“A mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of
erupting into violence under the influence of drugs.”
This description of Oskar Dirlewanger by one of his contemporaries goes some way to describing a mind rightly unfathomable. Even in the company of the manifold corrupt, twisted characters of the Waffen-SS, his record stands out as almost uniquely brutal. Even before the outbreak of WWII, where his most heinous acts were carried out, he was already widely feared within the German military for being unhinged, unpredictable and dangerous.
By the end of the war, Dirlewanger would have overseen and personally taken part in the torture, rape and murder of thousands of civilians in Germany, Belarus and Poland, all under the thin guise of eliminating ‘bandits’ behind the frontline. His was a war raged almost entirely against an unarmed enemy. While unleashing his feverous hatred against Communists and Jews, his choices of victim largely seemed unprejudiced – man, woman or child; like a crazed beast set loose, he would kill indiscriminately.
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.
In 1922, Dirlewanger returned to studying and completed his degree. He then found the ideal home for his extreme right-wing and nationalist views in the shape of the Nazi Party, which he joined a year later – just two years after it was formed. By this time he had already been in trouble with the law for possessing a firearm illegally and ‘anti-Semitic incitement’, but if anything this strengthened rather than harmed his position in the party.
By 1932 Dirlewanger had gained a senior position in the Sturmabteilung (SA), but it wasn’t long before his frenzied habits were noticed once again by authorities. In 1934 he was convicted of seducing a dependent, reportedly abusing a 14-year-old girl, for which he was sentenced to two years. He walked free just in time to indulge his lust for violence once more. Partly to escape further lewd accusations levelled against him, Dirlewanger volunteered to join the German Condor Legion in Spain, fighting for Franco against the Republican government – another chapter in his personal war with the Left.
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. In 1940 he was even tasked with creating his own unit.
SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger was initially formed of convicted poachers, set loose from prison and placed in a security capacity within Occupied Poland. Later, many SS officials would deny that the Dirlewanger battalion was even a part of the Waffen-SS, and that it merely served the military wing – supposedly to create distance from themselves and the sanctioned violence perpetrated. Both Hitler and Himmler saw a twisted logic to press-ganging ex-convicts into policing, bullying and terrorising the populace of their newly conquered lands – utilising the useless dregs of their jails to instil order through fear.
In 1941 the Dirlewanger unit was directly involved in the violent removal of thousands of villages from around the city of Lublin, Poland, in efforts to make room for ethnic Germans. This area would later serve as the site for a Waffen-SS concentration camp.
At the beginning of 1942, still on the fringes of frontline Waffen-SS forces, the unit was moved to fight Soviet partisans in modern-day Belarus. Now designated as a ‘volunteer’ formation under the SS Fuhrungshauptamt, Dirlewanger’s men continued to brutalise partisans, those suspected of collaborating with them, or simply anyone who got in their way.
Often driven by alcohol-fuelled frenzies, the unit took part in looting, raping and extortion, all under the watchful and not unapproving eye of Dirlewanger’s protector, Gottlob Berger. A favourite method of Dirlewanger’s was to round up the population of a suspected ‘bandit’ village, shove them into a barn, before setting it on fire. Watching on, his men would shoot anything living that managed to break free from the flames.
All of this ‘anti-partisan’ activity conducted by the SS was committed to paper, in the form of endless reports. After each cycle of carnage through the villages and towns of Belarus, each unit would submit its own grisly figures. After two days of one such operation, Dirlewanger reported taking “33 bunkers, killed 386 bandits, and finished off 294 bandit-suspects.”. Additionally they “harvested 3 men, 30 women, 117 horses, 248 children, 140 sheep, 14 pigs, and 120 tons of food”.
Here the chilling vocabulary of the SS, is telling; the ‘harvesting’, or looting, and ‘finishing off’, or outright executions. In Operation Swamp Fever, during September 1942, the brigade reported killing 8,350 Jews, 389 bandits and 1,274 bandit suspects. During its full time in Belarus, the SS-Dirlewanger clocked up an horrific 30,000 kills.
After investigating these reports of abuse and cruelty by the unit, the Hauptamt SS-Gericht (SS Court Head Office) sought to convict Dirlewanger and take control of his men. However, with allies like Himmler and Berger still backing him, he was able to slip the net and was instead simply re-located.
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 36th Waffen-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.
It is only within the last decade that Poland’s Institute for National Remembrance has made attempts to bring these men to justice, though their infamous leader escaped any trial. Nonetheless, their crimes under his brutal example still serve to haunt those who remember, like Mathias Schenk:
“Sometimes in the movies, there are scenes from the Uprising, but there is nothing that I’ve seen… Back then we had no idea that those killed will never die, that they will always be with us.”
- Besieged: Seven Cities Under Siege, by J. Bowyer Bell
- The Waffen SS: Hitler’s Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945, by George H. Stein
- The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies, By Guenter Lewy Professor Emeritus of Political Science University of Massachusetts
- Hitler’s Bandit Hunters: The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe, by Philip W. Blood
- Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, by Robert S. Wistrich
- Heinrich Himmler: A Life, by Peter Longerich