He was born in Lauenburg, Pomerania on March 1 1899, the son of Oskar von Zelewski. The Kashubian Zelewski family had served Poland and Prussia according to changing historical opportunities. His father joined the army and was killed in 1915 during World War I. The following year Erich von Zelewski volunteered for the Prussian army and served there until the end of the war. He was wounded twice and was awarded twice with an Iron Cross.
After the war, he remained in the Reichswehr and, among other duties, fought in the Silesian Uprisings. In 1924, he was transferred to the border guards' units (Grenzschutz), where he remained until 1930.
After quitting the Grenzschutz, he joined the German Nazi Party (I.D. card No. 489101) in 1930 and became a member of the SS in 1931. He was promoted quickly and by the end of 1933 reached the rank of SS-Brigadeführer. That's when he started using his mother's maiden name (Bach) to sound more Germanic.
A member of the Reichstag from 1932 to 1944, he was involved in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. He served at various Nazi party posts, initially in East Prussia and after 1936 in Silesia. By 1937, he became commander of all police and SS units in Silesia.
After the outbreak of World War II, units under his command took part in reprisal actions and the shooting of POWs during the September Campaign, however, von dem Bach was not present personally. On November 7, 1939, Heinrich Himmler offered him the post of commissar for strengthening of German spirit in occupied Polish Silesia. His duties included mass resettlements and the confiscation of private property. By August 1940, more than 20,000 families from the Zywiec region were deprived of their homes and forced to leave.
In late 1939, he proposed that a concentration camp for the non-German inhabitants of the region be created in the vicinity of the town of Oswiecim. After initial reluctancy, Heinrich Himmler agreed to von dem Bachs pleas and in May 1940 the Auschwitz concentration camp was created.
On November 28, 1940, von dem Bach officially changed his name and dropped the name of Zelewski.
On June 22 1941, von Bach-Zelewski was made Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer ("higher SS and police leader") in the region of the Heeresgruppe Mitte ("middle army group"); in July 1943, he became commander of the so-called "Bandenkampfverbände" ("mob fight units"), responsible for, among other deeds, the mass murder of 35,000 civilians in Riga and killing more than 200,000 people in Belorussia and Eastern Poland. He was to be the commander of SS and police units in Moscow, however the city was never conquered and von dem Bach remained in command of "anti-partisan" units in the Central Front until 1943.
In February 1942, he was hospitalized due to a nervous breakdown connected with the ethnic cleansing in Belorussia. He retook his post in July.
On August 2, 1944, he was given the command of all troops fighting against the Warsaw Uprising (Korpsgruppe Bach). Units under his command killed approximately 200,000 civilians (more than 65,000 in mass executions) and an unknown number of POWs. After more than two months of heavy fighting, he finally managed to recapture the city.
Between January 26 and February 10, 1945, von dem Bach commanded one of the "paper-corps", X SS Armeekorps in Germany. His unit, however, was annihilated after less than two weeks. He went underground and tried to leave the country. However, he was arrested by U.S. military police on August 1, 1945. In exchange for his testimony against his former superiors at the Nuremberg Trials, von dem Bach was never accused of any war crimes. Similarly, he was never extradited to Poland and the USSR. He was released from prison in 1949.
In 1951, he admitted that he had helped Hermann Göring commit suicide in 1946 (he handed some cyanide capsules to the authorities with serial numbers not far removed from the one used by Göring), but he wasn't charged for this action. In 1951, he was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp for the murder of political opponents in the early thirties, however, he wasn't brought to prison until 1958, when he was accused of killing an SS officer during the Night of the Long Knives. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. In 196,1 he was sentenced to another 10 years in home custody for the murder of ten German communists in the early thirties.
He died in a Munich prison on March 8 1972.