Einsatzgruppen Were Militarized Police

80 years ago today, on 22 June 1941, Operation Barbarossa — the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union — was launched. The warfare between the Nazis and the Russians, which lasted until the end of WWII on 8 May 1945, made up the overwhelming majority of the military action and produced the greatest number of war deaths and casualties of the entire European War of 1939-1945 (in my mind I think of this fraction as 80%).

Here in the United States we are well versed in the folklore and stories of the actions, tragedies and victories that emerged from the War In Western Europe during WWII, but we are much less aware of the magnitude of the Russian (Soviet Union) contribution made, and sacrifices suffered, to secure victory for the Allies (the “United Nations”) in May 1945. Without diminishing the dedicated, painful and heroic contributions of the U.S.A, and its Allies, it is nevertheless a fact that, by and large, Nazi Germany (and its fascist Eastern European allies and proxies) was defeated by Russian guns carried forward by an ocean of Russian blood, and the Russian state and the Red Army were fed large transfusions of American military supplies to supplement their own industrialized war machine.

Hitler had planned Operation Barbarossa not merely as a war of armed political conflict and territorial conquest, but as a war of annihilation: Jews, and Communists with any degree of political or administrative power, were to be killed. The Nazi’s estimated (in written reports) that the number of Jews they wished to eliminate from Europe totaled 11 million. Specialized militarized “death squad” troops were formed to execute Jews (primarily) as Nazi armies raced eastward through Poland (from 1 September 1939) and then during Operation Barbarossa into the Baltic States (which Stalin had recently annexed), Western Russia (nearly up to Moscow), the Ukraine, Crimea and Southern Russia (as far as Stalingrad = Volgograd). Those death squad troops were called the Einsatzgruppen.

From Wikipedia: Einsatzgruppen (“deployment groups”; also “task forces”) were Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany that were responsible for mass killings, primarily by shooting, during World War II (1939–45) in German-occupied Europe. The Einsatzgruppen had an integral role in the implementation of the so-called “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” (Die Endlösung der Judenfrage) in territories conquered by Nazi Germany, and were involved in the murder of much of the intelligentsia and cultural elite of Poland, including members of the priesthood. Almost all of the people they killed were civilians, beginning with the intelligentsia and swiftly progressing to Soviet political commissars, Jews, and Romani people as well as actual or alleged partisans throughout Eastern Europe.

Since Hitler had promised to establish a ‘1000 year Reich,’ the Nazis saw no need to worry about negative consequences to their genocidal campaign because in a few short generations after establishing their regime across Europe (and the world?) there would be few to have such raw memories of the atrocities and losses to mount any opposition. As one person commented: who today remembers the Crusades with enough anger to mount opposition to and make war on the descendants of its perpetrators?

A riveting and harrowing history of the Einsatzgruppen is presented by a 2009 four-part documentary series hosted on Netlfix: Einsatzgruppen: The Nazi Death Squads. [weblink at bottom].

Nearly all the visuals of this series were supplied by the many photographs and movies taken by German Nazi officers, but also by members of the killing units manned by Romanians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians, which were both encouraged by the German Nazis (where underlying antisemitism and a thirst for pogroms, and hatred of Russians, communists and Stalin’s NKVD existed) or such other killing units were directly supervised by the German Nazis. In a few cases Jews and anti-nazi partisans were surreptitiously able to take photographs of killing actions that were kept hidden until after the war and used as evidence in war crimes trials.

Most of the rank and file of the Einsatzgruppen had been policemen, and were men of limited education; repetitive actions of brute force motivated by simple bigotry, sanctioned by their obedience to superiors, and spiced up for too many of them by committing torturous atrocities as entertainment. The officers, on the other hand, were quite well educated and intellectual, they directed and guided this genocide machine as true believers in the inhuman vision behind it.

As I watched this tragic history unroll, I recalled that Telford Taylor had publicly stated that by the standards set by the Nuremberg Trials that American officials should be liable for war crimes prosecution over their perpetration of the Vietnam War. From Wikipedia: Telford Taylor was an American lawyer best known for his role as Counsel for the Prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, his opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and his outspoken criticism of U.S. actions during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.

And I thought of the My Lai massacre of March 1968, which was an infamous American cluster of war crimes that was not at all an isolated event as the US military claimed but actually just a typical action in an entire campaign made up of such actions conducted by US military forces in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Army, which was trained and lavishly supported by the U.S., were routine savage perpetrators of atrocities to Communist Vietnamese prisoners and also regular peasants caught up by the military operations. The parallels here between America’s South Vietnamese Army ally, to the non-German proxies during Operation Barbarossa, are quite close.

I also recalled that the murders of civil rights workers and voting rights activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner (the Freedom Summer murders) in Neshoba County, Mississippi, occurred on 21 June 1964, during the Civil Rights Movement. That was 57 years ago yesterday. Members of the local White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office, and the (local city of) Philadelphia Police Department were involved in the incident. None of the police departments or government agencies and officers of the State of Mississippi took any action to investigate the disappearance of the three civil rights workers after 21 June 1964, and they were certainly not interested in seeking to uncover any crime and prosecute its perpetrators as related to this incident. The remains of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were discovered by federal investigators on 4 August 1964, and federal prosecutions followed. The federal government acted because of intense national public outcry against first the disappearance of the civil rights trio and then their murders, and that outrage had erupted out of the new largely national awakening that had been sparked by the Civil Rights Movement.

There is a parallel between Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner facing the the guns of their killers — pogrom-thirsting bigots and policemen who were backed by the political powers of local and state public officials — on the night of 21 June 1964, and the millions of Jews who faced the guns of their killers in Eastern Europe during 1939-1944 — also pogrom-thirsting bigots and policemen who were also often enough their own countrymen.

And then one thinks of today, of George Floyd, of Black Lives Matter, and of the logic of “defund the police.” That logic becomes very clear to anyone who comes to experience police activity as even remotely similar in any way to Einsatzgruppen activity. For them it is better to disband the police than allow for a continuation of civilian murders (especially and disproportionately of minorities, particularly Black Americans) by armed operatives employed and legally immunized by the governing political authorities, under the justification of “keeping the peace” and guarding “public safety.”

I realize all this sad and painful history is not pleasant to think about, but I think it is helpful for Americans to know about it accurately, and not filtered by fantasies and preferred biases, so that our society in the present day and into our collective future can be significantly bettered, to really ensure everybody’s public safety, and to keep the peace in a just and compassionate manner.

Einsatzgruppen: The Nazi Death Squads


Which Holocaust Matters?

(12 April 2004)

Which Holocaust should Americans be most concerned about: the WWII Holocaust of European Jewry, the American Back Slavery Holocaust, or the North American Indian Holocaust? Interestingly, about 6 million people were consumed in each, though the time spans were 12, 200 and 400 years, respectively. The answer depends on your outlook as to whether you prefer the imperialism of a Fortress America, championed today by the Bush administration, or whether you prefer a socially transformed America, as described variously in the presidential candidate speeches of John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader.

Holocausts A, B and C

Consider this data, and estimates from it, on our selected Holocausts (M = million, k = thousand, yr = year):

Western Hemisphere Native Americans
1492: 72M to 113M, a good estimate is 75M (15% of the world population).
1980: 28M, (minimum occurred around 1900, growth since).

Native Americans north of Mexico (Rio Grande)
1492: 1M to 18M, modern estimates cluster at 4M to 7M, a good estimate is 6M (portion for USA: 5M).
1900: 400,000, (the minimum, population has grown since, portion for USA: 250,000).
1980: 2M.

African Americans
1860 (15 southern states): 4.4M (US population is 31.4M, 14% are Black slaves; slave trade begins in 1620s, importation outlawed in 1807).
1900: 8.8M (US population is 76M, 12% is Black).

Jewish Holocaust 1933-1945: -6M in 12 years, -500 k/yr (most from 1942 at a higher rate). (1)

Now, some estimates:

Estimates of Western Hemisphere Native American population loss 1500-1900: -50M to -60M in 400 years, average rate: -125 k/yr to -150 k/yr.

Estimates of North American Native population loss 1500-1900: -6M at -15 k/yr (-5M at 12.5 k/yr in the USA).

The 250,000 USA Native Americans of 1900 are comparable in number to the Israeli settlers in Palestinian territory today.

The North American Native population in 1980 was at one quarter to one half of what is was in 1492.

Number of Africans imported to North America between 1619 and 1807: an estimate is 2.4M, unknown factors being losses at sea and growth of the captive population; an estimated importation rate is up to +12 k/yr (2.4M imported over 200 years). (2)

A summary of Holocaust estimates:

Native Americans, Hemispherically: -130 k/yr at 400 years equals -52M (perhaps -90% in 1900, about -70% today).

North American Natives: -15 k/yr at 400 years equals -6M (probably beyond -90% in 1900, about -66% today).

African Americans: +12 k/yr at 200 years equals +2.4M enslaved; total slave population is 4.4M in 1860, 14% of the US population.

European Jews: -500 k/yr at 12 years equals -6M.

Comparable Magnitudes, Different Rates, and Memory

Notice that the removal rate of Native Americans (-15 k/yr) was comparable to the accrual rate of Black slaves (+22 k/yr), and that the magnitudes of the eliminated (6M) and accumulated (4.4M) populations is also comparable. The Native American Holocaust lasted 400 years, the Afro-American Holocaust about 200. These Holocausts were largely prosecuted during the pre-industrial era, though they did extend into the late 19th century (1850 to 1900).

The Nazi Holocaust on European Jewry was prosecuted with the much greater industrial power and technology of the first half of the 20th century. The Nazi’s processing rate was at least 50 times that of the Native American removal or the Black slave accrual rates. A sad achievement, to be sure. It is the industrialized acceleration of the human removal rate that gives the Nazi-driven Holocaust its ferocious psychological shock. Rounding out all the figures — rather broadly — we can put it simply this way: 6M North American Indians done away with in 400 years and by 100 years ago could be psychologically accommodated by people living during the process — and now. Similarly, under 6M Blacks enslaved or born into slavery in the USA over 200 years and by 100 years ago could also be accommodated by most people then and now. However, the elimination of 6M Jews (and others) during 12 years of still living memory is too close to be entirely brushed away as “history,” of which we, our nations and our institutions can be entirely absolved of responsibility. Even so, most people find it easy to let the Jewish Holocaust slip into the “memory hole” along with American Black slavery and the “Indian Removal.”

Holocaust Echoes and Revivals

In fact, all these Holocausts still require expiation in our time. That is the key point that proponents of atonement for each is trying to convey. We cannot undo the past, but we can face up to our historical precedents, and then use this now overt knowledge to ensure we act societally in such a way as to quench repetition of past prejudices and actions, which are fundamental to prosecuting Holocausts. For example: lebensraum in Palestine is just as evil as it was in Poland. The de facto slavery in China, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Third World, solely to satisfy the needs of American profiteers for “offshoring” jobs, and of a feckless American public for “rock-bottom” prices at Wal-Mart, is still just as evil as was the slavery of Mark Twain’s youth. “We don’t own slaves, how can we be responsible?” people will say. Yet, who sewed your clothes, made your shoes, assembled the SUV you drive? If ignorance is bliss, then America is paradise.

Owning Our History (Atonement and Healing)

Such “recognition” (the Quakers can probably speak with much greater authority on this point) would then see issues of “restitution” and “reservations” and “Indian lands” in a historical context, rather than as impediments to the current impatience to commercialize “assets” such as “real estate,” “mining rights,” “fishing rights” and the like. Similarly, issues like “affirmative action” and “reparations” would be seen in a historical context informing a societal decision to make pathways for the positive development for segments of the population that have been forced to deal with centuries of unfair barriers. I don’t think a few thousand dollars of instant cash in the hands of every Black (and American Indian) youth is the point, but a historical (i.e., over a long time) commitment to the development of the Black (and American Indian) population. I would imagine such a program would primarily concentrate on universal health care, early child development, education through college, and professional development especially for girls and women — populations do better when their women are educated.

While the Jewish Holocaust was the most intense (highest rate of removal), its survivors have one significant advantage over the American Indians and the Afro-Americans: they retained their culture. Once their Holocaust was over, the European Jews could return to reassembling their lives, societies, careers, and profit-making ventures (everybody wants these). The terrible crime inflicted on the victims of the American Holocausts (aside from the deprivation of life and liberty) was the deprivation of culture: native languages and cultural ways were stripped from the victim populations, and American-English-based substitutes (like lugubrious American Christianity) installed, primarily as a control device.

The stories of Black and Indian America since the Conquest are primarily about devising and rediscovering their own unique cultures after their native ones had been assaulted and largely removed. So, American Indians and Blacks have had to reinvent, in about one century, what human evolution would have provided organically over the course of millennia. Only then, once they had ‘their language’ could these populations begin to build up their communities within a larger sea of a hostile culture. The Jews had this the day the concentration camp gates swung open. The deprivation of native culture is a historical crime that will take a historical period of time to repair. Had there been a willingness to do so after Reconstruction (from 1877), I think that American Blacks and Indians would have much healthier populations today. Instead, they faced the awful repression of the segregation century (1877-1965).

After the Segregation Century

We have only delayed the healing process required after the Black and Indian Holocausts of the 19th century. The acceleration of the healing process dates from the victories of the Civil Rights years, the 1950s-1960s. A valuable national goal would be to overtly make the historical commitment I described — to allow for the full development of unique Indian and Black culture within the larger context of an American culture — so that 100 years after the Voting Rights Act, or by 2065 (two hundred years after the end of the Civil War) that “preferential” treatment of Blacks and Indians has ended by the simple fact that these communities are indistinguishable from any other in America with regards to health, opportunity, and social equity. It really doesn’t need to take that much time, or cost that much money, unless you view such social choices as universal health care, universal day-care and preschool, universal paid public education through college as “expensive” (obviously, we will have cut the military about 40%, dumped NAFTA, the WTO, and a host of corporate welfare).

In doing this we would be choosing the vision of a humane world-engaged America, rather than an Imperial “Fort Apache” America at war over resources with an outer teeming world of hostile destitute tribes, as if we were some gigantic analog to Fortress Israel plowing its metal wall across Palestine to swallow it up. This is the subtext to arguments over which Holocaust is more important.

Such shrill pissing-matches over whose Holocaust is worse, and deserving of more attention (and money) fail to advance anyone’s development. To their purveyors: Stop being a victim, let all acts be judged by the same standards. To all of us: Never again, start now.

Notes and Resources

1.  “Statistics of Native American Populations in the Western Hemisphere,” http://nativenet.uthscsa.edu/archive/nl/91c/0122.html (as of March 4, 2004).

Russell Thornton, “Population: Precontact to the Present,” Encyclopedia of North American Indians – http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/naind/html/na_030500_precontactto.htm (as of March 4, 2004).

“African American Migration,” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/hyman/hyman_migration1.html (as of March 4, 2004).

2.  Katerina Stenou, “Struggles Against Slavery, 2004 International Year To Commemorate The Struggle Against Slavery And Its Abolition (Brochure),” UNESCO, 2004, 24 page report available as pdf file at
http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php@URL_ID=15006&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html – (as of 23 March 2004).


Which Holocaust Matter?
12 April 2004