In a webinar in December 2020 with The National WWII Museum, historian Michael Geyer stressed the significance of those “ideological fighters” who implemented the Third Reich’s vicious programs of mass murder. “This was not a small group,” Geyer elaborated.
“This was more than 100,000 men. . . They did not need commands. They acted on their own. They killed on their own. They murdered on their own.”
Here I look at the case of Otto Ohlendorf (1907-1951), the leader of one of the Einsatzgruppen, the SS Special Task Forces assembled by Reinhard Heydrich for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Ohlendorf’s record as the leader of Einsatzgruppe D in 1941-42 places him among the most fanatical and efficient of these “ideological fighters.” According to recent scholarship, his unit and the three others operating behind and alongside the German Army murdered between 1.5 and 2 million Jews. Tens of thousands of Roma and members of the Communist Party of the USSR were also slain.
Ohlendorf came from modest origins. Born in February 1907 into a peasant family in Hoheneggelsen, a small town in Lower Saxony in northwest Germany, he was not yet a teenager when Germany suffered a crushing defeat in World War I. Showing real aptitude as a student, Ohlendorf attended Gymnasium in nearby Hildesheim. This meant he received an excellent education preparing him for university. Ohlendorf went on to study law at two fine institutions, the Universities of Leipzig and Göttingen, as well as the University of Pavia in northern Italy. He graduated in July 1933 with a doctor’s degree in jurisprudence.
Afterwards, Ohlendorf secured a position as director of research at the Institute for World Economy and Maritime Transport in Kiel. This deep interest in economics carried over into work for the Reich Trade Group, where he quickly ascended the ladder.
Like many German youth, the politics of the extreme Right attracted Ohlendorf with the promise to restore Germany’s greatness after the events of 1918-19—defeat in World War I after victory seemed so near, socialist revolution, and the imposition of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. He joined the SA in 1925 when he was only 18, then Heinrich Himmler’s SS the following year. Thus, his entire socialization as a young man occurred within the organizations of the Nazi Party. After a decade in the SS, he entered Reinhard Heydrich’s SD in 1936 as an advisor on economic issues. Heydrich appreciated young men like Ohlendorf, who were educated and yet completely committed to the ultra-reactionary ideas of National Socialism. In 1939 Ohlendorf was promoted within the newly constituted Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). He served there with figures like Adolf Eichmann and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, both roughly his age, who aided Himmler and Heydrich in their policies of terror, mass extermination, and genocide across the European continent. Within the RSHA, he directed Office III, which, tellingly, undertook surveillance on the German population, monitoring attitudes towards the Hitler dictatorship and producing reports about what it discovered.
According to Raul Hilberg, Heydrich soon grew weary of Ohlendorf’s multiple intellectual pursuits. In the spring of 1941, he assigned a new mission to Ohlendorf. He was to lead Einsatzgruppe D, the fourth and final of the Special Task Forces put together for Operation Barbarossa. Roughly 600 men (the smallest of the four), drawn from the SS and the various police agencies in the Reich, would serve under him. Counted together, the four units numbered some 3,000 men. Eventually, auxiliaries drawn from the peoples of the USSR, including the recently annexed Baltic States, augmented their ranks. The men chosen for these units trained at a school for border police in the town of Pretzsch and the nearby towns of Düben and Bad Schmiedeberg in Saxony in May and June 1941. On June 17, as the day of the assault on the USSR loomed, Heydrich summoned Ohlendorf and the commanders of Einsatzgruppen A, B, and C to Berlin for a crucial meeting. Then he saw them off as they left Pretzsch to get ready for the invasion.
What kind of tasks did Heydrich have in mind for this group? At the start, the Special Task Forces were charged with “political security.” This euphemism conceals more than it reveals. Essentially, they were to murder commissars attached to units of the Red Army, officials of the Communist Party, and deal with any overt resistance to the German presence. Since Jews were automatically assumed to be ultra-Bolsheviks and to be the ruling class of the Soviet Union, they were singled out. This quickly devolved into identifying and executing Jewish men considered potential partisans. The extreme anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime was given full license with these criminal orders. Hitler envisioned Barbarossa as a modern crusade against “Jewish Bolshevism” and the Einsatzgruppen would be at the forefront of this war of subjugation and extermination against the Soviet Union.
The 11th Army of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South, to which Ohlendorf’s unit was attached, bore responsibility for providing Einsatzgruppe D with food, lodging, gasoline, and taking care of maintenance and repair of its motor vehicles. After the launching of Barbarossa on June 22, Ohlendorf could also turn to the Army for ammunition, maps, and telecommunications. To put it bluntly, this was a coordinated effort of mass killing enacted by the SS-led Special Task Force and the Wehrmacht. Einsatzgruppe D’s zone of operations covered, initially, Bukovina and Bessarabia (territories seized from Romania by Joseph Stalin), then southern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. Later this expanded to include the Caucasus.
Sometime between mid-July and mid-August 1941 Himmler, certainly with Hitler’s approval, ordered the expansion of killing. There is still debate about how much local initiative taken by the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen and other SS officials (like the Higher SS and Police Leaders) pushed Berlin to broaden and escalate the violence from mass murder to genocidal destruction. Joseph Stalin’s calls for partisan warfare in early July 1941 gave the Nazis a pretext for further radicalization. Himmler communicated approval directly to the heads of some of the Special Task Forces. With Ohlendorf, he apparently was briefed by Heydrich on the new phase in mid-August during a visit to Berlin. What did the shift entail? Now not only Jewish men, whether in the Communist Party or deemed of fighting age, were targeted. The SS and police now pursued, rounded up, and executed women, children, and the elderly.
Christopher Browning and Jürgen Matthäus have contended that “the turning point from mass murder to genocide was reached with the liquidation of the Jewish community in Nikolayev in mid-September 1941.” Receiving support from the 11th Army, Ohlendorf’s men murdered 5,000 Jews there, including women and children. In September and October Einsatzgruppe D moved on to cities like Cherson, Berdyansk, and Taganrog. The numbers killed reached over 35,000 by early October. All the while, Himmler encouraged the butchery, sanctioning it as indispensable for the final victory over Bolshevism. Such “actions” continued right through December 1941. At year’s end, Ohlendorf could report that his men had eliminated 55,000 Jews.
The appearance of the Einsatzgruppen was a death sentence for entire Jewish communities. As Waitman Wade Beorn has argued, the
“‘Holocaust by Bullets’ does not dominate our consciousness the same way as Auschwitz. However, it should.”
This was not the unprecedented, continent-wide industrialized process of mass annihilation of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Jews, Roma, and other victims were transported from all over to Europe to ultimately be gassed and cremated.
The slaughter perpetrated by Ohlendorf and his fellow commanders was face-to-face, and the murdered usually perished relatively close to their homes. It takes a special human type to shoot small children in a pit before the very eyes of their parents, themselves destined to die as well. And Ohlendorf’s men engaged in such depravity over and over again. Using the ruse of resettlement, calls were given for Jews to assemble at a given time and place. Then the members of the Special Task Force marched them off, ostensibly to a place of transportation. Instead, the victims arrived at places where pits, ditches, trenches, or ravines awaited them. In some cases they had to dig their own graves. Forced at gunpoint to jump down into these pits, they were shot after pleading for their own lives and those of their families and neighbors. The executioners, frequently intoxicated, became more and more numb to the end results of their deeds. While Ohlendorf never showed much empathy for the slain, he grew concerned about the toll taken on those under his commands. Instead of engaging in the individual Genickschuss, a shot to the nape of the neck, Ohlendorf decided to have his men fire on those rounded up from a distance. The decision made it harder for the shooter to know who he killed. This is what passed for compassion within the ranks of the SS.
How did Heydrich ascertain the blood-drenched “progress” of the Special Task Forces? He could count on two streams of information. Here the testimony of Heinz Hermann Schubert, Ohlendorf’s longtime subordinate, is extremely valuable. Radio transmissions were conducted weekly or bi-weekly under conditions of absolute secrecy. Only Ohlendorf, his deputy in Einsatzgruppe D, Willy Seibert, and the telegraphist, a man named Fritsch, could remain in the radio station when these happened. Either Ohlendorf or Seibert dictated every word to Fritsch. Gaps, recalled Schubert, existed in what was transmitted. Each month, a courier brought the written reports directly to Berlin. Schubert claimed that, unlike the radio transmissions, “these reports contained exact details and descriptions of the places in which the actions had taken place, the course of the operations, losses, numbers of places destroyed and persons killed, arrest of agents, reports on interrogations, reports on the civilian sector, etc.” Heydrich and others at the Reich Security Main Office parsed this material and assessed the success of the commanders. Between July 1941 and April 1942, Heydrich’s staff in the RSHA prepared 195 reports, condensing and consolidating all the horror in these documents for use by Nazi officials. These, in turn, were handed over to Himmler and Hitler.
Yitzhak Arad, himself a Soviet partisan during World War II, has edited a selection of these reports for educators. They access the appalling and almost incomprehensible atmosphere of the final moments of these men, women, and children—and the murderers and their auxiliaries who organized and carried out the killing. We also can examine how the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, like Ohlendorf, summarized this barbarity. Encased in the statistics from Einsatzgruppe D were the extinguished lives of 90,000 people.
The mass murder of Jews by Ohlendorf’s men continued into 1942. Yet they were not the only targets. Martin Holler has argued convincingly that Otto Ohlendorf “became to a certain degree the trailblazer for the complete ‘solution of the Gypsy question’ on Soviet soil. His murderous activity certainly influenced the decision-making process of the other Einsatzgruppen leaders, insofar as Ohlendorf’s formal transgressions were obviously in no way restricted, neither by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt [RSHA] nor by the relevant military commander.” In September 1941, the earliest known murder of Soviet Roma by Einsatzgruppe D occurred at Nikolayev. Unlike some in the SS, Ohlendorf refused to distinguish between itinerant and sedentary “Gypsies.” The latter, seen as more civilized, were often left alone. However, Ohlendorf, suspecting Roma of sabotage and aiding resistance activity, murdered them wherever he found them. Extermination of all Roma did not happen with the other Special Task Forces until the spring of 1942.
In the summer of 1942 Ohlendorf was transferred from the Soviet Union back to desk work in the RSHA. He was the longest serving of the four commanders. The following year he returned to economic research, becoming Ministerial Director and deputy to the State Secretary in the Ministry of Economics. Arrested by British officials in May 1945 along with members of the short-lived Dönitz government, Ohlendorf supplied much information about the SS and Nazi annihilation policy in Eastern Europe to interrogators. Subsequently, he was a witness during the proceedings of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. In 1947-48, Ohlendorf was the most notable of the 23 members of the Einsatzgruppen tried by the Americans. This trial, known generally as the Einsaztgruppen Case (officially classified as the United States of America vs. Otto Ohlendorf, et al. (Case No. 9)), is still frequently overlooked.
Found guilty for the mass murder of 90,000 men, women, and children, mostly Jews, Ohlendorf was sentenced to death in April 1948. To the end, he exhibited hardly any remorse about what he had done. He had to wait, though, for his appointment with the hangman. American officials finally executed Otto Ohlendorf in June 1951. He was among the last Nazis put to death on the authority of the United States for crimes committed during the Second World War.
Beorn, Waitman Wade. The Holocaust in Eastern Europe: At the Epicenter of the Final Solution. London: Bloomsbury, 2018.
Browning, Christopher (with contributions by Jürgen Matthaüs). The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. Lincoln and Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2004.
Gerwarth, Robert. Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
Holler, Martin. “Extending the Genocidal Program: Did Otto Ohlendorf Initiate the Systematic Extermination of Soviet ‘Gypsies’?” In Nazi Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941: Total War, Genocide, and Radicalization. Edited by Alex J. Kay, Jeff Rutherford, and David Stahel. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2012.
Krausnick, Helmut, and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm. Die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges: Die Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD 1938-1942. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1981.
Klein, Peter, ed. Die Einsatzgruppen in der besetzten Sowjetunion 1941/42: Die Tätigkeits-und Lageberichte des Chefs der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD. Berlin: Edition Heinrich, 1997.
Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Allied Control Council Law No. 10, Nuernberg October 1946-April 1949, Volume IV: The Einsatzgruppen Case & The RuSHA Case. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1950.
Wildt, Michael. An Uncompromising Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office. Translated by Tom Lampert. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.
Wistrich, Robert. Who’s Who in Nazi Germany. New York: Macmillan, 1982.