“A mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of
erupting into violence under the influence of drugs” is how he was described by one of his contemporaries.
Oskar Dirlewanger (26 September 1895 – 7 June 1945 (certificate of death), a German military officer, was the founder and commander of the infamous Nazi SS penal unit “Dirlewanger” during World War II. Dirlewanger’s name is closely linked to some of the worst crimes of the war. He also fought in World War I as well as in the post-World War I conflicts, and in the Spanish Civil War. He died after World War II while in Allied custody, apparently beaten to death by his guards.
A veteran of WWI and an Iron Cross recipient, Dirlewanger didn’t take long in finding a new hunting ground for his violent tendencies in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat. After the failed military coup of 1920, the Kapp Putsch, a large group of left-wing workers rose up in the Ruhr region in west Germany, forming the self-proclaimed Red Army of the Ruhr.
As a fanatical nationalist, as well as a student of Political Science at the time, Dirlewanger threw down his books to join the Freikorps and Reichswehr forces sent to put down the uprising, as well as insurrections in Saxony and Upper Silesia. The defeat of the Red Army of the Ruhr saw regular executions and atrocities on both sides. These bloody internal clashes would prove to be just a taste of the cruelty Dirlewanger would deliver to the world in the next global conflict.
Between his militant forays, he studied at the Goethe University Frankfurt and in 1922 obtained a Doctorate in political science.The following year, he joined the NSDAP and its SA militia, and later also the SS. From 1928-1931 he was an executive director of a textile factory owned by a Jewish family in Erfurt where he renounced active service in the Sturmabteilung but financially donated to the SA, possibly obtaining the money by embezzling from his company.
Dirlewanger held various jobs, which included working at a bank and a knit-wear factory.He was also repeatedly convicted for illegal arms possession and embezzlement. In 1934, he was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment for the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl from the League of German Girls (BDM), as well as the illegal use of a government vehicle and damaging said vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Dirlewanger also lost his job, his doctor title and all military honours, and was expelled from the NSDAP. Soon after his release from the prison in Ludwigsburg, Dirlewanger was arrested again on similar charges for criminal recidivism. He was sent to the Welzheim concentration camp, either as what Stein feels was standard practice for deviant sexual offenders in Germany at the time or for creating a disturbance demanding the reversal of his criminal charges appearing before the Reich Chancellery. Dirlewanger was released and reinstated in the general reserve of the SS following personal intervention of his wartime companion and local NSDAP cadre comrade Gottlob Berger,
who was also long-time personal friend of the SS chief Heinrich Himmler and had become the head of the SS Head Office (SS-Hauptamt, SS-HA).
Dirlewanger next went to Spain where he enlisted in the Spanish Foreign Legion during the Spanish Civil War.Through Berger he transferred to the German Condor Legion where he served from 1936 to 1939 and was wounded three times.
After returning to Germany following the Nationalist victory in Spain, Dirlewanger found preparations for the Nazi invasion of Poland well under way. Though still under investigation for his earlier criminality, he appealed to Heinrich Himmler personally, begging to be allowed to join the Waffen SS before the invasion began. Thanks in large part to his patron and Waffen-SS Chief of Staff Gottlob Berger, Dirlewanger’s request was eventually granted. He was cleared of the charges set against him for his odious crimes and made an Obersturmfuhrer (1st Lieutenant) of the Waffen-SS. His doctorate was also restored by the University of Frankfurt. In 1940 he was even tasked with creating his own unit,the so-called Sonderkommando Dirlewanger (at first designated as a battalion, later expanded to a regiment and a brigade, and eventually a division), composed originally of a small group of former poachers along with soldiers of a more conventional background.
It was believed that the excellent tracking and shooting skills of the poachers could be put to constructive use in the fight against partisans. Later, Dirlewanger’s soldiers were mostly recruited among the ever-increasing groups of German convicted criminals (civilian and military) and concentration camp inmates, eventually including even mental asylum patients, interned gypsies, and (at the end of the war) political prisoners sentenced for their anti-Nazi beliefs and activities.
The unit was assigned to security duties first in German-occupied Poland (General Government), where Dirlewanger served as an SS-TV commandant of a labour camp at Stary Dzików. The camp was the subject of an abuse investigation by the SS judge Georg Konrad Morgen, who accused Dirlewanger of wanton acts of murder, corruption and race defilement (Morgen consequently himself got reduced in rank and sent to the Eastern Front).
According to Morgen, “Dirlewanger was a nuisance and a terror to the entire population. He repeatedly pillaged the ghetto in Lublin, extorting ransoms.” Atrocities committed by Dirlewanger included injecting strychnine into young Jewish female prisoners, previously undressed and whipped, to watch them convulse to death in front of him and his friends for entertainment.
This camp was where “one of the first instances that reference was made to the ‘soap-making rumor’;”according to the rumour, Dirlewanger “cut up Jewish women and boiled them with horse meat to make soap.”Dirlewanger’s primary patron in the SS hierarchy was still Gottlob Berger, who provided Himmler with a massive political boost by numerically increasing the Waffen-SS through his position as chief of the SS-Hauptamt. Dirlewanger’s leadership “was characterized by continued alcohol abuse, looting, sadistic atrocities, rape, and murder and his mentor Berger tolerated this behaviour, as did Himmler, who so urgently needed men such as the Sonderkommando Dirlewanger in his fight against ‘subhumanity’.” In his letter to Himmler, SS-Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik
recommended Dirlewanger, who “in charge of the Jewish camp of Dzikow … was an excellent leader.”During the Nuremberg Trials after the war, Berger said: “Now Dr. Dirlewanger was hardly a good boy. You can’t say that. But he was a good soldier, and he had one big mistake that he didn’t know when to stop drinking.”
In January 1942, however, the local Higher SS and Police Leader, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger threatened: “[Unless] this bunch of criminals disappears from the General Government within a week, I will go myself and lock them up.”In February, the unruly unit was promptly reassigned for anti-partisan duties in German-occupied Belarus, “with a speciality of ‘pacifying’ an area by slaughtering every man, woman and child. Dirlewanger’s preferred method was to herd the local population inside a barn, set the barn on fire, and then shoot with machine guns anyone who tried to escape.Rounded-up civilians were repeatedly used as human shields and marched over minefields. Dirlewanger and his forceraped and tortured young women and slaughtered Jews Einsatzgruppen-style in Byelorussia beginning in 1942.”Snyder cautiously estimated that the Sonderkommando, by then regiment-sized, killed at least 30,000 Belarusian civilians. Some other estimates are much higher, such as 120,000 people killed in 200 villages. Himmler was well aware of Dirlewanger’s reputation and record, but nonetheless awarded him the German Cross in Gold on 5 December 1943, in recognition of his unit’s actions such as during Operation Cottbus (May—June 1943), during which Dirlewanger reported exterminating more than 14,000 “bandits”.
By August 1944 the Dirlewanger unit was a full battalion, made up of criminals, court-martialled SS troops, and even former political prisoners.
With the Eastern front drawing closer and closer as the Red Army advanced west, many in the unit unsurprisingly defected to the Russians.
Buoyed by the approaching Soviets, resistance fighters in Warsaw saw their chance to rise up and take the fight the Nazis themselves.
The Uprising would prove to be the Dirlewanger unit’s most bloody battlefield yet.
Assigned to clear out the Wola district of the city, and supported by many Ukrainian and Cossack volunteers eager to spill Polish blood, Dirlewanger’s men swept through house after house on 5 August, breaking each one open before wreaking carnage within.
One of the accounts of Dirlewanger’s actions during the massacre come from Mathias Schenk, an 18-year-old Belgian assault engineer re-assigned to the SS brigade during the uprising. Using his knowledge of explosives, he was tasked with breaking, or blowing, open each building, to allow the SS men to race in. On one occasion they came across a makeshift hospital:
“The doors opened and a nurse appeared with a tiny white flag. We went inside with fixed bayonets… Wounded were everywhere. Besides Poles there were also wounded Germans. They begged the SS-men not to kill the Poles. A Polish officer, a doctor and 15 Polish Red Cross nurses surrendered the military hospital to us… The SS-men killed all the wounded. They were breaking their heads with rifle butts…”
Later, Schenk witnessed the fate of the hospital staff:
“Dirlewanger stood with his men and laughed. The nurses from the hospital were rushed through the square, naked with hands on their heads. Blood ran down their legs… When they were hanging one of the nurses, Dirlewanger kicked the bricks she was standing on. I couldn’t watch that anymore.
Each of Schenk’s accounts only adds on detail after distressing detail of the Wola massacre. Not only was the ‘bandit’ rebellion of Warsaw crushed entirely, the women, children, sick and elderly of the city were slaughtered in their thousands. Each Thursday, Dirlewanger made a habit of hanging people, either resistance fighters or even just a member of his own unit that he despised. For his work during the suppression, Dirlewanger was awarded the Ritterkreuz, the Knight’s Cross.
His unit was moved on to put down resistance fighters in Slovakia and eventually to fight the advancing Red Army, which they proved utterly inadequate for.
As the scenery of the Third Reich began to crumble, Dirlewanger’s brigade began to break apart. After fighting the Soviets in Hungary, so many members of the unit defected that it ceased to be able to function. Meanwhile Dirlewanger, wounded in combat, was forced to leave the front. It was around this time the brigade received another, final, change in title: the 36thWaffen-Grenadierdivision der SS.
Shortly after rejoining the fight, now in the defence of Berlin, many of the 36th were captured by Soviets, but Dirlewanger himself escaped west to be picked up by the Allies. Reports are hazy, but indicate he was eventually beaten to death in his cell one night, likely by his own guards who recognized him by sight. The years following the war saw many figures in the Waffen SS disown the Dirlewanger unit and its crimes, while many of the former members of the brigade simply vanished to more-peaceful lives.