Police in Nazi Germany by Paul Garson
The Third Reich officially ended with the signing of the unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945, only after Nazi Germany had been reduced to a smoldering heap of ashes, its borders breached by the Allies from the west and the Soviet Army from the east. Although Hitler and Goebbels were dead by suicide in the Berlin Fuhrerbunker, his henchmen sought to save their necks. Topping the list was Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS and under its aegis of terror, the Police.
In an attempt to disguise himself, a face known to the whole world as evil incarnate, he had shaved off his mousy moustache and traded in his signature wire-rimmed glasses for an eyepatch. He also stepped out of his black and silver skull adorned uniform for the gray-green uniform and identify of a military policeman, one Sgt. Heinrich Hitzinger, the two sharing a first name. Ironically, policeman Hitzinger had been killed by Himmler’s SS some months earlier for making a comment about the course of the war deemed “defeatist” and thus punishable by summary execution.
The choice of a police uniform would prove a fatal error as Himmler and his SS contingent fled toward escape. While he had switched into civilian clothes, his escort for some reason had changed from their SS uniforms into those of the Schutzpolizei des Gemeinden, the dreaded Secret Field Police. When attempting to blend in with the displaced persons and refugees clogging the roadways, they encountered a Scottish military checkpoint where their choice of uniforms sealed their fate. The Secret Field Police were listed among war criminal groups targeted for apprehension. In the end, Himmler, the Third Reich’s most ruthless policeman, had been caught by a police uniform.
While Himmler escaped justice by biting down on an ampule of cyanide, many of his SS comrades escaped completely, taking up new lives in other countries or even in Germany itself. Among them were many of the policemen that had served as the advance guard of Himmler’s murderous campaign of annihilation, who participated in the Holocaust by Bullets that saw mobile bands, the Einsatzgruppen, methodically murdering, “face to face,” over a million men, women and children.
Other policemen would take part in anti-partisan campaigns, killing anyone perceived to be an “enemy of the state” and taking part in so-called ‘punitive actions’ that saw whole villages decimated, while some also joined front line regular army units battling in most part the Red Army during the later stages of the war.
Where had these policemen come from? Few were actual Nazi Party members or fanatics, many had previously served on street patrol and traffic duty in German cities and towns, their responsibility to “protect and serve” their fellow citizens. Many had wives and children of their own.
Although Himmler had assimilated the regular German civilian police under the black umbrella of the SS organization, they were not coerced or forced to commit their crimes or punished if they chose to opt out of the mass executions. And yet they pursued their tasks with unwavering dedication. And when it was over, both the war and the Nazi dictatorship, many resumed their pre-Third Reich police duties without facing any form of justice. They blended back into the general population with faces no different than their fellow citizens, a path paved easier by both their own efforts to cover-up their war crime links and safeguard their fellow policemen from prosecution and also by a less than enthusiastic effort by governments, both home and abroad, to “rake up old coals.” The West was more concerned with the growing Cold War with their previous ally the Soviet Union and in fact often sought out Nazi “experts” to join in their war against the spread of Communism.
When coming face to face with the Police in Nazi Germany, it begs the same questions asked of the Nazi plague itself and its takeover of an entire, highly advanced country? How was it possible? How did ordinary men, in this case, ordinary policemen change their motto from ‘protect and serve’ to ‘hunt down and kill’?
Was it years of Nazi propaganda hammering home racial hatred and German superiority? Was it an aberrant sense of patriotism, engrained submission to authority and ultra-nationalistic fervor? Was it something deeper found in the primal human capacity for violence and destruction?
Who can answer when hearing such words written by a police lieutenant to his wife in October 1941: “I must tell you something else. I took part in a mass killing the day before yesterday. When we shot the Jews brought by the first truck my hand trembled somewhat during the shooting, but one gets used to it. By the tenth truck I was already aiming steadily and shooting accurately at the many women, children, and babies.”
As an indication of how little justice followed in the wake of millions butchered, one can regard the so-called Einsatzgruppen Trial that began on September 29, 1947. Because of budget constraints, only 22 of the some 3,000 “hands-on killers” were brought to trial in West Germany. The defense lawyers, all former Nazi Party members, amassed 136 days of testimony on behalf of their clients. The prosecution relied only on the killers’ own meticulous, ultimately damning documentation of their murders. While 13 received death sentences, only four were executed. All the other defendants received prison sentences, but by 1958 all had been granted early release by the West German authorities, basically citing the “past was the past, time to move on.”
To this day, mass graves, small and large, are still being discovered across Eastern Europe and what was once the Soviet Union. The searchers estimate the number killed in each by the number of empty bullet casings, one allowed per victim. However, they do not factor in the testimony of Einsatzgruppe leader Otto Ohlendorf who in court stated: “He told his men never to use infants for target practice nor smash their heads against a tree (as other units had done). He ordered his men to allow the mother to hold her infant to her breast and to aim for her heart. That would avoid screaming and would allow the shooter to kill both mother and infant with one bullet. It saved ammunition.”
Ohlendorf was one of the four hanged, one small measure of justice.
Paul Garson's book Police in Nazi Germany is available for purchase now.