatzgruppen did. When the U.S. Army captured the headquarters of the Gestapo they found hundreds of written reports from the Einsatzgruppen dispassionately listing their activities. There are two kinds of reports in the collection. "Activity and Situation Reports" (or "Situation Reports") were monthly compilations of the activities of all of the Einsatzgruppen. "Operational Situation Reports" (or "Operational Reports") were detailed reports from the various units giving, in precise detail, the number of murders committed and the property stolen. These reports were sequentially numbered and all but one of the Operational Situation Reports were found in the archives of the Third Reich. The originals of these reports are currently held by the German government in the archive at Coblentz where they are available to researchers and historians.

These reports give us a complete picture of what the Einsatzgruppen were doing and, since they were approved by the highest authorities of the Third Reich, represent the best evidence of the orders given to the Einsatzgruppen. The reports are shocking both in their scope and the callous attitudes they display towards mass murder. One of the judges hearing the appeal in the Stelmokas case had a typical reaction to the contents of one report: "Colonel Jaeger reports the executions of thousands of Jews and hundreds of others in such an impersonal, matter-of-fact-manner and with such pride that his account leaves one in a horror-driven state of shock." (100 F.3rd 302, 325)

Additionally direct evidence was presented in two trials. The first was the trial of Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D, and 22 other members of the SS charged with responsibility for the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen. Justice Michael Musmanno of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court presided at the trial with legendary equity. He allowed the defendants every leeway in presenting a defense to their actions. He found that it was beyond a reasonable doubt that, based on the evidence presented, that all of the defendants were guilty as charged. Fourteen of the defendants were sentenced to death.

These Reports are Authentic

The authenticity of the Einsatzgruppen reports has never been seriously challenged. The original copies of the reports were found in the archives of the Gestapo when it was searched by the U.S. Army. A complete set of those reports were introduced at the trial of 23 members of the Einsatzgruppen. At this trial witnesses who had created the reports and who had received them testified. All stated that the reports were authentic and accurate. Currently the originals of the reports are held by the German archives at Coblentz where they are available to scholars and historians for research. The U.S. National Archives, Yad Vashem, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have complete sets of copies of the original documents.

At one point in the Einsatzgruppen Trial, for example, Otto Ohlendorf, the commander of Einsatzgruppe D was asked about a report (document L-180) created by Stahlecker the commander of Einsatzgruppe A. He answered: "I have read the report of Stahlecker concerning Einsatzgruppe A, in which Stahlecker asserts that his group killed 135,000 Jews and Communists in the first four months of the program. I know Stahlecker personally, and I am of the opinion that the document is authentic."

One of the most important witnesses at the Einsatzgruppen trials was Kurt Lindow who testified on July 21, 1947. Lindow was the person responsible for receiving the reports as they came in and distributed them. As he testified:

I read most of the reports and passed them on to Dr. Knoblach, Inspector of the Criminal Police, who compiled them at first. The compilation was published daily under the title 'Operational Situation Reports - U.S.S.R.' These reports were stenciled and I corrected them. Afterwards they were mimeographed and distributed. The originals of the reports which were sent to the Reich Security Main Office [RHSA] were mostly signed by the commander of the Einsatzgruppe or his deputy. . . . . . .

On the strength of my positions as deputy chief and later on chief of subdepartment IV A 1, I consider myself a competent witness, able to confirm that the 'Operational Situation Reports -- U.S.S.R." which was published by the chief of security police and the security service under file marked IV A 1 were compiled entirely from the original reports of the Einsatzgruppen reaching my subdepartment by wireless or by letter.

NMT Vol. IV, pp. 99-100.

In his testimony Lindow also verified that the reports in evidence were authentic and that the initials on the reports were those of his superiors. After his testimony the defendants in the Einsatzgruppen trial stipulated to the authenticity of the reports.

The reports have also been tested in other courts as well and found to be authentic. The Jaeger Report, for example, covers the murders committed Einsatzkommando 3 of Einsatzgruppe A in Lithuania. It was recently used in the denaturalization trial of Jonas Stelmokas in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1995. Stelmokas was accused of being an officer in a Lithuanian militia unit cooperating with Einsatzgruppen A. After the challenges to the report by the defense were considered, the Jaeger Report was found to be authentic and reliable both by the trial court and an appellate court which considered an appeal of the case. U.S. v. Stelmokas 100 F.3rd 302 (3rd. Cir.; 1996)

There Is Other Evidence As Well

Other than the evidence provided by the reports, there is direct testimony from those who committed the crimes and some of the bystanders who witnessed them. These witnesses testified at two criminal trials held concerning the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen. The first of these was the trial of Otto Ohlendorf and 22 other defendants who commanded the Einsatzgruppen in 1947. This was a trial before a Tribunal of five judges at which the U.S. laws of evidence and substantive law were applied. The second notable trial was of members of Sonderkommando 4a (attached to Einsatzgruppe C) for 33,771 murders committed at Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941. This trial was held in Darmstadt pursuant to German law in 1967-8. In both case the courts heard direct evidence of the crimes committed and convicted the defendants.

The argument that these trials were "kangaroo courts" or "show trials" is simply not tenable. Both were conducted with scrupulous attention to the rights of the accused to a fair trial. They were allowed to cross-examine the witnesses, challenge documents, and present evidence on their own behalf without limitation.

The attention that the courts gave to allowing the defendants to present a full defense is best illustrated by a famous incident at the trial of the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen. At one point in the trial, the prosecution objected to the argument that one of the defendants had been forced into duty with an Einsatzgruppe. Justice Musmanno, the presiding judge, overruled the objection stating:

The defense can introduce any evidence short of describing the lives of the penguins in the Antarctic and, if the defense can convince me the habits of the penguins are relevant evidence to the case, then the lives and times of those white-fronted creatures can also be admitted as evidence.

After the trial before the U.S. Tribunal, as a token of appreciation of the fair and honest manner in which their clients had been treated, the defense attorneys presented Justice Musmanno with a statue of a penguin. In subsequent trials, it was always the request of the defense that the "penguin rule" be applied. The penguin resided on a shelf behind Justice Musmanno's desk until his death in 1968.

Despite the wide latitude given to them, at neither trial did the defendants claim that the massacres did not happen or challenge the authenticity of the reports. The defenses they presented to the charges against them was that they were forced into service with the Einsatzgruppen or, as did Otto Ohlendorf, that they were just following orders. All were convicted.

The Crimes of the Einsatzgruppen

As Justice Musmanno stated the Einsatzgruppen murdered over well over a million men, women, and children and stole their property. The only possible interpretation of the reports that the Einsatzgruppen made to Heydrich is that the majority of those men, women, and children were murdered and robbed because they were Jewish. There is no other reason evident from the reports or the defenses that were presented at the various trials.

One of the most notable of these reports is the "Jaeger Report" which details the murders committed by Einsatzkommandos 8 and 3, attached to Einsatzgruppe A in the Vilna-Kaunas area of Lithuania from July 4, 1941 through November 25, 1941. This lengthy report describes the murder of over 130,000 people in that short period of time. This report consists of six sheets listing the murders of Einsatzkommandos 8 and 3 and concluding: "Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK 3. In Lithuania there are no more Jews, apart from Jewish workers and their families." Most of the report consists of entries such as:

29.10.41Kauen-F.IX 2,007 Jews, 2,290 Jewesses, 4,273 Jewish children (mopping up ghetto of superfluous Jews)
3.11.41Lazdjai 485 Jews, 511 Jewesses, 539 Jewish children
15.11.41Wilkowski 36 Jews, 48 Jewesses, 31 Jewish children
25.11.41Kauen-F.IX 1.159 Jews, 1,600 Jewesses, 175 Jewish children (resettlers from Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt am main)
Jaeger report Sheet 5, which contains 11 such entries.

The reports also give detailed information about the money and other valuables stolen from the victims. The scope of these activities is illustrated by "Operational Report No. 73" dated September 4, 1941 (NO-2844) and "Operational Report No. 133" dated November 14, 1941 (NO-2825). Both of these reports describe the activities of Einsatzkommando 8, a subunit of one of the Einsatzgruppen. The first of these reports states "On the occasion of a purge at Tsherwon 125,880 rubels were found on 139 liquidated Jews and were confiscated. This brings the total of the money confiscated by Einsatzkommando 8 to 1,510,399 rubels." Two months later the same sub-unit was able to report that they had stolen an additional million rubels: "During the period covered by this report, Einsatzkommando 8 confiscated a further 491,705 rubles as well as 15 gold rubles. They were entered into the ledgers and passed to the Administration of Einsatzkommando 8. The total amount of rubels so far secured by Einsatzkommando 8 now amounts to 2,511,226 rubels."

Nor was this thievery limited to their victim's money. Watches, jewelry and even clothing were even plundered. One particularly callous act of murder was described by Justice Musmanno in his decision:

One of the defendants related how during the winter of 1941 he was ordered to obtain fur coats for his men, and that since the Jews had so much winter clothing, it would not matter so much to them if they gave up a few fur coats. In describing the execution which he attended, the defendant was asked whether the victims were undressed before the execution, he replied: "No, the clothing wasn't taken -- this was a fur coat procurement operation."

Judgment, p. 36.

Other Participants

The Einsatzgruppen did not act alone. They had help. The Einsatzgruppen could call on the Wehrmacht for assistance but far more important were local militia groups willing to cooperate in the massacres. At Babi Yar where 33,771 Jews were murdered on September 29-30, 1941, there were two Ukrainian "kommandos" assisting Sonderkommando 4a. In Lithuania Operational Report 19 (July 11, 1941) states that "We have retained approximately 205 Lithuanian partisans as a Sonderkommando, sustained them and deployed them for executions as necessary even outside the area." In the Ukraine the Einsatzgruppen frequently welcomed the participation of local militia both because they needed the help of these auxiliaries but because they hoped to involve the locals in the pogrom they were conducting. (Operational Report 81, from Einsatzkommando 6, September 12, 1941)

There are many known instances of these local militias assisting the Einsatzgruppen. During the "Gross Aktion" of October 28-29, 1941, at Kaunas in Lithuania during which 9,200 Jews were murdered, Lithuanian militia worked with the Einsatzgruppen. (100 F.3rd at 308) Other examples are Zhitomir on September 18, 1941, in the Ukraine where 3,145 Jews were murdered with the assistance of Ukrainian militia (Operational Report 106) and Korosten where Ukrainian militia rounded up 238 Jews for liquidation (Operational Report 80). At times the assistance was more active. Operational Report 88, for example, reports that on September 6, 1941, 1,107 Jewish adults were shot while the Ukrainian militia unit assisting them liquidated 561 Jewish children and youths.

In many cases the militia that assisted the Einsatzgruppen were paid from the money and valuables stolen from the victims.

The Victims of the Murders Were Not Partisans

The reports and the testimony at the various trials tell us that any claim the Einsatzgruppen were dealing with "partisans" is a misrepresentation of history.

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski -- the SS general (his rank was equivalent to the U.S. rank of lieutenant general) in charge of all anti-partisan warfare on the eastern front -- was a witness before the IMT at Nuremberg. Not only did he testify that the purpose of the Einsatzgruppen was the "annihilation" of Jews, Romany, and Communist political operatives but that the Einsatzgruppen were not involved in antipartisan activity. When asked which units were used for antipartisan activity, he responded: "For antipartisan activities formations of the Waffen-SS, of the Ordungspolizei [regular "order keeping" police], and, above all, of the Wehrmacht were used." (Taylor, Anatomy, p. 259) The reports of the Einsatzgruppen are consistent with Bach-Zelewski's testimony. In most of the murder victims are described by class and actions against partisans are specifically described. In all cases "partisans" and "Communists" are listed separately from "Jews."

Many of the reports detail the victims by age and sex. We can see from these entries that a majority of the victims were women and children. It is obvious that a report of the murder of "2,007 Jews; 2,920 Jewesses, 4,273 Jewish children (mopping up ghetto of superfluous Jews)" on October 29, 1941 or "1,159 Jews, 1,600 Jewesses, 175 Jewish children (resettlers from Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt am main)" [Jaeger Report; sheet 5] cannot accurately be characterized as describing "partisans."

When put on trial for his life Otto Ohlendorf, Commander of Einsatzgruppen D, did not use the excuse that the victims were "partisans." Instead he gave the Court a far different rationalization for the murder of the children:

I believe that it is very simple to explain, if one starts with the fact that this order did not only try to achieve a temporary security (for Germany) but also a permanent security. For that reason, the children were people who would grow up and surely, being the children of parents who had been killed, would constitute a danger no smaller than that of their parents.

When he made this statement Ohlendorf was not speaking just as an individual and a dedicated national socialist; he was repeating the statements of his superior, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler and Ohlendorf were close associates and, in fact, were travelling together when they were captured after the collapse of the Third Reich. In his famous speech to a gathering of SS officers at Posen on October 6, 1943, Himmler made comments remarkably similar to those of Ohlendorf:

We came to the question: what to do with the women and children? I decided to find a clear solution here as well. I did not consider myself justified to exterminate the men -- that is, kill them or allow them to be killed -- and allow the avengers of our sons and grandsons in the form of their children to grow up. The difficult resolve had to be taken to make this race disappear from the earth.

(Translation by Gord McFee.)

Another problem with justifying the murders as actions against "partisans" is that Jewish partisan movements did not even exist in the most populous regions until the Einsatzgruppen began murdering Jews. In Lithuania, for example, the Jaeger Report covers the period from July 4, 1941 through November 25, 1941 including what is known as the "Gross Aktion" which was conducted with the help of Lithuanian militia in October, 1941. The Jewish resistance movement did not begin until December 31, 1941, with a manifesto promulgated by Abner Kovner. Prior to that time, Jewish resistance was ruthlessly suppressed by the Jewish leader, Jacob Gens, who went so far as to turn Yitzhak Witenberg, the leading proponent of Jewish resistance, over to the Gestapo. (Hilberg, PVB, page 180-1) Thus, Jewish resistance in Lithuania was, in reality, a reaction to the murders of the Einsatzgruppen.

The reactions of the Jews of Lithuania was not unique. There were similar reactions in many parts of the Ukraine where the majority of the Jews caught up in the German invasion of the Soviet Union lived. In this region, for example, a German inspector reported to the Chief of the Industrial Armament Department:

The attitude of the Jewish population was anxious -- obliging from the beginning. They tried to avoid everything that might displease the German administration. That they hated the German administration and army inwardly goes without saying and cannot be surprising. However, there is no proof that Jewry as a whole or even to a greater part was implicated in acts of sabotage. Surely, there were some terrorists or saboteurs among them just as among the Ukrainians. But is cannot be said that the Jews as such represented a danger to the German armed forces. The output produced by Jews who, of course, were prompted by nothing but the feeling of fear, were satisfactory to the troops and the German administration.

Exhibit 3257 PS (Einsatzgruppen Trial).

Finally it should be noted that "partisan" or "guerilla" forces are, under the Hague Convention, to be treated as POWs. Germany was signer of this Convention and the out-of-hand killing of "partisans" is murder.

We Know That These Reports Were Not Exaggerated

Otto Ohlendorf, the commander of Einsatzgruppen D, was asked during the Nuremberg Trial why the records of his Einsatzgruppen report fewer victims than the other groups. He claimed that some of the other commanders exaggerated the number of murders they committed. Ohlendorf could not, however, explain these exaggerations.

The main problem with accepting Ohlendorf's explanation was the system Heydrich established to make sure that the reports were accurate. The reports were first sent by radio and then by written dispatch signed by the commander of the Einsatzgruppe or his deputy. Since the two methods of reporting were used a check on each other, exaggeration or inflation of the reports would have been quite difficult. While it would have been possible to exaggerate the numbers in a single report, it would have been almost impossible to do so on a regular basis.

If, dispite Heydrich's system of double-checking the reports from the field, the reports were exaggerated we must ask why. The only reason for exaggeration would have been for the commanders to impress superiors with the efficiency of their performance. As anybody reading the reports can see, the reports quite specifically state that the primary activity of Einsatzgruppen was the extermination of the civilian Jewish community. The necessary implication of any argument that the reports were "exaggerated" is that the conduct that is reported was condoned and encouraged by the superior officers -- Himmler and Heydrich -- as an execution of the orders that were given to the Einsatzgruppen and the policy behind those orders.

We Know That These Men Were Not "Overreacting"

The reports of the Einsatzgruppen indicate that the execution of Jews was a consistent pattern rather than occasional incidents. While some of the reports describe actions taken against "partisans" those are the exception. Many of the Operational Reports describe nothing but the murder of civilians, the overwhelming majority of which were Jews or the money and valuables "confiscated."

No action was ever taken by the SS higher command to stop this pattern of murder even though they were directly informed of the actions being taken at the front and meticulously catalogued them in their own records. One the contrary, according to SS-General Bach-Zelewski, the officer in charge of antipartisan warfare in the Soviet Union, the specific orders of the highest authorities of the Third Reich were that soldiers who committed offenses against the civilian population were not to be tried or punished by the military courts. (Taylor, Anatomy, p. 259) In fact many members of the Einsatzgruppen were given the highest awards for valor available to soldiers of the Third Reich for their murder for their murder and for their robbery. Paul Blobel the commander of Sonderkommando 4a, who was responsible for the massacres at Babi Yar was given the Iron Cross, Germany's highest award for valor. (Dawidowicz, What, p. 73)

The Methods of the Einsatzgruppen

The Einsatzgruppen shot people. It's as simple as that. Using various pretexts they rounded up their victims, transported them to a central killing ground and shot them.

At Babi Yar the Jews of Kiev were informed by placards posted around the city by Ukrainian militia for Jews to assemble at 8:00 a.m. on September 29, 1941, at a cemetery near a railroad siding for "resettlement." They were told to bring with them food, warm clothing, documents, money, and valuables. (Dawidowicz, What, 103-4). The scene was described by one officer at his trial in 1967. He stated "It was like a mass migration . . . the Jews sang religious songs on the way." At the railroad siding their food and belongings were taken from them and:

Then the Germans began shoving the Jews into new, narrower lines. They moved very slowly. After a long walk, they came to a passageway formed by German soldiers with truncheons and police dogs. The Jews were whipped through. The dogs went at those who fell but the pressure uof the surging lines behind was irresistible, and the weak and injured were trod underfoot.

Bruised and bloodied, numbed by the incomprehensibility of their fate, the Jews emerged onto a grassy clearing. They had arrived at Babi Yar; ahead of them lay the ravine. The ground was strewn with clothing. Ukrainian militiamen, supervised by Germans, ordered the Jews to undress. Those who balked, who resisted, were assaulted, their clothes ripped off. Naked bleeding people were everywhere. Screams and hysterical laughter filled the air.

Dawidowicz, "What is the Use of Jewish History?" pp. 106-107

After this brutal processing, the victims were lined up at edge of the ravine and gunned down by teams of machine gunners. By the time they were finished on Spetember 30, 1941, 33,700 people had been killed.

Otto Ohlendorf testified about the methods used both at his own trial and the trial of the leaders of the Third Reich at Nuremberg. At Nuremberg he told the court that Jews were gathered for mass murders "on the pretext that they were to be resettled." He then told the Tribunal: "After the registration the Jews were collected at one place; and from there they were later transported to the place of execution, which was, as a rule, an antitank ditch or natural excavation. The executions were carried out in a military manner, by firing squads under command." Not all of the groups committed their murders with the military precision of Ohlendorf's. As he testified "Some of the unit leaders did not carry out liquidations in the military manner, but killed the victims singly by shooting them in the back of the neck."

After December, 1941, the nazis experimented with vans designed by Dr. Becker using lethal gas, exhaust from the motors. Not only was this method slow but, according to Otto Ohlendorf, it was not popular with his men because "the unloading of the corpses was an unnecessary mental strain." Almost all of the victims of these experiments were women and children and, throughout the Einsatzgruppen's reign of terror, shooting was the primary means of execution.

The Shooting Was Efficient, But Other Methods Were Tried

Himmler was a chicken as well as a chicken farmer. In July or August, 1941, Himmler visited Einsatzgruppe B where he witnessed a mass shooting at Minsk. An eyewitness describing what happened during Himmler's visit to Minsk while watched the killing of a group of one hundred Jews:

As the firing started, Himmler became more and more nervous. At each volley, he looked down at the ground .... The other witness was Obergruppenfuehrer von dem Bach-Zelewski...Von dem Bach addressed Himmler: "Reichsfuehrer, those were only a hundred....Look at the eyes of the men in this commando, how deeply shaken they are. Those men are finished ["fertig"] for the rest of their lives. What kind of followers are we training here? Either neurotics or savages."

Arad, "Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka", p. 8.

In reaction to the experience of watching 100 human beings murdered in this fashion, Himmler ordered that a more "humane" method of execution be found. (Reitlinger SS 183) Otto Ohlendorf explained in his testimony at Nuremberg "That was a special order from Himmler to the effect that women and children were not to be exposed to the mental strain of the executions; and thus the men of the kommandos, mostly married men, should not be compelled to aim at women and children."

This order was first implemented with gas vans designed by Dr. Becker. Later the terrible extermination camps, where millions of people were gassed and starved, were established.

The infamous extermination camps were set up shortly after Himmler's visit to Minsk. The first of these was Chelmo which began gassing Jews and others on December 8, 1941. Treblinka, Sobibor, and Majdanek followed in the spring of 1942. Additionally the most famous extermination camp, Auschwitz, began experimenting with Zyclon-B in September, 1941. While mass gassings were conducted at Auschwitz in the spring of 1942, the real work of mass extermination started with the operation of "Bunker 2" on July 4, 1942 (D-VP 305)

There Is No Way to Rationalize and Justify These Crimes

There are some who would try to deny or justify the murders committed by the Einsatzgruppen. The most benign explanation for this denial was given by Justice Michael Musmanno -- an experienced judge and hardened combat veteran -- who presided at the trial of the Einsatzgruppen. Shocked and sickened by the evidence which he heard, Justice Musmanno wrote:

One reads and reads these accounts of which here we can give only a few excerpts and yet there remains the instinct to disbelieve, to question, to doubt. There is less of a mental barrier in accepting the weirdest stories of supernatural phenomena, as for instance, water running up hill and trees with roots reaching toward the sky, than in taking at face value these narratives which go beyond the frontiers of human cruelty and savagery. Only the fact that the reports from which we have quoted came from the pens of men within the accused organizations can the human mind be assured that all this actually happened. The reports and the statements of the defendants themselves verify what otherwise would be dismissed as the product of a disordered imagination.

Judgement of the Tribunal, p. 50.

The crimes happened. No honest person can look you in the eye and state otherwise. Why would someone deny these crimes, justify these crimes, rationalize these crimes?

You tell me.

Bibliographical Note

There are many books about the Holocaust but few that specifically deal with the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen. One of the best of these, The Eichmann Kommandos by Michael Musmanno is long out of print and quite rare. Another rare but excellent analytical work with much background is Ronald Headland's Messages of Murder, 1992. The reports of the Einsatzgruppen are listed and analyzed in The Einsatzgruppen Reports by Yitzak Arad, Schmuel Spector, and Schmuel Krakowski. One of the best references for the evidence as presented at the Nuremberg trial is Tyranny on Trial: the Evidence at Nuremberg by Whitney Harris, a prosecutor at the trial. To put the activities of the Einsatzgruppen in perspective The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert and Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders by Raul Hilberg are both recommended. The classic study of the SS is The SS: Alibi of a Nation by Gerald Reitlinger. The story of Babi Yar, both as a massacre committed by the Einsatzgruppen and as an attempt by the Soviet Union to "forget" that the crime was directed against Jews, can be found in What is the Use of Jewish History? by Lucy Dawidowicz.

One of the best sources of information on the Einsatzgruppen is on the Internet in the form of "The Einsatzgruppen Page" maintained by Ken Lewis at http://www.nizkor.org/~klewis/. It contains many of the reports, the complete text of Justice Musmanno's decision at the Einsatzgruppen trial, and other valuable material.

This introduction to the Einsatzgruppen is dedicated to Channoch Intreligator, transported from Revel, Lithuania, to Auschwitz


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