The Practice of Murder

Up until the start of the war the National Socialists employed discrimination, persecution and expropriation to eliminate Jews from economic life in the Reich and force them to emigrate. Once the war broke out, a marked radicalisation took place, with violence and terror characterising the German occupation in Poland where German policemen and soldiers murdered large numbers of Jews and Poles directly after the conflict began. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, mass murder became a practicable option for “solving” the “Jewish Question”. The goal of the Nazi regime was to create new living space ("Lebensraum") for the “Aryan master race” in the East and, in keeping with their racial ideology, to eradicate “inferior” peoples such as Jews and Slavs. With the German occupation of territories in Eastern Europe, a large percentage of Europe’s Jews fell into their hands.

The murders committed by the mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) and their helpers

The mobile killing units of the Security Police and Security Service (Sicherheitspolizei and SD) were ideologically-trained “special units” given the broadly interpretable task of taking action against “all anti-Reich and -German elements”. These units committed countless murders in a frenzy of violence, in 1939 in Poland, and starting in 1941 in the Baltic states and afterwards in the Soviet Union. Beginning in September 1939, these mobile killing units, supported by police and regular army personnel, rounded up members of the Polish elite, including some 7 000 Jews, as well as priests and mentally ill and disabled persons and sent them to concentration camps. Many were shot dead. [Document D02]

The course of action taken against the despised “Eastern Jews” (“Ostjuden”) was even more severe than against the Jews in occupied Central and Western Europe. Beginning in October 1939, ghettos were set up in the so-called General Government and the Polish territories incorporated into the Reich; here Jews were forced to live cramped together in catastrophic conditions (see "Ghetto" unit). Eastern Poland (including East Galicia), initially occupied by the Soviets, came under German rule in the summer of 1941. At the beginning of the mass shootings in Poland in September 1939, some army officers protested against the massacres.

After a discussion with General Walther von Brauchitsch of the Armed Forces High Command, Reinhard Heydrich eventually secured greater autonomy from the military administration in Poland for the mobile killing units. After Hitler dispensed the mobile killing units from army jurisdiction in October 1939, the way was now free for them to act unchecked. The result was a marked radicalisation in their operations: the numbers of those murdered rose increasingly, with an estimated 60 000 to 80 000 Poles murdered in the period from the outbreak of the war to October 1940.

The German occupation proved similarly brutal in South-Eastern Europe from April 1941, in particular in Serbia and Greece. Here, too, the mobile killing units were to eradicate undesirable sections of the population: “emigrants, saboteurs, terrorists” and, above all, “communists and Jews”. In Serbia, Jewish and Serbian Roma men were interned and held liable - for every German killed there, sometimes hundreds of these prisoners were killed in revenge. In a report dated 13 October 1941, Lieutenant Liepe described the exact procedure for mass executions in Belgrade, which were declared reprisals for attacks by partisans. [Document D03]

The German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 marked the start of the war of extermination against the Slavic and Jewish populations in the occupied Soviet territories, which the Nazis propagated as a war of ideology (Weltanschauungskrieg) against “Jewish bolshevism”. As early as 24 June, Security Service and Gestapo personnel rounded up and shot 201 Jews in the Lithuanian town of Garsden. That was just the beginning. At first the mobile killing units murdered mainly male adults; in August 1941 they proceeded to kill women and children as well. [Document D04 and Document D05]

Between August and October 1941 the killing units crossed the threshold from terror to genocide. They began to completely exterminate large Jewish communities. One of the largest massacres took place at the end of September 1941 at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev. Over 33 000 Jews were shot here, many of them tormented before their execution by having to dig their own graves and strip naked. (see unit "The Holocaust in Ukraine") The mobile killing units of the Security Police and SD worked closely with the Army High Command, military administrations and local authorities in planning and carrying out these massacres.

Hundreds of thousands, mainly Jews, were shot by the mobile killing squads and their accomplices. The Chief of the Criminal Police and head of Task Force B (Einsatzgruppe B), Arthur Nebe, was responsible for around 40 000 murders, while Otto Ohlendorf, head of Task Force D, oversaw some 90 000 executions. [Document D06]

One example of the efficient cooperation between military commanders and responsible figures from the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) was the massacre at Simferopol (Crimea) in December 1941, where the Jewish, Krymchak and Roma population was exterminated in mass shootings. Estimates put the numbers of Jewish victims at 10 600, Krymchaks at 1 500 and 600 to 1 000 Roma.

By the end of the war, at least 270 000 Jews had been killed in the Baltic countries, some 500 000 in Byelorussia, around 1.5 million in Ukraine (in its modern borders), on Russian territory it had been around 80 000 and from Bessarabia and northern Bukovina over 104 000. In addition, the German Army sent tens of thousands of Jewish POWs in their custody to certain death. Overall, 2.5 million Jews who had lived within the borders of the Soviet Union at the time of the German invasion or were subsequently deported there, lost their lives.


The “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”

The murder of all European Jews was prepared at the turn of the year 1941/1942. Moreover, the “Master Plan East” (“Generalplan Ost”), developed at the same time, entailed the mass deportation of non-Jews from Poland and the Soviet Union. More than a million Soviet POWs had already died under gruesome conditions in Nazi camps. At the Wannsee Conference, Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Security Police, declared that the “Final Solution” was to be implemented through forced labour and mass murder. (see "The decision making process" and the Wannsee-Protocol) Ultimately, the “Final Solution”, originally planned to follow the “final victory” ("Endsieg"), was now brought forward to accommodate the wishes of regional administrators who had complained about the “unpleasant factors” resulting from ghettoization and mass deportation.

Mass murders had long been taking place in Poland, the Baltic countries and occupied Soviet territory. In December 1941 the Chełmno extermination camp, located in the annexed Reichsgau Wartheland, became the first of six large death factories (see also the unit „Camps“).

In February/March 1942 the murder operations were gradually extended to the whole of Europe.

Jews deported from France and Slovakia arrived in Poland, while the first goods wagons with Polish Jews entered the extermination camps at Bełżec (from March), Sobibór (May) and Treblinka (July), where they were suffocated in sealed rooms with engine exhaust fumes or shot. “Operation Reinhardt” set the objective of murdering all Jews in the General Government within a year; 1.5 million people were sent to their death directly after arriving in these three camps.

So as to liquidate more people at a faster rate, larger killing facilities and crematoria were built in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The main extermination site for Jews from all over Europe, Auschwitz-Birkenau is often regarded the symbol of the Holocaust. In chambers disguised as showers, the victims were gassed with Zyklon B, which consisted of hydrogen cyanide and produced a gas that disrupts cellular respiration.

The majority of “Eastern Jews” (“Ostjuden”) were murdered by autumn 1942, while most of the ghettos were forcibly disbanded by the spring of 1943. The major exceptions were the ghettos Litzmannstadt/Łódź, Kaunas and Theresienstadt, which existed until 1944 or, as in the case of the latter, until the end of the war (see also "Introduction: Ghettos in German Occupied Eastern Europe").

The Jews still alive in the General Government were to be murdered on 3 November 1943. The planned mass murder was codenamed “Operation Harvest Festival” (“Aktion Erntefest”). To prevent uprisings like those which had taken place in Warsaw, Treblinka and Sobibór, Himmler ordered units of the SS and the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei) to shoot – on one single day – as many Jewish prisoners as possible in the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp as well as the forced labour camps located in Lublin. Within two days 43 000 people were murdered. In his study on the Reserve Police Battalion 101 from Hamburg, Christopher Browning has shown that the perpetrators were not forced to take part. In the summer of 1942 some 500 police reservists from Hamburg were sent to Poland to complete a “special mission”. Upon arrival they were informed that their mission was to track down the Jewish population in Polish villages. The elderly and ill as well as women and children were to be shot immediately, while men capable of work were to be sent to camps. Prior to the operation the commander gave the men the option of opting out should they not feel up to the task; anyone deciding against taking part would be given a different assignment. The perceived group pressure and need to bow to the discipline of comradeship prevailed: only 12 out of almost 500 men opted out.


Reaction of non-German authorities and governments

The level of cooperation with the respective governments and authorities in German-occupied countries varied in relation to carrying out the murder operations.

The deportation of Slovakian Jews, for example, was organised independently by the Tiso government. [Document D07]

Vichy France generally supported the National Socialists in carrying out the murder plans; the Dutch and Belgian authorities also cooperated to varying degrees (see unit "General Introduction Part II"). In Greece Jews were spared in the zones under Italian occupation; deportations began once the Germans took full control in 1943. Deportations from Hungary first began in 1944 due to the late German occupation. (see also the unit "The Decision-Making Process")

Jews from several European countries were deported (mainly) on trains to Auschwitz from mid-1942 on. While those Jews capable of work were sent to various labour camps throughout the Reich, the rest was murdered immediately.

As early as June 1943 the Gestapo, working with units of the Security Police and Security Service (Sicherheitspolizei and Sicherheitsdienst), began to remove any traces of evidence of the murders in Eastern Europe. The corpses of Jews and POWs were exhumed from mass graves by forced labourers and then incinerated. A photo from 1943 shows a small group of Special Unit 1005 (Sonderkommando 1005), which performed this task under the direction of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories primarily in Ukraine and Poland. [Document D08]

Corpses were also cremated in Auschwitz. [Document D09]

In January 1945, with the Red Army approaching, the so-called death marches began. Around 60 000 prisoners were evacuated and forced to march westward; if not shot dead along the way, many died of starvation, illness and sheer exhaustion.

On 27 January 1945 Soviet troops liberated the camps in Auschwitz and found only a few thousand prisoners who had been left behind. Many of them could not be saved despite medical attention. The Austrian actor Peter Sturm was held in a subcamp (Außenlager) of Auschwitz and survived the long death march despite inadequate clothing and provisions. [Document D10]

A total of almost six million Jews had been murdered by the end of the war, less than half of them in the extermination camps. The majority were shot dead outside these camps, tortured to death or died as a result of the catastrophic living conditions in the ghettos and labour camps.

The large majority of those murdered were from Eastern Europe.


The perpetrators

For a long time, it was assumed that the mass murder was a crime committed solely by Germans and a small group of perpetrators. Recent research has fundamentally changed this perception: today it is assumed that there were between 200 000 and 250 000 German and Austrian perpetrators. There was also a large number of foreign offenders who either organised pogroms as members of paramilitary groups or were directly involved in the killings as part of auxiliary police units.

On the German side, the murder operations were carried out by an extensive SS and police apparatus, which included the Gestapo and the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei); in contrast, units of the regular army were responsible in Yugoslavia and some occupied territories of the Soviet Union. The smooth cooperation provided by the German civilian administrations in the various occupied territories was also of considerable importance, for they were directly responsible for persecuting Jews locally. The perpetrators never acted in isolation and were always integrated into a collective of perpetrators where the tasks were clearly assigned. The long-held view that offenders ordered the murders in the extermination camps from behind their desks has been revised by research into the countless execution sites where the majority of the Jewish population in the East were shot dead or gassed by the mobile killing units. In contrast, it was mainly Western and Central European Jews who were murdered in Auschwitz.

The murder operations became all the more radical across different administrative levels and there was no need for a specific “Führer order”. The appropriate propaganda and a setting of the general direction from above sufficed to unleash violence against Jews and other minorities. The perpetrators always had some room for manoeuvre and they could never have been fully controlled by those mainly responsible at the very top of the Nazi regime.


Sonja Schilcher