Tag Archives: holocaust

Scumbag studies: SS-Oberführer Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger

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.

Merci. Dziękuję.

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.”

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Hitler’s Foreign Executioners, by Christopher Hale

I love history.

Because I love history, I like to see history books that take on difficult topics, expand understanding, challenge perceptions.

When someone picks up a history book, my respect for that person grows. However, I also feel a duty to help the history consumer who may look at a well-put-together book and take it all at face value.

And when the author of a history book botches up a number of details, that’s a problem.

This brings us to Hitler’s Foreign Executioners: Europe’s Dirty Secret, by Christopher Hale.

Hale, a documentary producer and journalist, sets forth to explain that the Holocaust was not merely a German production, but that soldiers and civilians from many European countries took active, willing, and destructive parts in it. He was motivated to do so by a ceremony honoring Latvian SS veterans as patriots, when in reality the Latvian SS were guilty of Holocaust atrocities and don’t deserve to be honored by anyone. I believe he is responding to the rising tide of far-right sentiment in Europe that keeps finding reasons why Jews are somehow bad, and why therefore, the Holocaust really wasn’t quite so bad.

He had a good idea there, because some people evidently need a reminder of just how widespread and awful the atrocities of WWII Europe were. I don’t; I know. I was interested in new evidence, research, and analysis to add to my store of understanding.

And he has screwed it up. It annoys me.

The problem is that he makes many factual errors. I don’t like factual errors. These are factual errors no academic historian worth even a bachelor’s degree would make, much less a professor of history.

He has ‘heavy’ Ju-52 ‘bombers’ pounding Yugoslavia, when in fact the Tante Ju was a transport. It was capable of bombardment, but the Luftwaffe had far better bombers (none truly heavy, by the way) and far too few Ju-52s. I’m pretty sure that the Ju-88s, Ju-87s, Do-17s and He-111s, all main Luftwaffe bombers, did the bulk of it. Hale doesn’t even know which bombers were which.

He has Nazi Germany ‘seizing’ the Ploesti oilfields in Romania. This is false. Romania joined the Axis in late 1940, and Hitler had no need to seize anything. Romanian oil in large part fueled the Nazi war effort, supplied without qualms. Hale evidently doesn’t realize that Romania joined the Axis of its own free will, which overlooks a fact that would help his case.

He describes the June 1941 Iași (Romania) pogrom as the first large-scale pogrom of the war. This is ridiculous. To think it not ridiculous, one must decide that Kristallnacht (1938) was somehow not a pogrom. There had already been quite a few pogroms, which is not to minimize Iași, simply to point out that Hale’s wording is recklessly imprecise.

He believes that the Yugoslav Army, crushed by the Germans and Italians in April 1941, fielded only five divisions. That’s ridiculous. It had over thirty divisions, and while much of it was low in training or morale, to suggest that it was half the size of the Dutch Army Hitler overran (ten divisions) in May 1940 is silliness. Hale does not seem to know anything about the orders of battle for the conflict.

And that’s all by page 87 of a 400-page book.

Ah, one might rejoin, but aren’t those all just minor details that do not detract from his primary point? Yes and no, in that his primary point happens to be well supported by evidence whether or not he supplies it correctly. Here’s the problem with a journalist who doesn’t know or understand the minor details. While I give Hale credit for providing lengthy footnotes and sources, I do not want to have to check them all. When he has the accepted details right, I feel less compulsion to verify everything he says. When he gets them wrong, and puts out a sloppy book, I begin to wonder how far I can trust his account and use of the sources. This undermines his credibility in a very unfortunate way. If he thinks the Ju-52 is a bomber, and that the Royal Yugoslav Army had only five divisions, I with good reason question his basic knowledge of the facts. And if I must question that, then I can’t believe him without digging up all his sources and verifying them.

I don’t buy a book expecting to have to do that. However, in my case at least, I know enough about the war and the Holocaust that if I wanted to dedicate a few months to the job, I could check them all and make my own determinations. Or, far better, I could read one that doesn’t make me think the author didn’t really care about getting the history right.

This is terrible. We needed this book. The overwhelming body of evidence–and believe me, I am aware that Rosh Hashanah will begin in my time zone shortly after I post this, and yes, that bothers me–documents what Hale is saying. The attempted eradication of European Jewry, which ‘succeeded’ to an appalling degree and which we call the Holocaust, is supported by oceans of evidence. More to the point of this book, most European nationalities had some sordid hand in the Holocaust. Some participated with gusto that embarrassed and concerned even the SS, which is saying rather a lot. People should know that. People should know that this monstrosity is part of the history of the nations whose people participated in it, whether that bothers those nations or not (and if it doesn’t, that bothers me). And when anti-Semitic groups start trying to paint mass murderers as decent human beings, we need books to bonk them on the head with. Thick ones. good ones.

Hale could have written one of these, but he failed, because he either did not know the fundamental facts, or did not consider them very important. I cannot see another logical reason; I do not think he set out to be wrong. I think he just doesn’t know and doesn’t think it’s important. His training is to create an impression, which is what documentaries do: present in a short time the selected information that will tell the viewer how to think.

Fundamental facts are important, whether Hale thinks so or not. Command of the fundamentals is the basis on which to build an argument. Without it, one undermines one’s own basis. The poor proofreading I can pardon. A series of flagrant mistakes, I will not.

Thus, the assistance to the history consumer that I promised: before you buy it, take a look at the author’s main line of work. Most of the truly lousy history books I have read were not written by professors of history. Most were written by journalists. Hale is a documentary producer, and based on many of the documentaries I’ve watched, that suggests he’s in the entertainment business. Fine and good–but when he starts to write history that the layman will tend to believe, he is loansharking in my temple, and I will lash his journalistic ass out of it.

Even if I agree with the conclusion he reached.