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Einsatzgruppen ( ) were SSmarker paramilitary groups that took part in the systematic killing of mostly civilians throughout occupied Eastern Europe during World War II.


Einsatzgruppen (German: "task forces", "special-ops units") were paramilitary groups formed under the direction of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (deputy to Heinrich Himmler) and operated by the Schutzstaffelmarker (SS) before and during World War II. From 1939 forward the SS Reich Main Security Officemarker had overall command of the Einsatzgruppen. Their principal task during the war (according to SS General Erich von dem Bach at the Nuremberg Trialsmarker) "... was the annihilation of the Jews, Gypsies, and Sovietmarker political commissars". The Einsatzgruppen had a leading role in the implementation of the final solution of the Jewish question (German: Die Endlösung der Judenfrage) in the conquered territories.

Formed mainly of members from the Ordnungspolizeimarker, the Waffen-SS, and local volunteers, e.g. militia groups, and led by Gestapomarker, Kripomarker, and SDmarker officers, these death squads followed the Wehrmacht as it advanced eastwards through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Unionmarker.Nuremberg Military Tribunal, Einsatzgruppen trial, judgment, pages 414 - 416 During the course of their operations, the Einsatzgruppen commanders were authorized to request, and they did receive, assistance from the Wehrmacht.

In occupied territory, the Einsatzgruppen also used the local populace for additional security and personnel. The activities of the Einsatzgruppen were spread through a large pool of soldiers from the branches of the SS and German Reich. Heydrich acting under orders from Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler supplied security forces on an "as needed" basis to the local SS and Police Leaders.

According to their own records, the Einsatzgruppen murdered more than one million Jews, almost all civilians, beginning with the Polish intelligentsia, and then quickly progressing (by 1941) to killing Jews, gypsies and others throughout Eastern Europe. Historian Raul Hilberg estimates that between 1941 and 1945 the Einsatzgruppen and the SSmarker killed more than 1.3 million Jews, Gypsies, and Soviet political commissars in open-air shootings.


Einsatzgruppen can be traced back to the ad-hoc Einsatzkommando formed by Reinhard Heydrich to secure government buildings and documents following the Anschluss in Austriamarker in March 1938. The task of securing government buildings with their accompanying documentation and the questioning of senior civil servants in lands occupied by Germany was the Einsatzgruppen's original mission.


In the summer of 1938, when Germany was preparing an invasion of Czechoslovakiamarker scheduled for October 1 of that year, the Einsatzgruppen were founded. The intention was for Einsatzgruppen to travel in the wake of the German armies as they advanced into Czechoslovakia, and to secure government papers and offices. Unlike the early Einsatzkommando, the Einsatzgruppen were to be armed and authorized to freely use lethal force to accomplish their mission. The Munich Agreement of 1938 prevented the war for which the Einsatzgruppen were originally founded, but as the Germans occupied the Sudetenland in the fall of 1938, the Einsatzgruppen moved into the region to occupy offices formerly belonging to the Czechoslovak state. After the occupation of the rest of the Czech portion of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, the Einsatzgruppen were re-formed and again used to secure offices formerly belonging to the Czechoslovak government. The Einsatzgruppen were never a standing formation; rather they were ad hoc units recruited mostly from the ranks of the SSmarker, the SDmarker, and various German police forces such as the Ordnungspolizeimarker, the Gendarmerie, the Kripomarker and the Gestapomarker. Once the military campaign had ended, the Einsatzgruppen units were disbanded, though generally the same personnel were recruited again if the need arose for the Einsatzgruppen units to be re-activated.


In May 1939, Adolf Hitler decided upon an invasion of Polandmarker planned for August 25 of that year (later moved to September 1). In response, Heydrich again re-formed the Einsatzgruppen to travel in the wake of the German armies. Unlike the earlier operations, Heydrich gave the Einsatzgruppen commanders carte blanche to kill anyone belonging to groups that the Germans considered hostile. After the occupation of Poland in 1939, the Einsatzgruppen killed Poles belonging to the upper class and intelligentsia, such as priests and teachers.Browning, Origins of the Final Solution, at pages 16-18. The mission of the Einsatzgruppen was therefore the forceful depoliticisation of the Polish people and the elimination of the groups most clearly identified with the Polish national identity. As stated by Hitler in his Armenian quote, units were sent: "...with orders for them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish race and language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need." "Whatever we find in the shape of an upper class in Poland will be liquidated," Hitler had declared.

Western Europe

Following the German invasion of the Netherlandsmarker, Belgiummarker and Francemarker in May 1940, the Einsatzgruppen once again travelled in the wake of the Wehrmacht, but unlike their operations in Poland, the Einsatzgruppen operations in Western Europe in 1940 were within the original mandate of securing government offices and papers. Had Operation Sealion, the German plan for an invasion of the United Kingdommarker, been launched, six Einsatzgruppen were scheduled to follow the invasion force to Britain. The Einsatzgruppen intended for "Sealion" were provided with a list (known as The Black Book after the war) of 2,820 people to be arrested immediately.

Soviet Union

After the invasion of the Soviet Unionmarker in 1941, the Einsatzgruppen's main assignment was to kill civilians, similarly as in Poland, but this time particularly the Soviet Communist Party commisars and Jews were targeted.Rees, The Nazis, at page 177. These Einsatzgruppen were under the control of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA - Reich Main Security Office); i.e., under Reinhard Heydrich and his successor Ernst Kaltenbrunner. The original mandate set by Heydrich for the four Einsatzgruppen sent into the Soviet Union as part of Operation Barbarossa was to secure the offices and papers of the Soviet state and Communist Party; to liquidate all of the higher cadres of the Soviet state; and to instigate and encourage pogroms against all local Jewish populations. The orders that Heydrich drafted on July 2, 1941 stated that the Einsatzgruppen were to execute all Soviet officials of higher and medium rank; members of the Comintern; "extremist" Communist Party members; members of the central, provincial and district committees of the Communist Party; Red Army political commissars; and all Communist Party members of Jewish origin. In regards to Jewish populations in general, "No steps will be taken to interfere with any purges that may be initiated by anti-Bolshevik or anti-Jewish elements in the newly occupied territories. On the contrary, these are to be secretly encouraged."

As the Einsatzgruppen (and its sub-group the Einsatzkommando) advanced into the Soviet Union, after July 1941, they increasingly carried out mass murders of the local Jews themselves rather than encouraging pogroms. Initially, the Einsatzgruppen generally limited themselves to shooting Jewish men, but as the summer wore on, increasingly, all Jews were shot, regardless of age or sex. The most murderous of the four Einsatzgruppen was Einsatzgruppe A, which operated in the Baltic states of Estoniamarker, Latviamarker and Lithuaniamarker formerly occupied by the Soviets. Einsatzgruppe A was the first Einsatzgruppe that attempted to systematically exterminate all Jews in its area. After December 1941, the other three Einsatzgruppen began what Raul Hilberg has called the "second sweep", which lasted into the summer of 1942, during which they attempted to emulate Einsatzgruppe A by likewise systematically killing all Jews in their areas.

The Einsatzgruppen murdered more than 1.5 million Jews, Soviet communists and prisoners of war, and Roma (Gypsies) in total. They also assisted Wehrmacht units and local anti-Semites in killing half a million more. They were mobile forces in the beginning of the invasion, but settled down after the occupation. In addition, the Einsatzgruppen were often used to carry out anti-partisan operations in the occupied regions of the Soviet Union.

Final Solution

After a time, it was found that the killing methods used by the Einsatzgruppen were inefficient: they were costly, demoralizing for the troops, and sometimes did not kill the victims quickly enough. At the Wannsee Conferencemarker, the SS and various other officials met to find a more efficient way of killing their victims; this ultimately led to the establishment of Vernichtungslagern or extermination camps containing gas-chambers. Under this and other plans, an estimated six million Jews and five million non-Jews would ultimately lose their lives.

Method of killing

The Einsatzgruppen typically followed close behind Wehrmacht army formations, marching into cities and towns where large numbers of Jews were known to live. Once they entered a town, they issued orders requiring Jews and non-Jewish communists to assemble for deportation out of town. Those who refused to comply were hunted down.The process was as follows: The Einsatzgruppen's Einsatzkommando units (not to be confused with Jewish gravediggers in the camps) were sent with the advancing military units to coordinate the executions, to concentrate the hostile and sometimes partisan resistant population, and to recruit local assistants - Mannschaft, either "Junaks" (Lithuanian former convicts) or Gendarmes (Ukrainian policemen); then came the Einsatzkommando to execute the Jews and communists. The killings followed several methods and patterns:
  • In conquered urban areas of eastern Europe, many Jews would be killed in nearby locations such as woods or inside buildings. The remaining Jews would be confined to ghettos. Death rates from disease and malnourishment were high; groups from the ghetto were periodically taken away and shot or deported to extermination camps. An example of this is the Lithuanian city of Kaunas; the Jews of Kaunas were concentrated in a ghetto and sent, thousands at a time, to be slaughtered in the 7th and 9th forts (watch towers) of Kaunas.
  • In small rural areas, or in battle zones, the Jews were quickly led to their deaths in nearby woods and mass graves, which were often dug by the victims. An example of such a case is the town of Dovno in Ukraine.
  • In big cities, mainly in the battle zones, the Nazis would create a small local committee of 8 to 12 important Jews, known as the Judenrat, who would be required to summon the local Jews for "relocation". The Jews (including the Judenrat delegates) would then be marched to previously prepared trenches or natural pits and shot. Examples are the massacre at Babi Yarmarker and the Ponary massacremarker.
  • Alternatives to execution by firearms existed. The gas vans used by Einsatzgruppe D and Einsatzkommando Kulmhof in the death camp Chelmnomarker are an example. Another, occasionally used in smaller towns, was to lock the Jews in abandoned buildings, which were then set alight or blown up, though this was rather rare.

Typically, those who were gathered would then be sent to designated sites outside the cities and towns. Usually these massacre sites were graves dug in advance, shallow pits, or deep ravines (including one at Babi Yar, just outside Kievmarker), where executioners were already waiting with orders to kill them with machine guns or pistol shots to the head. The killers would also seize the clothing and other belongings of the victims, and some victims were forced to strip naked just before their execution. Once dead, the victims would be buried with hand shovels or bulldozers. Some victims were only injured, not killed, and were buried alive. A few managed to climb out of the grave and recount this.

The Einsatzgruppen were assisted by other Axis forces, including designated members of the Wehrmacht, including generals Walther von Reichenau and Erich von Manstein, and the Waffen-SS. In the Baltic states and Ukrainemarker, they also recruited local collaborators - Hiwis - to assist in the killing.

The Jäger Report

The Einsatzgruppen kept track of many of their massacres, and one of the most infamous of these official records is the Jäger Report, covering the operation of Einsatzkommando 3 over five months in Lithuaniamarker. Written by the commander of Einsatzkommando 3, Karl Jäger, it includes a detailed list summarizing each massacre, totaling 137,346 victims, and states "…I can confirm today that Einsatzkommando 3 has achieved the goal of solving the Jewish problem in Lithuania. There are no more Jews in Lithuania, apart from working Jews and their families." Jäger escaped capture by the Allies when the war ended, assumed a false identity, and was able to assimilate back into society as an agriculturist until his report was discovered in March 1959. Arrested and charged, Jäger committed suicide in June 1959 in prison in Hohenasperg while awaiting trial for his crimes.

Plans for the Middle East

A 2006 study by the German historians Klaus-Michael Mallman and Martin Cueppers says that an Einsatzgruppe was created in 1942 to kill Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. An Einsatzgruppe was allegedly standing by in Athensmarker, Greecemarker, and was prepared to go to Palestine, once German forces arrived there, to kill the roughly half a million Jews in the Mandate. The mobile killing unit was to be led by SS Obersturmbannfuehrer Walter Rauff. The plan was for the 24 members of the death squad to enlist collaborators from the local Arab population so that the “mass murder would continue under German leadership without interruption.” The group never left Greecemarker, however, because the Germans were defeated at the Battle of El Alameinmarker by the allied forces.

Disestablishment and post-war

By 1942, the permanent killing centers of Auschwitzmarker, Sobibormarker, Treblinkamarker, and other Nazi extermination camps had been established thus significantly reducing the need for active killing groups in the field. The Einsatzgruppen were still active, however, and as late as the fall of 1943 were still participating in massacres.

By 1944, the Red Army had begun to push German forces out of Eastern Europe, and the Einsatzgruppen began shutting down activities to begin a retreat along with the regular forces. By late 1944, most personnel of the Einsatzgruppen had also been folded into Waffen-SS combat units or had been transferred to the permanent death camps. Even so, on paper, the SS was still fielding Einsatzgruppen into 1945; there was also some discussion amongst SS leaders on the subject of merging the Einsatzgruppen into the new Werwolf units, which were being founded for the purposes of guerilla fighting in occupied Germany. "Werwolf" during or after the war was never an effectual force; by the time of the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945 there were no longer any active Einsatzgruppen units in operation.

The ultimate authority for the Einsatzgruppen, answerable directly to Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler, were the SS and Police Leaders who oversaw all Einsatzgruppen activities and reports in their given area. At the close of World War II, the majority of SS and Police Leaders who had overseen activities in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union simply disappeared, were executed for war crimes, or committed suicide prior to their capture. As for the lower ranking members, a large number of them were killed in combat, were captured in combat and executed (on the Eastern Front) or were imprisoned and died in Russian camps. The lower ranking members who returned to Germany or to other countries were not formally charged (due to their large numbers) and simply returned to civilian life.

At the conclusion of World War II, senior leaders of the Einsatzgruppen were prosecuted in the Einsatzgruppen Trial, part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials held under United States military authority, variously charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and membership of the SS (which had been declared a criminal organization), in what became known as the Einsatzgruppen Trial of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. Fourteen death sentences and five life sentences were among the judgments, although only four executions were carried out, on June 7 1951, and the rest of these sentences were commuted.

Organization (1941)

Einsatzgruppe A (commanded by SS-Brigadeführer Dr. Franz Stahlecker) was assigned to the Baltic area, Einsatzgruppe B (SS-Brigadeführer Artur Nebe) to Belarus, Einsatzgruppe C (SS-Gruppenführer Dr. Otto Rasch) to north and central Ukraine, and Einsatzgruppe D (SS-Gruppenführer Dr. Otto Ohlendorf) to Moldova, south Ukraine, the Crimeamarker, and, during 1942, the north Caucasus. Of the four Einsatzgruppen, three were commanded by holders of doctorate degrees, of whom one (Rasch) held a double doctorate.


  1. Holocaust History Project, Introduction to the Einsatzgruppen
  2. The Trial of German Major War Criminals. Sitting at Nuremberg, Germany. 7th January to 19th January, 1946. Twenty-Eighth Day (Part 6 of 10) (nizkor)
  3. Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943 by Ronald Headland
  4. Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, 2: 263.
  5. Tasks of Einsatzgruppen in Poland
  6. Rees, The Nazis, at page 197.
  7. "How many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust?", FAQs about the Holocaust, Yad Vashem.
  8. Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust
  9. Thomas Krumenacker, "Nazis Planned Holocaust for Palestine : historians", Reuters, (April 7, 2006)


Further reading

  • Earl, Hilary, The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945–1958: Atrocity, Law, and History, Nipissing University, Ontario ISBN 9780521456081
  • Klee, Ernst, Dressen, Willi, and Riess, Volker, "The Good Old Days" -- The Holocaust as Seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders, (translation by Deborah Burnstone) MacMillan, New York, 1991 ISBN 0-02-917425-2, originally published as Klee, Ernst, Dreßen, Willi, and Rieß, Volker (Hrsg.): Schöne Zeiten. Judenmord aus der Sicht der Täter und Gaffer. S. Fischer, Frankfurt / Main 1988. ISBN 978-3-10-039304-3
  • Krausnick, Helmut, and Wilhelm, Hans-Heinrich: Die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges. Die Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD 1938-1942. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1981, ISBN 3421019878
  • Stang, Knut: Kollaboration und Massenmord. Die litauische Hilfspolizei, das Rollkommando Hamann und die Ermordung der litauischen Juden. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main [u.a.] 1996, ISBN 3-631-30895-7

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