Master of Death:
The Ss-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust

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Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust
by Richard Rhodes



This is the paperback edition.  Hardback is also available.

Book Description

Book Description
A major contribution to the history of the Holocaust from the acclaimed author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

In Masters of Death, Richard Rhodes gives full weight, for the first time, to the part played by the Einsatzgruppen--the professional killing squads deployed in Poland and the Soviet Union, early in World War II, by Himmler's SS. And he shows how these squads were utilized as the Nazis made two separate plans for dealing with the civilian populations they wanted to destroy.

The first plan, initiated in July 1941, condemned the Jews of eastern Europe to slaughter by the Einsatzgruppen, who went on to execute 1.5 million men, women and children between 1941 and 1943 by shooting them into killing pits, as at Babi Yar--massive crimes that have been underestimated or overlooked by Holocaust historians. Rhodes documents the organizing and carrying out of this program and introduces the professional men--economists, architects, lawyers--who were the program’s commanders and officers, as well as the "ordinary men" who did most of the actual killing.

The second plan, initiated in December 1941, was directed at the Jews of western Europe. By then, Rhodes shows, the face-to-face killing of hundreds of thousands had so brutalized the SS that even Himmler was shocked into ordering the development of a less "personal" means of murder--the notorious gas chambers and crematoria of the Holocaust’s second wave. Rhodes shows, further, that Hitler and Himmler intended the Jews to be only their first victims; their plan was to open up Russia to German colonization by destroying more than 30 million Slavs and members of other ethnic groups.

Drawing on Nuremberg Tribunal documents largely ignored until now, and on newly available material from eyewitnesses and survivors, Richard Rhodes has given us a book that is essential reading on the Holocaust and World War II.

About the Author

About the Author
Richard Rhodes is the author of nineteen books. His The Making of the Atomic Bomb won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He has received Guggenheim, Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation fellowships, and lectures frequently to college and professional audiences. Rhodes and his wife live in California.


From the Back Cover
"To read Richard Rhodes's book on the infamous SS murder squads is to follow him to the brink of absolute evil and its cold, calculated and blood-chilling brutality. What made normal citizens, some of them with college degrees, into mass murderers of children and their parents? This haunting question fills these pages with pain and anguish. This is an important and enormously powerful book."
-- Elie Wiesel

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
This is not for the squeamish. Rhodes, a Pulitzer winner for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, has pulled together a mountain of research on the mass murders of Jews perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen special task forces organized by the SS commanders Himmler and Heydrich before the gruesome death camps industrialized the Final Solution. The catalogue of horrors, drawn not only from postwar memoirs and interrogations but also from the Nazi fanaticism for statistical detail, is profoundly appalling, even revolting: some of the malefic perpetrators were so sickened by the slaughter that Himmler set up mental hospitals and rest camps for the insufficiently sadistic.


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By January 1942, when the Wannsee Conference implicitly authorized the death camps, more than a million Jews crowded the killing pits, some of them later torched to conceal the massacres. Relatively few in the Nazi command structure would pay for their crimes. John J. McCloy, U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, Rhodes reminds us, reduced 10 of 14 death sentences in U.S. war-crimes trials, and by 1958 all surviving Einsatzgruppen defendants had been freed. German courts were also lenient. But he also suggests that genocide is new only as a word in the dictionary: "The Final Solution...was intended to be only the first phase of a vast, megalomaniacal project of privation, enslavement, mass murder and colonization modeled on the historic colonization of North and South America and on nineteenth-century imperialism but modernized with pseudoscientific theories of eugenic restoration." Thus Rhodes holds the mirror up. 16 pages of photos and six maps not seen by PW.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) provides a detailed examination of the organization, motivations, and activities of the SS-Einsatzgruppen, which killed thousands of Jews in the wake of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. He argues that Hitler made two separate decisions to annihilate European Jewry; the first, in summer 1941, was directed at the Jews of Eastern Europe, while the second, in December 1941, involved the rest of Europe. This is a controversial assertion, as is Rhodes's foray into psychological theory. He is certainly not the first to ask why some individuals willingly engaged in mass slaughter, but he still cannot provide an entirely satisfactory causal explanation. Rhodes claims to be offering a new thesis regarding the Holocaust, but unfortunately he eschews most of the major historiographical controversies in Holocaust studies and thus fails to place his thesis in context. The advantage is that he does not clutter his text with intentionalist vs. functionalist arguments that could daunt general readers. Instead, he produces a penetrating study of the Einsatzgruppen one of the best available and one of the few recent works to examine this corps in detail. Although Rhodes's thesis may be rejected by specialists, his careful expos‚ will be welcomed by general readers. Recommended for all libraries.Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist
There is a popular misconception that the Holocaust and the gas chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz were synonymous. In fact, organized, systematic mass murders of Jews began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Accompanying regular German combat units were the Einsatzgruppen, entrusted with the task of rounding up "enemies" (communists, partisans, and especially Jews) and "liquidating" them. Rhodes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written a grotesquely fascinating chronicle of the campaigns carried on by these murderers. Accounts of the methods of extermination in the death camps often have an almost antiseptic quality as half-starved victims walk passively to their deaths. In Rhodes' chilling account, victims beg, shriek, and writhe in agony while their executioners exult. The image of well-educated family men directing mass shootings while the blood of their victims splatters their clothing is sickening, and perhaps beyond human comprehension. Reading this book is an ordeal, but it is a necessary trial if one is to grasp the full scope of the war against the Jews. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Masters of Death is Richard Rhodes's chronological account of the Third Reich's Einsatzgruppen (a hand-picked task force) and its death work--the executions of 1.5 million people, Jews and non-Jews--in Russia and Eastern Europe from 1941 through 1943. Rhodes sees these operations (the victims were, almost exclusively, shot) as a ghastly prelude to the subsequent (and much more written-about) horrors of the death camps. In chilling--and occasionally excessive--detail, Rhodes describes the killings and the reasons behind the Reich's cautious, rather than precipitous, escalation of the same: the military's "concern for German and world opinion"; the need to improve methodology; and finally, the need to "condition" the troops, thereby avoiding "disabling trauma." Rhodes makes good use of firsthand accounts and outlines the effects the larger war (Pearl Harbor; the failure to defeat Britain) had on Hitler's attempted obliteration of European Jewry. His chapters on the nature of evil seem hurried and not particularly fresh. --H. O'Billovich

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