Einsatzgruppen: An Overview

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“Einsatzgruppen were special SS and police units tasked with securing occupied territories as German armed forces advanced in eastern Europe. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, these squads ruthlessly carried out the mass murder of Soviet Jews, Roma, and political opponents.”

~ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

From  1941-1944, Nazi SS and German police forces, German military units, and local collaborators killed more than 2 million Jews residing in the Soviet Union in mass shooting operations.  The Germans deployed four Einsatzgruppen, dozens of police battalions, and units of the Military SS in the occupied Soviet Union. They conducted so-called pacification actions with a priority placed on annihilating Soviet Jews in shooting operations.  Of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, about 40 percent were killed in mass shootings. Confiscation of property was an integral aspects of the mass shooting process. Following massacres, Jewish property not directly seized by the Germans was typically auctioned or distributed to their neighbors. Shootings were local, public, and witnessed by neighbors. The Germans pressed many of these neighbors into service as clerks, grave diggers, wagon drivers, and cooks to provide support for the mass killing actions.

Today, remains of Nazi Germany’s victims lie in hundreds of mass graves.  They were under the command of the German Security Police and Security Service officers. The Einsatzgruppen had among their tasks the murder of those perceived to be racial or political enemies found behind German combat lines in the occupied Soviet Union.  These victims included Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and officials of the Soviet state and the Soviet Communist party. The Einsatzgruppen also murdered thousands of residents of institutions for the mentally and physically disabled. Many scholars believe that the systematic killing of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union by Einsatzgruppen and Order Police battalions was the first step of the “Final Solution.”

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The German army provided logistical support to the Einsatzgruppen, including supplies, transportation, housing, and occasionally manpower in the form of units to guard and transport prisoners. At first the Einsatzgruppen shot primarily Jewish men, but by late summer 1941 wherever the Einsatzgruppen went they shot Jewish men, women, and children without regard for age or sex, and buried them in mass graves. Often with the help of local informants and interpreters, Jews in a given locality were identified and taken to collection points.

Shooting was the most common form of killing used by the Einsatzgruppen. Yet in the late summer of 1941, Heinrich Himmler, noting the psychological burden that mass shootings produced on his men, requested that a more convenient mode of killing be developed. The result was the gas van, a mobile gas chamber surmounted on the chassis of a cargo truck which employed carbon monoxide from the truck’s exhaust to kill its victims. Gas vans made their first appearance on the eastern front in late fall 1941, and were eventually utilized, along with shooting, to murder Jews and other victims in most areas where the Einsatzgruppen operated.

The Einsatzgruppen were composed of four battalion-sized operational groups:

Einsatzgruppe A fanned out from East Prussia across Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia toward Leningrad.

Einsatzgruppe B started from Warsaw in occupied Poland, and fanned out across Belorussia toward Smolensk and Minsk.

Einsatzgruppe C began operations from Krakow and fanned out across the western Ukraine toward Kharkov and Rostov-on-Don. Around Kiev, famously in two days in late September 1941 units of Einsatzgruppe detachment 4a massacred 33,771 Kiev Jews in the ravine at Babi Yar.

Einsatzgruppe D operated farthest south of the four units. in the southern Ukraine and the Crimea.

Einsatzgruppen members were drawn from the SS, Waffen SS (military formations of the SS), SD, Sipo, Order Police, and other police units.  By the spring of 1943, the Einsatzgruppen and Order Police battalions had killed over a million Soviet Jews and tens of thousands of Soviet political commissars, partisans, Roma, and institutionalized disabled persons. The mobile killing methods, particularly shooting, proved to be inefficient and psychologically burdensome to the killers. Even as Einsatzgruppen units carried out their operations, the German authorities planned and began construction of special stationary gassing facilities at centralized killing centers in order to murder vast numbers of Jews.

Sources: “Masters of Death,” Rhodes, Richard. 2003. “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” Browning, Christopher. 1994. “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.” Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. 1996.  ushmm.org.  jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

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