A major contribution to the history of the Holocaust from the acclaimed author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
In Masters of Death, Richard Rhodes gives full weight, for the first time, to the part played by the Einsatzgruppen--the professional killing squads deployed in Poland and the Soviet Union, early in World War II, by Himmler's SS. And he shows how these squads were utilized as the Nazis made two separate plans for dealing with the civilian populations they wanted to destroy.
The first plan, initiated in July 1941, condemned the Jews of eastern Europe to slaughter by the Einsatzgruppen, who went on to execute 1.5 million men, women and children between 1941 and 1943 by shooting them into killing pits, as at Babi Yar--massive crimes that have been underestimated or overlooked by Holocaust historians. Rhodes documents the organizing and carrying out of this program and introduces the professional men--economists, architects, lawyers--who were the program's commanders and officers, as well as the "ordinary men" who did most of the actual killing.
The second plan, initiated in December 1941, was directed at the Jews of western Europe. By then, Rhodes shows, the face-to-face killing of hundreds of thousands had so brutalized the SS that even Himmler was shocked into ordering the development of a less "personal" means of murder--the notorious gas chambers and crematoria of the Holocaust's second wave. Rhodes shows, further, that Hitler and Himmler intended the Jews to be only their first victims; their plan was to open up Russia to German colonization by destroying more than 30 million Slavs and members of other ethnic groups.
Drawing on Nuremberg Tribunal documents largely ignored until now, and on newly available material from eyewitnesses and survivors, Richard Rhodes has given us a book that is essential reading on the Holocaust and World War II.
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August 11, 2003
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Excerpt from Masters of Death by Richard Rhodes
Eastward from Pretzsch
In the spring of 1941 a police academy in Pretzsch, a town on the Elbe River about fifty miles southwest of Berlin, became the site of a sinister assembly. Several thousand men from the ranks of the SS-the Nazi Party's Schutzstaffel, or defense echelon, a police and security service that answered directly to Adolf Hitler and operated outside the constraints of German law-were ordered to report to Pretzsch for training and assignment. They were not told what their assignment would be, but their commonalities offered a clue: many of them had served in SS detachments in Poland, which Germany had invaded and occupied in 1939, and preference was given to men who spoke Russian.
Assignment to Pretzsch emptied the SS leadership school in Berlin-Charlottenburg and depleted the professional examination course of an SS criminal division. It drew in lower- and middle-ranking officers of the Security Police (the Gestapo and the criminal police), some of them passed on gratefully by their home regiments because they were considered too wild. The Waffen-SS, the small but growing SS army, contributed enlisted men. High-ranking bureaucrats within the shadowy Reich Security Main Office,* an internal SS security agency, were posted to Pretzsch as well. They had been handpicked for leadership positions by Obergruppenfihrer Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the RSHA and the second most powerful man in the SS, and his superior Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfihrer-SS. Most of these handpicked leaders were lawyers, and a few were physicians or educators; most had earned doctoral degrees. Among the more exotic specimens were Otto Ohlendorf, a handsome but argumentative young economist who had fallen into disfavor with Himmler; Paul Blobel, a rawboned, highstrung, frequently drunken architect; Arthur Nebe, a former vice squad detective and Gestapo head who had enthusiastically volunteered; and Karl Jager, a brutal fifty-three-year-old secret police commander. A reserve battalion of the regular German Order Police (uniformed urban, rural and municipal police) completed the Pretzsch roster.
Soon the men learned that they would be assigned to an Einsatzgruppe-a task force. Einsatz units-groups and commandos-had followed the German army into Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland when Germany had invaded those countries successively in 1938 and 1939. Einsatzgruppen secured occupied territories in advance of civilian administrators. They confiscated weapons and gathered incriminating documents, tracked down and arrested people the SS considered politically unreliable-and systematically murdered the occupied country's political, educational, religious and intellectual leadership. Since Germany had concluded a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in August 1939, many of the candidates at Pretzsch assumed they would be assigned to follow the Wehrmacht into England. Some of them had previously trained to just that end.
By the spring of 1941, Poland had already been decapitated. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and later his munitions and armament minister, remembered that on the night of 21 August 1939, when news of Josef Stalin's agreement to the nonaggression pact had settled Hitler's decision to invade Poland, the Fuhrer and his entourage had drifted out onto the terrace of his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg to watch a rare display of Northern Lights vermilioning the mountain across the valley. "The last act of Gotterdammerung could not have been more effectively staged," Speer writes. "The same red light bathed our faces and our hands. The display produced a curiously pensive mood among us. Abruptly turning to one of his military adjutants, Hitler said: 'Looks like a great deal of blood. This time we won't bring it off without violence.' "