- Holocaust Perpetrators of the German Police Battalions: The Mass Murder of Jewish Civilians, 1940–1942 by Ian Rich
Despite its rather broad title, this book—based on the author’s Ph.D. thesis at Royal Holloway, University of London—focuses first and foremost on a distinct group of junior police officers, namely [End Page 447] the company and platoon leaders of Police Battalions 304 and 314, who played a prominent role in the implementation of German anti-Jewish policy in Poland and Ukraine from 1940 to 1942. Battalion 304 comprised overwhelmingly men from Saxony, while most members of Battalion 314 came from Vienna. The young officers in question were part of the first Hitler Youth generation, that is, those born between 1915 and 1922. This generation was unique in its exposure from an early age to Nazi indoctrination, and had virtually no prior experience of alternative political or social norms.
Rich’s study offers a biographical analysis of a substantial number of policemen: 199 (including twelve officers) from Police Battalion 304, and 103 (likewise including twelve officers) from Police Battalion 314. The biographical data on the subject group, the junior officers, is much richer than that available for other groups, mainly due to the fact that a larger proportion of officers became the subject of postwar trials in West and East Germany, and thanks to the numerous SS and police personnel files for the officer corps held at the German federal archives in Berlin.
Although the proportion of Nazi Party members in the reserve police battalions was similar to the German national average, the percentage for the 300-level battalions was higher. While the collective background of the rank and file of Battalions 304 and 314 can nonetheless be said to resemble more closely that of ordinary citizens than of ideological warriors, all the officers and many of the NCOs were in the SS, and almost all the more senior officers were former Freikorps or SA members. The junior officers all held membership in the SS and Nazi Party, and the vast majority had spent most or all of their teenage years in the Hitler Youth. As Rich points out, these young men stood out from the rest of the policemen as a distinct group. Although not representative of German policemen generally, the junior officers were representative of their generation: not drawn from the fringes but the heart of German society, they can be considered a cross-section, or, put another way, they were characteristic of radicalized German youth.
Rich persuasively argues that a biographical approach appears warranted for this group at the lower level of the command structure. He demonstrates the significant impact of the junior officers on group behavior in the companies and platoons, and indeed of their disproportionate influence on events on the ground. These men constituted the “ideological and organizational backbone of their units” (p. 179), and were very often the only authority in the vicinity for extended periods. They enjoyed considerable autonomy and initiative in their decision-making. As Rich concludes: “These men performed a pivotal role in the progression and practice of mass murder” (p. 176).
Rich engages closely with important perpetrator research in English and German, including the work of Christopher Browning, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Mark Roseman, and Harald Welzer, helping to bridge interpretations of the respective importance of situational factors, ideology, individual agency, and center vs. periphery. One of Rich’s main achievements is to illustrate how “situations themselves were to an extent created by individual officers by managing, choreographing and interpreting the events” (p. 177). The creation and maintenance of an ideological atmosphere conducive to killing—and, indeed, the “‘ecstatic’ communalization of extreme violence” (p. 175)—were crucial: “It is in this role that the junior officers were most important to the killing process” (p. 178).
Rich’s findings also compliment recent research not cited, for example on the lower and intermediate troop leaders in the Wehrmacht, who decisively contributed to shaping the conduct of warfare; on...