The Motives of the SS Einsatzgruppen

The Motives of the SS Einsatzgruppen

“The ditch was already three-quarters full. I estimate that it already held about a thousand bodies. I turned my eyes towards the man doing the shooting. He was an SS man; he sat, legs swinging, on the edge of the ditch. He had an automatic rifle resting on his knees and was smoking a cigarette” (Gräbe, 500). Most people know that an estimated six million Jews died during the Nazi regime. Fewer people know that some 700,000- 750,000 Jews were not massacred in concentration camps, but murdered in the Soviet Union from June 1941 to April 1942 by order police battalions, Wehrmacht units, and SS Einsatzgruppen. The latter, special SS task forces, proceeded right behind the German troops invading the SU from 23 June 1941 onwards.

The exact orders of the Einsatzgruppen are unknown, but what is known is that they began with shooting individuals and small groups while surreptitiously encouraging pogroms by the local population against the Jews, which evolved from the end of July onwards into mass executions and later the systematic annihilations of the Jewish population in the areas of the Soviet Union invaded by the Nazis (Noakes and Pridham, 488-490). The question arising from these facts is why the actions of the SS Einsatzgruppen radicalised; whether these SS forces themselves became more radical in their ideology or method, or whether it was their orders that changed. It is this question that has become intertwined with every research into Holocaust perpetrators; whether the Nazi executioners were simply following orders, or acting on their own initiative. For years, scholars have been discussing this topic, and there views can be summarised into two categories. First, there is the “intentionalist” approach, arguing that it was always the intention of the Nazis to kill the Jews. Other historians, advocating the “structuralist” theory, think that the Holocaust was the result of an accumulating chain of events, never intended, but generated by circumstances throughout the Nazi period (Stackelberg, 215). These two views can also be distinguished in the debate on the motives of the Einsatzgruppen.

In order to reach a conclusion about the motives behind the killings by the SS Einsatzgruppen, two possibilities will be discussed. First, the theory of the Einsatzgruppen acting on orders given by higher Nazi officials will be explored, in the broader context of the overall systemisation of the extermination of the Jews in the period 1939 to 1942; a theory linked to the intentionalist approach. Secondly, the theory of SS Einsatzgruppen acting on individual initiatives will be researched, comparable to the structuralist theory. Then, by comparing and perhaps combining these two theories, it should be possible to gain an impression of the motives behind the mass murder by the SS Einsatzgruppen.

Part I: The Orders of the SS Einsatzgruppen
When inquiring into the orders given to the SS Einsatzgruppen, it is important to distinguish between the context in which those orders were given, which is partly responsible for the interpretation of the instructions, and the literal orders as received by the Einsatzgruppen. Therefore, there will first be a short account of the general thoughts of the Nazi leadership on the Final Solution of the Jewish question over the period 1939 to 1942, divisible into four different stages linked to the developments within the German Reich. After each broad-spectrum stage, there will be a focus on the more specific orders received by the SS Einsatzgruppen, specifying further by looking at the Einsatzgruppen in the SU.

Already before the war, on 30 January 1939, Hitler made a horrifying prophecy: “Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” (Hitler, 441). Although uncertain whether this was simply designed as intimidating propaganda or as the presentation of an actual decision, the tone has been set, the question been asked; what should be done with the Jews. The first answer was given right after the outbreak of the war with Poland. A meeting between Reinhard Heydrich - the head of both the Security Police and SD -, Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) departmental chiefs and task force leaders as well as orders given by Himmler suggest preference for a resettlement solution (Noakes and Pridham, 445-446); “Five days later, on the 30th [October 1939] Himmler ordered the ‘resettlement’ of all Jews from the Polish territories which had been incorporated into the Reich (550,000) and a sufficient number of Poles to bring the total up to one million. (…) They were to be expelled to a reservation between the Vistula and the Bug rivers in the area round Lublin” (Noakes and Pridham, 447). However, by ‘resettling’, the Nazis did not mean simply redistributing the Jews over Europe. As Noakes and Pridham suggest, there was an assumption behind this ‘Jewish reservation’ that within a period of years the Jews should have perished under the harsh living conditions. Deportation of Jews to the Lublin region started on October 1939; although these transports did not have death camps as final destinations, a description of the resettlement of Jews from the Warthegau by SS Gruppenführer Dr Karl Wächter leaves us no illusion as to what the Jewish fate would be when the Nazi-ideology should become even less limited by circumstances. On 19 February 1940, he writes: “Thus, transports of women and children were placed in overcrowded and unheated cattle trucks without the minimum provisions necessary. As a result, there were many deaths during the journeys and a large number of physical injuries and cases of frostbite …” (Wächter, 450). The plan of evacuating the Jews to the Lublin region was only abandoned after orders of Himmler in February 1940 because of administrative difficulties, economic disruption and the increasing pressure on transport produced by the troop build-up for the war in the West (Noakes and Pridham, 451).

As the more specific orders to SS Einsatzgruppen are concerned, the Einsatzgruppen that entered Poland right behind the German front lines started their anti-Jewish campaign right away, beating, humiliating, and sometimes murdering Jews. In mid-September a systematic mass-shooting of Jews was carried out in the Kattowitz area, according to Noakes and Pridham with the aim of driving out the Jews (443). After complaints from an army commander in Poland, Heydrich issued the following orders to the SS Einsatzgruppen on September 21st; “if possible, the areas referred to under 1 are to be liberated from Jews, or a at least the aim must be to establish only a few cities as concentration points” (Heydrich, 443). Viewed in the context of a meeting held the same day, this “liberated from Jews” should be interpreted as evacuation, thus not as directly justifying the systematic shooting of Jews, although Heydrich does not refer to the level of violence that should be used while “liberating” an area; “The following instructions and directives serve simultaneously the purpose of encouraging the chiefs of the Einsatzgruppen to reflect on the practical issues” (Heydrich, 443). It seems as if the Einsatzgruppen got free reins in filling in the manner of evacuation, only limited by the level of unwanted chaos they caused (Noakes and Pridham, 447).

Although the plan of resettling the Jews in Lublin was now abandoned, this did not mean that the Jews were left alone. Ghettos were created throughout Poland, intended as a temporal measure awaiting the removal of the Jews in whatever final solution the Nazis would come up with (Noakes and Pridham, 454). Again, no illusions as to what the Nazi-ideology was aiming at could be attained when looking at eyewitness accounts from inside for example the Warsaw ghetto; “On the streets children are crying in vain, children who are dying of hunger. They howl, beg, sing, moan, shiver with cold, without underwear, without clothing, without shoes, in rags, sacks, flannel which are bound in strips round the emaciated skeletons, children swollen with hunger, disfigures, half conscious, already completely grown-up at the age of five, gloomy and weary of life” (Noakes and Pridham, 460). With the defeat of France in June 1940, the Nazis started to consider an old plan of deporting the European Jews to the isle of Madagascar. Franz Rademacher, head of the new desk of Jewish Affairs, regarded the Madagascar plan as creating a large ghetto, and was supported in his plan by both the SS and Hitler himself (Noakes and Pridham, 468-470). However, Noakes and Pridham add to this that “as with the Lublin reservation, the Madagascar plan was clearly envisaged as a means of eliminating the Jews over a period of time through their succumbing to the harsh living conditions” (471), a claim based on a statement made by Hitler in September that “he would not ask questions about the methods they had used to make the areas German …” (471). The plan was abandoned in the autumn of 1940, when it became clear that Britain would not be defeated nor sign a peace treaty; the Royal Navy formed too large an obstacle to make the Madagascar Plan feasible (Noakes and Pridham, 474).

Although the final solutions in form of the Lublin and Madagascar Plans were no longer rendered possible, Jews continued to be deported to ghettos throughout Poland, while it was clear that this could not be the final solution. At some point in the period from December 1940 to January 1941, Heydrich was made responsible by Hitler for preparing plans for the third final solution of the Jewish question (Noakes and Pridham, 477-478). Although a draft of Heydrich’s plans is not available, it is suggested by Noakes and Pridham that Heydrich envisaged deporting Jews to remote areas of Russia. The Jews would there either have to look after themselves in totally inhospitable conditions, or were to be placed in camps and worked to death (Noakes and Pridham, 477-478, 501).

To the SS Einsatzgruppen specific orders were given concerning their behaviour in the upcoming invasion of the SU. In a document, that is dated 28 April 1941, and is titled ‘On Co-operation with the Security Police and SD in the Eastern war which is envisaged’ written by Eduard Wagner, Quartermaster General, approved by Heydrich, can be read “The special commandos are entitled within the framework of their assignment to take executive measures vis-à-vis the civilian population on their own responsibility” (Wagner, 486). In the ‘Directives for the behaviour of the troops in Russia’ issued by the OKW is written that “1) Bolshevism is the deadly enemy of the National Socialist German people. Germany’s struggle is directed against this subversive ideology and its functionaries [Italics in original text]. 2) This struggle requires ruthless and energetic action against Bolshevik agitators, guerrillas, saboteurs, and Jews, and the total elimination of all active or passive resistance” (OKW, 486). The only written instructions concerning the operations of the SS Einsatzgruppen from during the war that remain, were issued by Heydrich, on 2 July 1941, directed to the four Higher SS and Police Leaders, containing the following: “Although all the measures to be taken are in the final analysis geared to the final goal, in view of the Bolshevik organization of the country which has been going on for years, they are to be carried out with ruthless severity throughout the area” (Heydrich, 489). After describing those groups that are eligible for execution, Heydrich orders that pogroms directed against Jews or communists by locals should be secretly encouraged (Heydrich, 489). Despite Heydrich’s specification that only Jews in Party and state positions should be executed, Jewish women and children were started to be massacred by the SS Einsatzgruppen from the end of July onwards, accumulating to the systematic slaughter of Jews by all SS units by the end of September (Noakes and Pridham, 489). The SS Einsatzgruppen justified their actions by saying that the executed Jews were “saboteurs, partisans or criminals, or as ‘retaliations’ for partisan actions” (Noakes and Pridham, 490). An account of the operations of an SS Einsatzgruppe in the Baltic States on October 1941 says that with encouraging pogroms “the security police were determined to solve the Jewish question with all possible means and most decisively” (Baltic States Report, 491). A similar account is given by Dr Rudolf Lange, responsible for operations in Latvia, dated January 1942; “The aim of Einsatzkommando 2 from the beginning was a radical solution of the Jewish problem through the execution of all Jews” (Lange, 491). This suggests that even though the SS Einsatzgruppen were not acting on specific orders, they were still invoking the more general Nazi ideology; the lack of protests from higher authorities suggests that the broader interpretation of the orders was not opposed.

The question why, when and on whose initiative the Final Solution shifted from evacuation to the SU to the decision that all European Jews should be extermination is an exceptionally controversial one. Noakes and Pridham argue that the evidence of killings in eastern Europe suggest a gradual radicalisation “as what its perpetrators came to regard as the most appropriate solution to the pressing problem of what to do with the million of Jews in Greater Germany and its occupied territories and satellites”(506). It is suggested that local initiatives evolved into systematic extermination of all European Jews. The order of Hitler was nothing more than a formality, only giving bureaucratic approval to an already existing operation that was initiated by the bottom of the Nazi hierarchy. On the other hand, it can be argued that some form of high authorisation was necessary regarding the high level of cooperation between the different state organs. Then there is the argument that not only the Einsatzgruppen became more radical; the circumstances created by operation Barbarossa, the development of the war, the pressing situation in the overcrowded Polish ghettos, the decision to deport the German Jews leading to an even larger number of Jews that needed to be taken care of, and the war with the United States all added to an overall more radical atmosphere throughout the German Reich (Noakes and Pridham, 506-507); “It [the outbreak of the war] simultaneously created the extreme conditions in which an extreme solution came to appear more acceptable and appropriate and removed the need to take account of world opinion” (Noakes and Pridham, 442).

Part II: The Initiative of the SS Einsatzgruppen
Another explanation as to why the SS Einsatzgruppen killed, and later systematically exterminated Jews is that they were acting on their own initiative, so not simply persecuting orders but actively enforcing their own version of a final solution. To illuminate this view, first the background of the members of the SS Einsatzgruppen will be discussed. Next, some examples of SS Einsatzgruppen acting without orders will be examined, followed by an account of the attitude of the Einsatzgruppen towards their killings.

The members of the Einsatzgruppen, each Einsatzgruppe containing between 600 and 1,000 men, can be divided into two groups; the lower ranked, and their leaders. According to Noakes and Pridham, the lower ranks consisted mainly of a group of haphazardly collected men from various police departments; “[t]he lower ranks were made up of Gestapo, criminal police, order police, Waffen SS and a number of specialists (for example interpreters, communications experts etc.)” (488). According to Browning, “[t]he majority of Einsatzgruppen personnel came from outside the Security Police and the SD”. The officers, on the other hand, were carefully selected, mainly from the ranks of the SD, and were well-educated: “[m]ost had middle-class professional backgrounds and included many law graduates. Of the seventeen leaders of Einsatzgruppe A, for example, eleven were law graduates of whom nine had doctorates. Thirteen had been members of the Nazi movement before 1933” (Noakes and Pridham, 488).

As said in Part I, no specific orders as to what to do with the ordinary Jews were given to the Einsatzgruppen. However, already in June and July 1941, examples can be found of Einsatzgruppen murdering Jews after separating them from the rest of the civilian population. Browning describes an incident in the town of Garsden, on the border between Germany and Lithuanian on 24 June 1941; 200 male Jews, one woman and at least one 12-year-old had to dig their own grave, were abused, and then shot. The leader of the specific unit ordering the shooting, Hans-Joachim Böhme, declared during his trial that he received orders from the RSHA, but there is no evidence for his claim (254). Since there were not enough people in Böhme’s unit to perform the execution, the local police commander supplied a Schutzpolizei platoon of one officer and 25 men. Some of the platoon-members were acquainted with their victims, and while discussing the execution afterwards “comments were made like ‘Good heavens, damn it, one generation has to go through this so that our children will have a better life.’” (Browning, 254). At the same time, another border unit interpreted the same order of “cleansing the border regions” (Browning, 256) simply as guarding bridges, illustrating the point made by Noakes and Pridham that there was no general policy on how to deal with the Jews in occupied areas; it was not until September that large numbers of Jewish women and children were being massacred by all SS units (489).

It is clear from the previous example that the locals that were seconded as Schutzpolizei platoon were driven by the conviction that they were acting for the greater good. In order to come to a conclusion about a possible initiative of the Einsatzgruppen, it is necessary to research the motives of both the ordinary members of the Einsatzgruppen, and the motives of the higher officers to participate in the random murder and later systematic slaughter of the Jews. An account given to the SU authorities in 1948 by David Ehof, head of the local Russian Security Police, in which he refers to the proceedings before the liquidation of the Borissov ghetto in Byelorussia by around 200 Latvian policemen can illuminate the motives of the first group: “For two days and two nights they were placed under the influence of alcohol and ideologically prepared to inflict atrocities on innocent people” (497). Although Ehof is referring to Latvian policemen, Browning, Noakes and Pridham give similar accounts for the SS Einsatzgruppen. According to Browning, ideological training had become part of the curriculum of every German policeman since the mid-1930s. The SS started to view themselves as defending the Reich against its inner enemies, just as the Wehrmacht protected it from its external foes - Jews and communists (251). However, as Kershaw added referring to propaganda: “[it] was above all effective where it was building upon, not countering, already existing values and mentalities” (4). Anti-Semitism had been an accepted and common attitude for decades; the Nazis in their propaganda simply encouraged already existing stereotypes and complot theories generated throughout history and more specifically in the aftermath of the First World War (Stackelberg, 251). An example of the landslide of propaganda that came over the German population, and the Nazi officials in particular, is an article published in Goebbel’s journal Das Reich: “All Jews are part of an international conspiracy against national socialist Germany on the basis of their birth and race. (…) The Jews are a parasitic race which settles on the cultures of nations which are healthy but lack a racial instinct like a putrefying mould. There is only one effective means of combating this: to cut it out and dispose of it” (517).

According to Browning, members of the SS were subjected to these anti-Semitic messages on a daily basis. Even though the members of the Einsatzgruppen had being ideologically indoctrinated, they could not be indifferent towards their actions: “Physical and psychological problems proliferated among the members of the killing units to the point of reducing their capacity to kill. Alcoholism became rampant” (Stackelberg, 224). However, since they continued murdering despite their problems, it is rather a sign of their determinacy to expose their Reich of all Jews than an indication of compassion, although persuasion by their superiors could have played a role.

As said, the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen were carefully seconded by the Nazi leaders; some of them had been members of the Nazi-party from the very start, and most of them came from the middle-class. According to Noakes and Pridham, many middle- and upper-class Germans believed that the Soviet Union was populated by hordes of culturally inferior races lead by “Jewish Bolsheviks bent on subverting the holiest values of Western civilization” (487). The vagueness of the orders from Berlin left the higher officers room for interpretation, and the previous example of two different understandings of the order “cleansing the border area” indicate that one officer could be more radical than the other, making it difficult to generalise. Browning gives an example of extreme Anti-Semitism among leaders of the Einsatzgruppen when describing the murder of 2,000 Jews in Lithuania, instigated by a “few determined officers [who] initiated the murder and dragged others along. (…) The general did not begin to take notice that men under his command were running amok until the executions had reached a park next to his headquarters” (255-256); “The authority to inflict suffering and death on civilians became detached from military rank and status, with lower- and middle-ranking officers taking the initiative while their superiors provided support, encouragement, or ex post facto legitimization. In this way the limits of what was regarded as acceptable in dealing with selected groups within the civilian population were expanded” (256).

In short, there are two different theories that can be distinguished when researching the motives behind the killings of Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen. The first one, the so-called intentionalist theory, interprets the actions of the Einsatzgruppen as the result of a general plan to kill all Jews, and claims that the murders were ordered by the Nazi authorities. Scholars advocating the second, structuralist theory, argue that there was no such plan, only circumstances creating a chain reaction ending in the Holocaust.

Researching the first theory in the context of the actions of the Einsatzgruppen, we can conclude the following. Four different phases in Nazi policy can be distinguished in the period before the Holocaust. First there was the plan of evacuating all Jews to the area around Lublin, then a plan of resettling all Jews to the African island of Madagascar, followed by Heydrich’s idea of transporting all Jews to some remote part of the SU. The final solution that was made general policy was murdering all Jews in special death camps such as Auschwitz. These four phases have of course in common that they were all considered a possible final solution, although at different times. The reason the first three were abandoned however, was the same; circumstances that were difficult to control by the Nazis. The plan of transporting Jews to Lublin was abandoned since, among other causes, the area was getting too crowded and the railway system overheated; Madagascar was no longer an option due to the continuing war with Britain; Heydrich’s plan was dismissed since the SU did not surrender. Another feature common to all four of them, is that all four of them were not interested in keeping the Jews alive. Although the Jews would be transported to Madagascar, they would still have to live in camps that were designed to decimate the inmates. In fact, the terrible conditions in the ghettos, in which the Jews lived awaiting the final solution, were already an indication that the Nazis wanted to get rid of the Jews, the answer as to how exactly that should happen depended not on sympathy, but on practicality. This is also the very order given to the Einsatzgruppen; never a specific order was given - at least, there is no reliable evidence pointing in that direction. According to Gauleiter Bürckel, Hitler would “not ask question about the methods they had used to make the areas German and could not care less if sometime in the future it was established that the methods used to gain the territories had been unpleasant and not absolutely legal” (471). The only traceable orders could be interpreted in many ways, and that is exactly what happened.

The second theory, the structuralist idea, argues that the initiatives of the Einsatzgruppen were responsible for the radicalisation of the final solution. When researching the backgrounds of both the ordinary soldiers and the officers of the SS Einsatzgruppen, it can be concluded that the lower ranked were not specifically selected, and mainly came from the Gestapo, criminal police, order police, and Waffen SS. All these groups had been subjected to severe indoctrination, adding to the notion of Anti-Semitism that had been accepted for centuries. The indoctrination was proclaiming the idea that the Jews were an inferior race that, combined with Bolshevism, was threatening Germany, an idea that had been part of the Nazi-ideology for years. The officers of the Einsatzgruppen, also indoctrinated, were carefully seconded from especially the SD. This careful selection by high-ranked Nazis indicates that the actions of the Einsatzgruppen, although not performed after specific orders, were supported by the higher authorities in Berlin. As Browning says: “in planning for operation Barbarossa, it must have been clear to the leader of the Security Police and the SD that the likelihood of his officers in the field committing acts of violence against the civilian population increased with the vagueness of the guidelines issued to them” (Browning, 253). It was then the radical atmosphere created by the war that extended the borders of reasonable violence against civilians and cleared the way for the blood thirst of the most radical members of the Einsatzgruppen.

In conclusion, it seems as if a combination of both the intentionalist and structuralist theory is necessary to explain the motives behind the killings of the SS Einsatzgruppen. On the one hand, there was a general plan of getting rid of the Jews that had been proclaimed by the Nazis for several years. All members of the Einsatzgruppen, both the ordinary soldiers and the officers, were aware of and probably shared the Nazi attitude towards Jews. So, even though there might never have been a specific order from the highest authorities, and even though the content of the Final Solution was disputed, the urge to rid themselves of the Jews had been present from the very start of the Nazi regime. However, it is likely that the initiatives taken by individual members of the Einsatzgruppen – while being indoctrinated by a higher authority and under influence of the extremities of the war - pushed the limits of acceptable violence against Jews far enough to make room for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Baltic States Report. Account of the operations of Einsatzgruppe A. 15 Oct. 1941. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 491
Browning, C.R. The Origins of the Final Solution – The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939 – March 1942. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln. 2004.
Bürckel. Notes of a Statement Made by Hitler. 25 Sept. 1940. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 471.
Ehof, D. Account of Liquidation of the Ghetto in Borissov during October 1941. 1948. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 497.
Gräbe, H. Nuremburg Testimonies. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 500.
Heydrich, R. Instructions to the four Higher SS and Police Leaders to the Soviet Union. 2 July 1941. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 489.
Instructions to the SS Einsatzgruppen in Russia. September 21st . Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 443.
Hitler, A. Speech to the Reichstag. 30 Jan. 1939. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 441.
Kershaw, I. The “Hitler Myth”. p 4. Quoted from Browning, p 251.
Lange, R. Report on Operations in Latvia. Jan. 1942. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 491.
Noakes and Pridham. “The Persecution of the Jews 1939-1941”. Nazism Vol. 3 – Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination. 1999.
OKW. Directives for the behaviour of the troops in Russia. 19 May 1941. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 486.
Stackelberg, R. Hitler’s Germany: Origins, Interpretations, Legacies. Routledge: London. 2003.
Wächter, K. January Report. 19 Feb. 1940. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 450.
Wagner, E. OKH Draft Corrective: On Co-operation, with the Security Police and SD in the Eastern War which is envisaged. 28 April 1941. Quoted from Noakes and Pridham, p 486.