Willing Executioners

Article excerpt

Willing Executioners Hitler's Police Battalions: Enforcing Racial War in the East by Edward B. Westermann (UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KANSAS, 329 PAGES, $34.95)

GENTLEMEN, WE ARE NO MURDERERS," declared Hans Frank, Adolf Hitler's handpicked governor-general of occupied Poland, in an address to SS and police officials in May 1940. Instead, Frank continued in purposely vague terms, what he and his comrades had undertaken was "a purely internal action for quieting the country which is necessary and lies outside the scope of normal legal trial.... It is a terrible task for the policeman and SS man who is officially, or as a result of his duties, bound to carry out the execution... [E]very police and SS chief who has the hard duty of carrying out these sentences must also be fully conscious of the fact that he acts here in the execution of the verdict of the German nation."

Of course, Frank and his listeners really were murderers, as he ultimately recognized: "A thousand years will pass and the guilt of Germany will not be erased," Frank pronounced shortly before his hanging, at Nuremberg, in October 1946. Most students of history are aware of the complicity in the Holocaust of the SS, or Schutzstaffel, the Nazi Party police force that grew from Hitler's personal bodyguard into a massive and lethal secret service that penetrated every facet of life in the Third Reich, including administration of its concentration and extermination camps. But the role of ordinary policemen in the prosecution of Hitler's war against European Jewry and other designated enemies has gone "largely unappreciated," writes Edward B. Westermann, professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies and author of Hitler's Police Battalions: Enforcing Racial War in the East.

Trailing the Wehrmacht as it advanced eastward in the early years of World War II, when Hitler's forces easily overran Poland and much of the Soviet Union, members of the German uniformed police, or Ordnungpolizei, zestfully shot and killed hundreds of thousands-maybe more than a million-civilians in the occupied territories: men, women, and children whose only crime, most often, was to be Jewish, or Catholic, or a Pole, or to have witnessed earlier murders. This the police accomplished by working on their own, in motorized battalions, and in smaller groups assigned to the Einsatzgruppen, elite SS units that also shot and gassed hundreds of thousands of victims in the USSR.

Divided into various groups (the Schutzpolizei enforced the law in major German cities, while the Gendarmerie patrolled rural areas and the Gemeindepolizei guarded minor villages and towns), policemen under Hitler were subjected from the start to intensive indoctrination campaigns, designed to imbue them with a martial spirit and fanatical antiSemitism. They also received broad military training, and were encouraged to see their countrymen in the SS and Wehrmacht as ideological and professional brethren, fellow soldiers in the defense of the German VoIk against the putative threat posed by "JewishBolshevism."

As early as 1933, Hermann Goring, one of Hitler's top lieutenants, spoke of the police as being engaged in a "battle of extermination." Indeed, Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer-SS who assumed control over the entire German police apparatus in June 1936, and Himmler's top henchman, Oberstgruppenführer-SS Kurt Daluege, chief of the Uniformed Main Police Office, appear, in retrospect, to have envisioned using their mechanized police battalions as instruments of racial annihilation long before Hitler invaded Poland. A model of scholarly research, Westermann's study draws on thousands of internal Nazi memoranda, many previously unpublished, and from a myriad of other sources-police training manuals, contemporaneous popular literature, postwar testimony by perpetrators in the killing-to establish convincingly that the Nazi leadership from the outset saw the police as an integral weapon in the genocidal death struggle (Todeskampf) that lay ahead. …