Kirkus Reviews QR Code
MASTERS OF DEATH by Richard Rhodes

MASTERS OF DEATH

The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust

By Richard Rhodes

Pub Date: May 21st, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-40900-9
Publisher: Knopf

A grim tale of the Shoah’s early years, delivered by accomplished journalist and Pulitzer-winning historian Rhodes (Why They Kill, 1999, etc.).

The Final Solution, he acknowledges, was inherent in the founding premises of the Hitler regime, but its mechanisms were refined only gradually, after hastily organized massacres committed by “ordinary men” led to the development of the vastly more efficient death camps. Exploring familiar themes of psychopathology and technology put to evil uses, Rhodes writes that the scarcely controlled violence of the SS Einsatzgruppen in Nazi-occupied portions of Eastern Europe effectively brutalized German soldiers, setting in motion a violent cycle that could become only more virulent: “a vicious circle . . . whereby the perversion of discipline bred increasing barbarism, which in turn further brutalized discipline.” Yet this sort of catch-as-catch-can war on the enemies of the Nazi state was just a shade too nasty for the SS leadership, which worried about creating “neurotics or brutes” on the Eastern Front who might later become disciplinary problems at home. Heinrich Himmler, Rhodes writes, was shocked by witnessing an incident in Russia in which German soldiers lost their nerve and “shot badly,” wounding two Jewish women who writhed before him on the ground; he screamed at the firing squad to put the women out of their misery. Himmler apparently had no such qualms about the bloodless—and, in his estimation, more humane—dispatch of his victims by means of nerve gas, which prompted the development of large-scale killing factories such as Auschwitz and Sobibor. Drawing heavily on first-person accounts and official documents, the author contributes to our understanding of how the Final Solution was put into motion and how it subsequently evolved.

Though the explorations in mass psychology may not convince all readers, Rhodes exposes the industrial logic that underlies modern genocide.