Holocaust is one of the crucial events in the history of World War II. It is remembered as mass murders of Jews and other people who for certain reasons were deemed unfit to live. The war of annihilation propagated by Hitler brought about millions of deaths. A key role in Holocaust was played by the so called Einsatzgruppen. This paper attempts to analyze the activity of the Einsatzgruppen and determine their influence on the development of the war.
Early History of the Eisatzgruppen
Eisatzgruppen were special mobile strategic punitive units of the SS. The concept of Einsatzgruppen first appeared in 1938. At that time they were small operative units functioning as police or security service. They also were charged with elimination of the enemies of the Reich, such as Marxists and political traitors.
In 1939, during the German invasion of Poland, the Einsatzgruppen formations were used for the forcible “pacification” of Polish intelligentsia. They performed mass arrests of the clergy and nobility and were concerned with linquidation of all the potential threats of the Reich. However, at that time they did not carry out the massacres like those during the Soviet invasion. The Polish Einsatzgruppen are not historically connected with the Soviet ones. The latter are separate organizational formations created later for the purpose of 1941 invasion.
On March 21, 1941, before German invasion into the Soviet Union, Wehrmacht and the RSHA signed a treaty about the foundation of mobile paramilitary units for executing special orders. In May, the SD created four Einsatzgruppen marked by the letters A, B, C, and D. Their staff consisted of 3000 people (Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2014). The members of the Einsatzgrupen were recruited from various military and non-military organizations of the Third Reich. The four Einsatzgruppen were divided into several mobile squads. Einsatzgruppen carried out mass murders of Jews, communist functionists, and other people considered as unworthy to live in the Third Reich. Besides Jews and the Soviet party members, the list of people subject to mass destruction included Gypsies, political intelligency, the participants of the opposition movement, and patients with mental and physical impairments regardless their ethnicity.
During the German invasion into the Soviet territory in June 1941, Eisatzgruppen A, B, and C were attached to the main military units while Einsatzgruppe D was deployed to the Ukrainian SSR without being attached to any army group (Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2014). Ukraine and the Baltic countries, such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia became main springboarda fro the activity of the Einsatzgruppen. The Quatermaster of the Army Eduard Wagner and Reinhard Heydrich agreed that the Einsatxgruppen would not be fully subject to the army authority. Army control extended to them only in the front lines, but in the rear territories the army’s authority was limited to tactical issues (Edeiken, 2007). The army was also responsible for solving logistical issues. It provided the Einsatzgruppen with supplies, transport, lodging, and sometimes also manpower.
The majority of the victims of the Einsatzgruppen were Jews, especially those defined as guerilla fighters, partisans or accused of openly defying the invading armies. All the murders committed by the Einsatzgruppen were contrary to the existing law.
At the beginning of the invasion the Einsatzgruppen attempted to provoke spontaneous skirmishes by means of appealing to anti-Jewish sentiments of the population. This was an effective tactic that allowed the Einsatzgruppen to shift the responsibility for the murders onto the locals and facilitate their task. Significant fights took place in the Baltic region, especially in Riga and Lviv.
After invading a Soviet city, German troops ordered the Jews who live there to gather in ghettos that had been prepared in advance. On the appointed day they were driven to the central square or a certain building. From there they were ordered to the place of the execution under the pretext that they would be sent to work or relocated. After the rumors about the massacres spread throughout the occupied territories, the Jews had to be forcibly taken from their homes and shelters. The villages and parts of the cities were surrounded by Wehrmacht squads to prevent the victim from escape. The methods of capturing the Jews and the ways of execution did not differ significantly from region to region. The most widely used way of execution was shooting. Executions were carried out outside the occupied settlement. Natural lowlands, hollows or abandoned artillery grounds were often chosen for this purpose. Sometimes pits were prepared specially for the excetution. In some cases the victims were forced to dig their own graves (Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2014). The Jews were brought to the place of the execution in trucks. All the valuables they possessed, including good clothes, were confiscated. The victims were made to lie down in the hollow face down and shot in the back of their heads. After the shooting was finished, the officers filled in the pits regardless of whether the victims inside were already dead or no.
At most executions the Einsatzgruppen officers were assisted by the members of the local Hilfspolizei and collaborators. Sometimes the executioners were twice as many as the victims in order to ensure that no one escapes and no bullet misses its aim.
A notable detail is that in the first weeks of the war only men aged between 18 and 65 were executed. Women and children were spared at that time. However, in August 1941 mass killings of women and children started, first in Minsk, then in other territories taken by the Germans (Edeicken, 2007).
One of the most famous and tragic events connected with activity of the Einsatzgruppen was the massacre of Babi Yar that took place in September 1941 on the outskirts of Kiev. In course of one week more than 34 thousands Jews were murdered there. They were machine-gunned in the ravine, and the bodies were burnt during the following two days in order to destroy the evidence of the massacre (Jewish Virtual Library, 2014). Later Babi Yar became a place of the execution of the Gypsies. The Einsatzgruppen did not act alone, they were assisted by the Ukrainian militia.
By the end of 1942, the Einsatzgruppen murdered almost a million Jews in the Soviet territory. They were the people who did not manage to escape to the east. The entire Jewish villages, the so called shtetls were destroyed. Those of their residents who survived the attacks never rebuilt the shtetls (Jewish Virtual Library, 2014). They nearly disappeared as a cultural and social phenomenon.
In spring, 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered to change the method of execution. Gas chambers came into use. They were constructed for this purpose by two Berlin factories. They looked like ordinary vans but when the engines were started, the exhaust fumes got into the closed cargo section of the truck body. Everyone inside was killed in 10-15 minutes (Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2014). This way of killing was considered easier and less stressful for the executioners. Himmler noticed that his men experienced great psychological pressure during the shooting and wanted to find a more effective and convenient method of killing. The other reason for introducing gas vans was the need to economize on the ammunition and manpower. Thus, being mobile and easily operated, gas vans quickly substituted shooting in the eastern front and in most other areas where the Einsatzgruppen functioned.
In spring 1943, the number of victims increased to over a million of Soviet Jews. Although there is no official statistics, the total number of the victims of the Einsatzgruppen is supposed to be around 1,500,000 or even more than 2 million people (Edeiken, 2007). In the first winter of the war the Einsatzgruppe A destroyed a quarter of a million people. The Einsatzgruppen B, C, and D murdered 45 000, 95 000, and 92 000 people respectively (Jewish Virtual Library, 2014). The Einsatzgruppe A was the first to attempt total extermination of the Jews in the territory that was under its control.
The activities of the Einsatzgruppen were not officially recorded. All the orders were received by the commanders in oral form. However, many reports of the Einsatzgruppen commanders have survived. They provide indisputable evidence of the destructive efficiency of the Einsatzgruppen. Many authentic reports have been found in the archives of the Gestapo. They list exact numbers and dates when their crimes were committed. For example, the report of Stahlecker states that his Einsatzgruppe destroyed 135 thousand Jews and communists in the first four months of the war (Edeicken, 2007).
At the Nuremberg trial the Einsaztgruppen were charged with crimes against the humanity, such as unjustified persecution and murder of people because of racial and national prejudices, and military crimes, including murder of civilians, destruction of cultural heritage, ruining of settlements, and breaking of the international treaties concerning the treatment of captives (Edeicken, 2007). Many leaders of the Einsatzgruppen were sentenced to capital punishment. Several the others were sentenced to a life-term imprisonment.
As a conclusion, it is necessary to underline that the Holocaust would have been virtually impossible without the active participation of the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen proved to be one of the principal instruments of destruction employed by the Nazi in the first months of the military campaign, and their role in the development of the war cannot be underestimated. The Einsatzgruppen were not a new phenomenon. However, they are remembered in history as an innovation of the World War II and a secret tool that served to clear the path for the Nazi and destroy every obstacle on their way to eastern domination. Despite the secretiveness, the massacres performed by the Eisatzgruppen were impossible to conceal. The Nuremberg trial proved that the damage inflicted on the civil population by the Einsatzgruppen far exceeded all previous similar precedents. Thus, they may be justly considered the main destructive force and leading instrument of the Holocaust.