The Holocaust
The Holocaust

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The Holocaust

4.1 The killers – portrayal and reality

Activity 5

Read Document II.11 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , Himmler's speech to the Gauleiter (leaders of the territorial divisions of the Nazi Party, found under the link below) of 6 November 1943, and answer the following questions:

  1. What, according to Himmler, have been the advantages of the extermination policy?

  2. What have been the difficulties with it?

  3. How do you think he portrays the killing and the killers?


  1. Himmler speaks in terms of the removal of ‘a plague’ which was destroying the people, and argues that this has enabled Germany to survive the pressures of war, particularly aerial bombardment.

  2. He suggests that there have been several difficulties, all of which have been overcome. First, there has been the assumption by some – even Party members – that there were ‘decent Jews’ who might be spared. It is implicit in what Himmler says here, though not developed in any way, that such notions are quite wrong-headed. Equally wrong-headed, in his estimation, was the notion that women and children might be spared; this, he insists, is ‘unjustified’ since it would leave the potential for future avengers. Finally, he notes concerns about the extreme pressures on the people responsible for the killing, and the fear that they might be seriously distressed or psychologically damaged.

  3. Himmler portrays the killers as heroes carrying out an unpleasant, but necessary, task. There seems to me to be an element of the ‘stiff upper lip’ here when he talks of the killers stoically bearing their responsibility in silence.

The speech has an internal logic, but it is a perverted one. It shows the extent to which Himmler and the Nazi élite had internalised the idea of the Jews as being subhuman; they were simply ‘a plague’ which had to be destroyed for the good of all. It was unpleasant work, but someone had to do it; it was also a noble task, and the men who were involved had to be strong and silent. The question then has to be posed: is this what the killers themselves believed?

Activity 6

Read Christopher Browning's article, ‘One day in Jósefów: initiation to mass murder’, and answer the following questions:

  1. Who were the killers discussed by Browning?

  2. What offer did Major Trapp make to his men, and what happened to the men who accepted it?

  3. What were the effects of Jósefów on the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101?

  4. What does Browning note as having been significantly ignored in the judicial interrogations of the 1960s and 1970s? Can you think of any ideology which is not much mentioned, but which ultimately inspired the killing?


  1. The killers came from two major sources. There were men from former prisoner-of-war camps, generally Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians, who had been trained by the SS. These men usually did the brutal work of driving Jews from their dwellings to the railway stations and shooting on the spot those too old, too young or too sick to make the journey. A few hundred of these men subsequently went to the death camps, where they outnumbered the German staff by four to one. Then there were police units, like Reserve Battalion 101, which drew its NCOs from career policemen and young men who had volunteered for the Order Police before the war, sometimes to avoid conscription. The rank and file of these units were civilian conscripts generally considered too old for front-line military service. In passing, Browning also mentions ‘the desk murderers’ – the bureaucrats who never got their hands (or uniforms) bloody, but who worked in a routinised way at a distance from the killing.

  2. Trapp ordered that anyone who did not feel up to the killing could fall out. Some of those who refused to participate were subsequently given tough, unpleasant tasks; for others there appear to have been no repercussions.

  3. Some men could not cope with the killing; they avoided it and/or broke down during it. Those who carried on, which was the majority, appear to have become desensitised during subsequent actions, though on these later occasions they tended to form cordons, leaving the ‘dirty work’ to the ‘Hiwis’.

  4. Browning notes that anti-Semitism was virtually ignored both by those asking the questions and by the men who were being interrogated. Browning also only touches on Nazi ideology in passing, and he remarks that the men of the battalion mostly came from ‘one of the least Nazified cities in Germany’ (Hamburg), and ‘from a social class that in its political culture had been anti-Nazi’.


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