[3] Mobilisation for mass murder

[3] Mobilisation for mass murder

In 1939, a programme to kill people with physical and mental disabilities began, known as T4 or ‘euthanasia’. Officially terminated in August 1941, euthanasia continued in other ways, claiming up to 250,000 lives in Greater Germany and the occupied territories by the end of the war.

Following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Einsatzgruppen extermination squads murdered Polish elites, as well as terrorising and killing groups of Jews. The systematic mass murder of up to six million Jews, between 250,000 and half a million Roma and Sinti (‘Gypsies’), as well as ‘partisans’ and others, developed after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The ‘Holocaust by bullets’, in which around one third of the Jewish victims of Nazism perished, involved hundreds of thousands of killers, including many local collaborators and auxiliaries across eastern Europe. From late 1941, a more ‘efficient’ means of killing was developed, using gas vans in Chełmno, and specially designed gas chambers in Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek, and, most notoriously, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Organised mass murder was an integral part of the Nazi vision for a German-dominated Europe, to be achieved through an aggressive war of expansion. This entailed the brutal murder and subjugation of Slavic people seen as ‘inferior’, including mass starvation and exploitation for forced labour. More than three million Red Army prisoners of war were left to starve or die of disease in POW camps run by the German army, or were summarily shot because they were considered to be Jews, Commissars, or otherwise dangerous.

On arriving in Kovno on 27 June 1941, a German army official, Colonel von Bischoffshausen, came across ‘a dense crowd of people’ who had gathered around a petrol station, including women who had ‘lifted up their children or stood them on chairs or boxes so that they could see better’. Von Bischoffshausen at first assumed ‘this must be a victory celebration or some type of sporting event because of the cheering, clapping and laughter that kept breaking out.’ But he soon learned that the ‘Death-dealer of Kovno’ was ensuring ‘that all collaborators and traitors’ received a fitting punishment for their supposed treachery. The myth of Jews as ‘traitors’ who had ‘collaborated’ with the Soviet regime helped make violent antisemitism more palatable to onlookers.

This particularly brutal, visible killing in a public place in broad daylight, at Lietukis Garage, was part of a wave of antisemitic violence immediately following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Crucially, this violence was instigated by German Einsatzgruppe A and executed by Lithuanian activists. It also relied on the willingness of the Army to turn a blind eye, even to lend ideological and logistic support, while bystanders remained passive.

It was the beginning of what, in the following weeks and months, became the Nazi attempt to achieve a ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Problem’ through the physical extermination of all the Jews of Europe – a plan that could only be put into practice with the complicity or collaboration of many non-Germans, from Lithuania or Romania in the east to Vichy France in the west.

Source: Ernst Klee, Willi Dreßen and Volker Rieß (eds), “The Good Old Days”. The Holocaust as seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders (New York, NY: Konecky & Konecky, 1991; transl. by Deborah Burnstone), p. 28.

A Lithuanian nationalist, assisted by other activists and spurred on by an advance guard of the German Einsatzgruppe, clubs local Jews to death on the forecourt of a garage in Kaunas. They are surrounded by local onlookers and German soldiers.

Bundesarchiv, B 162 Bild-04126.

Perpetration as work

Perpetrators could detach their actions from their ordinary daily lives by framing the acts of violence they committed as crucial to German national interests, an essential part of the war effort, or even simply as ‘work’.

Between June and December 1941, German killing squads, security service (SD), police and naval forces along with local auxiliary police killed more than 170,000 Jews in the Baltic states as well as so-called Gypsies, communists and disabled people. Some mass shootings became public spectacles.

One of the former shooters from the SD, Hans Baumgartner, confessed to his participation in interrogations with the East German secret police in the 1960s. Baumgartner had avoided shooting in the first operations in July 1941, which he believed ‘were always Monday to Friday’ with the weekend as ‘rest days’. But eventually he had to join the shooters. He cried as he recounted his first killing. Eventually the killings followed a routine: ‘at times I participated in shooting, then I rested, then I participated in stripping [Jews of clothing], then I participated in pushing [Jews towards the pits]. And every time … [I] had a sip [of Schnapps], whenever the bottle was empty, a new one had already appeared … they were Jews of all ages, all sexes…’

Source: BStU. Vernehmung ehem. SD-Oberscharführer Hans Baumgartner, Massenerschieβungen Riga 1941, Berlin 1969. MfS HA/IX/Tb/2130-2132.

Organised killings: Wilna (Vilnius) and Ponary

Germans soon organised mass murder in dedicated open air killing sites, such as the pits in Ponary, near Wilna (Vilnius), where people came to observe the killings.

Still image from a film by German naval officer Reinhard Wiener, who documented the shooting of Jews in Libau (Liepaja), Latvia, July 1941. Hans Baumgartner was involved in the killings.

Bundesarchiv, B 162 Bild-05010. Photographer: Reinhard Wiener. July 1941.

A grainy still image shows the shooting of Jews in Libau (Liepaja), Latvia from where bystanders look on at the murders.

How can we explain this explosion of violence?

We have to understand the broader conditions under which ordinary people could become involved in mass murder. These key factors include:


A radical, ideologically driven movement, party or state that seeks to justify attacking a target victim group.

Activists, resources and additional forces

The capacity to organise enablers, mobilise followers, and raise material and cultural resources, as well as the necessary physical force.

Passivity or inaction of wider ‘bystander’ communities

The incapacity or unwillingness of significant groups, institutions or nations to challenge the genocidal project.

Armed conflicts and / or dictatorship

Frequently, such violence can only take place under dictatorial conditions or in situations of armed conflict.

Nazi civilian administration as perpetration: Wilna (Vilnius), 1941-43

Nazi ghetto administration involved selecting the weak for death, while exploiting those still capable of work.

‘We knew nothing about it’: Deportations and the Germans

In Germany, people watched as former neighbours were deported east. They heard rumours of their fate, so why did bystanders not act?

After the T4 / euthanasia murder programme was formally stopped, the majority of male staff were transferred to extermination camps in occupied Poland. They were still paid by T4 and had regular holidays to unwind with wives, girlfriends, and female colleagues from T4 offices in a resort in the Austrian Alps.

Staff from Grafeneck euthanasia institute on an outing, June 1940. From the album of Willi Mentz (2nd from right). Bundesarchiv, B162 Bild-08126. Photographer: unknown.

Staff of the T4 / euthanasia murder programme sit around tables on a holiday at the office's resort in the Austrian Alps. The Alps can be seen behind the gathering of male officers with their girlfriends and wives.