Tag Archives: atrocities

Scumbag studies: Waffen-Brigadeführer der SS Bronislav Kaminski

When one sets out to find the worst unit attached to the Waffen-SS during World War II, it usually comes down to Dirlewanger’s or Kaminski’s. As evil as were the units that culminated in the 36th Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS “Dirlewanger,” there were at least moments where portions of those units delivered some credible military competency.

Not so the Kaminski Brigade, a.k.a. SS-Sturmbrigade RONA (stood for Russian National Liberation Army in Latin-transliterated Russian; in Cyrillic it looked like POHA). It had little function but atrocity, few tactics save thievery and murder, no use but evil. In that, it was a reflection of its founder.

Of Polish and German descent, Kaminski had done time in the USSR’s infamous gulags during Stalin’s paranoid 1930s. Seems he had been a vocal critic of farm collectivization, which–fair’s fair–was a disastrous policy. In this case, Stalin made an enemy that would have terrible consequences for his own people; not that Stalin was notorious for empathy. When the German Army took over the Bryansk area where Kaminski lived, he signed up with the local German collaborationist anti-partisan unit. When partisans killed its commander, Kaminski stepped in.

Soon Kaminski’s force was keeping the Bryansk region relatively clear of partisan attacks, and the occupiers took notice. By mid-1943 he commanded a brigade known to his overlords as the Kaminski Brigade, but titled by him the Russian Army of National Liberation. At about that time, the Germans begin to sick their collaborating attack dogs on partisans in and around the region. The tactics were brutal and the troops undisciplined. SS-Sturmbrigade RONA, as it became known, killed tens of thousands of its own countrypeople, exceeding even the considerable ruthlessness of partisan reprisals against collaborators.

Having lost its locality to the Soviet advance, the SS-Sturmbrigade RONA fell back toward Poland. Whatever else may have been true of Kaminski, he wasn’t suicidally stupid enough to stick around long enough to explain his recent past to the NKGB. By 1944 Kaminski held the rank of Waffen-Brigadeführer der SS, a rank held by no one else and equivalent to a brigadier general.

The German high command had two competitors for the mantle of chief Russian collaborator: General Vlasov, who had defected in captivity, and Kaminski. Hitler didn’t trust Vlasov even a little bit, probably because Vlasov seemed intelligent and rational enough to develop a significant military force if permitted. Kaminski was a thug leading thugs, and useful enough from a Nazi standpoint in that limited context. It was not reasonable to suppose Kaminski might ever raise and lead a force large enough to give the Nazi regime trouble.

Before it was all over, Kaminski’s men perpetrated one last atrocity. In July 1944, the Polish Home Army (underground) used its long-husbanded weapons to revolt against Nazi occupation and take back Warsaw. The logic was that the Soviet Army would press forward to liberate the city. Nothing doing; Stalin was delighted to let the Nazis kill off tens of thousands of potential nationalist rebels, and if that meant the deaths of over a hundred thousand civilians along with the flattening of their city, to Stalin that was no great loss. A rogues’ gallery of SS and anti-partisan units moved to crush the rising, including a detachment from Kaminski’s RONA, which was in the process of being raised to SS divisional status.

The surface version of what happened was that Kaminski’s men exceeded even Nazi boundaries for atrocity. While this was true–they cut a swath of indiscriminate rape, arson, torture, and murder through any area they visited–there’s no good reason to believe that his fall came as a result of Himmler clutching his pearls. Another story was that Kaminski’s troops mistakenly killed a couple of German girls; probably true, but unlikely to result in his downfall. Yet another goes that he was accused of disobedience and theft; again likely true but unlikely to lead to a wall. So why did the SS liquidate Kaminski?

It seems that by mid-1944, the Nazis were rethinking the value of Vlasov relative to Kaminski. To me it seems like a day late and a dollar short, with most former Soviet territory now in Soviet hands once again. Whatever the reason or reasons, on 19 August 1944 the local SS chief, von dem Bach-Zelewski, summoned Kaminski and his staff to a meeting. Some say that they were put on trial, then shot; others that the SS simply lined them up against a wall and shot them. Kaminski’s men were told that he had died in a Polish partisan attack.

However it happened, everyone at least agrees that this was the violent end of Waffen-Brigadeführer der SS Bronislav Kaminski. The Nazis sent his demoralized unit north to dig trenches, then assigned the remainder to Vlasov’s command. One supposes that they tried very hard not to surrender to the Soviet Union. Of whatever RONA prisoners Soviet forces might have taken, one supposes they bad outcomes.

As bad as Dirlewanger was, one could make the argument that Kaminski was worse. Unfortunately, in this realm of scumbag studies, comparisons are elusive and creepy. Which is worse, pulmonary anthrax or pneumonic plague? Most people would respond that neither one sounds very pleasant.

In fact, the Nazi regime spawned many little Kaminskis. Every ethnicity that had once felt like (and perhaps been in fact) an oppressed minority had its collaborators, and many were all too ready to vent their rage as tools of the occupation regime. Some became more infamous than others. In fact, if all the truth were known, one could probably write a book just detailing all the deeds of Nazi collaborators.

A complete reference would be elusive, but any such book would be an incomplete joke without a section on Kaminski. He was one of the very worst.

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SS: Roll of Infamy by Christopher Ailsby

I’ve had this encylopedic/coffee table book for a while. The subject alternately interests and repels me.

Some people may need some background. In Nazi Germany, the Schutzstaffel–the dreaded SS, emblemized by the twin S-runes that looked like lightning bolts–was nothing less than a state within the state. The Waffen-SS, or armed SS, was the military formation. Its units ranged from ferociously brave and competent to mutinous and cowardly, and from decently fierce to culpability in some of the most loathsome atrocities of the modern era. Quite a few were hanged or shot after the war, the vast majority of whom had it coming. What is less known about them can be summarized neatly:

  1. The SS was much more than an armed force. It was an industrial conglomerate, which one might also call a greed machine. It generated many billions of fiat money Reichsmarks that would become worthless upon the defeat of Nazi Germany, whose war lasted about as long as it takes most people to get a BA and MA. And yes, a great percentage of that wealth was gotten from means such as slave labor, robbing the murdered, blackmail, ransom and so on.
  2. For all its Teutonocentrism, it found excuses to include a lot of non-Germans and even non-Aryans. There was a British Free Corps, the only SS unit with a cuffband in English. It had a Turkestani unit. There were whole divisions of Bosnians, Croatians, Galicians, Latvians, Estonians, Frenchmen, Russians and more. Performance varied from valiant to awful, from honorable to the very worst of the German military (and in World War II, that worst was the type of thing decent people have a hard time imagining). You had the 9th SS Panzer Division “Hohenstaufen,” for example, a capable formation not implicated in any atrocities. At the other end, units as despicable as what became the 36th SS-Waffen-Grenadier Division “Dirlewanger,” the SS penal unit commanded by an alcoholic child rapist and guilty in numerous appalling deeds.
  3. The SS were not the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), although the SS-SD intelligence service was surely as terrifying as the Gestapo. This confusion is common.

Ailsby treats noteworthy SS personalities in encyclopedic format, which makes lookups easy. In many cases he has located worthwhile minutiae, such as most entries’ Party and SS numbers (it was hardly rare for an SS soldier to be a member of the Nazi party), and for winners of very selective decorations, the number of the award. What I don’t grasp is the number of entries for highly decorated individuals implicated in no vile deeds. The author can’t cheat with his title. An SS corporal who died earning the Knight’s Cross, for example, was indeed part of a force that has earned infamy for may good reasons, but that’s not enough reason to list him in a book whose title suggests that it’s full of cutthroats. Odilo Globocnik, Alfred Naujocks and Joachim Peiper belong here, among quite a few others. A few highly decorated enlisted men with no record of atrocities really do not.

I also find some of his research sloppy, seemingly hasty. There are a few SS personalities I have researched as extensively as my resources would allow, and I used them somewhat as benchmarks. Terms are misspelled; details are at times glossed or inaccurate. I don’t lack empathy for the effort involved in the book, and the shortcuts it might require. Shortcuts will mean missed details, errors and such; I have made some myself in my own historical writing, not that I pardon myself for them. I see this book as someone who might have written it: hundreds of individuals to include, with a limited amount of time to spend on each, and without the resources to do academic-quality work.

That, friends, is the reality of historical writing. Academic-grade work involves the kind of research that the book’s proceeds cannot possibly recoup, and that’s why the books cost a lot, and why they are credible as sources. Mass-market-grade work is profitable, but will vary in quality. In the historical writing I have done, I’ve prided myself on coming within perhaps 90% of the credibility of academic grade, without the travel costs and months of focus needed for the latter. But I’m no expert on WWII, and to write the book, Ailsby must fundamentally purport to be such. If he is, it follows that I should not catch him in many, if any mistakes. I do. That leaves me no choice but to find this fault.

In the end, Ailsby has produced an okay book, but no better, even allowing for the research practicalities. He has collected a fair bit of good information, gotten some wrong, and misnamed the book with a misleadingly lurid title.