Scipio finding no sort of discipline or order in the army, which Piso had habituated to idleness, avarice, and rapine, and a multitude of hucksters mingled with them, who followed the camp for the sake of booty, and accompanied the bolder ones when they made expeditions for plunder without permission. (Chapter XVII)
The Bandit Wars
‘Before battle,’ the Soviet journalist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote, ‘there is a period of great stillness – nowhere is there such a stillness as in war.’ In the spring of 1944 Germany waited, knowing that the Western Allies and the Soviet Union were both planning their summer offensives, but not knowing when or where they would come. The tension was palpable.
In Warsaw, too, people were waiting. Life under Nazi occupation, with the constant fear of an early-morning knock at the door by the Gestapo or the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst – the intelligence service), had led to the Armia Krajowa, the Polish Underground Army, becoming the largest of its kind in occupied Europe. Sheer Nazi brutality and racially motivated crimes – against the Polish Jews above all, but also the hated Slavs – had ruled out the kind of cooperation between occupier and occupied experienced by other peoples deemed ‘racially acceptable’ by the Germans. The AK had spent much of the war attacking and sabotaging the German war effort and planning for further action, and as the tide turned against the Germans after Stalingrad the number of assassinations of German officials on the streets of Warsaw rose steadily. One of the AK’s plans, the most ambitious of all, was code-named ‘Burza’, or Tempest. It called for an uprising to be held when the Red Army entered pre-war Polish territory. It was to be a military uprising, in that Polish soldiers would help the Soviets push the Nazi occupiers out of their country, but it was also to have a political element. By participating in the fight to liberate their own country, the insurgents hoped to establish the right to the restoration of a free independent state when the hostilities were over. The Poles watched and waited in the spring of 1944, ready to act as soon as the Red Army moved in.
Despite the impending downfall of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler was in a surprisingly buoyant mood that spring, not least because of the injections of glucose and, soon, cocaine administered by his trusted but utterly incompetent doctor, Theodor Morell. The Führer was increasingly losing touch with reality. When the Luftwaffe ace Günter Rall saw him in early 1944 he said, ‘This was a very different Hitler. He was no longer talking about tangible facts. He was talking about: “I see the deep valley. I see the strip on the horizon,” and it was all nonsense … It was clear to me that this man was a little out of his mind. He did not have a truly clear, serious concept of the situation.’1
Hitler was enjoying cosy domestic life ‘at home’ in the Berghof in the Bavarian mountains, far from the desperate privations of the Eastern Front, and his gloomy Prussian headquarters, the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) at Rastenburg, where the forced labourers of Organization Todt were pouring seven metres of concrete as a protective layer against Soviet bombs. Bunkers had been dug on ‘The Mountain’ too, and camouflage netting shrouded the buildings, but Hitler lived as if the war was no more than a distant, irrelevant skirmish. He spent mornings in bed, rising late for his vegetarian Bircher-Benner breakfast prepared in the cavernous kitchen by his dietician Constanze Manziarly. Then he would relax in the company of the Berghof ‘regulars’ – SS General Sepp Dietrich, Armaments Minister Albert Speer, the grossly obese Dr Morell, his close friend Walther Hewel, and his personal secretary, Martin Bormann. Other guests came and went, joining in the customary afternoon stroll to the ‘little tea house’ on the Mooslahner Kopf, where Hitler had his customary cocoa and apple pie. Eva Braun and the other ‘girls’, Margaret Speer, Anni Brandt and Eva’s sisters Ilse and Gretl, would lounge on the terrace, play in the bowling alley or watch the latest films in the projection room, commenting on fashion trends and the hairstyles of the stars.
As the clouds of the Allied invasion of Europe loomed, Hitler, perversely, seemed to grow more confident. On 3 June he threw a lavish party to celebrate the wedding of Eva Braun’s sister Gretl. The groom was Hermann Fegelein, who would play a key role in the Warsaw Uprising.
Fegelein was a suave playboy, a charmer and a mass murderer rolled into one. He had risen to power thanks to Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, who treated the witty and sleek young man almost like a son. It was Himmler who had plucked the young Hermann out of obscurity to make him Commander of the new SS Main Riding School in Munich, before promoting him through the ranks to become SS Gruppenführer with the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer, a unit which was particularly ruthless in the fight against partisans in the east under Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. When Fegelein was wounded on the Russian Front for the third time, Himmler brought his favourite home and appointed him Waffen SS Liaison Officer at Führer headquarters. This not only got Fegelein away from the front, but also gave Himmler even more access to and power over Hitler. It was an inspired choice.
Fegelein’s influence on the uprising came about in part because of his skill as a horseman. Before the war he had competed in a number of events on the international circuit, and had even created the equestrian facilities for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. One of his long-time competitors, and a man he admired, was a Polish cavalry officer named Count Tadeusz Komorowski, who trained the Polish eventing team which won a silver medal at the Olympics. What Fegelein did not know was that Brigadier-General Bór-Komorowski, as he was now known (‘Bór’ being his wartime code-name), had, a few months before the lavish wedding party, been appointed commander of the Polish Home Army based in Warsaw. Even as the SS cavalry officer was quaffing champagne and flirting with Eva Braun, General Bór was planning the uprising that would link the two men once again.
The day after the wedding, on 4 June 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, on his way to his holiday home, talked to Hitler about the expected Allied invasion of France. Rommel agreed with Hitler that the Allies were most likely to strike at the Pas de Calais, and reminded him that the most important thing was that they must not be allowed to establish a bridgehead on the coast. Hitler was confident that any invasion in the heavily fortified and well-defended area could be easily repulsed. Which is why, when German sentries looked out over the grey waters of the English Channel two days later, they could hardly believe their eyes. The first of 1,200 warships were slowly coming towards them, but they were not heading to the Pas de Calais. They were on their way to Normandy.
Hitler, as was his custom, had taken a cocktail of sleeping pills the previous night, and did not wake up until midday. ‘The Führer always gets the latest news after he has had his breakfast,’ the duty adjutant snapped at an impatient Albert Speer. When he finally emerged, Hitler, still in his dressing gown, listened calmly as Rear Admiral Karl-Jesco von Puttkamer told him that a number of major landings had taken place between Cherbourg and Le Havre; more were expected. Hitler sent for the head of the armed forces, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, and his deputy Colonel General Alfred Jodl, but all three agreed that this was a diversion, and nothing more than an Allied trick. Hitler opted to do nothing.
Colonel Hans von Luck, head of Kampfgruppe von Luck, was in the thick of the fighting on the coast, and desperately trying to inform his superiors that he was witnessing an invasion on an unimaginable scale. ‘We were dismayed and angry that we had not been believed by the highest authority. And even by evening the Panzer divisions and reserve units stationed in the Pas de Calais were not to be withdrawn, on express orders from Hitler.’ At 4.55 p.m. Hitler revealed his complete lack of understanding of the situation by giving the extraordinary order that the Allies’ bridgehead was ‘to be annihilated by the evening’. Perversely, he seemed almost relieved by the invasion: ‘When they were in Britain we could not get at them. Now we have them where we can destroy them.’ Later, Keitel admitted his mistake: ‘If we had fully believed our radio intelligence interception we would not only have had the date of the invasion, we would even have had the exact time.’ When Hitler and his generals finally realized their error it was, as von Luck put it, ‘too late, much too late!’2
A furious Rommel met Hitler on 17 June in the gigantic concrete bunker near Soissons, in northern France, that had been designated the Führer’s western HQ. By now over 600,000 Allied troops had landed in Normandy. Rommel was critical of Hitler’s tactics, complaining, ‘The battle is hopeless!’ ‘Just take care of your invasion front,’ Hitler snarled in reply. ‘I shall take care of the future of the war.’ Thereafter, Rommel began to criticize Hitler openly, and lent his support to the 20 July plotters who were planning to assassinate the Führer. When Hitler discovered his treachery, Rommel, who was idolized by the German people, was given the opportunity to commit suicide rather than face a public show trial that would have resulted not only in his own death but also in the persecution of his family. Rommel chose suicide. Keitel revealed the truth about Rommel’s supposed ‘heart attack’ only after the war.3
The Normandy landings shocked the Germans, but the news was received with jubilation in occupied Europe. Warsaw was abuzz with rumour and speculation. The success of the western attack meant, quite simply, that the war was coming to an end. The landings also came as a great relief to Stalin. Germany was now forced to fight on two fronts, and would have to divert resources away from the east. But, as ever, Stalin’s reasons were not purely military. The pathologically suspicious dictator had feared that, despite Roosevelt and Churchill’s assurances at the Tehran Conference in November 1943, they might actually invade Europe through the Balkans rather than France. Now he could remain true to the promise he had made to the British and American leaders: ‘The summer offensive of the Soviet troops to be launched in keeping with the agreement reached at the Tehran Conference will begin in mid-June in one of the vital sectors of the Front,’ he wrote. Stalin was careful not to mention exactly where the attack would take place, but he had already chosen his target. The Red Army was going to attack the German Army Group Centre, in Byelorussia.
When Oskar Dirlewanger, the leader of one of the most notorious SS units in the war, was asked why he was behaving in such a brutal fashion in Warsaw in August 1944, he laughed. ‘This is nothing,’ he said proudly. ‘You should have seen what we did in Byelorussia!’4 He was right: the people of Byelorussia endured one of the most cruel and murderous occupations of the Second World War. The number of victims, particularly helpless civilians, is staggering. Nine million people lived in Soviet Byelorussia when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, and two million of them, at the very least, were killed – by shooting, gassing, hanging, burning, drowning. A further two million were deported to the Reich as forced labour. Although there were exceptions, most were treated little better than livestock. On 21 August 1942 Hitler told the Nazi racial theorist Achim Gercke: ‘[Fritz] Sauckel [head of the deployment of forced and slave labour] told me a very curious fact. All the girls whom we bring back from the eastern territories are medically examined, and 25 per cent of them are found to be virgins.’5
The Germans killed civilians in 5,295 different locations in Soviet Byelorussia, with many villages being burned to the ground. The victims included around 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews and 320,000 ‘partisans’ or ‘bandits’, the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians. The Germans deliberately mixed these groups together, killing Jews under the guise of the ‘anti-bandit’ war, or murdering peasants accused of ‘helping Jews and partisans’. One German commander admitted that ‘the bandits and Jews burned in houses and bunkers were not counted’. The victims were slaughtered with pitiless cruelty, and those not murdered outright often died as the result of cold, disease or starvation brought about by the German scorched-earth policy and the creation of ‘dead zones’, in which all living things, including people, were to be destroyed on sight.
The men who directed and oversaw the mass murder in Byelorussia included Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Oskar Dirlewanger and Bronislaw Kaminski. Although they subsequently became best-known for their roles in the Warsaw Uprising, they learned their skills long before the summer of 1944. Indeed, in order to understand what happened in Warsaw one has first to look at the history of the killing fields of Byelorussia. It was precisely because Operation ‘Bagration’, the Soviet invasion of Byelorussia, was so rapid and successful in the summer of 1944 that so many of these hardened murderers were uprooted and suddenly available when Hitler and Himmler decided to put down the ‘Schweinerei’ in the Polish capital. In that sense the Warsaw Uprising became an extension of the policies that had been carried out in Byelorussia between 1941 and the summer of 1944. The personnel and the methods were the same; only the location had changed.
The sheer idiocy of German racial policy from a purely strategic point of view was never more clear than in Byelorussia and Ukraine. When they first arrived in the summer of 1941, the Germans were seen as liberators. Local people lined the dusty village tracks offering them bread and salt and boiled eggs, and winding flowers around the barrels of the advancing tanks. ‘Women often came out of their houses with an icon held before their breast, crying, “We are still Christians. Free us from Stalin who has destroyed our churches.”’ The inhabitants were relieved to be rid of Stalin, of the NKVD, of engineered famine and forced collectivization. Life under the Germans simply had to be better. Hans Fritzsche, who worked in Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, was able to drive through villages near Kiev and Kharkov in German military uniform, ‘alone, unguarded … I slept peacefully in farmhouses and was fed by the population … Yet three-fourths of a year later, that whole country through which I had travelled was full of partisans – villages were burned, people shot, hostages taken, and general terror ensued.’6 Ukrainian Archbishop Count Andrij Scheptycky wrote to Pope Pius XII on 29 August 1942: ‘When the German army first appeared to liberate us from the Bolshevik yoke, we experienced at first a feeling of some relief. But that lasted no more than one or two months. Step by step, the Germans introduced their regime of terrible cruelty and corruption … It simply appears that a band of madmen, or of rabid dogs, have descended upon the poor population.’7 It is a testament to the brutality and barbarity of the Nazis’ policy that they were able to turn entire populations against them in such a short time. But this racial element could not be tempered; it was the very basis of the Nazi ideology.
Hitler was obsessed by the idea of ‘Lebensraum’, and the need to conquer huge territories in the east for the resettlement of the German people. In ‘Generalplan Ost’ Himmler described how the conquered lands were to be ‘Germanized’. The local inhabitants were to be either killed, transported to western Siberia, or kept as slaves. The Jewish population was to be completely annihilated – or, in Nazi terminology, given ‘special treatment’ – and the Slavic population was, according to von dem Bach at the Nuremberg Trials, to be reduced by around thirty million human beings. The conquered land was to be settled by Germans in new, romantic, medieval-style villages and towns, with officials set up in local palaces and ex-soldiers and deserving families given their own farmsteads in which to live out the pastoral idyll of Nazi mythology. There was no room for human empathy or compassion towards the victims of this massive undertaking.
Both Hitler and Himmler believed that cruelty and domination was a better way to control the east than any kind of benign rule: collective punishment and mass murder would intimidate the local populations, and the instilling of terror would make the conquered people malleable and submissive.
In a secret speech of 30 March 1941, recorded in his diary by Army Chief of the General Staff Franz Halder, Hitler told his officers to forget old notions of honour and decency in the east. ‘The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion,’ he said. ‘This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting harshness.’ In the terrible ‘Commissar Order’ of 6 June 1941, Hitler stated that Jews, Soviet officials and Red Army political commissars were to be executed on sight. Enemy civilians would not be protected by law, guerrillas were to be ‘relentlessly liquidated’, and all attacks by ‘enemy civilians’ were to be suppressed at once by the military ‘using the most extreme methods’. The Barbarossa Decree outlined by Hitler during a meeting with military officials on 30 March 1941, and officially issued by Field Marshal Keitel, had called for a war of extermination of the political and intellectual elites of Russia. All normal codes of war were to be forgotten when it came to the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe. German officers were entitled to order the execution without trial or any formalities of any person suspected of ‘having a hostile attitude’ towards the Germans, ‘collective responsibility’ could be applied to the residents of an area where an attack had occurred, and German soldiers were to be ‘exempted from criminal responsibility’ even if their acts contravened German law. It was, in effect, a licence to commit murder. A Wehrmacht officer wrote: ‘Today we had to take all of [the males] from the village that were left behind last time … You can imagine the wailing of the women as even the children were taken from them … Three houses in a village were set on fire by us, and a woman burned to death as a result. So it will be uniformly along the front in all the villages … It was a fantastic sight for the eye to behold, as far as you could see, only burning villages.’8 Of all those involved in creating the terrible ‘landscape of horror and death’, one of Hitler’s most willing and enthusiastic disciples was Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski.
* * *
‘Skunk!’ Hermann Göring would scream from the dock, to the surprise of all in the courtroom at Nuremberg. ‘Swine!’ Göring would erupt in a fury after listening to the testimony of his erstwhile colleague von dem Bach, who had turned witness for the prosecution. ‘He is the bloodiest murderer in the whole damn setup!’ Göring screamed again, waving his fist. Von dem Bach said nothing. ‘He is selling his soul to save his stinking neck,’ Göring went on, getting louder and louder. Jodl, equally angry, chimed in: ‘Ask the witness if he knows that Hitler held him up to us as a model partisan-fighter. Ask the dirty pig that!’ As von dem Bach stepped down, it seemed as if Göring was about to have a heart attack. His face was red and he could barely breathe. ‘Schweinhund!’ he screamed. ‘Verräter!’9
Göring, though not one to talk, had a point. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski became a master at rounding up civilians and killing them, and later, when labour was needed back at home, at sending selected people off as forced labour in the Reich. Byelorussia taught him how to control large civilian populations, a lesson he would put to devastating use in Warsaw. It is testimony to his ability to lie, to deceive and to appear respectable that he managed to convince the Allies to allow him to act as a witness at Nuremberg. This saved his life, although he had earned a place in the dock alongside Göring, Frank, Kaltenbrunner and the rest.
The chubby, jovial, bespectacled Erich von Zelewski, with his impish smile and dimpled chin, was born in Lauenburg in Pomerania in 1899. His mother was of Polish descent, a fact von dem Bach tried to hide in the Nazi years, and his father, Otto von Zelewski, was from a poor Junker family. His father died young, and the uncle who was meant to bring the boy up was in turn killed in the First World War; the young man himself joined up in 1915, becoming one of the youngest recruits in the German army. When the war ended he spent some years fighting against Polish nationalists in Silesia, and distanced himself from his Polish roots by changing his name in 1925 to the more Germanic-sounding ‘von dem Bach-Zelewski’. He would, tellingly, change his name twice more: in 1940, when as one of Himmler’s favourites he rid himself of the hated ‘Zelewski’ altogether; and again in 1946 in Nuremberg, when in his attempts to paint himself as a pro-Polish activist and the ‘saviour’ of Warsaw, his name returned to von dem Bach-Zelewski.
Changing his name to suit the circumstances was typical of von dem Bach. He was a pathological liar, adept at ingratiating himself with those in power, whether Himmler or the prosecutors after the war. Walter Schellenberg, head of SS military intelligence, said of him, ‘He has the kind of personality that can’t differentiate between the truth and lies. He gets himself so much into the whole thing he can’t differentiate … Originally it was not the truth, but he so convinces himself – he’s ready to die for it.’10
Bach joined the SS in 1930, and quickly became friendly with powerful colleagues including Kurt Daluege, Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich. On 7 November 1939 Himmler made him Commissioner for the Strengthening of Germandom in Silesia, where his duties included mass deportations of Poles to make room for ethnic Germans being resettled in the east. In order to deal with the large number of now homeless ethnic Poles in his area, he proposed to Himmler that a concentration camp be built for the non-German inhabitants of the region. Obergruppenführer Arpad Wigand proposed a place called Auschwitz, and the camp was duly created in May 1940, initially for Polish Catholic prisoners. Von dem Bach visited the camp’s commandant Rudolf Höss there shortly afterwards, dispensing advice on how many prisoners should be shot in reprisal for attempted escapes. After the war von dem Bach claimed that Auschwitz had been nothing more than a ‘troop training centre’ at the time; in reality he had been one of its creators, and was fully aware of what was done there.
After the invasion of the Soviet Union, Himmler made von dem Bach HSSPF – ‘Higher SS and Police Leader’ – in the region of Army Group Centre, which was pushing east through Byelorussia. It was an amazing elevation. Had the Germans conquered Moscow, as von dem Bach fully expected them to do, he would have reached the lofty heights of being HSSPF in the Russian capital itself. Vain, ambitious and anxious to keep in with Himmler, he embarked on an exhaustive series of journeys to execution sites throughout Central Europe in order to prove his worth. By August 1941 he had travelled from Minsk to Mogilev to Starobin – a total of nine sites at which mass killings took place.11 He travelled even more the following year, doggedly going to the ravines and pits and trenches in which the innocent were shot in cold blood; men, women and children. He competed with his fellow HSSPFs to ‘win’ the ‘killing score’ in his region: in 1941 he proudly wrote to Berlin that he had ‘passed the figure of 30,000 in my area’. On 28 July that year, after a meeting with Himmler, von dem Bach mounted an operation to comb the Pripyat marshes for ‘partisans’. Himmler’s oral instructions had left no doubt: ‘All Jews must be shot. Drive the females into the swamps.’ This Aktion lasted from 2 to 12 August, with 15,878 people killed and 830 prisoners captured. One of the most vicious and efficient officers in the Aktion was Himmler’s protégé and Bach’s friend Hermann Fegelein, who worked closely with von dem Bach throughout. His cavalry brigade were ruthless when it came to rounding up and shooting civilians: they reported killing 699 Red Army soldiers, 1,100 partisans and 14,178 Jews in one sweep alone. The women and children who did not drown in the shallow waters of the marshes were shot. At Nuremberg Bach claimed that he had ‘personally saved … 10,000 Jewish lives by telling them to hide in the Pripyat marshes’. The reality had been quite different.
Von dem Bach saw Himmler in Byelorussia on 15 August 1941. Film footage of this visit gives a hint of the power that Himmler must have felt in those heady, victorious days. He and von dem Bach were joined by Karl Wolff, chief of his personal staff, Otto Bradfisch, leader of Einsatzkommando 8 of Einsatzgruppe B, and Hermann Fegelein. Himmler, tanned and relaxed, processed through the streets of Minsk in an open Mercedes like a famous film star, every inch the conquering hero. On his arrival at the tall, white, modernist SS headquarters, with its enormous flag curling over the roof, he waved to the adoring employees who had lined up, cheering and smiling, on the balconies to greet their boss.
Von dem Bach took Himmler to a Soviet PoW camp on the outskirts of Minsk. Some of the emaciated prisoners tried to catch a glimpse of Himmler, while others lay on the ground, unable or unwilling to move. The Reichsführer SS started a conversation through the wire with a tall, handsome young man, but then, as if suddenly realizing that he was talking to a ‘sub-human’, turned quickly away, rubbing his nose with the back of his gloved hand.
The brutal treatment of Soviet PoWs is one of the least-known, and most terrible, crimes of the Second World War. Once captured, the prisoners were marched or forced to run to gathering points, or were transported in open freight wagons, 150 at a time; the wounded who could not keep up were shot immediately. ‘What do you do with 90,000 prisoners?’ asked one Wehrmacht soldier who filmed such a group. ‘The majority were badly wounded, in a bad state, half-dead with thirst, resigned to their fate. Worst was the lack of water … Many many soldiers, what became of them? I don’t know and it is better not to know.’12 His amateur footage shows column after column of men, most of whom were destined to die of starvation or disease, trudging in columns stretching for kilometres in the hot, dusty landscape. ‘Many of those without caps wore wisps of straw or rags tied to their close-cropped heads as protection against the burning sun, and some were barefooted and half-dressed … a long column of misery,’ remembered one Wehrmacht soldier.13
Upon arrival the prisoners were herded into barbed-wire enclosures like the one Himmler visited with von dem Bach, perhaps with a few wooden huts or old barns as shelter from the extreme heat and cold. Sometimes, as in Stalag 352 near Minsk, they were crushed together so tightly that they simply could not move. There were no latrines, so they had to scoop up their own excrement and put it into barrels. Over 100,000 died there, their bodies dumped into pits. The Dulags, Stalags and Oflags of Byelorussia were centres of slow, agonizing death for hundreds of thousands of human beings who were essentially left in the open with no medical care, no protection and hardly any food. At Dulag 131 at Bobruisk, thousands of prisoners burned to death when one of the outbuildings caught fire; those who tried to escape were mown down. The guards tortured and humiliated the men, sometimes beating and shooting them for fun. At times they would throw a dead dog into the compound: ‘Yelling like mad the Russians would fall on the animal and tear it to pieces with their bare hands. The intestines they’d stuff in their pockets – a sort of iron ration.’14 Often fed only the entrails of horses, the starving men ate grass down to the earth, and chewed on wood. Some were reduced to ‘lyudoedstvo’ – cannibalism. One German soldier wrote that the Russians ‘whined and grovelled before us. They were human beings in whom there was no longer a trace of anything human.’ But dehumanizing the victims was, of course, the point.
After the PoW camp Himmler was taken to see an Aktion for himself. Einsatzgruppe B commander Artur Nebe had organized a small execution of ninety-eight men and two women for Himmler’s personal viewing. An open grave had been prepared, and the victims were forced to lie in it in rows. When one group had been shot, the next had to climb down on top of those already killed. Von dem Bach recalled Himmler asking to talk to one of the prisoners, ‘a young Jewish boy of twenty who had a Nordic appearance, with blue eyes and blond hair. Himmler called that boy aside from the pit where he was to be shot and asked him if he were Jewish.’ When it became clear that the boy’s entire family was Jewish, Himmler said, ‘In that case I cannot help you.’ The boy was executed along with the others. ‘You could see,’ von dem Bach added, ‘how Himmler tried to save the boy’s life … he was undoubtedly soft and cowardly.’15
Karl Wolff would claim that Himmler had been spattered by the brains of one of the victims of this Aktion, and had nearly fainted, but von dem Bach later denied this story. Even so, Himmler, having spent so much time in the distant luxury of Berlin, was clearly shaken by this encounter with actual killing. Von dem Bach pointed out to him that he had witnessed a ‘mere hundred people’ die, and that he had to try to imagine the pressures on those who had to kill thousands. When Himmler had collected himself he gave a speech to the executioners, praising their courage and appealing to their sense of patriotism in carrying out the hard tasks required of them. Although he had been touched by what he had seen, the action had been ‘necessary’ for Germany’s future. The men should turn to the natural world for their model. Bedbugs and rats were living creatures, after all, but human beings had the right to defend themselves against such ‘vermin’. The metaphor was obvious.
Von dem Bach was right to fear for the mental health of his murderers: he himself would have to undergo treatment for the psychological trauma he suffered after witnessing so much killing. In Byelorussia the extermination of the Jews was done in broad daylight, and often in sight of the local population. In one of many reports, a District Commissar in Slutsk described how a police battalion had ‘fetched and carted off all the Jews … With indescribable brutality on the part of the German policemen as well as Lithuanian partisans (under the SS) the Jewish people, including Byelorussians, too, were brought together from their apartments. There was shooting all over town, and corpses of dead Jews piled up in several streets.’ People had been ‘buried alive’, and the police had looted the town. ‘The Byelorussian people, who had gained confidence in us, have been stupefied.’ The SD complained that the Byelorussians were ‘passive and stupid’, so that it was ‘virtually impossible’ to persuade them ‘to stage pogroms against the Jews’. In Minsk in 1942, Einsatzgruppe B decided to give Hitler a present by killing all the Jews in the city by his birthday, 20 April. The plan was stymied by the civilian occupation authorities under Wilhelm Kube, who wanted to save some Jews to be used as forced labour. On 1 March the Germans ordered the Judenrat – one of the councils which Jews were forced to set up in the occupied territories – to provide a quota of 5,000 Jews by the following day; when they did not, the Germans stabbed the children in the Jewish orphanage to death.16
Gerhard Bast, a member of Sonderkommando B, took part in the murder of Jews in and around Minsk. One eyewitness testified after the war how Bast’s group had brought a group of Jews and gypsies in lorries and unloaded them near a freshly dug trench. ‘It was mainly women and children who were shot, some of them with babies.’ He could still picture the women ‘nursing their children on the way to the pit to calm them down. At the pit the children were torn from their mothers and were generally shot first, in front of their mothers. Very small children were held up by one arm by the SD men, shot in the head, and then carelessly tossed into the pit like a log.’17 Bast was one of the many from Sonderkommando B who under Artur Nebe had worked closely with von dem Bach, and who would flee Byelorussia in the face of the advancing Red Army in 1944. He ended up in Warsaw in August, just in time for the uprising.
It is almost beyond belief that von dem Bach would declare at Nuremberg: ‘The whole crowd – Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Frank, Rosenberg, just to mention those who were responsible in the east alone – have blood on their hands. But I have none.’ Bach saw himself as a humanitarian family man who called his wife ‘Mutti’ and was close to his six children, to one of whom Himmler was godfather. And yet to mark his first Christmas in Minsk in 1941, this proud father sent 10,000 pairs of babies’ and children’s socks, and 2,000 pairs of shoes, as a gift to children of the SS in Germany, items which had been stolen from the condemned children of the Minsk ghetto.18 Some measure of his personal ‘hands-on’ participation is revealed in his own medical record. In early March 1942 he suffered a nervous breakdown, and had to be taken to the SS hospital in the erstwhile tuberculosis clinic at Hohenlychen, where he was treated by Ernst-Robert Grawitz, the SS chief medical officer and head of the German Red Cross. In his report to Himmler, Grawitz stated that Bach was ‘suffering particularly from hallucinations connected with the shootings of Jews which he himself carried out and with other grievous experiences in the east’. When Grawitz asked him why he was under such strain, Bach replied, ‘Don’t you know what’s happening in Russia? The entire Jewish people is being exterminated there.’ By the end of 1942, the Germans had killed at least 208,089 Jews in Byelorussia, and Bach had participated fully.
The ‘successful’ treatment of Russian prisoners of war, and the mass murder of the Jews in Byelorussia, led to von dem Bach’s next major promotion. As German brutality increased, so did resistance. The Germans had lost their chance to be treated as liberators, and had quickly turned themselves into loathed conquerors. As such, they were increasingly under attack by partisans. Something had to be done.
Von dem Bach and the Partisan War
The first partisans in Byelorussia were Red Army soldiers who had become trapped behind enemy lines in the first months of Barbarossa. While some of these joined the German side to avoid the atrocious conditions of the PoW camps, or out of conviction that Germany offered a better future, others remained loyal to the Soviet Union, and regrouped in secret to continue the fight. On 3 August 1941 Stalin recognized this phenomenon by declaring an official ‘partisan war’. ‘It is necessary,’ he said in a radio broadcast, ‘to create unbearable conditions for the enemy in the occupied areas.’ By the spring of 1942 the central headquarters of the partisan movement had been created at Stavka, the headquarters of the Soviet armed forces, headed by Panteleimon Ponomarenko. Groups of partisans were trained by the NKVD, SMERSH (the acronym for the Soviet counter-intelligence agency, ‘Death to the Spies’) and GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate, and dropped behind enemy lines, and as German oppression worsened their ranks swelled. Many joined to avoid being press-ganged by the Germans as Hilfswillige – literally ‘those willing to help’ – and there were increasing desertions from the ranks of German-controlled military and police formations: the entire 1,000-strong Volga Tatar Battalion came over to the Russian side in February 1943. Around 10,000 Jews from Minsk also tried to join: men with weapons were taken, but most women and children who were hoping for protection were turned away, and had to eke out an existence in the forests and marshes nearby; many were later caught in German ‘combing’ operations and killed.
The huge area of uncharted forests and swamps of Byelorussia was ideally suited to partisan warfare. Small mobile units could race through the marshes and outmanoeuvre the Germans, who would get lost on unmarked trails and whose vehicles would get stuck in the mud. The partisans had special swamp clothing and boots which helped them walk in the sodden landscape. Using methods more reminiscent of Vietnam than the Eastern Front, they fashioned reeds into breathing tubes so that they could submerge themselves underwater until danger had passed. By the end of 1943 the partisans controlled vast areas behind the German lines, with sophisticated facilities and airstrips where the Soviets could land with supplies and men; by 1942 they already numbered around 100,000. Having learned that the Western Allies would not be opening the second front within the year, Stalin held a party for the partisans at the Kremlin in September 1942. They were, he said, to become a serious element of Soviet strategy – ‘a second front in the enemy’s rear’.19
It soon became clear to the Germans that the partisans were more than a mere nuisance. As early as February 1942 Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, commander of Army Group Centre, complained to General Halder that far from limiting themselves to disrupting communications, the growing partisan bands were now attempting to bring ‘entire districts under their control’. For Hitler this was intolerable, and his answer was to order even more brutality. In August 1942 he placed anti-partisan warfare under the jurisdiction of the Army Operations Sections from the High Command down. In Directive no. 46, ‘Instructions for Intensified Action Against Banditry in the East’, released that month, he vested responsibility for the operational areas in the General Staff, while the SS was given overall command and responsibility for the extermination of the partisans. There would be no attempt to win them over. Being ‘weak’ had only led to failure in the past. In a top-secret supplementary order to the 18 October 1942 ‘Commando Order’, Hitler stated that ‘Only where the fight against this partisan disgrace was begun and executed with ruthless brutality were results achieved which relieved the positions of the fighting front. In all eastern territories the war against the partisans is therefore a struggle of absolute annihilation of one or the other party.’ As for enemy sabotage troops, they were to be exterminated, without exception, to the last man. ‘This means that their chance of escaping with their lives is nil.’ Hitler recalled watching as the ‘red bastards’ had placed children at the head of their march through Chemnitz in the interwar period in order to dissuade their opponents from attacking them. Faced with similar circumstances an officer must, he explained to Generals Keitel and Jodl in December 1942, be prepared to kill women and children in order to overcome a greater evil. Burning down houses with people inside was now a military necessity. On 16 December Keitel issued the last security order of the year. Partisans were to be eradicated like ‘pests’, and troops were granted the right to use all measures, even against women and children, if it led to success. They would not be punished, nor would they ever face trial. The level of brutality was set to escalate to astronomical levels.
When in the first days of August 1944 the beleaguered civilians of Warsaw were hauled from their homes and taken to their deaths – men, women, children, the infirm, babies, the sick – they were executed to the cry of one word: ‘Banditen’. Every single citizen of Warsaw, regardless of background, age or gender, was considered to be guilty by association – guilty because they were inhabitants of a city that had condoned the uprising. As they were all collaborators, they could be killed outright without question and without pity. This murderous treatment of so-called ‘Banditen’ was not invented in Warsaw, but had been pioneered in the east, and perfected under the watchful eye of von dem Bach himself.
It was Himmler who had dreamed up the use of the term ‘Banditen’. Ever conscious of symbolism, he felt that the word ‘partisan’ conjured up far too positive an image, suggesting a noble freedom fighter romantically standing up to an evil invader. This would not do. In a pamphlet entitled ‘Thoughts on the Word “Partisan”’ he decided to officially replace it with ‘bandit’. This had suitable connotations of the underhanded opportunist, the lawless thug, indeed the very opposite of the brave rebel fighting for a great cause. The ‘Jewish-Bolshevik evil of terrorists, bandits and outlaws’ was to be completely eliminated. And if ‘partisans’ were now ‘bandits’, the war to annihilate them would also have a new name: the ‘Bandenbekämpfung’, or Bandit War. In September 1942 Himmler wrote a pamphlet outlining how the Waffen SS, the regular police force and the Wehrmacht would work alongside the SD and the SiPo (the security police) to rid the Germans of the menace. Their goal was to be the ‘extermination’, and ‘not the expulsion’, of bandits.20
Himmler needed someone to lead this fight. Von dem Bach, still disappointed that German reversals had meant that he had not become SS Police Leader in Moscow, brazenly put himself forward for the job. As long ago as September 1941 he had presented two papers at the first of a number of conferences dedicated to the theme of ‘combating partisans’, and he described himself as ‘the most experienced Higher SS and Police Leader in the business’.21 Himmler agreed. On 23 October 1942 he made Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski SS Plenipotentiary for the Bandit War, with the approval of the OKW, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces; on 21 June 1943 he was promoted to Chief of the Bandit War (Chef der Bandenkampfverbände).22 His deputy was to be the drunkard Curt von Gottberg.
Von dem Bach’s star was rising, and it was clear to all in the inner circle that Himmler was grooming him for high office. He was given all the perks of enormous power – meetings with high officials on visits to Berlin, palatial headquarters in Mogilev and a palace in Minsk, chauffeur-driven limousines and even a Junkers 52 passenger transport plane directly from Göring – a huge status symbol in Nazi Germany, which implied that he had reached the realm of strategic command.23 He was even given a new, grand-sounding code-name – ‘Arminus’. ‘I was very well known, respected, and beloved,’ he said at Nuremberg, and his diary records a social life befitting his new status. As the brutal war raged around him he described evenings of cocktail parties and cultural events. He arranged for the latest films to be screened for his secretaries, and when after heavy fighting officers of the 14th Police Regiment needed a rest he gave them a free night at the Minsk theatre, with the whole building set aside for their use. Ballet, chamber music, opera and cabaret all played a part in his life, with many local artists given rations to keep them alive. He and Artur Nebe conducted ‘actual exercises’: the first was a search-and-destroy operation in a village near Mogilev; the second took place in a forest where they ‘dug out’ partisans who were later shot.
Von dem Bach was now in charge of a large organization dedicated to the fight against the ‘bandits’. After the war he claimed that at its height his gleaming offices received 15,000 pieces of information every day, much of it intelligence from local villages and towns, on suspicious characters and possible collaborators. This information allowed the Germans to create enormous ‘bandit maps’ of ‘infested areas’. When an area seemed beyond control and resources allowed, it would be subject to an ‘Aktion’, in effect a killing spree. Von dem Bach could draw upon army personnel – security divisions, units composed of indigenous collaborators, SS units, police regiments and Einsatzgruppen for as long as he needed them for any particular operation. In the military areas the same responsibility was exercised by the chief of the army’s General Staff; in practice the two often overlapped.24
Killing so-called partisans became a part of everyday life: ‘A partisan group blew up our vehicles,’ wrote Private H.M., a member of an intelligence unit. ‘Early yesterday morning forty men were shot on the edge of the city … Naturally there were a number of innocent people who had to give up their lives … One didn’t waste a lot of time on this and just shot the ones who happened to be around.’25 The Wehrmacht, too, participated in these killings. Wehrmacht soldier Claus Hansmann recalled an execution of partisans in Kharkov: ‘The first human package, tied up, is carried outside … The hemp neckband is placed around his neck, hands are tied tight, he is put on the balustrade and the blindfold is removed from his eyes. For an instant you see glaring eyeballs, like those of an escaped horse, then wearily he closes his eyelids … one after the other is brought out, put on the railing … Each one bears a placard on his chest proclaiming his crime … Partisans and just punishment.’26 Field Marshal Walter Model, soon to become the head of Army Group Centre, requested that partisans be executed out of sight of his office, as the sight of men hanging nearby was so unpleasant.27 Murder of partisans and civilians was carried out on a grand scale in Byelorussia, to be sure, but one person who stood out even in that terrible time was Oskar Dirlewanger.
The Very Face of Evil
Like that of Erich von dem Bach, Oskar Dirlewanger’s name will always be linked first and foremost with the Warsaw Uprising. He too did the majority of his ‘practical training’ in Byelorussia. Unlike the affable von dem Bach, Dirlewanger actually looked and acted like the murderer he was. His face resembled that of a vulture, with thin lips and deep circles under his cruel, almost mocking eyes, while his dark hair was cropped close to his bony, angular head. His violent tendencies got him noticed at an early age. After serving in World War I he joined the Freikorps, a volunteer paramilitary organization and temporary home to many future Nazis, where he made a name for himself beating up Communists in the regular street fights of the period. He attended Frankfurt University, earning a PhD in economics, and then joined the Nazi Party, becoming deputy director of the Labour Office in Heilbronn.
Dirlewanger seemed to enjoy stirring up trouble, and his position was in question almost immediately. The Führer of his SA-Group Southwest reported that for a full five months since joining the Labour Office Dirlewanger had been acting in an ‘undisciplined way’. He had ‘repeatedly had sex in the official car of the Labour Office with girls who were less than fourteen years old’.28 Then on 15 April 1934 he ‘drove the official car of the Labour Office into a ditch while completely drunk; on this occasion, a female passenger was severely hurt and he fled the scene of the accident’.29 Dirlewanger was sentenced by the State Court of Heilbronn on 20 September 1934. At his trial it was noted that he had had sexual relations with ‘several other women among them the twenty-year-old leader of the BDM [League of German Girls] group of Heilbronn’; also, he had ‘used’ the fourteen-year-old Anneliese ‘four or five times in the period of February to mid-July 1934 in order to satisfy his sexual appetite’; during one of these meetings the girl had actually been wearing her BDM uniform.30 Dirlewanger was kicked out of the SA and sentenced to two years in prison. But he had friends in high places.
Dirlewanger’s old comrade, SS Brigadeführer Gottlob Berger, was outraged. ‘The condemnation was absolutely unjust,’ he said at Nuremberg. ‘I turned to Himmler in a teletype, to the higher SS and Police Leader, and they had enough sense of justice to intervene and fetch him out again the next day. Then I sent him to Spain.’31 Berger had salvaged what would turn out to be a most notorious career. Dirlewanger served in the Condor Legion, a unit of German volunteers who fought alongside the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1938, while he was away, he was investigated by the SD. Its report concluded that ‘Dirlewanger must be called absolutely reliable as far as politics are concerned.’ He returned from Spain in June 1939, and wrote to Himmler asking to join the SS. He was soon to get the promotion that would make his career.
When Adolf Hitler had lunch with his Minister Dr Hans Lammers in 1942 he introduced an unexpected topic to the conversation. ‘It is ridiculous,’ he said, ‘for a poacher to be sent to prison for three months for killing a hare when there are so many real criminals who serve no time. I myself should have taken the fellow and put him into one of the guerrilla companies of the SS!’32
Despite his vegetarianism, Hitler had long had a strange admiration for poachers, and decided that with their particular skills of tracking and killing they might be useful in the fight against the partisans. On 23 March 1940 SS Gruppenführer Karl Wolff had informed Himmler that Hitler had decided to grant an amnesty for convicted poachers, and that they were to be organized into a special sharpshooter company. Eighty poachers were located and transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Someone had to head this unit, and Gottlob Berger thought of his old friend who now needed a job, and wrote to Himmler recommending Dirlewanger. Himmler agreed, and on 1 September 1940 the band of poachers was given the official name ‘Sonderkommando Dr. Dirlewanger’ (SS Special Battalion Dr* Dirlewanger), and was immediately sent to Poland to work with the SS. Amongst other things they excelled at carrying out the Sonderbehandlung (‘special treatment’) of victims – the Nazi euphemism used to cover crimes including mass murder – in Lublin. On 9 November 1941 Dirlewanger was promoted to SS Sturmbannführer.
Despite his good fortune, Dirlewanger could not stay out of trouble, and in January 1942 he was again under investigation, this time for corruption, rape and looting. SS Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik criticized Dirlewanger not because he disagreed with what he had done, but rather because he could not control him, and wanted to retain power in the Lublin area for himself. In one incident Globocnik accused Dirlewanger of ‘race defilement’ for taking an attractive young Jewish assistant as his lover; the situation was made ‘worse’ because Dirlewanger repeatedly kept her from being sent away for ‘special treatment’. At the same time, Dirlewanger was under investigation for crimes against Jews. Dr Konrad Morgen, the SS lawyer investigating the case, testified at Nuremberg: ‘Dirlewanger had arrested people illegally and arbitrarily, and as for his female prisoners – young Jewesses – he did the following against them: he called together a small circle of friends consisting of members of a Wehrmacht supply unit. Then he made so-called scientific experiments, which involved stripping the victims of their clothes. Then they were given an injection of strychnine. Dirlewanger looked on, smoked a cigarette, as did his friends, and watched as they died.’33
‘This is a joke,’ Dirlewanger claimed in his defence. ‘It looks as if Brigadeführer Globocnik has made a question out of poisoning Jews in Lublin a subject of investigation. He is besmirching my name. He has tried to do this before. But he is not so lucky this time. It is true that I told a doctor from Lublin to poison these Jews instead of shooting them, but I did it to save the clothes, like coats, for example, which I sent later to Hauptsturmführer Streibel. These were clothes for work. The gold teeth were taken by the Director of the SSPF Infirmary from Lublin so that there would be material for teeth for members of the SS. All of these things were settled with Brigadeführer Globocnik, who then denied all the facts when the SD got involved. It is really a comedy in Lublin. In one trial I am said to have had intercourse with a Jewish woman. In another case I am not showing the correct attitude towards the nation, and I throw out my unbreakable ideology with a Jewess, and when it turns out not to be true I am accused of the complete opposite.’
Himmler decided that the solution was to quietly send Dirlewanger somewhere else, where his skills could be put to greater use. On 29 January 1942 the Chief of Staff of the headquarters of the Waffen SS placed Sonderkommando Dirlewanger under the direct control of the command staff of the SS Reichsführer himself. The Sonderkommando was refitted and sent to Byelorussia in February 1942. (While Himmler saw great potential in Dirlewanger, and wanted to use him, a problem was that he was being investigated by Dr Konrad Morgen – backed by Globocnik, who wanted to get him out of ‘his’ territory. Himmler spirited Dirlewanger off to Byelorussia as quickly as he could, although Morgen’s dogged investigation into his activities continued throughout the war.)
The SS Sonderkommando Dirlewanger that arrived in Byelorussia consisted of around ninety former poachers, but it would grow rapidly. Within six months it would receive a few hundred political prisoners, criminals and psychopaths recruited from psychiatric hospitals and concentration camps, and would gain the reputation of ‘exceeding all others’, even amongst the SS, in ‘brutality and depravity’.
Between February 1942 and June 1944 Sonderkommando Dirlewanger participated in over fifty of von dem Bach’s anti-partisan raids. Some of these were small, with just a few dozen men attacking a single target area. After eighteen German soldiers had been killed in a partisan attack a young soldier, Matthias Jung, witnessed the reprisal: ‘The whole place, everything [was destroyed]. Everything. Totally! The civilians who had done it, all the civilians who were in the place. In each corner stood a machine gun, and then all the houses were set on fire and whoever came out – in my opinion with justice!’34
The large ‘actions’ were giant sweeps into ‘bandit’ territory involving hundreds of men. There were various approved methods of attacking ‘bandit-infested areas’. The main aim was to encircle an area and to capture or kill anyone within it. Von dem Bach referred to this as ‘extermination by encirclement’.35 The first and preferred form of the extermination of those caught was through combat. This was called ‘Kesseltreiben’, or ‘crushing the encirclement’, and involved units proceeding through the area and slaughtering everyone they could find. The Nazis employed hunting terms to describe various methods of clearing a designated area; human beings were treated like animals.
This was by no means random or hurried killing. Areas with ‘proven’ bandit connections were targeted for destruction weeks, or even months, in advance. Agents were placed in villages and towns, with collaborators, Hilfswillige and others recruited as spies. Signs of suspicious activity – the delivery of too much food, or strange movements at night – were noted. Before the Aktion began, the SS or police would arrive and check papers. Houses and barns were meticulously searched. A hidden weapon meant certain death; if there was an extra coat in the kitchen or too much food on the table the householders were shot.
On the fateful day the SS and police would surround the area and herd the inhabitants into the largest building in town – usually a church or hall. When everyone was inside it would be set on fire; anyone who tried to escape was shot. At Nuremberg, von dem Bach described the standard procedure: ‘The village was suddenly surrounded and without warning the police gathered the inhabitants into the village square. In front of the mayor, people not essential to the local farms and industry were immediately taken off to collection points for transfer to Germany.’36 Von dem Bach was careful not to mention that those who were not designated as useful slave labour were burned alive or shot.
The partisans, if indeed there were any in the area, often escaped to the woods in advance, leaving only innocent civilians behind. They were killed anyway, the logic being that if you couldn’t kill the actual partisans, you could at least destroy the people who might be aiding them. From six to ten people were killed for each weapon that was found. It became mass murder on a grand scale: it is estimated that 345,000 civilians, many of them Jews, and only 15 per cent of them actual partisans, were killed in these operations, but there were probably many more who died without a trace. The reports speak for themselves. Von dem Bach’s deputy von Gottberg wrote to Berlin after the relatively small Operation ‘Nürnberg’ on 5 December 1942, boasting that 799 bandits, over three hundred suspected gangsters and over 1,800 Jews had been killed. In all this only two German soldiers had been killed and ten wounded. ‘One must have luck,’ he quipped. One had only to recall Himmler’s words of July 1942: ‘All women and girls have the potential to be bandits and assassins.’
Dirlewanger’s first large-sweep operation was Operation ‘Bamberg’, near Bobruisk, in March–April 1942. It was reported that he had proved himself with ‘flying colours’. He met von dem Bach on 17 June, and was praised again for his work. Soon the brigade was involved in some of the biggest ‘anti-bandit’ operations in Byelorussia, which were given romantic-sounding code-names like ‘Adler’, ‘Erntefest’, ‘Zauberflöte’ and ‘Cottbus’. Most lasted three to four weeks, and involved attacks against not only the Byelorussian peasant communities, but also the remaining ghettos – ‘Hornung’ ended with the liquidation of the Slutsk ghetto, and ‘Swamp Fever’ with that of the Baranovitsche ghetto.37 The commander of the 286th Protective Division of the Wehr-macht, General-Leutnant Johann Georg Richert, congratulated Dirlewanger in front of von dem Bach after Operation ‘Adler’. The enemy had ‘tried to escape capture by going up to their necks in the bog or by climbing thin branches of trees and viciously tried to break through. In many cases officers and commissars committed suicide to avoid capture.’ Dirlewanger had ruthlessly hunted them down.
Operation ‘Hornung’, in February 1943, was staged ostensibly to prevent the spread of ‘bandits’ in the Slutsk region. After careful reconnaissance, von dem Bach arrived at Combat Group Staff von Gottberg on 15 February to give the order to begin. Dirlewanger had just been put at von Gottberg’s disposal – other units taking part were Einsatzgruppe B and the Rodianov Battalion, which came from the rear area of Army Group Centre and was also known for its ruthlessness. Five combat groups including the Dirlewanger Brigade were sent into the area with orders to kill everyone they could find, and to take all useful property. Dirlewanger primed his men not to shirk from killing civilians, who, he said, were guilty by association: ‘Given the current weather it must be expected that in all villages of the mentioned area the bandits have found shelter.’ All the houses in Dirlewanger’s area were burned down, and cattle and food taken. Villages were utterly destroyed, along with their inhabitants – the official lists included dozens of place names, all carefully tallied up: ‘Lenin 1,046 people, Adamovo 787, in Pusiczi 780…’ and so it went on. In all 12,718 people were reported killed, including 3,300 Jews murdered in the Sluck ghetto. Only sixty-five prisoners were taken in the entire operation. Later, when the Soviets exhumed the bodies they found no bullets or spent cartridges lying around. The victims had been burned alive in the barns.
In this terrible phase of the ‘Bandit War’ few prisoners were taken; indeed, only 3,589 people were taken for slave labour by the Sauckel Commission (in charge of processing forced and slave labourers) in the course of eleven major operations, in which at least 33,378 people were murdered.38 It was straightforward slaughter. Gana Michalowna Gricewicz, who survived the destruction of her village, remembered feeling as if ‘there was no one left in the world, that all had been killed’. The country around Slutsk was turned into a ‘dead zone’: all the people, animals and supplies were removed, and the area torched. Any person found there was to be treated like ‘game’, and shot on sight.
One of the most deadly ‘actions’ in which Dirlewanger participated was Operation ‘Cottbus’, which started on the morning of 30 May 1943. The attack at Lake Palik saw 16,662 soldiers sent in to push a terrified civilian population in front of them, forcing them to fight with their backs to the water; the death toll was at least 15,000 people.39 Bach’s deputy von Gottberg praised Dirlewanger’s innovation of forcing civilians to walk over minefields: ‘The mine detector developed by the Dirlewanger Battalion has successfully passed the test,’ he crowed.40 Von dem Bach was delighted by this new technique, which had ‘sent two to three thousand villagers flying’, he said.41 It soon became standard practice. Dirlewanger also continued in his sexual abuse of, and by now profitable trade in, women, noting that one group had ‘enjoyed’ catching many girls who had been trapped on the edge of Lake Palik. The victims were gang raped, and then sold to Dirlewanger’s friends. Some were kept in makeshift prisons, to be abused later.42
Despite his successes in Byelorussia, Dirlewanger’s brutality brought him negative attention once again. Wilhelm Kube reported a massacre in the village of Vitonitsch, complaining that bullet-wounded escapees were climbing out of their pits and seeking help in hospitals and clinics. Kube wrote in a report to Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for Occupied Territories, that in terms of turning the local population against the Germans, ‘the name Dirlewanger plays a particularly significant role, for this man, in the war of annihilation he wages pitilessly against an unarmed population, deliberately refuses to consider political necessities. His methods, worthy of the Thirty Years War, make a lie of the civil administration’s assurances of their wish to work together with the Byelorussian people. When women and children are shot en masse or burned alive, there is no longer a semblance of humane conduct of war. The number of villages burned during sweep operations exceeds that of those burned by the Bolsheviks.’43 Kube’s report was ignored. Dirlewanger was given even more men, this time hardened criminals from Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Sachsenhausen. In order to impose discipline he had three of them shot in the back of the head in front of their new comrades upon their arrival. All the men knew that they would quickly share the same fate if they did not fall into line; at best they could expect to be sent back to the camps at the first sign of weakness.
Far from attempting to rein him in, von dem Bach and Himmler rewarded Dirlewanger. His grand residence in the ancient town of Lagoisk was perfect for entertaining. Unlike von dem Bach he was not one for ballet or theatre, preferring a ‘Kameradenschaftliche Abend’ (comradeship evening), for which colleagues would be invited from the area, or flown in on his own Fieseler Storch aircraft. After drinks, the guests would be seated at the large table, the lights glinting off stolen glass and silver. The best pieces were sent to his storage facility near his home at Esslingen, in Württemberg, but there was enough left over to make life at headquarters bearable. To the sound of a gramophone playing songs like Dirlewanger’s favourite ‘Alle Tage ist kein Sonntag’, particularly pretty young women prisoners, specially chosen during round-ups, would be forced to serve the food and wine, and to endure the lurid attentions of the host and his guests. Dirlewanger would invariably get very drunk, and invite his guests to join in the rape, and often the murder, of these women. His officers were permitted to capture women during the partisan sweeps: a unit veteran, Waldemar B, certified that in one case ‘the officers shut up eight women, confiscated their clothing, and in the evening took them to the castle, where they whipped them’.44 A company of policemen operating with the unit was in the habit of taking women prisoners and selling them. A radio message sent by Dirlewanger on 11 March 1944 confirmed this trade: ‘The Russian [women] requested by Stubaf. Otto will be captured on Monday and delivered with the next men to go on leave. The price is the same as that fixed by Ostuf. Ingruber in the Lake Palik woods. Price per Russian woman: two bottles of schnaps.’45
Dirlewanger’s last ‘sweep’ in Byelorussia, Operation ‘Kormoran’, took place in May and June 1944. It was never completed. On the night of 19 June the partisans who for so long had been hunted by the Germans set off a massive series of bombs and explosions, which heralded the beginning of the great Soviet summer offensive into Byelorussia. Hundreds of thousands of Germans, Dirlewanger included, would soon be scrambling to get out as fast as they could, as the house of cards collapsed around them. Dirlewanger had spent twenty-eight months in Byelorussia. His next stop was to be Warsaw.
Copyright © 2013 by Alexandra Richie