german police
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Police_of_Germany?uselang=de#/media/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1989-110-34,_Renningen_-_Leonberg,_Polizei_bei_Razzia.jpg

German police has a long history that reaches even into the Ukraine. Ever since Browning’s work on the Reserve Police Battalion 101, we have known that there were – unsurprisingly – plenty of police officers supporting the Nazis’ killing machine. These policemen were, more often than not, rather ordinary men. Yet, their past is catching up with them, even in the Ukraine.

Eighty years ago, German police officers murdered the inhabitants of the Ukrainian village of Kortelisy. Their task was to “clear” the Brest-Litovsk ghetto. As in so many other cases, for that killing nobody was ever held responsible in court – not in Germany and not elsewhere. The story continued eighteen years after the mass killing.

On a spring day in March 1960, a sales representative was traveling by car to Nuremberg to take a stroll through the city. Suddenly, he was attacked by a violent intestinal twitch. The man went to a local toilet, urgently, leaving his car in a hurry in a no-parking zone.

When the police issued a parking ticket, the travelling salesman wrote an angry letter to the mayor of the highly symbolic city of Nuremberg – Hitler’s preferred place for Nazi rallies. He also wrote to the local police chief. In his letter, the salesman justified his violation of the local parking rules by pointing out that a nervous intestine, suffered during the war against Russia, required him to immediately move his bowels. Before and after the war, the salesman had been a member of the Nuremberg police.

And then, the Nazi-killer and later turned salesman explained what his police battalion did in the East. It committed war crimes in the Brest-Litovsk area and in that process, the man’s battalion murdered thousands of women, children and elderly, some of them bestially, he wrote.

What led the salesman to this surprising post-war confession remains unknown today. As a precaution, however, he pointed out that he never shot anyone himself and that he was a kind of soft person. Rather surprisingly for post-Nazi Germany, the criminal police took the letter as an opportunity to immediately start murder investigations against former members of the Nazi police unit.

Today, terms like war crimes, massacres, wars of extermination, torture, killing, and so forth have become frighteningly relevant again since the Russian army invaded Ukraine on  February 24, 2022. Throughout history, this region has repeatedly become the scene of terrible crimes. The most terrible of all were perpetrated by Germans.

Exactly eighty years have passed since German troops eliminated the ghetto of the Belarusian city of Brest-Litovsk in the border area with Poland and Ukraine and murdered thousands of Jews. German perpetrators – including a Nuremberg police platoon of ordinary security police officers who had previously helped to wipe out Ukrainian villages – was at hand.

In their hometown of Nuremberg, these crimes have hardly been noticed. None of the perpetrators has ever been held accountable. The Nuremberg police battalion was established in August 1941, shortly after Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union. It consisted of about one hundred twenty policemen from Nuremberg and the neighboring city of Fürth, as well as local reservists. The battalion was transferred to Brest-Litovsk in September.

At that point, the police battalion became part of the SS operating around the town of Volhynia. Nazi propagandistic crypto-officialdom always claimed it was for surveillance and to fight partisans – a common excuse for countless massacres.

During his interrogation in 1960, the salesman named the places where he and his fellow police officers were and listed the names of those who committed the murders. Not long after that, he suddenly “modified” (!) his earlier statement. Abruptly, he claimed to no longer remember what happened.

Yet, the prosecutor’s office in Nuremberg took on the case but eventually closed the case. But in the end –as it was with so many other Nazi war crime investigations in post Nazi Germany during the 1950s and 1960s – this investigation went nowhere. After twelve years of investigating, the case was terminated.

German post-Nazi officialdom called it not sufficient evidence against the accused. But one thing has been proven beyond doubt because of the investigations: the Nuremberg police battalion was involved in numerous war crimes in the former Soviet Union.

For example, almost exactly eighty years ago, on October  15, 1942, a German police officer helped to murder the approximately 15,000 Jews who were crammed together in the Brest-Litovsk ghetto. Just a few weeks before that, the small Ukrainian village of Kortelisy had been wiped out. Almost all residents were killed by Nazi policemen.

The German historian Eckart Dietzfelbinger noted once, they weren’t beasts, they were ordinary people, policemen with families. Many of the Nazi perpetrators were shaped by their experiences – the brutalization of killing – during the First World War (1914-1918). It created a generation of ultra-nationalists, fancying authoritarianism and racism. All of this was spiced up with a hefty dose of anti-Semitism. Worse, these men had convinced themselves that they had to carry out orders – even Nazi orders – to kill unarmed civilians. As the Germans still say, Befehl ist Befehl – an order is an order!

Local eyewitnesses told the story of the German killing. It was early in the morning, my mother woke me up and shouted: the Germans are in the village. Our village is surrounded. Dariya Alexandrovna Polivoda is one of the few residents of Kortelisy who survived the massacre of September 23, 1942. She was just ten years old at the time. Decades later, she told her story to Nuremberg historians who visited her at the end of the 1990s in the small farming village in the northwest of Ukraine.

In the nearby houses, people were shouting, “They’re killing us!” They took people out of the houses. I tried to look through the window, I was still a small child. I ran to the place of the killing, and I saw bodies covered in blood, lined up head to head.“

Within a few hours, the Germans murdered almost 2,900 people. Today, most of the surviving witnesses have died, but the mass murder is still present in Kortelisy, thanks to a memorial and a museum. For many years, the latter was run by Maria Yaroschuk. The killing lasted until 4 p.m. Survivors reported that at that time it had begun to rain. It looked as if the sky was crying over the fate of people, Yaroshuk said.

After Hitler’s men had plundered our village and taken with them everything they could carry, they set fire to the village, said Ms Sakhachuk. Agaviya Ivanovna Sakhachuk was twenty-two when the Germans arrived. Like the vast majority of locals, she worked in agriculture. During the massacre, she was hiding in a nearby shed.

We saw some bodies lying scattered around. These people were shot while trying to escape. Most of the bodies were in a pile. We were terribly afraid to go, but we had to go, because they were our relatives. We threw earth on the graves, but the blood came out through the earth.

The German battalion from Nuremberg had destroyed Kortelisy. Their killing was to begin at 5:30 a.m. The killing was not spontaneous or arbitrary, but rather systematic and meticulously planned. On the day before the massacre, the order to kill was issued. Kompanie Nürnberg is destroying Kortelisy, it said. By 4:35 a.m. the village was surrounded.

Kortelisy is not an isolated case. In total, Germans destroyed about 70,000 villages in the former Soviet Union. Hitler’s Nazi war in Eastern Europe was a race war – a war of total annihilation. The Nazis had two groups they targeted for liquidation: one was the political commissars and partisans, the other was the Jewish population.

There were no more Jews in Kortelisy by September 1942. Germans called it Judenrein – cleansed of Jews. A year earlier the Germans had deported all Jews to the ghetto of Ratno and killed them. Then the non-Jewish residents were suspected by the Nazis of supporting the partisans hiding in the Ukrainian and Belarusian forests and swamps. These partisans made life difficult for the Germans by committing raids and sabotage.

The Holocaust survivor Agaviya Ivanovna Sakhachuk – who lost family members in the massacre – said, There were no partisans in my family, we were very simple people, we were farmers working the land we also followed the German orders … and then they came and shot us all.

German Nazi police also mercilessly slaughtered children, killing more than 1,600 in Kortelisy. The eviction of the Jewish ghetto Brest-Litovsk on October 15, 1942, came about three weeks after the destruction of Kortelisy. Before sunrise on that fateful morning, the inhabitants of the ghetto were still sleeping when suddenly sharp military commands cut through the autumn air.

Around 1,000 men had sealed off the ghetto. In addition to the Nuremberg police battalion, members of the III. Police Regiment 15 and the 48th motorized police company, as well as so-called “protection” teams, were involved.

They systematically combed through houses, driving the Jews onto the streets without regard to age, state of health, or gender. Anyone who resisted was shot immediately. The noise of gunfire could be heard throughout the city. Men, women, and children were dragged out of the houses, driven to the railway station, crammed into waiting cattle cars or loaded onto trucks, and transported to a mass execution site near Bronnaya Gora, about 110 kilometers or 70 miles east of Brest. Years later, a Soviet commission described what happened:

The condemned were led to the pits by a narrow corridor made of barbed wire. They had to descend into the pits on ladders and had to lay down, face to the ground, close to each other. After a first row covered the bottom of the pit, they were shot by the Germans in the uniforms of the SD and the SS with submachine guns. Then a second and third row was piled up, and so on until the pit was filled.

The Nuremberg battalion is probably not directly involved in these gruesome shootings, but it laid the groundwork for the killing. Almost two decades later – during the 1960s – Germany’s state criminal office came to the conclusion that – with a few exceptions – the police officers were, as it said, used for the eviction of the ghetto …  when the Jews were taken out of their homes.

German investigations in the 1960s examined this so-called ghetto clearance in Brest-Litovsk. It also interrogated the Nuremberg police battalion. At that time – and not unsurprisingly – the men most vehemently denied that they participated in the liquidation of the ghetto. For example, a Nazi police officer – who rose to deputy head of the city police in post-Nazi Fürth – said, when interrogated about the mass murder of Brest-Litovsk, that he was on home leave at the time in question.

He also claimed that he only found out after the war that his battalion was involved in the clearing of the ghetto. His outrageous account appeared unbelievable even to the investigators. One noted, it can be assumed that he wants to avoid all inconveniences by his statements and for this reason does not know or has not heard anything.

It confirms what the son of a former super-Nazi who personally knew Hitler as a young boy – Niklas Frank – wrote in his so far untranslated book, Dunkle Seele, Feiges Maul: Wie skandalös und komisch sich die Deutschen beim Entnazifizieren reinwaschen – or The Dark and Gutless Souls of German Nazis: How Absurd, Funny and Scandalous the Germans Wash Themselves Clean During Denazification.

Those who took part in the Nuremberg police battalion sometimes did indeed tell ridiculous stories. For example, police chief Ludwig admitted to having been “briefly” in the ghetto during the eviction.

During this time, however, he claims not to have seen that there were any cases of mistreatment … let alone shootings. Nazi man Ludwig was also asked in his interrogation if he had become aware of any arbitrary shootings, and he brazenly answered, I have never experienced such incidents, although I was on the road almost every day … no such incident has come to my ears … I would also like to say that the police unit was well regarded by the local population.

On this, the historian Eckart Dietzfelbinger noted, they denied everything, they lie … nobody saw anything, no one was there, no one shot. Yet, the investigators in both the Brest-Litovsk case and the Kortelisy case came to the same conclusion: the Nuremberg police battalion was significantly involved.

Unsurprisingly, none of the accused was proven to have committed a specific crime. During the height of the Cold War, Germany’s judiciary expressly refused to issue any request for legal assistance to Soviet authorities. The killers of Nuremberg got off scot-free.

All in all, ordinary law enforcement officers – not beasts or monsters – were sent to Eastern Europe. They became mass killers, and after that, they simply returned to work as policemen, resuming their careers. From stories like these we can learn a lot about indoctrination and seduction in a right-wing totalitarian, fascist, and Nazi system.

Yet, we can also understand that the German-Ukrainian relationship – even today – is unlike an ordinary relationship between two states. Today, Germany has a very special responsibility to assure that mass killings, murder, and torture never happen again – least of all in the Ukraine.

Thomas Klikauer  is the author of Managerialism.


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