Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski
|Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski|
|Birth name||Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski|
1 March 1899|
Lauenburg, Province of Pomerania, German Empire
8 March 1972 (aged 73)|
Munich, Bavaria, West Germany
|Years of service||1914–1945|
SS and Police Leader for Silesia |
Higher SS and Police Leader, Army Group Centre Rear Area
Bandenbekämpfung Chief for occupied Europe
|Awards||Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross|
Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (1 March 1899 – 8 March 1972) was a high-ranking SS commander of Nazi Germany. During World War II, he was in charge of security warfare (Bandenbekämpfung, literally: "bandit fighting") against those designated by the regime as ideological enemies and any other persons deemed to present danger to the Nazi rule or Wehrmacht's rear security in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe. It mostly involved atrocities against the civilian population. In 1944 he led the brutal suppression of the Warsaw Uprising.
Despite his responsibility for numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity, Bach-Zelewski did not stand trial in Nuremberg, and instead was used as a witness for the prosecution. He was later convicted for politically motivated murders after the war and died in prison in 1972.
Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was born as Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski in Lauenburg on 1 March 1899 to Kashubian parents, Otto Jan Józefat von Zelewski and Elżbieta Ewelina Szymańska. He legally added "von dem Bach" to the family name late in 1933. On 28 November 1940, he removed the "Zelewski" part of his surname because of its Polish-sounding origin. Apparently, Bach-Zelewski manipulated his genealogy numerous times in his career, to impress his superiors.
Despite his aristocratic genealogy, he grew up in poverty. In November 1914, he volunteered for the Prussian Army and served throughout World War I, finishing with the rank of Leutnant. He was awarded the Iron Cross. After the war, Zelewski remained in the Reichswehr and fought against the Polish Silesian Uprisings. In 1924, he resigned his army commission (or was most likely discharged) and returned to his farm in Düringshof (Polish Bogdaniec in Gorzów Wielkopolski county). Zelewski enrolled with the border guards (Grenzschutz) the same year.
On 23 October 1925, he legally changed his surname to von dem Bach-Zelewski. In July 1930, he left the Grenzschutz, and joined the Nazi Party. Bach-Zelewski joined the SS on 15 February 1931. He achieved the rank of SS-Brigadeführer on 15 December 1933. During this period he reportedly quarreled with his staff officer, Anton von Hohberg und Buchwald.
A source of considerable embarrassment for him was the fact that all three of his sisters had married Jewish men. After the war he claimed under interrogation that this had ruined his reputation in the army, forcing him to leave the Reichswehr. A Nazi Party member of the Reichstag from 1932–44, Bach-Zelewski participated in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, using the opportunity to have his rival Buchwald murdered. From 1934 on he served as leader of SS main districts (SS-Oberabschnitten), initially in East Prussia and after 1936 in Silesia. In 1937, he was named Senior SS and Police Leader (HSSPF) in Silesia, and also served as Commander of SS main district South East (SS-Oberabschnitt Südost).
World War II
In November 1939, SS chief Heinrich Himmler offered Bach-Zelewski the post of "Commissioner for the Strengthening of Germandom" in Silesia. His duties included mass resettlement and the confiscation of Polish private property. By August 1940, some 18,000–20,000 Poles from Żywiec County were forced to leave their homes in what became known as the Action Saybusch (German name for Żywiec).
Bach-Zelewski provided the initial impetus for the building of Auschwitz concentration camp at the former Polish military barracks in the Zasole suburb of Oświęcim due to overcrowding of prisons. The location was scouted by his subordinate Oberführer Arpad Wigand. The first transport arrived at KL Auschwitz on 14 June 1940, and two weeks later Bach-Zelewski personally visited the camp. In June 1941, he resumed his duties as HSSPF in Silesia.
Occupied Soviet Union
During Operation Barbarossa Bach-Zelewski served as HSSPF in the territory of Belarus. From July to September 1941 he oversaw the extermination of Jews in Riga and Minsk by the Einsatzgruppe B, led by Arthur Nebe, also visiting other sites of mass killings such as Bialystok, Grodno, Baranovichi, Mogilev, and Pinsk. Bach-Zelewski regularly cabled to headquarters on the extermination progress; for example, the 22 August message stated: "Thus the figure in my area now exceeds the thirty thousand mark".
In February 1942 he was hospitalized in Berlin for treatment of "intestinal ailments", and was described as suffering from "hallucinations connected with the shooting of Jews". Before resuming his post in July, Bach-Zelewski petitioned Himmler for reassignment to anti-partisan warfare duty.. Von dem Bach was promoted to SS-Obergruppenführer and General of Police on 9 November 1941.
In June 1942 Reinhard Heydrich, acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, was assassinated in Prague. Hitler chose Bach-Zelewski as his replacement, but Himmler protested that he could not be spared due to the prevailing military situation. Hitler relented and appointed Kurt Daluege to the position. Through 1943, Bach-Zelewski remained in command of "anti-partisan" units on the central front, a special command created by Hitler. He was the only HSSPF in the occupied Soviet territories to retain genuine authority over the police after Hans-Adolf Prützmann and Jeckeln lost theirs to the civil administration.
Sometime in June 1943, Himmler issued the Bandenbekämpfung (bandit fighting) order, simultaneously announcing the existence of the Bandenkampfverbände (bandit fighting formations), with Bach-Zelewski as its chief. Employing troops primarily from the SS police and Waffen-SS, the Bandenkampfverbände had four principal operational components: propaganda, centralized control and coordination of security operations, training of troops, and battle operations. Once the Wehrmacht had secured territorial objectives, the Bandenkampfverbände first secured communications facilities, roads, railways, and waterways. Thereafter, they secured rural communities and economic installations such as factories and administrative buildings. An additional priority was securing agricultural and forestry resources. The SS oversaw the collection of the harvest, which was deemed critical to strategic operations. Any Jews in the area were rounded up and killed. Communists and people of Asian descent were killed presumptively under the assumption that they were Soviet agents. Under Bach-Zelewski, the formations were responsible for the mass murder of 35,000 civilians in Riga and more than 200,000 in Belarus and eastern Poland.
Bach-Zelewski's methods produced a high civilian death toll and relatively minor military gains. In fighting irregular battles with the partisans, his units slaughtered civilians in order to inflate the figures of "enemy losses"; indeed, far more fatalities were usually reported than weapons captured. The German troops would encircle areas controlled by the partisans in time-consuming manner, allowing real partisans to slip away. After an operation was completed, no permanent military presence was maintained, which gave the partisans a chance to resume where they had left off. Even when successful in pacification actions, Bach-Zelewski usually accomplished little more than to force the real enemy to relocate and multiply their numbers with civilians enraged by the massacres.
In July 1943, Bach-Zelewski received command of all anti-partisan actions in Belgium, Belarus, France, the General Government, the Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and parts of the Bezirk Bialystok. In practice, his activities remained confined to Belarus and contiguous parts of Russia.
On 2 August 1944, Bach-Zelewski took command of all German troops fighting Bor-Komorowski's Home Army that had staged the Warsaw Uprising. The German forces were made up of 17,000 men arranged in two battle groups: under Hanns von Rohr, and under Heinz Reinefarth – the latter included the Dirlewanger Brigade of convicted criminals. This command group was named after Bach-Zelewski, as Korpsgruppe Bach. Units under his command killed approximately 200,000 civilians (more than 65,000 in mass executions) and an unknown number of POWs, in numerous atrocities throughout the city.
After more than two months of heavy fighting and the total destruction of Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski managed to take control of the city, committing atrocities in the process, notably the Wola massacre. Bach-Zelewski was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 30 September 1944. On 4 October 1944, he accepted the surrender of General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski. Incidentally, during the slaughter and razing of Warsaw, he is alleged to have personally saved Fryderyk Chopin's heart, by taking it for his own collection of curiosities. The recovered heart is held at a Warsaw church. Between 26 January and 10 February 1945, Bach-Zelewski commanded X SS Armeekorps, one of the "paper-corps", in Germany, but this unit was annihilated after less than two weeks.
After the war
After the war in Europe ended, Bach-Zelewski went into hiding and tried to leave the country. US military police arrested him on 1 August 1945. In exchange for his testimony against his former superiors at the Nuremberg Trials, Bach-Zelewski never faced trial for any war crimes. Similarly, he never faced extradition to Poland or to the USSR. During his testimony at the Nuremberg Trials, Bach-Zelewski stated that he disapproved of Himmler's aim to exterminate 30 million Slavs.
Bach-Zelewski left prison in 1949. In 1951, Bach-Zelewski claimed that he helped Hermann Göring commit suicide in 1946. As evidence, he produced cyanide capsules to the authorities with serial numbers not far removed from the one used by Göring. The authorities never verified Bach-Zelewski's claim, however, and did not charge him with aiding Göring's death. Most modern historians dismiss Bach-Zelewski's claim and agree that a U.S. Army contact within the Palace of Justice's prison at Nuremberg most likely aided Göring in his suicide.
Trials and convictions
In 1951, Bach-Zelewski was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp for the murder of political opponents in the early 1930s; however, he did not serve prison time until 1958, when he was convicted of killing Anton von Hohberg und Buchwald, an SS officer, during the Night of the Long Knives, and was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment.
In 1961, Bach-Zelewski was sentenced to an additional 10 years in home custody for the murder of six German Communists in the early 1930s. None of the sentences referred to his role in Poland, in the Soviet Union, or his participation in the Holocaust, although he openly denounced himself as a mass murderer. Bach-Zelewski died in a Munich prison on 8 March 1972, a week after his 73rd birthday.
Bach-Zelewski gave evidence for the defence at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in May 1961. His evidence was to the effect that operations in Russia and parts of Poland were conducted by Operations Units of the Security Police and were not subject to the orders of Eichmann's office, nor was Eichmann able to give orders to the officers in charge of these units, who were responsible for the murder of Jews and Gypsies. The evidence was provided at a hearing in Nuremberg in May 1961.
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