Commander of Einsatzgruppe A
"The Fight against Jewry"
When the German Army surged into Russia as part of Hitler’s ambitious campaign against Stalin’s Soviet Union, the SS leaders Himmler and Heydrich organized four special action groups known as Einsatzgruppen, composed of Waffen SS, Orpo, Kripo and Gestapo personnel who were to follow the regular German Wehrmacht during the invasion. These SS death squads were tasked with one thing, to eliminate those deemed enemies of the Nazi State.
Those such as Soviet Commissars, Jews, Gypsies and others considered as undesirables, were shot to death and buried in pits during mass executions. The large scale killings of the Holocaust initially began with the mass shootings carried out by the Einsatzkommandos. The SS commanders leading the Einsatzgruppen were cultured and educated Germans, men like Walter Stahlecker who held an academic doctorate in law, and who would be required to dirty their hands in the Eastern killing fields in the pursuit of Nazi racial theory.
In March 1942, a hospital adapted Ju52 was on route towards the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which was under the control of the feared Nazi SS leader Reinhard Heydrich. Aboard the plane were several badly wounded servicemen who were being transferred from a field hospital in Riga. Amongst them was a senior SS officer, Walter Stahlecker, who had been wounded in an ambush by Soviet Partisans during an attack on his headquarters.
Stahlecker was no ordinary SS functionary, he was the commanding officer of Einsatzgruppe A, a death squad that operated in the Baltic States and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and others thought racially or politically inferior. During the bumpy flight to Prague, Stahlecker died of his wounds, and one of the most bloodthirsty Nazi war criminals had cheated the hangman’s noose.
In May 1941, Stahlecker and other SS commanders were ordered to report to the SiPo NCO school in Pretzsch. It was there that the reorganized Einsatzgruppen leaders were being trained for their part in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Reinhard Heydrich, the feared head of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), told those present of the Nazi plan to murder Soviet Jews.
Stahlecker was appointed leader of Einsatzgruppe A, one of four mobile killing squads that would enter Russia behind the German Army. His group, which numbered between 500 and 900 men, consisted of four sub-groups; Sonderkommandos 1a and 1b, and Einsatzkommandos 2 and 3, which would be formed from personnel of the Gestapo, SD, Kriminal Police, Order Police and Waffen SS troops.
Stahlecker had previously had disagreements with Heydrich over Nazi policies, and as such he was destined to be assigned to frontline duties along with others, such Otto Ohlendorf, who had also fallen foul of the SS Security chief. He had previously been promoted to SS-Brigadeführer and Generalmajor der Polizei before being given command of one of the four Einsatzgruppen.
A committed SS officer, Stahlecker was hoping to further his career within the RSHA. Just how such an intelligent and ambitious man came to lead a Nazi death squad on the Eastern Front is indicative of the circumstances of post-WWI Germany and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Walter Stahlecker would become a key proponent of the genocide of the Jews, and is best remembered as an unscrupulous perpetrator of the Holocaust.
Born on October 10, 1900, to a wealthy family in Sternenfels, Stahlecker was the second of four children to pastor Eugen Stahlecker and his wife Anna Zaiser. At the age of six his father took over the management of the girls secondary school in Tübingen, and it was there that he would spend his childhood. At the age of 17, he served in the German Army from September 21, 1918 to December 7, 1918, when the war ended in defeat for the German Empire.
After completing his military service, Stahlecker attended grammar school and left in 1920 upon completion of his exams. He then enrolled at the University of Tübingen where he studied law, and belonged to the Lichenstein studen association, which acted as a volunteer student corps and police force. By 1924, having had completed his studies, he passed the first state examination in law.
From December 1924 to November 1927, he performed legal preparatory work at the local courts in Reutlingen and Tübingen. Later in 1927, he passed the Great State Examination in law, and received his doctorate. Stahlecker then worked at various positions within the law courts at Ehingen, Saulgau and Nagold until May 1938. It was during this time he met Luise-Gabriele Freiin von Gültlingen and the two eventually married in October 1932.
The couple would go on to have four children, Konrad, Botho and twins Anne-Kristine and Gisela, born in 1934. Shortly before his marriage, and after the Nazis gained power, Stahlecker joined the Nazi Party, assigned membership number 3,219,015, and later joined the elite SS. He soon appointed deputy director of the Political Office of the Württemberg State Police on May 29, 1933, and worked under Hermann Mattheiss, with whom Stahlecker often had a strained working relationship. On May 14, 1934, Stahlecker succeeded Mattheiss as director of the Württemberg State Political Police Office, and from there was transferred in May 1937 to the State Police Office in Breslau.
Shortly after the annexation of Austria into the German Reich, he was appointed inspector of the security police and the SD in Austria on May 20, 1938, succeeding Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller. Reich Commissioner Josef Bürckel ordered the establishment of the Central Office of Jewish Emigration in Vienna in August 1938, which would be subordinate to Stahlecker, but under the overall control of Adolf Eichmann.
Stahlecker was soon transferred to the Foreign Office, after he had difference of opinion with his boss Reinhard Heydrich. Afterwards he held posts as the commander of the Security Police and SD in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia under SS-Brigadeführer Karl Hermann Frank, and later worked again with Eichmann on the implementation of the Nisko Plan.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Stahlecker was sent to Oslo, Norway on April 29, 1049, where he served as commander of the Security Police and SD, overseeing an Einsatzgruppe of some 200 SS members. He was then promoted to SS-Oberführer, and in November 1940, he was succeeded in this position by Heinrich Fehlis, and served as a ministerial advisor in the Foreign Office until June 1941.
On February 6, 1941 Stahlecker was promoted to SS-Brigadeführer and Generalmajor der Polizei, and in may had been summoned to the SiPo NCO school in Pretzsch, and there received training for the newly created Einsatzgruppen, who would play a large role in the SS plans for Operation Babarossa. Stahlecker and the other SS men present were informed by Heydrich of the RSHA directives to murder Jews in the occupied territories.
He was given command of Einsatzgruppe A, the first of four death squads who would enter Russia and the Baltic States in the wake of the German Blitzkrieg. Stahlecker understood that only by accepting this assignment would he further his career within the RSHA. Einsatzgruppe A would follow Army Group North into the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as areas of Russia as far north as Leningrad.
Stahlecker and the men under his command were tasked with hunting down and murdering Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and other “undesirables” found in the newly liberated territories. When the German attack on Russia began, the approximately 1,000 strong Einsatzgruppe A followed the Wehrmacht into the Baltic States and immeditately began organizing special actions against the local population.
On the morning June 25, SS-Brigadeführer Stahlecker, arrived in Kaunas, Lithuania. He visited to headquarters of the Lithuanian Security Police headed by Stasys Čenkus, the membership of which was composed from the fascist Iron Wold Organization, and there Stahlecker delivered a long anti-Semitic speech, in which he urged the Lithuanian people to solve what he termed the “Jewish problem”. This resulted in the Kaunas Pogrom, one of the worst crimes committed in the early stages of the Eastern war.
Under the instigation of SS-Brigadeführer Stahlecker, the men under Algirdas Klimaitis, a former officer in the Lithuanian Army who led what became known as the Klimaitis Group, initiated a pogrom against Jewish civilians in Slobodka beginning on June 25, that lasted some four days. Klimaitis’ men were responsible for the destruction of several synagogues and about sixty Jewish houses. On June 27, at the garage of the NKVD Kaunas section, a nationalized garage of Lietūkis, several dozen Jewish men were publicly tortured and executed in front of a large crowd of Lithuanian civilians consisting of men, women and children, along with numerous German soldiers.
The Lietūkis Garage Massacre had been orchestrated before the Germans had even set-up their administration, and was carried out before the gathering of men from the regular German army, Einsatzgruppen and Lithuanian nationalist units. Around 40-60 Jews were forced to gather that afternoon in the courtyard of the garage at 43 Vitautas Avenue, in the center of the city. There they were publicly humiliated, and then killed with shovels, iron bars or by other barbaric methods.
Lithuanian children were lifted onto the shoulders of their parents so they could better catch a glimpse of the killings, which were primarily carried out by one man in particular, known as the “Death Dealer”, who beat each of the Jewish men to death with a metal bar. Similar crimes were committed in Latvia and Estonia.
At Daugavpils, Jews were exterminated by Einsatzkommando 1b under the command of Erich Ehrlinger. By July 11, 1941, this unit had killed about 1,150 people. The murders were thereafter committed by another unit, Rollkommando Hamann, named after it’s commander Joachim Hamann, who would be responsible for killing upwards of 9,000 Jews in the city and in Southern Latgale.
The SS were assisted by Latvian volunteers of the local auxiliary police under Robert Bluzmanis. In Rezekne, the German SD were assisted by the Arajs Kommando, a group of Latvian volunteers who murdered around 2,500 people. By October 1941, it was reported that 35,000 Latvian Jews had be killed by the men under Stahlecker’s command.
In Estonia, the men of Einsatzkommando 1a under the command of Martin Sandberger arrived on July 7, 1941, and immediately began arrested and executions with the assistance of local collaborators. The number of Estonian Jews murdered is believed to be less than 1,000, however many others were also targeted, including around 10,000 foreign Jews, 1,000 Roma who had settled in Estonia, 15,000 Soviet POW’s and lastly 7,000 other Estonians considered political or racial enemies of the Reich. By October 1941, Stahlecker sent a report back to the RSHA in Berlin, with a detailed summary of the many killings performed by the men of Einsatzgruppe A and local volunteers.
Secret Reich Business!
General Report up to October 15, 1941
II. Cleansing and Securing the Area of Operation
Encouragement of Autonomous Cleansing Actions (Selbstreinigungsaktionen).
Basing [ourselves] on the consideration that the population of the Baltic countries had suffered most severely under the rule of Bolshevism and Jewry while they were incorporated into the USSR, it was to be expected that after liberation from this foreign rule they would themselves to a large extent eliminate those of the enemy left behind after the retreat of the Red Army. It was the task of the Security Police to set these self-cleansing movements going and to direct them into the right channels in order to achieve the aim of this cleansing as rapidly as possible. It was no less important to establish as unshakable and provable facts for the future that it was the liberated population itself which took the most severe measures, on its own initiative, against the Bolshevik and Jewish enemy, without any German instruction being evident.
In Lithuania this was achieved for the first time by activating the partisans in Kovno. To our surprise, it was not easy at first to set any large-scale anti- Jewish pogrom in motion there. Klimaitis, the leader of the partisan group referred to above, who was the first to be recruited for this purpose, succeeded in starting a pogrom with the aid of instructions given him by a small advance detachment operating in Kovno [Kaunas/Kauen], in such a way that no German orders or instructions could be observed by outsiders. In the course of the first pogrom during the night of June 25/26, the Lithuanian partisans eliminated more than 1,500 Jews, set fire to several synagogues or destroyed them by other means, and burned down an area consisting of about sixty houses inhabited by Jews. During the nights that followed, 2,300 Jews were eliminated in the same way. In other parts of Lithuania similar Actions followed the example set in Kovno, but on a smaller scale, and including some Communists who had been left behind.
These autonomous cleansing actions ran smoothly because the Wehrmacht authorities who had been informed showed understanding for this procedure. At the same time it was obvious from the beginning that only the first days after the occupation would offer the opportunity for carrying out pogroms. After the disarmament of the partisans the self-cleansing Actions necessarily ceased.
It proved to be considerably more difficult to set in motion similar cleansing actions and pogroms in Latvia. The main reason was that the entire national leadership, especially in Riga, had been killed or deported by the Soviets. Even in Riga it proved possible by means of appropriate suggestions to the Latvian auxiliary police to get an anti-Jewish pogrom going, in the course of which all the synagogues were destroyed and about 400 Jews killed. As the population on the whole quieted down very quickly in Riga, it was not possible to arrange further pogroms.
Both in Kovno and in Riga evidence was taken on film and by photographs to establish, as far as possible, that the first spontaneous executions of Jews and Communists were carried out by Lithuanians and Latvians.
In Estonia there was no opportunity of instigating pogroms owing to the relatively small number of Jews. The Estonian self-defense units eliminated only some individual Communists, who were particularly hated, but in general limited themselves to carrying out arrests.
The Fight against Jewry
It was to be expected from the beginning that the Jewish problem in the Ostland could not be solved by pogroms alone. At the same time, the Security Police had basic, general orders for cleansing operations aimed at a maximum elimination of the Jews. Large-scale executions were therefore carried out in the cities and the countryside by Sonderkommandos [Special Killing Detachments], which were assisted by selected units of partisan [nationalist] groups in Lithuania, and parties of the Latvian Auxiliary Police in Latvia. The work of the execution units was carried out smoothly. Where Lithuanian and Latvian forces were attached to the execution units, the first to be chosen were those who had had members of their families and relatives killed or deported by the Russians.
Particularly severe and extensive measures became necessary in Lithuania. In some places—especially in Kovno—the Jews had armed themselves and took an active part in sniping and arson. In addition, the Jews of Lithuania cooperated most closely with the Soviets.
The total number of Jews liquidated in Lithuania is 71,105.
During the pogrom 3,800 Jews were eliminated in Kovno and about 1,200 in the smaller cities.
In Latvia, too, Jews took part in acts of sabotage and arson after the entry of the German Wehrmacht. In Dünaburg [Dvinsk, Daugavpils] so many fires were started by Jews that a large part of the city was destroyed. The electric power station was burned out completely. Streets inhabited mainly by Jews re- mained untouched. Up to now 30,000 Jews have been executed in Latvia. The pogrom in Riga eliminated 500.
Most of the 4,5000 Jews living in Estonia at the start of the Eastern campaign fled with the retreating Red Army. About 2,000 stayed behind. In Reval [Tallinn] alone there were about 1,000 Jews.
The arrest of all male Jews over the age of sixteen is almost completed. With the exception of the doctors and the Jewish Elders appointed by the Sonderkommando they [the remaining Jews] are being executed by the Estonian Self-Defense Force under the supervision of Sonderkommando Ia. Jewesses between the ages of sixteen through sixty in Reval and Pernau, who are fit for work, were arrested and used to cut peat and for other work.
At present a camp is being built at Harku in which all the Jews in Estonia will be sent, so that in a short time Estonia will be cleared of Jews.
After carrying out the first large-scale executions in Lithuania and Latvia it became clear that the total elimination of the Jews is not possible there, at least not at the present time. As a large part of the skilled trades is in Jewish hands in Lithuania and Latvia, and some (glaziers, plumbers, stove-builders, shoe- makers) are almost entirely Jewish, a large proportion of the Jewish craftsmen are indispensable at present for the repair of essential installations, for the reconstruction of destroyed cities, and for work of military importance. Although the employers aim at replacing Jewish labor with Lithuanian or Latvian workers, it is not yet possible to replace all the Jews presently employed, particularly in the larger cities. In cooperation with the labor exchange offices, however, Jews who are no longer fit for work are picked up and will be executed shortly in small Actions.
It must be also noted in this connection that in some places there has been considerable resistance by offices of the Civil Administration against large- scale executions. This [resistance] was confronted in every case by pointing out that it was a matter of carrying out orders [involving] a basic principle.
Apart from organizing and carrying out the executions, preparations were begun from the first days of the operation for the establishment of ghettos in the larger cities. This was particularly urgent in Kovno, where there were 30,000 Jews in a total population Of 115,400. At the end of the early pogroms, therefore, a Jewish Committee was summoned and informed that the German authorities had so far seen no reason to interfere in the conflicts between the Lithuanians and the Jews. A condition for the creation of a normal situation would be, first of all, the creation of a Jewish ghetto. When the Jewish Committee remonstrated, it was explained that there was no other possibility of preventing further pogroms. At this the Jews at once declared that they were ready to do everything to transfer their co-racials as quickly as possible to the Vilianipole Quarter [Slobodka], where it was planned to establish the Jewish ghetto. This area is situated in the triangle between the River Memel and a branch of the river, and is linked with Kovno by only one bridge, and therefore easily sealed off.
In Riga the so-called Moscow Suburb was designated as the ghetto. This is the worst residential quarter of Riga, which is already inhabited mainly by Jews. The transfer of Jews into the ghetto area proved rather difficult because the Latvians living in that district had to be evacuated and residential space in Riga is very crowded. Of about 28,000 Jews remaining in Riga, 24,000 are now housed in the ghetto. The Security Police carried out only police duties in the establishment of the ghetto, while the arrangements and administration of the ghetto, as well as the regulation of the food supply for the inmates of the ghetto, were left to the Civil Administration; the Labor Office was left in charge of Jewish labor.
Ghettos are also being set up in other cities in which there are a large number of Jews [….]
SS-Brigadeführer and Major-General of Police
The Stahlecker Report claimed that some 249,420 Jews had been eliminated by members of Einsatzgruppe A. It is almost certain that Stahlecker inflated this number in order to appeal to his RSHA superiors, hoping to gain favour by appearing to operate the most blood-thirsty death squad. However, the men under his command had undoubtely committed some of the most heinous crimes during the Holocaust, and were responsible for murdering entire Jewish families, regardless of sex or age.
By the end of November 1941, he was appointed Higher SS and Police Leader (Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer; HSSPF) of Reichskommissariat Ostland, which included the occupied territory of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. He was responsible for setting up the Jungfernhof camp near Riga at the end of 1941, and this new role was in addition to his on-going leadership of Einsatzgruppe A.
On March 23, 1942, Stahlecker and his immediate command staff came under attack from Soviet Partisans, who conducted an ambush of his SS staff headquarters near Krasnogvardeysk, Russia. During the firefight, Stahlecker was seriously injured after receiving a gunshot wound to a main artery in his thigh. Taken to a hospital in Riga for treatment, there doctors decided he should be flown to Prague, where his family were living, and where he could receive better care.
It was during the bumpy flight that Stahlecker died from his wounds. An official state funeral was held in the Protectorate, at which Heydrich gave the funeral speech and to which SS leader Himmler sent a death wreath. Command of Einsatzgruppe A was given to Heinz Jost, who continued Stahlecker’s work by overseeing the mass killings on the Eastern Front.