Military history





As he entered Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania on 27 June 1941, Lieutenant-Colonel Lothar von Bischoffshausen, a regular army officer, noticed a laughing and cheering crowd of men, women and children gathered in the forecourt of a petrol station by the side of the road. Curious, he stopped to see what was going on. Bischoffshausen, a much-decorated career soldier and former Free Corps fighter, born in 1897, was no humanitarian liberal, but as he approached the crowd, even he was shocked by what he saw:

On the concrete forecourt of the petrol station a blond man of medium height, aged about twenty-five, stood leaning on a wooden club, resting. The club was as thick as his arm and came up to his chest. At his feet lay about fifteen to twenty dead or dying people. Water flowed continuously from a hose washing blood away into the drainage gully. Just a few steps behind this man some twenty men, guarded by armed civilians, stood waiting for their cruel execution in silent submission. In response to a cursory wave the next man stepped forward silently and was then beaten to death with the wooden club in the most bestial manner, each blow accompanied by enthusiastic shouts from the audience.1

Some of the women, he noted, were lifting up their children so that they could see better. Later on, Bischoffshausen was told by army staff officers that the murders were a spontaneous action by local people ‘in retaliation against the collaborators and traitors of the recently ended Russian occupation’. In fact, as other eyewitnesses reported, the victims were all Jews. A German photographer managed to take pictures of the event. Waving his army pass, he warded off an SS man’s attempt to confiscate the film, thus preserving a record of these events for posterity. Bischoffshausen reported the massacre to his superiors. Although he discovered that members of the SS Security Service had been in the area since 24 June 1941, and it was not hard to guess that they had been instrumental in inciting the massacre, the general commanding the German army in the area said this was an internal matter for the Lithuanians and refused to intervene.2

What he had witnessed was no chance, localized or spontaneous act of violence. As soon as the German forces had entered the Soviet Union and the various territories it controlled, followed by the four SS Security Service Task Forces and subordinate Task Units including a number of police battalions, they had begun to carry out the orders Heydrich had given them to kill civilian resisters, Communist Party officials and Jews, along with all Jewish prisoners of war, in order, as they thought, to eliminate any possibility of resistance or subversion from ‘Jewish Bolsheviks’. Initially, the killings were, if possible, to be done by local people, who the Nazis expected to rise up against their Communist and Jewish oppressors, as they saw them.3 In a report written in mid-October 1941, the head of Task Force A, Walther Stahlecker, noted Heydrich’s instruction to set in motion what he called ‘self-cleansing efforts’ by the local population, or in other words anti-Jewish pogroms that were to appear as spontaneous actions by patriotic Lithuanians. It was important ‘to create as firmly grounded and provable for posterity the fact that the liberated population took the toughest measures against the Bolshevik and Jewish enemy on its own initiative, without any direction from the German end being recognizable’. ‘It was initially surprisingly difficult to set a fairly large-scale pogrom in motion there,’ he reported, but in the end a local anti-Bolshevik partisan leader managed ‘without any German orders or incitement being discernible’ to kill more than 1,500 Jews on the night of 25/26 June and a further 2,300 the following night, also burning down sixty Jewish houses and a number of synagogues. ‘The armed forces units,’ he added, ‘were briefed and showed full understanding for the action.’4

Pogroms of this kind took place in many areas in the first few days of German occupation. Antisemitism in the Baltic states had been fuelled by the experience of Soviet occupation since the spring of 1940, under which native elites and nationalists had been persecuted, arrested, deported or killed. Stalin had encouraged the Russian and Jewish minorities to help build the new Soviet states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and two-thirds of the Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party were either Russian or Jewish in origin, though like all Communists, of course, they rejected their previous ethnic and religious identities in favour of secular Bolshevik internationalism. For their part, the Nazis regarded the Baltic peoples not as subhuman Slavs but as potentially assimilable to the German master race. Yet only a tiny minority of extreme nationalists in these countries vented the hatred of Communism they had accumulated over the period of Soviet occupation on the local Jewish population.5 Task Force A, for example, had to get auxiliary police rather than local civilians to kill 400 Jews in Riga. It is more than likely that in practice the same procedure had to be followed in other areas such as Mitau, where the local Jewish population of 1,550 was, it was reported, ‘disposed of by the population without any exceptions’. Finally, in Estonia, the Jewish population was so tiny - a mere 4,500 people - that such actions were not possible at all, and most of the Jews managed to flee to safety.6 By the time German troops reached Estonia, SS Security Task Forces and other units in Latvia and Lithuania had in any case gone over to killing Jewish men themselves. In the Lithuanian border town of Garsden (Gargzdai), where the German troops had encountered fierce resistance from the Red Army, security was left to a unit of German border police from Memel, who arrested between 600 and 700 Jews. Acting under the orders of the Gestapo chief in Tilsit, Hans-Joachim Böhme, they marched 200 Jewish men and one Jewish woman (the wife of a Soviet political commissar) to a nearby field, where they forced them to dig their own graves and then, on the afternoon of 24 June 1941, shot them all. One of the victims was a boy of twelve. Now known as the Tilsit Task Unit, Böhme’s group then moved eastwards, killing over 3,000 civilians by 18 July 1941.7

On 30 June 1941 the group was visited by Himmler and Heydrich, who gave its actions their approval. Böhme and his men were clearly carrying out their wishes. German forces treated all Jewish men as Communists, partisans, saboteurs, looters, dangerous members of the intelligentsia, or merely ‘suspicious elements’, and acted accordingly. Antisemitism also led regular German troops to shoot captured Jewish soldiers rather than send them into captivity behind the front. ‘Up here in what was Lithuania,’ wrote the ordinary soldier Albert Neuhaus from Münster, born in 1909 and therefore a little older than the average soldier, on 25 June 1941, ‘things are pretty much Jewified, and in this case no quarter is given.’8 The mixture of ideologically preconceived antisemitism and military or security rationalization, as well as the involvement of a variety of different agencies in the massacres, was evident in a letter written to his parents by a regular German soldier on 6 July 1941 from Tarnopol in eastern Galicia. After describing the discovery of the mutilated bodies of German soldiers taken prisoner by Red Army troops, the soldier went on:

We and the SS were merciful yesterday, for every Jew we caught was shot right away. It’s different today, for we again found the mutilated bodies of 60 comrades. Now the Jews had to carry the corpses out of the cellar, stretch them out neatly, and then they were shown the atrocities. Then after inspecting the victims they were beaten to death with truncheons and spades. Up to now we have sent about 1,000 Jews into the hereafter, but that’s too few for what they’ve done.9

The Jews of course had no demonstrable connection with the atrocities at all. Nevertheless, altogether some 5,000 of the town’s Jewish population were massacred, including a small number of women and children.10

In late June and through the first weeks of July, the Task Forces set about killing ever-increasing numbers of Jewish men in the occupied territories in the east, encouraged by frequent visits of Himmler and Heydrich to their areas of operation. The SS leaders began to provide the Task Forces with quotas to fill. In Vilna (Vilnius), at least 5,000 and probably as many as 10,000 Jews were killed by the end of July. Most of them were taken out to pits previously dug by the Red Army for a tank base, made to bind their shirts over their heads so they could not see, then machine-gunned in groups of twelve. Three SS Security Service units in Riga, assisted by local auxiliary police, had killed another 2,000 Jews in a wood outside the town by the middle of July, while thousands more Jews were shot in a similar way in other centres of population. As the grisly business proceeded, the gestures towards legal formalities that had often accompanied the early mass shootings, including the conventional rituals of the firing-squad, were quickly abandoned.11 Already on 27 June 1941, men from a variety of units under the overall command of the army’s 221st Security Division had driven more than 500 Jews into a synagogue in Bialystok and burned them alive, while army units blew up the surrounding buildings to stop the fire spreading. Other Jewish men were arrested in the streets. Their beards were set on fire and they were forced to dance before being shot. At least 2,000 Jews were killed in all. Shortly afterwards, a German police battalion entered what was left of the Jewish quarter and took out twenty truckloads of loot. Himmler and Heydrich arrived in Bialystok early in July 1941 and are said to have complained that despite these killings not enough was being done to combat the Jewish menace. Almost immediately, over 1,000 Jewish men of military age were arrested, taken out of the city and also shot.12

The Task Force reported that it aimed to ‘liquidate’ the entire ‘Jewish-Bolshevist leadership cadre’ in the area, but in practice it rounded up and killed virtually the whole adult male Jewish population without distinction of occupation or educational attainment.13 The German invasion of 1941 had initially come as a surprise to the Jews as well as to Stalin, and most Jews had not fled, unless they had some connection with the Communist Party. Many of them had relatively positive memories of the German occupation in the First World War, and they had been alienated by the Soviet suppression of Jewish institutions, the Communist expropriation of their businesses, and the anti-religious campaigns that had forced them to abandon their traditional dress and stop celebrating the Sabbath.14 One German soldier reported that his unit had been welcomed in eastern Poland not only by villagers offering them milk, butter and eggs but also by Jews, who, he remarked, ‘haven’t yet realized that their hour has come’.15 But this situation soon changed. News of the massacres spread quickly, and the Jewish population began to flee en masse as the German forces approached. The speed of the German army’s advance was such that they were often overtaken, and so were then unable to escape the SS Task Forces following hard behind.16 Nevertheless, a report filed by Task Unit 6 of Task Force C on 12 September 1941 noted that 90 or even 100 per cent of the Jewish population in many Ukrainian towns had already fled. ‘The expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews,’ it added, ‘ - from what we hear, in the most cases across the Urals - has cost nothing and constitutes a considerable contribution to the solution of the Jewish question in Europe.’17


Felix Landau, a thirty-year-old Austrian cabinet-maker, was in the area of Lemberg (Lvov) in early July. Landau had joined the SS in April 1934 and taken part in the murder of the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss in 1934.18 He was a committed Nazi and antisemite, therefore. He had volunteered for service in Task Force C, and it was with one of the Task Force’s units that he arrived in Lemberg in the wake of the advancing German armies on 2 July 1941. Landau kept a diary in which he recorded his unit’s progress. German troops entering Lemberg, he reported, had discovered the mutilated bodies of Ukrainian nationalists killed by the Soviet secret police after an attempted uprising, along, it was alleged, with a number of captured German airmen treated in the same way.19 Indeed, in Lemberg as in other towns, the Soviet secret police had tried to evacuate ‘counter-revolutionary elements’ from the prisons in advance of the German invasion, and massacred all those whom they were unable to march off. The murdered men included a number of German prisoners of war. Many of the victims had been beaten to death and were exhumed with broken bones, though common reports that they had had their eyes put out or their genitals mutilated more likely reflected the depredations of rats and other scavenging beasts. There is also some evidence that Ukrainian nationalists in Lemberg nailed bodies to the prison wall, crucified them or amputated breasts and genitals to give the impression that the Soviet atrocities were even worse than they actually were.20 The discovery of the mutilated corpses led to an orgy of violence by the military, the Ukrainians and the Task Force unit alike.21 ‘Shortly after our arrival,’ Landau recorded, ‘the first Jews were shot by us.’ He did not particularly like doing this, he said - ‘I have little inclination to shoot defenceless people - even if they are only Jews. I would far rather good honest open combat’ - but on 3 July 1941 his unit shot another 500 Jews, and on 5 July 1941 another 300 Poles and Jews.22

Soon after arriving in the town, Landau’s unit was informed that local Ukrainians and German soldiers had taken 800 Jews to the former citadel of the Soviet secret police and started attacking them, holding them responsible for the prison massacres. As he made his way towards the citadel, Landau saw

hundreds of Jews walking along the street with blood pouring down their faces, holes in their heads, their hands broken and their eyes hanging out of their sockets. They were covered in blood. Some of them were carrying others who had collapsed. We went to the citadel; there we saw things that few people have ever seen. At the entrance of the citadel there were soldiers standing guard. They were holding clubs as thick as a man’s wrist and were lashing out and hitting anyone who crossed their path. The Jews were pouring out of the entrance. There were rows of Jews lying one on top of the other like pigs, whimpering horribly. The Jews kept streaming out of the citadel completely covered in blood. We stopped and tried to see who was in charge of the unit. Someone had let the Jews go. They were just being hit out of rage and hatred.23

Landau found such violence ‘perfectly understandable’ in view of what had gone before. The hatred of some Ukrainians for the Jews was fuelled by religious prejudice and nationalist resentments derived from the fact that many Jews had worked for Polish landlords. It found expression in support for antisemitic and extreme nationalist militias that marched into eastern Galicia alongside the advancing German troops. Above all, however, the Jews were blamed by both Ukrainian militiamen and German troops for the massacres of prisoners carried out by the retreating Soviet secret police. Ukrainians took what they believed to be their revenge by beating the Jews to death, in one place, Brzezany, using clubs studded with nails. In Boryslaw, the commanding German general, seeing the corpses of young men killed in the prison by the Soviet secret police laid out on the town square, gave an enraged crowd twenty-four hours to do what they wanted with the local Jews. The Jews were rounded up, made to wash the corpses, forced to dance, then beaten to death with lead pipes, axes, hammers and anything else that came to hand.24 Altogether, 7,000 Jews were murdered in Lemberg alone in these early weeks of the invasion. The participation of Ukrainian nationalists was widely noted, and Ukrainians indeed murdered a further 2,000 Jews in the city at the end of the month. Even so, these operations were generally unsystematic.25 Only a relatively small minority of Ukrainians were out-and-out nationalists keen to take revenge against the Soviet Communists for years of oppression and the mass starvation of the early 1930s. Task Force C was obliged to conclude that ‘The attempts which were undertaken cautiously to incite pogroms against Jews have not met with the success we hoped for . . . A decided antisemitism on a racial or spiritual basis is, however, alien to the population.’26

After leaving Lemberg, Landau’s unit went on to Cracow, where the shootings resumed.27 As he took twenty-three Jews, some of them refugees from Vienna, including two women, out to a wood to be shot, he asked himself as the Jews began to dig their own graves: ‘What on earth is running through their minds during those moments? I think that each of them harbours a small hope that somehow he won’t be shot. The death candidates are organized into three shifts as there are not many shovels. Strange, I am completely unmoved. No pity, nothing,’ he wrote.28 After digging the graves, the victims were made to turn round. ‘Six of us had to shoot them. The job was assigned thus: three at the heart, three at the head. I took the heart. The shots were fired and the brains whizzed through the air. Two in the head is too much. They almost tear it off.’29 Following these killing actions, Landau was placed in charge of recruiting Jews for forced labour. He had twenty shot for refusing to appear on 22 July 1941, after which, he reported in his diary, everything ran smoothly.30 Aside from such cool descriptions of mass murder, much of Landau’s journal was devoted to worrying about his girl-friend, a twenty-year-old typist he had met in Radom. By the end of the year he was living with her in a large villa, where he commissioned the Jewish artist and writer Bruno Schulz, whose work impressed him, to paint a mural. This temporarily preserved the artist’s life, though Schulz was shot dead shortly afterwards by one of Landau’s rival officers in the local SS.31 If Landau showed any remorse, he did not record it.

These mass murders and pogroms often took place in public, and were not only observed and reported by participants and onlookers, but also photographed. Soldiers and SS men kept snapshots of executions and shootings in their wallets and sent them home to their families and friends, or took them back to Germany when they went on leave. Many such photos were found on German troops killed or captured by the Red Army. The soldiers thought that these reports and photos would show how German justice was meted out to a barbaric and subhuman enemy. The Jewish population seemed to confirm everything they had read in Julius Streicher’s antisemitic tabloid paper The Stormer: everywhere the soldiers went in Eastern Europe they found ‘filthy holes’ swarming with ‘vermin’, ‘dirt and dilapidation’, inhabited by ‘unending quantities of Jews, these repulsive Stormer types’.32 In the southern sector of the front, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt found himself confronted with quarters that he roundly condemned as a ‘filthy Jewish hole’.33 ‘Everything is in a condition of horrifying dilapidation,’ wrote General Gotthard Heinrici to his wife on 11 July 1941. ‘We are learning to treasure the blessings of Bolshevik culture. The furnishings are only of the most primitive kind. We are living mostly in empty rooms. The Star of David is painted all over the walls and blankets.’34 Heinrici’s casual equation of dirt, Bolshevism and ‘the Star of David’ was typical. It informed the actions of many officers and men of all ranks in the course of the eastern campaign.


On 16 July 1941, speaking to Göring, Lammers, Rosenberg and Keitel, Hitler declared that it was necessary ‘to shoot dead anyone who even looks askance’ in order to pacify the occupied areas:35 ‘All necessary measures - shooting, deportation etc. - we will do anyway . . . The Russians have now given out the order for a partisan war behind our front. This partisan war again has its advantage: it gives us the possibility of exterminating anything opposing us.’ Foremost amongst those opponents of course, in Hitler’s mind, were the Jews, and not just in Russia but also in the rest of Europe, indeed the rest of the world. The following day he issued two new decrees on the administration of the newly conquered territories in the east, giving Himmler complete control over ‘security measures’ including, it went without saying, the removal of the threat of ‘Jewish-Bolshevik subversion’. Himmler understood this to mean clearing all the Jews from these areas by a mixture of shooting and ghettoization. From his point of view, this would pave the way for the further implementation of his ambitious plans for the racial reordering of Eastern Europe, as well, of course, as vastly increasing his own power in relation to that of the nominally responsible administrative head of the region, Alfred Rosenberg. He ordered two SS cavalry brigades to the region, numbering nearly 13,000 men, on 19 and 22 July 1941 respectively.36

On 28 July 1941 Himmler issued guidelines to the First SS Cavalry Brigade to assist them in their task of dealing with the inhabitants of the vast Pripet marshes:

If the population, looked at in national terms, is hostile, racially and humanly inferior, or even, as will often be the case in marshy areas, composed of criminals who have settled there, then everyone who is suspected of supporting the partisans is to be shot; women and children are to be taken away, livestock and foodstuffs are to be confiscated and brought to safety. The villages are to be burned to the ground.37

It was understood from the outset that the partisans were inspired by ‘Jewish Bolshevists’ and that therefore a major task of the cavalry brigades was the killing of the Jews in the area. On 30 July 1941 the First SS Cavalry Brigade noted at the end of a report: ‘In addition, up to the end of the period covered by this report, 800 Jewish men and women from the ages of 16 to 60 were shot for encouraging Bolshevism and Bolshevik irregulars.’38 The extension of the killing from Jewish men to Jewish women and children as well ratcheted up the murder rate to new heights. The scale of the massacres carried out by the newly assigned SS cavalry brigades in particular was unprecedented. Under the command of the Higher SS and Police Leader for Central Russia, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, one brigade shot more than 25,000 Jews in under a month, following an order issued at the beginning of August by Himmler, who was visiting the area, that ‘all Jewish men must be shot. Drive Jewish women into the marshes.’ Women were no longer to be spared, in other words, they were to be drowned in the Pripet marshes. Yet, as the SS cavalry reported on 12 August 1941: ‘Driving women and children into marshes did not have the success it was meant to, since the marshes were not deep enough for them to sink in. In most cases one encountered firm ground (probably sand) below a depth of 1 metre, so that sinking-in was not possible.’39

If it was not possible to drive Jewish women into the Pripet marshes, then, SS officers concluded, they too had to be shot. Already in the first half of August, Arthur Nebe, the commander of Task Force B, which operated in Bach-Zelewski’s area, ordered his troops to start shooting women and children as well as men. Further south, Himmler’s other SS brigade, under the command of Friedrich Jeckeln, began the systematic shooting of the entire Jewish population, killing 23,600 men, women and children in Kamenetsk-Podolsk in three days at the end of August 1941. On 29 and 30 September 1941, Jeckeln’s men, assisted by Ukrainian police units, took a large number of Jews out of Kiev, where they had been told to assemble for resettlement, to the ravine of Babi Yar, where they were made to undress. As Kurt Werner, a member of the unit ordered to carry out the killings, later testified:

The Jews had to lie face down on the earth by the ravine walls. There were three groups of marksmen down at the bottom of the ravine, each made up of about twelve men. Groups of Jews were sent down to each of these execution squads simultaneously. Each successive group of Jews had to lie down on top of the bodies of those that had already been shot. The marksmen stood behind the Jews and killed them with a shot in the neck. I still recall today the complete terror of the Jews when they first caught sight of the bodies as they reached the top edge of the ravine. Many Jews cried out in terror. It’s almost impossible to imagine what nerves of steel it took to carry out that dirty work down there. It was horrible . . . I had to spend the whole morning down in the ravine. For some of the time I had to shoot continuously.40

In two days, as Task Force C reported on 2 October 1941, the unit killed a total of 33,771 Jews in the ravine.41

By the end of October, Jeckeln’s troops had shot more than 100,000 Jewish men, women and children. Elsewhere behind the Eastern Front, the Task Forces and associated units also began to kill women and children as well as men, starting at various times from late July to early September.42 In all these cases, the few men who refused to take part in the murders were allowed time out without any disciplinary consequences for themselves. This included even quite senior officers, for example the head of Task Unit 5 of Task Force C, Erwin Schulz. On being told at the beginning of August 1941 that Himmler had ordered all Jews not engaged in forced labour to be shot, Schulz requested an interview with the head of personnel at the Reich Security Head Office, who, after hearing Schulz’s objections to participating in the action, persuaded Heydrich to relieve the reluctant officer of his duties and return him to his old post at the Berlin Police Academy without any disadvantage to his career. The great majority of officers and men took part willingly, however, and raised no objections. Deep-seated antisemitism mingled with the desire not to appear weak and a variety of other motives, not the least of which was greed, for, as in Babi Yar, the victims’ possessions in all these massacres were looted, their houses ransacked, and their property confiscated. Plunder, as a police official involved in the murders later admitted, was to be had for all.43


10.Killing Operations of the SS Task Forces, 1941-3

In the town of Stanislawów in Galicia, Hans Krüger, the head of the Security Police, was informed by the local German authorities that the ghetto they were about to set up was not going to be able to house anything like the entirety of the town’s Jewish population, which numbered around 30,000, possibly more. So he rounded up the town’s Jews on 12 October 1941 and lined them up in a long queue that reached to the edge of prepared open ditches in the town cemetery. Here they were shot by German police, ethnic Germans and nationalist Ukrainians, for whom Krüger provided a table laden with food and alcoholic spirits in the intervals between the shootings. As Krüger oversaw the massacre, striding round with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a hot-dog in the other, the Jews began to panic. Whole families jumped into the ditches, where they were shot or buried by bodies falling on top of them; others were shot as they attempted to climb the graveyard walls. By sunset, between 10,000 and 12,000 Jews, men, women and children, had been killed. Krüger then announced to the remainder that Hitler had postponed their execution. More were trampled in the rush to the cemetery gates, where they were again rounded up and taken to the ghetto.44

In some cases, as in the town of Zloczów, local German army commanders protested and managed to get the murders stopped, at least temporarily.45 By contrast, in the village of Byelaya Tserkow, south of Kiev, the Austrian field commander, Colonel Riedl, had the entire Jewish population registered and ordered a unit of Task Force C to shoot them all. Together with Ukrainian militiamen and a platoon of soldiers from the Armed SS, the Task Force troops took several hundred Jewish men and women out to a nearby firing range and shot them in the head. A number of the victims’ children were taken in lorries to the firing range shortly afterwards, on 19 August 1941, and shot as well, but ninety of the youngest, from small babies up to six-year-olds, were kept behind, unsupervised, in a building on the outskirts of the village, without food or water. German soldiers heard them crying and whimpering through the night, and alerted their unit’s Catholic military chaplain, who found the children desperate for water, lying around in filthy conditions, covered in flies, with excrement all over the floor. A few armed Ukrainian guards stood about outside, but German soldiers were free to come and go as they pleased. The chaplain enlisted the aid of a regimental staff officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, who, after inspecting the building, posted soldiers round it to prevent the children being taken away. Outraged at his authority being overridden, Riedl protested to the regional commanding officer, Field Marshal von Reichenau, that Groscurth and the chaplain were departing from proper National Socialist ideology. ‘He explained,’ Groscurth reported, ‘that he held the extermination of the Jewish women and children to be urgently required.’ Reichenau backed Riedl and ordered the children’s murder to go ahead. On 22 August 1941 the children and infants were taken out to a nearby wood and shot on the edge of a large ditch dug in preparation by Riedl’s troops. The SS officer in charge, August Häfner, later reported that, after objecting that his own men, many of whom had children themselves, could not reasonably be asked to carry out the shootings, he obtained permission to get Ukrainian militiamen to do the deed instead. The children’s ‘wailing’, he recalled, ‘was indescribable. I shall never forget the scene throughout my life. I find it very hard to bear. I particularly remember a small fair-haired girl who took me by the hand. She too was shot later . . . Many children were hit four or five times before they died.’46

Groscurth’s horror at these events reflected the moral doubts that had led him to take up contacts with the conservative-military resistance. He protested that such atrocities in effect were no better than those committed by Soviet Communists. Reports of the events in the village were bound to reach home, he thought, damaging the standing of the German army and causing problems for morale. A devout Protestant and conservative nationalist, his courageous stand in August 1941 earned the wrath of his superiors, and he was duly reprimanded by Reichenau. To some extent he may well have phrased his objections in such a way as to make them count with his superiors. Yet his report to Reichenau on 21 August 1941 concluded that the outrage lay not in the shooting of the children but in the fact that they were left in appalling conditions while the responsible SS officers dithered. Once the decision had been made to kill the adults, he saw no option but to kill the children as well. ‘Both infants and children,’ he declared, ‘should have been eliminated immediately in order to have avoided this inhuman agony.’47


On 12 June 1941, during a visit to Munich, the Romanian army chief and dictator Ion Antonescu received ‘guidelines’ from Hitler as to how to deal with the Jews in the areas under Soviet control into which the Romanian army was scheduled to march ten days later as part of the plan for Operation Barbarossa. Under his orders, Romanian police commanders began the ghettoization of Jews living in towns and the ‘extermination on site’ of Jews found in the countryside. 100,000 Jews fled from these areas into the Soviet Union, but not before the Romanians had begun killing them in large numbers.48 Already before the invasion, Antonescu had ordered the registration of all Romanian Jews and their banning from a wide variety of professions. Jewish property was expropriated and Jews were subjected to forced labour orders. From 8 August 1941 all Jews had to wear the yellow star. These and other orders reflected not only Hitler’s urgings but also Antonescu’s own deep-seated and violent personal antisemitism. Senior members of the Romanian regime justified the treatment of the Jews in terms of an Orthodox Christian crusade against unbelievers, fortified by the Orthodox Patriarch Nicodim’s declaration that it was necessary to destroy the Jews, servants of Bolshevism and killers of Christ. Antonescu, too, often expressed his antisemitism in language tinged with religious phraseology (‘Satan is the Jew,’ he wrote in one virulently antisemitic diatribe). But he also repeatedly spoke of what he saw as the need for the racial ‘purification’ of Romania, and the discriminatory laws he introduced were racial, not religious, in character.49 He was obsessed with the image of the Jews as the prime movers of that most anti-religious of political movements, Bolshevism. He blamed Romanian military losses, food and supply shortages, and any other problems he faced, on the Jews. He was encouraged in these beliefs by the German leadership.

On 26 June 1941 a pogrom was begun in the north-eastern Romanian town of Ia012i, organized by Romanian and German intelligence officers and involving the local police force. At least 4,000 local Jews were killed before the rest were packed into two goods trains in sealed wagons and then taken on a journey with no fixed destination; by the time the trains finally came to a halt, 2,713 of the Jews on them had died of thirst or suffocated to death. Even German observers were shocked by the violence. ‘Everything is going according to plan, including the slaughter of the Jews,’ wrote one from Ia013i on 17 July 1941, but he added: ‘The atrocities that are taking place here and can be observed going on are unspeakable - and we, I and others, tolerate and must tolerate them.’50 After the massacres in Ia014i, which killed possibly as many as 10,000, Antonescu ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina, along with other supposedly treacherous elements. Machine-guns were to be used, he said: the law did not exist here. Thousands of Jews were shot, and the survivors were incarcerated in squalid, poorly provisioned camps and ghettos, principally in the Bessarabian capital of Kishinev, before being expelled to Transnistria, in the southern Ukraine, which was occupied by the Romanian army. Forced marches, hunger and disease took a terrible toll; in December 1941 and January 1942 the Romanian authorities ordered the shooting of thousands of the Jewish expellees out of hand.51 At one camp in Transnistria, the commandant fed the inmates on a type of pea usually given to cattle. After Jewish doctors reported that the peas caused paralysis of the lower limbs, followed in most cases by death, the commandant ordered the feeding of the inmates with the peas to continue. They had nothing else to eat. At least 400 Jews were reported to have suffered paralysis before the food supply was eventually changed.52

There were more massacres when Romanian troops occupied Odessa. On 22 October 1941, a time-bomb previously laid by the Russian secret service blew up the Romanian army headquarters, killing sixty-one mostly Romanian officers and staff, including the city’s military commander. Antonescu ordered savage reprisals. 200 ‘Communists’ were to be hanged for every officer killed in the explosion. Romanian troops took this as a licence to launch a pogrom. Over the next two days, 417 Jews and alleged Communists were hanged or shot, and some 30,000 Jews were rounded up and force-marched out of the city to the town of Dalnic. But then, on the intervention of the mayor of Odessa, they were marched back to the city harbour. Here 19,000 of them were herded into four large sheds, where they were all machine-gunned. After this, the sheds were set on fire to ensure there were no survivors.53 Thousands of the remaining Jewish inhabitants of Odessa were now taken out of the city preparatory to deportation into German-held Ukraine. 52,000 Jews from Odessa and southern Bessarabia were crammed into forty or so cowsheds at Bodganovka, or held in open pens. At nearby Domanovka and Akmecetka there were 22,000 more, many of them herded with deliberate sadism into pigsties on a large, abandoned Soviet state farm. Their money and jewellery were seized and taken off to the Romanian state bank. Typhus broke out in the insanitary conditions and the Jews began dying in large numbers.54

The Romanians expected to be able to transport these Jews into German-held Ukraine, but when it became clear that this was not going to happen, the guards at Bogdanovka, aided by local Ukrainian police, crammed around 5,000 elderly and sick Jews into stables, scattered hay on the roofs, doused it with petrol and burned them alive inside. Those Jews who could walk, around 43,000 of them, were taken to a nearby ravine and shot one by one in the back of the neck. 18,000 more were shot by Ukrainian policemen on Romanian orders at Domanovka. The pigsties at Akmecetka were used to house the sick and emaciated, and up to 14,000 were deliberately starved to death on the orders of the Romanian regional commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Isopescu. Thousands more Romanian Jews were deported to improvised, chaotically run and poorly supplied ghettos and camps in Transnistria, where death rates reached between a third and a half in the winter of 1941-2. In the Warsaw ghetto, by contrast, which for all its overcrowding and deprivation at least had a functioning social and administrative infrastructure, death rates were running at about 15 per cent at this time.55

Faced with desperate pleas from the surviving leaders of the Jewish community in Romania at these massacres, Antonescu took refuge in familiar claims that the Jews had previously tortured and murdered Romanian soldiers, so they deserved their fate. ‘Every day,’ he wrote to a Jewish community leader on 19 October in an open letter published in the Romanian press, ‘the horribly mutilated bodies of our martyrs are brought out of the cellars of Chisinau . . . Did you ask how many of our people fell, murdered in a cowardly manner by your co-religionists? - and how many were buried alive . . . These are acts of hatred,’ he went on, ‘bordering on madness, which your Jews have displayed towards our tolerant and hospitable people . . .’56 Within a year of beginning their campaign, the Romanian forces, sometimes in conjunction with German SS and police units, more often acting on their own, had killed between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews, the largest number murdered by any independent European country during the Second World War apart from Germany.57

SS Task Force D, dissatisfied with the chaotic nature of many of these killings, attempted to channel what it called ‘the sadistic executions improperly carried out by the Romanians’ into a ‘more planned procedure’. 58 Ohlendorf complained to Berlin that the Romanian forces had ‘driven thousands of children and frail old people, none of whom is capable of working, from Bessarabia and Bukovina into the German sphere of interest’. His men drove many back into Romanian territory, killing a substantial number of them in the process. By the end of August, as one of his subordinates later reported, Ohlendorf was carrying round with him ‘a paper with a broad red border marked “Secret Reich Business”. . . from which he informed us that all Jews without distinction were from now on to be liquidated’.59 In mid-September, following this order, a sub-unit of the Task Force murdered all the Jews in the town of Dubossary, forcing mothers and their children with blows from their rifle-butts to stand on the edge of specially dug pits, where they were made to kneel down before being shot in the back of the neck. Around 1,500 people were murdered in this way in a single mass execution, one of many similar actions committed by the Task Force and its various subdivisions around this time. Once more, Himmler was present in the area when these massacres took place.60 For Ohlendorf and Himmler, the Romanian forces’ murder operations were neither thorough nor systematic enough and attended by an excess of inefficiency, corruption and randomly sadistic brutality. As Task Force D moved southwards, eventually reaching the Crimea, it searched every town and village, killed every Jewish man, woman and child it found, and reported back proudly in due course that it had rendered the area completely ‘Jew-free’.61


The explicit inclusion of the mass murder of Bolshevik commissars, Jews, partisans and others in the orders developed in Berlin in the spring of 1941 for the invasion of the Soviet Union helped put genocide on the agenda in other parts of the Balkans too. In Yugoslavia the atmosphere was poisoned still further by the violence taking place in the area controlled by the fascist Ustashe regime in Croatia. As the Ustashe began massacring Serbs in huge numbers in the spring of 1941, thousands of refugees fled across the border to German-occupied Serbia, where they joined the nascent resistance movement, composed mainly of former soldiers and policemen who had taken to the hills in April 1941. Generally known as Chetniks, after anti-Turkish armed bands in the Balkan Wars earlier in the century, these groups gradually fell under the leadership of Colonel Dragoljub Mihailović, a Serbian nationalist in touch with the government-in-exile of the young King Peter. In late June 1941 the disparate actions of the Chetniks coalesced into a general uprising, the first in any German-occupied country in Europe. The rebels were joined by Communist partisans under Josip Broz Tito, who had been organizing their forces for some months. While the Chetniks were fuelled as much as by Serb hatred of the Croats than by the desire to resist the Germans, Tito’s Communists aimed to unite all ethnic and religious groups in the struggle against the occupying forces. The situation was inflamed not only by the continuing genocidal violence in neighbouring Croatia, but also by the draconian policies adopted from the outset by the German army. General Halder, the Chief of the Army General Staff, had issued orders that were not dissimilar to those previously carried out in Poland, but more comprehensive and more severe still. The armed forces were to co-operate with the incoming German police and the Security Service of the SS in arresting known or suspected terrorists, saboteurs and German émigrés, to which Halder personally added two further categories: Communists and Jews.62

Within a few weeks of the invasion, the military occupation authorities had forced the registration of Serbian Jews, and in some places enforced the compulsory wearing of the Jewish star. The German army ordered the exclusion of Jews from a variety of occupations, expropriated much of their property without compensation, and extended these measures to Serbia’s Gypsies. Army officers moved into well-furnished villas after the Jewish owners had been evicted, imprisoned or shot, while the rank-and-file soldiers began buying up confiscated Jewish goods at knock-down prices.63 As soon as the Chetnik uprising started, the military commander in Belgrade ordered the Jewish community to provide forty hostages a week, to be shot if the resistance persisted. As a result, the 111 people who had been executed by the Germans by 22 July 1941 in ‘reprisals’ included many Jews. From 27 July 1941 Serbs were also held ‘co-responsible’ if they provided a supportive environment for the rebels. As far as the German troops were concerned, all the rebels were Communists or Jews. In mid-August the Jews of the Banat area were deported to Belgrade, where all male Jews and Gypsies were interned at the beginning of September. By this time, according to an official German report, despite the fact that ‘approximately 1,000 Communists and Jews had been shot or publicly hanged and the houses of the guilty burned down, it was not possible to restrain the continued growth of the armed revolt’.64

The 25,000 German soldiers left behind in Yugoslavia while the bulk of the armed forces moved on to Greece were without battle experience, and their average age was thirty. The officers were all from the reserve. The small number of German auxiliary and police regiments stationed in Serbia had also never been involved in the combating of guerrilla insurgency. They had little idea of how to deal with a well-supported and effective resistance movement. What they did do, however, was not dissimilar to what the German army was doing elsewhere in Eastern Europe. ‘It is understandable,’ explained a senior German army commander in Serbia, General Bader, on 23 August 1941,

that the troops who are often shot at from the rear by Communist bands are crying out for vengeance. Often in such a case any people found in the fields are arrested and shot. In most cases, however, they do not apprehend the guilty parties, who have long since disappeared; they catch innocent people and thus cause a population that up to this point has been loyal to go over to the bandits out of fear or embitterment.65

His warning fell on deaf ears. German soldiers continued to carry out brutal acts of revenge for attacks they were unable to counter. ‘Today was a record!!’ wrote one lieutenant on 29 July 1941. ‘This morning we shot 122 Communists and Jews in Belgrade.’66 The appointment of a puppet Serb government under Milan Nedić, a pro-German and anti-Communist Serb politician, did little to help the situation. The overall commander in the region, Field Marshal Wilhelm List, a Bavarian Catholic and a professional soldier of long standing, became increasingly frustrated. The Serbs, in his view, were naturally violent and hot-blooded and could only be tamed by force. In August 1941 Hitler personally underlined the need for ‘the harshest intervention’ in the military suppression of the revolt.67 Goebbels was less convinced. On 24 September 1941, he noted with some concern that the ‘bloody reign of terror’ of the Croats against the Serbs was driving them ‘to desperation . . . so that the movements of revolt are reaching out ever further’.68

And indeed the Chetniks became ever bolder, capturing 175 Germans in two separate incidents in early September 1941. List elbowed aside the serving military commander in Serbia, an air force general, and imported an Austrian, General Franz Böhme, as Commander-in-Chief. Böhme was trusted by Hitler, who indeed had put him forward as Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian army at one point during his negotiations with the Austrian dictator Schuschnigg shortly before the German invasion of Austria in 1938. Böhme shared the anti-Serb and antisemitic prejudices and resentments of the Austrian officer corps in full measure. ‘Your mission,’ he told his troops on 25 September 1941,

is to be carried out in a country in which in 1914 rivers of German blood flowed because of the treachery of the Serbs, men and women. You are the avengers of the dead. An intimidating example has to be created for the whole of Serbia, one that hits the whole population in the severest manner. Anyone who shows mercy is betraying the lives of his comrades. He will be called to responsibility without respect of his person and put before a court-martial.69

Böhme systematized the existing practice of violent retaliation. He ordered punitive expeditions to towns and villages, the opening of concentration camps for alleged ‘Communists’ and Jews at Šabac and Belgrade, and the shooting of all suspected Bolsheviks - over 1,000 of whom had already been killed by 4 October 1941. On 16 September 1941 Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the Combined Armed Forces Supreme Command, had ordered fifty to 100 Communists to be shot in retaliation for every single German soldier killed in German-occupied areas all across Europe. Böhme issued an even more farreaching command on 10 October 1941: ‘Communists or male inhabitants who are suspected of being Communists, all Jewish men, and a specified number of nationalistic and democratically inclined inhabitants’ were to be seized as hostages and killed in the ratio of 100 to every German soldier killed by the partisans and fifty to every one wounded.70

Böhme was exceeding Keitel’s orders, which did not mention Jews. There was a general assumption that because of their treatment in Germany and Poland the Jews would automatically be enemies of the German occupation of Serbia. A similar reasoning was applied to the Gypsies, though those who had a regular job and whose family had ceased to be nomadic since 1850 at the latest were explicitly exempted. Without presenting any concrete evidence at all, the military administration claimed ‘that the Jewish element participates to a considerable extent in the leadership of the bands and that it is Gypsies who are responsible for particular atrocities, and for espionage activities’.71 On Böhme’s orders, 2,200 prisoners from the Šabac and Belgrade concentration camps were shot, 2,000 of them Jews, 200 Gypsies. There were plenty of witnesses. Milorad Jelesić, a Serb interned in another, nearby camp, was taken out to a field near Šabac and with others was ordered to dig an open ditch while a detachment of German soldiers ate their lunch. Then, he later testified,

A group of fifty people who I could see were Jews were led from behind a field of corn . . . An officer gave the command and then the Germans would aim at the back of the head - two soldiers for each Jew. We then had to run to the open grave and throw the dead into it. Then the Germans ordered us to go through all their pockets and take out any items of value . . . If we couldn’t get the rings off, the Germans gave us a little knife and we had to cut off their fingers and give them the rings like that.72

Another group of fifty Jews was then led out, and the operation repeated over the next two days, with Gypsies making up an increasing proportion of the victims. Some of the Jews were Austrian refugees, who with grim historical irony thus found themselves being killed by mainly Austrian troops in reprisal for acts of resistance carried out by Serbian partisans on the German army.73

Böhme’s measures, directed against people who had nothing to do with the partisan uprising, had crossed the line that separated military reprisals, however excessive, from gratuitous mass murder. Further shootings followed. In many cases they were filmed for propaganda purposes. In the two weeks after the order of 10 October was issued, army units in Serbia shot more than 9,000 Jews, Gypsies and other civilians. Some soldiers even took part in the killings as if they were some kind of sport. When one Viennese soldier returned to his regiment in Belgrade from leave, he was greeted by his regimental comrades with the flippant inquiry: ‘Are you going along with us to shoot Jews?’74 If the troops ran out of supposed Communists, democrats, nationalists, Jews and Gypsies to kill in any particular place to which they had been ordered, they simply rounded up the rest of the male inhabitants and shot them too. In this way, for example, units of the 717th Infantry Division shot 300 men in the town of Kraljevo who seemed to belong to the categories outlined in Böhme’s order, before going on to round up indiscriminately a further 1,400 Serbs and shooting them too in order to reach their quota of 100 ‘hostages’ for every dead German.75 Like Böhme, almost all the senior army officers and SS commanders in occupied Yugoslavia were Austrians; so too were many army units, including the 717st Infantry Division. The extreme violence they meted out to the local population, Serbs, Gypsies and Jews, reflected not least their deep-rooted hostility towards the Serbs, and the particularly virulent nature of antisemitism in the country from which, like Hitler himself, they came.76

Across the whole of Eastern Europe by the end of 1941, the overall numbers of murders, above all of Jews, carried out by the army, the SS Security Service Task Forces and their associates had reached hundreds of thousands. Task Force A reported that by the middle of October it had killed more than 118,000 Jews, a figure that had increased to nearly 230,000 by the end of January 1942. Task Force B had reported exactly 45,467 Jews shot by the end of October, rising to just over 91,000 by the end of the following February. Task Force C had shot around 75,000 by 20 October 1941, and Task Force D reported nearly 55,000 by 12 December 1941 and a total of almost 92,000 by 8 April 1942. How accurate these figures were cannot be precisely ascertained; they may in some cases have been exaggerated, or double-counted. On the other hand they did not include all the Jews killed by local militias or units of the German army, whose commanders had issued orders to kill ‘Jewish Communists’ and other ‘Jewish elements’. The fact that senior army officers repeatedly felt it necessary to ban their troops from taking part in pogroms, looting and mass shootings of Jewish civilians indicates how commonplace such actions were. In some instances, indeed, as in that of the 707th Army Division in Belarus, the extermination of Jews was actually organized by the military in the name of combating partisan activity.77 In all, it is probable that around half a million Jews were shot by the Task Forces and associated military and paramilitary groups by the end of 1941.78

Unevenly, but unmistakeably, an important step had been taken: the extension of the killings to women and children, and the effective abandonment of the pretext or in many cases indeed the belief that Jews were being killed because they had organized resistance to the invading German forces. The timing, manner and extent of the murders were more often than not a matter for local SS commanders on the ground. Himmler’s role in ordering this extension and then, sometimes jointly with Heydrich, in driving it on through inspection visits to the areas where the killings were taking place, and in strengthening the SS forces in the area to enable more killing to be done, was nevertheless central.79 It was Himmler who, in repeated verbal orders issued to his subordinates, accomplished the transition to the indiscriminate killing of Jews of both sexes and all ages in July and August 1941. He clearly believed, now and later, that he was carrying out Hitler’s own wish of 16 July to shoot ‘anyone who even looks askance’. Here too, as in other instances, the Nazi chain of command worked indirectly. There was no one specific, precise order; Hitler set the overall parameters of action, Himmler interpreted them, and the SS officers on the ground, with his encouragement, used their initiative in deciding when and how to put them into effect, as the uneven timing of the transition from shooting Jewish men to shooting Jewish women and children clearly showed. Nevertheless, it is clear that the mass murder of Eastern European Jews that began at this time was above all a reflection of Hitler’s own personal desires and beliefs, repeatedly articulated both in public and in private during these months.80

Thus, for example, on 25 October 1941 Hitler was having dinner with Himmler and Heydrich, and so his thoughts naturally turned to the massacres they had set in motion in Russia, and in particular Himmler’s order of early August to ‘Drive Jewish women into the marshes’:

In the Reichstag, I prophesied to Jewry, the Jew will disappear from Europe if war is not avoided. This race of criminals has the two million dead of the [First World] war on its conscience, and now hundreds of thousands again. Nobody can tell me: But we can’t send them into the morass! For who bothers about our people? It’s good if the terror that we are exterminating Jewry goes before us.81

On 1 August 1941, Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo, ordered the Reich Security Head Office to forward the reports it was receiving from the Task Forces to Hitler. Altogether, forty to fifty copies of each report were usually circulated to Party and government offices.82 The ‘Event Report number 128’, issued on 3 November 1941 and containing the first six full reports of the Task Forces from July to October, was for example distributed in fifty-five copies not only to the Party Chancellery but to government departments as well, including the Foreign Office, where it was countersigned by no fewer than twenty-two officials.83 Thus not only Hitler but also many people in the senior ranks of the Party and state administration were fully informed of the massacres being carried out by the SS Task Forces in the east.

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