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Willing Executioners

A history of Hitler's police battalion enforcers of racial war.

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This review appeared in the November 2005 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.

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 anti-Semitism. 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 Volk against the putative threat posed by "Jewish-Bolshevism."

As early as 1933, Hermann Goering, one of Hitler's top lieutenants, spoke of the police as being engaged in a "battle of extermination." Indeed, Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuehrer-SS who assumed control over the entire German police apparatus in June 1936, and Himmler's top henchman, Oberstgruppenfuehrer-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. "[T]he prewar cooperation of the Uniformed Police with the Security Police and the use of the former against the domestic enemies of the Third Reich, including Communists, Jews, and members of the clergy, laid a foundation on which increasingly more radical measures could be built," Westermann writes, adding later: "[T]he routine execution of [women and children by police battalions during the war] provides one of the clearest indications of the real intent behind German actions in the occupied territories."

With these judgments, Westermann -- perhaps unwittingly -- weighs in on one side of a long debate among Holocaust scholars: the question of whether Hitler and the Nazi leadership always intended to liquidate European Jewry or simply stumbled toward that concept after other possibilities, like sterilization and resettlement, were deemed infeasible, thereby creating a "twisted road to Auschwitz" (the title of Karl A. Schleunes's influential 1970 study, unmentioned in Westermann's bibliography). With his exhaustive documentation showing how Himmler and Daluege labored to transform the police into a "combat-capable force in a coming war," and his conclusion that the murderous results in the occupied East betrayed the Germans' "pre-existing intent to employ these forces at the forefront of racial policy," Westermann appears to be siding with the intentionalists, scholars who believe the Holocaust resulted not from the exhaustion of alternative policy approaches, but from a genocidal master plan conceived long before social and political conditions permitted its gruesome implementation.

WESTERMANN'S SEEMINGLY inadvertent plunge into this debate -- nowhere does he define its contours, or even refer to it, as most Holocaust scholars do early on in their books -- borders on the ironic, for it contrasts with his evident eagerness to re-ignite the most incendiary academic duel of the last decade. This pitted Christopher R. Browning, decorous member of the scholarly community and author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1992), against Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, L'enfant terrible from Harvard and first-time author of the best-seller Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996). Both men mined the same postwar testimony to compile case studies of the prodigious killing machine that was PB 101, responsible, in the period from July 1942 to November 1943, for the shooting deaths of more than 38,000 Jews and the deportation of 45,000 others.

But the two scholars reached starkly different conclusions about what motivated the "ordinary men" of PB 101 to commit mass murder. Browning found it was the result of group dynamics, of a careerist desire to conform shaped by peer pressure and deference to authority. "If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances," Browning wrote, "what group of men cannot?" Goldhagen, whose book was not limited to a study of German police but which dwelt on the subject at length and sought explicitly to rebut Browning, concluded that the perpetrators' acts reflected centuries of progressively poisonous Jew hatred in Germany; by the early 1930s, Goldhagen contended, the country was gripped by an "eliminationist anti-Semitism" that made its populace, including its policemen, "pregnant with murder" and all too willing to carry it out after Hitler's ascension to power.

Westermann's choice of subject matter -- a scholarly history of the uniformed police under Hitler -- guaranteed the author, a professor of military theory, would revisit this "academic furor," and he does not keep readers in suspense as to where his sympathies lie. The book's dust jacket features praise from Browning, and on the very first page Westermann thanks him for having reviewed and commented on Hitler's Police Battalions in draft form; by page six, Westermann pronounces Browning's conclusions in Ordinary Men "convincing." Although Goldhagen's conclusions are given a fair and neutral summary on the same page, Westermann never cites the Harvard scholar's work again, as he repeatedly does Browning's, and in his footnotes Westermann steers readers away from Hitler's Willing Executioners to a "more thoughtful" treatment.

Yet Westermann also seems eager to split the difference between Browning and Goldhagen, resulting in a confusion of judgment that undermines the author's exceptional research. Westermann makes only fleeting reference to PB 101; perhaps he thought he would perform a more valuable service by fleshing out the activities of the other battalions. More to the point, the thesis of Hitler's Police Battalions emphasizes mental conditioning as the prime factor in the transformation of law enforcement officers into undiscriminating baby killers: "The ease by which the men of the police transitioned into the role of occupiers and their conduct in the prosecution of both war and atrocity provided clear indications of the poisonous effects of Nationalist Socialist indoctrination when coupled with the ideal of the political soldier." Thirty pages later, Westermann tacks on a few more factors, including a few borrowed from Goldhagen:

The actions of the police units operating in Poland evolved from a number of sources, not least of which were historical stereotypes, personal biases, wartime propaganda, and, perhaps most important, the representations of their enemies imparted to them by police leaders, whether in ideological instruction and professional publications or in directives and orders.

Such passages invite the question: How can Westermann -- whose book identifies Nazi indoctrination as a "most important" motivating factor for the police -- pronounce Browning's study "convincing" when, as Westermann himself notes, "Browning's explanation of police behavior minimizes the effect of ideology and indoctrination within the police"? To paper over this split with his academic mentor, Westermann repeatedly attributes the police battalions' bloodlust to the success of Himmler and Daluege in creating "organizational expectations, norms, and standards." This is the kind of group-dynamicspeak of which Browning would presumably approve -- were it not for the fact that Westermann uses it to buttress a conclusion squarely at odds with Browning's: namely, the centrality of indoctrination in the policemen's psychological makeup.

That Westermann's conclusions are divorced from the academic camp he professes to admire, and wedded to the one he disdains -- Goldhagen's -- is exposed frequently by Westermann's own research and conclusions. Most problematic is his (fleeting) acknowledgment of the perpetrators' untrammeled moral agency, a point Goldhagen stressed. "In the end," Westermann concedes, "policemen always had the choice of refusing to participate in the murder." He notes there is not a single documented case of a police officer being shot or imprisoned for refusing to kill Jews, and adds: "No organizational culture can guarantee that all members of the organization will think and act the same."

Westermann implies that something more "deep-seated" than Nazi indoctrination was at work in the policemen's psyches. This becomes clear when the author describes the Einsatzgruppen as "ready-made" for the execution of the Final Solution, and German policemen as "fertile soil" for indoctrination; when he notes the "willing participation of some segments of the indigenous populations in the murder of the Jews," like the Ukrainians and foreign auxiliaries, groups which acted not after intensive ideological instruction but out of "existing anti-Semitic or anti-Communist prejudices"; and when he details the complicity of the Gendarmerie, placid rural policemen who, despite their "physical isolation...and their separation from higher headquarters," their only "token socialization" by Nazi leaders and "minimal exposure to existing ideological initiatives," nonetheless rallied to play "a key role" in the liquidation of Jewish ghettos, and to lend their "enthusiastic, if not sadistic, support for the most brutal treatment of the local populations." In this light, Westermann's Third Reich looks a lot like Goldhagen's: a world in which anti-Semitism was already so rabid that no forceful prodding, or subtle peer pressure, was needed to spur the bloodletting.

THIS DISCONNECT BETWEEEN research and conclusions is unfortunate, for Hitler's Police Battalions presents a wealth of new material about the history, consolidation, and bloody operations of police units of all shapes, sizes, and character in the Third Reich. While his writing, intended for an academic audience, frequently disappoints, Westermann excels in the straightforward presentation of his archival research, especially the wickedly euphemistic action reports compiled by individual police battalions, wherein "bandits" and "partisans" are repeatedly "shot while trying to escape," and so on. As Hitler's war for living space in the East (Lebensraum) progresses in Westermann's pages, the author recounts ever-grislier scenes of unfathomable cruelty and barbarism on the part of individual policemen. Typical is his account of the members of PB 45, which included one "particularly bloodthirsty" savage who grabbed children by their feet and flung them head-first into brick walls; and another who fired his pistol upward into his victims' elbows, the better to increase their pain when the bullets exited their shoulders.

There is more, much more -- enough to remind us that the prime element in the Holocaust was not murder, per se, but cruelty. "Clearly," Westermann writes misguidedly, "men who shaved the beards of Jews, gloated at the sight of them cleaning streets with toothbrushes, or even physically abused them were not necessarily prepared to murder Jews..." Weren't they, though? The same contempt that could compel upright Christians in Germany to take part in such unmerciful acts three decades into the 20th century -- a time when IBM, NBC, Superman, Batman, Mickey Mouse, and many other appurtenances of the modern Information Age already existed -- was exactly what led former policeman Kurt Mobius to confess at trial in 1961: "The thought that one should oppose or evade the order to take part in the extermination of the Jews never entered my head, either."

James Rosen is a Fox News Washington correspondent whose book, The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon, and Watergate, is forthcoming from Doubleday. This review ran in the November 2005 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.

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About the Author

James Rosen is a White House and State Department correspondent for Fox News.