Hitler blamed the Jews for Russian Bolshevism throughout his political life. Communism, as far as he was concerned, was an artificial ideology created by the Jews to weaken and subdue the Aryan race. It is likely that he concocted this notion just after the First World War, when he became convinced that socialist attempts to seize power in Bavaria were being orchestrated by Jewish revolutionaries. Two decades later, he viewed the showdown with the Soviet Union as a racial war. In his mind, the only way to destroy Soviet Bolshevism was to destroy its Jewish progenitors.

However, it seems that it was only in the spring of 1941 that the rest of Germany’s military and political leaders truly comprehended the full and terrible implications of this philosophy. General Alfred Jodl, chief of operations for the Wehrmacht High Command, noted on 3 March that Hitler had said that the “Jewish–Bolshevik intelligentsia” would need to be eliminated during Operation Barbarossa, and that this must be discussed between the High Command and the SS. Heydrich duly met with General Eduard Wagner, the army’s Quartermaster General, ten days later. During their discussions, Heydrich outlined the role he envisaged the RSHA’s special task groups playing in Russia.1 Then, over the next couple of months, Wagner and Walter Schellenberg worked out the details. (Heinrich Müller had originally represented the RSHA but Wagner, who found Müller arrogant and uncouth, asked for him to be replaced.) On 4 April, Wagner sent Heydrich a draft agreement on the role of the special task groups, which stated: “Within the framework of their instructions and upon their own responsibility, the Special Units are entitled to carry out executive measures against the civilian population.”2 It went on to say that the groups would operate in the army’s rear areas; that they would be administratively subordinated to whichever military headquarters they were “supporting”; that the army would provide their logistical support, quartering, rations, fuel and ammunition; but, crucially, that their operational tasks would be set by the RSHA in Berlin. This draft document was eventually amended to allow the special task groups to operate right up to the front line, thus ensuring that they would be able to catch their intended victims by surprise. It was this amended version of the agreement that was signed by Heydrich and Wagner at the end of May.

The intention was to form four special task groups for the Russian campaign: one allocated to each of the three army groups; and the fourth, smaller group attached to the 11th Army, which was to strike into the Caucasus on the southern flank of Army Group South. As in the Polish campaign, the groups were originally of approximately battalion strength, just under a thousand men, subdivided into company-sized special task units. Special Task Group A, commanded by SS-Brigadier Franz Walther Stahlecker, was placed in Field Marshal von Leeb’s Army Group North. Stahlecker had joined the NSDAP in 1932 and served as Gestapo chief in Württemberg and SD chief in Vienna before clashing with Heydrich and transferring to the Foreign Office, becoming its representative in Bohemia-Moravia and Norway. Special Task Group B, attached to von Bock’s Army Group Centre, was commanded by SS-Brigadier Arthur Nebe, head of the Kripo. Nebe had volunteered for the post in April 1941, when Heydrich had told his RSHA heads of division of the “heavy task” of securing and pacifying Russia. It seems that Nebe was keen to add some combat decorations to those he had amassed during the First World War. Special Task Group C, commanded by Dr. Otto Rasch, was assigned to von Rundstedt’s Army Group South. Rasch had already participated in special task group operations in Poland, where he had set up the Soldau concentration camp that had murdered many members of the intelligentsia. Special Task Group D was commanded by SS-Colonel Otto Ohlendorf, the unpopular head of SD-Home. He had twice refused to serve in occupied Poland, and it seems he agreed to lead Special Task Group D only to avoid a reputation for cowardice.3

Manpower for the special task groups was drawn from a variety of sources. In Special Task Group A, with an initial strength of 990, 9 per cent came from the Gestapo, 3.5 per cent from the SD, 4.1 per cent from Kripo, 13.4 per cent from the Order Police, 8.8 per cent from “foreign auxiliary police” and 34 per cent from the Waffen-SS.4 The remainder were administrative and technical support staff: clerks, cooks, drivers, mechanics and so on. At a time when the bulk of the German armed forces remained horse-drawn, the special task groups were fully motorised in jeeps, on motorcycles and in trucks, to give them a quick response time and enable them to keep up with the vanguard of the German forces.

The leadership cadre of the groups was varied, too. However, most were highly intelligent and well-educated men: Rasch had earned a doctorate in law; Franz Six—who commanded the Moskow Vorkommando (Advance Unit) within Special Task Group B—had been a senior academic at Berlin University while still in his late twenties; Ernst Biberstein, commander of Special Task Unit 6 in Special Task Group C, was, of all things, a Protestant pastor; and Paul Blobel, the alcoholic commander of Special Task Unit 4a, had qualified as an architect.* They also generally showed a strong commitment to the NSDAP and National Socialist ideology: Ohlendorf had been a party member since 1925; Nebe was an early SA member; and while Blobel joined the party only in 1931, he seems to have been a wholehearted convert, espousing the SS’s perversely named “Belief in God” doctrine,5 which renounced religious belief.* None of these men seems to have taken great pleasure in their “heavy task,”† but nor did they seek to avoid it: this was the mission of the SS.

In late May 1941, the special task groups assembled at the Border Police Academy in the small town of Pretzsch, near Wittenberg, on the Elbe. They were met there by SS-Brigadier Bruno Streckenbach, chief of personnel in the RSHA and himself a former special task group commander in Poland. Among other grim crimes, he had arrested and executed many of the academic staff of Cracow University. The briefing Streckenbach gave was sketchy. One witness recalls him telling the assembled troops that they would be engaged on “a war assignment which would be concluded by December at the latest.”6 Over the course of the next three weeks, they were given ideological lectures—designed to bolster their belief in the justice of the race war they were about to fight—and did basic weapons training, rangework and one or two field exercises. Their weapons were primarily light small arms: rifles, submachine guns, pistols, grenades and light machine guns. The men were not trained to take part in serious combat; rather, they learned how to protect themselves, and how to flush out and kill individual victims. Their officers and NCOs were given a rough idea of the kind of task they would have to fulfil; but it seems that only the commanders and their deputies received a full briefing at this stage. At his post-war trial, Ohlendorf stated:

On the basis of orders which were given by Brigadier Streckenbach, Chief of office I of the RSHA, by order of the head of the RSHA, to the chiefs of the Special Task Groups and the Kommandoführer at the time of the formation of the Special Task Groups in Pretzsch (in Saxony); and which were given by the Reichsführer-SS to the leaders and men of the Special Task Groups and Special Task Units who were assembled in Nikolaev in September 1941. A number of undesirable elements composed of Russians, gypsies, and Jews and others were executed in the area detailed to me. All Jews who were arrested, as such, were to be executed within my area. It was my wish that these executions be carried out in a manner and fashion which was military and suitably humane under the circumstances.7

Hilberg has characterised the actions of the special task groups in the opening months of Operation Barbarossa as the “First Sweep.”8 Broken down first into special task units, then into platoon-sized sub-units, the killing squads followed closely behind the frontline formations of the army. Their initial progress was remarkable: “We’ll only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will collapse,” Hitler had claimed at a conference with Wehrmacht commanders in April 1941, and his prophecy appeared to be coming true. Within days of the launch of the invasion, the killing operations began.

At stake were the lives of some four million Jews who lived in areas that would soon be occupied by the Germans: 260,000 in the Baltic States, 1.35 million in eastern Poland (which had been occupied by the Soviets in autumn 1939), 300,000 in Bessarabia and Bukovina, and over 2 million in Byelorussia, the Ukraine and the Russian Soviet Republic.

The number of Jews who were killed by each special task group was determined to a large extent by the density of the Jewish population and the speed of the German advance in that area. Special Task Group A, operating on the relatively short northern axis of advance along the Baltic, had conducted some 112 separate killing operations in 71 localities by 1 December 1941.9 This reflected the fact that the group had been able to move backwards and forwards within its area of operational responsibility to ensure thorough execution of its tasks. SS-Colonel Karl Jäger, a police officer commanding Special Task Unit 3, reported his group’s elimination of some 137,000 Jewish men, women and children. He concluded:

Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK 3. In Lithuania there are no more Jews, apart from Jewish workers and their families…

I consider the Jewish action more or less terminated as far as Special Task Unit 3 is concerned. Those working Jews and Jewesses still available are needed urgently and I can envisage that after the winter this workforce will be required even more urgently. I am of the view that the sterilization program of the male worker Jews should be started immediately so that reproduction is prevented. If despite sterilization a Jewess becomes pregnant she will be liquidated.10

By contrast, the smaller Jewish population of Estonia, being further east, had some time to escape. Consequently, Special Unit 1a of Special Task Group A was unable to claim that it had liquidated the entire Estonian Jewish population. On 12 October 1941, the unit reported:

At the beginning of 1940 about 4,500 Jews were living in Estonia. About 1,900 to 2,000 of them were living in Tallinn, larger Jewish communities were at Tartu, Narva, and Parnu, while only [a] few Jews were living out in the flat country.

The deportations carried out by the Russians, as far as they concerned Jews, cannot be established in numbers. According to inquiries made so far, Jewry had hardly been affected by them. With the advance of the German troops on Estonian territory, about half of the Jews made preparations for flight and, as these Jews had collaborated with the Soviet authorities, they left the country with them going east. Only [a] few of them were seized in Tallinn because their escape route had been cut off. After the occupation of the country, there were probably still about 2,000 Jews left in the country.

The Estonian self-defense units, which had been formed when the Wehrmacht marched in, started immediately to arrest Jews. Spontaneous demonstrations against Jewry did not take place because there was no substantial enlightenment of the population.

The following orders were therefore issued by us:

1. The arrest of all male Jews over 16.

2. The arrest of all Jewesses fit for work between the ages of 16 and 60, who were utilized to work in the peat bogs.

3. Collective billeting of female Jewish residents of Tartu and vicinity in the synagogue and a tenement house in Tartu.

4. Arrest of all male and female Jews fit for work in Parnu and vicinity.

5. Registration of all Jews according to age, sex, and fitness for work for the purpose of billeting them in a camp which is in the stage of preparation.

All male Jews over 16, with the exception of physicians and the appointed Jewish elders, were executed by the Estonian self-defense units under supervision of the Special Unit. As for the town and country district of Tallinn, the action is still under way as the search for the Jewish hideouts has not yet been completed. The total number of Jews shot in Estonia is so far 440.

When these measures are completed, about 500 to 600 Jewesses and children will still be alive.

The village communities are already now free from Jews. For the Jews residing at Tallinn and vicinity a camp is at present being prepared at Harku (District Tallinn), which after receiving the Jews from Tallinn is to be expanded to contain all Jews from Estonia. All Jewesses fit for work are employed with farm work and cutting of peat on the property of the nearby prison so that the questions of feeding and financing are solved.11

This report and others from Special Task Group A allude to attempts to foment pogroms against the Jews by local populations. The indigenous Baltic populations’ resentment of Bolshevik rule was never in doubt, but the special task groups assumed that they also conflated Bolshevism with Judaism. This turned out to be far from true, especially outside Lithuania:

In Lithuania this [a pogrom] was achieved for the first time by partisan activities in Kovno. To our surprise it was not easy at first to set in motion an extensive pogrom against Jews. Klimatis, the leader of the partisan unit mentioned above, who was used for this purpose primarily, succeeded in starting a pogrom on the basis of advice given to him by an Advance Unit operating in Kovno, and in such a way that no German order or German instigation was noticed from the outside. During the first pogrom in the night from 25 to 26 June, the Lithuanian partisans did away with more than 1,500 Jews, set fire to several synagogues or destroyed them by other means and burned down a Jewish dwelling district consisting of about 60 houses. During the following nights about 2,300 Jews were made harmless in a similar way. In other parts of Lithuania similar actions followed the example of Kovno, though smaller and extending to the Communists who had been left behind.

These self-clearing operations went smoothly because the army authorities, who had been informed, showed understanding for this procedure. From the beginning it was obvious that only the first days after the occupation would offer the opportunity for carrying out pogroms. After the disarmament of the partisans the self-clearing operations automatically ceased.

It proved much more difficult to set in motion similar clearing operations in Latvia. The essential reason was that the entire stratum of national leaders had been assassinated or deported by the Soviets, especially in Riga. It was possible though, through similar influences, for the Latvian auxiliary police to set in motion a pogrom against Jews also in Riga. During this pogrom all synagogues were destroyed and about 400 Jews were killed. As the population of Riga quieted down quickly, further pogroms were not feasible.

So far as possible, both in Kovno and in Riga evidence by film and photography was established that the first spontaneous executions of Jews and Communists were carried out by Lithuanians and Latvians.

In Estonia, by reason of the relatively small number of Jews, no opportunity presented itself for the instigation of pogroms. The Estonian home guard rendered harmless only some individual Communists whom they especially hated, but generally they limited themselves to carrying out arrests.12

One of the most infamous actions of the special task groups took place in Kiev between 29 September and 11 October 1941. Special Unit 4a of Special Task Group C had arrived in the city on 25 September in the wake of Field Marshal von Reichenau’s 6th Army, which had captured the Ukrainian capital six days earlier. Meanwhile, a number of explosions had rocked the city as mines and booby traps left behind by the retreating Soviets had detonated. One of these explosions killed the 6th Army’s artillery commander, General von Seydlitz, but others started fierce fires that burned out of control, destroying many buildings and leaving some 25,000 Ukrainians homeless. A meeting was convened between Rasch, Blobel, SS-General Friedrich Jeckeln (who had recently been appointed Senior SS and Police Leader South) and Major General Eberhardt (the military commander in Kiev). Between them, they decided to take radical action. On 28 September, a notice was posted around the city, addressed to the Jewish population:

All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 29, 1941, to the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. All who do not carry out this instruction will be shot. Anyone entering flats evacuated by Jews and stealing property will be shot.13

Some thirty thousand Jews arrived at the designated location in the belief that they were about to be evacuated to labour camps. Instead, they were met by a group consisting of Sipo and SD men from Special Unit 4a; a company of Waffen-SS soldiers who were attached to Special Task Group C; members of the Order Police from Special Unit 4a and from Police Regiment South; and some Ukrainian auxiliary policemen recruited as reinforcements by the Order Police. The Jews were then marched in groups of a hundred or so through the Jewish cemetery to the ravine of Babi Yar. Once there, they were ordered to strip naked and pile their belongings neatly. Kurt Werner, a member of Special Unit 4a, described what happened next:

Soon after my arrival at the execution site I was ordered to the bottom of the ravine, together with other comrades. After a short time the first Jews were brought to us via the slopes of the ravine. The Jews had to lay face down at the edge of the ravine. Three groups of marksmen were in the pit, around 12 marksmen. Jews were constantly brought from above to these groups of marksmen. The Jews following had to lie down on the corpses of the Jews who had already been shot. The marksmen stood behind the Jews and killed them by shots in the neck. Today I still remember the horror of the Jews who saw the corpses in the pit. Many Jews were shocked, and screamed. One cannot imagine the nervous strain involved in carrying out this dirty job in the pit. It was horrible…

The whole morning I had to stay in the ravine. There I was ordered to shoot again and again for a while, and then I was busy filling MP (machine pistol) magazines with ammunition. During this time other comrades were detailed for shooting. At noon we were allowed to leave the ravine, and in the afternoon together with others comrades I had to bring the Jews towards the pit. During this time other comrades carried out the shooting in the pit. We brought the Jews to the border of the pit; from there they ran down the slopes themselves. On this day the shooting went on until approximately 5 or 6 p.m. Then we were ordered back to our quarters. That evening alcohol was handed out again.14

The official report was more prosaic, but the writer’s satisfaction at what Special Unit 4a had accomplished was clear:

Partly because of the better economic situation of the Jews under the Bolshevist regime and their activities as informers and agents of the NKVD, partly because of the explosions and the resulting fires, the public feeling against the Jews was very strong. As an added factor it was proved that the Jews participated in the arson. The population expected adequate retaliatory measures by the German authorities. Consequently all Jews of Kiev were requested, in agreement with the city commander, to appear on Monday, 29 September by 8 o’clock at a designated place. These announcements were posted by members of the Ukrainian militia in the entire city. Simultaneously it was announced orally that all Jews were to be moved. In collaboration with the Special Task Group staff and 2 Kommandos of the Police Regiment South, the Special Unit 4a executed on 29 and 30 September, 33,771 Jews. Money, valuables, underwear and clothing were secured and placed partly at the disposal of the NSV [National Socialist Party Public Welfare Organisation] for use of the racial Germans, partly given to the city administration authorities for use of the needy population. The transaction was carried out without friction. No incidents occurred. The “resettlement measure” against the Jews was approved throughout by the population. The fact that in reality the Jews were liquidated was hardly known until now; according to up-to-date experiences it would, however, hardly have been objected to. The measures were also approved by the Wehrmacht. The Jews who were not yet apprehended as well as those who gradually returned from their flight to the city were in each case treated accordingly.

Simultaneously a number of NKVD officials, political commissars, and partisan leaders was arrested and liquidated.15

Unsurprisingly, given the speed with which the atrocity had been carried out, some of the victims had been wounded rather than killed. Three days after the main massacre, Anton Heidborn, another member of Special Unit 4a, returned to the site:

On arrival we saw a woman sitting by a bush, having obviously survived the execution. This woman was shot by an SD man who joined us, name unknown. Furthermore, we saw a person waving to us with their hand out of a pile of corpses. I don’t know if it was a man or a woman. I assume that this person was shot by the SD man but I did not see it. That day we started to cover the heaps of corpses. For this purpose civilians were used. In addition some walls of the ravine were partially blown up. After that day I did not return to the execution site. For the next several days we were busy smoothing banknotes from the property of the shot Jews. I estimate that it must have amounted to millions. I don’t know what the money was used for. It was packed in bags, and sent away.16

The method of execution employed at Babi Yar was typical of that used throughout the Soviet Union. Hermann Graebe was a German engineer employed on building projects in the Ukraine who witnessed another massacre, this time by members of Special Unit C:

I walked around the mound, and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people shot were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was already two thirds full. I estimated that it contained about 1,000 people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an SS man, who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette. The people, completely naked, went down some steps which were cut in the clay wall of the pit and clambered over the heads of the people lying there, to the place to which the SS man directed them. They lay down in front of the dead or injured people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay before them. Blood was running from their necks. I was surprised that I was not ordered away, but I saw that there were two or three postmen in uniform nearby. The next batch was approaching already. They went down into the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot. When I walked back around the mound, I noticed another truckload of people which had just arrived. This time it included sick and infirm persons. An old, very thin woman with terribly thin legs was undressed by others who were already naked, while two people held her up. The woman appeared to be paralyzed. The naked people carried the woman around the mound…

On the morning of the next day, when I again visited the site, I saw about 30 naked people lying near the pit—about 30 to 50 meters away from it. Some of them were still alive; they looked straight in front of them with a fixed stare and seemed to notice neither the chilliness of the morning nor the workers of my firm who stood around. A girl of about 20 spoke to me and asked me to give her clothes, and help her escape. At that moment we heard a fast car approach and I noticed that it was an SS detail. I moved away to my site. Ten minutes later we heard shots from the vicinity of the pit. The Jews still alive had been ordered to throw the corpses into the pit; then they had themselves to lie down in this to be shot in the neck.17

The majority of the Order Police and Waffen-SS members of the special task groups had simply been labelled unsuitable for combat operations at the front—in general, because they were too old. In other words, they had not been selected for the special task groups because they had exhibited particular fanaticism, or because they were sadists or psychopaths. Indeed, many of the commanders recognised that the executions, particularly of women and children, placed their men under great psychological strain. Several methods were employed by various commanders to minimise this. In Special Task Group D, Ohlendorf insisted that the murders had to be carried out in what he imagined was a “military” way. Thus, the firing squads had no contact with their victims until the last moment, and three riflemen were allocated to each person to be shot. This was designed to alleviate individual guilt among the execution squads. Rasch took a different tack. He insisted that every member of his unit participate in the killings, ensuring a sense of collective, and shared, guilt.

In August 1941, Himmler—accompanied by his adjutant, Karl Wolff, and SS-Lieutenant General von dem Bach-Zelewski—observed a mass execution near Minsk, organised by Arthur Nebe’s Special Task Group B. As the victims awaited their fate, Himmler is said to have spotted a tall, blond, blue-eyed man of about twenty whom he engaged in conversation:

“Are you a Jew?”


“Are both of your parents Jews?”


“Do you have any ancestors who were not Jews?”


“Then I can’t help you.”18

Standing close to the pit, Himmler became increasingly distressed as the shooting commenced. According to Wolff: “After many volleys, I could see that Himmler was trembling. He ran his hand across his face and swayed. ‘You could have spared yourself and me this,’ I said to him. His face was almost green. And then he said, ‘A piece of brain just splattered in my face.’ He immediately threw up.”19 Once the killing was over, Himmler made a speech to the men in which he exhorted them to “see it through.” However, he asked Nebe to devise a less gruesome means of mass execution than simply shooting people.

Nebe summoned the gassing expert Albert Widmann from the Criminal Technical Institute in Berlin to carry out some experiments.20 The first method to be tested was explosives. Two wooden bunkers were packed with explosives before twenty mental patients were herded inside. Then the dynamite was detonated. This first explosion did not kill all of the patients, so the wounded were placed back in the bunkers with even more dynamite. A work detail spent much of the next day retrieving body parts from nearby trees and undergrowth.21

The next method to be tried was gassing. A number of gassing vehicles had already been built for Operation T-4, which utilised them as mobile gas chambers. The passenger cab was hermetically sealed, and the driver operated a switch that pumped carbon monoxide into the back of the truck. Nebe’s version was more rough and ready. He and his assistants travelled to an asylum at Mogilew and ran a hose from their car exhaust into a sealed room containing mental patients. This didn’t seem to be working quickly enough, so they swapped the car for a truck. The victims were dead within eight minutes.

THE EASTWARDS EXPANSION of the Third Reich created the need for both civil administration and a security apparatus in the conquered territories. Himmler therefore appointed three new senior SS and police leaders to assume control of the security forces in these areas: SS-Major General Prutzmann in the North, based in Riga; SS-Lieutenant General von dem Bach-Zelewski in the Centre, based in Minsk; and SS-Lieutenant General Jeckeln in the South, based in Kiev. Each of these men controlled a regiment of Order Police as well as various Waffen-SS units and locally recruited militias. All of these forces were used to attack the surviving Jewish populations that had been missed or bypassed by the initial wave of special task groups. Hilberg characterises these operations as the “Second Sweep”;22 they were often deliberately misrepresented as “anti-partisan” actions.

A typical example was the massacre of Jews at Józéfow in eastern Poland that was carried out by the 101st Reserve Police Battalion in July 1942. This came about because a shortage of transport had led to a temporary hiatus in traffic from Poland’s ghettoes to the Operation Reinhard death camps (see Chapter 22). Frustrated by the lack of killing, the SSPF for Lublin, Odilo Globocnik, ordered the police battalion to travel to Józéfow, pick out any young male Jews who could be employed by the work camps, and murder the rest of the Jewish population. This they duly did. Unusually for such an operation, the commander, a Major Trapp, excused some members of his battalion—which comprised mostly middle-aged reservists from Hamburg—from taking part in the actual shooting. Nevertheless, over the next six months, this same battalion killed Jews in Lomazy, Miedzyrzec, Serokomla, Kock, Parczew, Konskowola, Miedzyrzec again and Lukow.23 In total, they are estimated to have murdered some 38,000 Jews and to have deported some 45,000 more. Although they operated within the framework of the Lublin SSPF, not one of the battalion’s policemen was a formal member of the SS.

Waffen-SS units deployed on security operations in the East came under the auspices of the Command Staff of the National Leader of the SS. This operational headquarters was formed by the SS-Command Main Office to provide combat formations under Himmler’s direct military control that were used to round up Soviet stragglers, fight partisans and execute Jews. The two major formations were: the 1st SS-Brigade (motorised), which comprised the 8th and 10th Death’s Head regiments; and the SS-Cavalry Brigade, consisting of a hodge-podge of General-SS equestrian units under the command of Hermann Fegelein.

Fegelein was born in 1906 in Bavaria, the son of an army officer. He briefly attended university, spent six months in the army, then enlisted in the Bavarian Police for two years. He left the police to work at his father’s riding school in Munich, while also gaining a reputation as a competitive horseman. He joined the SS in 1933, served within various mounted units, and was appointed commander of the main SS riding school in Munich in 1936.24 A good-looking man with a glamorous reputation, Fegelein used his position at the riding school to butter up senior SS officers, a tactic that clearly worked, as he became an SS-colonel within a year of taking up the post. When the first Waffen-SS cavalry unit was formed in 1940 (the Death’s Head Mounted Regiment), he was made a lieutenant colonel* and placed in command, despite his lack of formal officer training.

On 28 July 1941, after a meeting with von dem Bach-Zelewski and Fegelein, Himmler issued orders to comb the Pripyat Marshes—in Byelorussia and north-western Ukraine—which were a centre of partisan resistance. However, his oral instructions to his two subordinates were less equivocal: “all Jews must be shot. Drive the females into the swamps.”25 The sweep operation lasted for just ten days, from 2 to 12 August. When it was over, SS-Major Franz Magill, the detachment commander who led the forces on the ground, reported that some 6,526 men—the overwhelming majority of them Jews—had been shot. By 16 August, the overall operation (including the contributions made by police and army units) had murdered 15,878 men and captured 830 prisoners.26 A tiny proportion of the victims were undeniably partisans, but the vast majority were not, as is attested by the fact that no more than 500 rifles, 30 machine guns and 20 artillery pieces were recovered during the operation.27

Meanwhile, Himmler’s other main unit, the 1st SS-Brigade, had been equally busy. On 7 August, it had killed a total of 7,819 Jews around Minsk. Both it and the Cavalry Brigade subsequently became fully fledged combat divisions of the Waffen-SS: the 18thHorst Wessel SS-Volunteer Panzer-Grenadier Division and the 8th Florian Geyer SS-Cavalry Division.

Another special unit that was rampaging around Byelorussia at this time was Oskar Dirlewanger’s band of ex-convicts. The unit had been placed under the Command Staff of the National Leader of the SS by an order dated 29 January 1942, and transferred to Byelorussia the following month. Part of the reason for this seems to have been an ongoing investigation by an SS judge, Dr. Konrad Morgen, into allegations of “race defilement” against Dirlewanger. He was accused of having had sexual relations with a number of Jewesses while in Lublin, and his friend and protector Gottlob Berger had deemed it prudent to get him away from the area.* That was a terrible decision for the people of Byelorussia, because Dirlewanger’s troops then looted, raped and murdered their way through the republic’s villages and settlements over the next two years. Even Fegelein, who was no stranger to atrocities, described them to Hitler as “real scoundrels.” Their behaviour was so appalling that prosecutors presented it at Nuremberg as evidence of the general criminality of the Waffen-SS.

While the likes of the Dirlewanger unit roamed the countryside, the original special task groups that had accompanied the army into the Soviet Union and the Baltic States transformed themselves into static Sipo posts under the command of the senior SS and police leaders. They collected intelligence on partisans, Jews and other threats (real and imaginary), and coordinated action against them after consultation with their senior SS and police leader. The subsequent campaign against the partisans of Byelorussia, western Russia and the Ukraine was as dirty a war as has ever been fought. It was primarily conducted by the German Army’s security divisions, but—as the activities of the Dirlewanger unit prove—Waffen-SS and police formations were heavily involved in it, too.

* According to his somewhat sketchy SS personal file, at any rate.

* Adherents to this doctrine proclaimed themselves to be “Gottgläubig” rather than adhering to any particular religion.

† Nebe, especially, seems to have found his task in Russia distasteful, to say the least. It may well have been his experiences there that led him to flirt with the bomb plot against Hitler in July 1944, for which he was executed the following year.

* He was a full colonel in the General-SS, but this did not equate with a military rank.

* There were further allegations that Dirlewanger had subsequently had these lovers murdered to keep them quiet.

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