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The Holocaust as a Moral Choice
Part XI

By Alex Grobman


Clear Signs of Exhaustion

During the first few weeks of the Russian campaign, Heinrich Himmler sought to remain in command by ensuring his men would operate autonomously, exploiting new opportunities to advance his policy objectives, which they did. In the absence of specific written orders from superiors, Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo, explained to some of his men in late September 1941, they would have “to get used to reading between the lines and acting accordingly.” In this environment, the “eagerness of subordinate officers to adopt new, more radical measures,” was responsible for the process of escalation that occurred, and even created “competition with each other as to their scores’’ of people they had slaughtered.[1]  

“Having experienced the symptoms of nervous collapse personally while witnessing model executions,” Himmler issued a secret SS order on December 12, 1941, in which he proclaimed: “It is the holy duty of senior leaders and commanders personally to ensure that none of our men who have to fulfill this heavy duty should suffer emotional or personal damage thereby….”[2] 

On August 15, 1941, Himmler visited Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia, where he asked Arthur Nebe, commander of Einsatzgruppe B, to shoot 100 people, so he could see for himself what a “liquidation” actually looked like. All but two of the victims were men. After each volley, he became agitated. After the two women would not die, Himmler screamed at the police sergeant they should not be tortured. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Higher SS and Police Leader in central Russia, was one of the witnesses to the execution told Himmler: “There were only a hundred of them. What do you mean by that? Look at the eyes of the men in this Kommando, how deeply shaken they are! These men are finished [fertig] for the rest of their lives. What kind of followers are we training here? Either neurotics or savages!”[3] 

Visibly moved, Himmler spoke to the men assembled that the Einsatzgruppe were being asked to achieve repulsive (widerliche) results. He would not have appreciated knowing Germans were happily involved in the executions. He assured them their conscience had not been harmed in any way, because as soldiers they were bound to implement every order without question. He guaranteed that only he had the responsibility before G-d and Hitler for all that was occurring. He also was operating from a profound understanding of the need of vital importance of what they were doing.[4]  

He told them to look at nature, where combat between men, and also among animals and plants was ubiquitous. Human beings constantly decide what is good and what is bad. Do bedbugs and rats have a purpose, he asked? Yes, but that did not mean humans could not defend themselves against them. He had remembered what German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler said, “War is the primeval policy of all living things, and this to the extent that in the deepest sense combat and life are identical, for when the will to fight is extinguished, so is life itself.”[5]  

The event unnerved Bach-Zelewski to the point where he had to be hospitalized in Hohenlychen with severe stomach and intestinal ailments. According to Dr. Ernst Robert Grawitz, chief SS doctor, he experienced “psychic exhaustion” and “hallucinations connected with the shootings of Jews” he had instigated and the “grievous other experiences in the East”[6] When the doctor asked him why he was so fearful, Bach-Zelewski responded, “Thank G-d I’m through with it. Don’t you know what is happening in Russia? The entire Jewish people…is being exterminated there.” He would spend his nights screaming. When he asked Himmler if the executions could be stopped, he irately responded: “That is a Führer order. The Jews are the disseminators of Bolshevism…if you don’t keep your nose out of the Jewish business, you’ll see what’ll happen to you!”[7]  

The extreme stress, brutality, guilt, and horror experienced by other commanders directly involved in the mass murders adversely affected them as well.[8] In September, SS-Brigadeführer Erwin Schulz, leader of Einsatzkommando 5 in Einsatzgruppe C, asked for a new posting.[9] He was immediately granted permission to return to his former position at the Police Academy in Charlottenburg, Berlin. He said he “personally experienced no disadvantage whatsoever as a result of my intervention….” He added that he did “not know of or recall any order that stated that SS chiefs or members of the SD [intelligence agency of the SS] or police would be sent to concentration camps if they refused to carry out an order. I also never heard of such an order during the course of my conversations I had on the subject or indeed from rumors.”[10]  

Most of the Jews of Kiev were murdered by Einsatzgruppe C under the command of Brigadeführer Otto Rasch, who took leave of his duties, never to return. In November, Nebe, the commanding officer of Einsatzgruppe B deployed in the Bezirk Bialystok district behind Army Group Centre, went home. His confident, Hans Bernd Gisevius, said Nebe was “a mere shadow of his former self, nerves on edge and depressed.” His driver from Kripo (the criminal police department) “shot himself in horror at the anti-Jewish atrocities.”[11]  

In early July, according to SS-Obersturmführer August Häfner, SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, had a mental breakdown and was in his bed. As commander of Sonderkommando 4a, Blobel was personally responsible for the murder of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar in Kiev, and the ensuing murders of the Jews in the city of Kiev. 

Häfner found him “talking confusedly. He was saying that it was not possible to shoot so many Jews and that what was needed was a plough to plough them into the ground. He had completely lost his mind. He was threatening to shoot Wehrmacht officers with a pistol.” Häfner had a doctor called who gave Blobel an injection and instructed that he be taken to a hospital in Lublin.[12]  

Historian Heinz Höhne believed that even Himmler should have known that aside from “a small minority of natural sadists and killers,” men in the Einsatzgruppen thought like Bach-Zelewski or Brigadeführer Eberhard Herf, Head of the SS Personnel Hauptamt, who wrote that he “wished to get out of the East, since frankly I’ve had more than enough of it.”[13] 

“Nevertheless,” Höhne asserted, “in the Einsatzgruppen a determined army of death had arisen, unparalleled even in the SS. Wholly dedicated to achievement, ‘hardness’ and camaraderie, they reached a degree of insensibility surpassed only by those soulless automata, the concentration camp guards.”[14]  

More Efficient, More Modern Technologies 

Aside from the psychological toll of mass shootings, it became clear by the summer of 1941, that the SS and the police did not have the manpower to annihilate the Jews in the newly conquered Russian areas “at one blow.”  “Open-air-shooting” further severely limited the number of people to be murdered, allowing for only the “first wave of killings.” Mobile gas vans and fixed installations were examined as were geographic, demographic and climate conditions to determine the most efficient way to implement the Final Solution.[15]  


[1] Jürgen Matthäus, “Controlled Escalation: Himmler’s Men in the Summer of 1941 and the Holocaust in the Occupied Soviet Territories,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies Volume 21, Number 2 (Fall 2007): 229, 232-234; Konrad Kwiet, “From the Diary of a Killing Unit,” in John Milfull, Ed. Why Germany? National Socialist Anti-Semitism and the European Context (Oxford, England: Berg Publishers, 1993): 81. 

[2] Konrad Kwiet, “Rehearsing for murder: The beginning of the final solution in Lithuania in June 1941,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 12 Number 1 (Spring 1998):6,20; Kwiet added, “His concern is attributed to his resulted partly from his certainty in the elite status of his apparatus, and partly from the function that the SS and police began to play in securing the conquered “living space.”  

[3] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews Third Edition Volume I( New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003),343-344; Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 194-196. 

[4] Hilberg, op. cit. 343-344. 

[5] Ibid. 344, 1104. 

[6] Robert J. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books: 1986 ), 159; Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker &Warburg, 1970), 363. 

 [7] Höhne, op. cit. 363. 

[8] Höhne, op. cit. 363; Yitzhak Arad, “The Holocaust of Soviet Jewry in the Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union,” Yad Vashem Studies  Number XXI, (1991): 1-47; Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front 1941-45 – German Troops and the Barbarization of Warfare (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986); Geoffrey P. Megargee, War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941 (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007); Ben H. Shepherd, War in the Wild East The German Army and Soviet Partisans (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004). 

[9] Höhne, op. cit. 363. 

[10] Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, Volker Riess, Ed. The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (New York: Free Press, 1988), 86. 

[11] Höhne, op. cit. 248. 

[12] Klee, op. cit. 111-112. 

[13] Ibid. 363. 

[14] Ibid. 

[15] Konrad Kwiet, “From the Diary of a Killing Unit,” in John Milfull, Ed. Why Germany? National Socialist Anti-Semitism and the European Context (Oxford, England: Berg Publishers, 1993):81-82; Hilberg, op. cit. 344-346, 736-738; Klee, op.cit. 68-74; 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,2004), 366,372, 417-419; Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, Adalbert Ruckerl, Eds. Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993), 52-72; 72-101; Nestar Russell, The Nazi’s Pursuit for a “Humane” Method of Killing. In: Understanding Willing Participants, Volume 2. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 241-271. 

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.