Photo Credit: pixabay

*Editor’s Note: Part IV in a new series on the Holocaust from Alex Grobman, PhD 

Who were the men who commanded the Einsatzgruppen? 


In selecting men to command the Einsatzgruppen, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS, and Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office [RSHA], sought men who could function on their own. They were to be the leaders on the scene, “who made life-death decisions far removed from the central [RSHA] office in Berlin.”  Heydrich had explicitly allowed the local Einsatzkommando leaders to determine whom to execute…even under conditions that might be difficult to determine completely and precisely beforehand.” [1]  

In Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Crimea, the German legal code and the handbook for German Administrative officials “were not valid.” There were no legal, bureaucratic, administrative, or other obstacles and limitations to impede their mission to annihilate the Jews and other perceived enemies of the Third Reich.[2] 

In March 1941, Hitler informed Himmler of his orders concerning “Special Tasks Commissioned by the Führer.” This constituted the political basis for the Einsatzgruppen to operate with vast executive powers and with the “greatest possible degree of freedom” in dealing with the Wehrmacht. The SS and the police were to conclude entirely on their own who was part of the “Judeo-Bolshevist” intelligentsia and not part of the military. [3]   

The leadership of the Einsatzgruppen were born between 1900 and 1910. During the war, they were in their 30s or early 40s. Before beginning their careers in the Security Services (SD), Nazi Party intelligence service and police, they worked in medicine, theology, economics, education, business, law and architecture. Members of the Einsatzgruppen were recruited from the Security Police, the SD, the Gestapo, the Criminal police (Kripo), the uniformed police or Order Police (Ordnungspolizei), the Waffen SS and conscripts unfit for front-line duty. [4]  

Those who commanded the Einsatzgruppen and the leaders of the Kommandos had one thing in common: most had enlisted in the SS, the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi Party’s initial paramilitary wing, or the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) at the earliest opportunity they could, reflecting the high regard the Nazis were held among students of the Weimar Republic. Most later joined the Ministry of the Interior to become public servants. From the ministry, they were randomly selected to be posted in the East. In Germany, not only lawyers, prosecutors and judges hold doctoral degrees in law. The more aspiring public servants earned them as well. [5]  

Commanders of the Einsatzgruppe A, B,C, and D 

Einsatzgruppe A  In June 1941, after being promoted to the position of SS-Brigadeführer and Major-General of Police, Dr. Franz Walter Stahlecker, a lawyer, was appointed commander of Einsatzgruppe A. It was attached to Army Group North, which operated from the Baltic States to the Leningrad area. It had approximately 1,000 men. [6]  

Stahlecker was an adversary of Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) and had been reassigned to the Foreign Ministry. By commanding an Einsatzgruppe, he had hoped to be able to return to the RSHA in Berlin. [7] On March 23, 1942, he died after succumbing to his wound inflicted by Soviet partisans. [8]  

Einsatzgruppe B commanded by Arthur Nebe (chief of Kripo, the criminal police) and later head of a division in the RSHA. He was attached to Army Group Center, which operated between Belorussia and Moscow. It had 655 men dispersed throughout White Russia and beyond– all the way to Moscow. 

Historian Christopher Browning  noted that in a report probably sent many days before July 31, 1941, Nebe reported that in the Belorussian area there were one and a half million Jews. He questioned how 3,000 members of the Einsatgruppen could possibly annihilate all of Russian Jewry. By the end of July, Heinrich Himmler addressed the question by vastly increasing manpower in order to initiate murder on a massive scale. [9]  

Liberman von Sonnenberg, a Criminal Police Commissioner, prophesied that “Either he [Nebe] will become a great man one day or hanged.” Nebe was involved in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and was hung on March 2, 1945 for being a member of the resistance. In late 1941, while still commanding an Einsatzgruppe, he saw no escaping from the Nazi government  “and his own guilt other than” murdering Hitler. [10]  

Nebe was discharged in October 1941 and replaced by SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Polizei Maximillian Thomas, PhD, who had received special training in psychiatry after going on leave. [11] 

Einsatzgruppe C commanded by SS General Dr. Otto Emil Rasch, who had two PhD’s–one in law and the other in political economy. He was attached to Army Group Center in northern and central Ukraine with 750 men. He had hoped that after commanding an Einsatzgruppe, he would receive a senior position in the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service, SD) in Berlin. After the war, he was charged with war crimes, but in 1948 the case was stopped because of his Parkinson’s disease. He died in prison in 1948. [12]   

Babi Yar 

Under Rasch and Sonderkommando commanding officer Paul Blobel, Einsatzgruppe C carried out the massacre at Babi Yar. More than 100,000 were murdered, including 33,771 Jews, on September 29-30, 1941, with the assistance of local Ukrainian collaborators. German troops reached Kiev on September 19, 1941 along with Sonderkommando 4A, the advance unit of Einsatzgruppe C. By September 25, all of Einsatzgruppe C had arrived in Kiev. They immediately enlisted a group of informers from Kiev’s ethnic Germans and established a militia that included Ukrainians, who had hailed the Germans as liberators. [13] 

According to Yad Vashem, approximately 2,000 people took part in this mass murder, most of whom were Germans between the ages of 20 and 60.  Ukrainian auxiliary assisted the Germans. “A great many” Ukrainian civilians “informed on Jews who were in hiding.” So many Jews were discovered that “due to lack of manpower[the Germans] couldn’t deal with them all.” 

“The murderers were educated people – professionals, teachers, engineers, salesmen and drivers.” Some were married, while others married during the war. [14]  

Father Patrick Desbois, who documented the murder of 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine during World War II, explained: “Firing squads [were] working in shifts throughout the day, from morning until 5 P.M., and in the evening there were drinking parties, including women, whose role was to make the murderers forget what had happened.” Apparently, the murderers were sent to “relax” in a spa town before resuming the massacres. [15]  

The Germans wrote about their experiences to their families back home. When Kurt Werner, a member of Sonderkommando 4a, arrived at the execution area, he and other men were dispatched to the ravine, which was 10 meters deep, approximately 400 meters long, around 80 meters wide across the top and roughly 10 meters at the bottom. [16]  

Werner spent the entire morning in the ravine, during which he “had to shoot continuously.” After loading sub-machine gun magazines with ammunition, he and other soldiers led the Jews to the ravine, all while other men were shooting down at them. At 5 or 6 pm, the Einsatzgruppe were finished for the day, and were transported to their quarters and given schnapps. [17]  

Anton Heidborn, another member of Sonderkommando 4a, reported that Ukrainians were used to cover up the dead bodies. The next few days were devoted to flattening the millions of banknotes belonging to the Jews, before they were taken to an unknown destination. [18]  

Fritz Höfer, a truck driver for Sonderkommando 4a, was instructed to collect piles of clothing of Jewish men, women and children discarded before they were led naked to the ravine. Ukrainians told them where to place their luggage, coats, shoes, jackets, underwear and valuables in separate designated areas. “I don’t think it was even a minute from the time each Jew took off his coat before he was standing naked,” Höfer said. [19]  

When they descended to the bottom of the ravine, they were forced to lie down on top of the Jews who were already shot and dead. There were only two marksmen involved in the executions, each one at different ends of the ravine. As soon as one Jew was shot, the marksman “would walk across the bodies of the executed Jew to the next Jew…. It went on this way uninterruptedly….”    

Höfer was “so shocked by the terrible sight,” he “could not bear to look for long.” He was unable to determine how many layers of bodies there were beyond the three he saw covering about 60 meters. “I was so astonished and dazed,” he said, “by the sight of the twitching of the blood-smeared bodies that I could not properly register the details.”[20]  

Significance of Babi Yar 

Although Babi Yar was “not the largest Holocaust era mass-murder site on Soviet soil,” it was important for two reasons historian Shay Pilnik points out. Kiev, the capital of the Soviet Ukrainian Republic, with a Jewish population of 160,000, was “the hub for Jewish culture,” and the first European capital to become Judenrein (free of Jews)during the Holocaust.  

Pilnik quotes historian Lucy Dawidowicz, who remarked that the “unprecedented” pace at which the killing occurred is the second reason for Babi Yar’s significance. The numbers established “a record in the annals of mass murder,” she said. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the total capacity of the four gas chambers and crematoria was a maximum of 6,0000 a day. For his outstanding effort, Paul Blobel received an Iron Cross from Hitler. By November 3, 1941, 75,000 Jews had been killed, but the commandant of Einsatzgruppe C whined that the Jewish problem had yet to be “solved.” [21]  

Participating in Shootings 

Otto Rasch insisted every man in his unit had to participate in the executions as part of its “collective guilt,” according to German historian Heinz Höhne. Witnessing ghastly scenes together formed a bond that kept the unit together Rasch believed. “Collective blood guilt was to be its cement.” An eyewitness reported that in Einsatzgruppe C, practically everyone experienced “the most horrible dreams.” Nonetheless, the goal had been accomplished—’the camaraderie of guilt.’” [22]  “Collective  blood guilt,” the idea that bloodshed united warriors together and bound them undyingly to their leader, influenced Hitler after about the influence of Genghis Kahn. Hitler coined the phrase “blood cement.” [23]  

Einsatzgruppe D In June 1941, Professor Otto Ohlendorf, a student of sociology, and head of Amt lll of the Reich Main Security Office, was appointed commander of Einsatzgruppe D attached to the 11th Army assigned to southern Ukraine, Crimea, and Ciscaucasia. It had about 600 men. His official title was “Commissioner of the Chief of the Security Police and the SD attached to the 11th Army.”[24]  

He was “a fastidious creature,” considered by many National Socialist Party members to be a “typical of neurotic sharp-tongued intellectual know it all.” [25] Between June 1941 to June 1942, he oversaw the murder of 90,000  men, women and children, most of whom were Jews. He testified that he was “present at two mass executions for purposes of inspection.” [26]  

He was “anything but a sadist and was otherwise known as a decent man, even as an idealist within the Nazi movement,” asserted historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Yet he viewed the Jews as the devil, and seriously asked: “What else could we have done?” Ohlendorf, like his fellow perpetrators, were convinced the Jews had left the Germans no other option. [27] 

After June 1942, he was replaced by SS Colonel Walther Bierkamp. Ohlendorf returned home a decorated war hero. In November 1944, he was promoted to Lieutenant General (Gruppenführer). [28]  

His career continued to thrive until he surrendered to the British on May 23, 1945. He testified at the Trial of the Major War Criminals. Telford Taylor, the Counsel for the Prosecution, remarked that Ohlendorf’s testimony was “in his mind not a confession but an avowal.” [29]  

Tania Long, a New York Times war correspondent, reported that Ohlendorf described “unemotionally and apparently without shame or regret, that his group” had used “gas and machine guns, to kill the Jews.” His soldiers, he said, “preferred shooting their victims because it entailed less ‘spiritual strain’ on the executioners.” [30]  

Long noted that when Ohlendorf “confessed” to murdering 90,000 people, he spoke “in a matter-of fact tone, admitting each mass killing as calmly as if  the victims had been cattle or sheep.” He looked “like a somewhat humorless salesman one might meet anywhere.” [31]  

He was sentenced to death on April 7, 1951, and hanged in Landsberg prison on June 8, 1951. Einsatzgruppen commander Paul Blobel was hung at the same time. Although Ohlendorf was given military rank and commendation, he was tried as a civilian. [32]  


[1] Michael Wildt, Search & Research, Lectures and Papers 3: Generation of the Unbound: The Leadership Corps of the Reich Security Main Office (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2002), 24- 25. 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Ibid. 23. 

[4] Ronald Headland, Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943 (Teaneck, New Jersey:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992),37.  

[5] Benno Müller-Hill, “The Idea of the Final Solution and the Role of the Experts,” in The Final Solution Origins and Implementation David Cesarani, Ed (New York: Routledge 1994),63. 

[6] Headland, op.cit.152-154. 



[9] Christopher R. Browning, “Hitler and the Euphoria of Victory: The path to the Final Solution,” in David Cesarani, Ed. The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation (New York: Routledge, 1994), 139-140. 

[10] Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker &Warburg, 1970), 87-88, 179, 510-512, 518. 

[11] Benno Müller-Hill, op.cit.68. 

[12] Headland op.cit. 209; Benno Müller-Hill, op.cit.63, 65,141; Höhne, op.cit. 358, 363; 

[13] Lucy Dawidowicz, “Babi Yar’s Legacy,” The New York Times Magazine, September, 27, 1981. 

[14] Ofer Aderet, “’I Shot Hundreds of Jews That Day’: Babi Yar Perpetrators’ Testimonies Revealed,” Haaretz (October 6, 2021). 

[15] Ibid. 

[16] Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Riess Eds., The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 66-67. 

[17] Ibid.66-67. 

[18] Ibid. 67-68. 

[19] Ibid. 64-65. 

[20] Ibid. 65. 

[21] Shay Arie Pilnik, “The Representation of Babi Yar in Soviet Russian and Yiddish Literature,” PhD dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary (2013). A special thanks to Dr. Pilnik, director of the Emil and Jenny A. Fish Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center at Yeshiva University, for sharing his extremely outstanding work with me; Lucy Dawidowicz, “Babi Yar’s Legacy,” op.cit. 

[22] Höhne, op.cit. 366-367.  

[23] Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991),42-43; Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine ( Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press,2005), 84; Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, Abraham Margaliot, eds., Documents on the Holocaust: Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union (Jerusalem Yad Vashem,1981), 416; Father Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008),195-197. 

[24] Jennifer B. Capani, “An ‘Alter Kampfer’ at the Forefront of the Holocaust: Otto Ohlendorf Between Careerism and Nazi Fundamentalism,” PhD dissertation St. John’s University(2018), 135, 139. 

[25] Höhne, op.cit.234-237,422-428. 

[26] “The Testimony of SS General Otto Ohlendorf, Einsatzgruppe D,” International Military Tribunal (January 3, 1946). 

[27] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996),34. 

[28] Ibid. 139; on the question of how many were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, see Headland, op.cit. 174-176. 

[29] Capani, op.cit.135, 139, 168; Höhne, op.cit. 356-357; Benno Müller-Hill, op.cit. 67; 

[30] Tania Long, “Mass-Killing Chief Describes His Task; Testifying at Nuremberg Yesterday,” The New York Times (January 4, 1946); Another time, he said the gas vans would create “an intolerable psychic burden” on his men.(Höhne, op.cit. 366.  

[31]  Long, op.cit; Headland, op.cit.212. 

[32] Capani, op.cit. i,147, 180, 195-200; Benjamin B. Ferencz, Less than Slaves (Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 1979), 31, 73-74. 




Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articlePA Officials Double Down on Ban to Sell Land to Jews
Next articleThe Modern Enslavement of The Black Community in America
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.