The German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, or Operation Barbarossa, coincided with a massive attack—a killing campaign—on the Jewish population of Europe. This wasn’t a coincidence. Hitler and the Nazi leaders of Germany decided that a large-scale war would be the optimal cover for the slaughter of innocents. For the Nazis this attack represented non only a conquest of living space for the Aryan race (Lebensraum), but also an epic war of civilizations, which Hitler described as “the decisive confrontation between two completely opposing world-views, with mass annihilation to prevent the recurrence of these ideologies” (see Israel Gutman, Resistance. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994, 99).
Germany invested a huge force into this attack: 121 military divisions, including three thousand airplanes. Hitler placed one division in particular in charge of the mass murder of civilians: the Einsatzgruppen (or “task forces”). They were the death squads the Nazis sent to occupied Poland to “purify” Eastern Europe of Jews. Initially followers of the regular army, the Einsatzgruppen were placed in 1941 under the authority of the SS. Subsequently, they became much more effective at mass murder.
The killing units received orders from Reinhardt Heydrich (Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, including the Gestapo) and Bruno Streckenbach (Department Head of the Central Security Office of the Reich) to “wipe out” the Jews of the occupied territories. Israel Gutman documents in Resistance that between 1941 and 1943, the Einsatzgruppen hunted down and murdered approximately 1,250,000 Jews with remarkable sang froid and efficiency. Nobody was safe. Men, women, children and even infants; the rich and the poor; those living in large cities like Warsaw and those living in small villages: they were all pursued and killed by these butchers.
The killers literally hunted their victims—relying upon a network of local informants and collaborators—then usually took them into a forest. There, they lined them up in front of trenches already dug up, quite often, by the victims ahead of them. They ordered them to remove their possessions (watches, jewelry) and clothes, then shot them in the back of the neck. Such trenches became, for over a million innocent people, an anonymous mass grave.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspect of this mass slaughter of innocents is the callousness of the Einsatzgruppen, who were usually ordinary people transformed by the Nazi regime into remorseless killers. They were not a group of sadists especially selected for this gruesome and cruel task. Most were “regular” Germans, joining the death squads from every enclave of society. Many, including some of their leading commanders, were educated individuals. Otto Ohlendorf, for instance, studied law and economics at the University of Leipzig and University of Gottingen. He earned a doctorate of jurisprudence and became the Director of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy before assuming his role as Commanding Officer of Einsatzgruppe D. This cultivated man led the mass murders in Moldova, the Ukraine, Crimea and the north Caucus. At the Nuremberg trials, he justified the murder of infants and children by saying that they’d grow up to avenge the deaths of their parents. Like many Nazi leaders placed on trial for genocide, he expressed no remorse.
The role of the Einsatzgruppen eventually became supplanted by the killing centers: the death camps set up for the sole purpose of killing Jews, communist prisoners and other categories of people the Nazis viewed as “enemies” or “sub-human”. Israel Gutman describes the increasing subjection of Jews in Europe by the Nazis in terms of a three-fold process:
“One must view the first stage of the destruction of the Jews of Europe by the Einsatzgruppen as the transition from the system of terror, persecution, and severe oppression that preceded it to the indiscriminate all-inclusive murder from which only those who were needed for work in the concentration camps were exempted. The killing process was soon further refined by a natural evolution from mobile killing units, in which the killers were sent after the victims, to death camps, in which the victim was sent to the killer.” (Resistance, 102)
One wonders about the thinking process of the “ordinary men” employed in the Einsatzgruppen. Unlike most Germans that participated, in one way or another, in the Holocaust, they couldn’t distance themselves from the killings. Consequently, they couldn’t render it, like Adolf Eichmann and so many other officials, an abstract bureaucratic process. They were as directly involved as possible in the annihilation of European Jews, actually perpetrating the mass murders. Furthermore, unlike soldiers, they didn’t fight an armed enemy. They attacked in a calculated, predatory fashion defenseless men, women and children. In some ways, the evil they committed defies explanation. The Einsatzgruppen are perhaps the most vivid proof that, in a totalitarian society bent on hatred and destruction, genocide can be perpetrated by “ordinary individuals” on a scale of cruelty and horror that is almost unimaginable.