Friedman on Rich, 'Holocaust Perpetrators of the German Police Battalions: The Mass Murder of Jewish Civilians, 1940-1942'

Ian Rich
Jonathan C. Friedman

Ian Rich. Holocaust Perpetrators of the German Police Battalions: The Mass Murder of Jewish Civilians, 1940-1942. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 256 pp. $102.60 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-350-03803-5; $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-03802-8.

Reviewed by Jonathan C. Friedman (West Chester University) Published on H-Judaic (December, 2019) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version:

The publication of Christopher Browning’s monograph, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992), nearly thirty years ago marked a turning point in the history of research into the murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe. Focusing on the killings carried out by one particular unit, Reserve Police Battalion (RPB) 101, one of nearly two dozen police battalions of the Order Police dispatched during the German invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union, Browning uncovered a group that did not fit the model of committed, ideologically driven killers—despite their lethality; the men of the group were responsible for the murder of over eighty thousand Jews. In his meticulous analysis of the five-hundred-man unit, covering its origins in Hamburg, its older demographic, its low level of Nazi and SS membership, and then the increasing number of men who ultimately opted out of the killings with impunity, Browning concludes that group pressure more than Nazi ideology or antisemitism could better account for their behavior. 

The rejoinder to Browning came in 1996 with Daniel Goldhagen and his controversial work, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a broader study of the killing operations of the police battalions premised around the idea that a virulent form of German antisemitism that preceded the Nazi takeover conditioned the mindset of police officials in the occupied East. Since the 1990s, a number of scholars, including Omer Bartov, Wendy Lower, Edward Westermann, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, and Jürgen Matthäus, among others, have deepened our knowledge of the extent of the murder operations of the army, SS Einsatzgruppen, and police battalions. They have also added nuance and clarity to the question of what motivated those who pulled the trigger. Ian Rich, a historian from Royal Holloway University of London, adds to this historiography in an impressive way with his book, Holocaust Perpetrators of the German Police Battalions: The Mass Murder of Jewish Civilians, 1940-1942.

Rich focuses on two upper-echelon police battalions, Police Battalion (PB) 304 and PB 314, which constituted a third of the Order Police units under the command of Higher SS and Police Leader Friedrich Jeckeln and which carried out more murders of Jews in Ukraine than the killing squads of the SS Einsatzgruppen C and D combined. Over 1.6 million out of the 2.7 million Jews of Ukraine were murdered over the course of the war, and half a million were the responsibility of units under Jeckeln’s command. Rich looks specifically at the subgroups of the two battalions—at the company and platoon levels—where the commanders were younger junior officers (lieutenants) and noncommissioned officers. He also frames his analysis from the early months and years of the war in 1939 to the fall of 1941, during the time of transition between selective killing and ethnic cleansing in Poland to murder on a vast scale in the Soviet Union and beyond. This time frame differs from that of Browning, who investigates the murder actions of battalion 101, which were later in the war (1942-43) and tied to counterinsurgency and anti-partisan efforts. The distinction between the units is also important to note: of the twenty-three initial police battalions deployed to the East, five consisted of experienced police officers, seven of older recruits, and eleven of younger recruits (p. 26). The battalions numbered about 550 men each, and units that bore designations at the 200 and 300 levels comprised policemen who were younger and more Nazified while battalions with a 100 designation included older reservists. Accordingly, 45 percent of the men in PB 304 were Nazi Party members, as were 39 percent of the men in PB 314. This compared to only 25 percent of the men of RPB 101 (pp. 26, 27). Senior officers were SS men, and junior officers were men in their early twenties who had been involved in Nazi Party activities or the Hitler Youth prior to joining the police force. Their training and mindset therefore were more ideological than the ragtag group of older recruits from RPB 101. 

Using records from trials of the police officers from PB 304 and PB 314, Rich advances the thesis that junior officers were ideological soldiers who possessed a good deal of autonomy to take initiative and set the boundaries of their murder operations. Unlike Browning, who sees that the experience in wartime Poland, rather than the ideology of the domestic dictatorship, exerted a greater influence on the officers of RPB 101, Rich delineates the racist and antisemitic material that the men of PB 304 and PB 314 absorbed during their training. In doing so, Rich is more in line with Matthäus and Westermann, who see the officers of the regular, not necessarily reserve, police battalions as steeped in martial and racial ideology and as supposed to serve as “role models” for the men of their units. Rich shows how battalion 304 was trained in Krakow in early 1941 in close-up execution measures, and indeed, it participated in the murder of seventy-five Jews from the city. Both PB 304 and PB 314 guarded ghettos (Warsaw and Lublin respectively), and PB 304 also guarded fifteen labor camps. In these units Rich sees a progression of ideological theory being put into practice and then radicalizing not out of desperation or situational hardship but rather from a reality where death and brutality had simply become the norm. In this process, Rich argues, junior officers of both PB 304 and PB 314 played a critical role. They were, in his words, the vanguard of the initial wave of massacres in Soviet territory.

When Rich turns to his account of the various massacres perpetrated by battalions 304 and 314, his evidence about the influential place of junior officers in the narrative is mostly convincing, although at times other pieces of evidence cloud the picture. He reveals conclusively that subunits of PB 304 led by lower-level officers carried out the massacres in late summer 1941 in Vinnitsia, Ukraine, and that junior officers of PB 314 led the massacre in Dnepropetrovsk in September of that year. Junior officers had wide latitude with the vague directives concerning reprisals they were given, and they took part in thirteen separate massacres in the region of Volhynia in late summer 1941. At the same time, Rich points out that SS chief Heinrich Himmler and the head of the Order Police, Kurt Daluege, pushed commanders in the field for more radical measures in the initial weeks of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and that in some of the companies and platoons of PB 314, a higher Nazi Security Service (SD or Sicherheitsdienst) commander was present who “may have had the leading role in deciding the age, range, sex, and number of the victims” (p. 120).

Rich’s book is an important micro-analysis of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by German forces and their allies during World War II. By demonstrating the room for maneuver that operated at the mid-level of the police command, Rich builds on concepts of “anticipatory obedience” and “controlled escalation” advanced by Lower and Matthäus. A map or large table outlining the composition and activities of all of the police battalions might have helped to situate PB 304 and PB 314 within a broader context, and the picture of junior officers taking their own initiative in the killing operations, while persuasive, is not necessarily universal. Still, Rich has augmented our understanding of how the 300 level police battalions functioned in Nazi-occupied Poland and Ukraine. It is an indispensable monograph for students and scholars of the Holocaust.

Jonathan Friedman is the director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Program at West Chester University.

Citation: Jonathan C. Friedman. Review of Rich, Ian, Holocaust Perpetrators of the German Police Battalions: The Mass Murder of Jewish Civilians, 1940-1942. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.