In his Posen speech on 6 October 1943, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler used this idiom in referring to the extreme effects that mass killing of Jewish populations including women and children could and often did have on the psyche of the executors:
I ask you that what I tell you in this circle you will really only hear and never talk about it. The question came up to us: What do to with the women and children? I decided to find a very clear solution also in this respect. This because I didn’t consider myself entitled to exterminate the men, that is, to kill them or to have them killed, and to let the children grow up as avengers against our sons and grandsons. The difficult decision had to be taken to make this people disappear from the earth. For the organization that had to carry out the task if was the most difficult we had so far. It has been carried out without, as I consider myself entitled to say, our men and our leaders having taken harm to their spirit and soul. The path between the possibilities existing here, to either become crude and heartless and no longer to respect human life or to become weak and collapse to the point of nervous breakdowns, the path between this Scylla and Charybdis is horrendously narrow.(Emphasis added)
This blog will present cases from the massacre of the Jews of Nikolayev organized by Einsatzgruppe D, which is mentioned in Operational Situation Report USSR No. 101 and in Peter Bamm’s book Die unsichtbare Flagge, that illustrate the psychological stress addressed in Himmler’s speech.
Based on the judgment at the trial of Paul Johannes Zapp before the Munich Court of Assizes (trial summary see here under "Zapp, Paul Johannes", Case Nr. 724) and on evidence from criminal investigations by authorities of the German Federal Republic, namely documents and depositions of perpetrators before public prosecutors, historian Andrej Angrick reconstructed the Nikolayev massacre, which started on 14 September 1941, on pp. 245 to 251 of his study Besatzungspolitik und Massenmord. Die Einsatzgruppe D in der südlichen Sowjetunion 1941-1943. What follows is a partial translation of the aforementioned pages from Angrick’s book without the footnotes, including depositions and a document quoted by Angrick.
The slaughter began at 7:30 hours in the morning and lasted until evening, interrupted only by a noon break. The trucks drove to the collection camp, where each was »loaded with 35-40 persons«, brought these to the ravine, in which shots were resounding all the time, and drove again to the collection camp. Escape attempts were foiled by the inner cordon of guards.
»The Jews were of course screaming a lot. Those standing by the pit were sometimes begging for their lives, in any case I assume that the screaming had this content.«
At around 18 hours the execution was finished for the first day; in the evening Sonderkommando 11a »held another meeting, in a wholly loose manner, in order to remedy certain deficiencies«, i.e. in order to kill more efficiently on the following days. After all men had already been killed, the detachment took to murdering the women and children. The following days went in principle like the first one, with a well-nigh mechanical procedure: bringing new loads of people and shooting them. According to Himmler’s idea the members of his order were to carry out the task they had been given consequently but »decently« This goal of the RFSS remained, as he had himself experienced in Minsk, a mere wish in the face of the murder detachments' gruesome routine. The permanent shootings wore down some of the perpetrators in Nikolayev; group discipline crumbled in the face of ever new people brought to be murdered:
»As I already mentioned we had to first shoot the men. Later came the women and children. In this execution indescribable scenes occurred. I myself still remember that I had to shoot on a women who still tried to protect her little baby from death by pressing it to her breast. I cannot express here in words what happened inside me at that moment. Soon thereafter I should have shot a boy who was 7 to 8 years old. When we pointed the rifles I still saw how the boy turned to me seeking help. At that moment I had the feeling of having to shoot my own child. In my excitement I fired only some time after the order to fire. The shot missed its target. Thereupon I had a nervous breakdown and had to be relieved immediately from the execution detachment. During the remainder of that day I was only used to reload ammunition into the emptied machine pistols. Due to this nervous breakdown I then became completely grey within a few months.«
Also higher-ranking members, like Lieutenant Bernard of Police Reserve Battalion 9, who commanded a squad, had themselves relieved because they had become too »nervous«. The nerves of some members of the »senior service« were also »on edge«. While they might still function during executions, in moments of the rest they completely lost their bearings. Albrecht Zöllner for instance, who got into a hysterical quarrel with the administrative head of the Einsatzgruppe on account of the latter’s having issued blood sausage in cans for lunch during execution breaks, »got hold« of himself again and continued carrying out the bloody work.
Not so his training course colleague Martin Mundschütz of Einsatzkommando 12. He could no longer bear taking part in executions and had the detachment’s doctor confirm his »incapacitation« after an examination. After consultation with Ohlendorf he was no longer commanded to executions but put in charge of obtaining food. The matter was not solved thereby, as Mundschütz, who was mocked as the »Austrian wimp«, became increasingly depressed, had thoughts of suicide and finally asked Ohlendorf in a »comradely« conversation to be relieved from the Einsatzgruppe and sent back home. He wrote Ohlendorf a letter, which is handed down in transcription and is completely rendered in the following, because unlike many postwar justification attempts it provides an original insight into the relationship between order and obedience in the SS:
»To Mr. Standartenführer Ohlendorf
What I was not able to say in words because my voice gave out I would like to catch up on in these lines to you, Mr. Standardtenführer.
Standartenführer, you are assuming that I’m in one of those period[s] of weakness that go by without harm. Not weakness was the cause of my regrettably not manly behavior towards you on occasion of our conversation, but my nerves gave way. And their having given way is just a consequences of that nervous breakdown 3 weeks ago, in the sequence of which I was haunted day and night by images that brought me close to madness. Now that I have more or less overcome these, it turns out I've lost my nerve strength and am no longer in control of my will. I can no longer fight back the tears and flee into a house entrance when I'm on the street or slip under the blanket when I’m in the room.
I am now meant to drive to the villages as purchaser. Please spare me this so that I don’t have to present to comrades driving with me or to other people the unpleasant spectacle of a weeping soldier.
Until now I managed to hide my state from the comrades in the room. However, as the crying fits come with increasing frequency, I fear another breakdown of my nerves.
Standartenführer, if you consider it absolutely necessary to keep me here and release me only when my state becomes so obvious that my name is in everyone’s mouth, then I ask you to at least give me a room where I am alone, or even better, to sent me to the hospital.
However, if you, Sir, have an understanding and a heart for a subordinate who is willing to sacrifice himself to the last for the German cause, but doesn’t wish to present the spectacle of someone who allegedly became weak, then please take me out of these surroundings. I shall return as a grateful convalescent, only please let me go away from here.[…]«
Ohlendorf sent Mundschütz, of whom he knew that he had »lately taken part in various executions«, back home and recommended his internment in the SS neurological sanatorium in Munich. Mundschütz returned to Austria and, after some neurological examinations, was able to take up again his work at the Innsbruck criminal police without restrictions.
During the Nikolayev murders also other members of the Einsatzgruppe showed their »true character«: large parts of the unit were completely brutalized and enjoyed being masters of death, like Zapp’s driver, who fired into the crowd with a machine pistol from the side. Thus some of the blood-stained marksmen appreciated having their tea close to the pit during the break – »these people had no shame whatsoever« –, as if this was a normal »service interruption«. Meanwhile the victims had to wait inside the pit for the end of the private talk during break and the continuation of the executions. Other marksmen humiliated the naked Jewish men by beating on their genitals with sticks. What many leading officers thought, senior service member Haussmann expressed clearly. During an execution he said to one of his comrades that Jews were »vermin«, and thereafter made a gesture as if he had just crushed an insect under his feet. Uninterrupted excesses were the exception, however; the pleasure of killing individually and cruelly was in the long run present only in some individual Einsatzgruppen members. A large part had become completely numb from the constant executions, and not a few, especially of the Ordnungspolizisten (constabulary policemen) saw themselves as victims, who had been misused by their leadership and had to stun their conscience with alcohol.
The number of the actual victims of these three days, the majority of Nikoleyev’s Jewish population, was probably around 5,000 people. After the end of the large-scale executions the upper part of the ravine was blown up so that masses of rock buried the corpses like under a giant coffin cover. The killing didn’t stop thereafter, however; as soon as »ideological enemies« were encountered, Ohlendorf’s men also killed these.
Gas vans were introduced in order to spare the executioners the often traumatizing confrontation with their victims, or at least this was the claim made by former SS Obersturmführer Walter Rauff, head of division II D at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the Reich Main Security Office, in his deposition at the German embassy in Santiago, Chile, on 28 June 1972:
Whether at that time I had doubts against the use of gas vans I cannot say. The main issue for me at the time was that the shootings were a considerable burden for the man who were in charge thereof and that this burden was taken off them through the use of the gas vans.
If the purpose of introducing gas vans as a killing method was to relieve the psychological burden of mass shootings, it seems doubtful whether and to what extent this purpose was achieved, for two reasons. One is that the killing capacity of gas vans was comparatively small and thus insufficient for large-scale mass killings, as pointed out by Christian Gerlach (see the blog Thomas Dalton responds to Roberto Muehlenkamp and Andrew Mathis (2)). The other is that death in the gas vans tended to be particularly horrible and the sight of the victims was accordingly appalling. In connection with the extermination of Sevastopol’s Jews after the fall of the city in July 1942 (which is also mentioned by Peter Bamm), Angrick (Einsatzgruppe D, p. 532) quotes the 1962 testimony of Georg Weiβ, who at the time had been the driver of SS-Hauptsturmführer Rolf Maurer. This testimony is translated hereafter.
»Shortly before we left Sevastopol the detachment was issued a gas van. [ …] At that time I also knew already that in the school-like building Jews were being held prisoner. When we arrived there, the van already stood loaded in front of the house. I immediately noticed that the van was running more strongly in idle mode. Why this had to be so I didn’t yet know at the time. I knew that I had a gas van in front of me, by I thought that those inside would be gassed with chemicals. While I remained inside my vehicle, Maurer stepped out and talked to the accompanying detachment. I saw that both Maurer and the others held their ears against the vehicle’s wall. They probably wanted to hear what was going on inside. I for my part was still wondering why they didn’t drive off. Only after about 10 minutes they started. Maurer and I drove ahead as guides. The trip was again to the anti-tank ditches. Once they arrived there the van was driven backwards close to the pit, so that the door was directly above the pit. I myself had out of curiosity positioned myself right behind the door. What I saw now cannot be described. I can only say that those inside had died a most wretched and mean death. I only saw a ball of people clawed into each other.«
Further information about what death in a gas van could be like can be found here.