- - Monday, December 3, 2018


By Gerry Van Tonder

Pen and Sword, $22.95, 128 pages

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The Islamic State (ISIS) is notorious for its videotaped death squad executions of its captured Western hostages in Iraq and Syria, and its genocidal mass extermination of the Yazidi Christian community in Iraq. Extremist Sunni Muslim militants in Egypt intentionally target the country’s Coptic Christians and instigate the mass bombings of their churches. Genocidal impulses toward demonized groups is not a new human phenomenon, but Nazi Germany may well have contributed the template.

Tragically, it appears that in spite of the horrific and systematic killings and enslavement in labor camps by the German Nazi rulers in World War II’s Holocaust, after which it was assumed that such mass killings would become a remnant of the distant past, today such genocidal brutality is being practiced by jihadi terrorist groups — and theocratic countries such as Iran — that demonize and murder targeted groups.

The return of genocidal warfare to today’s terrorist battlefields makes it crucially important to re-learn the lessons of history’s darkest days. Gerry Van Tonder’s “Einsatzgruppen: Nazi Death Squads, 1939-1945” is a recommended place to start.

Adolf Hitler began his onslaught by browbeating his countrymen with the idea that Jews “had to be removed from the face of the earth to provide his master race with Lebensraum, that extra room in which to expand and flourish.” A large number of Jews inhabited Europe at the time, with more than 500,000 living in Germany and an estimated 7 million Jews living in other parts of Eastern Europe.

To achieve the mass annihilation of what Hitler defined as “racially impure” communities, in September 1939 the Nazi regime’s Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office, or RSHA) was established, headed by the Chef der Sicherheitspolizei und des Sicherheitsdienstes (chief of Security Police and SD, or CSSD). It was under the CSSD that four battalion-sized special action groups, known as the Einsatzgruppen, were established for the systematic mass murder of the Jews and other “enemies of the state.” They were comprised of SS (Schutzstaffel), police and Eastern European auxiliaries recruited from the local populations where the Einsatzgruppen operated.

Their tactics included the mass rounding up and execution through shootings of Jewish and other victims, and, in the case of their Jewish victims, using mobile gassing truck vehicles to kill their densely packed passengers “during the journey from loading point to burial site.” The “pilfering of cash and luxury goods” from their victims was also used by some officers for their own personal benefit.

The Einsatzgruppen was conceived by Reinhard Heydrich, a former naval officer, whom Heinrich Himmler had previously appointed as head of the Gestapo, the Prussian police force. The author writes that its “sole business would be to murder Jews and other ‘enemies of the Reich.’” Heydrich wielded such immense power, the author writes, that he became “executioner to all of occupied Europe.”

This also marked him for assassination by anti-Nazi partisans, with an assassination attempt on May 27, 1942, by British-trained Czech patriots, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, who had ambushed his vehicle with a grenade as he was driven to his office in Prague Castle, with Heydrich ultimately dying from his wounds. This assassination so infuriated Hitler, the author writes, that he became “frantic with rage” and demanded retribution in the form of “the instant execution of 30,000 Czechs as a reprisal.”

In the end, 192 men and boys from the nearby village of Lidice were executed, with the evidence obliterated by burning and levelling the buildings where the executions took place. This practice was employed throughout the Einsatzgruppen’s genocidal mass killings, with numerous massacre sites “sanitized” in their aftermath, the author writes, to remove traces of their genocide “directly under Nazi leadership.”

Of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the author writes that the Einsatzgruppen’s units were responsible for the systematic murders of at least 1.3 million Jews, in addition to tens of thousands of Soviet Communist officials, partisans and gypsies.

The Nazi’s Holocaust came to an end in April 1945, with the crushing of the Third Reich’s military forces by the Allied militaries’ aerial and ground forces, as well as the Red Army’s advances from the east.

The concluding chapter itemizes the victorious Allies’ Nuremberg Tribunal’s convictions of the Nazi military officers who had participated in executing the Holocaust, including the later capture, trial and sentencing to death in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, who had served as grand architect of Jewish affairs, ghettos and deportation to extermination camps.

The book provides important details about the Einsatzgruppen’s leadership and organizational hierarchy, and translated memos specifying how the killings were to take place, and operational reports from the field about their missions’ accomplishments. Numerous photographs illustrate the text. A grim read, but a necessary one.

• Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), in Alexandria, Va.

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