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The Holocaust as a Moral Choice
Part V

By Alex Grobman


Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht  

Once the Einsatzgruppen reached their destination, their success depended on a number of factors: the attitudes of the Wehrmacht, the indigenous population, and the victims. The agreement between the OKH (Army High Command) and the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) concluded before Operation Barbarossa, and called for at least minimal cooperation between the two organizations. Surprisingly, the cooperation surpassed expectations. The  Security Police had anticipated nothing more than a “grudging acquiescence” to the murder campaign. Instead, Einsatzkommando 4b (Einsatzgruppen C) reported on July 6, 1941: “Armed forces surprisingly welcome hostility against Jews,” On September 8, 1941Einsatzgruppe D reported that relations between the military officials were “excellent.”[1]  

After some units of the Einsatzgruppen committed massacres in Poland in 1939-1940 – although not comparable in magnitude to those they would perpetrate in the Soviet Union —their actions aroused “considerable unrest in the army.” Under the circumstances, Hitler was probably “more than doubtful” whether he could depend on the army’s cooperation to acquiesce to mass murders on quite such a sizeable scale. He understood that the elite of the armed forces, bureaucracy, and industry were to a large extent conservative. What he did not know, was how they might would respond to the idea of total annihilation of European Jewry and just how realistic it would be to gain their support to the extent required to achieve this goal.[2]  

He had nothing to worry about. The Wehrmacht “went out of its way to turn over Jews to the Einsatzgruppen, to request actions against Jews, to participate in killing operations, and to shoot Jewish hostages in ‘reprisal’ for attacks on occupation forces.”  The generals justified their involvement by charging the Jews with being “Bolshevist diehards,” who encouraged and assisted partisans fighting behind German lines.[3]  

 Every Jew a Partisan 

As early as July 8, 1941, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler apparently told Arthur Nebe, commander of  Einsatzgruppe B, that “every Jew must in principle be regarded as a partisan.” Only on July 11, the commander of the Police Regiment Centre, with headquarters in Bialystok, in northeastern Poland, ordered the “immediate  summary shooting of all male Jews aged 17 and 45 convicted of looting.” These orders initiated the beginning of the murder of all Jews suited for serving in the military without any additional conditions.[4] 

During the first weeks of the war, various battalions of the German Order Police also participated in murdering Jewish civilians in the occupied Eastern zones. On June 27, the Bialystok Police Battalion 309 massacred at least 2,000 Jews. No less than 500 were herded into the synagogue where they were burned alive. The police took the opportunity to rob the Jews and perpetrate “some excesses” while intoxicated.[5] 

In the middle of July, Police Battalions 316 and 322  murdered 3,000 Jewish men. Convicting Jews of looting was made easy. A few days before, members of Battalion 322 searched the Jewish quarter, and everything they confiscated they defined as “plunder,” which made the Jews looters by definition.[6]  

It appears the summer and autumn of 1941 became a critical point during which “the Einsatzgruppen, the  SS in the concentration camps and Wehrmacht units became gradually habituated to murders of unparalleled dimension.” By August, the “Wehrmacht had neutralized itself as a power factor and that it would cooperate in the destruction of the Soviet Jews rather than oppose it.”[7]   

The Wehrmacht Became a Critical Element 

The Wehrmacht thus became a decisive element in the elaborate and complex mass murder campaign. By conquering large areas in the east, the Wehrmacht enabled millions of people to be annihilated. They protected the murderers — at first the Einsatzgruppen, and later those administrating the extermination camps — from enemy attacks. They also arranged logistical assistance, and even staff when needed, for the mass executions. The Wehrmacht murdered more than half a million Soviet prisoners whom they defined as political and biological adversaries. Ultimately, they were responsible for the death of more than three million prisoners by starvation, malnutrition, exposure, overwork, epidemics, and extreme physical and mental abuse.[8]  

Publicly acknowledging that Hitler and Himmler could not have succeeded in their mission to destroy the Jews of Europe without the active cooperation of the Wehrmacht’s High Command and the compliance, commitment, and involvement of the “junior office corps and the rank and file,” would have implied that a “much larger portion of the German population shared responsibility for the regime’s crimes that one would have liked to admit,” after the downfall of the Third Reich.[9] 

“Petty and Loathsome Thievery” 

The Wehrmacht was also aggressively involved in financial exploitation in the areas under their control in the Soviet Union, which caused the death of millions of non-combatants. Their deliberate and widespread destruction of property and resources, resulted in the obliteration of thousands of villages and towns, leading to the deaths of significant numbers of men, women, and children. This was in addition to the siege of Leningrad, during which more than a million people lost their lives.[10]  

“Although engaged in an ideological enterprise, supposedly undertaken on the highest ethnic and cultural level, executants of the program were not above the most petty and loathsome thievery,” noted the Nuremberg International Tribunal. During the liquidation of Jews in the Ukrainian cities of Zhitomir and Kiev, the Einsatzkommando collected enough clothing to fill 137 trucks, which was transferred to the National Socialist People’s Welfare Organization, a social welfare organization established in 1931, active throughout Germany. The report did not indicate if the clothing was ripped from the victims while they were still alive or after they had been murdered.[11]  

One of the defendants at the Nuremberg Trial said that during the winter of 1941, he was ordered to procure fur coats for his men. Since the Jews had an abundance of winter clothing, “it would not matter much to them if they gave up a few fur coats.” In describing their execution which he attended, he was asked whether the victims were undressed before the execution. He replied, “No, the clothing wasn’t taken—this was a fur coat procurement operation.”[12] 

A report from Einsatzgruppe D headquarters of February 1942 described the “confiscation” of watches from the Jews. The gold and silver watches were delivered to Berlin, other items were presented to the rank and file of the Wehrmacht and to members of the Einsatzgruppe “for a nominal price” or even “gratuitously.” The stolen funds were sent to the Reich Bank, except “for a small amount required for routine purposes (wages, etc.)” In other words, the executioners compensated themselves with money pilfered from their victims.[13]  

The same Einsatzgruppe reported on the harsh conditions under which some ethnic German families were forced to live under in southern Russia. The Einsatzgruppe were able to improve their lives somewhat by providing them with Jewish homes, furniture, children’s beds, and other equipment confiscated from the Jews. Money and valuables appropriated from the Jews were sent to Berlin to the Reich Ministry of Finance.[14]  


[1] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews Volume 1 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003 ),305; Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, and Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2004), 227; Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992); Alex J. Kay, “Transition to Genocide, July 1941: Einsatzkommando 9 and the Annihilation of Soviet Jewry,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 27, Number 3, (Winter 2013): 416-417. 

[2] Christian Streit, “Wehrmacht, Einsatzgruppen, Soviet POWS and Anti-Bolshevism in the Emergence of the Final Solution,” in The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation Ed. David Cesarani (New York: Routledge, 1994), 104; Kay, op. cit. 413-414.  

[3] Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews op.cit. 305; Browning, op. cit. 227. 

[4] Peter Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 198-202. 

[5] Ibid. 203. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Streit, op. cit.113-114. 

[8] Omer Bartov, “Operation Barbarossa and the origins of the Final Solution,” in The Final Solution Origins and Implementation, David Cesarani, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 120-121. 

[9] Ibid.121-122. 

[10] Ibid.121. 

[11] Michael A. Musmanno, U.S.N.R, Military Tribunal II, Case 9: Opinion and Judgment of the Tribunal. Nuremberg: Palace of Justice. 8 April 1948. pp. 36 – 38: 

[12] Ibid. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Ibid. 

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.