Dr. Alex J. Kay
Senior Lecturer at the Chair of Military History / Cultural History of Violence, University of Potsdam and author of, Empire of Destruction: A History of Nazi Mass Killing.
*Content Warning: Child murder*
The Nazi regime killed approximately 13 million civilians and other non-combatants in deliberate policies of mass murder, almost all of them during the war years, 1939 to 1945, and the vast majority between mid-1941 and spring 1945, that is, in the space of only four years. Perhaps surprisingly, no single volume has ever before addressed all major victim groups of Nazi mass killing together: the mentally and physically disabled within Germany and, later, in the occupied territories; the Polish ruling classes and elites; Jews across the length and breadth of Europe; captive und unarmed Red Army soldiers; the Soviet urban population; those civilians in primarily rural areas who fell victim to preventive terror and reprisals, especially in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Greece and Poland; and Europe’s Roma populations.
For all the differences in the nature of the victims and, in some cases, the ways in which they were murdered, they had something fundamental in common. It is no coincidence that all these seven major Nazi killing programmes took place during the war years. The commonality shared by the different victim groups is closely related to the military conflict. While each of the killing programmes possessed a racial (and racist) component, the logic of war was central to the rationale for targeting each and every one of the victim groups, as they were regarded by the Nazi regime in one way or another as a potential threat to Germany’s ability to fight and, ultimately, win a war for domination in Europe. This view was informed and justified by Nazi racial thinking, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate German wartime strategy from Nazi genocidal racial policies. Indeed, one could argue that, for Nazi Germany, genocide itself, and mass-killing policies in general, constituted a form of warfare. The disabled in Germany were seen as undermining the health and vitality of the German nation in wartime, while the disabled in the occupied territories were viewed as rivals for food and accommodation; the Polish ruling classes and elites were murdered as pillars of Polish national identity and potential focal points for resistance to the German occupation; as alleged leaders and revolutionaries pulling the strings behind the scenes, Jews everywhere were believed to pose a threat to the very existence of the German people; Soviet prisoners of war and urban dwellers were regarded as direct competitors of German troops and the German home front for precious food supplies; rural populations in Eastern and Southeast Europe were suspected of aiding and abetting partisans; Roma – whether itinerant or sedentary – were considered to be potential spies and a general factor of destabilisation behind German lines.
The mass murder of children is surely the most salient feature of National Socialist atrocities: from the first victims of the child ‘euthanasia’ campaign, via the 1.5 million murdered children of Jewish descent, to the so-called bandit children in the occupied Soviet territories. Especially young children succumbed to the starvation policy in various occupied territories; infant mortality assumed horrendous proportions. The ruthless murder of so many children in particular is a crime without historical precedent. Numerous children, furthermore, were deported, compelled to carry out heavy labour, sent to camps or subjected to barbaric medical experiments. Others were stolen from their parents and given up for forced adoption. The crimes committed against these defenceless victims are a vivid illustration of the moral degeneration of the perpetrators.
The exceptional barbarity, pleasure and cynicism with which many German perpetrators murdered children – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – in the occupied Soviet territories is particularly disturbing. On one occasion, the head of the SS guard in the Minsk Ghetto, Adolf Rübe, led a child by the hand to the cemetery with the words ‘Now we’re going to join papa and mama’, where he then shot it. He had indeed killed the child’s parents a few days earlier. In the Lesnaya prisoner-of-war camp near Baranovichi, a German female doctor murdered an eight-month-old baby by lethal injection, only then to pose for a photograph with the child and its mother, who was present. In the village of Kovali in the district of Oktyabrsky, Belarus, German forces chased after fleeing children, caught them and threw them all into a fire. In nearby Dyomenka, little girls had their necks broken like chickens. Sometimes, during shooting operations, children were held over the pit by their hair and then shot; this resulted on at least one occasion in the shooter being left holding the child’s skullcap with some hair still attached after the child had fallen into the pit. One could cite many other such examples.
Occasionally, the murderers themselves openly expressed their feelings and their satisfaction at the time of the crime. One such source are the letters that thirty-six-year-old police official Walter Mattner from Vienna sent to his wife, Elisabeth, between 22 September 1941 and 19 April 1942 while serving under the SS and police garrison commander in Mogilev, Belarus.
Of particular interest here is the letter Mattner wrote on 5 October 1941, in which he described his own participation in the massacres of Jews in the city:
There’s something else I must tell you. I was in fact present at the mass killings the day before yesterday. When the first truckloads [of victims] arrived my hand slightly trembled when shooting, but one gets used to this. When the tenth truck arrived, I already aimed calmly and shot assuredly at the many women, children and infants. Bearing in mind that I also have two infants at home, with whom these hordes would do the same, if not ten times worse. The death we gave them was a nice, quick death compared with the hellish torture of thousands upon thousands in the dungeons of the GPU [Soviet secret police]. Infants flew in a wide arc through the air and we shot them down still in flight, before they fell into the pit and into the water. Let’s get rid of this brood that has plunged all of Europe into war and is still stirring things up in America until it drags them into the war as well. Hitler’s words are coming true, when he once said before the war: if the Jews believe they can again provoke a war in Europe, it will not mean victory for Jewry but the end of the Jews in Europe. […] Bloody hell! I’ve never seen so much blood, dirt, bone and flesh. Now I can understand the word bloodlust. – M[ogilev] has now lost a number with three zeros, but that’s of no consequence here. I am actually already looking ahead, and many say here that [after] we return home, then it will be the turn of our own Jews. Well, I can’t tell you enough. But I’ll leave it there and tell you more when I return home.
Mattner was referring to the shooting of 2,208 Jewish people – men, women and children – in Mogilev on 3 October 1941. The previous day, German policemen had already shot 65 people while driving them out of the ghetto and loading them on to waiting trucks. Though he was never convicted, Mattner’s interrogation on 25 October 1947 confirmed the authenticity of his private correspondence.
We certainly cannot generalise from such a source, but Mattner’s grotesque letter of 5 October 1941 is revealing in several ways. First, he blamed Jewish infants for the war, then justified their preemptive murder – which was anything but ‘a nice, quick death’ – with reference to his own children and to real or imagined crimes of the Soviet secret police. In the mindset of the Holocaust perpetrators, they – and their families back home in Greater Germany – were the victims of an imaginary global Jewish conspiracy, which they blamed for unleashing the Second World War. Mattner was well aware that his wife was a kindred spirit. In an earlier letter from 2 October, he had written: ‘the fact that the Jews are our misfortune, that’s something you’ve known for a long time’. For Mattner and those like him, the murder of the Jews, including children, was the logical consequence of their ideological tenets. As he wrote to his wife on 2 October: ‘It is only the just punishment for all the suffering they have inflicted, and continue to inflict, on us Germans.’ He then promised his wife: ‘Before I return home, I’ll tell you some nice things.’ We know what Mattner was referring to.
Second, according to Mattner, during one of the first large-scale massacres of Jews in eastern Belarus, ‘many’ of the murderers were already thinking about the annihilation of German Jews at a time when no corresponding order had yet been issued. Anticipating orders from above suggests shared beliefs and common convictions. The war against the Jews was not just Hitler’s war but also that of many ordinary Germans and Austrians. Third, Mattner immediately thought of the infamous threat to exterminate the Jews made by Adolf Hitler during a speech in the Reichstag on 30 January 1939; he was even able to recite it accurately in terms of its meaning and syntax; in other words, he had internalised the message.
Children were murdered for much the same reasons as adults were murdered: they were viewed as a racial-biological threat, as rivals for food and accommodation, as potential spies and partisan supporters. The fact that they were deemed unproductive, worthless or a burden only compounded their fate. These reasons normally sufficed to justify their murder. Although the Nazis did not tend to need it, a final motivation for killing children was sometimes – in those cases where adults were killed first – the assumption that the children would likely avenge the death of their parents. The letter quoted here provides a glimpse into the apparent ease with which German and Austrian perpetrators rationalised their participation in the most appalling crimes.
Further excerpts from Walter Mattner’s letters to his wife can be found in the EHRI Online Course in Holocaust Studies.
Alex Kay discusses his book, Empire of Destruction: A History of Nazi Mass Killing, in this video for the Wiener Holocaust Library.
Empire of Destruction
A History of Nazi Mass Killing
Alex J. Kay
The first comparative, comprehensive history of Nazi mass killing – showing how genocidal policies were crucial to the regime’s strategy to win the war.