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The real-life manifestation of true evil?

The Dirlewanger Brigade

The crossed grenades insignia of the Dirlewanger Brigade (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

While reading about World War II and the Third Reich, one can experience countless examples of barbaric acts carried out by individuals and groups of people in the name of different ideologies. Still, maybe the most horrendous atrocities were carried out by a specific group of criminals and their leader, Oskar Paul Dirlewanger.

Oskar Dirlewanger in SS-Oberführer uniform in 1944 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
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He was born in 1895 in Würzburg, Germany. He gained combat experience in the First World War both on the Western and Eastern Fronts where he got injured several times and was decorated for bravery. The horrors of the trenches might have greatly contributed to the gradual deformity of his personality. A later police report described him as "a mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of erupting into violence under the influence of drugs". In the political turmoil following WWI, he joined right-wing paramilitary units (“Freikorps”) and fought against Communists.
 
He studied at the Goethe University in Frankfurt and obtained a doctorate in political science in 1922. He sympathized with the Nazis and joined them and their early military wing, the Sturmabteilung (SA) in 1923. He had several different jobs, he used to work at a bank and a Jewish-owned textile factory. When the Nazis seized power in 1933, he became the director of an employment agency as a reward from the Nazi party. Still, he could not hide his true personality and was convicted several times for illegal arms possession and embezzlement. Eventually, not even his Nazi friends could save him from imprisonment when he raped a 14-year-old girl. He was fired from his job and expelled from the Nazi Party, and was deprived of his military honors and doctor title. It was not too long after his release from the Ludwigsburg prison when he committed sexual assault again. Now he was sent to the concentration camp in Welzheim. He was saved by the intervention from his old WWI-comrade, Gottlob Berger who was a high-ranking SS officer by that time with good connections to SS leader Heinrich Himmler.

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Dirlewanger’s patron Gottlob Berger, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Dirlewanger volunteered to join the Spanish Foreign Legion during the Spanish Civil War to fight on the Nationalists’ side. With the help of his friend Berger, he got transferred to the German Condor Legion fighting in support of the Nationalists, where he served between 1936-1939 and was wounded three times. As a recognition of his achievements, and with renewed intervention from Berger in his favor, he successfully petitioned to have his case reconsidered. He was reinstated into the Nazi Party and he was also allowed to use his doctorate again.

The Condor Legion at a parade after their return from the Spanish Civil War, 1939 (Photo: ww2incolor.com)

At the beginning of WWII, Dirlewanger volunteered for the Waffen-SS and was promoted to Obersturmführer. The experimental unit under his supervision was originally composed of around 55 poachers who had hunted illegally with firearms and not with traps. It was called the Wilddiebkommando Oranienburg ("Oranienburg Poacher's Unit"). The idea behind the unit was to use the tracking and shooting skills of the poachers against partisans and other “subhumans”. They were offered amnesty in return for joining the unit. Later, the unit was gradually expanded with problematic soldiers who had disciplinary problems, convicted criminals (murder, rape, burglary), criminally insane, Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war, etc. This was not a usual penal unit since its members were supposed to die on the battlefield and not return to their original units. On top of that, they were expected and allowed to commit almost every kind of war crime.
 
They were deployed first in occupied Poland serving as guards at a labour camp at Stary Dzików where they terrorized the inmates and pillaged the ghetto in Lublin. Dirlewanger sometimes enjoyed undressing, torturing and eventually poisoning Jewish women and watching them die in pain. These atrocities triggered investigations even within the SS but Berger and Himmler always pulled the strings to save him, once saying “Better to shoot two Poles too many than one too few. A savage country cannot be governed in a decent manner." As the unit grew they were renamed SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger and were sent to Belarus to fight against partisans from early 1942. Indiscriminate killing and suffering marked their way, murdering around 30,000 Belarussian civilians. Dirlewanger’s men frequently herded groups of locals into barns and set them ablaze while machine-gunning everyone trying to escape. Many were made to clear minefields by simply walking over it.

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During the fight against the Red Army on the Eastern Front they performed quite well but were decimated by the Russian attacks. They had to be replenished and were then sent to break the uprising in Warsaw in August 1944. In the fierce fighting against the Polish freedom fighters Dirlewanger lost nearly two-thirds of his men and had only around 650 men left at the end of the operation. In Warsaw, he and his men participated in the massacre in the Wola district of the city, ordered by Hitler in order to break the will of the Polish resistance once and for all. Together with other infamous units like the Kaminski Brigade, in an alcohol-fueled frenzy they killed some 40,000 civilians in just a couple of days, raping and hanging the nurses, doctors and the sick in hospitals while singing the song "In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus" (“There is a beer-hall in Munich”) before setting the building on fire. They even attacked a nursery home and impaled babies on bayonets and stuck them out of windows or killed them simply with the butts of their rifles. Over 80% of the city was destroyed in their rampage. Even high-level SS officers in Warsaw begged for these units to be deployed somewhere else.

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SS-Sonderregiment Dirlewanger during the Warsaw Uprising (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

As a recognition of his contribution to crushing the uprising and intimidating the population of Warsaw, Dirlewanger was promoted to the rank of SS-Oberführer, on August 15, 1944. Two months later, he received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, upon the recommendation of his former commander in Warsaw, SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth.
 
Dirlewanger’s next mission was to put down the Slovak National Uprising in October 1944. The unit’s last battles were fought in Hungary and eastern Germany against the advancing Red Army. In February 1945, the unit was re-designated as the 36. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS and replenished to a force of 4,000 soldiers. It was the same month when Dirlewanger was seriously wounded again while fighting in the vicinity of Guben in the State of Brandenburg close to the Polish border. He was withdrawn from the front and his assignment at the helm of the division ended. He went into hiding from April 22, 1945. The remainder of the division got almost completely wiped out by the Russians and many of the soldiers deserted, too. Around 700 members of the unit survived and managed to surrender to the Americans. Only a few of them were prosecuted after the war.

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Dirlewanger (left) with his staff (Photo: Pinterest)

Dirlewanger was arrested on June 1, 1945 in the town of Altshausen in Upper Swabia close to the Swiss border in the French occupation zone. He was dressed in civilian clothes, used a false name and used a remote hunting lodge as a hideout. According to some sources, he was recognized by a former concentration camp inmate. He reportedly died sometime between June 5–8, 1945 in the prison camp and was buried on June 19, 1944. The circumstances of his death are unclear but most probably he was beaten to death by Polish guards or by former concentration camp prisoners. In 1960, the exhumation of his corpse confirmed his identity and death.

Dirlewanger (right) at the time of his arrest in civilian clothes (Photo: Pinterest)

His powerful SS patron, Gottlob Berger, an ardent anti-Semite and supporter of the Final Solution, surrendered to U.S. soldiers near Berchtesgaden in May 1945. He was tried and sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment by the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunal in the Ministries Trial in 1949. In 1951, the sentence was reduced to 10 years and he was released after having served only six and a half years in prison. During the trials, Berger said: "Now, Dr. Dirlewanger was hardly a good boy. You can't say that. But he was a good soldier, and he had one big mistake that he didn't know when to stop drinking.”
 
Despite his widely known barbaric deeds, Dirlewanger remained an inspiration for Nazi groups even in the 21st century. A German far-right group called Sturmbrigade 44 or Wolfsbrigade 44 was banned in December 2020. The number 4 in their name stood for the fourth letter of the alphabet (D), and was a reference to 44 – D.D., an abbreviation of "Division Dirlewanger".

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