Prelude to the Final Solution: Race War in Poland

Friends  of Padre Steve’s World

Another section of the article dealing with the campaign of mass murder and genocide conducted by Hitler’s legions in Eastern Europe. This section deals with the actions of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland in 1939 and 1940. In it you will see that the while most of the killing was done by the SS that the German military high command was not guiltless. Some commanders attempted to stop SS actions, but they were the minority.  Most simply turned a blind eye to what was going on and a few would lend their assistance to the Einsatzgruppen. 

Please note, that all of this took place before the first extermination camps began operations. This killing was done up close and personal by  the men of the Einsatzgruppen and the Police battalions. In all just a few thousand troops massacred hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews as well as the Polish gentile elites.

It is terribly uncomfortable, for as I always say, these men were little different than most of us, they were terribly ordinary.


Padre Steve+


Heinrich Himmler

The Polish campaign was a precursor to the Russian campaign and was not totally race driven. It contained elements of Germany’s perception of the injustice of Versailles which gave Poland the Danzig corridor and Germany’s desire to reconnect East Prussia to the Reich, as well as the perceived necessity to remove a potential enemy from its rear as it faced France, yet it was a campaign steeped in Nazi racial ideology. Poland resisted German efforts to ally itself with Germany in 1939, thus Hitler determined it “would be crushed first.” 80

Meeting with military leaders on 23 May 1939 Hitler “made it plain that the real issue was not Danzig, but securing of Germany’s Lebensraum….” 81 On 22 August Hitler enjoined the generals to “Close your hearts to pity! Act brutally! Eighty million people must obtain what is their right.” 82

Even so, most military leaders failed to appreciate what Hitler was calling on them to do; Erich von Manstein would later note that “what Hitler had to say about an eventual war with Poland, could not, in my opinion, be interpreted as a policy of annihilation.” 83

generaloberst johannes blaskowitz

General Johannes Blaskowitz

Others such as Abwehr director Wilhelm Canaris was “utterly horrified.” As he read his notes to his closest colleagues “His voice trembled as he read, Canaris was acutely aware that he had witnessed something monstrous.” 84General Johannes Blaskowitz, the controversial commander of the German 8th Army who would become the military commander in Poland did not leave any notes about the meeting. However, his biographer noted that Blaskowitz “may have naively attached a military meaning to these terms since he was busy with military matters and soon to begin operations.85 As was noted before this was also the interpretation of Erich Manstein gave Hitler’s words, but one has to wonder as to the veracity of his statements. 86 Field Marshal Keitel noted that the speech was “delivered in the finest sense of psychological timing and application,” with Hitler molding “his words and phrases to suit his audience.” 87

In light of the mixed interpretations by military leaders, it is possible that many misinterpreted Hitler’s intent and did not fully appreciated his ideology as they went into Poland, carefully secluding themselves in the narrow confines of their military world. While such an explanation is plausible for some, it is also true that many others in light of subsequent actions were in full agreement with Hitler. One author notes that “no man who participated in the Führer Conferences….and there were present the highest ranking officers of the three services, could thereafter plead ignorance of the fact that Hitler had laid bare his every depth of infamy before them, and they had raised no voice in protest either then or later.” 88 In July, General Wagner, the Quartermaster General issued orders that “authorized German soldiers to take and execute hostages in the event of attacks by snipers or irregulars.” 89

Regardless of the meaning ascribed to Hitler’s speech by his generals, Hitler had already laid plans to destroy the Jews in Poland and decimate the Polish intelligentsia and leadership.   Hitler gave Himmler the task of forming Einsatzgrüppen to follow the German troops as they advanced into Poland and liquidate Poland’s upper class wherever it was to be found.” 90 While senior party leaders remained at Hitler’s side following the conference, Himmler worked to coordinate his troops, including the reinforced Totenkopf battalions and Einsatzgrüppen with the Army. 91

Himmler began planning in early May and the Army, working in close collaboration with the SS decided to “use SS and police units to augment their own forces for security tasks.” 92 Himmler established “five Einsatzgrüppen to accompany each of the numbered German armies at the start of the campaign.” 93 Placed under the aegis of Reinhard Heydrich the groups were broken down into smaller units of 100-150 men and allotted to army corps. All senior posts were occupied by officers of the SD, the Sicherhietsdienst. 94

Two additional Einsatzgrüppen were formed shortly after the invasion. 95Additionally three regiments of the SS Totenkopfverbande, under the direction of SS General Theodore Eicke were deployed in the rear areas of the advancing armies. These regiments were formed from the Concentration Camp guard units and eventually became the nucleus of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. 96 The SS carefully shielded the real purpose of these units from the Army in the planning stages, while the Army might countenance anti-guerrilla operations and cooperate in arresting people who might lead resistance in Poland, the SS was not yet sure that the Army would support or countenance mass murder. 97 That being said, Heydrich worked with the Army to develop lists of up to 30,000 Poles to be arrested following the invasion including intellectuals, political leaders and clergy. 98

To eliminate the Polish elites without disturbing the Army, Himmler and Heydrich gave the Army “only the bare minimum of information” as to their ultimate intent99 The deception was initially successful and many Wehrmacht commanders welcomed the assistance of the SS units for rear area security missions. Blaskowitz’s 8th Army defined the mission of the Einsatzgrüppen in the traditional doctrinal terms of the Ettapen, noting their mission as “the suppression of all anti-Reich and anti- German elements in the rear of the “fighting troops, in particular, counter espionage arrests of  politically unreliable persons, confiscation of weapons, safeguarding of important counter- espionage materials etc…” 100 General Wagner, the Quartermaster General issued orders in July 1939 that “authorized German soldiers to take and execute hostages in the event of attacks by snipers or irregulars.” Despite the deception, there was no way to disguise the murder of Polish intelligentsia and Jews once it began, and had the Army had the political acumen and moral courage it could have considerably restricted or even halted the terror campaign. 101

The ensuing campaign in Poland demonstrated Hitler’s true intent. Heydrich openly discussed “murdering the Polish ruling class” of the aristocracy, Catholic clergy, communists and Jews at a meeting on September 7th, barely a week after the beginning of the invasion. 102 As the German armies advanced into Poland slicing through the badly deployed and inadequately equipped Polish Army the Einsatzgruppen and the Totenkopf Verbande followed in their wake, conducting mass arrests and executions of those Poles deemed to be a threat.

Many army leaders were worried about Polish soldiers left behind in rear areas as the armies advanced. In some cases that concern became a paranoid mindset and some generals believed that a “brutal guerrilla campaign has broken out everywhere and we are ruthlessly stamping it out.” 103


Ordungspolizei Battalion preparing for Mass Murder

Yet some of the actions by Einsatzgruppen and Totenkopf Verbande against the Polish elites and the Jews drew Army reactions. The unit commanded by SS General Woyrsch “behaved with such unparalleled bestiality that it was thrown out of the operational area” by General List of 14th Army.” 104 Another unit, the Totenkopfverbande Brandenburg came to Army attention when its commander remarked that the “SSVT would not obey Army orders.” The conclusion drawn by the Army General was that “the SSVT commander was following orders from some non-military authority to terrorize the local Jews.” 105

These atrocities as well as those of other Waffen-SS units were hard to hide and brought reactions out of army commanders who sought to punish the offenders. Blaskowitz and a few other commanders attempted to put a halt to SS actions against Poles and Jews, 106 but most officers turned a blind eye to the atrocities or outright condoned them. It is believed that General Walter Model and many other senior officers “not only knew what was occurring in Poland but actually took part in what Colonel General Franz Halder himself described in October as “this devilish plan.”” 107

It appears that many of the officers who objected were not motivated so much by humanitarian, moral or legal considerations, but rather by the effect on good order and discipline of their soldiers. 108 Likewise it is clear that many officers, even if they did not participate in the actions probably approved of them. Many of the early biographies and histories of this period were written by authors who were influenced by surviving German officers. Many of these men were being rehabilitated and helping the Americans and British meet the threat of the Soviet Union, made no or little mention of the Army’s part in these actions.

Both Himmler and Heydrich were sensitive to the perception of the Army and resented the fact that the Army believed them to be responsible for actions that they were carrying out under the direction and orders of Hitler himself, They also resented that their troops were characterized as “undisciplined gangs of murderers” by many Army officers. 109

After crushing the Polish armies and dividing Poland with the help of the Red Army, the Germans established what became known as the Government General, which was headed by Hans Frank. The new civilian administration came into conflict with the military governor, General Blaskowitz. Appalled by the actions of the SS, Police and the Nazi administration. Blaskowitz made an “elaborate report on the atrocities of the SS,” 110 expressing concern about his “extreme alarm about illegal executions, his worries about maintaining troop discipline under those circumstances, the failure of discussions with the SD and Gestapo and their assertions that they were only following SS Orders.” 111

While it is unclear if the memorandum made it to Hitler, it is clear that Hitler did know about the protest and Blaskowitz fell into disfavor and was reassigned after a period of continued conflict with the Nazi administration. Hitler was not impressed by the less than ruthless attitudes of Blaskowitz and other commanders. His reaction to Army objections regarding the methods of the SS and police units was characteristically acidic. Hitler’s military adjutant recalled that Hitler accused the Army’s leaders of using “Salvation Army” methods, and called their ideas regarding the occupation as “childish.” 112

Following the reassignment of Blaskowitz, other officers that objected were also relieved of their commands or reassigned. General Georg von Külcher was relieved of command for protesting SS and police atrocities. 113


At the beginning of the campaign the SS units and their commanders fell under military justice, and a number of SS officers and their troops were convicted by Army courts-martial for their actions. But soon, SS Officers convicted by Army courts-martial were given amnesty by Hitler and Hitler “removed SS units from the jurisdiction of military courts,” on October 4th 1939. 114 While the army remained, it was no longer in charge and would actively assist the SS and Police in combat and further atrocities against civilians. In November 1939, One German officer, who later was a conspirator in the July 20th plot, remarked, “was ashamed to be German! The minority are dragging our good through the mud by murdering, looting and torching houses will bring disaster on the whole German people if we do not stop it soon…” 115

poland murders

The Army was soon relieved of responsibility for policing Poland which fell on the Ordungspolizei battalions and Gendarmerie. Many officers were pleased as they could now turn their backs on the situation there and begin to prepare for the campaign in the West.

The Ordungspolizei battalions and the Gendarmerie units were composed of mobilized city police and rural constabulary police. These men would soon wreak their own devastation on Poland in the coming months and years. 116 Poland was also be the first use of mass evacuations of civilian populations to make room for German settlers, in the newly acquired Lebensraum. Poles were driven into the newly formed Government General and ethnic Germans moved into previously Polish occupied territories. By 1941 over 1,200,000 Poles and 300,000 Jews had been expelled and 497,000 ethnic Germans brought into provinces German had lost in 1919. 117

Prior to the war about 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. The actions of the Einsatzgruppen and the Police brought a reign of terror to Poland’s Jews. The Jews were rounded up and sent to Ghettos from which they would be dispatched to the death camps following the decision to implement the “Final Solution.” After the war only some 50-70,000 Jews were found to have survived in Poland, the Polish Army and camps in Germany. A further 180,000 were repatriated from the Soviet Union. 118

To be continued….


80 Ibid. Weinberg. Visions of Victory p.8
81 Ibid. Goerlitz, History of the German General Staff p.346
82 Höhne, Heinze. The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. Translated by Richard Barry. PenguinBooks, New York and London, 2000. First English edition published by Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd. London 1969. Originally published as Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf, Verlag Der Spiegel, Hamburg 1966 p.259

83 Manstein, Erich von. Forward by B.H. Liddle Hart, Introduction by Martin Blumenson. Lost victories: The War Memoirs of Hitler’s Most Brilliant General. Zenith Press, St Paul MN 2004. First Published 1955 as Verlorene Siege, English Translation 1958 by Methuen Company p.29

84 Ibid. Hohne. Canaris p.347

85 Giziowski, Richard. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz. Hppocrene Books, New York 1997 p.119

86 Ibid. Manstein. Lost Victories p.29

87 Ibid. Goerlitz. The Memoirs of Field Marshal Keitel p.87

88 Wheeler-Bennett, John. The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918-1945. St. Martin’s Press Inc. New York, NY 1954 p.448

89 Ibid. Megargee. War of Annihilation p.13

90 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p.297

91 Padfield, Peter. Himmler. MJF Books, New York 1990 p.264

92 Ibid. Megargee. War of Annihilation p.13

93 Ibid. Westermann. Hitler’s Police Battalions p.127

94 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p.297 95 Ibid. Westermann. Hitler’s Police Battalions p.127 96 Ibid. Sydnor Soldiers of Destruction p.37

97 Ibid. Giziowski Blaskowitz p.120

98 Ibid. Witte. The Wehrmacht p.100

99 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head pp. 297-298

100 Ibid. Giziowski Blaskowitz p.120

101 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p.298

102 Ibid. Witte. The Wehrmacht p.100

103 Newton, Steven H. Hitler’s Commander: Field Marshal Walter Model-Hitler’s Favorite General Da Capo Press a division of Perseus Books Group, Cambridge MA 2005. p.74

104 Ibid. Giziowski. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz pp.165-166

105 Ibid. Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction pp. 42-43 Note SSVT is the common abbreviation for Verfügungstruppe which was the early designation of the SS Totenkopf Verbande and some other Waffen SS Units.

106 Ibid. Goerlitz. History of the German General Staff p.359

107 Ibid. Newton. Hitler’s Commander p.78

108 Ibid. Witte The Wehrmacht p.102

109 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p.298

110 Ibid. Goerlitz. History of the German General Staff .p.359 111 Ibid. Giziowski. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz p.173 112 Ibid. Giziowski. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz p.173

113 Ibid. Witte The Wehrmacht p.102

114 Burleigh, Michael and Wippermann, Wolfgang. The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 Cambridge University Press, New York NY and Cambridge UK 1991. p.100

115 Ibid. Witte The Wehrmacht p.102

116 For a good account of one of the Police Battalions see Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning Harper Perennial Publishers, San Francisco CA 1992

117 Reitlinger, Gerald. The SS: Alibi of a Nation. The Viking Press, New York, 1957. Republished by Da Capo Press, New York, NY p.131

118 Ibid. Davidowicz The War Against the Jews pp.395-397






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Filed under crime, History, Military, nazi germany, world war two in europe

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