36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS
|36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS|
Semi-official insignia of the division
|Active||1940 - 1945|
|Engagements||Anti-partisan operations in Belarus
Slovak National Uprising
Battle of Halbe
The 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger (1944), or simply the Dirlewanger Brigade, was a military unit of the Waffen-SS during World War II, and was led by convicted child rapist Oskar Dirlewanger. Originally formed for anti-partisan duties against the Polish resistance the unit eventually saw action against the Soviet Red Army near the end of the war. During its operations it engaged in the rape, pillaging and mass murder of civilians. One of Dirlwangers most personal atrocious public acts, was during the Warsaw Uprising. When one of his SS units marched a group of Polish civilians past him, he walked up to a family and then ripped a newborn infant from a mothers arms. He than swung the baby by one arm into a burning pile of debris from the fighting, as he made the parents and crowd watch the infant be burnt alive. He ordered the unit to murder the civilians on site.
The unit participated in some of World War II's most notorious campaigns of terror in the east. During the organization's time in Russia, Dirlewanger burned women and children alive and let the starved packs of dogs feed on them. He was known to hold large formations with the sole purpose of injecting Jews with strychnine. Dirlewanger's unit took part in the occupation of Belarus, where it carved out a reputation within the Waffen-SS as an atrocious unit. Numerous Heer and SS commanders attempted to remove Dirlewanger from the SS and disband the unit, although he had patrons within the Nazi apparatus who intervened on his behalf. His unit was most notably credited with the destruction of Warsaw and its population during the Warsaw and Slovak uprisings in 1944. Dirlewanger's unit earned notoriety as the most criminal and heinous SS unit in Hitler's war machine.
The history of the Dirlewanger Brigade is inextricably linked to the life of its commander, Oskar Dirlewanger, a known sadist, often called the most evil man in the SS. After receiving the Iron Cross first and second class while serving in the Imperial German Army during World War I, Dirlewanger joined the Freikorps and took part in the crushing of German Revolution of 1918–19. He joined the Nazi Party in 1923. After graduation from Citizens' University, Dirlewanger worked at a bank and a knit-wear factory. He became a violent alcoholic, and in 1934 was convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl and stealing government property. The National Socialist Party expelled him and later compelled him to reapply for membership. After serving a two-year jail sentence, Dirlewanger was released. Soon after, he was arrested again for sexual assault. He was interned in a concentration camp. Desperate, Dirlewanger contacted Gottlob Berger, an old Freikorps comrade who worked closely with Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS. Berger secured his friend's release and an appointment to the Legión Cóndor, a German volunteer unit which fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) for Franco's Falange Española.
After returning to Germany in 1939, Dirlewanger enlisted with the Allgemeine SS (General-SS) with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer. In mid-1940, following the invasion of Poland Berger arranged for Dirlewanger to train a partisan-hunting military unit under his own control, composed of men convicted of poaching.
On 14 June 1940, the Wilddiebkommando Oranienburg (Oranienburg Poacher's Unit), a part of the Waffen-SS was formed. Himmler made Dirlewanger its commander. Within a couple of years, the unit grew into a band of common criminals. In contrast to those who served in the German penal battalions for committing minor offences, the recruits sent into Dirlewanger's band were convicted of major crimes, i.e. premeditated murder, rape, arson, burglary, etc. Dirlewanger provided them with an opportunity to commit atrocities on such a scale that even the SS executioners complained. Martin Windrow, the British historian, described them as a "terrifying rabble" of "cut-throats, renegades, sadistic morons, and cashiered rejects from other units." Some Nazi officials romanticized the unit, viewing the men as "pure primitive German men" who were "resisting the law".
By September 1940, the formation numbered over 300 men. Dirlewanger was appointed an SS-Obersturmführer by Himmler. With the influx of criminals, the emphasis on poachers was now lost, and those convicted of other more severe crimes, including criminally insane, joined the unit. Accordingly, the unit name was changed to Sonderkommando Dirlewanger (Special Unit "Dirlewanger"). As the unit strength grew, it was placed under the command of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (the same formation was responsible for the administration of the concentration camps) and redesignated as the SS-Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger. In January 1942, to re-build its strength, the unit was authorised to recruit Russian and Ukrainian volunteers. By February 1943 the number of men in the battalion doubled to 700 (half of them Volksdeutsche). It became a Waffen-SS unit again in late 1944.
Invasion of Poland
On 1 August 1940, the "Dirlewanger" unit strengthened by German criminals and madmen was assigned to guard duties in the region of Lublin (see Nisko Plan and the Majdanek concentration camp) in the General Government territory of occupied Poland. According to journalist and author, Matthew Cooper, "wherever the Dirlewanger unit operated, corruption and rape formed an every-day part of life and indiscriminate slaughter, beatings and looting were rife."  The General Government's Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger was disturbed by the brutality of the "Dirlewanger". His complaints resulted in its transfer to Belarus in February 1942.
In Belarus (i.e. Reichskommissariat Ostland), the unit came under the command of Höherer SS-und-Polizeiführer, Erich von dem Bach. The "Dirlewanger" resumed anti-partisan activities in this area, working in cooperation with the Kaminski Brigade. Dirlewanger's preferred method of operation was to gather civilians in a barn, set it on fire and shoot with machine guns anyone who tried to escape; the victims of his unit numbered about 30,000. According to Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian,
- "As it inflicted its first fifteen thousand mortal casualties, the Special Commando Dirlewanger lost only ninety-two men — many of them, no doubt, to friendly fire and alcoholic accidents. A ratio such as that was possible only when the victims were unarmed civilians."
In September 1942, the unit murdered 8,350 Jews in Baranovichi ghetto and then a further 389 people labeled "bandits" and 1,274 "bandit suspects". According to the British-Canadian historian, Martin Kitchen, the unit,
- "committed such shocking atrocities in the Soviet Union, in the pursuit of partisans, that even an SS court was called upon to investigate."
On 17 August 1942, the expansion of the "Dirlewanger" to regimental size was authorized. Recruits were to come from criminals, Eastern volunteers (Osttruppen) and military delinquents. The second battalion occurred in February 1943 when the regiment's strength reached 700 men. 300 men were anti-communists from Soviet territory. The unit was redesignated as the SS-Sonderregiment Dirlewanger. In May 1943, the ability to volunteer for service in the regiment was extended to all criminals. 500 men convicted of the most severe crimes were absorbed into the regiment. May and June saw the unit taking part in Operation Cottbus, an anti-partisan operation. In August 1943, the creation of a third battalion was authorised. With its expansion, the "Dirlewanger" was allowed to display rank insignia and a unique collar patch (at first crossed rifles, later crossed stick grenades). During this period, the regiment saw heavy fighting; Dirlewanger himself led many assaults.
In November 1943, the regiment was committed to front-line action with the Army Group Centre in an attempt to halt the Soviet advance, and suffered extreme casualties due to ineptitude. Dirlewanger received the German Gold Cross on December 5, 1943 in recognition of his earnestness, but by December 30, 1943, the unit consisted of only 259 men. Large numbers of amnestied criminals were sent to rebuild the regiment and by late February 1944, the regiment was back up to full strength. It was decided that Eastern volunteers would no longer be admitted to the unit, as the Russians had proved to be particularly unreliable in combat. Anti-partisan operations continued until June 1944, when the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, which was aimed at the destruction of Army Group Centre. The "Dirlewanger" was caught up in the retreat and began falling back to Poland. The regiment performed several rear guard actions and reached Poland, decimated, but in good order.
Return to Poland
When the Armia Krajowa began the Warsaw Uprising on 1 August 1944, "Dirlewanger" was sent into action as part of the Kampfgruppe formation led by SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinfarth; again, alongside Kaminski's Russian SS Sturmbrigade (of 1,700 men). Acting on orders that came directly from Reichfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, Kaminsky's and Dirlewanger's henchmen were given a free hand to rape, loot, torture and butcher. Over the following days, the troops indiscriminately massacred Polish combatants along with civilian men, women and children in the Wola District of Warsaw. While some of the regiment's actions were criticized by von dem Bach (who after the war described them as "a herd of pigs") and the sector commander, Generalmajor Günter Rohr; Dirlewanger was recommended by Reinefarth for the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and promotion to SS-Oberführer der Reserve. The Dirlewanger's brigade fought against the insurgents in Warsaw while suffering extremely high losses. Although the regiment arrived in the city numbering only 865 soldiers and 16 officers; soon, received reinforcements of 2,500 men, (including 1,900 German convicts from the SS military camp at Danzig-Matzkau). During the course of the two-month urban warfare "Dirlewanger" lost 2,733 men. Thus, total casualties numbered 315% of the unit's initial strength.
Thanks to Mathias Schenck from Belgium, many previously unknown episodes of the carnage had been revealed. The brutal murder of 500 small children was committed by "Dirlewanger" during the 1944 Wola massacre. "After the door of the building was blown off – Schenck testified – we saw a daycare-full of small children, around 500; all with small hands in the air. Even Dirlewanger's own people called him a butcher; he ordered to kill them all. The shots were fired, but he requested his men to save the ammo and finish them off by rifle-butts and bayonets. Blood and brain matter flowed in streams down the stairs." Schenck (a sapper from Wehrmacht) testified seeing a Dirlewanger man raping a girl while wielding a knife, and than cutting her wide open along the entire length of her torso after ejaculation. Up to 40,000 civilians were murdered in Praga in less than two weeks of July including all hospital patients and staff.
Between August and October 1944, the Dirlewanger Brigade (recruited from criminals and the mentally ill throughout Germany) and the Waffen-Sturm-Brigade RONA were sent to Warsaw to put down the uprising. During the battle, the Dirlewanger behaved atrociously, raping, looting, and killing citizens of Warsaw regardless of whether they belonged to the Polish resistance or not; the unit commander SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger encouraged their excesses. The unit's behavior was reportedly so bestial and indiscriminate that Himmler was forced to send a battalion of SS military police to ensure the Dirlewanger convicts did not turn their aggressions against the leadership of the brigade or other nearby German units. At the same time they were encouraged by Himmler to terrorize freely, take no prisoners, and generally indulge their perverse tendencies. Favoured tactics of the Dirlewanger men during the siege reportedly included the ubiquitous gang rape of female Poles, both women and children; playing "bayonet catch" with live babies; and torturing captives to death by hacking off their arms, dousing them with gasoline, and setting them alight to run armless and flaming down the street. The Dirlewanger brigade committed almost non-stop atrocities during this period, in particular the four-day Wola massacre. By 3 October 1944, the Poles had surrendered and the depleted regiment spent the next month guarding the Vistula line. During this time, the regiment was upgraded to brigade status, and named SS-Sonderbrigade Dirlewanger (SS Special Brigade Dirlewanger). In early October, it was decided to upgrade the "Dirlewanger" again, this time to a Waffen-SS combat brigade. Accordingly, it was redesignated as the 2.SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger in December 1944, and soon reached its complement of 4,000 men.
Slovakia and Hungary
When the Slovak National Uprising began in late August 1944, the newly formed brigade was committed to action. The conduct of the brigade played a large part in putting down the rebellion, and by 30 October the crisis was averted. With the outcome of the war no longer in doubt, large numbers of communist and socialist political prisoners began applying for the "Dirlewanger" in the hope of defecting to the Soviets. SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Schmedes, disgraced former commander of the 4th SS Polizei Division, was assigned to the "Dirlewanger" by Himmler as punishment for refusing to carry out orders. With his extensive combat experience, Schmedes became the unofficial advisor to Dirlewanger on front line combat.
In December, the brigade was sent to the front in Hungary. While several newly formed battalions made up of communist and socialist volunteers fell apart, several other battalions fought well. During a month's fighting, the brigade suffered heavy casualties and was pulled back to Slovakia to refit and reorganize.
In February 1945, orders were given to expand the brigade to a division; however, before this could begin it was sent north to the Oder-Neisse line in an attempt to halt the Soviet advance. On 14 February 1945, the brigade was redesignated as the 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS. With its expansion to a division of 4,000 men, the "Dirlewanger" had regular Heer units attached to the formation: a Grenadier regiment, a Pionier brigade and a Panzerjäger battalion. Individual Sturmpionier demolition engineers had already been attached to the force during the fighting in Warsaw.
When the final Soviet offensive began on 16 April 1945, the division was pushed back to the northeast. The next day, Oskar Dirlewanger was seriously wounded in combat for the twelfth time. He was sent to the rear and Schmedes immediately assumed command. Dirlewanger would not return to the division. Desertion became more and more common. When Schmedes attempted to reorganize his division on April 25, he found it had virtually ceased to exist. The situation was highly fluid, with men of the 73rd Waffen Grenadier Regiment of the SS lynching their commanding officer Ewald Ehlers (the former commandant of Dachau concentration camp, he had been convicted of corruption). On 1 May 1945, the Soviets wiped out all that was left of the 36. Waffen-Grenadier-Division in the Halbe Pocket. The small remnant of the division that managed to escape attempted to reach the U.S. Army lines on the Elbe river. Schmedes and his staff managed to reach the Americans and surrendered on 3 May.
Only about 700 men of the division survived the war. In June 1945, Dirlewanger was captured by the Free French forces in Germany and allegedly killed by Polish soldiers in Altshausen. In 2009, Polish authorities claimed to have identified three surviving members of "Dirlewanger" living in Germany and announced their intent to prosecute them.
- SS-Sturmbrigade "Dirlewanger" (August 1944) 
- Brigade Stab
- SS-Regiment 1
- SS Regiment 2
- 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (March 1945)
- Division Stab
- 72.Waffen-Grenadier-Regiment der SS
- 73.Waffen-Grenadier-Regiment der SS
- Panzer-Abteilung Stansdorf I
- Artillerie Abteilung 36
- Füsilier Kompanie 36
- 1244. Volks-Grenadier-Regiment
- 687.(Heer) Pioneer-Brigade
- 681.(Heer) Schwere-Panzerjäger-Abteilung
In popular culture
- The Dirlewanger Brigade is featured in the last chapter of the 2009 video game Velvet Assassin.
- The final scenes of the 1985 Soviet film Come and See are loosely based on the unit's notorious activities in Belarus, in particular the Khatyn massacre.
- Gordon Williamson, Stephen Andrew (Mar 20, 2012), The Waffen-SS: 24. to 38. Divisions, & Volunteer Legions Osprey Publishing 2004, pp. 16, 36. ISBN 178096577X.
- Timothy Snyder. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. p. 246. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
- Chris Bishop, Michael Williams, SS: Hell on the Western Front. Zenith Imprint, 2003, p. 92. ISBN 0760314020.
- Stein, George H. (1984). The Waffen SS. Cornell University Press, pp. 266–268. ISBN 0-8014-9275-0.
- Wistrich, Robert S. (2001). Who's Who of Nazi Germany: Dirlewanger, Oskar. Routledge, p. 44. ISBN 0-415-26038-8.
- Martin Windrow, Francis K. Mason, The World's Greatest Military Leaders, p. 117
- Timothy Snyder (Oct 2, 2012). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books. pp. 241–242, 304. ISBN 0465031471. Retrieved June 28, 2013.
- Matthew Cooper, The Nazi War Against Soviet Partisans, 1941-1944, p. 88
- French L. MacLean, The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonder-Kommando Dirlewanger. Google Books search. See excerpt at: "The Fifth Field." Retrieved June 29, 2013.
- Martin Kitchen, The Third Reich: Charisma and Community, p. 267
- 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS. Feldgrau.com. Retrieved June 30, 2013.
- Marcus Wendel (December 24, 2010), 29. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (russische Nr. 1) Axis History. Retrieved June 30, 2013.
- The Ukrainian Quarterly Volumes 21-22. Ukrainian Congress Committee of America. [page needed]
- Andrew Borowiec, Destroy Warsaw!: Hitler's Punishment, Stalin's Revenge, p. 101
- Mats Olson, Chris Webb, & Carmelo Lisciotto, Oskar Dirlewanger Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. Retrieved June 30, 2013.
- WŁodzimierz Nowak, Angelika Kuźniak (2004-08-23). "Mójwarszawski szał. Druga strona Powstania (My Warsaw madness. The other side of the Uprising)" (PDF file, direct download 171 KB). Gazeta.pl. pp. 5 of 8. Retrieved June 30, 2013.
- Andrzej Dryszel (2011). "Masakra Woli (The Wola Massacre)". Issue 31/2011. Archiwum. Tygodnik PRZEGLĄD weekly. Retrieved June 30, 2013.
- (German) Klausch, Hans-Peter - Antifaschisten in SS-Uniform: Schicksal und Widerstand der deutschen politischen KZ-Haftlinge, Zuchthaus- und Wehrmachtstrafgefangenen in der SS-Sonderformation Dirlewanger
- Walter Stanoski Winter, Walter Winter, Struan Robertson: Winter Time: Memoirs of a German Sinto who Survived Auschwitz. 2004. p. 139. ISBN 978-1-902806-38-9.
- Notorious SS unit 'traced', The Daily Telegraph, 17 Apr 2009
- Jason Pipes, SS-Sturmbrigade "Dirlewanger". Composition. Feldgrau.com. German armed forces 1918-1945.
- (German) Michaelis, Rolf - Das SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger: Ein Beispiel deutscher Besatzungspolitik in Weißrussland
- 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS on Feldgrau.com
- A witness account of a German Sturmpionier soldier from the Warsaw Uprising.com.