- Controlled Escalation:Himmler's Men in the Summer of 1941 and the Holocaust in the Occupied Soviet Territories
Most scholars who study Holocaust perpetrators have invested more energy in discussing the role of the leadership in the centers of executive power than in investigating the actions of the killers in the field. Research on the latter has focused on identifying personal motives and collective attitudes; comparatively few insights are offered into the synergies between units and agencies or between center and periphery at a specific time. This article explores this interaction for the critical phase of Operation Barbarossa, during which German units, and especially Himmler's SS- and policemen, crossed the line from persecution to the murder of Jewish men, women, and children en masse. The author examines the leadership's expectations and concerns prior to Operation Barbarossa, and analyzes Himmler's response to and interference in his men's actions in the East.
The mechanisms of control and escalation have long been perceived as key to the functioning of the Third Reich.1 Inherent in the Nazi system since 1933, they became critically important with the launching of Operation Barbarossa. In this article, I argue that the concept of "controlled escalation" provides a framework for analyzing the divergent, multi-layered, and incoherent events of what Raul Hilberg labeled "The First Sweep." During this decisive phase, German policy crossed the threshold from persecution of Jews to their systematic annihilation. My aim here is to test the usefulness of this concept by applying it to the actions of parts of the SS and police apparatus during the period from June 22 to late September 1941.2 Within what Christopher Browning has called the "fateful months," these were crucial weeks; within the amorphous group of Holocaust perpetrators, Himmler's men were the most involved and visible. The insights gained from looking closely at this short, highly dynamic sequence of key events can help explain how the overall process of destruction unfolded.3 [End Page 218]
Unknowns of Operation Barbarossa
During the last ten years, it has become widely accepted that the German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, marked the beginning of a war of annihilation. By the end of 1941, the death toll among non-combatants was staggering. Between 500,000 and 800,000 Jewish civilians had been killed and entire regions were reported judenrein (free of Jews); many of the remaining Jews had been confined to ghettos that were set up beginning in August of that year. Also in this period, the murder of Soviet POWs reached its climax. Between the beginning of fall 1941 and the end of spring 1942, more than two million of the 3.5 million Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht were executed or perished as a result of deliberate neglect or abuse. Further waves of violence accompanied increasingly ferocious German anti-partisan actions. By the time of their final withdrawal in 1944, the Germans had destroyed most of the infrastructure of the occupied territory, burned thousands of villages, and depopulated vast areas. Total Soviet losses are difficult to estimate, but a figure of at least twenty million seems likely.4
Equally staggering was the speed with which the wave of mass murder gathered pace. In much of the occupied territory, the threshold of genocide was crossed in the period under discussion with the targeting of women and children. In the three months from the beginning of the campaign until the end of September 1941, the number of victims killed in individual Aktions—a term that the murderers used frequently to denote executions—had grown from hundreds to many thousands, and the target group had expanded from men of military age to include Jews of all ages and both sexes. Among the instances of mass murder in the occupied Soviet Union, more than 76,000 were reported dead in Lithuania and more than 44,000 in Ukraine by early September; in Kamenets Podolski almost 24,000 Jews lost their lives between August 27 and 30; and in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev, more than 33,000 were killed on September 29 and 30.5