- Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust
Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, boldly asserts that the author “gives full weight, for the first time, to the part played by the Einsatzgruppen—the professional killing squads deployed in Poland and the Soviet Union,” in the murder of approximately 1.5 million innocent civilians—mainly Soviet Jews—“early in World War II.” Furthermore, the publisher states, the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen “have been underestimated or overlooked by Holocaust historians.” To prove his case Rhodes—a Pulitzer Prize winning author—utilizes Nuremberg Trial documents that have apparently “largely been ignored” until now. These claims are remarkable; surely a misprint. Any student of the Holocaust or Third Reich knows that a substantial body of literature exists on the role of the Einsatzgruppen in the murder of Soviet Jewry and that much of what we do know comes directly from evidence used at the International Military Tribunal and the [End Page 141] Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings that followed.1 Dust jackets and publishers aside, Rhodes’s book does offer a semi-scholarly and impressive synthesis of existing interpretations of the murderous actions of the the units of the Einsatzgruppen and is, therefore, not without merit.
The book’s greatest strength is that for the first time in English, using some primary sources, but mostly summarizing existing work, Rhodes provides an accessible and graphic narrative of genocidal murder on the eastern front beginning with Operation Barbarossa in July 1941. Not only does Masters of Death chronicle the brutal tasks assigned and carried out by the four units of the Einsatzgruppen on the orders of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, but the author also broadens the scope of perpetrator activity by incorporating accounts of other military and para-military units deployed there including the Wehrmacht and Ordnungspolizei, and local auxiliaries. To Rhodes’ credit, he organizes the book in such a fashion as to show the escalation of violence and mass murder that the troops quickly embraced in the early months of the war and that ultimately led to the systematized murder of all European Jewry that culminated in Auschwitz. The problem, though, is that Rhodes incorporates this material not so much to explain the evolution of the “Final Solution,” but rather to support the second aim of his book: to explain why these men killed; or, to borrow a phrase from social-psychologist James Waller, why these men “became evil.” (See the most recent contribution to the so-called “ordinary men” vs. “ordinary-Germans” debate, James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing [New York: Oxford University Press, 2002].) His attempt to understand and elucidate human behaviour, while admirable, is unfortunately also the greatest weakness of the book.
Reminiscent of Daniel Goldhagen’s attempt to understand perpetrator motivation, Rhodes falls prey to a mono-causal explanation by utilizing a little-known theory of violence expounded by American criminologist Lonnie Athens. According to Athens’ hypothesis, men kill because they have been previously socialized in violent behavior; in short, violence begets violence. This is not a particularly illuminating theory, and certainly not one that takes into account existing work on the subject. Even more problematic is Rhodes’s attempt to prove Athens’ theory is piecemeal; the author uses the violent acts of the Einsatzgruppen to prove the theory, but does not provide any [End Page 142] concrete evidence—other than some generalizations—to show that these men had previously participated in violent acts. Of course, even had he done this one would have to ask why all individuals who have prior experience with violence do not become genocidal murderers. Rhodes’s uncritical use of evidence is also a problem when it comes to proving his theory of perpetrator motivation. To use Nuremberg trial testimony of perpetrators without considering the context in which that testimony was given is dangerous, and in this instance perhaps even misplaced. That Rhodes is...