The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial book cover

The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial book cover

The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958: Atrocity, Law, and History

by Hilary Earl

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009
xv + 336 pages, $91.95 (hardcover), $28.95 (trade paperback)
ISBN 978-0-521-45608-1 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-0-521-17868-6 (trade paperback)

Reviewed by Brian Bertosa

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In 1941 and 1942 in the occupied Soviet Union, Germany’s notorious Einsatzgruppen (‘task groups’ or ‘task forces’), paramilitary units of the SS and police, were responsible for the killing of an estimated one million people, consisting of the mentally and physically disabled, Communist functionaries, Gypsies, and especially Jews. Employing, in the main, open-air shootings and carbon monoxide gas vans, by 1943, their activities had been largely superseded by the extermination camps, although at least one sub-unit still existed on paper into 1945. By 1947, the American occupation authorities had decided to prosecute 24 leaders of the Einsatzgruppen and their various sub-units as part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings, in what came to be known informally as the Einsatzgruppen case. Given its character as the only Nuremberg process that dealt exclusively with the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, it is somewhat surprising that no book-length study of this important trial had been published prior to 2009. In that year, however, Canada’s own Hilary Earl of Nipissing University made good this lacuna with a book whose reception can perhaps best be judged by the fact that it has already been reprinted twice—a fate that does not often befall a scholarly monograph.

The activities of the Einsatzgruppen have been dealt with at length in numerous works during preceding decades, and so, other than citing a handful of illustrative examples, the author concentrates instead upon a complementary, but quite different, set of topics. After a thoroughgoing introduction—it is here that an overview of the modus operandi of the Einsatzgruppen can be found—Chapter 1 provides a discussion of the legal basis of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings in the context of rapidly worsening relations between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, and the gradual solidification of American war crimes policy, due to the realization that it would not be possible to prosecute as many individuals as had been envisaged prior to war’s end. Chapter 2 yields a fascinating account of Otto Ohlendorf, one of the leaders of Einsatzgruppe D, who freely (and naively) admitted everything to his British and American captors in the belief that he had done nothing wrong. His candid testimony made him one of the most high-profile defendants in the Einsatzgruppen trial.

Chapter 3 comprises a collective biography of the defendants, investigating what Earl calls their “route to crime,” and many readers may come to regard this as the centrepiece of the book. The author examines many aspects of their lives, including age—noting that many of the defendants came of age in the traumatic aftermath of the First World War—geographic origin, religion, occupation (one had been an ordained Protestant minister!), Party membership, careers in the SS, SD, or Gestapo (it is important to note that these were not military men), and education. This latter aspect is of particular interest. As the presiding judge, Michael Musmanno, put it, “… since the twenty-[four] defendants were charged with one million murders, one would expect to see in the dock a band of coarse, untutored barbarians. Instead, one beheld a group of men with a formidable educational background.” (p. 96). Six of the defendants held doctoral degrees, and one of these, Otto Rasch, actually had two. While it may be thought that an advanced education can shield a person from susceptibility to radical ideologies, the peculiar conditions of Nazi Germany, as exemplified in the lives of these men, seem to suggest precisely the opposite.

The trial proper is covered in Chapters 4, 5, and 6, which examine respectively the strategies of the defence, how these fared at trial, and the judgment. A highlight of this part of the book, which may resonate with many readers in the military, is the discussion of the defence of superior orders, and how this was demolished by Musmanno. ‘In a nutshell,’ all the prosecution needed was for one defendant to admit that there were some things he would not do, even if given a direct order. Ohlendorf, arguably a leader among the defendants, was cool on the stand, hesitating only a little before stating that he would have executed his own sister if ordered to do so. Willy Seibert, on the other hand, was not as ideologically committed—or as willing to lie. When asked by Musmanno if he would shoot his own parents, he eventually, after a sleepless night during which the court was recessed to await his answer, responded that he would not. This destroyed the defence’s case. As the judgment would later note, “… some orders . . . may be disobeyed, and, because they could be disobeyed, the only reasonable conclusion [is] that the defendants had freely and with agency engaged in mass murder” (p. 206).

The final chapter provides an intriguing glimpse into the politics of early Cold War Europe, wherein the Americans were eager to enlist the Germans as allies against burgeoning Soviet influence. Strident demands by German nationalist groups led to the commutation of many of the Nuremberg sentences. Of the fourteen death sentences imposed in the Einsatzgruppen case, only four were carried out, and the last defendant was released from prison in 1958.

A brief conclusion rounds out the study.

Earl’s account is impeccably documented, yet her style is remarkably clear, with no more legal terminology than a television courtroom drama. For such a prestigious publishing house as Cambridge, however, the copy editing of this book appears to have been surprisingly uneven, resulting in, among other problems, instances of poor sentence structure, including the occasional sentence fragment. Minor quibbles over form, however, are hardly worth noting in a book whose content is so engaging and important. The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial is a work whose significance in the evolving historiography of the Holocaust and the Third Reich is surely only to increase with the passage of time.

Brian Bertosa is an independent scholar who resides in Cobourg, Ontario. His articles and reviews have appeared in the Canadian Military Journal, the Journal of Military History, and War & Society.