Much of substance has been written on the horrendous death camps such as Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Dachau, where millions of Jews and other groups hated by Nazis were killed and then cremated, but scholars have not written extensively on the Einsatzgruppen, or mobile extermination squads, that murdered at least 1.5 million people in Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and western regions of the former Soviet Union between 1939 and 1942. In this extremely well-researched book, Richard Rhodes explains that although the existence of these mobile extermination squads has been known for decades, the extent of their murders was not fully understood because so many documents now located in Poland, Eastern European countries, and the former Soviet Union were largely unavailable to Western historians until the end of Soviet colonialism starting in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. Rhodes carried out extensive archival research in Eastern Europe and personally interviewed numerous Jews who managed to escape death at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen criminals. The quality of his research is superb.
In a comment printed on this book’s back cover, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize-winning writer and Holocaust survivor, praises Rhodes for his effective portrayal of “absolute evil and its cold, calculated, and blood-chilling brutality.” Wiesel’s remark is insightful because it acknowledges Rhodes’s attempts to describe both the incredible planning that went into these mass executions and the complete arrogance and immorality of these criminals, who saw nothing wrong with personally murdering innocent men, women, children, and infants.
Rhodes correctly identifies Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler as the two people most responsible for implementing the Holocaust or Shoah, a Hebrew word meaning extermination that Jewish historians prefer to use for the event. Unlike some modern writers who attempted to psychoanalyze these two war criminals, both of whom committed suicide before they could be tried by war crimes tribunals, Rhodes wisely avoids such offensive speculation, which only serves to diminish the personal guilt of leading Nazis. Rhodes does, however, explain that both Hitler and Himmler were brutal, sadistic, and viciously anti-Semitic as early as their late adolescence. He argues persuasively these essentially violent aspects of their character suffice to explain both their sadistic cruelty toward others and their refusal to accept responsibility for their crimes. Hitler had his body burned and Himmler bit down on a cyanide capsule while in British custody. British soldiers buried him in an unmarked grave. Rhodes remarks with wonderful sarcasm, “It was no killing pit, but it would do.”
Soon after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he asked Himmler to eliminate all opponents to his absolute rule. This included Nazis such as Ernst Röhm—whom Hitler no longer trusted—clergymen, judges, and legislators who dared to criticize Hitler’s policies. Rhodes argues persuasively that Hitler wanted to eliminate quickly the system of checks and balances that prevents dictatorial rule and protects individual rights. Hitler rewarded Himmler for his loyalty by designating him as the chief of all police forces in Germany. Since Hitler quickly reduced judges to subservience and stripped them of their independence, the actions of Himmler’s secret police officers were not subject to judicial review. They acted with complete impunity.
Himmler concluded that the most effective means of killing people was through the use of execution squads. Executions could occur in the basement of police stations, prisons, or concentration camps. At first, Himmler had the executions performed by groups of his “police” officers for very practical reasons. He did not want his officers to believe that they were personally responsible for murdering innocent people. He did not want them to become depressed by the daily drudgery of killing people. It is emotionally draining for prison officials to execute criminals who have been lawfully...
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