views updated



The Einsatzgruppen (Special Action Groups), were mobile units trained by the Third Reich's organizations of oppression—the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei), its criminal police department known as Kripo (Kriminalpolizei), and SS (Schutzstaffel) security forces, called SD (Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsfuehrer). Their aim was to secure order through each phase of the Nazi empire's expansion. The best known of these groups were those formed in preparation for the invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union. Although their internal organization remained essentially unchanged and their missions apparently fixed during the entire course of their operations, their activity would undergo a series of modifications that transformed them, especially in the Soviet Union, into agencies of genocide.


In 1938 the Gestapo, the SD, and the Kripo were instructed to organize commandos for security missions in occupied countries. These units operated in Austria, Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the USSR, and later in Tunisia, Croatia, and Slovakia. Their composition varied greatly—the units set up for Operation Barbarossa, with three thousand commandos, had by far the largest contingent—but all were trained in the same way.

The units were composed of the Sonderkommandos (Special groups) that operated in the Soviet Union near the front lines, and the Einsatzkommandos, whose missions, conducted inside the war zone, were the more conspicuous. In the Soviet Union they were assigned zones of operation as follows:

In the Baltic, Einsatzgruppe (EG) A, with one thousand men, had Leningrad as its objective.

In Byelorussia, Einsatzgruppe B, with eight hundred men, had Moscow as its objective.

In Ukraine, Einsatzgruppe C, with seven hundred men, had Kiev as its objective.

In Crimea and the Caucasus, Einsatzgruppe D, with five hundred men.

Initially conceived as motorized mobile units, they would be settled after several weeks of activity and converted into Gestapo and SD local officers under regional commanders. It was exceptional for recruits to serve in different units; for example, commandos in Poland did not serve in Russia.

Recruitment methods did change, however, consonant with the general evolution of EG activities. Composed initially almost exclusively of Gestapo functionaries and SS officers of the SD, the units became more heavily armed; the presence of armed guards of the Waffen SS marked the transition between the "peaceful" campaigns prior to 1939 and the principal theaters of operation in Poland and the Soviet Union during the war.


Throughout these operations, the structure of command under which the units acted remained remarkably fixed. A directive from Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich (1904–1942), chief of the Gestapo and the SD, summarized the units' duties at the end of the invasion of Czechoslovakia:

  • Protection (Sicherung) of the new order against any attack or turmoil
  • Arrest of all persons known to be hostile to the Reich
  • Seizure of all archives and files regarding the activities of individuals or organizations hostile to the Reich
  • Elimination of organizations that are hostile or that pursue goals hostile to the Reich
  • Occupation of all offices of the Czech criminal and political police as well as those of all the organizations pursuing political or criminal police activities (Krausnick and Wilhelm, p. 17)

However rigid the judicial and police structure, the units underwent a critical change in Poland and the Soviet Union. Like the Gestapo, they had always used brutal but traditional police techniques, but policy changed in Poland. The security mind-set operating there had already lowered the threshold of violence, and Operation Barbarossa, which may be viewed as an exercise in racial annihilation, brought with it for the first time orders to systematically kill specific categories of victims. During the invasion of Poland, Einsatzgruppen units liquidated partisans (the franc-tireurs) as well as members of the bourgeoisie and members of the Polish nationalist parties. In the Soviet Union, repression was anti-Semitic, with four categories by which Jewish adult males, supposedly guilty of all the "offenses against public order," became the first and primary targets. Executions constantly increased in number through the first six weeks of the campaign. However, around the end of July 1941, the units started to kill women under the pretext that they belonged to the Communist Party or to other partisan groups. A key modification, in place by mid-August 1941, was that the groups started executing children. Finally, between the end of August and mid-October, all units were murdering whole communities. Over the course of several months the Einsatzgruppen had evolved into mobile killing units.

Unit members were for the most part low-ranking police functionaries supervised by SS officers of the Gestapo and of the SD. None who were sent to Russia had any experience in putting to death large numbers of human beings. Neither were they selected for murderous predisposition or anti-Semitic militancy. The various steps that led them to willingly commit genocide were preceded by an intense work of legitimation on the part of their superior officers. Speeches, "evenings of comradeship," and murderous acts by the officers themselves all aimed at persuading the men to execute what Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945) in a speech in Posen in 1943 called "the most horrible of all tasks."

Despite deeply internalized anti-Semitism and clear evidence of racial hatred revealed in recovered correspondence, and even in spite of mechanisms for habituating soldiers to murder—such as those Christopher R. Browning describes in Ordinary Men (1992)—extermination remained a transgressive act in the eyes of those who became mass murderers, a traumatic activity that created alcoholics and generated nervous breakdowns. Aware of these problems after invading the Soviet Union, unit leaders created strategies to reduce what the chief of Einsatzgruppe A called the "psychological tensions" induced in the executioners by the massacres. One such strategy, for example, was to mobilize local militias to murder children; they also pressured Gestapo headquarters in Berlin to provide mobile gassing units. Whether their thoughts and actions led to the procedures for mass extermination by gas is difficult to determine. In any event, genocide committed by men with machine guns, such as that carried out by the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union, was a system of extermination that wrought havoc with the executioners and was poorly adapted to many situations.

At the end of 1941 the units became sedentary, forming the security police (BdS) of the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union. Their genocidal activities did not stop, however, but continued until the summer of 1943, by which time virtually all communities of Russian Jews had been eradicated. Their activities henceforth consisted in fighting the thriving partisan movements, particularly in Byelorussia. There again, the executioners left a bloody imprint throughout the Soviet Union.

Together, the four units of the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union exterminated some 550,000 individuals, mainly Jews, between June and September 1941. Each member of each unit committed an average of one murder per day for six months. Overall, the Einsatzgruppen murdered between 850,000 and 1,000,000 victims, the vast majority Jewish. Their role in the deaths of the millions of Russian civilians who were victims of deliberate famine or of operations to eliminate partisan fighters is somewhat more difficult to evaluate.


Activities of the Einsatzgruppen units are well known thanks to daily reports submitted to Berlin, which the RSHA compiled and dispatched to a restricted list of recipients. Seized by the American forces at the end of the war, these compilations constituted the grounds of the indictment filed during the ninth Nuremberg trial, against the high-ranking leaders of the units arrested by the American army. General Otto Ohlendorf (1907–1951), chief of Einsatzgruppe D, which had operated in Crimea, was sentenced to death together with a dozen other defendants, although the American-run judiciary gave out reduced sentences for most others, except chiefs of the units and Paul Blobel (1894–1951), who was prominent in the Babi Yar massacre. Most of the others accused, although sentenced to long prison terms, were released after 1955.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Germany systematically pursued prosecution for crimes perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen, laying the groundwork for famous trials at Ulm and Darmstadt, in which severe sentences were meted out to high-ranking and other officers of the Einsatzgruppen. What appears to be the last known investigation ended with the condemnation in 1975 of Kurt Christmann, one of General Ohlendorf's adjuncts in the Crimean operation.

See alsoBabi Yar; Germany; Gestapo; Holocaust; Jews; Nazism; Occupation, Military; Operation Barbarossa; SS (Schutzstaffel); World War II.


Angrick, Andrej. Besatzungspolitik und Massenmord: Die Einsatzgruppe D in der südlichen Sowjetunion, 1941–1943. Hamburg, Germany, 2003.

Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York, 1992.

Headland, Ronald. Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941–1943. Rutherford, N.J., 1992.

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. Revised and definitive edition. 3 vols. New York, 1985.

Klein, Peter, and Andrej Angrick, eds. Die Einsatzgruppen in der besetzten Sowjetunion 1941/42: Die Tätigkeitsund Lageberichte des Chefs der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD. Berlin, 1997.

Krausnick, Helmut, and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm. Die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges: Die Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD, 1938–1942. Stuttgart, Germany, 1981.

Ogorreck, Ralf. Die Einsatzgruppen und die Genesis der "Endlösung." Berlin, 1996.

Wilhelm, Hans-Heinrich. Die Einsatzgruppe A der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD, 1941/42. Frankfurt, 1996.

Christian Ingrao