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Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski
SS Obergruppenfuhrer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski
Born (1899-03-01)March 1, 1899
Died March 8, 1972(1972-03-08) (aged 73)
Place of birth Lauenburg, Pomerania, German Empire
Place of death Munich, West Germany
Allegiance Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
Service/branch Flag Schutzstaffel.svg Waffen SS
Years of service 1931–1945
Rank SS-Obergruppenführer Collar Rank.svg Obergruppenführer
Unit Waffen-SS
Commands held Höhere SS und Polizeiführer for Silesia
Battles/wars Warsaw Uprising

Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski or Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (1 March 1899 – 8 March 1972) was a high profile Nazi official of the Third Reich and a member of the SS, in which he reached the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer (General).



Von dem Bach-Zelewski was born into a Kashubian family to Otto Jan Józefat von Zelewski, a Roman Catholic, and his Lutheran wife Elżbieta Ewelina Szymańska (written in German legal documents as Schimansky). Born Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski, he legally added "von dem Bach" to the family name late in 1933. He went on to have the Polish sounding "Zelewski" officially removed from his name in November 1941.

His great-great-great-grandfather was Michał Żelewski (c. 1700-1785), who was a Kashubian Polish nobleman; he owned the villages of Milwino, Niepoczołowice and Zakrzewo in Pomerania. Von dem Bach's grandfather was Otto August Ludwik Rudolf von Zelewski (born 1820 in Zakrzewo, died 28 June 1878 in Zęblewo) according to Roman Catholic Church sources. His father, Otto Jan von Zelewski (born 19 May 1859 in Zęblewo; died 12 April 1911 in Dortmund), married Elżbieta Ewelina Szymańska about 1890. They had three daughters and three sons, one of whom was Erich. Apparently, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski manipulated his genealogy numerous times in his career, to impress his superiors.[1]

Early life

Zelewski was born in Lauenburg, Pomerania, German Empire (now Lębork, Poland), on 1 March 1899. Despite his aristocratic genealogy, he seems to have grown up in poverty; his father proved unable to establish a career and undertook a range of jobs, including agriculture. At the time of his death he was an insurance clerk. Zelewski's uncle Oskar von Zalewski, a soldier, developed a very close relationship with the boy and encouraged him to also pursue a military career. In November 1914, Erich von Zalewski volunteered for the Prussian army, becoming one of the youngest recruits and serving until the end of World War I. He was wounded twice, and awarded the Iron Cross. Zelewski was gassed in 1918, which had a long-term effect on his health.[1][2]

After the war, Zelewski remained in the army (the Reichswehr). He fought in the Freikorps against the Polish Silesian Uprisings. In 1924, Zalewski left the army on his own volition, and went back to his farm in Düringshof (Polish Bogdaniec in Gorzów Wielkopolski county). Zalewski enrolled with the border guards (Grenzschutz) the same year. On 23 October 1925, he legally changed his surname to von dem Bach-Zalewski. He left the Grenzschutz in 1930, when he joined the Nazi Party, becoming a member of the SS in 1931. Bach-Zalewski was rapidly promoted and, by the end of 1933, had reached the rank of Major General (SS-Brigadeführer). He is also known to have quarreled with his staff officer Anton von Hohberg und Buchwald. In 1934 Bach-Zalewski received the Cross of Honor (Ehrenkreuz).[1]

A source of considerable annoyance for him was the fact that all three of his sisters had married Jewish men. In 1946, he claimed under interrogation that this had ruined his reputation in the army, forcing him to leave the Reichswehr. A Nazi Party member of the Reichstag from 1932 to 1944, Bach-Zalewski participated in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, taking the opportunity to have Buchwald murdered. He served in various Nazi Party posts, initially in East Prussia and after 1936 in Silesia. By 1937, Bach-Zalewski had become the Higher SS and Police Leader, Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer (HSSPF) in Silesia and also served as the Division Commander of SS Division South East (SS-Oberabschnitt Südost).

World War II

Bach-Zalewski did not participate in the invasion of Poland personally, although the units under his command took part in reprisal actions and the shooting of POWs in the course of the September Campaign. Instead, 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 resettlement and the confiscation of Polish private property there. By August 1940, some 18,000–20,000 Poles from Żywiec County were forced to leave their homes in what became known as the Action Saybusch (German name for Żywiec).[3]

On 22 June 1941, Bach-Zelewski became the HSSPF in the region of Silesia. He provided the initial impetus for the building of Auschwitz concentration camp at the Polish artillery barracks in the Zasole suburb of Oświęcim due to overcrowding of prisons. The location was scouted by his subordinate Obergruppfuhrer Arpad Wigand. The first transport arrived at KL Auschwitz on 14 June 1940, and two weeks later Bach-Zelewski personally visited the camp.[4]

Bach-Zelewski in Minsk in 1943

Eastern Front

During Operation Barbarossa, Bach-Zelewski served as the SS and police leader in the territory of Belarus, extending all the way to the Urals. He oversaw the activities of the Einsatzgruppe B, responsible for the extermination of Jews in Riga and Minsk between July and September 1941. He went back to Berlin in February 1942 for medical treatment. Bach-Zalewski was hospitalized with intestinal ailments, and described as suffering from "hallucinations connected with the shooting of Jews".[5] He asked Himmler to be reassigned from managing executions to anti-partisan warfare.[6] Bach-Zalewski resumed his post in July, with no apparent reduction in his ruthlessness.[7]

In June 1942, after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, Hitler wanted Bach-Zelewski to take Heydrich's place as the leader of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. When Himmler argued that Bach-Zelewski could not be spared due to the prevailing military situation, Hitler relented and appointed Kurt Daluege to the position.

In July 1943, Bach-Zelewski became commander of the so-called "Bandenkämpfverbände" ("Band-fighting Unit"), 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, Bach-Zalewski remained the HSSPF in command of "anti-partisan" units on the central front, a special command created by Adolf Hitler. Bach-Zalewski was the only HSSPF in the occupied Soviet territories to retain genuine authority over the police after Hans-Adolf Prützmann and Jeckeln lost theirs to the civil administration.

Bach-Zelewski's genocidal tactics

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

Bach-Zelewski's tactics produced a high civilian death toll and relatively minor military gains. In fighting irregular battles with the partisans, his units slaughtered civilians in order to inflate the figures of "enemy losses"; indeed, far more fatalities were usually reported than weapons captured. The German troops used to encircle areas controlled by the partisans in a manner both time-consuming and conspicuous, allowing the real enemy to slip away. After an operation was completed, no permanent military presence was maintained, which gave the partisans a chance to resume where they had left off. Even when successful in pacification actions, Bach-Zalewski usually accomplished little more than to force the real enemy to relocate and multiply their numbers with civilians enraged by the massacres.[8] In early 1944, he took part in front-line fighting in the Kovel area, but in March he had to return to Germany for medical treatment. Himmler assumed all his posts.

Crushing of the Warsaw Uprising

Film footage taken by the Polish Underground showing the bodies of women and children murdered by troops of the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger in Warsaw, August 1944.

On 2 August 1944, Bach-Zelewski took command of all German troops fighting against the Warsaw Uprising. The German forces were made up of 17,000 men arranged in two battle groups: under von Rohr, and under Reinefarth – the latter included the Dirlewanger Brigade of convicted criminals.[9] This command group was named after Bach-Zelewski, 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.[9]

After more than two months of heavy fighting and the total destruction of Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski managed to take control of the city while committing the cruelest atrocities in the process.[10] For his exploits in Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by the Nazi regime on 30 September 1944. Incidentally, during the slaughter and razing of Warsaw, he is alleged to have personally saved Fryderyk Chopin's heart, by taking it for his own collection of curiosities. The recovered heart is held at a Warsaw church.[11]

Between 26 January and 10 February 1945, Bach-Zelewski commanded X SS Armeekorps, one of the "paper-corps", in Germany, but this unit was annihilated after less than two weeks.

After the war

Bach-Zelewski went into hiding 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, Bach-Zelewski never faced trial for any war crimes. Similarly, he never faced extradition to Poland or to the USSR. He left prison in 1949.

In 1951, Bach-Zelewski 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-Zelewski's claim, however, and did not charge him with aiding Göring's death. Most modern historians dismiss Bach-Zalewski'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.[12]

Also in 1951, Bach-Zelewski was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp for the murder of political opponents in the early 1930s; however, he did not serve time until 1958, when he was convicted of killing Anton von Hohberg und Buchwald, an Sturmabteilung officer, during the Night of the Long Knives, and was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment.[13] In 1961, he was sentenced to an additional 10 years in home custody for the murder of 10 German Communists in the early 1930s. None of the sentences referred to his role in Poland, in the East, or his participation in the Holocaust, although he openly denounced himself as a mass murderer.[14] He died in a Munich prison on 8 March 1972.

German military awards and trophies

See also

Notes and references


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Tomasz Żuroch-Piechowski. "Eryk z Bogdańca, niewinny w Norymberdze (Innocent man at the Nuremberg Trials)" (in Polish) (Internet Archive).,12454,1361279,tematy.html. Retrieved June 26, 2012. 
  2. Goldensohn, Leon, The Nuremberg Interviews: Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses, Random House Publishing, 2010
  3. Mirosław Sikora (20 September 2011). "Saybusch Aktion - jak Hitler budował raj dla swoich chłopów" (in Polish). OBEP Institute of National Remembrance, Katowice. Redakcja Retrieved May 5, 2012. 
  4. Żuroch-Piechowski. "Innocent man at the Nuremberg Trials" (ibidem, page 2).,12454,1361279,2,tematy.html. Retrieved June 26, 2012. 
  5. Lifton, Robert Jay, The Nazi Doctors (New York: Basic Books 1986), p. 159. ISBN 0-465-04905-2
  6. Żuroch-Piechowski. "Innocent man at the Nuremberg Trials" (ibidem, page 3).,12454,1361279,3,tematy.html. Retrieved June 26, 2012. 
  7. Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of evil (New York: Viking Press 1963), p.7.  Arendt, in her account of Eichmann's trial in Israel, states that subsequently Eichmann had tried to protect Jews from the Einsatzgruppen.
  8. Edgar M. Howell (1997). The Soviet Partisan Movement: 1941 - 1944. Merriam Press. p. 185. ISBN 1576380149. Retrieved 2013-06-27. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Norman Davies, (2004). Rising '44. The Battle for Warsaw, (1st U.S. ed.). New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-03284-6.
  10. "The Rape of Warsaw". Retrieved 3 February 2009.
  11. Chopin's Heart, AFP, at The Chopin Society UK, retrieved 30 May 2012.
  12. "Guard 'gave Goering suicide pill'", BBC News, February 8, 2005.
  13. Hamburger Abendblatt 4 August 1962 (German)
  14. Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: the banality of evil (New York: Viking Press 1963), p7


  • Blood, Philip W. - Hitler's Bandit Hunters - The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe. Potomac Books Inc. 2006.

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