- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

By Richard Rhodes
Knopf, $27.50, 335 pages, illus.

In April of 1945, as Gen. George Patton's Third Army troops were driving eastward along the German autobahn between Eisenach and Jena, they encountered several Nazi slave-labor camps, among them Ordruf and Buchenwald. As a lieutenant, I was one of the American soldiers who visited Buchenwald shortly after its liberation and witnessed the atrocities the Nazis had committed. I found myself wondering how supposedly civilized human beings could be brought to inflict such cruelties on their fellow men. Other Americans felt the same way. In "Masters of Death," Richard Rhodes attempts to analyze how all this came about.
Mr. Rhodes tells his story on two levels. One is the sequential history of the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of some six million European Jews, three million Poles, seven million Soviet civilians, and over three million Soviet prisoners of war. Though most of us see the Holocaust as practically synonymous with the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka, only a little over half of the Jewish victims died by that method of execution. The primary means of mass murder, the author tells us, were firearms and lethal privation.
"The Schutzstaffel (SS), or Secret Police, which had existed in Germany as an independent organization under Adolf Hitler since 1934, was headed by Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler. When Hitler moved into Poland in September, 1939, units of SS troops, called Einsatzgruppen (task forces) were ready to do their dirty work. Small groups of SS troops rode in distinctive blue buses from town to town in Poland and the Baltic states, clearing out partisans and Jews and executing them in mass graves dug by the local population.
"Remarkable in this phase of the extermination process was the cooperation exhibited by the local non-Jewish Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles. Even the victims themselves cooperated in a way by showing a remarkable docility in marching to the edge of their future mass graves. Later, in a refinement of the process, many cooperated by actually jumping into the graves ahead of time and lying face down on the mutilated corpses of their predecessors, awaiting their own turn to be killed by machine gun or pistol bullets."
Some of the most macabre scenes of the book come from this phase of the Holocaust. Since the executioners were pressed for time, they sometimes did an incomplete job of killing, and various victims were able to escape at night and stagger into town. One German SS soldier encountering such a group, concluded that they "must have crawled out of the graves where the executed are buried." There were hundreds of them, with "blood pouring down their faces, holes in their heads, their hands broken, and their eyes hanging out of their sockets." The SS man was disgusted, but only because the authorities allowed these Jews to "walk about in such a state."
A little less than two years later, in preparation for Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the Einsatzgruppen were organized more formally. The overall SS organization was broken down into four task forces, one to be assigned in the area of each invading German army. By this time, June of 1941, Himmler had attained an ascendancy over the Wehrmacht in Hitler's eyes no mean task and his SS killers were allowed to operate freely in the immediate rear of the combat zones.
With Barbarossa launched, the Einsatzgruppen continued to distinguish themselves in depravity, so much so that Himmler, witnessing his first mass execution in person, was shocked to the point of setting about to devise a more "humane," impersonal way of killing. Hence an acceleration of the ongoing development of the clean and efficient Polish gas chambers. It was during that same summer of 1941 that the Nazis first instituted "ghettoization," or concentration of Jews in designated areas of the cities.
Finally, that summer saw Hitler, Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich settled on executing the "final solution," which meant extermination of all Jews in Eastern Europe and the shipping of Jews from Western Europe to Poland, also for eventual extermination. Significantly, even the fanatical Nazis found the movement of Western Jews difficult; in Eastern Europe they had been able to disassociate themselves from the miserable creatures they slaughtered; the German Jews were their neighbors.
Children of course, had to be killed like adults, because if left to live, they would become adult Jews and Jewesses. Yet killing children was sometimes too much even for SS men, who had children of their own. So they recruited Ukrainians to do that task. As one conscience-stricken executioner later wrote,
"The Wehrmach had already dug a grave. The Ukranians were standing around trembling. The children were taken down from the tractor. They were lined up along the top of the grave and shot so that they fell into it. The wailing was indescribable. I shall never forget the scene throughout my life. 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."
The historical progression constitutes one level of this book, but the second, the study of the effects of violence on the victims and the perpetrators, is the area that seems to be of primary interest to the author. He devotes an entire chapter to the nature of violence itself, contrasting "defensive" violence as employed by the military and the police with "aggressive" violence as practiced by the Einsatzgruppen and their indigenous civilian accomplices.
Mr. Rhodes emphasizes the efforts made by Himmler to prevent the atrocities being committed from causing depravity among the perpetrators themselves. With all their butcheries of defenseless creatures, the SS still managed to look upon themselves as elites, a "caste of noble warriors," meeting the unpleasant but necessary needs of the Fuhrer.
The fascinating central figure of this book is Heinrich Himmler. Hitler tends to be a secondary figure who, like Himmler, was incapable of committing violence in person but notable principally for his obsession with killing the Jews above all else. As the author puts it, "Murdering the Jews, in Hitler's eyes, was equivalent to winning the war, even if it brought down ruin on Germany." Himmler is far more complicated.
In person, Himmler was an extremely unimpressive man. In civilian clothes, without his black tunic with silver trimming and polished black boots, he was almost pathetic. Personally he hated the killing. While unwillingly attending a deer hunt, he once remarked, "How can you find pleasure in shooting from behind cover at poor creatures browsing on the edge of a wood, innocent, defenseless, and unsuspecting? Properly considered, it's pure murder." Yet this same man was forced to supervise the mass murder of defenseless humans, which duty he performed because he feared Hitler more than he hated killing:
"An unfavorable comment by Hitler on one of his measures was enough to upset [Himmler] thoroughly and produce violent reactions which took the form of severe stomach pains … Nobody who had not witnessed it would believe a man with such power at his disposal as Himmler had would be in such a state of fear when he was summoned to Hitler. Himmler had nothing in him to counterbalance the effect of Hitler's personality."
Yet in the end, Himmler succumbed to the violence he himself had sought to avoid by distancing himself from reality. Eventually he even began to develop an almost sexual pleasure from witnessing the killing of women.
This is not a pleasant book, far from it. It is well written and thoroughly researched, but in the end it leaves the reader with a feeling of depression. The author himself found it difficult to write it, but insists that the victims "deserve written witness." In that Mr. Rhodes has succeeded admirably. He has made the Holocaust not a statistic but a personally harrowing experience.

John Eisenhower is the author of numerous books on America's wars, starting with "The Bitter Woods" (1969), a story of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. His latest book, "Yanks," the story of the American Army in World War I, was published last year by the Free Press.

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