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A Cautionary Tale for Military Leaders that Give Obedience to a Tyrant: the Story of Erwin Rommel, the Legendary Desert Fox

 

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just over 75 years ago in Ulm Germany a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, sometimes known as the Blue Max, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler really ose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

He was also an opportunist. With the rise of the Nazis came the expansion of the German military. Rommel was already well known due to his exploits as a platoon and company commander during the First World War in France, Romania, and Italy. In Italy he captured an entire Italian infantry division during the Battle of Mount Cosna, which was part of the Caporetto in October 1917. His company of 150 troops, exploited terrain and weather to surprise and capture 9,000 soldiers and 81 artillery pieces at the cost of 6 men killed and 30 wounded. Rommel used infiltration tactics, flanking maneuvers, and even disobeyed the orders of his superiors during the battle. Less than two weeks later at Langarone using the same tactics, his company surprised the 1st Italian Infantry which thinking it surrounded by superior forces surrendered to Rommel. For these actions Rommel was awarded the coveted Blue Max. 

Rommel was retained in the 100,000 man Reichswehr, but he had refused to attend the course that would have made him part of the elite General Staff. As such he was not assigned to the critical billets that would normally lead to high command. Instead he served in company command and as an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. While assigned to the school he wrote a manual of infantry tactics and training based on his experience. The book, Infantrie Greift an, or Infantry Attacks is still considered a classic book on infantry tactics and leadership, and was highly influential in his rise to high command. He was promoted to Major after serving 14 years as a Captain in 1932. In October 1933 he was assigned to command the 3rd Jaeger Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment where he first met Hitler when the latter reviewed his troops on an inspection visit.

Rommel, like many officers was caught in the thrall of Hitler. His wife, Lucy was caught up in the moment and was an avid Hitler supporter. Rommel was never a Nazi party member, but that did not keep him from supporting the overtly nationalist and militarist actions of the Hitler regime. In 1935 he was assigned to the Military Academy at Potsdam where as a Lieutenant Colonel he published Infantrie Greift an. In 1937 Hitler appointed Rommel as the liaison officer from the War Ministry to the Hitler Youth. Rommel clashed with the head of the Hitler Jugend, Baldur von Schirach and twiced proposed removing the organization from the Party to the War Ministry.

The conflict resulted in Rommel being quietly reposted from that assignment, promoted to Colonel and assigned to command the former Austrian Theresian Military Academy  in Wiener Neustadt. He was then selected by Hitler to command the Führer-Begleit-Battalion (Escort battalion) which served as the force protection unit for Hitler’s headquarters during the Polish campaign.

Following that campaign, Rommel, now a Major General was appointed to command the newly formed 7th Panzer Division which he commanded with great distinction during the Battle of France, 1940. When the campaign ended the division was placed in reserve where it readied to become part of the planned invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. When that operation was postponed due to the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Mussolini’s Italian army in North Africa was routed by the small British Western Desert Force, Rommel was assigned to command the Deutsches Afrika Korps, composed of the 5th Light Division, which would soon be re-designated as the 21st Panzer Division and the 15th Panzer Division.

Over the next two years in North Africa built a reputation as an energetic and often risk taking commander who fought against long odds in a campaign which his own high command gave little support. The isolation of North Africa and its purely military significance in supporting a weak ally made it a different war from the concurrent, racially driven German invasion of the Soviet Union. Fighting the British and later the Americans, Rommel built a reputation of being a noble and chivalrous opponent. Unlike most of Europe and especially in Russian there was little to no influence of the SS in theater and the Jewish population of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria suffered little under Nazi occupation, which many North African Jews attributed to Rommel.

During the North African campaign Rommel soared to the heights of international fame due to his exploits. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels sent one of his aides, Lieutenant Alfred Berndt to serve on Rommel’s Staff.  Berndt sent reports to the Propaganda Ministry which became the staple of Nazi propaganda to build Rommel into a German hero. Despite serving in a remote theater and commanding a relatively small number of troops, Rommel became the poster child for Goebbels’s propaganda machine. He was revered by the German people, and at the same time despised by many of his Army contemporaries and superiors.

His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: 

“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

Rommel basked in the praise of Hitler but as time wore on in Africa he became disillusioned by the course of the war, and while maintaining faith in Hitler, he openly despised many of the Nazi elite and his own High Command. While in Africa, Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal but denied the troops and supplies that he needed to successfully hold out in Africa. He opposed efforts to send more troops to Africa and recommended withdrawing his German and Italian soldiers before the Allies closed the door on withdraw across the Mediterranean.

As his troops were being chewed to pieces at El Alamein he requested permission to withdraw to the west. The request was refused and Hitler issued and order to stand in place and not withdraw. Rommel’s words are revealing for a man who had previously trusted Hitler and taken every opportunity from the dictator to advance his career.

“The order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realized at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. how matters really stood in Africa.  Arms, petrol, and aircraft could have helped us, but not orders. We were completely stunned, and for the first time during the Africa campaign I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for the existing positions to be held on instructions from highest authority. I forced myself to this action, as I had always demanded unconditional obedience from others and, consequently, wished to apply the principle to myself. Had I known what was to come I should have acted differently, because from that time on, we had continually to circumvent orders from the Fuehrer or Duce in order to save the army from destruction. But this first instance of interference by higher authority in the tactical conduct of the African war came as a considerable shock.”

Like most other officers Rommel had served the Hitler regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe without protest. Yet, unlike so many other officers when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies, he refused to obey orders that he knew were both illegal and immoral, and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

It was at El Alamein that Rommel discovered the emptiness of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Afrika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied, equipped and which always had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

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Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, including members of the Jewish Battalion serving with the British 8th Army. Likewise, Rommel refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1944 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was refused.

After his return from Africa, Rommel’s honest and open assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. He was posted to France in early 1944 according to some accounts he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. There are arguments about Rommel’s connections and activities in regard to the anti-Hitler plot among respected historians.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

If Rommel had joined the plot to topple Hitler, he did not stop working to defend Germany against the coming Allied invasion. He believed that the war was lost if his forces failed to repel the Allies on the beaches of France, and he worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control. Neither did he approve of an assassination attempt but realizing that his front was about to collapse he was in favor of independent peace negotiations with the Allies on the Western Front.

Many commanders in the west, including Waffen SS commanders were in agreement Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned. Many of those arrested, imprisoned, or killed, were those who knew Rommel’s views on ending the war.

Various conspirator’s testimony exposed Rommel as part of the plot. Leading Nazis, including Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler urged Hitler to deal with Rommel. Likewise, some in the High Command, including Heinz Guderian turned upon Rommel. After a secret hearing it was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” that Rommel be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge was a participant at the infamous Wannsee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

On 27 September, Martin Bormann submitted to Hitler a memorandum which claimed that “the late General Stülpnagel, Colonel von Hofacker, Kluge’s nephew who has been executed, Lieutenant Colonel Rathgens, and several … living defendants have testified that Field Marshal Rommel was perfectly in the picture about the assassination plan and has promised to be at the disposal of the New Government.”

Rommel’s fate was sealed, but because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide. Goebbels who had spent so much time building up the Rommel legend, turned against him. The latter with an offer to ensure his family’s safety, which he would not guarantee if Rommel choose to defend himself in open court. Hitler dispatched Generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel from Berlin to personally deliver the message. Burgdorf was the last Army Chief of Staff and killed himself following Hitler’s suicide.

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Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops.

Rommel is a complex character. His attitudes towards Hitler waxed and waned. He was no Nazi. He conducted his battles in an honorable manner and displayed much chivalry towards his opponents. His views on race were not at all Nazi like. In North Africa he faced down a White South African commander who did not want to be imprisoned with his Black troops. Rommel told the officer: “For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

But from the beginning he willingly served Hitler’s regime and basked in the fame that he enjoyed due to Goebbels’s propaganda machine. At the same time while he was according to the Chief of the German Navy in the West, Admiral Friedrich Ruge, as well as his Rommel’s letters to his wife, indicated that Rommel’s mood fluctuated wildly regarding Hitler: while he showed disgust towards the atrocities and disappointment towards the overall military and strategic situation, he was overjoyed to welcome a visit or praise from Hitler, only to return to depression the next day when faced with reality.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many others didn’t.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military that blindly support a delusional madman who happens to be the President: a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, who incites violence against his opponents, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution to which they are sworn to defend.

But I think that we also have to remember the men like Rommel who though not a true believer in the Nazi cause and polices, not only willingly served the Reich, but basked in the adulation lavished on him by friends and foes alike.

To me this is not about partisan politics but something that is bigger than politics, bigger than temporary political advantage, bigger than any single political issue, for which in our country, at least for the moment, that there are many ways to express dissent which were not available to most Germans of Rommel’s era. It is about the Constitution, the rule of law, and the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Personally, as a historian I cannot understand the blind obedience in the face of the evidence; but then I blindly followed President George Bush into the ill-advised and criminal invasion of Iraq. It was in the desert of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province that I had my own revelation that the man I supported had led the country into a war that could not be won. Like Rommel at El Alamein, it opened my eyes to things that I had never seen before.

Now, in light of President Trump’s immoral, unconstitutional, and foolhardy policies and decisions I wonder why so few high ranking military officers, active or retired have the courage to oppose them. Surely, some must, like Rommel, Ludwig Beck, Henning Von Tresckow, Erich von Witzleben, Hans Oster, Claus von Stauffenberg and others like them realize the abyss that the President is leading the nation to, and far to few are willing to tell the truth when most needed. It took far more courage for the German officers to oppose Hitler than it does American officers to tell the truth about Trump’s policies. Maybe we have become so insulated from political realities that we make excuses for ourselves, and our actions.

Maybe we as officers need to remember the works of General Ludwig Beck:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, leadership, middle east, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, war crimes, world war two in europe

A Pilgrimage to Dachau

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Sunday, I made pilgrimage to the Concentration Camp at Dachau outside of Munich. I took the S-Bahn, a local commenter train from the Ostbahnhof near the hotel I am staying at to Dachau. Then I walked the approximately two and a half miles from the Dachau Bahnhof to the camp, following the same route as the  men and women, Gentile and Jew, that arrived at the camp following its establishment in 1933.

The weather suited the occasion, while not cold at all, there was cloud cover, sometimes thin enough to let a little bit of the sun shine through. As I walked down the streets I noted that many were named for victims who were either imprisoned at Dachau, or later killed at the camp, or sent to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, or other places where they were murdered.

Dachau was initially established as an extrajudicial place of incarceration and punishment shortly after Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, by the local Munich Nazi Party and its SS under control of the Nazi Police President of Munich, Heinrich Himmler. The first prisoners were political prisoners transferred from the Stadelheim prison in Munich, and the Landsberg prison not too far away. However, under the initial administration of Hilmar Wäkerle, managed to engage in practices so disgusting that Himmler relieved him and placed Theodor Eicke in charge. Eicke, was certainly cruel, but he insisted on controlled violence against the prisoners. Under his command the camp became the model for all other concentration camps, and many of his subordinates went on to command some of the worst of them. The rules for guards and prisoners alike became the regulations for all concentration camps.

The cynical motto that Eicke placed at the gate of Dachau, “Arbeit Macht Frei”  found its way to the notorious camp at Auschwitz, under the command of Rudolf Höss who had served under Eicke at Dachau.

While not a “death camp” per say, an estimated 30,000 prisoners were murdered there and tens of thousands of others sent to the death factories in Poland, including Auschwitz.

Unlike the past I did not go to the museum. Instead I walked, meditated, and remembered the evil perpetrated at Dachau and the other camps. Of course there were many people from all over the word there. Some were on guided tours, others  using the mobile device for tours, but there was a certain respect for the dead and what happened at Dachau that I have seen at many of America’s historic sites, including Gettysburg.

I will continue to walk, remember, and bear witness even as the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders of the times pass away. In fact I need to get back to work on that book and my proposal to my agent for it.

Tomorrow is already here for us in Munich, so I wish you a good evening.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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“Life Unworthy of Life” The Killing Of the Handicapped and Mentally Ill at the T4 Euthanasia Center at Hadamar


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a couple of weeks my wife Judy and I will be traveling to Germany for a time of relaxation, study, and visits with German friends. I will be writing about those events as they occur. But as we get closer to going I began to reflect on our visit to Germany. At the end of that visit while visiting our friends Gottfried and Hannelore I took a trip with Gottfried to the T4 Euthanasia Center memorial at Hadamar which is about 12 miles from where they live.

Hadamar had been a mental hospital for decades before it was chosen as one of six places where an euthanasia program ordered by Hitler was to be conducted. Hitler ordered the program on September 1st 1939, the same day his forces invaded Poland.

Under the cover of the title Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering Of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses.” Under the Direction Of Hitler’s accompanying physician, Dr. Karl Brandt, Philipp Bouhler of the Party Chancellery, the Action, with Hitler’s full approval began, in Germany and the newly occupied territories in Poland.

Between 1941 and 1945 over 15,000 people, deemed to be “life unworthy of life” were murdered at Hadamar. The victims were killed in a bus garage where they were killed with carbon monoxide gas, the gas chamber, or by lethal injection or intentional overdoses of barbiturates while laying in bed at night. The gas chambers at Hadamar ceased operations at the end of 1941 and were removed, making the killings in the next stages “up close and personal” killings done by medical professionals. The specialists that operated them were transferred to run the death camps in German occupied Poland.


Those killed at Hadamar included men, women, and children deemed to have diseases, handicaps, or mental illnesses that kept them from being a useful part of the German economy, or a drain on society. Likewise, there were many people brought to Hadamar to be sterilized so they could never reproduce. The orders for this action came from Hitler himself and were based on what were in the early 20th Century very popular expressions of Social Darwinism which were not isolated to Germany. Sadly, there were those who expressed the same thoughts and conducted medical experiments and sterilization short of euthanasia in many Western countries, including the United States.

The victims included the handicapped, the mentally ill, those born with Down’s Syndrome or other neurological diseases, Jews, people with long term illnesses, children, people determined to be asocial, and during the war soldiers, including those of the Waffen SS who were determined to have mental illness, including what we would now call PTSD which made them unfit for active service.

Karl Brandt 

The relatives of those killed received notification from the authorities that their son, daughter, sister, or brother had died of natural causes, certified by the doctors who had decided that they should die. Unlike the extermination camps in the East, or the concentration camps, the killing in Hadamar and the other T4 centers was conducted by medical personnel. The T4 directorate “created a transport company, Gekrat, that collected the doomed patients from their respective institutions by bus. They were taken first to “transit institutions” for a temporary stay and then to the killing centers. Following their deaths by carbon monoxide, families of the victims received falsified death notices. By August 1941 over 70,000 people had perished in the gas chambers of Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hartheim, Sonnenstein, Hadamar and Bernburg.” (Browning, Christopher. The Origins Of the Final Solution, September 1939 – March 1942 p. 191) 

When the first phase, that which used carbon monoxide gas in the bus garage was ended, many of the personnel involved were transferred to help run the extermination camps including Treblinka, Soribor, and Auschwitz in the east. After the official ending of the gassings at the T4 centers, the killings continued, this time up close and personal using lethal injections of barbiturates by nurses under the supervision of physicians. When the staff of Hadamar killed their 10,000th victim, they had a party.

Hadamar with Crematorium in Operation 

Jewish victims were treated no differently, apart from that their executioners notified their families that they had died in an asylum at Chelm, Poland. The same faked death notices were sent to their survivors from Chelm to add to the deception.

The service of the gas chamber personnel at Hadamar and the other T4 was little more than a training ground for their future employment. Historian Christopher Browning noted that “the connection between Nazi “Euthanasia” and the Final Solution goes well beyond the personnel, technology, and procedure. The killing of the handicapped and the Jews were two essential elements of the Nazi’s wider vision of creating a racial utopia. The former was to cleanse the German race of its “degenerate” or “defective” elements. The latter was to destroy its ultimate enemy. They were two campaigns in the same crusade.” (Browning p. 193) 

I will write more about the T4 Program and Hadamar at another time. That being said I have to admit that the visit was chilling. In addition to being a memorial, with historical classes, seminars, and tours being offered, the campus is used for many other activities, including medical and educational programs. Likewise, unlike places like Dachau, which are not particularly scenic locations, Hadamar, located in rural Hessen is a place that one could never imagine mass murder ever have taken place. It is a beautiful and peaceful location, so the crimes that happened there, although numerically small compared to other camps are unimaginable.

Afterwards Gottfried and I talked and went back to his house. I went on a walk to the town hall, or the Rathaus to see the towns memorial to the Jews who lived there before the war and then I took a walk in the surrounding area and went back to the Jewish cemetery which I had visited last night as the grave stones could not be read in the dark. Those which were still legible were written in Hebrew and or German and most dated to the 1800s and early 1900s. As I mentioned last night the Jews who remained in Loehnberg were forced to sell their houses and belongings and were sent to the extermination centers. At least one survived and she helped dedicate the memorial at the Rathaus in 1991. One thing that I do like about Germany is that the majority of the people now have the opinion that the crimes of their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents generations need to be remembered, and the victims, and not the perpetrators be honored. I wish it was that way in the United States where we honor too many of the men who brought genocide to the Native American tribes, or enslaved African Americans and considered both the be less than human.

      Nazi Propaganda Poster on the Cost Of Caring for Handicapped and Mentally Ill 

As I walked through the forests and meadows surrounding Loehnberg after my visit to Hadamar, as well as my visits to Dachau, the White Rose Memorial and museum at the University of Munich, and the National Socialist Documentation Center in Munich I did a lot of thinking. I wondered about people who could excuse such terrible crimes in the name of love of country, or even worse because they really believed that God thought that their country and race mattered more than others. I began to think about Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism in the light of what happened in Germany, a people who believed for close to 80 years that God intended them to dominate Europe and even the world. Many of theological writings of the times in Germany and the United States.

Honestly, I think that there are a lot of people in the United States who call themselves “Pro Life” because they are anti-abortion or against birth control that would have no problem with the methods of the Nazis at Hadamar so long as those methods either brought them a profit, political power, or were used against people that they thought were less than human. Since lot of these people, mostly self-identified Evangelical and Catholic Christians frequently are in lockstep with President Trump, and cheer him on as he identifies those that he believes to be less than human or unworthy of existence in the United States, I have no doubt that they would either approve and justify such actions or turn their backs on the victims. As for the President, he has openly mocked the handicapped, he gives the support of his office to Neo-Nazi and White Supremacists, and he seldom speaks up for the victims of Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist murderers.

When I ponder all of this it sends a cold chill down my spine, because many of the President’s supporters are our neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, friends, and family members, and we rub shoulders with them every day. As financial conditions worsen, look for them to look to the government to eliminate what they consider to be Life Unworthy Of Life. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Einsatzgruppen and Ordungspolizei in Poland, 1939-1940: Killing Up Close and Personal

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Friends  of Padre Steve’s World,

Since I posted a new article about Hitler’s attack on Poland yesterday I am following it up with an older article dealing with Hitler’s first use of the Einsatzgruppen in dealing with Poles who might become leaders in an anti-Nazi Resistance as well as Jews. 

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 Einsatzgrüppen in during the Polish campaign and occupation 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 Einsatzgrüppen.

Please note, that all of this took place before the first extermination camps began operations, and were accomplished well before the decision about the Final Solution. This killing was done up close and personal by  the men of the Einsatzgruppen and the Police battalions, sometimes with the direct support and approval of the Wehrmacht. 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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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                                                   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

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                                        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.” 84 General 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 FührerConferences….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 Totenkopfverbandeunder 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

               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

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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. 116Poland 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….

                                                        Notes

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. TheEnigma 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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The Founding Of Dachau, the Model Concentration Camp

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On March 20th 1933, barely a month and a half after the Nazi takeover of the German government and three days before the passage of the Enabling Act the Police President Of Munich, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of the Dachau Concentration Camp. He appointed SS Standartenführer Hilmar Wäckerle as Commandant and the first 200 political prisoners from Munich’s Stadelheim prison arrived at Dachau on March 22nd.

Wäckerle’s brief tenure as Commandant was marked by extraordinary brutality on the part of his staff, so much so that charges were brought against him by the Munich courts which resulted in his relief by SS Gruppenführer Theodore Eicke in July 1933. Eicke would establish the regulations which governed all the later Concentration Camps, and make Dachau the model camp for all others.

Theodore Eiche

Theodore Eicke

Among the later SS killers of the Holocaust who served at Dachau were Adolf Eichmann, and the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rüdolf Höss. It became a training ground for other Concentration Camp commanders and staff. Others would become leaders in the Waffen SS and the Einsatzgruppen death squads.

The announcement of Dachau’s Opening was reported by the German press in this release:

On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 people. ‘All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released.

Dachau began as a political prisoner camp for the Nazis to imprison Socialists, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Jews, and other dissidents. It wasn’t a “death camp” designed to exterminate people even though tens of thousands of people died or were executed there. It was designed to terrorize, dehumanize, and destroy the souls of its inmates. It was a place of inhuman medical experiments, a place of terror, and the administrative center of a network of over 30 large and 100 small sub-Camps which were used as sources of slave labor for the German armaments industry. But one has to remember that the SS was not simply an instrument of terror, but an institution devoted to profit. Prisoners were valued in what their lives equated in profits. A prisoner was valued in what he or her could produce versus the expenses of keeping them alive for a period of 6 to 12 months. Under Himmler and his assistant for production and profits, Obergrüppenfuhrer Oswold Pöhl the Concentration Camps, as well as the death camps became centers of profit for the SS in collaboration with German industrial concerns and industries owned by the SS itself.

I have been to Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Flossenburg, and Buchenwald. I have also been to the T4 Euthanasia Center at Hadamar. To walk through these places where human beings subjected other people to the most inhuman of conditions, punishments, and torture brings the reality of the Holocaust into stark reality. The great evil committed by the Nazis in these places have made them hallowed ground.

Sadly, the way things are going in this country under the Trump Regime, and so many similar regimes around the world there will probably many more places of hallowed ground, ground hallowed by the victims of tyranny.

Never forget.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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