Many think of the Holocaust taking place in extermination camps such as Auschwitz. The first killings of the Nazi Final Solution, however, were carried out by mobile Schutzstaffel (SS) groups tasked with eradicating Jewish populations in certain areas. These death squads were collectively referred to as Einsatzgruppen
The Einsatzgruppen (German for ‘action group’) were formed by Nazi commanders in 1941. They were comprised of paramilitary personnel from the Schutzstaffel (SS).
The ranks of the Einsatzgruppen were filled with both conscripts and volunteers. Many units were led by men with investigative or policing experience, seconded from the Gestapo or German civilian police units like the Kripo and Orpo.
The Einsatzgruppen were modelled on squads sent into Austria and Czechoslovakia after the Nazi annexations in 1938. Their mission there was to locate, detain or silence dissidents and troublemakers. Similar groups also followed the Nazi blitzkrieg into western Poland in 1939, again tasked with eliminating political threats, dissenters or potential resistance leaders.
The Nazi conquest of Europe brought about the expansion of the SS Einsatzgruppen and changes to both its composition and its mission. By 1941, the Einsatzgruppen was comprised of four divisions, labelled A, B, C and D. Each division was comprised of several companies or platoons and contained between 700 and 1,000 men.
These Einsatzgruppen divisions were ordered to follow the Wehrmacht as it advanced into enemy territory. Once an area had been secured by the army, the task of the Einsatzgruppen was to identify, round up, assemble and exterminate “undesirables”, particularly Jews, Romany and communists.
The Einsatzgruppen operated under strict rules of engagement to minimise disruption and conceal their grisly duties. Executions had to take place well away from Aryan or non-Jewish populations. Bodies were carefully disposed of in remote locations, away from farmland or areas likely to be cultivated or developed. Graves could not be marked or otherwise identifiable.
Though they left little evidence on the ground, the Einsatzgruppen were instructed to keep thorough records. Statistics on liquidated targets were kept; reports were compiled, checked and sent to SS headquarters.
First significant deployment
The first significant deployment of the Einsatzgruppen as mobile death squads was during Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia (June 1941). Another Einsatzgruppen unit, unaccompanied by any substantial Wehrmacht divisions, was based further south in the Ukraine.
In both locations, the Einsatzgruppen moved from village to village executing any ‘undesirables’ it could locate. The vast majority of Einsatzgruppen killings were carried out by small arms fire: rifles, pistols and sub-machine guns. Victims were often forced to dig their own graves, before being lined up at the edge and shot.
Later, this progressed to the digging of large pits, mass executions and burying of bodies in piles of layers. Executioners sometimes forced horrified victims to enter the pits and stand on the bodies of those already murdered. The pits were then filled it, regardless of whether those inside were actually dead.
Since the Einsatzgruppen were chiefly tasked with killing, some officers were interested in developing and trialling more efficient methods. This was driven, in part, by the constant pressure to use fewer men and less ammunition. There was also concern about the physiological and psychological impact these mass shootings might on Einsatzgruppen members.
A significant advance followed a 1941 incident where German soldiers died after being trapped in the compartment of a truck with a faulty exhaust. Seizing on this idea, one einsatzgruppen company sealed the cargo sections of large trucks and began gassing victims by filling the truck with its own exhaust fumes.
These trucks became an early form of gas chamber. Not only were the trucks mobile, they could exterminate dozens of prisoners quickly without expending ammunition or requiring the direct involvement of Einsatzgruppen.
Evidence of activity
Many written ‘operational reports’ filed by Einsatzgruppen commanders survive and these documents provide stark evidence of their murderous efficiency. They detail where specific einsatzgruppen units operated each day, along with the numbers and racial origins of those they killed.
The following extract comes from a report, filed in December 1941, summarising the outcomes of einsatzgruppen operations in Lithuania that year:
July 4th – Kauen-Fort VII – 416 Jews, 47 Jewesses – 463 [total].
July 6th – Kauen-Fort VII – Jews 2,514.
Following the formation of a raiding squad under the command of SS-Obersturmfuhrer Hamman and 8-10 reliable men from the einsatzkommando, the following actions were conducted in cooperation with Lithuanian partisans:
July 7th – Mariampole – Jews 32.
July 8th – Mariampole – 14 Jews, 5 communist officials – 19 [total].
July 8th – Girkalinei – 6 communist officials.
July 9th – Wendziogala – 32 Jews, 2 Jewesses, 1 Lithuanian, 2 Lithuanian communists, 1 Russian communist – 38 [total].
July 9th – Kauen-Fort VII – 21 Jews, 3 Jewesses – 24 [total].
July 14th – Mariampole – 21 Jews, 1 Russian, 9 Lithuanian communists – 31 [total] …
Total carried forward: 3,384
Effects on morale and discipline
Causing or witnessing the deaths of scores of people, including women and children, was grisly work and took its toll on many members of the Einsatzgruppen. Not all posted to Einsatzgruppen units were capable of carrying out their work. There were several recorded cases of men breaking down, refusing orders or being hastily transferred.
Einsatzgruppen officers, aware of the difficulties faced by their men, tended to be more tolerant of occasional breaches of discipline. Many unit leaders dispensed extra rations of alcohol as an incentive or reward. In comparison to other SS and Wehrmacht divisions, the einsatzgruppen recorded much higher rates of alcoholism, desertion and suicide.
Yet despite this moral uncertainty and internal unrest, the Einsatzgruppen was able to continue its deadly campaign. It would last until the summer of 1943, by which time transportation to the death camps became the preferred method of mass killing.
Historians have attributed more than one million deaths to Einsatzgruppen divisions and their two-year campaign of death.
Their role in the Holocaust was so significant that the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal convened a separate ‘Einsatzgruppen trial’ in 1947-48. These trials considered the fate of 24 einsatzgruppen commanders, who were charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and membership of illegal organisations.
Of the two dozen Einsatzgruppen soldiers charged at Nuremberg, 21 were found guilty. Three died or committed suicide during the trial and 14 were sentenced to death. Only four of this number were executed and all surviving defendants were released from prison within 10 years.
“The merciless destruction carried out by the Einsatzgruppen was chronicled in great detail by a series of reports issued during the period June 1941 to May 1943. The mind-boggling statistics of mass murder contained in these reports at first seems beyond belief. One cannot grasp how such atrocities were performed on such a scale, day after day, let alone recounted with such cold precision. Yet as one wades deeper and deeper and adjusts slowly to a world permeated by an ideology contemptuous of normal human decency, one begins to realise that this did happen and that the events described are real. One is then left with the uniquely Nazi phenomenon as to require absolute secrecy on the one hand, and the strange desire to record the events on the other.”
Ronald Headland, historian
1. The Einsatzgruppen were mobile killing squads, charged with exterminating ‘undesirables’ in occupied Europe.
2. It contained four divisions of SS troopers, filled with volunteers and conscripts, some from police backgrounds.
3. From 1941 the Einsatzgruppen murdered more than one million people, mostly civilian Jews and other minorities.
4. The Einsatzgruppen usually operated behind the army, moving from village to village, killing and disposing of bodies.
5. This grisly task took its toll on Einsatzgruppen units, which were stricken with alcoholism and other problems.