Oskar Dirlewanger: The Most Evil Man In The Nazi SS

May 10, 2017 | 7 Comments » | Topics: Interesting

by Matthew Forbes

Some of the ways of the Third Reich continue to resonate in society today. Documentary channels air endless programs about German warplanes and tanks, as well as the many immense battles waged during the Second World War. Less closely explored are the darker side of the Nazi-led war machine. Or, perhaps is more honest to say, the true side of the Nazi-led war machine.

Adolf Hitler, as war leader, was prey to many bizarre schemes. In March of 1940, just before the German invasion of France, Hitler decide to form a fighting unit composed of convicted poachers and commanded by a hard-charging military man. Yes, poachers — people who hunt wildlife illegally. Presumably Hitler thought these men’s flouting of the law would give them an edge in combat. As for their commander, there was only one man for the job, a man known to SS leader Heinrich Himmler: Oskar Dirlewanger.

Who was Oskar Dirlewanger?

Oskar Dirlewanger served in the German Army in WWI. By all accounts his service was honorable, receiving the Iron Cross twice, and getting wounded six times. He gained a bit of fame after the war ended, when his 600-man unit, stranded in Romania when the shooting stopped, made a semi-epic journey back to Germany. After the war, he joined the Freikorps, a collection of right-wing militias that existed in postwar Germany for a time. There he made contacts with the early Nazi Party, but his personal life was a disaster. A severe alcoholic with an extreme violent streak, he was frequently in trouble with the police. In fact he wound up in concentration camps more than once thanks to his predilection for sex with underage girls (the camps were used for common criminals as well a persecuted minorities). But he won himself back into the Nazi fold by serving well in the Spanish Civil War (getting wounded three times), so when WWII broke out he was able to join the Waffen SS despite his criminal record, just in time to head up the new unit of poachers.

Dirlewanger and His Men Go to War

During training, the unit quickly took on the name of its commander: Sonderkommando Dirlewanger. Later, after several manpower expansions, it would attain the name for which it would gain infamy: the Dirlewanger Brigade. This name would be forever tied to a nightmarish spree of murder, torture, rape, looting, and indeed every conceivable war crime.

The Dirlewanger Brigade was first deployed to occupied Poland, in August 1940, just under a year after the German occupation of that country. Their job was to pacify the low-level insurgency that existed under Nazi occupation. Dirlewanger and his men, however, used their posting as an opportunity to engage in mass criminality. They were part gangster, engaging in extortion, theft and corruption; part soldiers-gone-amuck, killing civilians at will and in huge numbers; and part unchained psychopaths, committing mass sex crimes, torture and drunken rampages. A nighttime visitor to their barracks at night might easily encounter rooms filled with loot, soldiers drunk on duty, and screams from women and children being gang-raped, or prisoners just being tortured for entertainment.

Many, even most of his men were routinely arrested for their crimes. In those early war years, German military jurisprudence was somewhat confused. There were still laws against murdering civilians, being drunk on duty, theft of private property and many other of the crimes carried out by Dirlewanger’s men. DIrlewanger himself kept a Jewish woman captive as a sex slave, and sex between Germans and Jews was forbidden. The German authorities were sickened by the behavior of these men — even the local SS and Gestapo were furious. Finally, the SS governor of the region threatened to round them all up if they weren’t transferred, and so they were — further east, to Belarus.

Dirlewanger’s special status

Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS

Dirlewanger himself was a man apart in many ways. His calamitous criminal record should have prevented him from joining the SS in the first place, but it didn’t. And as commander he was given special permission by Heinrich Himmler to discipline his men however he wished, up to and including executing them. This was an extraordinary privilege for an officer of the German Army, which normally had judicial procedures like any other military force. In the entire millions-strong Wehrmacht, only Dirlewanger had this authority, and he used it liberally: new members of the brigade — they were convicted criminals, sometimes even political prisoners, and were not volunteers — often sustained heavy casualties at the hands of Dirlewanger and his inner circle, who often acted out grudges in this manner.

But while he had this murderous authority, Dirlewanger, paradoxically, was also very close to his men. He had a tendency to use informal language and address them by their first names, which was extremely unusual for a German officer. He drank with them, he raped and murdered with them, acted as if he was one of them. He also fought with them, making a point of being in the action far more than most officers of his rank. His calm under fire and his nearly supernatural belonging earned him the impossibly ironic nickname of “Gandhi” among his men.

Blood and murder till the end

After Poland, the Dirlewanger Brigade was shipped to occupied Belarus, where they continued their anti-partisan operations. This would employ tactics such as forcing women and children, at bayonet-point, to march ahead of the soldiers in order to set off any land mines that might be in their way. Or perhaps they’d enter a village, lock all the residents in a barn, set it on fire, then shoot anyone who tried to escape. As always, rape, murder and general destruction were the order of the day.

The entered true fame (or infamy) during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Poles seized control of the capital as the Soviets approached, and Hitler ordered them to be crushed. Leading the assault would be the Dirlewanger Brigade.

Tales of their operations in Warsaw are legion. In just one example, a German Army officer was pinned down by a unit of Poles holed up in a multistory building. This officer would report that the Dirlewanger Brigade arrived, fearlessly stormed the building as if the air wasn’t thick with bullets, and presently the shooting stopped — replaced by screams. The officer closed his account by describing the sight of rebels flying out the building’s windows.

Of course, they wouldn’t be the Dirlewanger Brigade if they weren’t committing ghastly atrocities. Years later, in the early 1960s, a former member of the brigade came forward to prosecutors. Perhaps he was having trouble sleeping. At any rate, he described numerous war crimes, including one incident in which a member of the unit, seemingly drunk, raped a girl out in the open, in the street; and when finished the rapist pulled out a knife and ripped open her abdomen from groin to throat, leaving her to die. In another incident, they captured a daycare, the little children holding their little arms in the air in surrender. Dirlewanger ordered his men to kill them all — but to save ammunition his men were told to exterminate the children with bayonets and rifle-butts. This horror is remembered as the Wola Massacre, and perhaps 500 small children were murdered. Disturbing reading — but just one of hundreds, even thousands of stories associated with this unit.

Warsaw in ruins after the 1944 uprising

The Warsaw Uprising was, in effect, their final moment. Not long afterward, Dirlewanger himself was wounded again — his twelfth wound — and this time it was bad enough to prevent his return to his brigade. Towards the end of the war they were expanded to the size of a division, around 7,000 men. But not long afterward, in the spring of 1945, they were all but wiped out after being surrounded by Soviet troops in the Halbe Pocket. Only a few hundred men of the brigade survived the war.

As for Dirlewanger himself, he was captured alive by French soldiers. Soon after, though, he died in custody. Officially he expired of natural causes, but rumors have long persisted that he was beaten to death by vengeful Polish soldiers.

Thus ended what might be one of the most murderous military formations in the history of the world. How many people did they kill? It’s hard to know. Certainly in the tens of thousands. To do worse you’d have to look at the infamous SS Einsatzgruppen, the genocidal troops who slaughtered well over a million people in the occupied Soviet Union. Incredibly, not a single member of the Dirlewanger Brigade was ever charged with a war crime. Their reputation, however, continues to stand as a cautionary tale — and as a true example of everything the Nazi Party and their leader stood for.

Post script

Not everyone thinks of the Dirlewanger Brigade as evil. For decades, they have been held up as heroes by far-right extremists. Many novels and stories have been written, romantic tales of military glory.

A modern fan of the unit, wearing a t-shirt with “Dirlewanger” written above the unit badge of the Dirlewanger Brigade

Their unit badge, two crossed “potato masher” grenades, is frequently tattooed onto the flesh of skinheads or worn on clothing. It is a sad fact that such a vicious group of human beings continues to receive praise in the 21st Century. Let us fight this fact by remembering them for who they were — not heroes but sadistis.

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  • The Voice of Reason

    “A modern fan of the unit”

    It seems Germany closed their insane asylums like we did in America.

  • John27

    He wasn’t far right, he was far left. Nazism and Marxism were competing leftist ideologies. The dominant ideology of the far right is classical liberalism.

    • Bill Sherman

      you’re just full of crap. really. you have no sense of history and completely ignorant of politics, like a toadstool.

  • Pauly Incorrect

    The Dirlewanger Brigade would be a much more effective at dealing with terrorism than anything Merkel could conceive.

  • Fergus O’Byrne

    I think George Soros was the most evil man in the Nazi SS.

    • Vee Shevchenko

      That comment is the most ignorant I’ve seen in a while. Congrats.

  • kazjar

    Should have knelt him and every other nazi down on the sidewalk and shot them. And any piece of garbage that set free scum like Werner Von Braun or helped nazis escape should have been knelt down right next to them and shot as well.