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Erich von dem Bach

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was a Nazi official and a member of the SS.
Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was a Nazi official and a member of the SS.

Erich von dem Bach, born Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski and also known as Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (1 March 1899 - 8 March 1972), was a Nazi official and a member of the SS, in which he reached the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer.


Slavic origin

He was born to Otto Jan Józefat von Zelewski, a Roman Catholic, and his Lutheran wife Elzbieta Ewelina Szymanska. Both parents were of Polish origin.

Erich's great-great-great-grandfather was Michal von Zelewski (a. 1700-1785), the owner of part of the village of Milwino, Niepoczolowice and Zakrzewo in Pomerania, who was Kashubian. Michal's marriage to Anna Zofia von Pirch produced a son, Franciszek von Zelewski (c. 1735-1788). Franciszek married Ewa von Ketrzynska, who in 1778 gave birth to Andrzej Klemens von Zelewski. Andrzej married Konkordia Wilhelmina Henrietta von Grubba. Their eldest son, Otton August Ludwik Rudolf von Zelewski (born 1820 in Zakrzewo, died June 28, 1878 in Zeblewo), was von dem Bach's grandfather. Roman Catholic Church sources claim that in 1855 in Strzepcz Otton August von Zelewski married Antonia Fryderyka von Zelewska (apparently from another Zelewski family). One of their sons was Otton Jan von Zelewski (born May 19, 1859 in Zeblewo; died April 12, 1911 in Dortmund), who married Elzbieta Ewelina Szymanska about 1890. They had three daughters and three sons, one of whom was Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski.

In 1933, Erich started using the name "von dem Bach-Zelewski" but in 1940 requested permission to drop the "Zelewski". That name was very common among Kashubians in the Zelewo area and in fact there was a family who bore the name "Bach", who later changed it to "Bach-Zelewski"; however, Erich von Zelewski was not connected to them in any way. He lied about his German descent so that his sons could in the future join the SS (he admitted this in a confidential letter to Himmler).

Early life

He was born in Lauenburg, Pomerania, German Empire, on 1 March 1899, the son of Otto Jan Józefat von Zelewski, a landlord from Lebork (in German Lauenburg). In 1915 Erich von Zelewski volunteered for the Prussian army and served there until the end of World War I. He was wounded twice, and won the Iron Cross twice.

After the war, he remained in the army and, among other duties, fought in the Silesian Uprisings. In 1924, he transferred to the Grenzschutz (border guards).

He left the Grenzschutz in 1930, when he joined the Nazi Party, becoming a member of the SS in 1931. He was rapidly promoted and by the end of 1933 had reached the rank of SS-Brigadeführer. A source of considerable annoyance for him was that three of his sisters married Jewish men. This, along with his Slavic ancestry, may have driven him to ever-bloodier excesses in order to "prove himself" as a Nazi.

A member of the Reichstag from 1932 to 1944, he participated in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. He served in various Nazi party posts, initially in East Prussia and after 1936 in Silesia. By 1937 he had become the Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer (HSSPF - Higher SS and Police Leader) in Silesia.

World War II

After the war broke out, units under his command took part in reprisal actions and the shooting of POWs during the September Campaign, although von dem Bach was not personally present. On 7 November 1939, SS chief Heinrich Himmler offered him the post of Commissioner for the Strengthening of Germandom in Silesia. His duties included mass resettlements and the confiscation of private property. By August 1940, his units had forced more than 20,000 Zywiec families to leave their homes.

In late 1939, he proposed setting up a concentration camp for the non-German inhabitants in the vicinity of the town of Oswiecim. After initial reluctance, Himmler agreed to von dem Bach's suggestion; in May 1940, Auschwitz opened.

On 28 November 1940, von dem Bach officially changed his name and dropped the name of Zelewski.

On 22 June 1941, von dem Bach became HSSPF in the region of the Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Center); in July 1943, he became commander of the so-called "Bandenkämpfverbände" ("Band-fighting Units"), responsible for the mass murder of 35,000 civilians in Riga and more than 200,000 in Belarus and eastern Poland. The authorities designated him as the future HSSPF in Moscow; however, the Wehrmacht failed to take the city. Until 1943, von dem Bach remained the HSSPF in command of "anti-partisan" units on the central front, a special command created by Adolf Hitler. Von dem Bach has the distinction of being the only HSSPF in the occupied Soviet territories to retain genuine authority over the police after Hans-Adolf Prützmann and Jockeln lost theirs to the civil administration.

In February 1942, he was hospitalized, which he would later claim was due to a nervous breakdown connected with the ethnic cleansing in Belarus, especially the Genocide of the Jews. Wireless intercepts decoded by British intelligence suggest, however, that his illness was strictly physical. He resumed his post in July, with no apparent reduction in his ruthlessness.

In June 1942, after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, Adolf Hitler wanted von dem Bach to take Heydrich's place as Reichprotector of Bohemia and Moravia, in order to show the Czechs just how brutal Nazi rule could be. When Himmler argued that von dem Bach could not be spared because of the then-military situation, Hitler relented and appointed Kurt Daluege instead.

On 12 July 1943, von dem Bach received command of all anti-partisan actions in Belgium, Belarus, France, the General Government, the Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and parts of the Bialystok area. In practice, his activities remained confined to Belarus and contiguous Russia.

Von dem Bach's tactics produced high numbers of civilian deaths and relatively minor military gains. German forces would more or less encircle partisan-controlled areas before closing in. Since deploying the necessary forces was a time-consuming and conspicuous process, the partisans would be forewarned and many would slip away, after hiding their heavier equipment and much of their supplies, while the remaining partisans would carry out a fighting withdrawal, picking off the lead German troops, often killing more men than they lost.

In the process of fighting these irregular battles, the Germans wantonly slaughtered civilians in order to inflate the figures of "enemy losses"; indeed, there were far more fatalities recorded than weapons captured. After an operation was completed, no permanent military presence would be maintained, allowing the partisans to slip back in, retrieve their hidden stocks and pick up where they had left off. On other occasions, though, the partisans would not return but begin operating where they had retreated to before the operation. Even when successful, von dem Bach was not accomplishing much more than forcing the partisans to relocate periodically.

In 1944, he took part in front-line fighting in the Kovel area, but in March had to go to Germany for medical treatment. Himmler assumed all his posts.

On 2 August 1944, he took command of all troops fighting against the Warsaw Uprising as Korpsgruppe Bach. Units under his command killed approximately 200,000 civilians (more than 65,000 in mass executions) and an unknown number of POWs. After more than two months of heavy fighting, he finally managed to recapture the city.

Between 26 January and 10 February 1945, von dem Bach commanded X SS Armeekorps, one of the "paper-corps", in Germany. His unit, however, suffered annihilation after less than two weeks.


German Cross in Gold (23 February 1942)

After the war

Von dem Bach went underground and tried to leave the country. However, US military police arrested him on 1 August 1945. In exchange for his testimony against his former superiors at the Nuremberg Trials, von dem Bach never faced trial for any war crimes. Similarly, he never faced extradition to Poland or to the USSR. He left prison in 1949. In Nuremberg he also resumed using the name Bach-Zelewski in an attempt to appear more Slavic and thus less likely to be an exponent of Nazi Germano-supremacism.

In 1951, von dem Bach claimed that he had helped Hermann Göring commit suicide in 1946. As evidence, he produced cyanide capsules to the authorities with serial numbers not far removed from the one used by Göring. The authorities never verified von dem Bach's claim, however, and did not charge him with aiding Göring's death. Most modern day historians dismiss von dem Bach's claim and agree that a U.S. Army contact within the Palace of Justice's prison at Nuremberg most likely aided Göring in his suicide.

Also in 1951, von dem Bach received a sentence of ten years in a labor camp for the murder of political opponents in the early thirties; however, he did not serve time until 1958, when he was convicted of killing an SA officer during the Night of the Long Knives and was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment. In 1961, he received an additional sentence of ten years in home custody for the murder of ten German Communists in the early 1930s. None of the sentences referred to his role in the East and his participation in the massacres, though he openly admitted to having murdered Jews. He died in a Munich prison on 8 March 1972.

It has been said that Hitler particularly admired von dem Bach's ruthlessness and ingenuity, describing him as "so clever he can do anything, get around anything."

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