Institute for Historical Review

Institute for Historical Review

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The Myth of the Six Million

12. The Outbreak of the War with Russia June 22, 1941, and the Einsatzgruppen

Two important developments allegedly followed the outbreak of war with Russia. In July, 1941, Hitler gave the order to execute the political commissars captured with Soviet units (there had been 34,000 of these political agents with special powers assigned to the Red Army as early as 1939). According to the so-called Wisliceny statement, the special action units (Einsatzgruppen) assigned both to this task and to crushing partisans were soon receiving orders to extend their activities in a "general massacre" of Soviet Jews. In March, 1942, came the decision to concentrate all European Jews in the Polish Government-General or in concentration camps, and this was to be the prelude to the liquidation of European Jewry (Poliakov and Wulf, Ibid., pp. 87ff.)

The action of the Einsatzgruppen played a large role in the case presented by Soviet Prosecutor Rudenko at Nuremberg in the major trial and also at the three later trials of SS leaders. The 1947 indictment of the four Einsatzgruppen, which were organized in May, 1941, on the eve of the German preventive war against the USSR, was prepared with Soviet assistance by the American prosecutor, Telford Taylor. He charged that these four groups of security troops assigned to fight partisans and commissars had killed not less than a million Jewish civilians in Western Russia and the Ukraine merely because they were Jews. There were no reliable statistics to support this claim, but Otto Ohlendorf, the chief of Einsatzgruppen D in the South, had been "persuaded" on November 5, 1945 to sign a statement to the effect that 90,000 Jews had been killed under his command.

Ohlendorf did not come on trial until 1948, long after the main Nuremberg trial, and by that time he was insisting that his earlier statement had been extorted from him by torture. In his principal speech before the 1948 tribunal, Ohlendorf denounced Philip Auerbach, the Jewish attorney-general of the Bavarian State Office for Restitution, who had recently stated that he was seeking compensation for his "eleven million Jews" who had suffered in concentration camps. Ohlendorf scornfully stated that "not the minutest part" of the people for whom Auerbach was seeking compensation had even seen a concentration camp. Ohlendorf lived to see Auerbach convicted of embezzlement and fraud before his own execution finally took place in 1951.

Ohlendorf explained to the tribunal that his formations often had to take energetic action to prevent massacres of Jews organized by local people in Russia behind the German front. He denied that all the Einsatzgruppen ever employed in the war on the eastern front inflicted one quarter of the casualties claimed by the prosecution, and he insisted that the illegal partisan warfare in the USSR had taken a much higher toll of lives -- the Soviets boasted of 500,000 -- from the regular German army. Ohlendorf wrote a bitter appeal shortly before his execution in 1951, and he charged that the Western Allies were hypocritical in holding Germany to account by conventional laws of warfare while engaged with a savage Soviet opponent which did not respect those laws.

The later careful account by the brilliant English jurist, R. T. Paget, Manstein, his Campaigns and his Trial (London, 1951) Ohlendorf was under Manstein's command -- concluded that the prosecution, in accepting Soviet figures, exaggerated the number of casualties inflicted by the Einsatzgruppen by more than 1000 per cent and that they distorted much further the situations in which these casualties were generally inflicted. It has nevertheless become the popular legend that the physical liquidation of the Jews in Europe began with the action of the Einsatzgruppen against their Soviet enemies in 1941.

Poliakov and Wulf also cited a statement by a former collaborator of Eichmann, Dr. Wilhelm Hoettl, to the effect that Eichmann said in December, 1944, that no less than two million Jews had been killed by the Einsatzgruppen in the period 1941-1942. This statement was not given weight even by the American tribunal which tried and condemned Ohlendorf. It should be noted that Soviet East Galicia was supposed to be included in the area affected, but some 434,329 East Galician Jews were transported westward by the Germans in the period shortly before July 1, 1943 (Gutachten des Instituts fuer Zeitgeschichte, 1958, p. 231). This gives some idea of the "thoroughness" of this alleged total massacre of Soviet Jews in 1941-1942. Hoettl had been employed as an American spy during the latter phase of the war, and he could be expected to say whatever his interrogators asked of him without the usual third degree tortures and cruel pressures. The figures of Hoettl even went beyond the wildest estimates of Soviet Prosecutor Rudenko.

There has been no recent claim by any serious writer that a policy to exterminate European Jews was in effect prior to war with Russia on June 22, 1941. (Earlier books, such as Gerald Abrahams, Retribution, N.Y., 1941; and J. Ben-Jacob, The fewish Struggle, N.Y., 1942, did make such claims.) Leon Poliakov, Harvest of Hate: the Nazi Program for the Destruction of the Jews of Europe (N.Y., 1954, pp. 108ff.) admits that no document confirming an extermination policy before that date has been discovered. He puts it this way: "The three or four people chiefly involved in the actual drawing up of the plan for total extermination are dead and no documents have survived; perhaps none ever existed." The implications of this statement are clear. The vague reference of "three or four people" indicates that the alleged plan is actually a nebulous assumption on the part of the writer.

In the absence of evidence Poliakov assumed that a plan to exterminate the Jews must have originated between June, 1940, and June, 1941. He added, quite Unnecessarily, that extermination was never part of the original National Socialist plans for dealing with the Jews. He claimed that the decision of extermination was made when it became evident that Germany was involved in a long war of doubtful outcome. His assumption is that Hitler was determined to avenge the slaughter of Germans with a massacre of Jews. The same writer claimed, however, that Hitler abandoned the extermination program in October 1944, for fear of retribution in case Germany lost the war.

Poliakov noted that Eichmann was busy with the Madagascar project for Jewish settlement abroad throughout 1941, but the German Foreign Office was informed in February 1942,that this plan had been abandoned at least temporarily. Poliakov argued that the Germans were necessarily thinking of extermination when they shelved their overseas emigration plan. He recognized as a corollary that he also must show that they were not pursuing a plan for the settlement of the Jews in Eastern Europe instead of overseas.

According to Poliakov, there were three clear stages of a general extermination policy. Phase one, beginning in June, 1941, and directed exclusively against Soviet Jews, has been dealt with. Phase two, beginning in March, 1942, constituted the first actions to bring together many of the Jews of German-occupied Europe and place them either in Poland or in concentration camps. Phase three, beginning in October 1942, was the action to concentrate most Jews, including those of Poland, in camps. The final phase of general internment is supposed to imply the permanent denial of a Jewish haven either in Eastern Europe or overseas.

Poliakov represented the liquidation of Jews in concentration camps as proceeding throughout phase two as well as three. He accepted the previously cited statement of Dieter Wisliceny from the documentary collection to the effect that the plan to exterminate European Jewry was abandoned by Himmler in October 1944. Poliakov claimed that Göring was involved in the extermination program, although Charles Bewley, Hermann Göring (Göttingen, 1956) has pointed out that no evidence was found at Nuremberg to substantiate this charge.

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