Women, Children, and the Elderly
Women, children, and the elderly were not murdered immediately after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, but were separated from the rest of the population and imprisoned. Only men of draft age were initially shot. Between the end of July and the beginning of August 1941 women, children, and the aged were murdered according to Alfred Streim, who led the Central Office for the Prosecution of Nazi Crimes. The executions were portrayed as “cleansing operations” (Sduberungsaktionen) enabling them to be justified as reprisals for active resistance against the German military in accordance with Reinhard Heydrich’s “secret orders-liberally interpreted to eliminate ‘elements hostile to the Reich.’” This included “saboteurs, [communist] functionaries, and the representatives of Bolshevism, who also comprised the Jews.”
A Partisan War
Once the Soviet Union’s dictator Joseph Stalin urged the Communist Party to launch a partisan war behind German lines, the guerrilla warfare provided Hitler with the opportunity to camouflage his extermination campaign as a military imperative: to fire on anyone who simply appeared to be suspicious. Battling partisans and murdering Jews “blended together in the ‘cleansing’ of White Russia.” Thus, the conscious decision to combine ideological warfare with military necessity” assumed “a new form in the East by the fall of 1941.
The ploy to conceal the slaughtering of Jews with the drive to eliminate Soviet anti-partisan sabotage was confirmed on January 7, 1946, when Colonel Yuri Pokrovsky, Chief Soviet prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, examined Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. Von dem Bach-Zelewski was Higher SS and Police leader for Russia Centre, who was responsible for Einsatzgruppe B massacring Jews in Belorussia. By the end of 1942, he served as “Chief of an Anti-Partisan Formations” for the entire Eastern Front.
Among the questions Pokrovsky asked Bach-Zelewski was: “If I understood you correctly, you replied to a question of my colleague, the American Prosecutor, by saying that the struggle against the partisan movement was a pretext for destroying the Slav and Jewish population? Bach-Zelewski answered: “Yes.”
Pokrovsky asked: “Was the Wehrmacht Command aware of the methods adopted for fighting the partisan movement and for destroying the Jewish population?” Bach-Zelewski responded, “The methods were known generally and hence the military leaders as well.”
Reconstituting the Einsatzgruppen
Although the Einsatzgruppen had operated in Poland, they were not kept “on hand,” and another formation had to be created for each mission. The Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) dispatched orders to the men in the main and regional branches of the Security Police and SD to report to the Security Police training center at Pretzsch, on the Elbe near Wittenberg.
In late May 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), gathered 120 leaders of the Einsatzgruppe and Einsatzkommando at Pretzsch to prepare them for Operation Barbarossa. In mid-June, he convened a meeting of the 3,000 members of the Einsatzgruppen near the village of Düben on the Mulde, where he vaguely spoke of the task ahead, which demanded “unparalleled hardness.”
In speaking at a later point to the Einsatzgruppe Commanders, Heydrich said, according to Dr. Walter Blume, SS commander, and leader of Sonderkommando 7a, “Judaism in the East is the source of Bolshevism and must therefore be wiped out in accordance with the Führer’s aims.” Blume claimed he wanted to resist the order, but “for me, an order from the Führer was the means of making war.”
Martin Sandberger, Commander of Sonderkommando 1a of Einsatzgruppe A, who like Blume was a Doctor of Law, also opposed the order, yet considered it “legal” because Hitler “represented the supreme authority of the State.”
Otto Ohlendorf, who had served as head of Amt III (SD-Inland) of the RSHA, was responsible for intelligence and security within Germany, before becoming Commander of Einsatzgruppen D. While at Pretzsch, Ohlendorf said “in the presence of all the assembled Einsatzgruppe and Sonderkommandos, he protested loud and clear against the order for mass execution.” Nonetheless, it was his duty “to obey the orders of my Government, no matter whether I regarded them as moral or immoral.”
Thus, “no one rebelled, everyone obeyed. The men of the Einsatzgruppen moved happily off to their assembly areas,” observed Heinz Höhne, a German journalist and historian who specialized in Nazi and intelligence history.”
Operational Situation Reports
The ruthless and unprecedented destruction by the Einsatzgruppen of the Jews was documented in great detail in daily Operational Situation Reports written from June 1941 to May 1943. A special unit was established in the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), to ensure that the highest levels of the military and government would receive mimeographed reports, especially Adolph Eichmann, a pivotal figure in implementing the Final Solution. A number of terms were used to describe the murder of the Jewish population: “liquidate,” “execute,” “rendered harmless,” “special treatment,” “got rid of,” “done away with,” “taken care of,” “the Jewish question resolved,” and “There is no longer any Jewish population.”
“No writer of murder fiction, no dramatist steeped in macabre lore, can ever expect to conjure up from his imagination a plot which will shock sensibilities as much as will the stark drama of these sinister bands,” noted the prosecutors at the Nuernberg Military Trials. The members of the Einsatzgruppen and the Security Police were “not sitting in an office hundreds and thousands of miles away from the slaughter….They were in the field actively superintending, controlling, directing, and taking an active part in the bloody harvest. They participated in a crime of such unprecedented brutality and of such inconceivable savagery that the mind rebels against its own thought image and the imagination staggers in the contemplation of a human degradation beyond the power of language to adequately portray.” After reading the reports, written with “such cold precision…one is… left with the uniquely Nazi phenomenon of actions of such depravity as to require absolute secrecy on the one hand, and the strange desire to record the events on the other.” We learn nothing from these detached accounts about the extent of the atrocities committed against the Jews and Germany’s “political enemies.”
The International Military Tribunal noted although figures of the fatalities were clearly recorded in the Einsatzgruppen reports, “there were other vast numbers of victims of the Einsatzgruppen who did not fall under the executing rifles. In many cities, towns, and provinces hundreds and thousands of fellow citizens of those slain fled in order to avoid a similar fate. Through malnutrition, exposure, lack of medical attention, and particularly, if one thinks of the aged and the very young, of exhaustion, most if not all of those refugees perished….Then there were those who were worked to death. The Einsatzgruppen were still criminally liable “without their having to do the[actual] killing.”
A Final Note
German historian Jürgen Förster remarked there were commanders who attempted to distinguish between military and police actions and cautioned the troops that not every person was their adversary simply because they appeared to be “A Bolshevik—in rags, unhygienic, unkempt.” But such attempts failed. “The majority of commanders,” Förster said, “either believed or allowed themselves to be convinced that the war of destruction against the Soviet Union required such harshness.” The Wehrmacht leadership was prepared to allow the troops ‘to fight the ideological part of the war as well.”
Even those who opposed National Socialism, and were involved in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, like General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, commander of the 17th Army, and General Erich Hoepner, who commanded the 4th Panzer Army, succeeded in merging their hostility with “a militant anti-communism.”
In an order he issued on May 2, 1941, Hoepner wrote: “The war against Russia is an important part of the German people’s battle for existence. It is the old fight of Germans versus Slavs, the defense of European culture against the Muscovite-asiatic flood; and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism.
This war must have as its goal the destruction of today’s Russia and for this reason it must be conducted with unheard-of harshness. Every clash must, in its conception and execution, be guided by the iron will to completely and mercilessly annihilate the enemy. In particular, there is to be no mercy for the carriers of the current Russian-Bolshevik system.”
On July 30, 1941, von Stülpnagel warned not to engage in arbitrary reprisals against the civilian population-but if the act can not be attributed to the Ukrainians—to focus on the “Jewish and Communist inhabitants,” among whom the “Jewish Komsomol members” in particular were to be “regarded as perpetrators of sabotage and responsible for forming young people into gangs.”
“Since more than 17.3 million Germans, ethnic Germans and drafted foreigners from the occupied countries served in the Wehrmacht it was a people’s army,” observed Jürgen Förster. During the Holocaust, he said, the Wehrmacht assumed a number of roles—“perpetrator, collaborator, and bystander.” After the war, it claimed, “to be, victim.”
 “Correspondence Alfred Streim,” Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual Volume 6, 1989); Alfred Streim, “The Tasks of the SS Einsatzgruppen.” Simon Wiesenthal Annual Volume 4, 1987; Helmut Krausnick, “Correspondence,” Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual, Volume 6, 1989; Alan 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): 411-442.
 Jürgen Förster, “Complicity or Entanglement? Wehrmacht, War, And Holocaust,” in The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck Eds. (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998), 277-278.
 International Military Tribunal, The Nuremberg Trials: Complete Tribunal Proceedings Volume 4 (December 17, 1945 to 8th January 8, 1946); See also Trials Of War Criminals Before The Nuernberg Military Tribunals, Under Control Council Law Number 10 Volume IV Nuernberg (October 1946-April 1949): 375; Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 15 (June 7, 1946) https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/06-07-46.asp; 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), 76; Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker &Warburg, 1970), 315, 369; Edgar M. Howell, The Soviet Partisan Movement, 1941-1944 (Bennington, Vermont: Merriam Press, 2006), 85; https://www.roberthjackson.org/nuremberg-event/bach-zelewski-ii/
 Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews Third Edition Volume I (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003), 289, 293; Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker &Warburg, 1970), 358.
 Höhne, op. cit. 358.
 Ibid. 359.
 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), 12, 52-54; Gideon Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem (New York: Harper & Row, 1966),82; Höhne, op. cit. 361-362; Benjamin B. Ferencz, Less Than Slaves: Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979), 12.
 “Trials Of War Criminals Before The Nuernberg Military Tribunals, Under Control Council Law Number 10 Volume IV Nuernberg,” (October 1946-April 1949) https://www.uni-marburg.de/de/icwc/dokumentation/dokumente/nmt/nt_war-criminals_vol-iv.pdf ), 419.
 Ibid. 414.
 Ibid. 412.
 Headland, op. cit.12, 52-54; Gideon Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 82; Höhne, op. cit. 361-362; Benjamin B. Ferencz, Less Than Slaves: Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979), 12.
 “Trials Of War Criminals Before The Nuernberg Military Tribunals,” Under Control Council Law Number 10 Volume IV, op. cit. 433.
 Jürgen Förster, “Complicity or Entanglement? Wehrmacht, War, And Holocaust,” in The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck Eds. (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998), 273,279.
 Ibid. 279.
 Peter Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 242-243.
 Förster, “Complicity or Entanglement? Wehrmacht, War, And Holocaust,”op. cit. 261,280.
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.