When you go rooting around in the scumbag files, WWII Nazi Germany is fertile ground. Therefore, to achieve historical notice as one of the most loathsome officers to serve the Third Reich, that person must be abnormally messed up. While he lacked the level of authority to match crime for crime with the likes of Adolf Eichmann, or Rudolf Höss, Dirlewanger was a war criminal of a different sort. He commanded an anti-partisan unit held in low esteem by many even in the Waffen-SS: what began as SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger, and ended as the 36th Waffen-Grenadier Division-SS “Dirlewanger,” carrying out his own personal Holocaust in command of some of the worst cutthroats ever to wear the uniform of any German army in history.
At least on paper, the Waffen-SS eventually fielded thirty-eight divisions. Some were elite, some were failures. Some have no record of atrocities; some existed only to commit atrocities. Many weren’t even German. But of them all, what became the 36th Division has few rivals for the title of worst of the worst.
The histories of Dirlewanger himself and his signature military unit are not quite the same, and this is about the man, so let us dispose of the Dirlewanger Brigade and its successors. Nazi Germany had a partisan problem in its occupied Soviet and Polish territory. Simply put, the locals had decided against accepting consignment to the status of ‘Slavic subhumans,’ and were resenting this designation in arms. The Nazis, always eager to wring maximum value from human resources, had decided to release enough convicted poachers to form a military unit. It soon expanded to incorporate SS men convicted of crimes not quite vile enough to warrant the gallows.
The Dirlewanger Brigade soon became the Waffen-SS penal unit. It made the French Foreign Legion look like a Mormon Boy Scout troop. In time, a fair number of recruits came from concentration camps. The unit spent much of the war hunting partisans and committing atrocities in eastern Europe. In May 1945, a flood of Soviet flame and steel wiped out Dirlewanger’s unit.
Thanks, Premier Stalin. That nullifies at least a small portion of the other things you did in life.
As for Dirlewanger, one might best describe him as a harmonic convergence of awful. Born in 1895 in Würzburg, he served with distinction in World War I. Rising from the enlisted ranks to Leutnant, Dirlewanger suffered six battle wounds on the way to the Iron Cross 1st Class. That’s the only good part. By then, he was already an alcoholic, a predatory sexual brute with a taste for minors, and a sadist with a tendency to run amok. Even then, twenty-five years before his WWII infamy, one may very reasonably suppose that atrocities were done under his leadership.
War changes most who see it, and especially those who fight in it. In Dirlewanger’s case, war made a bad mind worse. He spent the 1920s and early 1930s fighting in nationalist/fascist militias while embezzling from his employer and, somehow, obtaining a Ph.D in political science. When a court convicted him in 1934 of raping a fourteen-year-old girl, the Nazi party kicked him out. He even spent time in a concentration camp. What saved him then, and would save him later, were connections. His old army buddy Gottlob Berger had since risen to high rank in the SS, and sprang Dirlewanger from confinement. Finding the Spanish Civil War most convenient, Dirlewanger volunteered for the Spanish Foreign Legion. When Germany intervened, Berger got Dirlewanger transferred to the ground component of the Condor Legion. Cowardice was never one of Dirlewanger’s many deficiencies. His performance in combat gave Berger the necessary ammunition to reinstate Dirlewanger in the Nazi party.
Then came the outbreak of war, and in 1940, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler assigned Dirlewanger to the battalion of paroled poachers that represented the beginnings of the Dirlewanger Brigade. What we learn from his conduct at the helm of this unit, or at least what I take away from it, is what can occur when a man with a perverted code of morality receives absolute power in a situation where nothing he can do in the enemy’s general direction will earn him reproof. Dirlewanger spent the remainder of the war leading the most loathsome unit in the German armed forces with ferocious bravery, and committing rape, arson, torture, and murder with equal ferocity.
There is no evidence Dirlewanger ever asked a trooper to do a thing Dirlewanger would not do himself. What would normally be a commendable military leadership virtue, in this case, becomes one of the few ways to make a bad record worse. As bad as some of the Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian SS police were–and if you do not know how bad, you have no idea how much currency Premier Putin’s accusations against modern Ukraine carry in the minds of those who know anything about eastern Europe–Dirlewanger’s polyglot force of condemned criminals, failed officers, and conscripted POWs was worse than any. The unit spent minimal time in frontline combat until very late in the war. It made war upon partisans and defenseless civilians in the occupied western USSR and Poland. All that they did, they did under the orders of SS-Obf. Oskar Dirlewanger.
After the German military collapsed, and his eponymous unit fell to broken bits, Dirlewanger tried to hide out. Acting on a tip, French occupation authorities detained him. Considering that the French knew exactly who they had, and considering that the detention camp had Polish guards, and considering that the French are not fundamentally naïve, I find it asking too much for us to believe that the French ever intended Dirlewanger to face a trial. While some of the details are murky and disputed, there seems no reasonable doubt that sometime around 5 June 1945, Polish guards beat Dirlewanger to death.
Naturally, it didn’t take long for rumors to begin that Dirlewanger had escaped beyond justice. A 1960 exhumation put those to rest in most evidence-oriented minds. Fifty-five years on, and seventy after his death, the modern mind often forgets Dirlewanger. At least, until one sees a photo of his gaunt, high-cheekboned face, with deep-socketed eyes that gaze out at the viewer to warn: if you’re soul-searching, don’t bother looking here. If you found one, you’d wish you hadn’t.
Every time someone does something truly awful–a school massacre, for example, or a day in the life of ISIS/ISIL–a number of wonderful, kind-hearted, truly decent folk will lament: “How can people DO that? WHY?” I understand that they do not understand. Their inability to see the world from the perspective of a Dirlewanger, or a Joseph Kony, or their like, is an enviable virtue. I hope they preserve it. One suspects that you rarely hear such a question from, for example, a Supermax guard, because they work in surroundings saturated by evil. As for me, I have never seen evil on that scale, but I’ve seen and felt enough of the real deal to answer the innocent lamentation. The answer’s simple:
“You wouldn’t understand. Rejoice in that. I wish I didn’t.”