"Einsatzgruppen": The Blackest Page in Human History

No satisfactory English translation has been found for the German term "Einsatzgruppen"(EG). An accurate description might be "special extermination groups." Their primary assignment was to kill every Jewish man, woman or child they could lay their hands on. "Gypsies," were to suffer the same fate. Communist leaders or others suspected of any future threat to Hitler's conquests would also be targets for annihilation. Security Chief Heydrich issued the order on 21 September 1939: "The total measures planned are to be kept strictly secret.".

In May 1941, with Germany's assault against the Soviet Union imminent, four Einsatz groups were assembled. Each encompassed 500 to 800 men commanded by leading Nazis. The German army provided help and logistic support. On orders from Hitler, the EG were to break all possible civilian resistance behind the fighting front by ruthlessly destroying those deemed undesirable by the German Dictator or his supporters.

Einsatz units issued daily Top Secret reports that were consolidated in Berlin. These captured records revealed the full depravity of their deeds, despite euphemisms that sought to conceal their criminality. Victims were given "special treatment," "rendered harmless," or "resettled." EG "A" reported it had "liquidated" 118,430 Jews and 3,398 communists. EG "D" reported 90,000 Jews "eliminated." On 29 and 30 September 1941, one unit of EG "C" dispatched 33,771 Jews into a ravine that became famous as "Babi Yar." It may minimally be estimated that between one and two million innocent and helpless civilians were murdered in cold blood by these Nazi killing squads.

The procedures for mass murder were basically similar. Jews and Gypsies, who were earmarked for total annihilation, were ordered to assemble under penalty of death. They were transported by trucks to a hidden site where their clothing and possessions were seized. The helpless captives were directed to stand or kneel near the edge of a large pit that had been prepared. An EG firing squad of about 10 men would shoot for about an hour before being rotated. Each row of victims fell into the pit on top of the corpses that lay dead or dying below.

In the spring of 1942, some EG units were equipped with gas vans for easier "resettlement" of women, children, the old and infirm. Exhaust fumes were piped back into the camouflaged van. When it reached its destination, the passengers were dead.

When EG leaders were convicted at Nuremberg for their crimes against humanity, they showed no remorse. They argued that Hitler had declared that Germany was fighting a defensive war and they were bound to follow his orders. In "total war": against Bolshevism, they said, all potential enemies had to be eliminated by every possible means. Secret killing squads were a military necessity. They left no doubt that they would do it again.

In his Judgment, Presiding Judge Michael Musmanno noted: "...mankind pleads for an understanding which will prevent anything like this happening again." Nazi Einsatzgruppen wrote the blackest page in human history. Their cruel deeds illustrate the dangers of blind obedience to an authoritarian leader who defies the rule of law.

Benjamin B. Ferencz
J.D. Harvard, 1943, was Chief Prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg