Review: Masters of Death. The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust – Richard Rhodes

Masters of Death Richard RhodesMy version: Paperback
Genre: Non Fiction Holocaust, Eastern Europe
Vintage Books
First published: 2002

From the cover:

In ‘Masters of Death,’ Rhodes gives full weight, for the first time, to the Einsatzgruppen’s roll in the Holocaust. These ‘Special Forces,’ organised by Heinrich Himmler to follow the German Army as it advanced into Eastern Poland and Russia, were the agents of the first phase of the Final Solution. They murdered more than 1.5 million men, women and children between 1941 and 1943, often by shooting them into killing pits, as at Babi Yar.

These massive crimes have been generally overlooked or under-estimated by Holocaust historians, who have focussed on the gas chambers. In this painstaking account, Pulitzer prize-winning author Richard Rhodes profiles the eastern campaigns architects as well as its ‘ordinary’ soldiers and policemen, and helps us understand how such men were conditioned to carry out mass murder. Marshalling a cast array of documents and the testimony of perpetrators and survivors, this book is an essential contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust and World War II.

I’ve seen Einsatzgruppen (‘Task force,”task forces,’ if you look at the Danish equivalent (as Danish is based on what is now German) you have ‘action group’ as well) mentioned many places – and I certainly had read snippets of their activities in many other books. This is the first longer history I’ve both seen and/or read of their setting up, their structure – though it became a free for all – their activities and their range.

But then, understanding. Why DO we feel the need to understand? We cannot, not if we’re what you and I would consider ‘normal.’ These people were not normal in any way, not just one way. They were not all set off by one thing, so we can now say “look, that’s what did it!” Just as then there isn’t one thing we can do – and relax… We can make sure it doesn’t happen again, by constantly working to remove as many of the prejudices against people we don’t even pretend to be able to understand, as possible. As the author suggests, the conditioning the German people, the boys especially, the youth, had in the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, enabled what happened later, by conditioning them to violence both towards themselves and as a solution for many of the problems they might face with/from others. As I have tried to think before, the Nazis created a system where if someone was this way inclined, then he/she could be like this – and there were no limits, because they didn’t want there to be any limits. To the hate. Once killing vast numbers of people you didn’t like and blamed for all your perceived troubles, became talked about openly – by peoiple you respected, or thought you SHOULD respect because they were in positions of authority and you were conditioned to accept that you respected people in positions of authority absolutely, because whiule you may not understand, they most surely did – then it became normal, your new normal. Then, it just became a problem to be solved, and in came the problem solvers – like Eichman.

Don’t get caught up thinking it was Hitler who got the ball rolling. The whole of Europe, well the ‘important,’ those who can do something about it, part anyway, thought Eugenics was the way to go. It was commonly accepted, unless of course, you were one of the commoners at the wrong end of the eugenic stick. People like Hitler, were conditioned to believe that sort of nonsense and (amongst other things) link it with hundreds, maybe even two thousand years of hatred for what the You Know Whos, did to You Know Who (except they probably didn’t, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere). My thought is that Hitler had the power to do what in another life he should have just been muttering about in beerhalls.

GoebbelsAfter Hitler said this kind of thing out loud, the men who would do anything or stop at nothing, to please him and lived for catching crumbs of praise from his high table, did all and more of what they could. The main architect, I get from Masters of Death, was Heinrich Luitpold Himmler. And he was (partly) using power as compensation for his own failings, disappointments, inadequacies. And because he could.

Göring, Himmler, Hitler
Göring, Himmler, Hitler[
But really, as we don’t live in those times now, and there are surely only a handful of people left alive who did, we can never fully enter their minds again and ‘understand’ what and why. I doubt really if even the perpetrators could tell you the why. I say why do we feel we need to know? As I’ve said before in other reviews and above, our times seem to be all about the smoking gun. The desire to say “ahhh! it was that that caused it! Phew, that’s that sorted, what’s next?” The reasons are so many and varied and refuse to be tied into neat little packages. It is surely enough to keep repeating what happened to each new generation and be there to stand up and be counted if it looks like it’s going that way again. Which it will, if it already isn’t.

It is, as the blurb up top says, not easy to track down books on this period. Apart from this book, there aren’t many I can find that are resonably priced and so aren’t (I’m thinking) niche, textbooks. Certainly nothing much that the interested, but not that interested reader could commonly be expected to get hold of.

What Richard Rhodes manages to do, is not to numb with statistics. There are a lot of names, places and horrendous numbers of people killed documented here. Especially as there are a lot of Polish and Russian names, it is difficult for an English-born speaker to not rush over the difficult, bad Scrabble-hand town names. But, and I have no explaination for how, Rhodes manages to give them all individual emphasis. Each documented incident strikes home. Eash perpetrator or groups of perpetrators is identifiable and clear in my mind as I read. And there were some real bastards on the German side. I’ve always had an inkling that the Ukrainians and Latvians in particular, enjoyed doing this sort of thing, but they are really nothing compared to some of the mentally disturbed, civilised Nazi good old boys. They make ISIS look like Catholic schoolgirls.

Babi Yar
Babi Yar

The Einsatzgruppen were the percusers of the Holocaust. As the blurb suggests and the book develops, they were sent in to ‘clear up’ after the Wehrmacht, then seemed to turn into being a kind of testing ground for ideas of how to ‘dispose’ of so many people as they found there that they didn’t like. How to kill them in the most efficient way? Because back in Berlin, they were worried what killing so many not fighting back people, was doing to previously ‘normal’ soldiers! Which meant that killing them individually – took too long, used too many bullets, not actually certain enough – or in groups – took too long, not certain enough, time consuming, difficult to keep the next group of people unaware of what they were in for, while killing the group before – wasn’t going to be efficient enough to work. And then there was Russia, once that had been conquered. Killing by carbon monoxide in specially constructed vehicles was tried, people came from other areas – the killing of mentally ill and hospital patients – to add their expertise and gradually form a way of killing that might work in larger, specially set up work- and dedicated death-camps was developed. The commander of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, was in on the later stages and developed on the ideas used in Eastern Europe, for when he was in charge of the camp.

Maybe the book will prove to be too much for a lot of people. But just the fact that it is uncomfortable reading, shouldn’t put you off reading it. Now you’ve heard of the book and what it covers, you owe it to the people who were killed and those who lived through horrors we can not even imagine, to read it.

You can buy Masters of Death. The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust from

Check out the special Pinterest board I’ve put together for the book. Pictures, places, people

2 thoughts on “Review: Masters of Death. The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust – Richard Rhodes

  1. Apparently, you are unschooled. The holocaust has been debunked since the fall of communism. The official yarn is a gross distortion and exaggeration.


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