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The Holocaust as a Moral Choice
Part III

By Alex Grobman


“Hitler’s Partners In Crime” 

In front of 200 senior Wehrmacht officers at the Reich Chancellery on March 30, 1941, Hitler described how the campaign in the East would be the most brutal ever. “Bolshevism is a sociological  crime,” he screamed. “We must abandon any thought of soldierly comradeship. Commissars and OGPU [The Joint State Political Directorate-intelligence and state security service and secret police] men are criminals and must be treated as such.” This tirade foreshadowed the “ most criminal order” in the history of the German military, the infamous “Commissar Order.”[1]  

The Commissar Order issued by the German High Command (OKW) on June 6, 1941, placed this conflict in perspective when it stated: “The originators of barbaric, Asiatic methods of warfare are the political commissars…. Therefore, when captured either in battle or offering resistance, they are to be shot on principle.” Political commissars reported directly to party leaders about the military, spread political propaganda to the average soldiers, and strove to preclude discord within the ranks.[2] (In situations where the Russians could not be shot “while fighting or escaping,” an officer would determine if they were to be executed after consulting with two other officers or NCOs. The fear that if incarcerated, the commissars would continue to promote Bolshevik propaganda in the Reich, was used to justify why they had to be eliminated.[3]  

The goal of the Commissar Order was to ensure every soldier understood the unquestionably unique nature of the war and that Soviet citizens had no value whatsoever. The murder of thousands of hostages, alleged partisans, and prisoners of war by the Wehrmacht and SS, and the starving of hundreds of thousands of POWs and civilians, is the result of contravening international law, leading to the “unprecedented brutalization of the German soldiers.”[4]  

Although there had not been an intentional policy of “wholesale extermination,” of Soviet POWs, the murder was by and large condoned. Believing this would be a brief war, the German military was in no rush to deal with the large number of prisoners. They focused on instituting security and German control in the East and appropriating food and raw materials for the Wehrmacht and the German people. Only a nominal quantity of food was provided for the prisoners.[5] 

The idea that every Jew was a partisan, a strategy initiated in 1942 to murder the Jews “undercover of the anti-partisan war,” implicated the Wehrmacht in the “crime of the century.”  Significantly, “many, though not all,” members of the German military did not consider killing Jews as anything unusual. In an order of the day, Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, who commanded the 6th Army, informed his men that they were “the standard-bearers of an inexorable popular concept” and should have “full comprehension for the necessity of this severe but justified atonement required from the Jewish subhumans.”[6] 

By August 1941, it was evident that the Wehrmacht had “neutralized itself as a power factor” and that rather than opposing the annihilation of the Soviet Jews, it would cooperate with the Einsatzgruppen.[7] 

The Einsatzgruppen, which served under the direction of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and the supervision of Reinhard Heydrich, was divided into sub-units called Sonderkommandos or Einsatzkommandos. There were between 600 to 1,000 men in each Einsatzgruppe, although the exact number varied as conditions changed. The total number came close to 3,000. Every sub-Kommando leader reported to the Einsatzgruppe leader. The Einsatzgruppe leader would then send the strictly confidential report by wireless and by courier to the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) in Berlin.[8] In Einsatzgruppen tabulations, Jews were practically almost listed separately.[9] 

The Einsatzgruppen and the national uniformed Order Police (Ordnungspolizei) under Kurt Daluege’s command, were the two initial sources of SS personnel that entered Russia. Himmler had additional forces under his personal control. On April 7, 1941, he established a special staff (Einsatzstab), which was officially identified on May 6 as Kommandostab Reichsführer (command staff of the Reichsführer-SS). In early May, Himmler also brought diverse SS units from Poland together with the First and Second SS Brigades and a SS Cavalry Brigade. The three units were now under his command. By adding several smaller units, this force of Waffen-SS totaled 25,000 men.[10] They clearly played “a centrally important part of the murder machine.”[11] 

As soon as an Einsatzgruppe unit entered a town, it began “a deadly stranglehold” on the Jewish residents murdering thousands of them “day by day and hour by hour.” For “Reinhard Heydrich’s men no brutality was too base, no trick to mean, no barbarity too disgusting, if it allowed them to raise their grim tally.” To entrap their unsuspecting victims as quickly as possible, the Jews in one town were told to assemble at a particular location to register for housing in a camp. Approximately 34,000 people appeared, including women and children. After being robbed of their possessions, they were murdered, a process that took several days. The Einsatzgruppe reports substantiated their “murders’ fanatical zeal—reports couched in cold official language as if recording production figures for refrigerators or numbers of vermin destroyed.”[12] 

Inadequate manpower, geography, and demographics precluded destroying all of Germany’s enemies–five million Jews—in a short period. Recounting operations in White Ruthenia, Einsatzgruppe A lamented that it did not capture the area until a “heavy frost had set in…. [which] “made mass executions much more difficult.” Another challenge they encountered was that the Jews “live widely scattered over the whole country. In view of the enormous distances, the bad condition of the roads, the shortage of vehicles and petrol, and the small forces of Security Police and SD, it needs the utmost effort in order to be able to carry out shootings.” Despite all of the complications, the report proudly proclaimed, “Nevertheless, 41,000 Jews have been shot up to now.”[13] Under these demanding circumstances, Himmler and Heydrich instructed the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen to annihilate the most dangerous of their adversaries first.[14] 

In many instances, advanced units of the Einsatzgruppe began their murder campaign even while the Wehrmacht was still fighting in the area. They frequently entered the towns together with the German troops. This occurred in Kovno (Lithuania), Jelgava (Latvia), Riga (Latvia), and Reval (Estonia). As they continued on to Zhitomir (Ukraine), behind the Wehrmacht tanks were three vehicles of Einsatzgruppe C;  and Einsatzkommando 4 A which occupied Kiev on September 19, 1941, the day the city was conquered (Höhne, op. cit. 359-360). “In a brief span,” noted Lucy Dawidowicz,  “Hitler had won his Lebensraum (living space) and the unhindered possibility of creating his racial utopia.”[15]  

When asked what the world would say and how they would react to the indiscriminate murder of the Jewish people, Hitler responded: “When Barbarossa commences, the world will hold its breath and make no comment.”[16]  


[1] Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker & Warburg, 1970),354-356; Förster, “The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination against the Soviet Union” op. cit. 11-20). 

[2]; Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, Abraham Margaliot, Eds. Documents on the Holocaust, Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union, (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981 ): 376-377; Gerald Reitlinger,  “The Truth About Hitler’s ‘Commissar Order:’ The Guilt of the German Generals,” Commentary (July 1959). 

[3] Jürgen Förster, “The Relation Between Operation Barbarossa as an Ideological War of Extermination and the Final Solution,” in The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation, David Cesarani, Ed.(London: Routledge,1994),91. 

[4] Christian Streit, “Wehrmacht, Einsatgruppen, Soviet POWs and Anti-Bolshevism In the Emergence of the Final Solution,” in The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation, David Cesarani, Ed. (London: Routledge,1994), 111. 

[5] Jürgen Förster, “The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination against the Soviet Union,” Yad Vashem Studies, 14 (1981):21-23. 

[6] Höhne, op. cit.367-368; Thomas Kühne, The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017). 

[7] Streit, op.cit. 114. 

[8]“Trials Of War Criminals Before The Nuernberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law Number 10 Nuernberg “THE EINSATZGRUPPEN CASE” Military Tribunal II (October 1946-April 1949) Volume IV/1). 

[9] Ronald Headland, Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943 (Teaneck, New Jersey:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992), 11-12, 53,66-67; Höhne, op.cit.359; Christian Gerlach, The Extermination of the European Jews (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 68-71; Peter Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 189-191; Father Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008),51-59;65-66; Yaacov Lozowick, “Rollbahn Mord: The Early Activities of Einsatzgruppe C,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2, 1987: 221-241; Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front 1941-1945, German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986); Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution. The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, Yad Vashem, 2004). 

[10] Browning, The Origins of The Final Solution, op. cit. 233-234; Höhne, op.cit. 465-466.  

[11] Yehoshua Büchler, “Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS: Himmler’s personal murder brigades in 1941,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies Volume 1 Number 1 (1986):11-25.) 

[12] Höhne, op.cit. 360-361; Martin Dean, Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Götz Aly, Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006). 

[13] Trials Of War Criminals Before The Nuernberg Military Tribunals,” op.cit. 

[14] Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 170; Christopher R. Browning,  “Hitler and the Euphoria of Victory: The path to the Final Solution,” in The Final Solution Origins and Implementation David Cesarani, Ed. (New York: Routledge 1994), 139-140. 

[15] Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945 (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), 168. 

[16] Gideon Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem (New York: ‎ Harper & Row, 1966), 71. 

Source: Courtesy of Alex Grobman.

Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and Ph.D. in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.