These were the largest out of thousands of massacres large and small, including the wiping out of over 600 villages with their inhabitants in Belorussia alone, which were committed in the context of rural anti-partisan fighting and accounted for hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish civilian victims in the occupied territories of the USSR.
Among the units carrying out these massacres, the most notorious was the Dirlewanger special unit, which "took part in 14 major operations between March 1942 and July 1943 and wiped out an especially large number of huge villages with all their inhabitants, including Borki (rayon Kirov), Zbyshin, Krasnitsa, Studenka, Kopazevichi, Pusichi, Makovje, Brizalovichi, Velikaja Garosha, Gorodez, Dory, Ikany, Zaglinoje, Velikije Prussy and Perekhody" (Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, p. 958, my translation).
This unit, which even among the local German administrators had "a reputation for destroying many human lives" (according to Reich Commissioner for the Eastern Lands Hinrich Lohse, in a letter dated 18 June 1943 to Alfred Rosenberg, Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories), was commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger, a long-time member of the NSDAP who had a PhD in political science, a conviction for sexual relations with an underage dependant girl, and a long military career including service in the First World War, in Freikorps militia and in the Legion Condor during the Spanish Civil War. One of the most unsavory Nazi characters, Dirlewanger was known for, among other things, personally shooting his men when he – as frequently happened – was drunk, on mere suspicion of dereliction of for no reason at all. The particularly harsh discipline that Dirlewanger applied to the unit he commanded was also related to the unit’s composition. Originally consisting of convicted poachers only, it had in the summer of 1942 been reinforced by a company of Ukrainian and a battalion of Russian auxiliaries. Later concentration camp inmates who had participated in medical experiments on human beings were added, then "a-socials" and "professional criminals", including pimps and men convicted for burglary, sexual offenses, manslaughter or murder. A detailed study about the Dirlewanger unit by German historian Hellmuth Auerbach was published in issue 3/1962 of the Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte. The above information about Dirlewanger and the composition of his unit was taken from Auerbach’s article.
Dirlewanger’s unit was part of the Bandenkampfverbände ("bandit-fighting units"), whose commander was SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. This "Chief of Anti-Partisan Combat Units" later gave a self-apologetic testimony about his activities at the Nuremberg Trial of the Major War Criminals, as a prosecution witness against his superiors.
In early August 1944, shortly after the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, the Dirlewanger brigade was part of the Kampfgruppe (Battle Group) Reinefarth, commanded by SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth, which also included the RONA brigade, a Russian collaborating force headed by Bronislaw Kaminski. In the Warsaw district of Wola, and to a lesser extent also in the adjacent Ochota district, these forces perpetrated Nazi Germany’s largest single massacre against a non-Jewish civilian population. The peak day of the killing was Saturday, 5 August 1944, which became known as "Black Saturday". The horrors of this day and the following days were described as follows by British historian Norman Davies (No Simple Victory. World War II In Europe, 1939-1945, p. 316):
The killings that took place in August 1944 in the first week of the Warsaw Rising in the suburbs of Wola and Ochota are equally hard to understand, especially since they were nearly a hundred times more extensive than Oradour. The suburbs in question, on the western side of the city, had no military importance. They were filled with a mixture of factories, public buildings, hospitals and low-cost housing. But they happened to be in the path of the SS Storm Group as it made its first drive from the German-controlled outskirts towards the insurgent-controlled centre. The two SS brigades concerned, those of Dirlewanger and Kaminski, can hardly have been surprised to be fired on. But their reaction was surprising. Instead of engaging the Home Army units that were harassing them, they turned their fury on civilian non-combatants. In an orgy lasting five or six days, every manner of atrocity was perpetrated. A large crowd of men and women was driven into a churchyard and machine-gunned. Householders were dragged into the street to be butchered with sabres and bayonets. Pregnant women were drawn and quartered. Hospitals were invaded, and patients were mown down in their beds. Doctors and nurses who pleaded for relief were mutilated. Children were chopped to pieces. Streets and houses flowing with blood were then set alight. The number of victims is put at a figure between 40,000 and 50,000. A crazed mêlée of German convicts and Russian turncoats had joined forces to murder the largest number of Poles in as many ways as possible. Dante’s Inferno contains no such scenes, and there is no convincing explanation for them.
While the particularly gruesome atrocities described by Davies must have been the work of individual sadists among Dirlewanger’s and Kaminski’s forces, the systematic mass killings perpetrated especially by the former of these units were part of a policy decided upon at the highest levels of command, rather than merely the rampage of a rabble that those in command had lost control of. This is what becomes apparent from a more sober description of the horrors vividly described by Davies, which is provided by Polish historian Wlodzimierz Borodziej in his book Der Warschauer Aufstand 1944. What follows is my translation from pp. 119-125 of this book.
Already on 4 August, however, the tide started turning. The calls for help by Frank, Fischer, Stahel and Army High Command 9 led to a strengthening of the Warsaw garrison. Besides individual troop detachments of Wehrmacht and police two larger units were ordered to Warsaw, which from now on were to strongly mark the course of the fighting. The first was the so-called Dirlewanger Regiment. It consisted of German criminals, poachers, professional criminals, SS-men serving suspended sentences. In its previous assignments behind the Eastern Front it had left a wide trail of blood. Now this infamous regiment was to pacify Warsaw; the policy applied in this respect, »to shoot all inhabitants«, exceeded even the guidelines for fighting partisans in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. The second special unit was a regiment of the »Storm Brigade«(Russkaja Osvoboditelnaja Narodnaja Armia) under Mieczyslaw Kamiński, which consisted of former Red Army soldiers and after several »operations« in Belorussia was ill-reputed even among the Germans. Before the revolt’s outbreak a settlement of RONA members and their families (about 20,000 to 30,000 people according to estimates) as »armed peasants« in the southern part of the General Government had been considered; however this idea had already been abandoned before 1 August. For Warsaw Kaminski’s brigade obviously received as special license for »plundering«, which even the Germans themselves were soon to regret. It should be added that the infamous RONA made up only a part of the »foreign« troops in the operation against Warsaw, which at times made up almost 50 per cent of the attackers under German command and instructions. Kaminski’s and Dirlewanger’s units were concentrated for attack together with other reinforcements to the south and west of Warsaw under the command of the Higher SS and Police Commander Wartheland, Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefahrt.
Since the 3rd of August the Wehrmacht used ground-attack planes against the insurgents. On the next and the following day the units ordered by Himmlers to Warsaw arrived, so that the number of German troops in and around Warsaw doubled in relation to what it had been on 1 August. Overall command was taken by SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach, »Chief of Bandit-fighting Units« since 1943, who immediately called his Warsaw mission a »heaven bound assignment« in his diary. It is uncertain whether he thereby meant only the military aspect of his assignment, as also for the Germans the fight for Warsaw was more than a mere military operation from the beginning. The planning officers in the General Government had already in 1940 considered the »necessity« to »downsize« the city, which as part of the future German settlement area was to be reduced to 100,000 inhabitants. In the course of the occupation this strategic-urbanizing approach, which was closely linked to the chimera of removing the Poles from their old state territory, was accompanied by the conviction of Warsaw’s particular importance as a centre of the resistance movement: »We have in this land one spot from which all calamity emanates: it is Warsaw«, stated Hans Frank in December 1943. »If we didn’t have Warsaw in the General Government, we wouldn’t have four fifths of the difficulties that we have to struggle with. Warsaw is and remains the trouble spot, the place from which all unrest is carried into this country.« Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler thought likewise. »When I heard the news about the revolt in Warsaw, I immediately went to the Führer«, he told in September 1944 to an interest listener’s circle of defense district commanders and school commanders. »I said: "My Führer, the time is inconvenient. From a historical point of view, however, it is a blessing that the Poles are doing this. The five, six weeks we will manage. But then Warsaw will have been wiped out - the capital, the head, the intelligence of this people of 16-17 million Poles, which has been blocking the east for us over 700 years and stood in our way time and again since the first battle of Tannenberg. Then the Polish problem will historically no longer be a big problem for our children and all who come after us, even already for ourselves."«
Von dem Bach later claimed that only after his arrival he had learned about Himmler’s or Hitler’s order, which he summarized as follows in 1946 during his interrogation by a Polish public prosecutor:
»1. All insurgents should be shot after capture, regardless of whether or not their combat actions complied with the Hague Convention.
2. The noncombatant part of the population was to be wiped out without exception.
3. The whole city was to be leveled to the ground, i.e. all houses, streets and all that was in the city was to be destroyed.«
Except for von dem Bach’s personal responsibility it is irrelevant when he learned about this order. What is important is that this order in fact existed, that it was carried out by several units, and that the taking of command by the »Chief of Bandit-fighting Units« after a few days led to this order being gradually ignored – for reasons still to be addressed.
Already on 4 August the Germans had again tried to establish the east-west link from the Poniatowski Bridge via the Aleje Jerozolimskie. On 5 august the German troops counterattacked, this time with a focus west and southwest of the city centre. Despite numerical superiority over the Kedyw - group in Wola and despite support by heavy weapons they only advanced a few hundred meters this day. The military consequences of the first German counterattack were thus insignificant. The results of the fighting on 5 August were the mountains of corpses that the »Reinefahrt Battle Group« left in Ochota and especially in Wola.
Already in the first days German troops had massively murdered AK-soldiers and civilians in Warsaw: on 1 August at least 135 persons, on 2 August about 600 persons in the Gestapo prison in Aleja Szucha alone, on 2 and 3 August several hundred in the whole city. In several cases civilians, as already mentioned, were driven in front of attacking soldiers or tanks as a living shield. The above-quoted order about the shooting of all those captured and the destruction of the city, however, brought a new quality, which exceeded the atrocities and crimes typical of the occupation. Throughout 5 August this order was carried out in Wola mainly by the Dirlewanger Brigade: civilians from children to old people were bumped off in mass executions without any reason, and the murderers didn’t even stop before hospitals. In Ochota the less systematic mass murder was accompanied by rapes and robbery committed by the RONA-people. Nevertheless Reinefahrt was not completely satisfied: in a telephone call with the supreme commander of 9th Army he stated that his troops were only advancing slowly; they had inflicted enemy casualties of »over 10,000 including those shot«, but still the question remained: »What shall I do with the civilians? I have less ammunition than prisoners.«
Reinefahrt might have been more satisfied if he had known that the actual number of victims was far higher; according to Polish estimates, which however also included the victims of the following days, between 30,000 and 40,000 civilians died in Wola; along the Wolska Street alone and in its surroundings 41 sites of mass executions were later reconstructed. For comparison: the Germans’ military opponent in the west, the Kedyw battle group, gave its own losses on 5 August as 20 dead and 40 wounded. On the evening of this day the just arrived von dem Bach ordered the mass shooting of women and children to be suspended. In the following days »only« men were to be shoot – an instruction that was ignored often enough, but probably saved von dem Bach’s head after the war: notwithstanding all other crimes in the fight against partisans he had in this, his largest operation »in the East« at least reduced the bloodbath by one dimension.
The massacre in Wola and Ochota on 5 August had far-reaching consequences for the revolt. Tens of thousands of inhabitants of the southern and western quarters fled to the parts of the city controlled by the AK. On the one hand this shifting of masses of people increased the food problems in the liberated part of the city. On the other hand it gave the revolt a new dimension: after it had become apparent that the Germans killed civilians just as they did captured AK soldiers, the revolt became a struggle for the life of the civilian population, and the AK troops became the protectors or women, children and old people from a murderous rabble. The solidarity effect between troops and civilians was to be exposed to numerous tests in the coming weeks, just like the social peace between various groups of civilians in an embattled city, in which life become more unbearable each day. As a rule, however, the civilian population’s existential dependence gave the leaders of the revolt an authority that they would never have had as commanders of a purely military operation. The inhabitants of Warsaw, the propaganda company of SS-Panzer Division »Wiking« reported »after sounding out a trek of evacuees«, had at first turned away from the badly prepared revolt »with great bitterness […]. But now that they had to see that the Germans were ruthlessly destroying life and property of the inhabitants and leveling all of Warsaw to the ground, regardless of who was guilty or innocent, the mood had completely changed.« Obviously appalled by this side effect of the German terror, General Stahel thereupon ordered, »that among the civilians led away from Warsaw there must immediately be spread a counterpropaganda, which opens the people’s eyes to the fact that not the Germans have brought the calamity over the city of Warsaw, but the insurgents themselves.« But for this it was now too late. Despite the strategic defeat of the attack, despite the lack of Soviet help, despite the revolt’s complete failure in Praga on the Vistula’s right bank, the fight now had to continue – the stakes no longer being a military or political success, but the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the liberated part of the city. And yet another dimension of that 5 August should be addressed here:
»The mass murder in Wola was not an air attack, but an atrocity against men, women and children in a non-fighting part of the city carried out eye in eye by those giving, passing on, tolerating or executing the orders«, was the comment made in 1964 by military historian Hanns von Krannhals, who researched this subject in detail. »Its senselessness within the scope of the fighting only increased the guilt of those responsible, who were present right on site. The boards, small wooden crosses and memorial stones on both sides of Wolska Street in Warsaw are the way of the cross of a passion from which there is no acquittal before history.«
Himmler’s utterances towards Hitler quoted by Borodziej, as well as the order summarized by von dem Bach during a 1946 interrogation in Poland, suggest that the Warsaw bloodbath in the first days of August resulted from the Nazi leaders’ fury about the revolt and their desire to settle accounts with the city once and for all. But why, then, was von dem Bach able to at least reduce the scope of the massacre, by ordering at the end of 5 August that women and children were no longer to be shot? A possible explanation is that the Hitler/Himmler order summarized by von dem Bach was not or not only an ideologically motivated destruction order, but that the Nazi leaders hoped to quickly suppress the revolt by drowning it in blood, reckoning that the wholesale killing of civilians would break the insurgents’ spirit, deprive them of any support among the population and cause them to quickly give up the fight. As it turned out, the effect of the massacre was exactly the opposite – the population, realizing that the Germans were killing combatants and noncombatants indiscriminately, sought the protection of the AK (Armia Krajova) insurgents, who rather than give up decided to fight to the end, despite having no chance of success.
While there is no acquittal before history for the horrors committed in Wola and Ochota, human justice was less diligent in prosecuting those responsible. Bronislaw Kaminski was executed by the Germans themselves, for reasons that are not quite clear. Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger, as mentioned by Auerbach, died on 7 June 1945 in Althausen, Germany, the exact circumstances of his death being unknown. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski never faced trial for his war crimes, either at Nuremberg or by the Poles (whom, as mentioned by Borodziej, he apparently managed to convince that he had saved a great many lives by countermanding the Hitler/Himmler order to indiscriminately kill civilians). The only crimes he was ever sentenced for, by West German courts, were individual murders committed in the 1930’s (for details see here).
Most fortunate of all those responsible for the Wola and Ochota atrocities was SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth (whose name is wrongly spelled “Reinefahrt” by Borodziej. After the war he made a career in politics and managed to become mayor of the town Westerland on the isle of Sylt and be elected into the parliament of the German federal state Schleswig-Holstein. For some time it looked as if his past would catch up with him, as the Flensburg public prosecutor’s office opened several investigation procedures against Reinefarth on account of his role in the Warsaw massacres. The evidence against Reinefarth, mentioned in two contemporary articles in the German weekly Der Spiegel (Mehr Polen als Pulver, 20.09.1961 and Nacht über Wola, 06.06.1962), was quite solid. It included the deposition of law professor Hans Thieme, one of several German witnesses who published their recollections of the Warsaw atrocities. Thieme recalled having heard Reinefarth complain that he "didn’t have enough ammunition to kill them all"; his testimony was corroborated by military historian Krannhals’ discovery of the log of Reinefarth’s telephone conversation with the commander of 9th Army on 5 August 1944, in which Reinefarth made the statements quoted by Borodiej about having "less ammunition than prisoners" and having inflicted enemy casualties of "over 10,000 including those shot" (against own casualties of 6 dead and 36 wounded, 12 thereof slightly). Despite such incriminating evidence, the investigators’ reluctance was such that Der Spiegel ended this article with the following ironic remarks (my translation):
The documents processed by Eastern Europe researcher Krannhals are currently being brooded over again by the Flensburg Public Prosecutor’s Office, with no success in sight. For their investigation procedure in 1958, in which the same files as now were available, Chief Prosecutor Biermann and his people needed five weeks. Then they closed the procedure. Three weeks later there were elections for the federal state’s parliament (Landtagswahl), and Reinefarth was elected.
This time the prosecutors have already been gnawing on the files for ten months. However, the now probable indictment is not to be expected for the time being, at least not before September of this year. On 23 September there will be elections for the new Landtag of Schleswig-Holstein. Probable top candidate of the Gesamtdeutsche Partei ("All German Party") in the Südtondern electoral ward: Heinz Reinefarth.
Reinefarth was never indicted for his Warsaw crimes.
The number of people murdered on 5 August 1944 and in the following days by troops of Kampfgruppe Reinefarth has never been established with certainty. As mentioned in this article, figures range from German estimates in the order of 15,000 to Polish estimates whereby 38,000 civilians were slain. One of the reasons for this uncertainty is the fact that, as mentioned in this article and described by a surviving witness, the bodies of the victims were burned by a Verbrennungskommando of captive Poles, which set up pyres at various places throughout the massacre areas and operated at least until the middle of September 1944. After the war the victims’ cremation remains were partially exhumed from pits into which they had been dumped, in order to be buried at the Cemetery of the Warsaw Insurgents. The aforementioned article mentions a procession on 6th August 1946, in which over 8.5 tons of human ashes were carried in 177 coffins. It also shows a facsimile of a document dated 17 March 1947, in which the amounts of ashes exhumed at various places, apparently by and near the Wolska Street, are listed – altogether 22,022 kg or 22 tons of human ashes. The weight of ashes in open-air incineration being about 10 % of the corpse’s pre-cremation weight (see the blog Mattogno, Graf & Kues on Aktion Reinhard(t) Cremation (4) for details). Thus the pre-cremation weight of the corpses whose remains were exhumed would have been about 220,000 kg. Assuming that the population of Warsaw was still reasonably well-fed at the beginning of the uprising, adults weighing about 60 kg on average and children half that much, and that the murdered population consisted two thirds of adults and one third of children, these 220,000 kg would correspond to (220,000 ÷ 50 =) 4,400 corpses. Unless there are records of further exhumations or the surviving documentation on exhumations is incomplete, this number implies that, even assuming "only" 15,000 massacre victims as per German estimates, only a part of the victims’ remains were eventually accorded a fairly decent burial.
After the massacres in early August 1944, Warsaw civilians continued dying in large numbers until the remaining insurgents – whom the Germans eventually agreed to treat in accordance with the Geneva Convention – capitulated on 2 October 1944. Though there were massacres of non-combatants throughout the uprising, none of them approached the scale of the Black Saturday killings, most civilian victims being due to bombing, shelling, street-fighting, hunger and disease. According to Borodziej (as above, p. 190), the number of dead on the Polish side was probably about 200,000, thereof 15,000 soldiers. Borodziej’s professional colleague Bogdan Musial, in a speech in the Französische Friedrichstadtkirche in Berlin on 19 July 2004, mentioned between 150,000 and 180,000 civilian dead, thereof 40,000 murdered in mass executions. Either of these numbers is somewhat below the expectations of SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth, who in an article in the "Ostdeutscher Beobachter" on 5 November 1944, quoted in this article, had eulogized his Warsaw achievements as follows (my translation):
Whether soldier, SS-man, policemen or SD-man … they all saw to it that Poland’s metropolis, from which so many calamities had come to us Germans over the centuries, was finally removed as a source of danger … We defeated also this enemy and inflicted on it losses of about a quarter of a million people.