Stephan Lehnstaedt, Jochen Böhler. Die Berichte der Einsatzgruppen aus Polen 1939: Vollständige Edition. Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 2013. 480 S. ISBN 978-3-86331-138-4.
Reviewed by Jürgen Matthäus
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (May, 2014)
S. Lehnstaedt (Hrsg.): Die Berichte der Einsatzgruppen aus Polen 1939
“It is interesting”, Einsatzgruppe IV reported in early October 1939 from Warsaw, “that the Pole openly positions himself against the Jew and takes pleasure in all measures against Jews” (p. 338). The sentence encapsulates what the Einsatzgruppen reports, covering less than 10 weeks of activities by Heinrich Himmler’s special task forces in occupied Poland and published for the first time in this groundbreaking edition, are about: on the one hand, German perceptions and discriminatory measures, some of which already bordered on the genocidal; on the other, expectations and reactions by different groups of civilians to the occupiers and their policies as seen through German eyes. The quote also highlights the fact that German attention at the time went far beyond the “Jewish question” – the issue we today might expect to have been the most prominent in the mind of Nazi officials. It was not; instead, their key enemies were members of Polish elites. The volume’s 113 reports mirror the information Himmler’s field units conveyed to headquarters, what they found noteworthy, how they depicted the unfolding events, and how the Berlin central office compiled unit reports into more encompassing, but also more selective updates.
Within a period of roughly five weeks after September 1, Germany won the military campaign in Poland through the indiscriminate application of overwhelming force. Alexander B. Rossino, Hitler strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity, Kansas City 2003; Jochen Böhler, Auftakt zum Vernichtungskrieg. Die Wehrmacht in Polen, Frankfurt am Main 2006; Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau (ed.), „Grösste Härte". Verbrechen der Wehrmacht in Polen September–Oktober 1939, Osnabrück 2005. Based on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Red Army joined the fray in the third week of the war. By the end of the year, Poland had vanished from the political map of Europe, its German-dominated regions either annexed to the Reich or included in a semi-colonial fiefdom called “Generalgouvernement”, and the eastern part occupied by the Soviet Union. Jörg Hillmann (ed.), Der "Fall Weiß", Der Weg in das Jahr 1939, Bochum 2001. To squash any real or imagined Polish resistance, the invading Wehrmacht was assisted by seven Einsatzgruppen subdivided into 16 Einsatzkommandos. This force of 2,700 men, drawn from the German security police (Sicherheitspolizei) – a combination of criminal police (Kriminalpolizei) and secret state police (Gestapo) – and the Nazi Party’s intelligence service (SD), became subordinated to the newly created Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) under Reinhard Heydrich.
According to estimates, 10,000 civilians were executed during the fighting; up to the end of October, German units shot an additional 16,000 Polish non-combatants, among them an unknown number of Jews. In the annexed regions earmarked for “Germanization”, the number of Polish civilians killed up through the end of 1939 is estimated at more than 60,000 people. Böhler, Auftakt, pp. 241–42; Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War 1939–1945, London 2008, pp. 9–15. Command climate and anti-Polish dispositions within the Wehrmacht, SS, and police were not the only factors that triggered violence against civilians. The reports provide ample proof for the “franctireur scare” raging among the invading force, yet also hint at its use as a subterfuge: one report referred to “the troops’ omnipresent nervousness and shooting zeal (Schiesslust)” (p. 52); overall, according to the volume’s topical index, less than 20% of the reports refer to activities of partisans (“Banden”). Ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) figure much more prominently (mentioned in more than half of the reports), including references to retaliatory violence against Poles suspected of having abused Volksdeutsche. Similar to the functions of “sniper”-allegations, rumors about “Polish atrocities” against Volksdeutsche far transcended reality and served as excuses to escalate the use of force. Doris L. Bergen, Instrumentalization of „Volksdeutschen“ in German Propaganda in 1939. Replacing/Erasing Poles, Jews, and Other Victims, in: German Studies Review 31 (2008), pp. 447–470. Nazi images of “the Jew”, especially in its Eastern European iteration, fitted into this dualistic image of “us” (the invaders and local ethnic Germans) versus “them” (the rest of the Polish population).
Over time, the reports indicate subtle changes in perceptions by Einsatzgruppen staff. While Nazi propaganda had painted a picture of ethnic Germans as steadfast upholders of Völkisch identity in a hostile Polish environment, Himmler’s officers on the ground observed phenomena that clashed with this cliché: Volksdeutsche seemed disinclined to act aggresively against their Polish neighbors, lacked the desired “Herrengefühl” in interacting with other ethnicities, participated in illegal activities like black-marketeering, and turned out to be much less easy to identify than racial ideology would have it (pp. 297, 310, 319–21, 331, 344). Similarly, towards the end of 1939 the initial disregard for the living conditions of the majority population seems to have given way to a greater awareness of its material plight (pp. 292, 358–60, 420) without calling into question the legitimacy of German rule. Future research should focus on group interactions beyond the “victims, perpetrators, bystanders”-stereotype and pay, as the editors put it in their insightful introduction, closer attention to the “komplizierte Gemengelage zwischen Holocaust, dem Werben um und dem Vorgehen gegen die Einheimischen und ihre Eliten” (p. 14). Excellent recent examples for integrated case studies are: Stephan Lehnstaedt, Okkupation im Osten. Besatzeralltag in Warschau und Minsk, 1939–1944, Munich 2010; Michaela Christ, Die Dynamik des Tötens. Die Ermordung der Juden in Berditschew, Ukraine 1941–1944. Frankfurt am Main 2011.
Accounting for German mass violence during the Polish campaign and the role played by the Einsatzgruppen is difficult, partly because Heydrich’s men did not comprehensively report on their violent actions. Where execution data are provided, they are often unreliable in terms of numerical accuracy, composition of the target group, and underlying rationale. Furthermore, relatively few survivor accounts attest to the Einsatzgruppen’s actions and their consequences as a proliferation of uniformed officials from different agencies, including the “Volksdeutsche Selbstschutz” that often acted as a murder squad Christian Janssen / Arno Weckbecker, Der “Volksdeutsche Selbstschutz” in Polen 1939/40, Munich 1992. , blurred responsibilities, not to mention the effects of almost five more years of brutal German occupation. With this skilfully compiled new edition, an earlier volume with related Einsatzgruppen documentation Klaus-Michael Mallmann / Jochen Böhler / Jürgen Matthäus (eds.), Einsatzgruppen in Polen. Darstellung und Dokumentation, Darmstadt 2008; for a revised English-language edition: Idem (eds.), War, Pacification, and Mass Murder, 1939: The Einsatzgruppen in Poland, Lanham 2014. , and a range of recent publications, students of this first chapter of World War II can draw on a solid body of literature to research the many unanswered questions around German occupation policy in Eastern Europe. One important task waiting to be undertaken is the comparison of the Einsatzgruppen reports for the Polish campaign with those compiled (and now also available in print) during the truly genocidal “Operation Barbarossa” less than two years later. Klaus-Michael Mallmann / Andrej Angrick / Jürgen Matthäus / Martin Cüppers (eds.), Dokumente der Einsatzgruppen in der Sowjetunion, 3 vols., Darmstadt 2010–2014. The volume by Stephan Lehnstaedt and Jochen Böhler indicates that German violent policies in 1939 with their reliance on and consequences for local inter-ethnic relations foreshadowed the “war of annihilation” against the Soviet Union, yet differed significantly in terms of prime target groups, interaction among occupying agencies, and deadly intensity.
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Jürgen Matthäus. Review of Lehnstaedt, Stephan; Jochen Böhler, Die Berichte der Einsatzgruppen aus Polen 1939: Vollständige Edition.
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