Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (1 March 1899 – 8 March 1972) was a high profile Nazi official of the Third Reich and a member of the SS, in which he reached the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer (General).
World War II
Bach-Zalewski did not participate in the invasion of Poland personally, although the units under his command took part in reprisal actions and the shooting of POWs in the course of the September Campaign. Instead, on 7 November 1939, SS chief Heinrich Himmler offered him the post of Commissioner for the Strengthening of Germandom in Silesia. His duties included mass resettlement and the confiscation of Polish private property there. By August 1940, some 18,000–20,000 Poles from Żywiec County were forced to leave their homes in what became known as the Action Saybusch (German name for Żywiec).
On 22 June 1941, Bach-Zelewski became the HSSPF in the region of Silesia. He provided the initial impetus for the building of Auschwitz concentration camp at the Polish artillery barracks in the Zasole suburb of Oświęcim due to overcrowding of prisons. The location was scouted by his subordinate Obergruppfuhrer Arpad Wigand. The first transport arrived at KL Auschwitz on 14 June 1940, and two weeks later Bach-Zelewski personally visited the camp. Bach-Zelewski in Minsk in 1943 Eastern Front
During Operation Barbarossa, Bach-Zelewski served as the SS and police leader in the territory of Belarus, extending all the way to the Urals. He oversaw the activities of the Einsatzgruppe B, responsible for the extermination of Jews in Riga and Minsk between July and September 1941. He went back to Berlin in February 1942 for medical treatment. Bach-Zalewski was hospitalized with intestinal ailments, and described as suffering from "hallucinations connected with the shooting of Jews". He asked Himmler to be reassigned from managing executions to anti-partisan warfare. Bach-Zalewski resumed his post in July, with no apparent reduction in his ruthlessness.
In June 1942, after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, Hitler wanted Bach-Zelewski to take Heydrich's place as the leader of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. When Himmler argued that Bach-Zelewski could not be spared due to the prevailing military situation, Hitler relented and appointed Kurt Daluege to the position.
In July 1943, Bach-Zelewski became commander of the so-called "Bandenkämpfverbände" ("Band-fighting Unit"), responsible for the mass murder of 35,000 civilians in Riga and more than 200,000 in Belarus and eastern Poland. The authorities designated him as the future HSSPF in Moscow; however, the Wehrmacht failed to take the city. Until 1943, Bach-Zalewski remained the HSSPF in command of "anti-partisan" units on the central front, a special command created by Adolf Hitler. Bach-Zalewski was the only HSSPF in the occupied Soviet territories to retain genuine authority over the police after Hans-Adolf Prützmann and Jeckeln lost theirs to the civil administration.
Bach-Zelewski's genocidal tactics
On 12 July 1943, Bach-Zalewski received command of all anti-partisan actions in Belgium, Belarus, France, the General Government, the Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and parts of the Bezirk Bialystok. In practice, his activities remained confined to Belarus and contiguous parts of Russia.
Bach-Zelewski's tactics produced a high civilian death toll and relatively minor military gains. In fighting irregular battles with the partisans, his units slaughtered civilians in order to inflate the figures of "enemy losses"; indeed, far more fatalities were usually reported than weapons captured. The German troops used to encircle areas controlled by the partisans in a manner both time-consuming and conspicuous, allowing the real enemy to slip away. After an operation was completed, no permanent military presence was maintained, which gave the partisans a chance to resume where they had left off. Even when successful in pacification actions, Bach-Zalewski usually accomplished little more than to force the real enemy to relocate and multiply their numbers with civilians enraged by the massacres. In early 1944, he took part in front-line fighting in the Kovel area, but in March he had to return to Germany for medical treatment. Himmler assumed all his posts.
Crushing of the Warsaw Uprising
On 2 August 1944, Bach-Zelewski took command of all German troops fighting against the Warsaw Uprising. The German forces were made up of 17,000 men arranged in two battle groups: under von Rohr, and under Reinefarth – the latter included the Dirlewanger Brigade of convicted criminals. This command group was named after Bach-Zelewski, as Korpsgruppe Bach. Units under his command killed approximately 200,000 civilians (more than 65,000 in mass executions) and an unknown number of POWs.
After more than two months of heavy fighting and the total destruction of Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski managed to take control of the city while committing the cruelest atrocities in the process. For his exploits in Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by the Nazi regime on 30 September 1944. Incidentally, during the slaughter and razing of Warsaw, he is alleged to have personally saved Fryderyk Chopin's heart, by taking it for his own collection of curiosities. The recovered heart is held at a Warsaw church.
Between 26 January and 10 February 1945, Bach-Zelewski commanded X SS Armeekorps, one of the "paper-corps", in Germany, but this unit was annihilated after less than two weeks.
After the war
Bach-Zelewski went into hiding and tried to leave the country. However, US military police arrested him on 1 August 1945. In exchange for his testimony against his former superiors at the Nuremberg Trials, Bach-Zelewski never faced trial for any war crimes. Similarly, he never faced extradition to Poland or to the USSR. He left prison in 1949.
In 1951, Bach-Zelewski claimed that he had helped Hermann Göring commit suicide in 1946. As evidence, he produced cyanide capsules to the authorities with serial numbers not far removed from the one used by Göring. The authorities never verified von dem Bach-Zelewski's claim, however, and did not charge him with aiding Göring's death. Most modern historians dismiss Bach-Zalewski's claim and agree that a U.S. Army contact within the Palace of Justice's prison at Nuremberg most likely aided Göring in his suicide.
Also in 1951, Bach-Zelewski was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp for the murder of political opponents in the early 1930s; however, he did not serve time until 1958, when he was convicted of killing Anton von Hohberg und Buchwald, an Sturmabteilung officer, during the Night of the Long Knives, and was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment. In 1961, he was sentenced to an additional 10 years in home custody for the murder of 10 German Communists in the early 1930s. None of the sentences referred to his role in Poland, in the East, or his participation in the Holocaust, although he openly denounced himself as a mass murderer. He died in a Munich prison on 8 March 1972.