Thursday, September 05, 2002

Hitler's Killing Fields

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust by Richard Rhodes. Alfred A. Knopf. 335 pages. $27.50

Words fail anyone describing the Holocaust, even Nazis.

"Liquidations, executions, purges," wrote an Nazi officer home in September, 1941, after a day of shooting Jews in the Zhitomir province in the Western Ukraine. "All these words, synonymous with destruction, seem completely banal and devoid of meaning once one has gotten used to them.

"It is a vocabulary which has become general usage, and we use such words just as we talk about swatting disagreeable insects or destroying a dangerous animal.

"These words however are applied to men. But men who happen to be our mortal enemy."

The officer was a member of the SS-Einsatzgruppen (task force), a collection of several thousand German soldiers, policemen, bureaucrats, professionals and criminals who had been selected in July 1941 by two of Hitler's right-hand men -- Heinrich Himmler, who controlled the Schutzstaffel (SS), GermanyÕs internal police force, and his second in command, Lieutenant General Reinhard Òthe Blond BeastÓ Heydrich -- to kill Jews and Slavs across Eastern Europe. Starting in 1939, the Third Reich had employed an earlier version of the Einsatzgruppen as a rearguard mop-up group during the invasion of Poland; now the Einsatzgruppen would follow the German army as it moved into the Soviet Union. The goal was lebensraum (living space) which in practical terms meant destroying one population so another could move in.

"It is a question of existence," Himmler told the troops, "thus it will be a racial struggle of pitiless severity, in the course of which 20 to 30 million Slavs and Jews will perish through military actions and crises of food supply." Divided into four groups, Einsatzgruppen soldiers fanned out across the occupied Soviet Union, simultaneously moving into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus. They would leave in their wake some of the worst massacres in World War II: the Kovno Ghetto and Ponary in Lithuania, Babi Yar in Kiev, where 34,000 people were killed in two days, and Rumbula in Latvia, where 12 men killed 13,000 people in a single day. This was just the tip of the iceberg; some 1.5 million people would die at their hands.

Their methods varied, as Nazis continually tested new ways of killing the most people in the shortest amount of time. In Kovno, they inflamed the anti-Semitism of the locals, using trumped up charges against Jews, or none at all, to justify hauling helpless men and women into the town square, and beating them to death with clubs. Such "attempts at self-cleansing," Heydrich said in a telegram to Einsatzgruppen commanders, "on the part of anti-Communist or anti-Semitic elements in the areas to be occupied are not to be hindered. On the contrary, they are to be encouraged, but without leaving traces, so that these local `vigilantes' cannot say later that they were given orders or [offered] political concessions."

Over the course of the next few years, victims would be hauled into enclosed areas and grenaded, dynamited, or burned alive, either by fire or through using quicklime and water. Handicapped or mentally retarded children were given lethal injections or barbiturate overdoses.

Generally, the standard, reliable method of liquidation was to shoot kneeling Jews in the back of the head or machine-gun them into mass graves. The routine was to round them up under the ruse of jobs or relocation, take them to a nearby forest, swamp or ravine (such as Babi Yar) and line them along the perimeter of a huge pit, which was usually dug by the first victims. Later, under the direction of the Higher SS officer Friedrich Jeckeln, they were shot laying face down in the pit. New victims were piled on top in the same way, and new victims on them; layer upon layer of bodies to maximize grave space. Sardinenpackung, Jeckeln called it; sardine-packing.

Killing on this scale wasn't just a question of manpower and efficiency, but the corruption of human will. The ideal of Himmler's Einsatzgruppen was Kadavergehorsam, "corpse-like conformity" -- molding willing Nazis into remorseless killing machines, not just of enemy soldiers, but men, women and children (since, after all, they would only grow up to avenge their parent's deaths.) Hitler called it a "war of extermination," and Himmler (who like Hitler had no direct experience with killing) told the troops it was perfectly natural.

"We should observe nature," Himmler reportedly said, "everywhere there was war, not only among human beings, but also in the animal and plant worlds. Whatever did not want to fight was destroyed ... Primitive man said that the horse is good, but the bug is bad, or wheat is good but the thistle is bad. Humans characterize that which is useful to them as good, but that which is harmful as bad. Don't bugs, rats and other vermin have a purpose in life to fulfill? But we humans are correct when we defend ourselves against vermin."

It was mass murder by conventional means of war, and as Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes shows in this unsettling new history, it had a mixed effect on Nazi morale. Some, of course, thrived; the ones who liked humiliation and torture, who impaled Jewish infants on bayonets, who stood on a heap of corpses and played an accordion, who took pictures -- such famous pieces of Nazi porn as this photo and this one -- and sent them home to their families. But these raised a problem, as sadists are a threat to civilized society of any kind, even one ruled by Hitler. Himmler's ideal of a good Nazi was one who stoically discharged the unpleasant task of butchering people who were pleading for their lives. "An execution must always be the hardest thing for our men," he said. "And despite it they must never become weak but must do it with pursed lips." Many did it by cracking up, or becoming alcoholic -- liquor and cigarettes were staple rations in some killing squads -- or by committing suicide. Some thought of their own wives and children.

"The wailing was indescribable," said August Hafner, the Nazi officer charged with carrying out the slaughter of some ninety children in Bila Cerkva, a small town near Kiev. "I shall never forget the scene throughout my life. I find it very hard to bear. I particularly remember a small fair-haired girl who took me by the hand. She too was shot later ... Many children were hit four or five times before they died."

Of course, on any moral ledger the Nazi who killed with a twinge of conscience merits no more sympathy than the one who killed with murderous glee. Himmler himself combined both types. In one of the few executions he attended, he nervously ordered a soldier to put a pair of women out of their misery, and at one time seemed to consider saving a young Jewish man's life. But that didn't stop him from furnishing his own home with tables and chairs made of Jewish bones, or a copy of Mein Kampf bound in Jewish flesh.

The moral quandaries and logistics of genocide -- the need to make it as impersonal and faceless as possible -- were met, of course, with Zyklon-B. As the showers in the concentration camps filled with carbon monoxide, fewer Nazis were troubled with nightmares. They didn't have to hear the screams. They just had to haul away the corpses.

It has become something of a convention of Hitler studies in recent years to reconsider how well the Holocaust can, or should, be understood. To "understand" Hitler, as the filmmaker Claude Lanzman has pointed out, is to humanize him, which runs the risk of softening if not legitimizing his evil. Rhodes takes a similar risk with a book that puts a marginally human face on killers who bore the psychological strains of their crimes. But, he writes, "surely any indication that slaughter is challenging and takes its toll on the slaughterers ought to be welcomed, if only as ironic justice. Dismissing perpetrators as inhuman monsters rather than human criminals positions genocidal killing beyond comprehension, beyond prevention or repair."

In trying to get some hold on how these particular minds were shaped, Rhodes draws on the work of criminologist Lonnie Athens, who describes "violent socialization" as a four-step process: brutalization, belligerency, violent performances and virulency. In a nutshell, people are exposed to brutality either in youth or in military training, they advance to the view that brutality is the best means of self-protection, they see the effect of acting on it, and they make it their way of dealing with conflict. Being neither a sociologist nor a historian, I can only say that this theory of violence sounds as plausible as any other; and yet, if the book shows anything, itÕs that the complexity of responses among Nazis toward their crimes defies any sweeping explanation, and this one seemed more speculative as it went along. Himmler himself, the son of a violent schoolmaster, is RhodesÕ prime example, although what really seems to motivate Himmler is his somewhat Freudian desire to please Hitler, for whom the daily killing quota could never be high enough. What does make the Athens model appealing is that it emphasizes the role of choice. Where people cannot choose whether they are brutalized, they do choose how they act on it. The victims of Nazi Germany, of course, were given no choice at all.

This powerful, disturbing, and unfortunately-titled book Ð the word "invention" raises the specter of Holocaust denial, quite the opposite of RhodesÕ intent Ð canÕt be read quickly or pleasurably. As it catalogs the terrible years of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the scenes of terror rarely let up, and when I put the book aside, the pictures it brought to mind wouldnÕt let go. ItÕs the wailing of its victims that we still hear. It remains indescribable.

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