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THE INVASION OF POLAND AND THE SPECIAL TASK GROUPS

The invasion and occupation of western Poland in September 1939 signalled a major change in German policy towards the Jews. Hitherto, National Socialist racial policies had targeted German Jews: people who were assimilated into mainstream German society, spoke German, and, to a large extent, “looked” German. However, despite their loathing for all things Jewish, Hitler and other senior National Socialists had been forced by institutional constraints and public opinion to make limited concessions towards Germany’s Jews. For instance, they appreciated that there would be an outcry if they unleashed unrestricted attacks on Jewish veterans of the First World War, or on those who had served Germany in the civil service or public life. So the persecution of Germany’s Jews had been pursued carefully, gradually and usually within the framework of German law, debased as it had become. Measures against the Jews had to be given considerable thought in order to stop them rebounding on ethnic Germans, who, for example, might have close business relationships with Jewish partners.

In Poland, the situation was entirely different. The National Socialists regarded the Poles themselves as an inferior race who were deserving of no particular consideration. So the country’s Jews—who made up some 10 per cent of the population of 33 million—were regarded as the lowest of the low: Untermenschen (sub-humans), in National Socialist terms. Their persecution began suddenly, violently and with very little restraint. First, though, the rest of Germany’s eastern neighbour had to be subdued.

As the plans for the invasion of Poland had been finalised in August, Hitler had summoned Himmler to entrust him with a special task. Hitler was not really invading Poland to resolve the issue of the “Free City” of Danzig and the so-called “Polish Corridor,” his pretext for action. In fact, his intention was to destroy Poland and reduce its people to German slaves. This was to be phase one of his drive to acquire Lebensraum (living space) in the East. The main role for the SS and the police would be to cut off the head of the Polish nation by eliminating its ruling class: politicians, clerics, aristocrats and the intelligentsia were all to be liquidated. Hitler knew that the generals of the army would baulk at this task—code-named “Operation Tannenberg”—which was why he handed it over to Himmler and the SS.

Heydrich set up five special task groups of personnel drawn from or seconded to the SD, and commanded by SD officers: Bruno Streckenbach (who had commanded the Hamburg Gestapo), Dr. Emanuel Schäfer, Dr. Herbert Fischer, Lothar Beuthel and Ernst Damzog. These groups were assigned to the five armies of the invasion force, with each being of roughly battalion strength, subdivided into four Einsatzkommandos (special task units) of between 100 and 150 men (equivalent to company strength). Each of these task units was then allocated to an army corps. Two more special task groups were created shortly after the beginning of the invasion, including one commanded by SS-Major General Udo von Woyrsch, which was ordered to follow the German 14th Army into Galicia. Additionally, a battalion of Daluege’s uniformed Order Police joined each army corps, with orders to secure the army’s rear by sweeping up any remnants of the Polish forces bypassed by the rapid army assault.

Although their mission had come directly from Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich felt it necessary to conceal the true nature of their role from the Wehrmacht. As a result, they operated under the cover that they were securing the army’s rear through counterespionage, the arrest of political opponents, the confiscation of weapons and so forth. In fact, both their men and the police battalions unleashed a wave of terror against Poland’s ruling classes. Working from prepared lists, they rounded up their targets, took them to hastily prepared “reception camps” at Stutthof (near Danzig), Muhltal (near Bydgoszcz), Soldau, Torun and Fort VII in Poznan, and then, largely out of sight of the army, executed them. On 27 September, Heydrich reported: “Of the Polish upper classes in the occupied territories, only a maximum of 3% is still present.”1 In other words, tens of thousands of civilians had been murdered in less than a month.

A secondary role for the special task groups was to secure the active military cooperation of the local German population through the formation of local self-defence units. At the onset of the invasion, Poles, particularly in western Prussia, had fallen upon the ethnic German population, driving them from their homes and killing several thousand.2 As soon as the Wehrmacht started to gain the ascendancy, the remaining ethnic Germans demanded revenge. The special task groups gave them the organisation to achieve it.

As we have seen, there was already a German military formation within Danzig: the Home Guard. For the most part, it operated and fought as a military unit “behind enemy lines,” but one of its sub-units, a guard battalion commanded by thirty-nine-year-old SS-Major Kurt Eimann, supported the special task group operating in the Danzig area. Some of Eimann’s men became guards at local POW and concentration camps, including Stutthof, while others formed a mobile killing squad. In early October, they executed thirty or so Polish postal officials who had been captured at the Polish Post Office in Danzig on 1 September (the Polish postal workers had been attempting to resist the German takeover. They surrendered after the—German—Danzig Fire Brigade had pumped petrol into the cellars and ignited it). They were also ordered to “clear” the inmates of a number of Pomeranian asylums that Himmler had designated for other purposes (one of them, at Lauenburg, became a Waffen-SS NCO training school). This involved none of the pseudo-medical procedures that were being employed by T-4. Eimann’s men simply took the patients into some woods and shot them. They were then thrown into ditches dug by prisoners from Stutthof. Once the three thousand patients had been executed, the gravediggers were killed, too, and thrown into their own ditches.3

Asylums in East Prussia were also “cleared,” this time by an SS unit commanded by Herbert Lange and drawn from the guards at the Soldau concentration camp. Between 21 May and 8 June 1940, Lange’s unit murdered some 1,558 mental patients in a gassing van that was disguised as a coffee delivery truck. This caused some strife within the SS. The killings had been ordered by SS-Major General Wilhelm Rediess, the Senior SS and Police Leader in Königsberg, who had promised Lange a “bounty” of ten marks per death. But he reneged on the deal and refused to pay once the murders had been committed. Lange complained to SS-Major General Karl Wolff, Himmler’s adjutant, who eventually secured payment for the unit out of T-4’s coffers.4

The special task groups’ final task was to identify and “concentrate” Poland’s Jewish population. Heydrich held a meeting on 19 September with the army’s Quartermaster General, Eduard Wagner, to thrash out the details of the final “clear-up” of Poland’s Jews, intelligentsia, clergy and nobility. Wagner wanted to keep the army’s hands relatively clean—although he did not object in principle to what was about to happen—so insisted that these measures should begin only once the military had handed over authority to the civilian authorities who were already being lined up to take control of occupied Poland.5 Two days later, Heydrich convened a meeting with senior officers of the RSHA and recalled the heads of the special task groups to give them their instructions. The “concentration” was to be drastic and brutal. Jews were to be cleared from all rural areas, and from the German-speaking parts of Poland—Danzig, West Prussia, Poznan and Polish Upper Silesia—which would be incorporated into the Third Reich as soon as the fighting was over. The uprooted Jewish population was then to be forced into ghettoes in major cities with good railway communications. This latter point was important because the plan, even at this stage, was eventually to push the Jews out of Poland. However, where they would be going had not yet been decided.

At this meeting, Heydrich issued written guidelines to the special task group commanders with regard to the “Jewish question”:

1. Jews to be moved to the towns as soon as possible;

2. Jews to be moved out of the Reich and into Poland;

3. The remaining 30,000 gypsies also to be moved into Poland;

4. Jews in the German territories (that is to say those previously held by Poland) to be systematically deported by goods train.6

Shortly afterwards, these instructions were modified. On 1 October, Himmler personally ordered that the special task groups were to “initiate only preparatory measures” regarding the deportation of Jews. Further action would have to wait for another time.7 There was a second element to this order, too. In an echo of the measures that Eichmann had implemented in Germany and Austria, each Polish Jewish community would be obliged to form a council of “Jewish elders” who would undertake the registration, transportation, maintenance and housing of all Jews under the direct command of the SS.

With fighting between the Wehrmacht and the last remnants of the Polish forces continuing, the thinly stretched special task groups were in no position to do much more than the “preparatory work” specified by Himmler. However, during a raid on a Jewish community centre in Warsaw on 4 October, members of the local special task group identified the chemical engineer Adam Czerniakow as chairman of the community group. He was taken to the newly established Security Police headquarters and told to organise a Jewish council.

By then, special task groups and other units of the SS and Order Police had carried out a number of largely uncoordinated attacks against individual Jews and small communities. For example, on 8 September, von Woyrsch’s task group burned down the synagogue and its neighbouring Jewish residential quarter in the Upper Silesian town of Bedzin. Then, over the next forty-eight hours, they shot as many as five hundred local Jews, including women and children.8 The next day, the same unit torched the synagogue in Katowice. However, systematic persecution of Poland’s Jews did not begin in earnest until after combat operations had ceased at the beginning of October.*

The new civil administration was inaugurated on 26 October. Poland was now divided into five parts, four of which were to be incorporated into the “Greater German Reich,” with a rump state that would officially remain under German occupation for the time being. Two entirely new regions (Gaue) were created: Danzig–West Prussia, the northern part of the “Polish Corridor,” was placed under the former Danzig Regional Leader, Albert Forster;† while the Warthegau, the southern part of the Corridor, centred on the city of Poznan (renamed Posen by the Germans), came under the control of Arthur Greiser.‡ Meanwhile, large parts of formerly Polish territory were incorporated into Regional Leader Erich Koch’s East Prussia and Regional Leader Josef Wagner’s Silesia.§

The Polish rump state was named the Generalgouvernement (General Government) and organised into four districts, centred on Warsaw, Cracow, Radom and Lublin.* One of Hitler’s closest collaborators, Hans Frank, was appointed General Governor. Born in Karlsruhe in 1900, Frank joined the army in 1917 and served in the Free Corps after the war, when he also joined the DAP (forerunner to the NSDAP). He qualified as a lawyer in 1926 and immediately became Hitler’s personal legal adviser. He was elected to the Reichstag in 1930, became Minister of Justice in Bavaria once the National Socialists came to power, and joined the government as Minister without Portfolio in 1934.

Unlike the regional leaders in the newly created regions of Germany, Frank had virtually unlimited power within his domain. While the regional leaders and their administrations were in place to coordinate the activities of central and local government, Frank was answerable only to Hitler. A vain man, he insisted that his officials should obey no orders but his own. However, there were three exceptions to his absolute power: the army, which continued to operate under its own command and had responsibility for dealing with external threats, internal unrest, transport, communications and military procurement; the railway system, which as a strategic asset was directly controlled from Berlin; and the SS and police security apparatus.

As we have seen, in November 1937, the German Ministry of the Interior had created the position of “senior SS and police leader” to coordinate the activities of the SS and the police at military district level during wartime. Himmler had not waited for the war to begin, though, and had appointed the first of these officials in September 1938 “in order to finally ensure the union of the SS and the police in the highest positions of command authority.”9 However, his new appointees had soon caused problems: “the civil administration refused to countenance the intrusion of SS functionaries who had no official place in the police hierarchy and the Reichsführer was compelled to confine his Senior SS and Police Leaders to purely formal representative duties.”10

The situation was very different in Germany’s new eastern colony. Both the newly incorporated territories and the General Government had been entirely deprived of their administrative structures by the German takeover, so there was a vacuum to fill. Himmler appointed SS-Major General Richard Hildebrandt as Senior SS and Police Leader in Danzig–West Prussia; in the Warthegau, he installed SS-Major General Wilhelm Koppe; and for the General Government, his representative in Cracow was SS-Lieutenant General Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger. These appointments, and others which followed as the SS and police network spread across Europe, were of considerable significance. There were relatively few constraints on the freedom of action of the senior SS and police leaders outside pre-war German territory. They exercised direct operational control over SS and police units garrisoned within their area and therefore became key agents in the implementation of occupation policy.

Krüger was a controversial choice: he was hated by many of the “old fighters” for playing a role in the Night of the Long Knives and was also known as “a scandalmonger and a pedant.”11 But that made him just the kind of man Himmler wanted: an SS loyalist who owed his entire career to the National Leader. Frank was alive to the problems created by having an outsider—Himmler—in control of his security apparatus, so he sought to circumvent these by appointing Krüger State Secretary for Security while allowing him to continue in his original role as Senior SS and Police Leader. But this backfired and resulted in several years of antagonism between Himmler and Frank over who was in charge of security within occupied Poland.

As Senior SS and Police Leader for the General Government, Krüger had command authority over the Commander-in-Chief of the Security Police, who controlled roughly two thousand Gestapo, Kripo and SD men, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Regular Police, who exercised authority over the police battalions, gendarmerie detachments and individual policemen. At the district level, four SS and police leaders (SS- und Polizeiführer—SSPF)—a level of command unique to the General Government—exercised authority over the Kommandeure der Sicherheitspolizei (KdS—commanders of the Security Police) and the Kommandeure der Ordnungspolizei (KdO—commanders of the Order Police). The SSPFs were based in Warsaw, Radom, Cracow and Lublin; while, in theory, they were subordinated to the district governors, in practice their primary loyalty was to Krüger and ultimately to Himmler.

The separation of the military, security and administrative components of the General Government led to considerable friction. As we have seen, SS and police formations had a different mission—in effect, the destruction of the whole Polish nation—to that of theWehrmacht, which was solely concerned with the destruction of Polish combat power. Many of the Wehrmacht’s generals seem not to have grasped that their military victory against the Polish Army was simply a precursor to Hitler’s main objective: a race war against all Polish people and particularly the Jews. Even before the fighting had finished, some Wehrmacht commanders were complaining about the activities of the special task groups. On 20 September, 14th Army reported that their soldiers had witnessed mass shootings of Jews and civilians by Woyrsch’s unit. These reports led General Gerd von Rundstedt to order the special task group’s withdrawal. However, it is doubtful that this order was based on humanitarianism. After all, the 14th Army itself used very harsh measures to drive the Jewish populations in its zone to the east, into the hands of the Soviets.12 More likely, Wehrmacht officers were simply concerned that the actions of the SS and police personnel would have a detrimental effect on their own forces’ discipline. Nevertheless, General Blaskowitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Poland, instructed Wehrmacht commanders to collect evidence of any unauthorised activities by members of the SS and police.

One particularly horrific example took place in Ostrow Mazowieck. Following a fire on 9 November that was blamed on Jewish arsonists, members of Reserve Police Battalion 11 gathered together the Jewish population of the town and requested reinforcements from the Warsaw Police Regiment. Two days later, members of Police Battalion 91 arrived and, with little further ado, shot 366 Jewish men, women and children on the edges of pre-dug mass graves.13

A letter from General Wilhelm Ulex to Blaskowitz gives an indication of the day-to-day harassment and intimidation suffered by other Polish Jews in the first few months of the occupation:

On 28.10.39 a Pole, despite having a driving permit issued by the Warsaw Kommandantur, was stopped by SS members and had his truck confiscated at pistol point.

In Tschenstochau, during the night of 31.12.39, around 250 Jews were held in an icy-cold street, then taken for some hours to a school, where they were searched for gold. The women were made to strip naked and the policemen even searched their private parts.

In Radom on 8.1.40, two SS men searched the home of the Polish female official Bugacka and stole personal possessions and 2 bank books.

On 18.2.40 two sergeants of 3/Police Battalion 182 in Petrikau took, at pistol point, the 18-year-old Jewess Machmanowic and the 17-year-old Jewess Santowska from their parents’ homes, drove them to the Polish cemetery and raped one of them there. The other had her period, but they said they would come back in a few days and promised her 5 zlotys.14

The army’s leaders pointed out that these measures would be counter-productive by engendering sympathy and support for the Jewish victims from the majority Catholic population, and would lead to ill-discipline and declining morale in the army. Once again, this merely indicated that they did not understand the true purpose of the occupation: to destroy the Polish nation and wage a war of annihilation against the Jewish people. Himmler feigned concern and referred the complaints to the SS legal service, which investigated and then did nothing.

By then, the generals had more pressing concerns, as they and their troops had been ordered westwards, to begin the assault on France.

* Warsaw surrendered on 27 September, while isolated resistance continued until at least 5 October. However, the final Polish collapse had been inevitable once the Soviet Union had invaded from the east on 17 September.

† Born in 1902, Forster joined the SA in 1923 and he was one of the earliest members of the SS in 1925. In the power struggles that characterised the upper echelons of the Third Reich, he was an implacable but largely untouchable opponent of Himmler. He was hanged for crimes against humanity in 1952.

‡ Born in 1897, Greiser was a pilot in the First World War. He joined the NSDAP and the SA in 1929, and the SS in 1931. He was tried and executed by the Polish government in 1946.

§ Born in 1899, Wagner was dismissed as Regional Leader and from the NSDAP in 1941, when the Silesia region was split into two parts. Lower Silesia was put under the command of Karl Hanke (1903–45), and Upper Silesia under Fritz Bracht (1899–1945). Wagner was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 after the failed bomb plot against Hitler. He died the following year, although whether he was killed by the SS or by the advancing Red Army is not clear.

* A fifth district, centred on Lvov/Lemberg, was added when the Germans overran Galicia after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

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