In August 1941, German troops were deep inside the Soviet Union. The war against the Soviet Union would profoundly affect Nazi racial policy. The infamous Commissar Order—to kill partisan saboteurs, Bolshevik commissars, and Jews—clearly indicated that the war against the Soviet Union was also to be a war against Bolshevism and world Jewry.
A Special Operations of the SS
The mistakes of the Polish campaign were to be avoided in the Soviet Union; there would be no sources of friction between the army and the SS. This was important, because Reinhard Heydrich had assembled four Einsatzgruppen to move into the Soviet Union along with the troops.
They were to conduct ‘special operations’ and report not to the local military authorities, along whom they would be working side by side, but rather directly to the Reich Führer SS, or to the Reich Sicherheit Hauptamt, the Reich Central Security Office headed by Heydrich.
The SS engaged in mass shootings of Jews, partisans, and what they called Slavic untermenchen, sub-humans. Indeed, the Einsatzgruppen conducted a bloodbath all over the eastern front in September–October 1941.
Not only could the SS count on their own trained personnel, but also on locals, who, in the Baltic states in particular, were more than willing to participate in these pogroms, as well as in certain areas of Poland, Ukraine, and so on.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Problems in the Nazi Operation
However, for Heinrich Himmler and Heydrich, there were problems in this system. For one thing, they were too public, and they were too sloppy. Heydrich, who was after all in charge of racial policy in the occupied territories in the east, was particularly disturbed. The shootings could not be concealed from the German troops, and in many cases German troops participated, thinking they were supposed to.
Nobody quite understood. Some units would be involved because they didn’t understand that there was a distinction between these SS commando units and their own. Their local commanders didn’t and so they might participate. But mostly, they didn’t.
Learn more about World War II: the unfamiliar eastern front.
The Proof of the Atrocities
In the early stages of the campaign in the Soviet Union, soldiers who had cameras would take pictures. Often you will see very terrifying photographs. Sometimes you will see several German soldiers at a break. They’ll have their arms around each other and maybe a bottle of vodka in one hand, and they are laughing and clearly relaxed.
But if you look at the photographs carefully, in the background, what do you see? You see a line of people—Jews—with a ditch in front of them, or you see someone about to be shot, or you see the SS commandos burning the beard of an orthodox Jew, or humiliating them in one form or another.
The Nazi Reliance on Secrecy
These photographs went back to Germany. People knew about it; people found out about this. No announcement was made in Germany to talk about how the SS commando units were operating in the Soviet Union. But the Germans didn’t do a great deal to conceal this, either; that is, from their own troops, and certainly not from the local population.
This was something that the Nazis would argue was important. It was not only important that the troops have a limited knowledge, and the population at home a limited knowledge of this, they also had to maintain the ignorance of the potential victims. If word got out about how this was operating, then there would be serious resistance. There was resistance by the Jewish community in various places, but against overwhelming force.
The Nazis felt that the whole process was just too inefficient: marching people, having ditches dug, shooting, unbelievably inhumane, grisly terrifying actions which had now become commonplace in the eastern front. This, Heydrich believed, did have to be kept secret. It had to be kept secret from the Allies, who would make great propaganda out of it, and the photographs being sent home stopped too.
German censors began to monitor this much more carefully. Some sort of ‘final solution’ had to be found—and this was Heydrich’s job—some way to streamline the business of murder.
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Toward the ‘Final Solution’
As a consequence, Heydrich began working on streamlining the business of murder sometime in the summer of 1941. The Nazis had gone through various possibilities. At some point in the summer of 1941, when the Nazis thought they were winning the war in the Soviet Union, Himmler received a direct order from Hitler.
Faced with the options available, some sort of other solution needed to be adopted, a solution that would allow the SS to proceed in this policy without a prying world looking on.
Some historians believe that the American and British governments had information about the ‘Holocaust’. They had the information from the Polish underground and the Jews who had escaped and made it somehow to the West. However, the Allies were in no position to do anything about it.
In 1941, certainly the British were still hanging on, the United States not yet involved in the war, and there was a good deal of skepticism about it. There was not yet the sense that this was a methodical, large-scale program. That large-scale methodical program would come in January of 1942, in a top-secret conference in a Berlin suburb of Wannsee, where Reinhard Heydrich would explain to a select group of party officials just what ‘the final solution’ to the Jewish question in Europe would be.
Common Questions about the Nazi Bloodbath in Eastern Europe
The Nazis wanted to keep the SS commando operation a secret from the Allies because it was thought that they would make great propaganda out of it.
The SS engaged in mass shootings of Jews, partisans, and what they called Slavic untermenchen, sub-humans. Indeed, the Einsatzgruppen conducted a bloodbath all over the eastern front in September–October of 1941.
Not only could the Nazis count on their own trained personnel, but also on locals, who, in the Baltic states in particular, were more than willing to participate in these pogroms, as well as in certain areas of Poland and Ukraine.