Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust

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In Masters of Death, Rhodes gives full weight, for the first time, to the Einsatzgruppen's role in the Holocaust. These "special task forces," organized by Heinrich Himmler to follow the German army as it advanced into eastern Poland and Russia, were the agents of the first phase of the Final Solution. They murdered more than 1.5 million men, women, and children between 1941 and 1943, often by shooting them into killing pits, as at Babi Yar. These massive crimes have been generally overlooked or underestimated by...
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Overview

In Masters of Death, Rhodes gives full weight, for the first time, to the Einsatzgruppen's role in the Holocaust. These "special task forces," organized by Heinrich Himmler to follow the German army as it advanced into eastern Poland and Russia, were the agents of the first phase of the Final Solution. They murdered more than 1.5 million men, women, and children between 1941 and 1943, often by shooting them into killing pits, as at Babi Yar. These massive crimes have been generally overlooked or underestimated by Holocaust historians, who have focused on the gas chambers. In this painstaking account, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes profiles the eastern campaign's architects as well as its "ordinary" soldiers and policemen, and helps us understand how such men were conditioned to carry out mass murder. Marshaling a vast array of documents and the testimony of perpetrators and survivors, this book is an essential contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust and World War II.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Richard Rhodes adds to the trove of Holocaust histories with this look at the special Nazi killing squads deployed by Himmler's SS in Poland and the Soviet Union. What were Himmler's diabolical plans for the Jews of eastern and western Europe? Is it true that "ordinary men" aided in the slaughter of millions? Rhodes reveals all, including the next target on the Nazi list, once the Jews had been eliminated.
Terry Teachout
No matter how much we may think we know about Nazi Germany, one question will haunt us to the end of time: Why did the citizens of an apparently civilized nation acquiesce in mass murder? Six years ago, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen offered an unsettling answer in Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, in which he argued that the Holocaust was made possible by the extent to which German culture was poisoned by anti-Semitism prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Most scholars believe Goldhagen's thesis to be grossly overstated, but his book was discussed throughout Europe and America and triggered a hot debate over the issue of collective responsibility for the Holocaust. Richard Rhodes' Masters of Death and Yaacov Lozowick's Hitler's Bureaucrats are far more sober in tone than Hitler's Willing Executioners, but they both engage the reader directly—and valuably—by addressing different aspects of the same troubling question.

In Masters of Death, the author of Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist makes the leap from run-of-the-mill killers to full-blown serial murderers. Here, Rhodes' subject is the SS-Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi "task force" detailed to carry out the large-scale killings of European Jews starting in 1941. Even for Nazis, it turned out to be an unexpectedly tough job, and Heinrich Himmler failed to anticipate the psychological effects on his troops of shooting hundreds of innocent men, women and children and shoveling them into mass graves each day. Sickened by so depraved a task, the so-called Master Race took to boozing, looting, torture—anything to relieve the stress.

Himmler was outraged. A fussy,colorless disciplinarian who looked less like an Aryan than a milksop ("If I looked like Himmler," one Nazi functionary groused, "I would not talk about race!"), he was, in Rhodes' biting words, "a Schreibtischtäter, a desk murderer, a physical coward willing and even eager to order others to kill." Moreover, he was determined that his men should exterminate the Jews with a minimum of damage to their tender psyches:

"It is the holy duty of senior leaders and commanders personally to ensure that none of our men who have to fulfill this burdensome duty should ever be brutalized or suffer damage to their spirit and character in doing so. This task is to be fulfilled through the strictest discipline in the execution of official duties and through comradely gatherings in the evenings of those days which have included such difficult tasks. The comradely gathering must on no account, however, end in the abuse of alcohol. It should be an evening on which—as far as possible—they sit and eat at table in the best German domestic style, and music, lectures and introductions to the beauties of German intellectual and emotional life occupy the hours."

By then, Himmler had come to the conclusion that there had to be a more efficient and less stressful way to dispose of Jews en masse. The SS went to work, and soon the gas chambers were up and running. Mass murder and mass production were blended together in the ghastly burlesque of modernity, which the Nazis, with their genius for euphemism, dubbed "the Final Solution."

Before Daniel Jonah Goldhagen there was Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher who put her own idiosyncratic spin on the Holocaust in her widely discussed 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. According to Arendt, Adolf Eichmann and the other SS functionaries who planned the Final Solution were not monsters of criminality but utterly ordinary men who were swept up in the self-perpetuating momentum of a bureaucracy gone mad. As director of the archives at Yad Vashem, Israel's official center for Holocaust commemoration, Yaacov Lozowick has had ample opportunity to reflect on Arendt's much-discussed thesis, and he refutes it conclusively in Hitler's Bureaucrats, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that Eichmann and his colleagues sincerely believed Jews to be subhuman and conspired with malice aforethought to wipe them off the face of the earth.

Considered solely as a piece of historical scholarship, Hitler's Bureaucrats is an impeccable piece of work. But Lozowick, like Rhodes, writes not as a disinterested scholar but as a human being, at once horrified and mystified by the Holocaust, and it is his moral analysis of the "banality of evil" argument that lay readers will find most compelling. Having noted with surprise that only one of the books about the Holocaust in his personal library contained an index entry for the word "evil," Lozowick goes on to say:

"Just as a man does not reach the peak of Mount Everest by accident, so Eichmann and his ilk did not come to murder Jews by accident, or in a fit of absent-mindedness, not by blindly obeying orders and not by being small cogs in a big machine. They worked hard, thought hard, took the lead, over many years. They were the alpinists of evil."

At a time when professors and philosophers hasten to assure us that all morality is conditional and one man's evil is another man's good, such blunt talk about the Holocaust is bracing. It is useful—indeed, essential—to be reminded that even in our bland Age of Relativity, some things aren't a matter of opinion.
Publishers Weekly
This is not for the squeamish. Rhodes, a Pulitzer winner for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, has pulled together a mountain of research on the mass murders of Jews perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen special task forces organized by the SS commanders Himmler and Heydrich before the gruesome death camps industrialized the Final Solution. The catalogue of horrors, drawn not only from postwar memoirs and interrogations but also from the Nazi fanaticism for statistical detail, is profoundly appalling, even revolting: some of the malefic perpetrators were so sickened by the slaughter that Himmler set up mental hospitals and rest camps for the insufficiently sadistic. By January 1942, when the Wannsee Conference implicitly authorized the death camps, more than a million Jews crowded the killing pits, some of them later torched to conceal the massacres. Relatively few in the Nazi command structure would pay for their crimes. John J. McCloy, U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, Rhodes reminds us, reduced 10 of 14 death sentences in U.S. war-crimes trials, and by 1958 all surviving Einsatzgruppen defendants had been freed. German courts were also lenient. But he also suggests that genocide is new only as a word in the dictionary: "The Final Solution...was intended to be only the first phase of a vast, megalomaniacal project of privation, enslavement, mass murder and colonization modeled on the historic colonization of North and South America and on nineteenth-century imperialism but modernized with pseudoscientific theories of eugenic restoration." Thus Rhodes holds the mirror up. 16 pages of photos and six maps not seen by PW. (May) Forecast: Rhodes's reputation and the importance of the subject guarantee major review and media coverage. But the grisly material may prevent some from actually reading this. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) provides a detailed examination of the organization, motivations, and activities of the SS-Einsatzgruppen, which killed thousands of Jews in the wake of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. He argues that Hitler made two separate decisions to annihilate European Jewry; the first, in summer 1941, was directed at the Jews of Eastern Europe, while the second, in December 1941, involved the rest of Europe. This is a controversial assertion, as is Rhodes's foray into psychological theory. He is certainly not the first to ask why some individuals willingly engaged in mass slaughter, but he still cannot provide an entirely satisfactory causal explanation. Rhodes claims to be offering a new thesis regarding the Holocaust, but unfortunately he eschews most of the major historiographical controversies in Holocaust studies and thus fails to place his thesis in context. The advantage is that he does not clutter his text with intentionalist vs. functionalist arguments that could daunt general readers. Instead, he produces a penetrating study of the Einsatzgruppen one of the best available and one of the few recent works to examine this corps in detail. Although Rhodes's thesis may be rejected by specialists, his careful expos will be welcomed by general readers. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
It is a grizzly story popular historian Rhodes tells, but he says it is an important part of the larger picture of the Holocaust, and the victims deserve some notice by history. The Einsatzgruppen were special task forces that followed the Nazi armies into eastern Poland and the Soviet Union in late June 1941, and murdered Jews by the thousands<-->gunning them down and burying them in mass graves dug by prisoners of war. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A grim tale of the Shoah's early years, delivered by accomplished journalist and Pulitzer-winning historian Rhodes (Why They Kill, 1999, etc.). The Final Solution, he acknowledges, was inherent in the founding premises of the Hitler regime, but its mechanisms were refined only gradually, after hastily organized massacres committed by "ordinary men" led to the development of the vastly more efficient death camps. Exploring familiar themes of psychopathology and technology put to evil uses, Rhodes writes that the scarcely controlled violence of the SS Einsatzgruppen in Nazi-occupied portions of Eastern Europe effectively brutalized German soldiers, setting in motion a violent cycle that could become only more virulent: "a vicious circle . . . whereby the perversion of discipline bred increasing barbarism, which in turn further brutalized discipline." Yet this sort of catch-as-catch-can war on the enemies of the Nazi state was just a shade too nasty for the SS leadership, which worried about creating "neurotics or brutes" on the Eastern Front who might later become disciplinary problems at home. Heinrich Himmler, Rhodes writes, was shocked by witnessing an incident in Russia in which German soldiers lost their nerve and "shot badly," wounding two Jewish women who writhed before him on the ground; he screamed at the firing squad to put the women out of their misery. Himmler apparently had no such qualms about the bloodless-and, in his estimation, more humane-dispatch of his victims by means of nerve gas, which prompted the development of large-scale killing factories such as Auschwitz and Sobibor. Drawing heavily on first-person accounts and official documents, the author contributes to ourunderstanding of how the Final Solution was put into motion and how it subsequently evolved. Though the explorations in mass psychology may not convince all readers, Rhodes exposes the industrial logic that underlies modern genocide.
From the Publisher
“Through his fine and accessible account, Rhodes deepens our sense of the Holocaust’s utter evil.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Graphic and sometimes lurid. Yet this is how the story must be told for readers to grasp the depth of the horror. . . . The impact of this story is profound.” —The Washington Post Book World

“A vivid account. . . . Should contribute to better understanding of Nazi Germany and its crimes.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A pointed reminder that all of us—even the most ordinary—are capable of horrendous acts of violence.” —The Denver Post

“This is an important and enormously powerful book.” —Elie Wiesel

“Powerful. . . . Not only an important work but a morally necessary one.”–Houston Chronicle

“Rhodes breaks searing ground. . . . Without reminders like this, we might never learn.”–Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Graphically and chillingly details the work of the special killing battalions of Himmler’s SS. . . Extremely well-written. . . [A] fine work of gruesome history.”–Jerusalem Post

“Powerfully concise. . . [Rhodes] continues his authoritative research with a story that is wrenching in human terms.”–The Kansas City Star

“Riveting history. . . Unrelenting.”–The Weekly Standard

“This latest contribution to the debate about the origins of Nazi behavior–the processes of socialization to butchery–is dreadfully timely.”–Newsweek

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781903985564
  • Publisher: Perseus Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/26/2002
  • Pages: 368

Meet the Author

Richard Rhodes is the author of nineteen books. His The Making of the Atomic Bomb won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He has received Guggenheim, Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation fellowships, and lectures frequently to college and professional audiences. Rhodes and his wife live in California.

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Read an Excerpt

one

Eastward from Pretzsch

In the spring of 1941 a police academy in Pretzsch, a town on the Elbe River about fifty miles southwest of Berlin, became the site of a sinister assembly. Several thousand men from the ranks of the SS-the Nazi Party's Schutzstaffel, or defense echelon, a police and security service that answered directly to Adolf Hitler and operated outside the constraints of German law-were ordered to report to Pretzsch for training and assignment. They were not told what their assignment would be, but their commonalities offered a clue: many of them had served in SS detachments in Poland, which Germany had invaded and occupied in 1939, and preference was given to men who spoke Russian.

Assignment to Pretzsch emptied the SS leadership school in Berlin-Charlottenburg and depleted the professional examination course of an SS criminal division. It drew in lower- and middle-ranking officers of the Security Police (the Gestapo and the criminal police), some of them passed on gratefully by their home regiments because they were considered too wild. The Waffen-SS, the small but growing SS army, contributed enlisted men. High-ranking bureaucrats within the shadowy Reich Security Main Office,* an internal SS security agency, were posted to Pretzsch as well. They had been handpicked for leadership positions by Obergruppenführer  Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the RSHA and the second most powerful man in the SS, and his superior Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS. Most of these handpicked leaders were lawyers, and a few were physicians or educators; most had earned doctoral degrees. Among the more exotic specimens were Otto Ohlendorf, ahandsome but argumentative young economist who had fallen into disfavor with Himmler; Paul Blobel, a rawboned, highstrung, frequently drunken architect; Arthur Nebe, a former vice squad detective and Gestapo head who had enthusiastically volunteered; and Karl Jäger, a brutal fifty-three-year-old secret police commander. A reserve battalion of the regular German Order Police (uniformed urban, rural and municipal police) completed the Pretzsch roster.

Soon the men learned that they would be assigned to an Einsatzgruppe-a task force. Einsatz units-groups and commandos-had followed the German army into Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland when Germany had invaded those countries successively in 1938 and 1939. Einsatzgruppen secured occupied territories in advance of civilian administrators. They confiscated weapons and gathered incriminating documents, tracked down and arrested people the SS considered politically unreliable-and systematically murdered the occupied country's political, educational, religious and intellectual leadership. Since Germany had concluded a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in August 1939, many of the candidates at Pretzsch assumed they would be assigned to follow the Wehrmacht into England. Some of them had previously trained to just that end.

By the spring of 1941, Poland had already been decapitated. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and later his munitions and armament minister, remembered that on the night of 21 August 1939, when news of Josef Stalin's agreement to the nonaggression pact had settled Hitler's decision to invade Poland, the Führer and his entourage had drifted out onto the terrace of his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg to watch a rare display of Northern Lights vermilioning the mountain across the valley. "The last act of Götterdämmerung could not have been more effectively staged," Speer writes. "The same red light bathed our faces and our hands. The display produced a curiously pensive mood among us. Abruptly turning to one of his military adjutants, Hitler said: 'Looks like a great deal of blood. This time we won't bring it off without violence.' "

The next day the Führer belabored the generals and field marshals of the Wehrmacht for hours with an impassioned harangue. He told them Germany needed room to expand and as a buffer against the Russians. Therefore he meant not merely to occupy Poland but also to destroy it; in its place a new German eastern frontier would arise. "The idea of treating war as anything other than the harshest means of settling questions of very existence is ridiculous," he challenged the army commanders. "Every war costs blood, and the smell of blood arouses in man all the instincts which have lain within us since the beginning of the world: deeds of violence, the intoxication of murder, and many other things. Everything else is empty babble. A humane war exists only in bloodless brains." A field marshal who attended the conference reported Hitler warning them "that he would proceed against the Poles after the end of the campaign with relentless vigor. Things would happen which would not be to the taste of the German generals." The field marshal understood the warning to mean "the destruction of the Polish intelligentsia, in particular the priesthood, by the SS."

When Germany had attacked Poland on 1 September 1939, beginning the Second World War in Europe, five Einsatzgruppen that Heydrich had organized followed behind the five invading Wehrmacht armies, each group subdivided into four Einsatzkommandos of 100 to 150 men. These advance cadres were augmented with Order Police battalions, Totenkopf* concentration-camp guard regiments and Waffen-SS, producing a combined SS force approaching twenty thousand men. The commander of one of the Polish Einsatzgruppen in 1939, Bruno Streckenbach, would become the head of SS personnel responsible for recruiting the new Einsatzgruppen forming at Pretzsch in May 1941.

Himmler's SS was famously thorough. Heydrich, a tall, horse-faced, sneering former naval officer whom even his own subordinates called "the blond beast," had started his career organizing elaborate card indexes on Nazi Party enemies, a system Hitler had instituted in the early days of the party to keep tabs on his own supporters. If the Einsatzgruppen in Poland followed standard SS practice, the lists Heydrich's staff compiled of Polish enemies would serve them well. An SS officer on a later mission to the Caucasus describes how the system worked:

As a group leader I was sent supplementary documentation. By far the most valuable was a slim little book, part of a limited, numbered edition, which I never let out of my sight. The typeface was tiny, I remember, and the paper was extra thin, in order to pack the most information into the smallest possible space. . . . It consisted of a series of lists, including the names of every active member of the Communist party in the Caucasus, all the nonparty intelligentsia, and listings of scholars, teachers, writers and journalists, priests, public officials, upwardly mobile peasants, and the most prominent industrialists and bankers. [It contained] addresses and telephone numbers. . . . And that wasn't all. There were additional listings of relatives and friends, in case any subversive scum tried to hide, plus physical descriptions, and in some cases photographs. You can imagine what the size of that book would have been if it had been printed normally.

All these categories of people in Poland, and the Polish nobility as well, were marked for murder. During the first weeks after the invasion, while the Wehrmacht still controlled the occupied areas, a historian of the Polish experience summarizes, "531 towns and villages were burned; the provinces of Lodz and Warsaw suffered the heaviest losses. Various branches of the army and police [i.e., Himmler's legions] carried out 714 [mass] executions, which took the lives of 16,376 people, most of whom were Polish Christians. The Wehrmacht committed approximately 60 percent of these crimes, with the police responsible for the remainder." The historian cites an Englishwoman's eyewitness account of executions in the Polish town of Bydgoszcz:

The first victims of the campaign were a number of Boy Scouts, from twelve to sixteen years of age, who were set up in the marketplace against a wall and shot. No reason was given. A devoted priest who rushed to administer the Last Sacrament was shot too. He received five wounds. A Pole said afterwards that the sight of those children lying dead was the most piteous of all the horrors he saw. That week the murders continued. Thirty-four of the leading tradespeople and merchants of the town were shot, and many other leading citizens. The square was surrounded by troops with machine-guns.

Three weeks after invading Poland, the Wehrmacht washed its hands of further responsibility for the decapitation, leaving the field to the specialists of the SS. Heydrich met with Quartermaster General Eduard Wagner to agree on an SS "cleanup once and for all" of "Jews, intelligentsia, clergy, nobility." Heydrich then wrote the Einsatzgruppen commanders specifically concerning the "Jewish question in the occupied territory." Cautioning strict secrecy, he distinguished between "the ultimate aim (which will take some time [to accomplish])," and "interim measures (which can be carried out within a shorter period of time)." In the short term, Jews living in territories in western Poland scheduled to be annexed to Germany were to be "cleared" by shipping them eastward; Jews in the remainder of Poland were to be concentrated into ghettos in towns with good railroad connections. Heydrich's letter did not specify what measures the "ultimate aim" would require. Long after the war, when Adolf Eichmann saw this 1939 document, he concluded that it embodied the "basic conception" of "the order concerning the physical extermination of the Jews" of the occupied territories. Large numbers of Polish Jews were murdered in any case, because they were politically suspect for reasons other than their religion; at this early point in time, Heydrich was basically assigning his Einsatzgruppen the transitional task of bringing the Jewish population of Poland under SS control.

An incident in the town of Wloclawek during the last week of September was unusual only in its conflict between authorities. A Totenkopf unit had arrested eight hundred Jewish men. Some of them had been "auf der Flucht erschossen"-"shot while trying to escape"-a standard euphemism for extrajudicial killing in the concentration camps guarded by Totenkopf regiments. The SS unit leader had planned to arrest every Jewish male in town, but the local Wehrmacht commander had overruled him. "They will all be shot in any case," the SS leader had countered. In his innocence the commander had responded, "The Führer can hardly intend us to shoot all the Jews!" Warsaw fell on 28 September 1939, and the day before, Heydrich could already report that "of the Polish leadership, there remained in the occupied area at most 3 percent."

SS brutality in Poland descended to unadorned slaughter in October, when Himmler extended executions to the mentally and physically disabled. The so-called euthanasia program was just beginning in Germany, to be directed initially against children, but the first SS killings preceded any euthanasia murders. The SS's victims were German, removed from hospitals and nursing homes in the Prussian province of Pomerania and transported by train across the border into occupied Poland. The euthanasia program in Germany had to proceed by stealth, but occupied territory was no-man's-land, beyond German law and public scrutiny. Just as it would be easier to murder Jews in the subjugated lands east of Germany, so it was easier to murder the disabled there, including German citizens.

A large SS regiment had been resident in the Free City of Danzig before the war, commanded by SS Sturmbannführer* Kurt Eimann. Eimann recruited several thousand members of the regiment into an auxiliary police unit that bore his name. Late in October 1939, the Pomeranian disabled were crowded into cattle cars and shipped into occupied Poland. The Eimann Battalion met the train at the railroad station in the town of Neustadt. In a nearby forest, Polish political prisoners labored to dig killing pits to serve as mass graves. Trucks delivered the disabled to the forest. The first victim was a woman about fifty years old; Eimann personally dispatched her with a Genickshuss, a shot in the neck from behind at the point where the spinal cord enters the skull. Historian Henry Friedlander quotes from postwar trial testimony: "In front of the pit [Eimann] shot the woman through the base of the skull. The woman, who had walked in front of him without suspecting anything, was instantaneously killed and fell into the pit." During November 1939, further victims were transported from Danzig, filling the Neustadt pits with some 3,500 bodies. To eliminate witnesses, Eimann had the political prisoners who dug the pits murdered and the pits covered with dirt.

Friedlander found that essentially all the disabled in the Polish districts annexed to the Third Reich were shot into mass graves: 1,172 psychiatric patients in Tiegenhof beginning on 7 December 1939, for example; 420 psychiatric patients from the hospital in Chelm, near Lublin, on 12 January 1940. A Sonderkommando* formed of German security police from Posen and Lodz by an Einsatzgruppe leader, Herbert Lange, used moving vans fitted with tanks of pure carbon monoxide to murder patients throughout a former Polish province that was annexed to Germany as Wartheland. "After killing handicapped patients in 1940," Friedlander adds, "the [Lange commando] possibly also killed Jews in the small villages of the Wartheland with these early gas vans." "Little by little we were taught all these things," Eichmann would explain without apology. "We grew into them."

A secret annex to Germany's nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union had divided Poland between the two powers. To claim Russia's share of the spoils, the Red Army had invaded Poland from the east on 17 September 1939. Hitler assigned Himmler the work of expelling eastward more than eight million non-Germans from what had been western Poland and moving ethnic Germans westward out of the Soviet-occupied Baltic states to settle in their place. To launch the grandiose winnowing, Himmler ordered Eichmann to organize transportation for a half million Jews and another half million Gentile Poles. "I had to set up guidelines for implementation," Eichmann recalled, "because those were the ReichsfÃ?hrer's orders. For instance, he said, 'No one is to take any more with him than the Germans who were driven out by the French.' After the First World War, he meant, from Alsace-Lorraine, or later from the Rhineland and the Ruhr. I had to find out; at that time, fifty kilos of luggage were allowed [per person]." Himmler issued his expulsion order on 30 October 1939, setting February 1940 as a deadline. After 15 November 1939, the entire railway network of the area of occupied Poland that the Germans had named the General Government-central and southern Poland-was reserved for resettlement transports. Trainloads of Jewish and Gentile Poles began moving east in December. The victims were dumped in the General Government in the middle of Polish winter with no provision for food or shelter. An uncounted number died of exposure or starved, results that led the newly appointed and histrionic head of the General Government, Hans Frank, formerly Hitler's personal lawyer, to declare in a public speech, "What a pleasure, finally to be able to tackle the Jewish race physically. The more that die, the better." Himmler himself alluded to the devastating consequences of resettlement in a speech the following autumn to one of his battalions, bragging that Poland had been the place

Copyright 2002 by Richard Rhodes
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Table of Contents

Author's Note
Pt. 1 The War in the East
1 Eastward from Pretzsch 3
2 Vicious Circles 19
3 Barbarossa 38
4 Across the Pale 53
5 Truehearted Heinrich I 69
6 Truehearted Heinrich II 88
7 Extermination 105
Pt. 2 "Seven Departments of Hell"
8 Dirty Work 119
9 "All Jews, of All Ages" 136
10 Lords of Life and Death 151
11 Babi Yar 170
12 Pure Murder 180
13 Rumbula 199
14 Nerves 215
15 Final Solution 229
16 Judenfrei 241
17 "Cinders Flying in the Wind" 258
Epilogue 274
Notes 283
Bibliography 305
Acknowledgments 321
Index 323
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 26 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2004

    Disturbing. Lest We Forget.

    This chilling study brings home to the reader the reality of how the genocide of the Jews and others planned by the Nazis did not actually begin with the mass, 'industrial' exterminations in the gas chambers of the Concentration Camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka etc., but with small groups of murderers known as the 'Einsatzgruppen'. Units which were formed by Himmler and Heydrich immediately before the invasion of the East/Soviet Union and which followed the advancing German Armies. 'In depth' is a term that is perhaps sometimes mis-used, but it is deeply appropriate when applied here to this disturbing, detailed study of what can only be described as 'cold blooded murder' by these SS murder squads. This thoroughly researched and extremely well written book is at times a 'heavy' and 'difficult' read. Nevertheless it is indeed a major contribution towards the study of the Nazi Holocaust which describes the construction and utilisation of these Nazi murder squads. Units cited in this work as often consisting of many professional, 'educated' men such as lawyers, doctors, architects etc., and who participated in an acutely 'personal' manner of murder where some 1.5 million men, women and children were barbarically executed by shooting. The bodies of their victims described as then being disposed of in 'killing pits' (often anti-tank ditches, natural ravines or freshly dug pits). Many of the mass graves each containing many thousands of innocent victims, frequently shot one by one and buried layer upon layer. Many of these graves are still marked as memorials to this day. Photographs of some are included in this book. One such massacre described in the book is that at Babi Yar. A ravine where Jewish men, women, and children were systematically machine-gunned in a two-day orgy of execution. Here the Jews in their thousands, with such pathetic belongings as they could carry, were herded into barbed-wire areas at the top of the ravine, guarded by Ukrainian collaborators. There they were stripped of their clothes and beaten, then led in irregular squads down the side of the ravine. The first groups were forced to lie on the ground, face down, and were machine-gunned by the Germans who kept up a steady volley. Their bodies were covered with thin layers of earth and the next groups were ordered to lie over them, to be similarly murdered. To carry out the murder of 34,000 human beings in the space of two days in such a manner is difficult to comprehend. Indeed, much of this book is so disturbing that it is frequently only possible to read in small sections at a time. Photographs are provided showing how some of the 1.5 million innocent Jews and innocent Poles and Russians were marched to such 'pits' as these before being lined up and summarily executed. The task of these Units was to kill the Jews on the spot - but not only Jews; communists, Gypsies, political leaders, and the intelligentsia were also killed. The book also describes the beginning of the use of mobile gas 'killing vans' where the victims carried in sealed areas to the rear were subjected to the vehicles' exhaust fumes. The graphic detail provided in this work is in itself difficult to read and might upset many readers, but the author makes no effort to trivialise the suffering of the utterly defenceless victims and the cold blooded barbarity of their executors. Many eyewitness accounts and testimonies of those who participated in the slaughter have been uncovered and are used to provide an essential reference and authenticity to the context of this presentation. Early on in the book the writer provides a commentary on the nature of violence and how these 'ordinary' men became capable of carrying out such atrocities. The study further documents the impact of these mass murders on the individual perpetrators and the ensuing psychological traumas that many endured. Some readers might disagree with the conclusions drawn he

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2002

    Penetrating Albeit Frightening Look At Nazi Death Squads Along The Eastern Front!

    new book by Richard Rhodes is, in my opinion, a quite interesting attempt to exhaustively explore the terrible brutality of the S.S. Einsatzgruppen (Special Group) created under Heinrich Himmler's specific direction to carry out an loosely organized mass extermination of Eastern captive populations as the Wehrmacht pressed into Poland and the Soviet Union during the successive Eastern campaigns. I purposely have used the term "captive populations" to connote that it was a population much more inclusive of local residents, including communist collaborators, dissidents, gypsies, and other "undesirables", targeted for extinction rather than being limited strictly to Jews. It is, I believe, a demonstrable mistake to try to argue that the Third Reich was primarily interested in ridding itself of its Jewish population. Remember, the initial population of Jews so murdered were not deported German Jews, but rather indigenous Jews living in Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania, part of the captive populations. We do well to remember that the Nazis' stated purpose for conducting the entire Eastern campaign was to gain what Hitler often referred to as "Liebenstraum", or "living room" for future German expansion and colonization. Thus, the Third Reich intended from the onset of hostilities in one fashion or another to forcibly displace the native population through a combination of techniques, including extermination, sustained slave labor, and starvation. Historical questions regarding the etiology of the resulting Nazi policy of extermination of European Jews revolve around a single question: was it Hitler's intent from the beginning to do so, or did the policy evolve from pragmatic and existential circumstance? The first line of argument, what is often called the "intentionalist"premise, is that as he stated in "Mien Kampf", the Fuhrer always intended to wipe out the Jewish peoples of Europe, and that his campaign proceeded, cautiously and tentatively at first, more due to political and logistical considerations than with anything else. The opposing argument, regarded to the "functional' premise, finds the genesis of the policy of systematic genocide of the Jews in the welter of events and circumstances that arose from the onset of the Eastern campaign as early in the fall of 1939 when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. This line of thought finds evidence in the Nazi's evolving efforts to employ ever more efficient and effective methodologies to deal with the captive populations of the East. Obviously, for either perspective to continue to have passionate adherants fifty years later indicates that both perspectives have considerable merit. Having said this, I find the so-called "functional" argument more persuasive and more consistent with the bulk of historical record. This perspective is not an fact attempt to attempt to argue that Hitler had no premeditation or predisposition regarding the eventual fate of European Jews and other targeted populations. Rather, it is more an argument as to how the Third Reich planned to capitalize best on the evolving existential circumstances to furhter its own immediate goals and objectives; as to whether it is more useful for the regime to temporarily enslave the subject population and work them to death, or to simply kill them quickly and dispose of them. What the historical record seems to show is that Hitler had given local area political subordinates considerable leeway in managing the dislocation process, especially in the first few months of occupation of Poland. It was the circumstances that arose and the difficulties associated with marshalling sufficient resources to feed, house, and surveil the indigenous captive populations that led to many of the initial efforts at systematic extermination. Otherwise, situations like those that led to the establishment, management, and horrors associated with the Warsaw Ghetto would never have come to pass. All that said, the book does indeed shed cons

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 24, 2011

    Unforgetable

    A well constructed and articulated piece which sheds light to a largely understudied facet of holocaust history. SS Einsaitzegruppen, a branch of the SS that was designated to liquidate European Jewry, were instrumental in the articulation of The Final Solution and mass murder in Eastern Europe. A prudent read to shape and contextualize the nature of holocaust history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2003

    Disturbing. Lest we forget.

    This chilling study brings home to the reader the reality of how the genocide of the Jews and others planned by the Nazis did not actually begin with the mass, 'industrial' exterminations in the gas chambers of the Concentration Camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka etc., but with small groups of murderers known as the 'Einsatzgruppen'. Units which were formed by Himmler and Heydrich immediately before the invasion of the East/Soviet Union and which followed the advancing German Armies. 'In depth' is a term that is perhaps sometimes mis-used, but it is deeply appropriate when applied here to this disturbing, detailed study of what can only be described as 'cold blooded murder' by these SS murder squads. This thoroughly researched and extremely well written book is at times a 'heavy' and 'difficult' read. Nevertheless it is indeed a major contribution towards the study of the Nazi Holocaust which describes the construction and utilisation of these Nazi murder squads. Units cited in this work as often consisting of many professional, 'educated' men such as lawyers, doctors, architects etc., and who participated in an acutely 'personal' manner of murder where some 1.5 million men, women and children were barbarically executed by shooting. The bodies of their victims described as then being disposed of in 'killing pits' (often anti-tank ditches, natural ravines or freshly dug pits). Many of the mass graves each containing many thousands of innocent victims, frequently shot one by one and buried layer upon layer. Many of these graves are still marked as memorials to this day. Photographs of some are included in this book. One such massacre described in the book is that at Babi Yar. A ravine where Jewish men, women, and children were systematically machine-gunned in a two-day orgy of execution. Here the Jews in their thousands, with such pathetic belongings as they could carry, were herded into barbed-wire areas at the top of the ravine, guarded by Ukrainian collaborators. There they were stripped of their clothes and beaten, then led in irregular squads down the side of the ravine. The first groups were forced to lie on the ground, face down, and were machine-gunned by the Germans who kept up a steady volley. Their bodies were covered with thin layers of earth and the next groups were ordered to lie over them, to be similarly murdered. To carry out the murder of 34,000 human beings in the space of two days in such a manner is difficult to comprehend. Indeed, much of this book is so disturbing that it is frequently only possible to read in small sections at a time. Photographs are provided showing how some of the 1.5 million innocent Jews and innocent Poles and Russians were marched to such 'pits' as these before being lined up and summarily executed. The task of these Units was to kill the Jews on the spot - but not only Jews; communists, Gypsies, political leaders, and the intelligentsia were also killed. The book also describes the beginning of the use of mobile gas 'killing vans' where the victims carried in sealed areas to the rear were subjected to the vehicles' exhaust fumes. The graphic detail provided in this work is in itself difficult to read and might upset many readers, but the author makes no effort to trivialise the suffering of the utterly defenceless victims and the cold blooded barbarity of their executors. Many eyewitness accounts and testimonies of those who participated in the slaughter have been uncovered and are used to provide an essential reference and authenticity to the context of this presentation. Early on in the book the writer provides a commentary on the nature of violence and how these 'ordinary' men became capable of carrying out such atrocities. The study further documents the impact of these mass murders on the individual perpetrators and the ensuing psychological traumas that many endured. Some readers might disagree with the conclusions drawn h

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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