Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski

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Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S73507, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski.jpg
SS Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski
Birth name Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski
Born 1 March 1899
Lauenburg, Province of Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire now Lębork, Pomeranian Voivodeship, Poland
Died 8 March 1972(1972-03-08) (aged 73)
Munich, Bavaria, West Germany
Allegiance  German Empire
 Weimar Republic
 Nazi Germany
Service/branch Flag Schutzstaffel.svg Waffen SS
Years of service 1914–45
Rank SS-Obergruppenführer Collar Rank.svg Obergruppenführer
Unit Waffen-SS
Commands held Höherer SS und Polizeiführer for Silesia
Battles/wars Warsaw Uprising

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (1 March 1899 – 8 March 1972) was an SS-Obergruppenführer (General) mainly active in Central Russia, directing anti-partisan warfare, and in Poland, leading the suppression of the Warsaw uprising. Despite the use of tactics that amounted to mass murder of civilians, he did not stand trial in Nuremberg.



Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski was born to Kashubian parents, Otto Jan Józefat von Zelewski, a Roman Catholic, and his Lutheran wife, Elżbieta Ewelina Szymańska (written in German legal documents as Schimansky). Erich von Zelewski legally added "von dem Bach" to the family name late in 1933. He went on to have the Polish sounding "Zelewski" officially removed from his name in November 1941.[citation needed]

His great-great-great-grandfather was Michał Żelewski (c. 1700-1785), a Kashubian Polish nobleman, who owned the villages of Milwino, Niepoczołowice and Zakrzewo in Pomerania. Von dem Bach's grandfather was Otto August Ludwik Rudolf von Zelewski (born 1820, Zakrzewo – died 28 June 1878, Zęblewo) according to Roman Catholic Church sources. His father, Otto Jan Józefat von Zelewski (born 19 May 1859, Zęblewo; died 12 April 1911, Dortmund), married Amalia Maria Eveline Schimanski about 1890. They had three daughters and three sons, including Erich. Apparently, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski manipulated his genealogy numerous times in his career, to impress his superiors.[1]

Early life[edit]

Zelewski was born in Lauenburg, Pomerania, German Empire (present-day Lębork, Republic of Poland) on 1 March 1899. Despite his aristocratic genealogy, he seems to have grown up in poverty; his father, Otto, proved unable to establish a career and undertook a range of jobs, including agriculture. At the time of his death, Otto von Zelewski was an insurance clerk. Erich's uncle, Oskar von Zelewski, a soldier, developed a close relationship with his nephew and encouraged him to also pursue a military career. In November 1914, Erich volunteered for the Prussian army, becoming one of the youngest recruits and serving until the end of World War I. He was wounded twice, and awarded the Iron Cross. Zelewski was gassed in 1918, which had a long-term effect on his health.[1][2]

After the war, Zelewski remained in the army (the Reichswehr). He fought in the Freikorps against the Polish Silesian Uprisings. In 1924, Zelewski left the army on his own volition, and went back 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. He left the Grenzschutz in 1930, when he joined the Nazi Party, becoming a member of the SS in 1931. Bach-Zelewski was rapidly promoted and, by the end of 1933, had reached the rank of Major General (SS-Brigadeführer). He is also known to have quarreled with his staff officer Anton von Hohberg und Buchwald. In 1934 Bach-Zelewski received the The Honour Cross of the World War 1914/1918 (Ehrenkreuz).[1]

A source of considerable annoyance for him was the fact that all three of his sisters had married Jewish men. In 1946, 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, taking the opportunity to have Buchwald murdered. From 1934 on, he served as leader of SS main districts (SS-Oberabschnitten) initially in East Prussia and after 1936 in Silesia. By 1937, Bach-Zelewski had become the Higher SS and Police Leader, Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer (HSSPF) in Silesia and also served as the Commander of SS main district South East (SS-Oberabschnitt Südost).[citation needed]

World War II[edit]

Bach-Zelewski did not participate in the invasion of Poland personally, although the units under his command took part in reprisal actions and the shooting of POWs in the course of the September Campaign. Instead, on 7 November 1939, SS chief Heinrich Himmler offered him 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).[3]

On 22 June 1941, Bach-Zelewski became the HSSPF in the region of Silesia. He provided the initial impetus for the building of Auschwitz concentration camp at the Polish artillery 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.[4]

Bach-Zelewski in Minsk in 1943

Eastern Front[edit]

During Operation Barbarossa, Bach-Zelewski served as the SS and police leader in the territory of Belarus, extending all the way to the Urals. He oversaw the activities of the Einsatzgruppe B, led by Arthur Nebe and responsible for the extermination of Jews in Riga and Minsk between July and September 1941. He went back to Berlin in February 1942 for medical treatment. Bach-Zelewski was hospitalized with intestinal ailments, and described as suffering from "hallucinations connected with the shooting of Jews".[5] He asked Himmler to be reassigned from managing executions to anti-partisan warfare.[6] Bach-Zelewski resumed his post in July.[7]

In June 1942, after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, Hitler wanted Bach-Zelewski to take Heydrich's place as the leader of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. When Himmler argued that Bach-Zelewski could not be spared due to the prevailing military situation, Hitler relented and appointed Kurt Daluege to the position. In July 1943, Bach-Zelewski became commander of the so-called "Bandenkämpfverbände" ("Band-fighting Unit"), responsible for the mass murder of 35,000 civilians in Riga and more than 200,000 in Belarus and eastern Poland. The authorities designated him as the future HSSPF in Moscow; however, the Wehrmacht failed to take the city.

Until 1943, Bach-Zelewski remained the HSSPF in command of "anti-partisan" units on the central front, a special command created by Adolf Hitler. Bach-Zelewski 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.[citation needed]

Bach-Zelewski's genocidal tactics[edit]

On 12 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.[citation needed]

Bach-Zelewski's tactics 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 used to encircle areas controlled by the partisans in a manner both time-consuming and conspicuous, allowing the real enemy 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.[8]

In early 1944, he took part in front-line fighting in the Kovel area, but in March he had to return to Germany for medical treatment. Himmler assumed all his posts.[citation needed]

Crushing of the Warsaw Uprising[edit]

Film footage taken by the Polish Underground showing the bodies of women and children murdered by SS troops in Warsaw Uprising, August 1944.

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 Reinefarth – the latter included the Dirlewanger Brigade of convicted criminals.[9] 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.[9]

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.[10] For his exploits in Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by the Nazi regime on 30 September 1944. 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.[11] 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.[citation needed]

After the war[edit]

Bach-Zelewski went into hiding and tried to leave the country. However, 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. He left prison in 1949. In 1951, Bach-Zelewski claimed that he had 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.[12]

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, a Sturmabteilung officer, during the Night of the Long Knives, and was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment.[13]

In 1961, Bach-Zelewski was sentenced to an additional 10 years in home custody for the murder of 10 German Communists in the early 1930s. None of the sentences referred to his role in Poland, in the East, or his participation in the Holocaust, although he openly denounced himself as a mass murderer.[7] 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[14]

German military awards and trophies[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Tomasz Żuroch-Piechowski. "Eryk z Bogdańca, niewinny w Norymberdze (Innocent man at the Nuremberg Trials)" (INTERNET ARCHIVE). Tygodnik Powszechny (in Polish). 39/2006 (24 September 2006). Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  2. ^ Goldensohn, Leon, The Nuremberg Interviews: Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses, Random House Publishing, 2010.
  3. ^ Mirosław Sikora (20 September 2011). "Saybusch Aktion - jak Hitler budował raj dla swoich chłopów". OBEP Institute of National Remembrance, Katowice (in Polish). Redakcja. Retrieved 5 May 2012. 
  4. ^ Żuroch-Piechowski. "Innocent man at the Nuremberg Trials" (IBIDEM, PAGE 2). Tygodnik Powszechny. Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  5. ^ Lifton, Robert Jay, The Nazi Doctors (New York: Basic Books 1986), p. 159; ISBN 0-465-04905-2
  6. ^ Żuroch-Piechowski. "Innocent man at the Nuremberg Trials" (IBIDEM, PAGE 3). Tygodnik Powszechny. Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of evil (New York: Viking Press 1963), p. 7;
    Arendt, in her account of Eichmann's trial in Israel, states that subsequently Eichmann had tried to protect Jews from the Einsatzgruppen.
  8. ^ Edgar M. Howell (1997). The Soviet Partisan Movement: 1941-1944. Merriam Press. p. 185. ISBN 1576380149. Retrieved 27 June 2013. 
  9. ^ a b Norman Davies, (2004). Rising '44. The Battle for Warsaw, (1st U.S. ed.), New York: Viking; ISBN 978-0-670-03284-6
  10. ^ "The Rape of Warsaw",; retrieved 3 February 2009.
  11. ^ Chopin's Heart, AFP, at The Chopin Society UK; retrieved 30 May 2012.
  12. ^ "Guard 'gave Goering suicide pill'", BBC News, 8 February 2005.
  13. ^ Hamburger Abendblatt, 4 August 1962. (German)
  14. ^ The Trial Papers of Eichmann's Trial


  • Władysław Bartoszewski (1961). Prawda o von dem Bachu (Truth on von dem Bach) (in Polish). Poznań: Wydawnictwo Zachodnie. p. 103. 
  • Marek Dzięcielski (2002). Pomorskie sylwetki (Pomeranian Biographies) (in Polish). Toruń: Wydawnictwo Adam Marszałek. pp. 221–233. ISBN 83-7322-491-2. 
  • Tomasz Żuroch-Piechowski. "Eryk z Bogdańca, niewinny w Norymberdze (Innocent man at the Nuremberg Trials)" (INTERNET ARCHIVE). Tygodnik Powszechny (in Polish). 39/2006 (2006-09-24). Retrieved June 26, 2012. 
  • Patzwall, Klaus D.; Scherzer, Veit (2001). Das Deutsche Kreuz 1941 – 1945 Geschichte und Inhaber Band II [The German Cross 1941 – 1945 History and Recipients Volume 2] (in German). Norderstedt, Germany: Verlag Klaus D. Patzwall. ISBN 978-3-931533-45-8. 
  • Blood, Philip W. - Hitler's Bandit Hunters - The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe. Potomac Books Inc. 2006.