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Richard Rhodes. Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.

New York: Vintage Books. 2003. 335 pp.


Masters of Death: The Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, written by the
Pulitzer Prize-winning Richard Rhodes, is a grim and gruesomely graphic account of the SS-
Einsatzgruppens role in the extermination of over 1.5 million of Jews in Eastern Europe. The
overarching theme of violence toward others is highlighted in this book and one can gain a
glimpse into careful cultivation of the Einsatzgruppen by the Nazi Party to become one of the
most successful killing squads recorded in modern history. His goals in writing the book were to
describe the use of the military units in the execution of Jews in the Holocaust and the specific
role that these military units played in the establishment of death camps (p. xii). Violence is
examined on different levels by Rhodes as he discusses the psychological aspects of the mass
murdering; the side effects experienced by the perpetrators of the murdering; and the evolution
of murdering methods that the Einsatzgruppen employed in order to reach the Final Solution of
the elimination the European Jewry.
Rhodes addresses his theories of how the path to violence progressed within the Nazi party by
drawing upon documents from the Nuremburg Trial (pp. 283-304). It is through the testimonies
presented in the proceedings that he pieces together his theory of how the Einsatzgruppen
became the stepping stone toward industrializing the mass killing process. In this respect,
Rhodes provides a scholarly and well-researched account of the acts leading up to the attempt to
annihilate all the Jews and the formation of concentration camps. At first, Rhodes explains how
the extinguishing of Soviet Jews began with the murdering of men and then progressed toward
the indiscriminate murdering of all ages (p. 136). It is here that Rhodes brings in some of his
thoughts about what kind of person it would take to casually kill another person, and if there are
any shortcomings to Masters of Death it would be the lack of hard evidence about what exactly it
is that makes regular citizens turn in cold killers (p. 113).
Furthermore, Rhodes explores the mental health side effects experienced by the Einsatzgruppen
that hindered the ability of some in the units to kill effectively and led some members of the
Einsatzgruppen to lose their nerves, refuse to carry out orders, and self-medicate with alcohol
(p.154). In order to solve this problem, the Einsatzgruppen elicited help from local citizens to kill
their own neighbors. Lastly, Rhodes explains that there became a strong desire for more cost-
effective, depersonalized, and quiet methods for the killing and disposal of the Jews which lent
way to the formation of concentration camps and death by gassing (p.242).
To someone without a broad knowledge base of World War II history, Masters of Death might
prove to be a challenging read. This is because not all the background of important war events is
given and because some of the terminology presented is in the original may be confusing to
English readers due to words in German being characteristically long in nature. Words like
Sardinenpackung (packing bodies like sardines in a can) and Genickschss (a lethal shot in the
head) might be too cumbersome for some to wade through (p. 211). Otherwise, the information
is provided in a clear and succinct manner that is focused more toward the college educated and
to those with a strong interest in Holocaust studies.
The book is significant to the Holocaust field, especially in regard to the study of Eastern
victims, because it attempts to explain how otherwise normal people can turn against their
neighbors and willingly kill another based on ethnicity which is a topic that has not been fully
explored by historians. Furthermore, Masters of Death contributes to Holocaust studies by
documenting the numerous unpleasant stories that are difficult to approach in a delicate and
respectful manner that extend beyond what the general public normally think of the Holocaust as
being limited to ghettos and concentration camps. In general, Masters of Death is money well
spent for the mature inquirer of the psychopathology of creating a mass killing operation and for
those who want to emphasize more with the plight of Jews during the Holocaust.