Military history


On October 22, 1941, a French newspaper Le Phare published the following notice:

Cowardly criminals in the pay of England and Moscow killed the Feldkommandant of Nantes on the morning of October 20. Up to now the assassins have not been arrested.

As expiation for this crime I have ordered that 50 hostages be shot, to begin with … Fifty more hostages will be shot in case the guilty should not be arrested between now and October 23 by midnight.

This became a familiar notice in the pages of the newspapers or on red posters edged with black in France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Poland and Russia. The proportion, publicly proclaimed by the Germans, was invariably 100 to 1—a hundred hostages shot for every German killed.

Though the taking of hostages was an ancient custom, much indulged in for instance by the Romans, it had not been generally practiced in modern times except by the Germans in the First World War and by the British in India and in South Africa during the Boer War. Under Hitler, however, the German Army carried it out on a large scale during the second war. Dozens of secret orders signed by General Keitel and lesser commanders were produced at Nuremberg ordering the taking—and shooting—of hostages. “It is important,” Keitel decreed on October 1, 1941, “that these should include well-known leading personalities or members of their families”; and General von Stuelpnagel, the German commander in France, a year later stressed that “the better known the hostages to be shot the greater will be the deterrent effect on the perpetrators.”

In all, 29,660 French hostages were executed by the Germans during the war and this figure did not include the 40,000 who “died” in French prisons. The figure for Poland was 8,000 and for Holland some 2,000. In Denmark what became known as a system of “clearing murders” was substituted for the publicly proclaimed shooting of hostages. On Hitler’s express orders reprisals for the killing of Germans in Denmark were to be carried out in secret “on the proportion of five to one.”41 Thus the great Danish pastor-poet-playwright, Kaj Munk, one of the most beloved men in Scandinavia, was brutally murdered by the Germans, his body left on the road with a sign pinned to it: “Swine, you worked for Germany just the same.”

   Of all the war crimes which he claimed he had to commit on the orders of Hitler “the worst of all,” General Keitel said on the stand at Nuremberg, stemmed from the Nacht und Nebel Erlass—“Night and Fog Decree.” This grotesque order, reserved for the unfortunate inhabitants of the conquered territories in the West, was issued by Hitler himself on December 7, 1941. Its purpose, as the weird title indicates, was to seize persons “endangering German security” who were not to be immediately executed and make them vanish without a trace into the night and fog of the unknown in Germany. No information was to be given their families as to their fate even when, as invariably occurred, it was merely a question of the place of burial in the Reich.

On December 12, 1941, Keitel issued a directive explaining the Fuehrer’s orders. “In principle,” he said, “the punishment for offenses committed against the German state is the death penalty.” But

if these offenses are punished with imprisonment, even with hard labor for life, this will be looked upon as a sign of weakness. Efficient intimidation can only be achieved either by capital punishment or by measures by which the relatives of the criminal and the population do not know his fate.42

The following February Keitel enlarged on the Night and Fog Decree. In cases where the death penalty was not meted out within eight days of a person’s arrest,

the prisoners are to be transported to Germany secretly … these measures will have a deterrent effect because

(a) the prisoners will vanish without leaving a trace,

(b) no information may be given as to their whereabouts or their fate.43

The S.D. was given charge of this macabre task and its captured files are full of various orders pertaining to “NN” (for Nacht und Nebel), especially in regard to keeping the burial places of the victims strictly secret. How many Western Europeans disappeared into “Night and Fog” was never established at Nuremberg but it appeared that few emerged from it alive.

   Some enlightening figures, however, were obtainable from the S.D. records concerning the number of victims of another terror operation in conquered territory which was applied to Russia. This particular exercise was carried out by what was known in Germany as the Einsatzgruppen—Special Action Groups, or what might better be termed, in view of their performance, Extermination Squads. The first round figure of their achievement came out, as if by accident, at Nuremberg.

One day some time before the trial began a young American naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Whitney R. Harris, of the American prosecution staff, was interrogating Otto Ohlendorf on his wartime activities. It was known that this attractive-looking German intellectual of youthful appearance—he was 38—had been head of Amt III of Himmler’s Central Security Office (R.S.H.A.) but during the last years of the war had spent most of his time as a foreign trade expert in the Ministry of Economics. He told his interrogator that apart from one year he had spent the war period on official duty in Berlin. Asked what he had done during the year away, he replied, “I was chief of Einsatzgruppe D.”

Harris, a lawyer by training and by this time something of an intelligence authority on German affairs, knew quite a bit about the Einsatz groups. So he asked promptly:

“During the year you were chief of Einsatzgruppe D, how many men, women and children did your group kill?”

Ohlendorf, Harris later remembered, shrugged his shoulders and with only the slightest hesitation answered:

“Ninety thousand!”44

The Einsatz groups had first been organized by Himmler and Heydrich to follow the German armies into Poland in 1939 and there round up the Jews and place them in ghettos. It was not until the beginning of the Russian campaign nearly two years later that, in agreement with the German Army, they were ordered to follow the combat troops and to carry out one phase of the “final solution.” Four Einsatzgruppen were formed for this purpose, Groups A, B, C, D. It was the last one which Ohlendorf commanded between June 1941 and June 1942, and it was assigned the southernmost sector in the Ukraine and attached to the Eleventh Army. Asked on the stand by Colonel John Harlan Amen what instructions it received, Ohlendorf answered:

“The instructions were that the Jews and the Soviet political commissars were to be liquidated.”

“And when you say ‘liquidated,’ do you mean ‘killed’?” Amen asked.

“Yes, I mean killed,” Ohlendorf answered, explaining that this took in the women and children as well as the men.

“For what reason were the children massacred?” the Russian judge, General I. T. Nikitchenko, broke in to ask.

OHLENDORF: The order was that the Jewish population should be totally exterminated.

THE JUDGE: Including the children?


THE JUDGE: Were all the Jewish children murdered?


In response to further questioning by Amen and in his affidavit, Ohlendorf described how a typical killing took place.

The Einsatz unit would enter a village or town and order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together all Jews for the purpose of “resettlement.”* They were requested to hand over their valuables and shortly before execution to surrender their outer clothing. They were transported to the place of executions, usually an antitank ditch, in trucks—always only as many as could be executed immediately. In this way it was attempted to keep the span of time from the moment in which the victims knew what was about to happen to them until the time of their actual execution as short as possible.

Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, by firing squads in a military manner and the corpses thrown into the ditch. I never permitted the shooting by individuals, but ordered that several of the men should shoot at the same time in order to avoid direct-personal responsibility. Other group leaders demanded that the victims lie down flat on the ground to be shot through the nape of the neck. I did not approve of these methods.

“Why?” asked Amen.

“Because,” replied Ohlendorf, “both for the victims and for those who carried out the executions, it was, psychologically, an immense burden to bear.”

In the spring of 1942, Ohlendorf then recounted, an order came from Himmler to change the method of execution of the women and children.* Henceforth they were to be dispatched in “gas vans” specially constructed for the purpose by two Berlin firms. The S.D. officer described to the tribunal how these remarkable vehicles worked.

The actual purpose of these vans could not be seen from the outside. They looked like closed trucks and were so constructed that at the start of the motor the gas [exhaust] was conducted into the van causing death in ten to fifteen minutes.

“How were the victims induced to enter the vans?” Colonel Amen wanted to know.

“They were told they were to be transported to another locality,” Ohlendorf replied.

The burial of the victims of the gas vans, he went on to complain, was a “great ordeal” for the members of the Einsatzgruppen. This was confirmed by a certain Dr. Becker, whom Ohlendorf identified as the constructor of the vans, in a document produced at Nuremberg. In a letter to headquarters Dr. Becker objected to German S.D. men having to unload the corpses of the gassed women and children, calling attention to

the immense psychological injuries and damage to their health which that work can have for these men. They complained to me about headaches which appeared after each unloading.

Dr. Becker also pointed out to his superiors that

the application of gas usually is not undertaken correctly. In order to come to an end as fast as possible, the driver presses the accelerator to the fullest extent. The persons to be executed suffer death from suffocation and not death by dozing off, as was planned.

Dr. Becker was quite a humanitarian—in his own mind—and ordered a change in technique.

My directions now have proved that by correct adjustment of the levers death comes faster and the prisoners fall asleep peacefully. Distorted faces and excretions, such as could be seen before, are no longer noticed.45

But the gas vans, as Ohlendorf testified, could dispatch only from fifteen to twenty-five persons at a time, and this was entirely inadequate for the massacres on the scale which Hitler and Himmler had ordered. Inadequate, for example, for the job that was done at Kiev, the capital of theUkraine, in just two days, September 29 and 30, 1941, when according to an official Einsatz report 33, 771 persons, mostly Jews, were “executed.”46 An eyewitness report by a German of how a comparatively minor mass execution was carried out in the Ukraine brought a hush of horror over the Nuremberg courtroom when it was read by the chief British prosecutor, Sir Hartley Shawcross. It was a sworn affidavit by Hermann Graebe, the manager and engineer of a branch office in the Ukraine of a German construction firm. On October 5,1942, he witnessed the Einsatzcommandos, supported by Ukrainian militia, in action at the execution pits at Dubno in the Ukraine. It was a matter, he reported, of liquidating the town’s 5,000 Jews.

… My foreman and I went directly to the pits. I heard rifle shots in quick succession from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks—men, women and children of all ages—had to undress upon the order of an S.S. man, who carried a riding or dog whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about 800 to 1,000 pairs, great piles of under-linen and clothing.

Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another S.S. man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand. During the fifteen minutes that I stood near the pit I heard no complaint or plea for mercy …

An old woman with snow-white hair was holding a one-year-old child in her arms and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The parents were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked his head and seemed to explain something to him.

At that moment the S.S. man at the pit shouted something to his comrade. The latter counted off about twenty persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound … I well remember a girl, slim and with black hair, who, as she passed close to me, pointed to herself and said: “twenty-three years old.”

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 only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people 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 a thousand people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an S.S. 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 and clambered over the heads of the people lying there to the place to which the S.S. man directed them. They lay down in front of the dead or wounded 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 beneath them. Blood was running from their necks.

The next batch was approaching already. They went down into the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot.

And so it went, batch after batch. The next morning the German engineer returned to the site.

I saw about thirty naked people lying near the pit. Some of them were still alive … Later the Jews still alive were ordered to throw the corpses into the pit. Then they themselves had to lie down in this to be shot in the neck … I swear before God that this is the absolute truth.47

How many Jews and Russian Communist party functionaries (the former vastly outnumbered the latter) were massacred by the Einsatzgruppen in Russia before the Red Army drove the Germans out? The exact total could never be computed at Nuremberg but Himmler’s records, uncoordinated as they were, give a rough idea.

Ohlendorf’s Einsatzgruppen D, with its 90,000 victims, did not do as well as some of the other groups. Group A, for instance, in the north reported on January 31, 1942, that it had “executed” 229,052 Jews in the Baltic region and in White Russia. Its commander, Franz Stahlecker, reported to Himmler that he was having difficulty in the latter province because of a late start “after the heavy frost set in, which made mass executions much more difficult. Nevertheless,” he reported, “41,000 Jews [in White Russia] have been shot up to now.” Stahlecker, who was disposed of later in the year by Soviet partisans, enclosed with his report a handsome map showing the number of those done to death—symbolized by coffins—in each area under his command. In Lithuania, alone, the map showed, 136,421 Jews had been slain; some 34,000 had been spared for the time being “as they were needed for labor.” Estonia, which had relatively few Jews, was declared in this report to be “Jew-free.”48

The Einsatzgruppen firing squads, after a letup during the severe winter, banged away all through the summer of 1942. Some 55,000 more Jews were exterminated in White Russia by July 1, and in October the remaining 16,200 inhabitants of the Minsk ghetto were dispatched in one day. By November Himmler could report to Hitler that 363,211 Jews had been killed in Russia from August through October, though the figure was probably somewhat exaggerated to please the bloodthirsty Fuehrer.49*

All in all, according to Karl Eichmann, the head of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo, two million persons, almost all Jews, were liquidated by the Einsatzgruppen in the East. But this is almost certainly an exaggeration; it is strange but true that the S.S. bigwigs were so proud of their exterminations that they often reported swollen figures to please Himmler and Hitler. Himmler’s own statistician, Dr. Richard Korherr, reported to his chief on March 23, 1943, that a total of 633,300 Jews in Russia had been “re-settled”—a euphemism for massacre by the Einsatzgruppen.51Surprisingly enough this figure tallies fairly well with exhaustive studies later made by a number of experts. Add another hundred thousand slain in the last two years of the war and the figure is probably as accurate as we will ever have.*

High as it is, it is small compared to the number of Jews who were done to death in Himmler’s extermination camps when the “final solution” came to be carried out.

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