Anatomy of Genocide

In Broad Daylight” by Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest, describes how the Germans carried out their campaign of genocidal massacres of Jews throughout Eastern Europe in WWII from 1941-3, known as “the Holocaust by Bullets.”  It is estimated that 2.2 million Jews were murdered in this way.  Why was it so easy for the Germans to kill so many Jews in such a short period of time?  The reasons the Jews of Eastern Europe were murdered in their thousands in towns and villages all over the vast area were many.  Here is a list of some reasons:

  1. During WWI the Jews regarded the Germans who invaded Eastern Europe and Russia as civilized liberators compared to the Slavic peasants they lived amongst.  The Jews were not badly treated by the German invaders then. This made them less afraid than they should have been in WWII, when major changes had occurred in Germany.  Unknown to the Jews of Eastern Europe the Germans in WWII intended to kill all Jews due to racial hatred and the political propaganda of the ruling Nazi party.
  2. The Jews of Eastern Europe had no means of defence, they had no military training and no weapons and they were essentially at the mercy of any armed forces.  The Jews were inured to violent hatred and had developed a culture that made them resigned to their fate.
  3. Their Jewish religion attributed everything that happened to God’s will, they were .  fatalistic. Also, with a particularly humanistic religion they could never imagine that any people would massacre other humans beings in such a way.
  4. The Jews were mostly peasants, small farmers, shopkeepers and small businessmen.  Like other people in this huge region, they had no means of communication, there were few newspapers and very few radios.  They may have heard that there was a war on, but they thought that it was thousands of miles away from them and they did not expect the Germans to arrive and to bother with them.
  5. The German forces were well-organized and prepared for their task of massacring all the Jews of Eastern Europe (some 5 million people).   They invaded the area of Soviet Russia captured by the German forces in 4 main mobile commando groups (Einsatzgruppen).  They were well-armed and briefed for their task of murdering Jews on a large scale.
  6. The Germans meticulously organized these thousands of local massacres, killing up to tens of thousands of people in one go (in Baby Yar in Kiev they massacred 34,000 Jews in two days).  From direct eyewitness accounts Desbois sets out the steps of the massacres, from the initial planning (they had Soviet lists of all people in the areas), to cordoning off the Jewish areas or moving the Jews into a Ghetto area that was surrounded by barbed wire with armed Ukrainian guards.  All Jews were warned to remain in their houses while the Germans prepared for the massacre, including selecting the site for the ditches (the size depending on the number to be murdered) and requisitioning local Ukrainians to dig the ditches.
  7. Then the night before the murders the Germans would go into the Ghetto and with the help of local Ukrainians identify wealthy houses and those with young girls.  They would get drunk, steal from the wealthy, and shoot everyone in the house, they would rape young girls in the street or in their houses and shoot anyone including their family who tried to interfere, then they would shoot the girls.
  8. The morning of the massacre, the Jews were told to assemble and told that they would be going to Palestine or to another Ghetto, they were told to bring food for the day and some clothes.  They were either lined up and marched to the massacre site if it was close or transported in requisitioned wagons or in trucks, rented from German trucking companies.  There were armed guards on each wagon or truck who shot people for any reason or for none.  The local Ukrainians knew the Jews  were going to be massacred, because they had dug the ditches, but the Jews did not know.  It was only when they reached the ditches with Germans lined along the side with guns, that they realized the terrible truth.
  9. The Jews were told to disrobe, sometimes they allowed them to keep their underwear but often not.  Anyone who did not do so quickly was shot. Then in groups of 4-20 depending on how many shooters there were, they were force marched into the ditch or onto a plank crossing the ditch.  Then they were shot. To cover the noise of the shooting and screaming of the victims, the Germans had locals banging metal pots.  Some Jews tried to escape, but they were quickly shot. German soldiers usually smashed the heads of babies or they were simply thrown into the pit.
  10. Ukrainians or other locals were used to position the dead bodies, remove any gold teeth from the corpses and also collect and sort any valuables and clothes they had left.  The Germans took the best, the rest was transported to a central location and sorted and the bulk transported to Germany.  Then Ukrainians covered the bodies with sand and lime and finally covered the massacre site with sand and earth and tamped it down so that there was no sign that a massacre had taken place.  Sometimes they burnt the bodies and sometimes shot them next to a river.
  11. Half-Jewish children of mixed marriages (mischlings) were also collected and shot. Often their non-Jewish parent did not know about this until after the event.
  12. Then the mobile killing unit moved on to the next village or town to repeat the procedure.  In this way from 1941-3 some 2.2 million Jews were massacred.  The rest of the Jews trapped in the area were later murdered more efficiently in concentration camps, like Auschwitz.
  13. Desbois makes the point in his book after interviewing thousands of eyewitnesses that they fall into two categories.  Those who talk about seeing “the Jews” massacred, or describe parts of the process or incidents that happened, but always refer to “The Jews.”  And those who refer to individuals by name, like “I saw them take away Josef who was in my class,” or “they shot the Friedmans and the Gross family, all of them” and these people relate to the murdered as people, as individuals that they knew.  What makes the difference between these two types of witnesses.  At the time they were all curious children, but some saw the whole massacre as a kind of macabre entertainment, because they knew they were safe.  While others saw it as a terrible act, the murder of people who they knew and even cared for, and in a way also felt vulnerable.
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