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  • Writer's pictureLinda van Ekelenburg

Body Count: The Einsatzgruppen Trial

Updated: May 1, 2019

On pages 7 and 8 of That Damned Torpedo I contemplate historiographic approaches to numbers of casualties in wars. I concluded that on an emotional level, I am constitutionally unable to quantify them, as if to do so would trivialize them. Even that conclusion was difficult to express to a reader. Then, in my usual rounds of researching this and that, I came upon a discussion of this issue which resonated with me.

In 1947-48, the United States held a series of twelve war crimes trials in US military courts in Germany known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. These are distinguished from the better known trials before the International Military Tribunal. The ninth of these is known as the Einsatzgruppen trial. The accused were high ranking military officers who were not directing policy from behind a desk, but rather were present at and actively involved in the mass slaughter of millions of people. (Note that the prosecutors qualify the figure of one million as an abstract number.)

Einsatzgruppen Trial prosecutors, left to right: Benjamin B. Ferencz, Arnost Horlick-Hochwald, and John E. Glancy

Quotes from the Judgment

The Nuremberg Military Tribunal in its judgment stated the following:

[The facts] are so beyond the experience of normal man and the range of man-made phenomena that only the most complete judicial inquiry, and the most exhaustive trial, could verify and confirm them. Although the principal accusation is murder, [...] the charge of purposeful homicide in this case reaches such fantastic proportions and surpasses such credible limits that believability must be bolstered with assurance a hundred times repeated.

...a crime of such unprecedented brutality and of such inconceivable savagery that the mind rebels against its own thought image and the imagination staggers in the contemplation of a human degradation beyond the power of language to adequately portray.

The number of deaths resulting from the activities with which these defendants have been connected and which the prosecution has set at one million is but an abstract number. One cannot grasp the full cumulative terror of murder one million times repeated.

It is only when this grotesque total is broken down into units capable of mental assimilation that one can understand the monstrousness of the things we are in this trial contemplating. One must visualize not one million people but only ten persons — men, women, and children, perhaps all of one family — falling before the executioner's guns. If one million is divided by ten, this scene must happen one hundred thousand times, and as one visualizes the repetitious horror, one begins to understand the meaning of the prosecution's words, 'It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenseless men, women, and children.'[1]

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives #16814

Pursuit of Justice: Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, #9 Einsatzgruppen Case

1947 September 27 - 1948 April 10

Courtesy of John W. Mosenthal

Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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