“Birds of Prey, Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Ordinary Soldiers and the Holocaust in Poland” ibidem Verlag, Stuttgart 2021.
By Andy Grainger
I know the author of this book and have read both it and his previous book as cited below. The subject matter, the implementation of German racial and occupation policies in the East, is uncomfortable, to put it at its mildest. By concentrating on a small area this book provides real texture and even atmosphere as to how this looked on the ground. WD and CLWG have played disguised scenarios around regimes such as Pol Pot before but I think they struggled because the disguise left players unable to imagine the rationale of the regime. Readers of this book will be brought to understand both the rationale and the results of the German policies in the East in WW2.
Birds of Prey is a micro-history of the occupation of the Bialystok Forest (German Bialowies) from 1941-44. Europe’s last primeval forest, it was then located in western Poland on the border with East Prussia. It is now Biebrzansky Park northwest of Bialystok in eastern Poland though it does stretch into Belarus. When the Germans occupied it in June / July 1941 they decided to make it part of East Prussia rather than the General Gouvernement i.e. occupied Poland. It was therefore governed by Prussian / German law rather than as an occupied country.
The author’s earlier book Nazi Bandit Hunters https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hitlers-Bandit-Hunters-Occupation-Europe/dp/159797157X showed that the German definition of anti-partisan warfare – Bandenbekämpfung – extended across the German armed forces and far beyond dealing with armed partisans behind German lines. The aim of Birds of Prey is to show that Luftwaffe was implicated as well. But he also wants to show that the German hunting culture was instrumental in playing a part in the Holocaust. The reference to Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the title is misleading. The author is particularly concerned to show that Göring and the institution with which he was most closely associated was also implicated in the Holocaust.
The thesis of the book is that the Luftwaffe – and particularly Göring who was very keen on hunting – aimed to create a massive hunting estate, stocked with rare breeds by the German Zoological authorities – which could be exploited for game-hunting tourists. Separately the military units charged with securing the area were encouraged to hunt down partisans, Jews and other ‘undesirables’ using hunting techniques in line with the wider spirit of Bandenbekämpfung. By being ‘blooded’ in this way, they became used to committing atrocities and then became more effective combat soldiers as a result.
In a detailed introduction the author explains how he has mined the Polish and German archives and then, with assistance, has digitised the German maps so that he can plot the German strongpoints and patrol areas. This is called GIS = Geographic Information System and enables datasets to be overlaid onto the maps to provide a visual display which can be set against the German reports dealing with their own casualties, partisans killed, civilians resettled, weapons seized etc. It is a pity that the maps are relatively small and in some cases the detail cannot be read without a magnifying glass. An accompanying website would be helpful.
To prove his thesis the author looks specifically at two Luftwaffe units – the first is the Luftwaffe Security Battalion (LWSB) commanded by a Major Herbst. This appeared in July 1942 but in March 1943 it morphed into the JägerSonderKommandoBialowies (JSKB), literally Special Hunting Detachment Bialowies which served until the end in August 1944, eventually taking its place in the line alongside German combat formations. This was commanded by Major Frevert and was much better trained and equipped. Younger men replaced the Dad’s Army type warriors of the LWSB. Rather than adopting a defensive posture this unit trained itself to lead offensive patrols into partisan held areas, a very different policy.
As indicated above, the Bialystok Forest was incorporated into East Prussia and so the population became subject to German legislation, both military and civilian. The boundaries of Wehrkreis 1 (the military district of East Prussia) were accordingly extended which meant that German military administration extended to the plethora of military command responsibilities and Prussian legislation to the civilian. These were myriad:
- Police for law and order,
- Forest police to protect Forest workers,
- Railway police to protect railways,
- SS units to hunt Jews and Slavs,
- Army units to fight partisans,
- Luftwaffe units initially to protect airfields and installations but soon to take on wider security roles, also local security,
- Landesschützen – rear area Army units to provide static security e.g. to guard HQs, signal installations, supply dumps etc. – a sort of Home Guard.
- The rear area of Wehrkreis 1 which was responsible for admin and training but it was also a combat area.
Then there was German civilian infrastructure grafted onto the local. Apart from the usual local government functions these included:
- A department to encourage German settlers (apparently reached 20,000),
- Economists to support the forest industries eg timber, turpentine, agricultural,
- Zoological people conducting research and trying to release and monitor wild animals.
The background to the military operations of the LWSB and the JSKB is one of constant turf wars between all these various Nazi authorities, all with differing objectives. To the inhabitants German behaviour must have appeared entirely random.
It also has to be remembered that the population was very varied since Russia had taken over the area in October 1939. Thus, since 1914 people might be described as Polish or Russian depending on where and when they had been born. Quite quickly, by early 1942 it seems that Russian POWs were being employed as labour – contrary to what one might think about the ruthless Germans – it was by no means the case that if you find a Russian you shoot them since a lot of them were ordinary civilians. There is information about the locals who were hired as cooks, clerks, washerwomen etc. Major Herbst initiates a court case involving the SS Post Office whose officials took sexual favours from local women in exchange for allowing them to join in their black market of flogging items stolen from the parcels passing through their hands. Herbst saw the prime benefit of uncovering this scam not in terms of assisting the customers of the Post Office but in discrediting the SS officials and therefore enhancing his own bureaucratic standing.
The information – maps, photos, the detailed records of patrols and firefights, interactions with the local population, the detail of the German strongpoints really give atmosphere – you can imagine a director creating a screenplay – or a wargamer designing a game. On the surface it could be any counterinsurgency scenario – except that the LWSB, JSKB and other units are also involved in shooting hostages, rounding up and killing Jews and delivering ‘collective punishment’ i.e. burning villages and killing or deporting the inhabitants.
Over a period of months in the second half of 1942 the LWSB had suffered about 30 casualties but killed 86 partisans, 116 Jews and shot about 450 hostages, villagers etc. It also resettled thousands of people out of the forest, around 3,600 in November 1942.
It is an uncomfortable subject but I found the style very readable. The book is somewhat disorganised however, with the explanation for some topics coming well after their introduction into the text. For example. Sutterlin, the type of handwriting taught in Germany during the first half of the C20 and so the manuscript for all non-typewritten sources is not defined until well after it is introduced. Neither does it feature in the index. Thus it is sometimes difficult to go back and find topics to which you want to refer again. I have already mentioned that the detailed maps are too small.
There is also a problem with evidence. Data is not the same as evidence. In the author’s phrase the reports ‘reveal much but explain little.’ The statistics list partisans and soldiers killed (very few of either), civilian reprisals (not many but very brutal) but there is very little on the intentions or reasons for carrying out or not carrying out operations. The involvement of the Wehrmacht in atrocities in the Forest and in Russia generally is both incontrovertible and widespread but evidence of the detailed policies to which they worked is vague – and left intentionally so by the Germans.
I also felt that the author was not especially familiar with assessing military activity on its own terms. There are times when we might be reading a sociologist making assertions and judgements about military operations.
The clearest example of this is the detailed report on the disastrous outcome of a patrol led by Sergeant Major Marteck on 8 May 1943. Following up a report of partisans Marteck’s patrol of five Germans, three trusties (scouts) and eleven militiamen pushed into a remote area of swamp and heath. The patrol was ambushed and eight of them, including Marteck killed. Marteck’s body was found with his ‘trusty’ some distance from the other bodies. This is deemed evidence of a lack of bonding in the group. Marteck was clearly overconfident and paid the price but the main criticism is levelled at his battalion commander, Frevert, for being ‘incompetent’ even though he was miles away at the time. But was Marteck being reckless? Significant partisan activity was actually very low, there were no major railways or roads in the area. The rapid reaction troop led by Lt. Nowarre followed through. Very unusually, he and his men stayed overnight in this remote area of swamp and heath. A ration truck, seemingly unescorted was sent up with hot food at 4am. From this and other evidence we can deduce that the Germans felt quite confident dealing with the partisans notwithstanding the unique experience of Marteck’s patrol being badly ambushed. This is borne out by the relatively small numbers of partisans killed, bunkers and weapons found etc.
How was it that ordinary German soldiers could conduct widespread massacres of civilians? Historians started to research this question forty years ago and still are. The author’s detailed research in this book is excellent at providing the texture, the micro-history of what this looked like on one particular patch of ground. I am however unconvinced by his thesis that the implementation of the brutal policies in the East was seriously influenced by German hunting traditions or that the German armed forces were sufficiently organised to rotate the recruits for nearly 300 divisions through the rear areas to toughen them up by shooting civilians.
There is a great deal to be learnt from many of the reports cited by the author even though he does not always comment on them. He touches on the recruitment of local self-defence forces for whom the partisans represented a threat almost as great as the Germans. The description of Sgt Major Marteck’s patrol and Lt. Nowarre’s follow-up illustrates how closely they were integrated with the German soldiers of the JSKB. But whilst Nowarre was instructed to recover the bodies of Marteck and his colleagues it was only the German soldiers who were buried in the military cemetery at Bialystok. The bodies of the ‘allied’ militiamen were left where they fell.