THE MASTERS OF DEATH, by Richard Rhodes



June 30, 2002

'Masters of Death': Himmler's Willing Executioners


The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.

By Richard Rhodes.
Illustrated. 335 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $27.50.



The main goal of the German Einsatzgruppen during World War II was to turn the Jews in the Soviet Union into landfill.

In large measure, they did. Having raced in behind the invading German Army in June 1941, these mobile killing squads proceeded to fill ravines, quarries, trenches, ditches and pits in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia with the bodies of more than 1.3 million Jewish men, women and children.

When most of us think of the Holocaust we think of Auschwitz. But the industrialized, largely hands-off method of killing Jews at Auschwitz and the five other gassing centers in Poland was developed to a great extent because of what the German leadership saw as the too hands-on experience of the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union -- individual bullets shot into individual Jews by individual Germans, or by the local police they oversaw. In Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev, the Einsatzgruppen shot 33,771 Jews in just two days. The work was bloody and sometimes, even for these hardened killers, demoralizing. Auschwitz was the final solution to the Final Solution.


''Masters of Death'' illuminates this early and pivotal chapter of the Holocaust. In it, Richard Rhodes -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of, among many books, ''The Making of the Atomic Bomb'' -- focuses on the experience of the victims and on the methods and personalities of the killers. And he shows how the enterprise of individualized murder led to the enterprise of industrialized murder. Through his fine and accessible account, Rhodes deepens our sense of the Holocaust's utter evil. But, in one way, he also confounds it. Using a theory of violence to which he has become attached in recent years, he tries to explain how that evil came about. And in that attempt he falls short.

That Rhodes was drawn to examine the Einsatzgruppen is hardly surprising. He has long been interested in the problem of violence, and theirs was perhaps the ultimate example -- vast, repetitive and daily, and characterized by a close proximity to the victims. For the Einsatzgruppen, murdering human beings was primarily a problem of logistics, engineering, efficiency.

In fact, how they approached some of their technical challenges illustrates what they did and who they were. For instance, when people who were shot at the edge of a pit would fall in, on top of those who had been shot a few moments earlier, their bodies would crumple every which way. This resulted in unused -- and therefore, from the point of view of efficiency, wasted -- space between the bodies. It meant digging more pits than if the bodies had fallen into neat rows.

Rhodes describes how Friedrich Jeckeln, an SS and police general, solved this problem. Jeckeln called his solution Sardinenpackung -- sardine-packing. ''Today we'll stack them like sardines,'' he informed a colleague at a killing site in western Ukraine. As that colleague later described it, ''The Jews had to lie layer upon layer in an open grave and were then killed with neck shots from machine pistols, pistols and rifles. That meant they had to lie face down on those previously shot.''

And here was another logistical challenge the Einsatzgruppen overcame: shooting women holding infants. How do you kill both at the same time? One solution to this problem, Rhodes explains, was devised at a killing site in Latvia: mothers with infants had to hold their babies over their heads; one man shot the mother, one the child.

Rhodes notes that more than a few of the killers enjoyed their duties. A woman from a town near Minsk saw a young German soldier walking with a year-old baby impaled on his bayonet. ''The baby was still crying weakly,'' she later recalled. ''And the German was singing.'' In some sites in Lithuania, after ''Jewish actions,'' schnapps was distributed and group photos were taken. Often, the killers celebrated with dinner parties at local inns.

And, after the war, a Krakow police official testified that members of the border police were, with some exceptions, ''quite happy to take part in shootings of Jews.'' The official went on: ''They had a ball! . . . Nobody failed to turn up.''

But for many of the killers it was, in fact, a difficult task. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who was in charge of the project of murdering all Jews and who, as Rhodes notes, witnessed some of the killings himself, was troubled by what such individualized killing might do to his men. True, he frequently exhorted them to be ''hard'' -- though the work was unpleasant, he said, it was necessary for the future of Germany. But he wanted to find a way to ease the psychological burden on his men. This was accomplished first by gas vans, which were more impersonal, and then by the still more efficient gas chamber system, in which Germans could release gas into vast spaces filled with Jews and force other Jews to pull out the corpses before gassing them in turn.

How could the ''ordinary men'' of the Einsatzgruppen have done all this? What explanatory theory can possibly account for it?

In ''Masters of Death,'' Rhodes presses upon us a theory that, he believes, can explain their behavior. This theory, a model of how people become violent, was developed by a criminologist, Lonnie Athens, who based it on interviews he held with incarcerated violent criminals. Having come across Athens's then-obscure theory some years ago, Rhodes embraced it and devoted his 1999 book, ''Why They Kill,'' to it. Now, in ''Masters of Death,'' he applies it to the Einsatzgruppen and to those who sent them to kill.

As Rhodes summarizes it, Athens believes that a person who becomes violent goes through a four-stage socialization process: (1) brutalization by an authority figure through violence or the threat of violence, seeing others undergoing such subjugation, being instructed in how to be violent and being told by already violent people that one must be violent when one is provoked; (2) the realization that ''resorting to violence is sometimes necessary in this world,'' and the resolution to use violence in the face of imminent danger; (3) the carrying out of serious violence against someone in response to a provocation; and (4) the resolution ''to attack people physically with the serious intention of gravely harming or even killing them for the slightest or no provocation at all.'' At this point, Rhodes notes, the person's ''violent socialization is complete.''

Rhodes believes that these stages apply not only to criminals but also to the kind of people who became Nazi killers. And he concludes that Athens's model ''supplies an evidence-based instrument through which to view the Third Reich, and specifically the Einsatzgruppen, that may help to illuminate their history and thus the history of the Holocaust.''

But Rhodes fails to make the case that would support that conclusion. The behaviors and personal histories of Nazis that he cites, whether of Himmler or the Einsatzgruppen officers, though sometimes compatible with one or another part of Athens's theory, aren't enough to lead us to the conclusion that the theory can explain their violence or that of the Nazis in general. Other factors -- like the readiness to obey orders to kill by unquestioned authorities; the diffusion of responsibility for killing; and the anti-Semitic ideology that was widely embraced in German society and that construed Jews as subhuman and mortally dangerous to Germany -- provide explanations for Nazi violence that are more powerful than that of Athens, and quite possibly sufficient. There is no reason to think that a theory like Athens's is needed to explain Nazi violence. Ideology and motivation, combined with psychological mechanisms like rationalization, can be enough.

But you don't have to accept Rhodes's explanation for the Einsatzgruppen's violence to be shocked and enlightened by the story he tells. That story, which is not as well known as it should be, is devastating in what it reveals about the human capacity to murder and destroy. All explanatory theories fall by the wayside as the reader of this book is brought face to face, through Rhodes's riveting account, with some of the darkest pages in the darkest chapter of human experience.

Walter Reich, a psychiatrist, is a professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University and was until 1998 the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


In Cold Blood
'Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust' by Richard Rhodes

Reviewed by Deborah E. Lipstadt

Sunday, May 26, 2002; Page BW09

The SS-Einsatzgruppen and The Invention of the Holocaust
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf. 335 pp. $27.50

Most histories of the Holocaust treat Auschwitz and other killing centers as emblematic of the Final Solution, the plan to murder European Jewry. They consider the gas chambers the ultimate expression of the Third Reich's depraved brutality.

In fact, the gas chambers were preceded by another brutal wave of killings. Between June 1941 and late 1942, the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units and their auxiliaries, shot approximately 1.5 million Jews. They also killed many communists, partisans, Polish intellectuals and others deemed by the Germans to be enemies.

In Masters of Death, Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, tells this story of the Einsatzgruppen in graphic and sometimes lurid detail. Yet this is how the story must be told for readers to grasp the depth of the horror. One killing place, Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev, has entered our lexicon of horrors because of Yevgeni Yevtushenko's poem of the same name. There are, however, hundreds of other massacre sites whose names, like those of the victims buried there, remain unknown to us. In contrast, what happened at them is surprisingly well documented because of an order given in August 1941 by Gestapo chief Hermann Müller: "The Fuhrer is to be kept informed continually . . . about the work of the Einsatzgruppen." Müller asked that visual materials of special interest, such as photographs, be sent via "the speediest possible delivery."

Hitler not only wanted the Jews killed; the epitome of the armchair murderer, he wished to see the killings from a distance. In less than a year, the Einsatzgruppen dispatched nearly 200 reports describing their work. No other genocidal action has such a paper trail. Initially, the reports justified the killings by charging that the victims failed to wear the Jewish star, refused to work or looted. Soon the rationalizing stopped. As one Einsatzgruppe leader testified, "It was simply a matter of destroying Jews for the sake of destroying Jews."

The first victims were primarily adult males. Eventually, women and children became victims. When one unit was preparing its sweep against the Jews, Himmler issued an explicit order: All Jews must be shot. Drive the female Jews into the swamp. The report by the officer in charge indicates that he had precisely understood the meaning of Himmler's directive. But driving women and children into the swamps did not have the intended success, because they were not deep enough for drowning.

The perpetrators faced both logistical and emotional challenges. The Einsatzgruppen needed procedures that would allow the efficient killing of enormous numbers of Jews. At Rumbula, near Riga, where 13,000 people were killed in one day or, as Rhodes calculates, nine people every minute, packers were stationed in the killing pits to position the victims to lie down, head to toe, on top of the bodies of those who had been killed before them. The Germans, who called this method Sardinenpackung (sardine packing), liked it because the bodies occupied less space and could easily be covered up and buried. Some perpetrators found the killing difficult and stressful. Others seemed to be enjoying it too much. Himmler, concerned for the welfare of his men, sought a different method of killing. Gas chambers eliminated the need for the killers to watch victims die. No one person pulled the trigger, and thus the killings were depersonalized.

Rhodes contends that the decision to murder all of European Jewry was not made until December 1941. Other historians, who, unlike Rhodes, have worked from the primary documents, believe that it was made a few months earlier. There is good reason to agree with them. Though this historical debate does not materially affect the story he has to tell, Rhodes should have avoided it.

The grandiosity of Germany's Final Solution was evident at the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, when leaders of the Reich bureaucracies were informed of their tasks in the Final Solution. Participants received a statistical table delineating the number of Jews to be killed. According to the table, 11 million remained. They were to be found not just in countries already occupied by Germany, but also in England, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Turkey, unoccupied France and the areas of the Soviet Union not yet in German hands. Hitler had already promised the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem that the Jews of Palestine would also be obliterated. Even today, 60 years after this conference, the scope of its goals is breathtakingly obscene.

Rhodes considers the Einsatzgruppen killings the direct predecessors of the more recent so-called ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. He contends that understanding the complexities of state-sponsored massacres may prevent or limit further outbreaks. Though one can contest some of Rhodes's historical conclusions, the impact of this story is profound. •

Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University, is currently writing a book about her legal victory over Holocaust denier David Irving.



MAY, 21, 2002

Criminals, Not Monsters

The Nazis Industrialized Murder, Argues Pulitzer Prize-Winner Richard Rhodes, In Part as a Perverse Attempt To Spare the Sensibilities of Reluctant Soldiers

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf, 338 pages, $27.50.


In "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Hannah Arendt's 1963 report on the trial of the man whose task it was to implement the Final Solution, she reports experiencing a revelation.

Evil, she famously wrote, is banal: In the person of Adolf Eichmann, evil is represented as someone as seemingly psychologically normal as you and I. He wears a suit and tie to work, files paperwork, raises children and sleeps soundly at night. Unlike others, however, he fails to make the distinction between right and wrong; he abdicates every human being's obligation to decide what is acceptable to do to another human being and what is not.

And perhaps Arendt was right, at a certain level: For most of those who fail this moral obligation do not have to confront blood, brains, gore, screams, bayoneted babies and the smell of burning or decomposing bodies on a daily, relentless, face-to-face basis.

In "Masters of Death," Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," tackles a subject so gruesome that even most World War II historians have shied away from it: Hitler's Einsatzgruppen (special task forces), the human killing machines unleashed upon Eastern Europe and Russia before the invention of the death camps.

"The notorious gas chambers and crematoria of the death camps have come to typify the Holocaust, but in fact they were exceptional," Rhodes reminds us. "Shooting was not less efficient than gassing, as many historians have assumed. It was harder on the shooters' nerves, and the gas vans and chambers alleviated the burden."

In making the significant distinction between the various means by which Eastern Europe's Jews were annihilated, and the assembly-line death machines that later were built to kill the Jews of Western Europe, Rhodes demonstrates how the progress of the Eastern Front murders directly affected how the Western murders were approached. This, at least, makes the death camps a little easier to understand. But with his straightforward presentation of the details surrounding millions of local murders, he also proves that evil on a face-to-face level cannot ever be banal.

In Eastern Europe, the Einsatzgruppen had to line up their Jews in groups of 10 to 50 in order to shoot them and sometimes, for convenience, had them climb into the ditches that would be their common grave, where they were forced to lie down on top of the bleeding bodies of the already dead and near-dead, to await their own bullet in the neck.

Thousands of people were responsible for carrying out these orders, and many of them did so with increasing relish. Paul Blobel, a former architect, was in charge of the task force that murdered 34,000 people in two days, then dumped them into the canyon-like ditch at Babi Yar; Karl Jager, in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, reported killing 137,346 in five months.

But there was a problem. "Many of the men assigned to mass killing found it difficult to do," Rhodes writes. "Holocaust survivors and historians have often (and understandably) greeted assertions of such difficulty with skepticism and contempt, but the evidence is sufficiently widespread and detailed to be creditable. And surely any indication that slaughter is challenging and takes its toll on the slaughterers ought to be welcomed, if only as ironic justice. Dismissing perpetrators as inhuman monsters rather than human criminals positions genocidal killing beyond comprehension, beyond prevention or repair."

A report by Eastern Territories Commander Johannes Blaskowitz in 1939, during the earliest massacres in Poland, was prophetic: "The worst damage affecting Germans ... is the tremendous brutalization and moral depravity which is spreading rapidly among precious German manpower like an epidemic." By the fall of 1941, the Nazi leadership was faced with a growing number of men who had succumbed to outright sadism, or nervous breakdowns or both. This led Heinrich Himmler to begin experimenting with plans for eliminating large numbers of Jews simultaneously, in order to spare German boys the stress of murdering thousands and millions, one by one. Himmler, Rhodes writes, spent much time "rooting around among the methods colonial powers had used against indigenous native populations (reservations, expulsions into inhospitable regions, leadership decapitation, harsh slave labor)."

But other, more innovative methods were also used. Near Odessa, for instance, several thousand people were locked into a barn that was then blown up with dynamite. And, according to testimony at Nuremberg, "144,000 peaceful citizens were gathered on barges, taken out to sea and drowned."

In mid-November of 1941, in the western Polish town of Konin, an unknown number of men, women and children (the total death count for all of Konin was 8,000) were thrown into a pit lined with quicklime. Trucks drove up with hoses, which pumped water into the pits. The water and quicklime combined to become a powerful caustic; one witness thought the Jews in the pit were boiling to death. Actually, "although the slaking process liberates a great deal of heat," Rhodes grimly clarifies, over the next few hours "they were chemically burned to death and partly dissolved."

This apparent attempt to combine the killing and corpse processing into one operation was not repeated; Rhodes guesses it was because the screams were so terrible, "the suffering of the victims was so extraordinary that it disturbed even perpetrators hardened by months of participation in mass shootings."

August Becker, who helped develop the notorious mobile gas vans, testified at Nuremberg that by December 1941, "the psychological and moral stress on the firing squads was no longer bearable (for the murderers) and ... therefore the gassing program had been started." This, in turn, led to the decision to build stationary killing centers, and on March 17, 1942, "routine extermination of Polish Jews began at Belzec."

In this context, ironically, it can be shown that Auschwitz and the other death camps were actually a humanitarian decision — not for the murder victims but for their killers, who could now, for the most part, assign the killing, looting and burning of the corpses to other prisoners.

"The extent to which any one of the many criminals was close to or remote from the actual killer of the victim means nothing, as far as the measure of his responsibility is concerned," said the judgment of the Jerusalem court that sentenced Eichmann to death in 1960. "On the contrary, in general the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands."

The further away we draw from the man who uses the fatal instrument, of course, the less visible the crime and the easier it is to transform murder into columns on paper and train schedules.

On the Einsatzgruppen level, however, it could not be transformed into numbers or disguised by euphemisms. It was real. It was in their faces. It was having to be splashed with brains and gore, hour after hour; it was having to rip screaming children from the arms of their mothers and throw them up in the air in order to shoot them, "not because of boyish exuberance, one of the killers explained, but because the bullets often passed completely through the children's bodies, so that shooting children on the floor or the street risked dangerous ricochets."

No, not banal.

"Masters of Death" is extremely difficult to read, even for those who think themselves inured to, or at least conversant with, the horror. It's a point that Rhodes addresses in his introduction, but I will leave it as a last word: "You may well ask why you should submit yourself to the experience of reading about such events.... The answer that made the most sense to me personally [is that] these victims herded to their deaths deserved written witness.... The least I could do, it seemed to me, was work out a narrative of Einsatzgruppen crimes, and if reading about those crimes was painful, it did not even remotely compare to what the victims went through."

Nan Goldberg, a writer who lives on Cape Cod, has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Salon, The New York Observer and The Boston Globe.


June 9, 2002                             

Juxtaposed with history

     By Richard Rhodes
     Knopf, $27.50, 335 pages, illus.

     In April of 1945, as Gen. George Patton's Third Army troops were driving eastward along the German autobahn between Eisenach and Jena, they encountered several Nazi slave-labor camps, among them Ordruf and Buchenwald. As a lieutenant, I was one of the American soldiers who visited Buchenwald shortly after its liberation and witnessed the atrocities the Nazis had committed. I found myself wondering how supposedly civilized human beings could be brought to inflict such cruelties on their fellow men. Other Americans felt the same way. In "Masters of Death," Richard Rhodes attempts to analyze how all this came about.
     Mr. Rhodes tells his story on two levels. One is the sequential history of the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of some six million European Jews, three million Poles, seven million Soviet civilians, and over three million Soviet prisoners of war. Though most of us see the Holocaust as practically synonymous with the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka, only a little over half of the Jewish victims died by that method of execution. The primary means of mass murder, the author tells us, were firearms and lethal privation.
     "The Schutzstaffel (SS), or Secret Police, which had existed in Germany as an independent organization under Adolf Hitler since 1934, was headed by Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler. When Hitler moved into Poland in September, 1939, units of SS troops, called Einsatzgruppen (task forces) were ready to do their dirty work. Small groups of SS troops rode in distinctive blue buses from town to town in Poland and the Baltic states, clearing out partisans and Jews and executing them in mass graves dug by the local population.
     "Remarkable in this phase of the extermination process was the cooperation exhibited by the local non-Jewish Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles. Even the victims themselves cooperated in a way by showing a remarkable docility in marching to the edge of their future mass graves. Later, in a refinement of the process, many cooperated by actually jumping into the graves ahead of time and lying face down on the mutilated corpses of their predecessors, awaiting their own turn to be killed by machine gun or pistol bullets."
     Some of the most macabre scenes of the book come from this phase of the Holocaust. Since the executioners were pressed for time, they sometimes did an incomplete job of killing, and various victims were able to escape at night and stagger into town. One German SS soldier encountering such a group, concluded that they "must have crawled out of the graves where the executed are buried." There were hundreds of them, with "blood pouring down their faces, holes in their heads, their hands broken, and their eyes hanging out of their sockets." The SS man was disgusted, but only because the authorities allowed these Jews to "walk about in such a state."
     A little less than two years later, in preparation for Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the Einsatzgruppen were organized more formally. The overall SS organization was broken down into four task forces, one to be assigned in the area of each invading German army. By this time, June of 1941, Himmler had attained an ascendancy over the Wehrmacht in Hitler's eyes — no mean task — and his SS killers were allowed to operate freely in the immediate rear of the combat zones.
      With Barbarossa launched, the Einsatzgruppen continued to distinguish themselves in depravity, so much so that Himmler, witnessing his first mass execution in person, was shocked to the point of setting about to devise a more "humane," impersonal way of killing. Hence an acceleration of the ongoing development of the clean and efficient Polish gas chambers. It was during that same summer of 1941 that the Nazis first instituted "ghettoization," or concentration of Jews in designated areas of the cities.
      Finally, that summer saw Hitler, Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich settled on executing the "final solution," which meant extermination of all Jews in Eastern Europe and the shipping of Jews from Western Europe to Poland, also for eventual extermination. Significantly, even the fanatical Nazis found the movement of Western Jews difficult; in Eastern Europe they had been able to disassociate themselves from the miserable creatures they slaughtered; the German Jews were their neighbors.
     Children of course, had to be killed like adults, because if left to live, they would become adult Jews and Jewesses. Yet killing children was sometimes too much even for SS men, who had children of their own. So they recruited Ukrainians to do that task. As one conscience-stricken executioner later wrote,
     "The Wehrmach had already dug a grave. The Ukranians were standing around trembling. The children were taken down from the tractor. They were lined up along the top of the grave and shot so that they fell into it. The wailing was indescribable. I shall never forget the scene throughout my life. 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."
     The historical progression constitutes one level of this book, but the second, the study of the effects of violence on the victims and the perpetrators, is the area that seems to be of primary interest to the author. He devotes an entire chapter to the nature of violence itself, contrasting "defensive" violence as employed by the military and the police with "aggressive" violence as practiced by the Einsatzgruppen and their indigenous civilian accomplices.
     Mr. Rhodes emphasizes the efforts made by Himmler to prevent the atrocities being committed from causing depravity among the perpetrators themselves. With all their butcheries of defenseless creatures, the SS still managed to look upon themselves as elites, a "caste of noble warriors," meeting the unpleasant but necessary needs of the Fuhrer.
     The fascinating central figure of this book is Heinrich Himmler. Hitler tends to be a secondary figure who, like Himmler, was incapable of committing violence in person but notable principally for his obsession with killing the Jews above all else. As the author puts it, "Murdering the Jews, in Hitler's eyes, was equivalent to winning the war, even if it brought down ruin on Germany." Himmler is far more complicated.
     In person, Himmler was an extremely unimpressive man. In civilian clothes, without his black tunic with silver trimming and polished black boots, he was almost pathetic. Personally he hated the killing. While unwillingly attending a deer hunt, he once remarked, "How can you find pleasure in shooting from behind cover at poor creatures browsing on the edge of a wood, innocent, defenseless, and unsuspecting? Properly considered, it's pure murder." Yet this same man was forced to supervise the mass murder of defenseless humans, which duty he performed because he feared Hitler more than he hated killing:
     "An unfavorable comment by Hitler on one of his measures was enough to upset [Himmler] thoroughly and produce violent reactions which took the form of severe stomach pains . . . Nobody who had not witnessed it would believe a man with such power at his disposal as Himmler had would be in such a state of fear when he was summoned to Hitler. Himmler had nothing in him to counterbalance the effect of Hitler's personality."
     Yet in the end, Himmler succumbed to the violence he himself had sought to avoid by distancing himself from reality. Eventually he even began to develop an almost sexual pleasure from witnessing the killing of women.
     This is not a pleasant book, far from it. It is well written and thoroughly researched, but in the end it leaves the reader with a feeling of depression. The author himself found it difficult to write it, but insists that the victims "deserve written witness." In that Mr. Rhodes has succeeded admirably. He has made the Holocaust not a statistic but a personally harrowing experience.

     John Eisenhower is the author of numerous books on America's wars, starting with "The Bitter Woods" (1969), a story of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. His latest book, "Yanks," the story of the American Army in World War I, was published last year by the Free Press.





Posted on Sun, Jun. 02, 2002

Shot by shot, Hitler's executioners amassed a death list we should not forget

Reviewed by William W. Starr
Copyright The State

MASTERS OF DEATH: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust By Richard Rhodes Alfred A. Knopf, 335 pages, $27.50


In Richard Rhodes' powerfully concise new book, we meet the members of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi killing squads, who massacred more than 2‘million Jews, Poles and Slavs - men, women and children, the elderly, the handicapped - in Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1943. It is a confrontation with evil, a terrible partner to the better-documented Holocaust killings of Jews in Western Europe, which extended until Germany's defeat in 1945.

Rhodes won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," and in this book he continues his authoritative research with a story that is wrenching in human terms.

The gas chambers and crematoriums used so much by Hitler's minions in the latter stages of the war were far more impersonal than the murders perpetrated by the Einsatsgruppen in eastern Europe using pistols and rifles, Rhodes writes. "Shooting was not less efficient than gasing. .‘.‘. It was harder on the shooter's nerves, and the gas vans and chambers alleviated the burden."

Significantly, his book records the murders of not only Jews but hundreds of thousands of Russian civilians and Christian Poles, all deserving of memory.

The man who enforced these killings was Heinrich Himmler, who, even in the eyes of those who worked with him, "cut a sorry figure." He covered his personal cowardice with an exaggerated show of bravado, ordering mass killings from the safety of his desk. He committed suicide at war's end shortly after his capture by the British.

Before then, however, he had enthusiastically followed Hitler's orders to exterminate Jews and others as part of a widespread ethnic cleansing. On the Russian front beginning in the summer of 1941, his Einsatzgruppen followed the German army's invasion, murdering partisans and civilians with growing impunity.

The eyewitness accounts, and in some cases photographs, of these brutalities are dreadful to contemplate. Men, women and children were led into mass graves, one group shot and killed, the next forced to lie on top of those just murdered to await their turn. And so on until the graves were filled with the dead or the almost dead. The process would begin again the next day or the next week.

At Babi Yar near Kiev, the Einsatzgruppen reported a two-day slaughter of 33,771 Jews. At Kiev, a German physician assigned "to destroy life unworthy of life," estimated his group killed more than 100,000 people, an average of more than 500 per day between September 1941 and March 1942.

Curiously, perhaps the most difficult part of this to comprehend are the reports by Nazis that their victims went to their deaths calmly, almost as if they were inevitable. The ugly implication, Rhodes acknowledges, is that the victims deserved blame.

The reasons for such behavior include the paralyzing shock that resulted from the unexpected horrors victims encountered, the difficulty of resistance when stripped naked, the lack of weaponry and - perhaps most important, the author concludes - the civilizing elements of Jewish societies in eastern Europe. Rhodes writes that "Preventive attack, armed resistance and revenge were almost completely absent in Jewish exilic history."

So why tell a story so revolting? Can we learn from reading of yet more Nazi horrors? The answer is simple: May we never be numbed from this kind of industrialized slaughter, for ethnic cleaning remains an issue in our time no less than in World War II. And, even more to the point, how can we possibly forget those who were butchered? They had names. They had families. They had lives. Concludes Rhodes: "Killing sites await memorials all over Eastern Europe."


'Masters' a grim but enlightening chronicle of Nazi death squads

By Scott Bernard Nelson, Globe Staff,  1/8/2002

Richard Rhodes is best known for ''The Making of the Atomic Bomb,'' which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for tracing the development of the deadliest - and arguably most impersonal - killing instrument in human history. In ''Masters of Death,'' he turns his attention to the decidedly more personal stories of German architects and teachers, economists and accountants, who came together to form death squads that ultimately slaughtered 1.3 million men, women, and children in the early years of World War II.

He's not the first historian to chronicle the work of the Einsatzgruppen, task forces organized by Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Nazi Party's infamous SS, to follow the German army into conquered territory and clear it of ''undesirables.'' At least eight other books have explored the role of the Einsatzgruppen in the years from 1938 to 1943, citing many of the same source materials as Rhodes.

What separates ''Masters of Death'' from the earlier works is Rhodes's attempt to put the Einsatzgruppen in the larger context of Adolf Hitler's ''final solution of the Jewish question.'' He builds a strong case that Hitler and Himmler decided to build extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, and elsewhere after efforts to have the Einsatzgruppen kill every Jew and ''enemy partisan'' under their control began to have unanticipated effects on the psychology of their men.

Even among the ranks of the hardened and ardently anti-Semitic SS troops, shooting, stabbing, and bludgeoning unarmed people into ravines, ditches, pits, and trenches day after day apparently took its toll. Some had nervous breakdowns and were sent home, while others devolved into animalistic killing machines who took increasing pleasure in devising hellish ways to commit murder. Either way, they ceased to be the disciplined and unemotional shock troops Himmler claimed he wanted in the ranks.

One Einsatzgruppen member was documented bayoneting a toddler and singing German anthems while he carried the still-squirming child around a village on the end of a gun. The leader of another detachment had a habit of herding people into barns, lighting the buildings on fire, and using machine-gun emplacements to mow down anyone who tried to escape. Other SS men made a game of tossing babies and children in the air and trying to kill them before they hit the ground.

Most of the mass murder Rhodes documents, though, involved lining up tens of thousands of people and shooting them into various types of pits. It was horrendous business that more often than not required the killers to look their victims in the face before murdering them. As Rhodes makes clear with his penchant for painful details, the executioners often ended up with victims' blood literally on their hands.

It's hard to feel empathy - let alone sympathy - for the men of the Einsatzgruppen, since the true horror belonged to those in the mass graves dotting Poland, Russia, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. But Nazi leaders clearly did worry about the effectiveness of troops forced to kill on such a breathtaking scale, and that fact lends Rhodes's account historical importance.

One Einsatzgruppen member working to clear the Jews out of the region around Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd) reflected in a letter home the stress felt even by SS members who didn't have breakdowns. ''We have to eat and drink well because of the nature of our work, otherwise we would crack up,'' he wrote in 1942. ''It's not very pleasant stuff. I would far rather sleep.''

To minimize such strain, Himmler ordered the Einsatzgruppen to begin investigating alternative killing methods in 1941. Among others, these involved dynamiting people inside closed bunkers, melting people in pits filled with calcium hydroxide, and, most notably, gassing people to death inside vans that could be driven from site to site.

Eventually, of course, that experimentation led to the creation of fixed extermination camps that could receive and then gas trainloads of Jews, Russians, Poles, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, gay men, the handicapped, and others identified as undesirable by the Nazi leadership. The camps essentially finished the nasty work the Einsatzgruppen started, combining with the death squads to kill more than 9 million people - 6 million of them Jews - in the worst genocide in history.

Appropriately, ''Masters of Death'' is a difficult read. As Rhodes writes in the introduction, ''The story of the Einsatzgruppen is almost unrelievedly grim,'' and so is the book dedicated to them. An unrelenting series of gruesome details about various acts of mass murder will harden the hearts of all but the most jaded readers.

Ukrainian Jew Israel Goldfliess, one of the few in his village who escaped a sweep by the Einsatzgruppen, wrote in a 1944 letter to his sister, ''When I remember all our suffering - the terrible shocking tragedy! - it is so awful, savage, dreadful that there is no prophet or writer who ever described, even in his imagination at its richest, such a horrible reality.'' Rhodes comes, perhaps, as close as a writer can.

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust

By Richard Rhodes

Knopf,337 pp., illustrated, $27.50

This story ran on page C16 of the Boston Globe on 1/8/2002.



Aug. 2, 2002, 1:58PM

Opening act to Holocaust



The SS-Einsatzgruppen
and the Invention of the Holocaust.
By Richard Rhodes.
Knopf, $27.50; 352 pp.


RICHARD Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner for The Making of the Atomic Bomb and author of 18 other books, including Dark Sun and Why They Kill, has written a powerful new work.

Masters of Death follows the murderous trail of Hitler's special task forces -- in German, Einsatzgruppen -- organized by SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler ("Even the child in the cradle must be trampled down like a poisonous toad") and his second in command, Reinhard Heydrich, the "Blond Beast."

The purpose of these task forces, Rhodes explains, was "to follow behind the German Army as it advanced into eastern Poland and the western ... Soviet Union" and "to murder Jews, not indirectly by herding them into gas chambers but directly by shooting them into antitank ditches, natural ravines or pits."

In this manner, from June 1941 until the end of 1942, the Einsatzgruppen succeeded in killing 1.5 million Jews and 500,000 non-Jews, the first step in Hitler's larger, far more grandiose plan to free up Russia for German colonization and to exterminate the more than 30 million Slavs and other ethnic groups who lived there.

Masters of Death is an assiduously researched book that draws extensively on Nuremburg Tribunal documents and newly available, detailed material from eyewitnesses and survivors. It contains uncomfortably vivid descriptions not for the squeamish reader.

For instance, Rhodes relates observations of minor SS bureaucrat August Meier, who witnessed the execution of 100 Jews in the western Ukrainian town of Scheptovka in late July 1941. Meier states: "The Jews had to lie layer upon layer in an open grave and were then killed with neck shots from machine pistols, pistols and rifles. That meant they had to lie face down on those previously shot."

Einsatzgruppen leader Friedrich Jeckeln, who personally commanded mass killings in the western Ukraine, invented this stacking method of execution, Meier tells us. Jeckeln called it Sardinenpackung -- sardine packing.

The Einsatzgruppen operated similarly in Lithuania. On Sept. 11, 1941, in the town of Ponary, according to schoolteacher/survivor Sima Katz, she and hundreds of other women were taken by truck into a forest, "from which came the sound of shooting."

"Suddenly," Katz relates, "the truth hit us like an electric shock. The women broke out in piteous pleas to the sentries, offering them rings and watches. Some fell to the ground and kissed sentries' boots, others tore their hair and clothes -- to no avail."

After the execution volley rang out, Katz found herself "crushed by many bodies. ... I opened my eyes; a young man was sprinkling us with quicklime. I was lying in a huge common grave" hearing the "moans and sounds of dying people."

After nightfall, holding a surviving child in her arms, she fled the site "smeared with blood and burnt from the quicklime."

The horror stories roll on and on in Rhodes' searing history.

Rhodes later tells us the face-to-face mass killings took a psychological toll on the killers. As more and more SS and Einsatzgruppen murderers became sickened by their gruesome tasks, Himmler set up special mental hospitals and rest camps to help them cope.

The author makes an earnest effort to explain psychologically how the Einsatzgruppen soldiers became such coldblooded killers. Relying heavily on the research of American criminologist Lonnie Athens, he concludes that a person can become a murderer incrementally through a four-step violent socialization process that includes brutalization and violent performances. Hitler's own upbringing, in which he was frequently beaten by his father, is a case in point, Rhodes maintains.

It was at the January 1942 Wannsee Conference that Hitler, realizing that millions more Jews must be exterminated after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, implicitly ordered the full implementation of the Final Solution -- the complete eradication of Jewry from the European continent, Rhodes writes. The Einsatzgruppen would have to make way for the Holocaust's more efficient, more "sanitized" means of execution -- the gas chambers and crematoriums of the death camps.

A great deal has been written about the Holocaust over the past 57 years, but Masters of Death, focusing on the Einsatzgruppen's horrific exploits in the early part of the war and vividly using newly available eyewitness accounts, greatly expands our knowledge of this dark period. While much of the material is certainly repellent, Masters of Death is nevertheless not only an important work but a morally necessary one.

Chris Patsilelis is a reviewer in Hamden, Conn.




'Masters of Death'





Chapter One

 Eastward from Pretzsch


In the spring of 1941 a police academy in Pretzsch, a town on the Elbe River about fifty miles southwest of Berlin, became the site of a sinister assembly. Several thousand men from the ranks of the SS-the Nazi Party's Schutzstaffel, or defense echelon, a police and security service that answered directly to Adolf Hitler and operated outside the constraints of German law-were ordered to report to Pretzsch for training and assignment. They were not told what their assignment would be, but their commonalities offered a clue: many of them had served in SS detachments in Poland, which Germany had invaded and occupied in 1939, and preference was given to men who spoke Russian.

Assignment to Pretzsch emptied the SS leadership school in Berlin-Charlottenburg and depleted the professional examination course of an SS criminal division. It drew in lower- and middle-ranking officers of the Security Police (the Gestapo and the criminal police), some of them passed on gratefully by their home regiments because they were considered too wild. The Waffen-SS, the small but growing SS army, contributed enlisted men. High-ranking bureaucrats within the shadowy Reich Security Main Office,* an internal SS security agency, were posted to Pretzsch as well. They had been handpicked for leadership positions by Obergruppenführer  Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the RSHA and the second most powerful man in the SS, and his superior Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS. Most of these handpicked leaders were lawyers, and a few were physicians or educators; most had earned doctoral degrees. Among the more exotic specimens were Otto Ohlendorf, a handsome but argumentative young economist who had fallen into disfavor with Himmler; Paul Blobel, a rawboned, highstrung, frequently drunken architect; Arthur Nebe, a former vice squad detective and Gestapo head who had enthusiastically volunteered; and Karl Jäger, a brutal fifty-three-year-old secret police commander. A reserve battalion of the regular German Order Police (uniformed urban, rural and municipal police) completed the Pretzsch roster.

Soon the men learned that they would be assigned to an Einsatzgruppe-a task force. Einsatz units-groups and commandos-had followed the German army into Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland when Germany had invaded those countries successively in 1938 and 1939. Einsatzgruppen secured occupied territories in advance of civilian administrators. They confiscated weapons and gathered incriminating documents, tracked down and arrested people the SS considered politically unreliable-and systematically murdered the occupied country's political, educational, religious and intellectual leadership. Since Germany had concluded a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in August 1939, many of the candidates at Pretzsch assumed they would be assigned to follow the Wehrmacht into England. Some of them had previously trained to just that end.


By the spring of 1941, Poland had already been decapitated. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and later his munitions and armament minister, remembered that on the night of 21 August 1939, when news of Josef Stalin's agreement to the nonaggression pact had settled Hitler's decision to invade Poland, the Führer and his entourage had drifted out onto the terrace of his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg to watch a rare display of Northern Lights vermilioning the mountain across the valley. "The last act of Götterdämmerung could not have been more effectively staged," Speer writes. "The same red light bathed our faces and our hands. The display produced a curiously pensive mood among us. Abruptly turning to one of his military adjutants, Hitler said: 'Looks like a great deal of blood. This time we won't bring it off without violence.' "

The next day the Führer belabored the generals and field marshals of the Wehrmacht for hours with an impassioned harangue. He told them Germany needed room to expand and as a buffer against the Russians. Therefore he meant not merely to occupy Poland but also to destroy it; in its place a new German eastern frontier would arise. "The idea of treating war as anything other than the harshest means of settling questions of very existence is ridiculous," he challenged the army commanders. "Every war costs blood, and the smell of blood arouses in man all the instincts which have lain within us since the beginning of the world: deeds of violence, the intoxication of murder, and many other things. Everything else is empty babble. A humane war exists only in bloodless brains." A field marshal who attended the conference reported Hitler warning them "that he would proceed against the Poles after the end of the campaign with relentless vigor. Things would happen which would not be to the taste of the German generals." The field marshal understood the warning to mean "the destruction of the Polish intelligentsia, in particular the priesthood, by the SS."

When Germany had attacked Poland on 1 September 1939, beginning the Second World War in Europe, five Einsatzgruppen that Heydrich had organized followed behind the five invading Wehrmacht armies, each group subdivided into four Einsatzkommandos of 100 to 150 men. These advance cadres were augmented with Order Police battalions, Totenkopf* concentration-camp guard regiments and Waffen-SS, producing a combined SS force approaching twenty thousand men. The commander of one of the Polish Einsatzgruppen in 1939, Bruno Streckenbach, would become the head of SS personnel responsible for recruiting the new Einsatzgruppen forming at Pretzsch in May 1941.

Himmler's SS was famously thorough. Heydrich, a tall, horse-faced, sneering former naval officer whom even his own subordinates called "the blond beast," had started his career organizing elaborate card indexes on Nazi Party enemies, a system Hitler had instituted in the early days of the party to keep tabs on his own supporters. If the Einsatzgruppen in Poland followed standard SS practice, the lists Heydrich's staff compiled of Polish enemies would serve them well. An SS officer on a later mission to the Caucasus describes how the system worked:


As a group leader I was sent supplementary documentation. By far the most valuable was a slim little book, part of a limited, numbered edition, which I never let out of my sight. The typeface was tiny, I remember, and the paper was extra thin, in order to pack the most information into the smallest possible space. . . . It consisted of a series of lists, including the names of every active member of the Communist party in the Caucasus, all the nonparty intelligentsia, and listings of scholars, teachers, writers and journalists, priests, public officials, upwardly mobile peasants, and the most prominent industrialists and bankers. [It contained] addresses and telephone numbers. . . . And that wasn't all. There were additional listings of relatives and friends, in case any subversive scum tried to hide, plus physical descriptions, and in some cases photographs. You can imagine what the size of that book would have been if it had been printed normally.


All these categories of people in Poland, and the Polish nobility as well, were marked for murder. During the first weeks after the invasion, while the Wehrmacht still controlled the occupied areas, a historian of the Polish experience summarizes, "531 towns and villages were burned; the provinces of Lodz and Warsaw suffered the heaviest losses. Various branches of the army and police [i.e., Himmler's legions] carried out 714 [mass] executions, which took the lives of 16,376 people, most of whom were Polish Christians. The Wehrmacht committed approximately 60 percent of these crimes, with the police responsible for the remainder." The historian cites an Englishwoman's eyewitness account of executions in the Polish town of Bydgoszcz:


The first victims of the campaign were a number of Boy Scouts, from twelve to sixteen years of age, who were set up in the marketplace against a wall and shot. No reason was given. A devoted priest who rushed to administer the Last Sacrament was shot too. He received five wounds. A Pole said afterwards that the sight of those children lying dead was the most piteous of all the horrors he saw. That week the murders continued. Thirty-four of the leading tradespeople and merchants of the town were shot, and many other leading citizens. The square was surrounded by troops with machine-guns.


Three weeks after invading Poland, the Wehrmacht washed its hands of further responsibility for the decapitation, leaving the field to the specialists of the SS. Heydrich met with Quartermaster General Eduard Wagner to agree on an SS "cleanup once and for all" of "Jews, intelligentsia, clergy, nobility." Heydrich then wrote the Einsatzgruppen commanders specifically concerning the "Jewish question in the occupied territory." Cautioning strict secrecy, he distinguished between "the ultimate aim (which will take some time [to accomplish])," and "interim measures (which can be carried out within a shorter period of time)." In the short term, Jews living in territories in western Poland scheduled to be annexed to Germany were to be "cleared" by shipping them eastward; Jews in the remainder of Poland were to be concentrated into ghettos in towns with good railroad connections. Heydrich's letter did not specify what measures the "ultimate aim" would require. Long after the war, when Adolf Eichmann saw this 1939 document, he concluded that it embodied the "basic conception" of "the order concerning the physical extermination of the Jews" of the occupied territories. Large numbers of Polish Jews were murdered in any case, because they were politically suspect for reasons other than their religion; at this early point in time, Heydrich was basically assigning his Einsatzgruppen the transitional task of bringing the Jewish population of Poland under SS control.

An incident in the town of Wloclawek during the last week of September was unusual only in its conflict between authorities. A Totenkopf unit had arrested eight hundred Jewish men. Some of them had been "auf der Flucht erschossen"-"shot while trying to escape"-a standard euphemism for extrajudicial killing in the concentration camps guarded by Totenkopf regiments. The SS unit leader had planned to arrest every Jewish male in town, but the local Wehrmacht commander had overruled him. "They will all be shot in any case," the SS leader had countered. In his innocence the commander had responded, "The Führer can hardly intend us to shoot all the Jews!" Warsaw fell on 28 September 1939, and the day before, Heydrich could already report that "of the Polish leadership, there remained in the occupied area at most 3 percent."

SS brutality in Poland descended to unadorned slaughter in October, when Himmler extended executions to the mentally and physically disabled. The so-called euthanasia program was just beginning in Germany, to be directed initially against children, but the first SS killings preceded any euthanasia murders. The SS's victims were German, removed from hospitals and nursing homes in the Prussian province of Pomerania and transported by train across the border into occupied Poland. The euthanasia program in Germany had to proceed by stealth, but occupied territory was no-man's-land, beyond German law and public scrutiny. Just as it would be easier to murder Jews in the subjugated lands east of Germany, so it was easier to murder the disabled there, including German citizens.

A large SS regiment had been resident in the Free City of Danzig before the war, commanded by SS Sturmbannführer* Kurt Eimann. Eimann recruited several thousand members of the regiment into an auxiliary police unit that bore his name. Late in October 1939, the Pomeranian disabled were crowded into cattle cars and shipped into occupied Poland. The Eimann Battalion met the train at the railroad station in the town of Neustadt. In a nearby forest, Polish political prisoners labored to dig killing pits to serve as mass graves. Trucks delivered the disabled to the forest. The first victim was a woman about fifty years old; Eimann personally dispatched her with a Genickshuss, a shot in the neck from behind at the point where the spinal cord enters the skull. Historian Henry Friedlander quotes from postwar trial testimony: "In front of the pit [Eimann] shot the woman through the base of the skull. The woman, who had walked in front of him without suspecting anything, was instantaneously killed and fell into the pit." During November 1939, further victims were transported from Danzig, filling the Neustadt pits with some 3,500 bodies. To eliminate witnesses, Eimann had the political prisoners who dug the pits murdered and the pits covered with dirt.

Friedlander found that essentially all the disabled in the Polish districts annexed to the Third Reich were shot into mass graves: 1,172 psychiatric patients in Tiegenhof beginning on 7 December 1939, for example; 420 psychiatric patients from the hospital in Chelm, near Lublin, on 12 January 1940. A Sonderkommando* formed of German security police from Posen and Lodz by an Einsatzgruppe leader, Herbert Lange, used moving vans fitted with tanks of pure carbon monoxide to murder patients throughout a former Polish province that was annexed to Germany as Wartheland. "After killing handicapped patients in 1940," Friedlander adds, "the [Lange commando] possibly also killed Jews in the small villages of the Wartheland with these early gas vans." "Little by little we were taught all these things," Eichmann would explain without apology. "We grew into them."

A secret annex to Germany's non aggression pact with the Soviet Union had divided Poland between the two powers. To claim Russia's share of the spoils, the Red Army had invaded Poland from the east on 17 September 1939. Hitler assigned Himmler the work of expelling eastward more than eight million non-Germans from what had been western Poland and moving ethnic Germans westward out of the Soviet-occupied Baltic states to settle in their place. To launch the grandiose winnowing, Himmler ordered Eichmann to organize transportation for a half million Jews and another half million Gentile Poles. "I had to set up guidelines for implementation," Eichmann recalled, "because those were the Reichsführer's orders. For instance, he said, 'No one is to take any more with him than the Germans who were driven out by the French.' After the First World War, he meant, from Alsace-Lorraine, or later from the Rhineland and the Ruhr. I had to find out; at that time, fifty kilos of luggage were allowed [per person]." Himmler issued his expulsion order on 30 October 1939, setting February 1940 as a deadline. After 15 November 1939, the entire railway network of the area of occupied Poland that the Germans had named the General Government-central and southern Poland-was reserved for resettlement transports. Trainloads of Jewish and Gentile Poles began moving east in December. The victims were dumped in the General Government in the middle of Polish winter with no provision for food or shelter. An uncounted number died of exposure or starved, results that led the newly appointed and histrionic head of the General Government, Hans Frank, formerly Hitler's personal lawyer, to declare in a public speech, "What a pleasure, finally to be able to tackle the Jewish race physically. The more that die, the better." Himmler himself alluded to the devastating consequences of resettlement in a speech the following autumn to one of his battalions, bragging that Poland had been the place...