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Architects of Genocide

MASTERS OF DEATH: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, By Richard Rhodes, Alfred A. Knopf: 338 pp., $27.50 THE BUSINESS OF GENOCIDE: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps, By Michael Thad Allen, University of North Carolina, Press: 378 pp., $39.95

July 07, 2002|RICHARD BREITMAN | Richard Breitman is the author of "The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution" and "Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew."

The gas chambers and crematories at Auschwitz-Birkenau annihilated thousands of Jews each day, creating the haunting specter of modern technology harnessed to the goal of genocide. But before that, high-ranking Nazi officials meticulously organized mass shootings of hundreds of thousands of Jews (and some other groups). Even after the establishment of extermination camps, shooting continued where it was the more efficient method in Poland and in conquered areas of the Soviet Union. If the gas chambers had never existed (or if they had been destroyed by Allied bombs late in the war), Nazi Germany still would have tried to carry out a "Final Solution of the Jewish question" through other means.

To explain how large numbers of people became mass murderers, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes cites both the ideological motivation of Nazi leaders and the socialization of leaders and followers to use violence. Drawing heavily from the testimony of perpetrators brought to trial and from survivors and witnesses of the mass shootings, Rhodes supplies a vivid account in "Masters of Death" of this first stage of the Holocaust.

Rhodes correctly contends that the techniques to carry out the mass murder of an entire people had to be invented.Once the Nazi leadership decided to eliminate what it perceived as a mortal threat from the Jewish "race," they were in uncharted territory. There was no precedent for eliminating a population that they estimated at more than 11 million across Europe (the number used at the 1942 Wannsee Conference). The Nazi regime became more and more firmly committed to genocide of the Jews and to the decimation of other populations in a vast new Eastern empire to be settled by Germans. Officials explored different ways of carrying out their barbaric objectives.

The Einsatzgruppen were battalion-size units formed by the Security Police and SS Security Service, known as the SD, which liquidated thousands of Poles and Jews in the fall of 1939. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and chief of the German Police, and Reinhard Heydrich, commander of the Security Police and SD, decided to employ Einsatzgruppen on a much larger scale during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Jews and Communist officials were their main targets.

For decades, historians gave four Einsatzgruppen (about 3,000 men) "credit" for killing more than 700,000 Jews, basing their findings partly on summaries of the killing operations prepared in Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. (These reports were uncovered after the war and were used to help convict a group of Einsatzgruppen officers in a U.S. trial that Rhodes covers briefly in an epilogue.)

But through painstaking archival research, historians have discovered that the Einsatzgruppen were but one component of the Nazi shooting apparatus. Battalions of the Order Police, selected regiments of the SS army and units of Ukrainian and other non-German police all played substantial roles as executioners in the East. Their combined manpower considerably exceeded that of the Einsatzgruppen. Himmler also employed key regional commanders in the war against the Jews in the East. The first stage of the Holocaust was a multifaceted operation with different components.

Rhodes does not limit himself to the Einsatzgruppen, but there remains a need for a more detailed comparison of the composition and behavior of the various units involved in the mass shootings.

High Nazi officials feared the adverse psychological effects of mass shootings on the executioners. Rhodes notes that Himmler was sensitive to this problem--he blanched when he witnessed a mid-August 1941 execution of Jews at Minsk. The SS and police regional commander for Central Russia, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, quickly urged more consideration for the welfare of his men. (Bach-Zelewski later suffered a breakdown.) The sequence of events suggests that Bach-Zelewski's complaint to Himmler initiated a period of experimentation with alternative methods of killing, including poison gas in mobile vans.

A separate Nazi program to rid Germany of those deemed genetically defective--the mentally and physically disabled--was by 1940 already gassing tens of thousands with carbon monoxide. Eventually, extermination camps that would use carbon monoxide were constructed in areas that are today in Poland and were used to kill Jews who had been transported there. Officials at Auschwitz-Birkenau also tested the insecticide Zyklon-B, which led to even more lethal facilities combining the gas chamber and crematorium.

Rhodes draws upon work done in the 1990s by American criminologist Lonnie Athens to explain how people are socialized to use violence: First, they are brutalized; then they become belligerent. They begin to exhibit violence to defend themselves against perceived threats and then they become "virulent."

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