It cannot be forgotten in any discussion of Adolf Eichmann’s criminality that he relied on a staff of dedicated Nazis in the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), the center of the Third Reich’s terror apparatus, to carry out the monstrous directives of Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and Heinrich Müller. Overshadowed by Eichmann himself, most of these men have escaped the attention of the American public. They include Theodor Dannecker (1913-1945), Dieter Wisliceny (1911-1948), Franz Novak (1913-1983), Rolf Günther (1913-1945), and Alois Brunner (1912- c. 2010). Slightly younger than Eichmann—none of them had reached the age of 35 when World War II ended—they exhibited a terrifying combination of attention to detail and steadfast commitment to the core ideas of Nazism. The works of Hans Safrian, David Cesarani, and Michael Wildt have shed much light on who they were and what they perpetrated.
Dannecker, the focus of this piece, helped Eichmann organize and administer a systematic, state-directed, and continent-wide genocide. Until 2011, I knew little about Dannecker. I first learned about him when I taught in a study-abroad program that year in France set up by the University of Southern Mississippi. With Dr. Doug Mackaman I conducted tours of Paris with students. For the discussion of the Holocaust, I studied Dannecker’s role in the deportation of French Jews to the death camps in 1942. Examining books like Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus’s Vichy France and the Jews and seeing first-hand the places in the City of Light he terrorized allowed me to understand that Dannecker was a completely modern form of perpetrator really unknown before the twentieth century: the “deportation specialist.” From 1942-45, Dannecker relentlessly and viciously arranged the round-up, sequestration, and transport of hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths in the Nazi extermination centers. As a “deportation specialist,” he earned and retained Eichmann’s confidence
Born on March 27, 1913, in the beautiful Swabian university town of Tübingen in southwestern Germany, Dannecker was the son of a businessman. Caught up in the First World War, his father served in the German armed forces and perished in 1918, the final year of the conflict. Subsequently, Dannecker’s mother raised him. As a young man, he neither excelled as a student nor exhibited much promise for a career. Instead, Dannecker was drawn to the politics of the extreme Right, to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. He joined the Nazis in 1932 and entered Heinrich Himmler’s elite SS (Schutzstaffel or Protection Squads) that same year. He was only nineteen years old.
Within six months of Dannecker’s entry into the party, Hitler took over as Chancellor. Over the next few years, Dannecker witnessed the Nazis’ consolidation of power and participated in the rapid growth of the SS. One of his early “jobs” was an assignment to the Columbia Haus concentration camp in Berlin. Eugen Kogon, author of an early book on the Nazi camp system and a survivor of Buchenwald, described Columbia Haus as an “agony plant” which “witnessed perhaps the ghastliest atrocities the human mind can picture.” In June 1935, Dannecker moved into the SD (Sicherheitsdienst or Security Service), the intelligence-gathering branch of the SS. As a member of the SD, he absorbed the radical, conspiratorial anti-Semitism promoted in the organization that Jews were the string-pullers behind both the capitalist and communist systems and were locked in a life-and-death struggle against the Aryan race. Once he entered the “Jewish Affairs” section of the organization in June 1937, Dannecker’s career soon became totally interwined with that of Eichmann, at the time an emerging figure in the SD.
Like Eichmann, Dannecker owed much to the vision of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the SD and the first director of the RSHA. As Robert Gerwarth aptly puts it, Heydrich “recruited a group of young, educated, self-confident, and ideologically committed staff members for the small but growing Jewish desk of the SD,” individuals “who began to develop an independent and comprehensive concept of a Jew-free Germany.” Heydrich sought out people with university degrees, backgrounds in law and journalism, and interests in serious research. From his recruits Heydrich demanded professionalism fused with ideological ardor. Eichmann, in turn, cultivated this same ethos in Dannecker and other subordinates in the “Jewish Affairs” department of the SD.
Recognizing his talents, Eichmann consulted Dannecker on questions concerning assimilated Jews in Germany. Dannecker did not disappoint. At the age of 24, he authored a report supporting the complete removal of such Jews from any kind of political involvement “in order to bring the Jewish question in Germany closer to its final solution.” He even criticized the Gestapo, the dreaded Nazi secret police never known for moderation, for insufficient ideological commitment and inefficiency in its anti-Jewish activities.
After the Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, Dannecker transferred with Eichmann to Vienna. There he aided his boss’s plan for the compulsory emigration of Austrian Jews. The experience Dannecker gained in forcing people to leave their homes, wealth, and country brought with it a type of inhuman “expertise” that Eichmann would put to use for far worse ends during World War II. This terrible prowess deepened as he observed the involvement of Eichmann, now director of Office IV B4 (“Jewish Affairs and Evacuation Affairs”) within the newly created RSHA, in the brutal ethnic cleansing of Poles from territories coveted by the Germans after the conquest of Poland in September 1939. Crucially, Dannecker then assisted Eichmann in the Nisko Plan. Often forgotten, the plan called for the removal of Jews from Austria, Czech territory, and Polish land absorbed by Germany to a “reservation” under German control near Lublin, Poland. Although the project was abandoned in April 1940, it taught Dannecker much about arranging the forced transport of several thousand Jews.
Dannecker’s real moment to distinguish himself came in September 1940. Ordered to Paris following the defeat of France, he headed Eichmann’s Judenreferat (Jewish Section) in the city. Typical of the bewildering hierarchies of the Nazi dictatorship, he was officially subordinate to the SD chief there. Young, arrogant, and fanatical, Dannecker interacted constantly with French collaborationist authorities. He always pushed them to take more aggressive measures against both foreign-born and native Jews in France and to centralize the process of implementing them. A reputation for extreme zealotry followed him.
In 1941-42 this radicalism reached new, unprecedented heights. During that time, as the Nazi regime shifted to the mass murder of Jews, then outright genocide, Dannecker embraced the role of specialist in planning mass deportations. In the process, he became one of Eichmann’s most dependable emissaries. First in France and then in several other locales, Dannecker utilized an array of “weapons”: the pen, the telephone, and the typewriter. Besides researching and working behind a desk, Dannecker negotiated, cajoled, and berated officials, coordinated with the Reich Transportation Ministry to secure rolling stock, and worked with the SS/SD, Gestapo, and German armed forces to ensure the efficient and orderly removal of massive numbers of Jewish men, women, and children. After the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, when Heydrich detailed his plans for the “Final Solution” before a gathering of Nazi Party and German government officials, Dannecker was assigned the task of preparing the removal of French Jews to the newly established death camps.
Over the next few months, Dannecker worked diligently to ensure deportations would commence in early spring of 1942. He even visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in March 1942, the month killing operations started there, to guarantee the smooth functioning of the process. Dannecker realized things were ready. Showing just how determined he was to complete his murderous mission, the first group of some 1,100 French Jews, most of them refugees, left Compiégne bound for Auschwitz on March 27. In Pierre Laval, reappointed as prime minister in the Vichy government in April, and Rene Bousquet, the chief of security, Dannecker found eager partners for much larger actions. The most heinous of these was the horrifyingly-named Operation Spring Wind, the round-up of over 13,000 Jews in Paris, most of them “foreign and stateless,” carried out by French police on July 16-17. Dannecker could not savor the fruits of his work for long. Accused by his SD superior in Paris, Helmut Knochen, of abuse of authority, he was transferred out of France in August. Nevertheless, the infernal machinery of deportation he devised churned on. Some 77,000 Jews who had been on French soil died.
As the Nazis assaulted Jewish communities across the continent, Dannecker’s talents were needed elsewhere. He arrived in Bulgaria in January 1943. There he initially targeted the 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, territories handed over to Bulgaria after Germany defeated Yugoslavia and Greece in the spring of 1941. Dannecker reached an agreement with the Bulgarian Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, Alexander Belev, to deport them. In March 1943, trains moved most of the 11,000 Thracian and Macedonian Jews to the Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps. Others were moved by ship. Among the murdered were 2,000 children and teenagers under the age of 16. When Dannecker and Belev tried next to set up the removal of the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews, already suffering under anti-Semitic legislation passed in 1940, he encountered fierce resistance. Even though the Jewish population of Sofia, the nation’s capital, was forcibly relocated outside the city and their property seized, outrage from Dimitâr Peshev, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, clergy from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and representatives of communities where these Jews resided pushed King Boris III to intervene. Peshev, who was forced to resign his position, still appealed to the “honor of Bulgaria,” warning that “our nation’s reputation would be stained forever” and “its moral and political standing forever compromised” if deportations ensued. Boris acquiesced and prevented the removal of Bulgaria’s Jewish populace. This remarkable moment of defiance stymied Dannecker, but, it should be remembered, did not extend to the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia. Partially thwarted, his next mission took him to Italy.
This time it was Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller, not Eichmann, who deployed Dannecker to Rome in early October 1943. It was just under a month after Italy’s surrender, the overthrow of Mussolini, and the Wehrmacht’s occupation of the country. The orders Dannecker executed remained dreadfully consistent. He was to expedite the deportation of the 32,000 Italian Jews, previously shielded from removal, to the extermination centers.
Wasting no time, Dannecker and his small support team immediately implemented brutal round-ups of Jews. Fascist militias still loyal to Mussolini and, in some instances, Italian police lent a hand in these vile actions. Lists gathered when Mussolini passed anti-Semitic legislation in 1938 supplied names. Dannecker’s men moved from street to street and house to house. Raids occurred in Rome, Trieste, Florence, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Siena, Bologna, and other cities, sweeping up 3,200 Jews. More than a third of them were seized during the operation in Rome on October 16 alone. Once again, though, he faced opposition from the local population. According to historian Daniel Carpi, Dannecker complained bitterly of the “total passive resistance” of the inhabitants of Rome. “As the German police were breaking into some homes,” he reported, “attempts to hide Jews were observed, and it is believed that in many cases they were successful,” while others “in some individual cases even tried to cut off the police from the Jews.” This resistance did not deter him. Nazi security personnel first detained the arrested individuals in concentration camps, such as those at Fossoli di Carpi and Bolzano. Between October 1943 and January 1944, five transports left northern Italy for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 46 of the 3,200 survived.
With this phase of deportation concluded, Dannecker relinquished the remainder of the task in Italy to Friedrich Bosshammer in early 1944. Afterwards, an additional 6,700 Jewish men, women, and children were grabbed and deported. Out of that number, just 830 survived.
Eichmann soon required Dannecker’s expertise in Hungary. German forces occupied Hungary in March 1944 when the country’s dictator, Admiral Miklos Horthy, wavered in his support for Hitler. On their heels came a special Einsatzkommando, including Dannecker, Wisliceny, and Novak. Eichmann traveled to Budapest to personally supervise their work. There were 725,000 Jews in Hungary, over 300,000 of whom resided in the territory Horthy had gained between 1938 and 1941. Meeting much less opposition, Dannecker and his comrades started the arrests of Jews in the country’s eastern territories, areas closest to the Red Army’s advance. Brickyards, factories, and lumberyards were used as holding cells until trains could be located.
What happened in Hungary in the late spring and early summer of 1944 overwhelms our fragile capacities to imagine. It was simply a frenzy of killing. In May and June 1944, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 397,000 were plunged into Birkenau’s gas chambers. Their fate exhibited just how desperate the Nazi regime was to finish the annihilation of European Jews, even as its hopes of winning the war disintegrated. Under increasing pressure, Horthy finally halted the deportations in July, temporarily sparing most of Budapest’s Jewish populace. Eichmann and Dannecker bided their time. The removal of Horthy three months later opened up new possibilities. When Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg openly offered sanctuary to Jews in Budapest as Soviet troops neared the capital city, the enraged Eichmann turned to Dannecker to raid the safe houses established by Wallenberg. Dannecker lost none of his boss’s confidence in the war’s final months.
After the Third Reich’s downfall, the fates of Eichmann and his subordinates, like Dannecker, varied dramatically. While Eichmann concealed his identity and made his way out of Germany via one of the infamous “rat lines” to Argentina in 1950, Dannecker, thankfully, did not fare so well. Captured by the Americans, he knew what was in store for him. With the trial of war criminals already underway in Nuremberg, Dannecker chose to cheat the executioner. On December 10, 1945, he hung himself in his cell in Bad Tölz in Bavaria. The failure to bring him to trial meant that his record as a Nazi genocidal murderer fell into obscurity. His name became known only to experts on the Holocaust.
For three years, Dannecker’s daily “work” consisted of envisioning, organizing, and reporting on the deportations of tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children to almost certain death. As a “functionary,” to use Claudia Stoerr’s term, his reprehensible actions challenge us to think about how forms of bureaucratic criminality contribute to mass extermination. And that is why he must not remain in obscurity.
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Dr. Jason Dawsey is Research Historian for the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at he National World War II Museum.
Jason Dawsey, “Organizing Genocide: Theodor Dannecker, Eichmann's Deportation Specialist,” The National World War II Museum, (January 13, 2020). Reprinted with permission.