Einsatzgruppen (German: "task forces", "intervention groups") were paramilitary groups formed by Heinrich Himmler and operated by the Schutzstaffel (SS) before and during World War II. Their principal task, per SS General Erich von dem Bach, at the Nuremberg Trials: "was the annihilation of the Jews, Gypsies, and Soviet political commissars". They were a key component in Adolf Hitler's implementation of the final solution of the Jewish question (German: 'Die Endlösung der Judenfrage) in the conquered territories.

Formed mainly of men from the Ordnungspolizei, the Waffen-SS, and local volunteers, and led by Gestapo, Kripo, and SD officers, these death squads followed the Wehrmacht as it advanced eastwards into through Eastern Europe en route to the Soviet Union. In occupied territory, the Einsatzgruppen also used the local populace for additional security and manpower when needed. The activities of the Einsatzgruppen were spread through a large pool of soldiers from the branches of the SS and Reich.

Per their own records, the Einsatzgruppen killed more than one million Jews, almost all civilians, without judicial review and without semblance of legality (no reading of sentences, of martial or administrative law), beginning with the Polish intelligentsia, and then quickly progressing, by 1941, to primarily killing the Jews of Eastern Europe. Historian Raul Hilberg estimates that between 1941 and 1945 the Einsatzgruppen and the SS killed more than 1.3 million Jews in open-air shootings.


Einsatzgruppen can be traced back to the ad hoc Einsatzkommando formed by Reinhard Heydrich to secure government buildings and documents following the Anschluss in Austria in March 1938. The task of securing government buildings with their accompanying documentation and the questioning of senior civil servants in lands occupied by Germany was the Einsatzgruppen's original mission. In the summer of 1938, when Germany was preparing an invasion of Czechoslovakia scheduled for October 1 of that year, the Einsatzgruppen were founded. The intention was for Einsatzgruppen to travel in the wake of the German armies as they advanced into Czechoslovakia, and to secure government papers and offices. Unlike the Einsatzkommando, the Einsatzgruppen were to be armed and authorized to freely use lethal force to accomplish their mission. The Munich Agreement of 1938 prevented the war for which the Einsatzgruppen were originally founded, but as the Germans occupied the Sudetenland in the fall of 1938, the Einsatzgruppen moved into the region to occupy offices formally belonging to the Czechoslovak state. After the occupation of the rest of the Czech portion of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, the Einsatzgruppen were re-formed and again used to secure offices formerly belonging to the Czechoslovak government. The Einsatzgruppen were never a standing formation; rather they were ad hoc units recruited mostly from the ranks of the SS, the SD, and various German police forces such as the Ordnungspolizei, the Gendarmerie, the Kripo and the Gestapo. Once the military campaign had ended, the Einsatzgruppen units were disbanded, though generally the same personnel were recruited again if the need arose for the Einsatzgruppen units to be re-activated.

In May 1939, Adolf Hitler decided upon an invasion of Poland planned for August 25 of that year (later moved back to September 1). In response, Heydrich again re-formed the Einsatzgruppen to travel in the wake of the German armies. Unlike the earlier operations, Heydrich gave the Einsatzgruppen commanders carte blanche to kill anyone belonging to groups that the Germans considered hostile.

After the occupation of Poland in 1939, the Einsatzgruppen killed Poles belonging to the upper class and intelligentsia, such as priests and teachers The Nazis considered all Slavic people to be Untermenschen (subhuman), and wanted to use the Polish lower classes as servants and slaves. The mission of the Einsatzgruppen was therefore the forceful depoliticisation of the Polish people and the elimination of the groups most clearly identified with the Polish national identity. As stated by Hitler in his Armenian quote, units were sent: "...with orders for them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish race and language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need. "Whatever we find in the shape of an upper class in Poland will be liquidated," Hitler had ordered.

Following the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France in May 1940, the Einsatzgruppen once again travelled in the wake of the Wehrmacht, but unlike their operations in Poland, the Einsatzgruppen operations in Western Europe in 1940 were within the original mandate of securing government offices and papers. Had Operation Sealion, the German plan for an invasion of the United Kingdom, been launched, six Einsatzgruppen were scheduled to follow the invasion force to Britain. The Einsatzgruppen intended for "Sealion" were provided with a list (known as The Black Book after the war) of 2,820 people to be arrested immediately.

After the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Einsatzgruppen's main assignment was to kill Communist officers and Jews on a much larger scale than in Poland. These Einsatzgruppen were under the control of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) (Reich Security Main Office); i.e., under Reinhard Heydrich and his successor Ernst Kaltenbrunner. The original mandate set by Heydrich for the four Einsatzgruppen sent into the Soviet Union as part of Operation Barbarossa was to secure the offices and papers of the Soviet state and Communist Party; to liquidate all of the higher cadres of the Soviet state; and to instigate and encourage pogroms against all local Jewish populations. The orders that Heydrich drafted on July 2, 1941 stated that the Einsatzgruppen were to execute all Soviet officials of higher and medium rank; members of the Comintern; "extremist" Communist Party members; members of the central, provincial and district committees of the Communist Party; Red Army commissars; and all Communist Party members of Jewish origin. In regards to Jewish populations in general, "No steps will be taken to interfere with any purges that may be initiated by anti-Communist or anti-Jewish elements in the newly occupied territories. On the contrary, these are to be secretly encouraged.

As the Einsatzgruppen advanced into the Soviet Union, after July 1941, the Einsatzgruppen increasingly engaged in the mass murders of the local Jews themselves rather than encouraging pogroms. Initially, the Einsatzgruppen generally limited themselves to shooting Jewish men; but as the summer wore on, increasingly all Jews were shot, regardless of age or sex. The most murderous of the four Einsatzgruppen was Einsatzgruppe A, which operated in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formerly occupied by the Soviets. Einsatzgruppe A was the first Einsatzgruppe that attempted to systematically exterminate all Jews in its area. After December 1941, the other three Einsatzgruppen began what Raul Hilberg has called the "second sweep", which lasted into the summer of 1942, where they attempted to emulate Einsatzgruppe A by likewise systematically killing all Jews in their areas.

They murdered more than 1.5 million Jews, Communists, prisoners of war, and Roma (Gypsies) in total. They also assisted Wehrmacht units and local anti-Semites in killing half a million more. They were mobile forces in the beginning of the invasion, but settled down after the occupation. In addition, the Einsatzgruppen were often used to carry out anti-partisan operations in the occupied regions of the Soviet Union.

The Holocaust

After time, it was found that the killing methods used by the Einsatzgruppen were inefficient: they were costly, demoralizing for the troops, and sometimes did not kill the victims quickly enough. At the Wannsee Conference, SS and various other officials met to find a more efficient way of killing their victims; this ultimately led to the establishment of gas-chamber containing Vernichtungslagern or extermination camps. Under this and other plans, an estimated six million Jews and five million non-Jews would ultimately lose their lives.

Method of killing

The Einsatzgruppen typically followed close behind Wehrmacht army formations, marching into cities and towns where large numbers of Jews were known to live. Once they entered a town, they issued orders requiring Jews and non-Jewish communists to assemble for deportation out of town. Those who refused to comply were hunted down ruthlessly. The process was as follows: The Einsatzgruppen's Sonderkommando units (though not to be confused with Jewish gravediggers in the camps) were sent with the advancing military units to coordinate the executions, to concentrate the "hostile" population, and to recruit local assistants (Mannschaft, either "Junaks" (Lithuanian former convicts) or Gendarmes (Ukrainian policemen); then came the Einsatzkommando to execute the Jews and communists. The killings followed several methods and patterns:

  • In conquered urban areas of eastern Europe, many Jews would be killed in nearby locations such as woods or inside buildings. The remaining Jews would be confined to ghettos. Death rates from disease and malnourishment were high; groups from the ghetto were periodically taken away and shot or deported to extermination camps. An example of this is the Lithuanian city of Kaunas; the Jews of Kaunas were concentrated in a ghetto and sent, thousands at a time, to be slaughtered in the 7th and 9th forts (watch towers) of Kaunas.
  • In small rural areas, or in battle zones, the Jews were quickly led to their deaths in nearby woods and mass graves, which were often dug by the victims. An example of such a case is the town of Dovno in Ukraine.
  • In big cities, mainly in the battle zones, the Nazis would create a small local committee of 8 to 12 important Jews, known as the Judenrat, who would be required to summon the local Jews for "relocation". The Jews (including the Judenrat delegates) would then be marched to previously prepared trenches or natural pits and shot. Examples are the massacre at Babi Yar and the Ponary massacre.
  • Alternatives to execution by firearms existed. The gas trucks used by Einsatzgruppe D and Einsatzkommando Kulmhof in the death camp Chelmno are an example. Another, occasionally used in smaller towns, was to lock the Jews in abandoned buildings, which were then set alight or blown up, though this was rather rare.

Those who were gathered would then be sent to designated sites outside the cities and towns. Usually these massacre sites were graves dug in advance, shallow pits, or deep ravines (including one at Babi Yar, just outside Kiev), where executioners were already waiting with orders to kill them with machine guns or pistol shots to the head. The killers would also seize the clothing and other belongings of the victims, and some victims were forced to strip naked just before their execution. Once dead, the victims would be buried with hand shovels or bulldozers. Some victims were only injured, not killed, and were buried alive. A few managed to climb out of the grave and recount this. (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust)

The Einsatzgruppen were assisted by other Axis forces, including designated members of the Wehrmacht, including generals Walther von Reichenau and Erich von Manstein, and the Waffen SS. In the Baltics and Ukraine, they also recruited local collaborators - hiwis to assist in the killing.

The Jäger Report

The Einsatzgruppen kept track of many of their massacres, and one of the most infamous of these official records is the Jäger Report, covering the operation of Einsatzkommando 3 over five months in Lithuania. Written by the commander of Einsatzkommando 3, Karl Jäger, it includes a detailed list summarizing each massacre, totaling 137,346 victims, and states "…I can confirm today that Einsatzkommando 3 has achieved the goal of solving the Jewish problem in Lithuania. There are no more Jews in Lithuania, apart from working Jews and their families." Jäger escaped capture by the Allies when the war ended, assumed a false identity, and was able to assimilate back into society as an agriculturist until his report was discovered in March 1959. Arrested and charged with his crimes, Jäger committed suicide in prison in Hohenasperg while he was awaiting trial in June 1959.

Planned Holocaust for Jews living in the British Mandate of Palestine

A 2006 study by the German historians Klaus-Michael Mallman and Martin Cueppers says that an Einsatzgruppe was created in 1942 to kill Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. “Einsatzgruppe Egypt” was standing by in Athens, Greece and was prepared to go with General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps to Palestine, once German forces arrived there to kill the roughly half a million Jews in the Mandate. The mobile killing unit was to be led by SS Obersturmbannfuehrer Walter Rauff. The plan was for the 24 members of the death squad to enlist collaborators from the local Arab population so that the “mass murder would continue under German leadership without interruption.”

The group never left Greece, however, because Rommel’s force was defeated at Battle of El Alamein by the allied forces; otherwise, the history of the Middle East might have been different.

After the war

The ultimate authority for the Einsatzgruppen, which answered directly to Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler, were the SS and Police Leaders who oversaw all Einsatzgruppen activities and reports in their given area. At the close of World War II, the majority of SS and Police Leaders who had overseen activities in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union simply disappeared, were executed for war crimes, or committed suicide prior to their capture. As for the lower ranking members, a large number of them were killed in combat, were captured in combat and executed (on the Eastern Front) or were imprisoned and died in Russian camps. The lesser ranking members who returned to Germany or to other countries were not formally charged (due to their large numbers ) and simply returned to civilian life.

At the conclusion of World War II, senior leaders of the Einsatzgruppen were put before United States occupation courts, variously charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and membership in the SS (which had been declared a criminal organization), in what became known as the Einsatzgruppen Trial of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. Fourteen death sentences and five life sentences were among the judgments, although only four executions were carried out on June 7 1951, and the rest of these sentences were commuted.

Organization (1941)

Einsatzgruppe Leader Subgroups
Einsatzgruppe A for the Baltic Republics SS-Brigadeführer Dr.Franz Walter Stahlecker (until March 23 1942) Sonderkommandos 1 a and 1 b (German for special forces, not to be confused with the Sonderkommandos in the concentration camps) Einsatzkommandos 2 and 3. Attached to Army Group North.
Einsatzgruppe B for Belarus SS-Brigadeführer Artur Nebe (until October 1941) Sonderkommandos 7 a and 7 b, the Einsatzkommandos 8 and 9, and also a "special force" under Dr. Franz Six in case Moscow was captured. Attached to Army Group Center.
Einsatzgruppe C for the Northern and central Ukraine SS-Gruppenführer Dr. Otto Rasch (until October 1941) Sonderkommandos 4 a and 4 b and (Sonderkommando 4 A commanded by Paul Blobel) Einsatzkommandos 5 and 6. Attached to Army Group South.
Einsatzgruppe D for Bessarabia, the Southern Ukraine, the Crimea and (eventually) the Caucasus SS-Gruppenführer Prof. Otto Ohlendorf (until June 1942) Sonderkommandos 10 a and 10 b and Einsatzkommandos 11 a, 11 b and 12. Both attached to Army Group South.
Einsatzgruppe {?} for the United Kingdom SS-Standartenführer Dr.Franz Six Six Einsatzgruppen located in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and either Edinburgh or Glasgow. These death squads would be charged with the elimination of civilian resistance members and Jews all over the United Kingdom.
Einsatzgruppe {?} for the Middle East ''Einsatzkommando Ägypten-planned for Jews resident in the Middle East-including Palestine).

See also



  • The Origins of the Final Solution, Christopher Browning, 2004
  • Masters of Death, Richard Rhodes, 2002.
  • The Nazis: A Warning From History by Laurence Rees, foreword by Sir Ian Kershaw, New York: New Press, 1997 ISBN 1-56584-551-X

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