The Massacre at Babi Yar
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Since I recently wrote about the invasion of Poland, the T4 Euthanasia Program, and the actions of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland, I thought that it would be a good thing to lay the foundations for the German campaign in the East which began in Poland on September 1st 1939.
As part of my academic work when I taught ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College a few years, I dealt with military ethics as related to the Just War Theory. In the class on jus post bellum or justice after war I dealt with the legal implications of participating in war crimes.
It is a serious subject and in the class I attempted to make my students, all relatively senior officers from the United States and allied nations as uncomfortable as possible. I used a number of examples from the major war crimes trials at Nuremberg as well as the Generals Trial. I had some exceptionally good class over those years which motivated me me to go back and do some revisions to a number articles that I wrote in the past, beginning during my time working towards my Masters Degree in Military History, since then I have published a version of this before but I continue, between my other writing to make revisions and additions which I often post here.
As I went through previous notes and research I felt a tenseness and revulsion for the actions of those that ordered, committed or condoned these crimes; many of who were men who like me were professional career officers. I realize how easily it is for normal, rational, and even basically decent people to succumb to either participating in or turning a blind eye to crimes against others, even on a massive scale, in fact the bigger they are they seem easier to dismiss, because the victims cease be human, and simply a statistic. Sadly, Josef Stalin probably got human nature right when he said “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” That comment causes great revulsion in my soul, but I have to admit it seems to be the way that many people deal with such great crimes.
September 29th 2020 was the 79th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. It was committed by members of the SS Einsatzgruppen C near Kiev shortly after the German Army captured that city. In total some 33,771 Jews were exterminated by the members of Sonderkommando 4b of Einsatzgruppen C as well as attached Ordungspolizei battalions. About 10,000 others, mainly Communist Officials and Gypsies were rounded up and killed in the same operation. The victims were stripped of all of their belongings taken to a ravine and shot. It was the second largest killing action by the various Einsatzgruppen in the war. It was committed by men who either believed that the people that they were killing were sub-human, or did not have the courage to stand up and say no.
These issues are still with us. Hannah Arendt made the comment that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Likewise, Historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote:
“It’s very, very important for people to get a sense of what the potentialities of people really are, what the dangers of ignorance can be. It is in this context, that a supposedly advanced society risks descending into the sewer, that the Holocaust is a warning to people who think of themselves as an advanced, modern society.”
These are uncomfortable subjects. We like to say that the Nazis were different than us or others. To some extent this is true, but the real truth is that most of the Christian Western European countries, and I include the United States have also committed gross crimes against humanity against peoples that we believed were less than human and not afforded human rights or protections. In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy makes a comment that should send chills through any of us. He spoke concerning one of the judges on trial, “Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe. But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination….”
American Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson spoke these words in his opening arguments during the Major War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg:
“The persecution of the Jews was a continuous and deliberate policy. It was a policy directed against other nations as well as against the Jews themselves. Anti-Semitism was promoted to divide and embitter the democratic peoples and to soften their resistance to the Nazi aggression. As Robert Ley declared in Der Angriff on 14 May, 1944, “the second German secret weapon is Anti-Semitism because, if it is constantly pursued by Germany, it will become a universal problem which all nations will be forced to consider.”
Anti-Semitism also has been aptly credited with being a “spearhead of terror.” The ghetto was the laboratory for testing repressive measures. Jewish property was the first to be expropriated, but the custom grew and included similar measures against Anti-Nazi Germans, Poles, Czechs, Frenchmen, and Belgians. Extermination of the Jews enabled the Nazis to bring a practised hand to similar measures against Poles, Serbs, and Greeks. The plight of the Jew was a constant threat to opposition or discontent among other elements of Europe’s population -Pacifists, Conservatives, Communists, Catholics, Protestants, Socialists. It was in fact, a threat to every dissenting opinion and to every non-Nazi’s life.”
Babi Yar is just one example of how civilized people can get can commit great atrocities in the name of ideology and race, and it does not stand alone. The tragic fact is that it really doesn’t take much to condition people to go commit such crimes; just teach people from childhood that people of certain races or religions are less than human. Then subjugate them to incessant propaganda and then turn them loose using the pretext that they are killing terrorists or insurgents. But the more troubling question is about the adults in the room, the politicians, the career government officials and military officers who had once taken oaths to uphold the Constitution, and laws of their countries. Men who were not subjected to the incessant propaganda of a dictatorship until it arose in the middle or toward the end of their careers.
Beginning tonight I will be exploring the ideological as well as existing military doctrines that brought about Babi Yar and so many other atrocities committed by the Nazis during the campaigns in Poland and the Soviet Union. That is because Genocide and mass murder does not occur in a vacuum. It doesn’t just happen. There are pre-existing racial, ethnic and religious hatreds that often define how a country and culture view their enemies that can play into the domestic persecution of those people, and their actions during war, especially as to how the observe the Geneva and Hague Conventions, especially in terms of their treatment of civilians and non-combatants.
What happened at Babi Yar and the thousands of other massacres committed by the Nazi units, the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei, Waffen SS, the German Army of Heer, Luftwaffe Field Divisions, and locally recruited auxiliaries, is just one example of how civilized people can get can commit great atrocities in the name of ideology and race, and it does not stand alone. The tragic fact is that it really doesn’t take much to condition people to go commit such crimes; just teach people from childhood that people of certain races or religions are less than human. Then subjugate them to incessant propaganda and then turn them loose using the pretext that they are killing terrorists or insurgents.
The series of articles deal with the ideological as well as military reasons that brought about Babi Yar and so many other atrocities committed by the Nazis during the campaigns in Poland and the Soviet Union.
Introduction to Genocidal Race War
The German war against the Soviet Union was the first truly race-based ideological war in history with the campaign against Poland its precursor. Adolf Hitler’s racial theories and beliefs played a dominant role in Germany’s conduct of the war in the East in both the military campaign and occupation. This has become clearer in recent years as historians have had the opportunity to examine Hitler’s writings, those of senior Nazi officials and military officers and documents which had been unavailable until the end of the Cold War.
Understanding the Nazi ideological basis and the underlying cultural prejudice against the Jews and eastern Europeans in general is foundational to understanding Hitler’s conduct of the war and why the destruction of the Jews figured so highly in his calculations. One must also understand the military and police cultures and doctrines that enabled them to cooperate so closely in the conduct of the war.
The German war in the east would differ from any previous war. Its underlying basis was ideological. Economic and geopolitical considerations were given importance in relationship to the understanding of the German “Master Race.” Race and Lebensraum was the goal of the State that “concentrates all of its strength on marking out a way of life for our people through the allocation of Lebensraum for the next one hundred years…the goal corresponds equally to the highest national and ethnic requirements.” 1
Hitler believed that Germany was “entitled to more land…because it was the “mother of life” not just some “little nigger nation or another.”” 2 The Germans planned to “clear” the vast majority of the Slavic population and the “settlement of millions of hectares of eastern Lebensraum with German colonists” complimented by a short term exploitation of the land to “secure the food balance of the German Grossraum.” 3 Joachim Fest notes that Hitler called it a “crime” to wage war only for the acquisition of raw materials. Only the issue of living space permitted resort to arms. 4
Following the Peace of Westphalia wars in Europe typically emphasized conquest of territory and natural resources either to expand empires or promote some kind of self-sufficiency. The Thirty Years War, which was ended by the Treaty of Westphalia had a heavy religious component which added to its brutality. However the root of much of this conflict was about increasing the power of emerging nation states led by men not necessarily loyal to their religious brethren. 5
The American and Russian Civil wars had some ideological basis and helped usher in the brutality of total war. Both had major effect in these nations’ development and both were bitterly contested with the winners imposing to various degrees political changes on their vanquished brothers they were civil wars. 6
Economic Historian Adam Tooze sees the Holocaust as the first step of the “last great land grab in the long and bloody history of European colonialism…” 7 This does have merit, Hitler’s desire for Lebensraum or living space was a type of colonialism. However, Tooze’s argument does not take away from the basic premise that Germany’s war in the east was at its heart motivated by ideological factors, mostly in Hitler’s belief in the mythical Aryan Supermen of the German Race, and their üntermenschen (sub human) foes, Jews, Gypsies, Blacks and Slavic people. In Hitler’s world their existence was a threat, and they were occupying lands that rightly belonged to Germany and the Germans.
German Anti-Semitism and Adolf Hitler
The root cause of this war was in the mind of Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler was born in Linz Austria during a time when various Pan-German and Ant-Semitic groups, publications and propaganda were widespread. As a young man Hitler moved to Vienna hoping to become an artist, something that he found little commercial success. While struggling to make a living in Vienna he was exposed to a culture far different from the provincial city of his youth, a cosmopolitan metropolis that had much culture but was also a meeting ground for the various conglomerate of peoples that populated the Austro- Hungarian Empire, including Slavs and many Jews. While many of the Germanic or Austrian Jews were outwardly little different from their Christian neighbors the Jews from Eastern Europe repulsed Hitler.
This attitude was not unique to German but found its roots in the various anthropologies written by other Europeans as well as Germans regarding the lack of rights of “inferior cultures” as related to their colonial expansion as well as the westward expansion of Americans. Friedrich Ratzel a German anthropologist and a founder of the Pan-German League paired the Jews with “the stunted hunting people of the African interior” into “the class of scattered people with no land.” 8 Ratzel’s work also examined the conquest of the Native American tribes by whites. This helped form the basis of Hitler’s Understanding of Lebensraum, a concept that he borrowed from Ratzel. Ratzel was originally a zoologist. In his concept of Lebensraum Ratzel “linked the biological theory of life with the geographical theory of space.” Ratzel believed that to “conquer and hold sufficient Lebensraum, others have to be displaced.” Ratzel noted how European settles had taken over land from the Native Americans to take it for themselves. He noted that “the result was an annihilating struggle, the prize for which was the land, the space.” 9
Another German academic and lecturer at the University of Glasgow Alexander Tille, wrote in 1893 that it is “the right of the stronger race to annihilate the lower…when that race does not maintain its ability to resist then it has no right to exist, for anyone who cannot maintain himself must be content to go under.” Tille’s “laws” were easily applied to both primitive peoples as well as to “the economically less successful peoples of Europe.” 10
Hitler’s lack of success in Vienna and continued struggle, despite a decent inheritance, with poverty and resentment of others led him to the writings of the Pan-Germanic and Anti-Semitic movements. Hitler’s years in Vienna were foundational as he as he absorbed the ideas of these Pan-German, anti-Semitic groups through newspapers like the Deutsches Volksblatt. 11 In Vienna Hitler began to connect the Jews with Marxism.12 Joachim Fest noted that in Vienna Hitler became obsessed by the fear of the Slavs and Jews, hated the House of Hapsburg, the Social Democratic Party, and “envisioned the end of Germanism.” 13
Hitler’s racial views were amplified after the war in turbulent Weimar Germany, while serving as a political operative of the German Army, the Reichswehr, was assigned to watch a small but radical political party, the National Socialist, Democratic Workers Party, or NDSAP. He soon left the army and became a member of the NDSAP, where he rose rapidly within it through is nearly hypnotic oratory skills. It was not long before he took over the party leadership. He reorganized it so that it “became the instrument of Hitler’s policies.” 14
The Bier Hall Putsch, Note Heinrich Himmler holding Flag and Ernst Röhm to Himmler’s left
Munich Police Breaking Up Hitler‘ Bier Hall Putsch
The party rapidly gained strength under his leadership and Hitler made connections with other prominent right wing groups and leaders, including General Erich Ludendorff and became powerful enough in Munich that he believed that he and his Stürmabteilung (S.A.) would successfully gain the support of other right wing groups, paramilitaries, and possibly the support of the Army. But Hitler overplayed his hand, and his revolt was stopped in Munich’s Odeonsplatz by a company of Police who would not yield. In the resulting firefight a number of Hitler’s men were killed or wounded. Among the wounded was Hermann Goering whose wounds were attended to by a Jewish doctor. Hitler tried to flee but was arrested, tried and convicted of trying to overthrow the government. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment at Landsberg Prison where he was treated as a celebrity and released after serving just nine months in prison.
During his stay at Landsberg Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in which he enunciated his views about the Jews, Slavs and Lebensraum. Hitler believed that Imperial Germany had been “hopelessly negligent” in regard to the Jews 15 and that the Jews in conjunction with the Catholic Center Party and Socialists worked together for “maximum damage to Germany.” 16
The book was filled with the standard tropes of the anti-Semitism that had swept Europe for decades, it enunciated little in the way of a political plan, except his hatred of the Jews and the need of Germany for Lebensraum, or living space, and was terribly written. It did not prove to be a best seller but Hitler received enough in royalties to live more comfortably, supported by an ever growing ring of financial supporters.
Hitler wrote that the Jews as being the leaders of the “main ideological scourges of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s.” 17 It was the ideology of Hitler’s “obsessive anti-Semitism” 18 that drove Nazi Germany’s policy in regard to the Jews and against Jewish-Bolshevism.
By the 1920s Hitler had “combined his hatred of the Jews and of the supposedly Jewish dominated Soviet state with existing calls to conquer additional Lebensraum, or living space, in the east.” 19 Hitler wrote: “The fight against Jewish world Bolshevism requires a clear attitude toward Soviet Russia. You cannot drive out the Devil with Beelzebub.” 20 Richard Evans noted that Mein Kampf clearly enunciated that “Hitler considered racial conflict…the essence of history, and the Jews to be the sworn enemy of the German race ….” Likewise, Evans wrote that the “Jews were now linked indissolubly in Hitler’s mind with “Bolshevism” and “Marxism.” 21
When Hitler became the dictator of Germany “his ideology and strategy became the ends and means of German foreign policy.” 22 His aims were clear, Hitler remarked to Czech Foreign Minister Chvalkovsky on 21 January 1939: “We are going to destroy the Jews.” 23
It was clear that Hitler understood his own role in this effort telling General Gotthard Heinrici that “he was the first man since Charlemagne to hold unlimited power in his own hand. He did not hold this power in vain, he said, but would know how to use it in the struggle for Germany…” 24
To be continued…
1 Weinberg, Gerhard L. Ed. Hitler’s Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler. Translated by Krista Smith, Enigma Books, New York, NY 2006. Originally published as Hitlers zweites Buch, Gerhard Weinberg editor, 1961 p. 159
2 Davidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 Bantam Books, New York, NY 1986. p.91
3 Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2008. First Published by Allen Lane Books, Penguin Group, London UK, 2006. p.463
4 Fest, Joachim, Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, San Diego,
New York, London, 1974. German Edition by Verlag Ullstein 1973 pp. 607-608
5 Note the actions of Cardinal Richelieu in France who worked to expand French power at the expense of other Catholic nations and the Vatican itself.
6 In the United States the Reconstruction policies produced great resentment in the south with decidedly negative
results for the newly freed slaves which lasted another 100 years, while in the Soviet Union great numbers of “opponents of Socialism” were killed, imprisoned or driven out of the county
7 Ibid. Tooze. The Wages of Destruction p.462
8 Lindqvist, Sven Exterminate All the Brutes: One Man’s Oddessy into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate, The New Press , New York and London 1992 p.145
9 Ibid. Lindqvist p.154 It is interesting to note that the current American “historian” of the American Religious right
David Barton made the same arguments recently about the American Indians. Barton said: “You have to deal, a lot of it, with how the enemy responds. It’s got to be based on what the enemy responds [to,] you cannot reason with certain types of terrorists; and see that’s why we could not get the Indians to the table to negotiate with us on treaties until after we had thoroughly whipped so many tribes …” “People complain about the fact that the American military and buffalo hunters went out and wiped out all the buffalo in the western plains. Doing that was what brought the Indians to their knees because the Indians lived on those wide western plains where there were very few towns; Indians didn’t go into town to buy supplies, they went to the buffalo herds, that’s where they got their meat, that’s where they got their coats, the hides provided coats, they provided covering for their teepees.
If you don’t have the buffalos, those Indians cannot live on the open western plains without those buffalo and so what happened was the military wiped out the supply line by wiping out the buffalo. That’s what brought those wars to an end, that’s what brought the Indians to their knees and ended all the western conflict.” Retrieved from Barton’s Wallbuilders Live broadcast http://www.wallbuilderslive.com/Historic.asp?cdate=77515 9 May 2014 and text from http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/david-barton-explains-just-war-theory-we-had-destroy-indian- tribes-until-they-became-civiliz
10 Ibid. Lindqvist p.148
11 Ibid. Davidowicz, The War Against the Jews pp.8-9 12 Ibid. Davidowicz. The WarAgainst the Jews p.12 13 Ibid. Fest Hitler. p.47
14 Bracher, Karl Dietrich. The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Effects of National Socialism.
Translated by Jean Steinberg, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, NY 1979. Originally Published under the title Die Deutsche Diktatur: Entstehung, Struktur,Folgen des Nationalsocialismus. Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch. Koln and Berlin, 1969 p.93
15 Weinberg, Gerhard L. Germany Hitler and World War II . Cambridge University Press, New York, NY 1995 p.61
16 Ibid. Weinberg, Hitler’s Second Book p.60
17 Friedlander, Saul Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination. Harper Perennial, New York, NY 2007 p.xviii
18 Ibid. Friedlander, The Years of Extermination p.xvii Friedlander called this anti-Semitism “Redemptive anti- Semitism” in which “Hitler perceived his mission as a kind of crusade to redeem the world by eliminating the Jews.
19 Megargee, Geoffrey P. War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front 1941.Bowman and
Littlefield Publishers Inc. Lanham, Boulder, New York. 2007 p.4
20 Hitler, Adolf Mein Kampf translated by Ralph Manheim. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY 1999. Houghton Mifflin Company 1943, copyright renewed 1971. Originally published in Germany by Verlag Frz.
Eher Nachf. GmbH 1925. p.662.
21 Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich Penguin Books, New York 2004. First published by Allen Lane 2003 p.197
22 Ibid. Davidowicz The War Against the Jews pp. 88-89
23 Rhodes, Richard. Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust. Vintage Books a division of Random House, New York, NY 2002 p.37
24 Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. Collier Books, a Division of MacMillan Publishers, Inc. New York, NY 1970 p.166