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    Einsatzgruppen: The Size of Einsatzgruppen

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    How many men from the Einsatzgruppen and other forces were available to murder Jews in the East?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    There were not enough active members in the four Einsatzgruppen and other forces to murder 1,150,000 Jews in the East. How could these small bands of men have had the time and ability to find, gather, and murder millions of Jews?

    For example, Holocaust denier Joseph Bishop claims that the ability of “these tiny bands of men to traverse huge distances” and conduct an extensive murder campaign was “very problematic, if not impossible.” Bishop wonders, since the Einsatzgruppen’s main task was to maintain order and security, gather intelligence, and combat partisans, “how on earth did they get the time to find, marshal together, and kill millions of Jews?”[1]

    The facts are:

    The Einsatzgruppen units did not murder 1,150,000 Jews by themselves. Beyond the four Einsatzgruppen units, there were German police battalions, local auxiliary units, and SS brigades assigned to support them. From the start, they had 36,000 men available if needed. The Wehrmacht (regular German army) also provided support and material, sometimes participating in the executions themselves. Further, the local population also murdered Jews in pogroms. They were incited by the Einsatzgruppen in the early days of the war and later were organized into formal units, which aided the Einsatzgruppen in the murder of the Jews.

    The Einsatzgruppen could draw on additional forces as needed:

    Tens of thousands of additional troops and their equipment were available for use by the Einsatzgruppen. They only needed to request this support. The Wehrmacht (regular German army) also cooperated closely with the Einsatzgruppen and, at times, regular Nazi soldiers participated in the executions. These Wehrmacht soldiers did not just guard the Jews and maintain order, as Bishop states. Rather, they actively committed the murders themselves.[2]

    Among the men the Einsatzgruppen could draw on were 11 Orpo [Order Police] battalions—some 17,000 men in total. They also had access to SS Brigades 1 and 2, an SS cavalry brigade, and auxiliary Nazi police units from the Higher SS Police Leaders—some 19,000 men in total.[3]

    In addition, the Einsatzgruppen could requisition trucks and other necessary material upon request from the Wehrmacht and civil or military occupation authorities.

    The Einsatzgruppen used the local population as much as possible:

    In a telegram on June 29, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s deputy, specifically tasked the Einsatzgruppen with fostering “selfcleansing efforts,” that is, pogroms of the Jewish population. These “selfcleansing efforts” by anti-communist or anti-Jewish groups were “not to be hindered,” but should be done “without leaving a trace,” intensified, and, when necessary, “steered in the correct direction.”[4] 

    Franz Stahlecker, the head of Einsatzgruppe A, which operated in Lithuania, referred to the need to “direct” the “spontaneous” operations: “. . . within a few hours of our entering the city [Kovno, Lithuanina] local anti-Semitic elements were induced to engage in pogroms against the Jews, despite the extremely difficult condition . . . It was thought a good idea for the security police not to be seen to be involved, at least not immediately, in these unusually tough measures . . . The impression had to be created that the local population itself had taken the first steps of its own accord as a natural reaction to decades of oppression by the Jews and the more recent terror exerted by the Communists . . .”[5]

    The Einsatzgruppen instigated nearly 40 pogroms in Lithuania alone, in which about 10,000 Jews were murdered. In one such “spontaneous” pogrom in Kovno, Lithuania on June 27, 1941, a German soldier attached to the 562nd Bakers’ Company recalled a terrible scene. It took place in the forecourt of a gas station: “. . . I saw Lithuanian civilians beating a number of civilians with different types of weapons until they showed no more signs of life . . . there must have been about fifteen dead or seriously injured people lying there on the ground. . . . There were also some members of the Lithuanian ‘Freikorps’ wearing armbands on their left arms. These ‘Freikorps’ people rushed back to the square with more Jews who were likewise beaten to death . . . After they had been led into the square they were hit on the head or in the face indiscriminately and immediately fell stunned to the ground . . . Then yet more Jews were led to the square and they too were beaten in the same way.”[6]

    At the same incident a photographer took pictures of the scene and noted: “After the entire group had been beaten to death, the young man put the crowbar to one side, fetched an accordion and went and stood on the mountain of corpses and played the Lithuanian national anthem. . . . The behavior of the civilians present (women and children) was unbelievable. After each man had been killed they began to clap and when the national anthem started up they joined in singing and clapping. In the front row there were women with small children in their arms who stayed there right until the end of the whole proceedings.”[7]

    The photographer’s images show the pogrom in progress, including Lithuanian men with raised clubs standing amidst the bodies of the Jews. The crowd of local Lithuanians and German soldiers stood around the edges of the photo cheering them on.[8]

    When the desire of locals to conduct bloody pogroms petered out, the Einsatzgruppen organized the local populations into formal units. These units were under the Einsatzgruppen’s direct control and they supervised the local populace in their mass executions of Jews.

    By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Weiss-047-31 / Weiss / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5478308)
    By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Weiss-047-31 / Weiss / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons.


    Holocaust deniers’ assertion, that the Einsatzgruppen were “tiny bands” of men who could not possibly have murdered 1,150,000 Jews by themselves, is false and misleading. First, between the four Einsatzgruppen units and the resources they could marshal, there was more than enough available manpower to murder some 1,150,000 Jews in the occupied Soviet territories. Nazi police battalions, local auxiliary units, and SS brigades were assigned to support the Einsatzgruppen as needed. From the start, the Einsatzgruppen had 36,000 men available. The Wehrmacht provided support and material, requested “cleansing” operations, and participated in the executions themselves.

    In the early days of the war, the local population also murdered Jews in pogroms incited by the Einsatzgruppen. Later, these willing volunteers were organized into formal units under the four Einsatzgruppen’s control.


    [1] Joseph Bishop, “The Einsatzgruppen and the Holocaust,” Inconvenient History, V1(3), 2009 at http://inconvenienthistory.com/archive/2009/volume_1/number_3/einsatzgruppen_and_the_holocaust.php.

    [2] Peter Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 244-247.

    [3] Yitzhak Arad, The Holocaust in the Soviet Union (University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2009), pp. 58-59.

    [4] Heinz Peter Longerich, The Systematic Character of the National Socialist Policy for the Extermination of the Jews (“A. Orders”) at https://www.hdot.org.

    [5] Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Reiss (editors), “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Free Press, 1988), p. 24.

    [6] Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Reiss (editors), “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Free Press, 1988), pp. 32-33.

    [7] Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Reiss (editors), “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Free Press, 1988), pp. 31-32.

    [8] Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Reiss (editors), “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Free Press, 1988), pp. 26, 30.