After murdering 33,771 people in a narrow valley outside Kiev, the German police soldiers were sent back to Norway to patrol the streets. Today marks 80 years since the Babij Jar massacre.
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To the American historian Christopher R. Browning’s book on “Ordinary Men” was published in 1992, since it recently became a public secret in Germany that thousands of police officers actively participated in the massacres of Jews in Poland, the Baltics and the German-occupied Soviet states.
After participating in mass shootings of women and children for months and years, they returned to their homes after the war – and never talked about their own “war effort”. After the war, only a handful of thousands of “Orpo” soldiers were brought to justice and convicted of atrocities in the east. In the history books, they were portrayed as “ordinary soldiers”, and after the West German state was established in 1949, many of them were employed by the police.
Browning’s book – which is being republished in Norway these days – shows how shockingly little the “ordinary men” resisted being set to shoot defenseless children, women and older men. Afterwards, they defended themselves by saying that not carrying out the orders would endanger their lives.
This, however, turns out to be a lie, for none of those who actually managed to turn away from being punished in any other way than with transfer to other departments. Admittedly, many of them had traumas and drowned their horrific experiences in store.
In Nuremberg, SS General Otto Ohlendorf explained that his Einsatzgruppe had been responsible for the shooting of 90,000 civilians. He denied that this task had psychologically taken a heavy toll on the police soldiers, and that he himself went in to save them from more such experiences. So Ohlendorf was almost proud to have suggested that instead of shooting, the use of gift gas was introduced – as if the plot was motivated by his care for the killers.
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Only when the American historian’s book came out did many family members understand more about why former police officers developed trauma and strange character traits – without any immediate truck available. Common to all was that they never talked about their war experiences.
The so-called “Police Reserve Battalion 9” was composed of professional police officers, as well as members of the reserve police in Berlin, who came to Norway immediately after the occupation in 1940. These Order Police forces (“Orpo”) were used for patrolling Norwegian city streets, guarding of the Swedish border – and also to secure war-important industrial facilities.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the battalion was sent to the Eastern Front, where the members were divided into the four “Einsatzgruppen” – those who operated behind the front and primarily massacred Jews and communist commissioners.
The police forces that came from Norway were thus involved in virtually all war crimes of this type – distributed throughout the Eastern Front and carried out during six months in 1941.
Several of the “Norwegians” – as they were called by their own – came to “Einsatzkommando 4b”, which on 29 and 30 September 1941 was responsible for the massacre in Babij Jar.
The 50,000 remaining Jews in the Ukrainian capital were given days to arrange to meet in the future, as they were to be evacuated from the area. Since almost all adult men had fled before the German invasion of Kiev, it was mostly women, children of all ages and older of both sexes who showed up.
In the narrow valley outside the city center – popularly known as the “smell of women” – the defenseless human beings were divided into groups, who were mowed down with automatic weapons or killed by neck shots.
Those who were to be shot had to stand up – or lie down – on top of the bodies of those who had already been killed. It was later said that the soldiers played music on a record player, to drown out complaints and cries of pain from the victims.
The soldiers were reassured that this was a “fair” revenge and punishment against the civilian population for bombs, which after the German incursion had several administrative buildings with the ground and killed over a hundred officers.
The mass murderers
Until several years later, the grotesque “service” was over, and the police battalion returned to Norway, where it resumed the same tasks as before. The German historian Stefan Klemp has calculated that each man had an average of 360 lives on his conscience
The British investigators, who came to Norway in May 1945 to track down and interrogate German war criminals, knew in advance that nearly 600 men from the most notorious murder battalion were still in the country – but that they were all equipped with fake papers and were hidden in other departments.
The people of Battalion 9 knew that the Soviets were looking for them, and feared that they would be extradited to prosecute the eastern zone.
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More than 500 men were tracked down by the British and eventually transferred to a prison camp in northern Germany. In January 1947, 247 were brought across the border and extradited. In the summer of 1947, they were tried in the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen, where the majority were found guilty and sentenced to 25 years of forced labor.
For the privates, it must have been a bitter irony to note that the British did not extradite a single officer. Only an older major joined them – and he volunteered. (Many of the officers were later able to pursue their political careers.) The convicts, however, were detained in the infamous Bautzen prison, where strict GDR soldiers were on duty.
The “Norwegians” remained in office until 1956, when everyone was pardoned and set free.
Here you can read more comments from Asbjørn Svarstad
That some of the greatest mass murderers from the early Holocaust actually had Norway as their home base, I was for many years and a topic that few historians cared about. The historian Terje Emberland at the Holocaust Center explains this by saying that the Norwegian investigators actually knew very little about Germans who had received things on the conscience from other countries, and therefore concentrated on crimes that had been committed in Norway.
The title of Christopher Browning’s book is more than apt. He also manages to tell the stories of privates and officers – ordinary people – who admittedly struggled with mental anguish, but still chose to follow the orders to shoot at defenseless people. Afterwards, most of them went home again – and could live on as if nothing had happened.
Babij Jar is today and one of the obvious destinations for tourists visiting Kiev. In the area, stands have been set up with brutal images from the atrocities.
That the number 33,771 is so accurate is due to the fact that the responsible SS officers themselves ensured an accurate count. They reckoned that such an unimaginable atrocity – actually carried out in 36 hours – would bring praise from the bosses in Berlin.
When the luck of the war turned, and it became clear at «The Red Army» soon to move into Kiev again, the mass graves in Babij Jar were opened and the contents cremated – to remove all traces.
But some of the Jewish victims had miraculously survived – and could tell. Eventually, a few of the perpetrators also chose to lighten the veil a bit.
The orderly police soldiers who took part in the abuses in the eastern area hold the current historical responsibility for a total of 602,149 murders – most of them Jews.
Read more from the Norwegian debate
Christopher R. Browning: “Quite Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion and the final solution in Poland ». Dreyers Forlag Oslo, 2021.
Stefan Klemp: «Not determined. Police battalions and the post-war justice », Klartext Verlag, Essen 2011.