Military Wiki
Operation Reinhard
Date October 1941 - November 1943
Location Occupied Poland
Also known as German language: Aktion Reinhardt
or Einsatz Reinhard
Participants  Nazi Germany

Operation Reinhard (German language: Aktion Reinhard or Einsatz Reinhard) was the code name given to the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews in the General Government. The operation marked the most deadly phase of the Holocaust with the introduction of extermination camps. As many as two million people, almost all of whom were Jews, were sent to Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka set up specifically for Operation Reinhard, to be put to death in gas chambers built for that purpose.[1] In addition, mass killing facilities were developed at the Majdanek concentration camp[2] and at Auschwitz II-Birkenau near the existing Auschwitz I camp.[3]


Originally, when the concentration camps were established in 1933, they were used for coercion, forced labour and imprisonment, not for mass murder. But as the National Socialist regime developed, so did camp brutality. By the time of World War II, people were dying from starvation, untreated disease and murder in Germany and Austria, at places such as Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen-Gusen.

By 1942 the Nazis had decided to undertake the Final Solution. Operation Reinhard would be the first step in the systematic liquidation of the Jews in Europe; beginning with those within the General Government. Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka were created solely to efficiently kill thousands of people. These camps differed from the likes of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Majdanek because the latter also operated as forced-labour camps as well as being death camps.[4]

The organizational apparatus behind the extermination program was developed during Aktion T4 when more than 70,000 German handicapped men, women and children were murdered between 1939 and 1941. The SS officers responsible for Aktion T4, such as Christian Wirth, Franz Stangl, and Irmfried Eberl, were all given key roles in establishing the death camps.

Operational name

Reinhard Heydrich shown as a SS-Gruppenführer and General of the Police

It is hypothesized that the operation was named after Reinhard Heydrich, the coordinator of the Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish Question) - the extermination of the Jews living in the European countries occupied by the German Third Reich during World War II. After the plans were outlined at the Wannsee conference in January 1942, Heydrich was attacked by British-trained Czechoslovak agents on 27 May 1942; he died of his injuries eight days later.

This has been disputed by some researchers who argue that, since the more mainstream designation of the operation was "Aktion Reinhardt" (with "t" after "d"), it could not have been named after Reinhard Heydrich. They argue that it was named after German State Secretary of Finance Fritz Reinhardt. In November 1946, Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz, asserted in a report - while in Polish custody in Kraków - that Operation Reinhardt was actually the code name for the collection, sorting and utilization of all articles acquired from the transports of Jews sent to the extermination camps.[5]

Death factories

SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik in charge of Operation Reinhard.

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-F0918-0201-001, KZ Treblinka, Lageplan (Zeichnung) II.jpg

A diagram from the German Federal Archives showing the basic layout of Treblinka in 1942.

On 13 October 1941, SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik (headquarters in Lublin) received a verbal order from Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler to start immediate construction work on the first Aktion Reinhard camp at Bełżec, in the General Government, Poland (operational March 1942). While the SS-Totenkopfverbände managed the greater concentration camp system, Globocnik was given complete control over the Aktion Reinhard camps. All orders he received came directly from Himmler and not from SS-Gruppenführer Richard Glücks, head of the Nazi Concentration Camp service.[6] Between 20 and 35 SS men under the direct command of Globocnik served in each extermination camp. These men came from the Sicherheitsdienst and SS Police Battalions, and were complemented with SS personnel from Aktion T4. Camp security was provided by Ukrainian collaborators (Trawnikis). The camp's SS command called these guards Hiwis after Hilfswillige (English: auxiliaries).

By mid-1942, three more death camps had been established at Chełmno (operational Dec 1941), Sobibór (operational May 1942), and Treblinka (operational July 1942). It is important to note that these death factories developed progressively as each site was built. Chełmno, which was under the control of SS-Standartenführer Ernst Damzog, commander of the SD in occupied Posen, was built around a manor house in the Reichsgau Wartheland. As the Final Solution's pilot project, the camp did not have crematoria (only mass graves in the woods) or purpose-built gas chambers. Instead three gas vans, that had been previously employed by Einsatzgruppen on the Russian Front, were used to kill Jews from the Łódź Ghetto. Although Chełmno was not part of Aktion Reinhard, Jews from the General Government were sent to this death camp between early December 1941 until mid-January 1942. When Globocnik's Bełżec and Sobibór became operational, they had diesel-run gas chambers while bodies were burned in pits. Treblinka, the last camp to become operational, utilised the knowledge the Nazis had acquired from the other camps. Within 15 months, this death factory had killed between 800,000 and 1,400,000 people, disposed of their bodies and processed their belongings.[7]

Overall Globocnik's camps had similar designs. Firstly they were situated within wooded areas well away from populations. Secondly they were constructed near branch lines that linked to the Polish rail system.[8] Each camp had a station and reception areas. Beyond these buildings was a narrow, camouflaged path (the so-called Himmelfahrtsstraße or in English: Road to Heaven)[9] that led to the extermination site that contained the undressing barracks, gas chambers, pits and cremation grids. The SS guards and Ukrainian Trawnikis lived in a separate area. Wooden watchtowers and barbed-wire fences, partially camouflaged with pine branches, surrounded these camps.

Unlike the camps such as Dachau or Auschwitz, no electric fences were used, as camp inmate numbers remained relatively low. Only small numbers of Sonderkommando were kept alive to assist arriving transports, for clearing away bodies, or for sorting property and valuables from dead victims. Prisoners who were forced to work in the killing centers were kept in isolation from those who worked outside in the reception and property-sorting areas. Periodically these groups would be killed and replaced to remove any potential witnesses to the mass murder. During Operation Reinhard, Globocnik oversaw the systematic killing of more than 2,000,000 Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, the Reich (Germany and Austria), the Netherlands and Soviet Union. An undetermined number of Roma were also killed in these death camps, a large number of whom were children.[10]

Extermination process

The railway schedule (or Fahrplananordnung) outlining all transports being sent to Treblinka on 25 August 1942.

The Höfle Telegram, which was an intercepted SS Enigma message, records the total number of people sent to KL Lublin, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka as 1,274,166 in 1942.

All the death camps used subterfuge and misdirection to operate efficiently. This element had been developed in Aktion T4 when disabled or handicapped people were transferred by SS men wearing white coats to give the process an air of medical authenticity. After supposedly being assessed, the unsuspecting patients were then moved to killing centers for "special treatment". (The euphemism "special treatment" (Sonderbehandlung) was reused in the Holocaust.)

In a similar fashion, the SS used a variety of ruses to move new arrivals to the disguised killing sites to prevent unmanageable panic. Common factors included the presence of a railway station with waiting medical personnel and signs directing people to disinfection centers. Treblinka had a booking office with signs stating there were connections for other camps further East.[11] Guards would segregate the men and young boys from the women and children. Sometimes prisoners with suitable skills were selected to join the Sonderkommando. Guards either ordered everyone to leave their luggage behind and march directly to the "cleaning centers" or voluntarily hand over their valuables. Collected items would eventually be sent to the Reichsbank via the Main SS Economic and Administrative Department. Once at the changing areas, everyone was ordered to get undressed. Clothing would later be searched for hidden jewelry and other valuables. At this point, very old or sick prisoners were moved to a building named the Lazarett (field hospital) because their slowness would hinder the killing phase. They would be killed once the rest of the transport had been moved to the gas chambers. When it was time for the final stage, guards used whips, clubs and rifle butts to drive the naked people into the gas chambers. Panic was instrumental in filling the gas chambers because the need of the naked victims to evade blows on their bodies forced them rapidly forward. Once packed tightly inside (to minimize available air), the steel air-tight doors were closed. Although other methods of extermination, such as the cyanic poison Zyklon B, were already being used at other Nazi-killing centers such as Auschwitz, the Aktion Reinhard camps used lethal exhaust gases from captured Soviet tank engines.[12] Fumes would be discharged directly into the gas chambers for a given period then the engines would be switched off. SS guards would determine when to reopen the gas doors based on how long it took for the screaming to stop from within (usually 25 to 30 minutes). Special teams of camp inmates (Sonderkommando) would then remove the corpses on flat bed carts. Before the corpses were thrown into grave pits, gold teeth were removed from mouths and orifices would be searched for jewellery, currency and other valuables.

During the early phases of Operation Reinhard, victims were simply thrown into mass graves and covered with lime. However from 1943 onwards to hide the evidence of this war crime, all bodies were burned in open air pits. Special Leichenkommando (corpse units) had to exhume bodies from the mass graves around these death camps for incineration. Nevertheless Reinhard still left a paper trail. In January 1943, Bletchley Park intercepted a SS telegram by Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, Globocnik's deputy in Lublin, to Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in Berlin. The decoded Enigma message contained statistics showing a total of 1,274,166 arrivals at the four Aktion Reinhard camps up until the end of 1942.[13] In retrospect, the message shows how many people were murdered but the British codebreakers did not understand the meaning of the message at the time.[14]

Temporary substitution policy

Around March 1942 in the General Government, a substitution policy developed for a short time in which Polish workers who were sent to the German Reich were gradually replaced with Jewish laborers. It became standard procedure to stop deportation trains from the Reich and Slovakia in Lublin in order to select able-bodied Jews for work in the General Government; the others were sent on to their deaths in Bełżec. In this way, many Jews were temporarily spared death and instead relegated to work as forced labor in SS-controlled Strafkompanies and Arbeitslager (work camps). Hermann Höfle was one of the chief supporters and implementers of this policy.[6][15]

Disposition of the property of the victims

Approximately ℛℳ178m German Reichsmark worth of Jewish property (current approximate value: around $700m US$ or €550m Euro) was taken. But this wealth did not only go to the German authorities because corruption was rife within the death camps. Many of the individual SS and police men involved in the killings took cash, property and valuables for themselves. SS-Sturmbannführer Georg Konrad Morgen, an SS judge from the SS Courts Office, prosecuted so many Nazi officers for individual violations that by April 1944, Himmler personally ordered him to restrain his cases.[16][17]

Aktion Reinhard camp commanders

Extermination camp Commandant Period Estimated deaths
Bełżec SS-Sturmbannführer Christian Wirth December 1941 - July 31, 1942 600,000 [18]
SS-Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Hering 1 August 1942 - December 1942
Sobibor SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla March 1942 - April 1942 250,000 [19]
SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl May 1942 - September 1942
SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Reichleitner September 1942 - October 1943

SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla May 1942 - June 1942 800,000-1,400,000 [20]
SS-Obersturmführer Irmfried Eberl July 1942 - September 1942
SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl September 1942 - August 1943
SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Franz August 1943 - November 1943

Aftermath and cover up

Operation Reinhard ended in November 1943. Most of the staff and guards were then sent to northern Italy for further Aktion against Jews and local partisans. Globocnik went to the San Sabba concentration camp, where he supervised the detention, torture and killing of political prisoners.

At the same time, to cover up the mass murder of more than two million people in Poland during Operation Reinhard, the Nazis implemented the secret Sonderaktion 1005, also called Aktion 1005 or Enterdungsaktion ("exhumation action"). The operation, which began in 1942 and continued until the end of 1943, was designed to remove all traces that mass murder had been carried out. Leichenkommando ("corpse units") were created from camp prisoners to exhume mass graves and cremate the buried bodies, using giant grills made from wood and railway tracks. Afterwards, bone fragments were ground up in special milling machines and all remains were then re-buried in freshly dug pits. The Aktion was overseen by squads from the SD and Orpo.

After the war, some guards were tried and sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials for their role in Operation Reinhard and Sonderaktion 1005; however, many others escaped conviction such as Ernst Lerch, Globocnik's Chief of Staff.

See also


  1. "Aktion Reinhard" (PDF). Yad Vashem. 
  2. Yad Vashem (2013). "Aktion Reinhard" (PDF file, direct download 33.1 KB). Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies. Retrieved 31 October 2013. 
  3. Grossman, Vasily (1946). "The Treblinka Hell" (PDF file, direct download 2.14 MB). Треблинский ад. Foreign Languages Publishing House (online version). Retrieved 12 September 2013. "original in Russian: Гроссман В.С., Повести, рассказы, очерки [Stories, Journalism, and Essays], Воениздат 1958, (archived copy dated 9 September 2013)." 
  4. Sereny, Gita (2001). The Healing Wound: Experiences and Reflections on Germany 1938-1941. Norton. pp. 135–46. ISBN 978-0-3930-4428-7. 
  5. Höss, Rudolf (2000). Commandant of Auschwitz. Phoenix Press. p. 194. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Friedländer, Saul (2007). The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. HarperCollins. pp. 346–347. ISBN 0-06-019043-4. 
  7. Ruckerl, Adalbert (1972). NS-Prozesse. C. F. Muller. pp. 35–42. 
  8. Arad, Yitzhak (1999). Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Indiana University Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-2532-1305-1. 
  9. Radlmaier, Steffen (2001). Der Nürnberger Lernprozess: von Kriegsverbrechern und Starreportern. Eichborn. p. 278. ISBN 978-3-8218-4725-2. 
  10. Arad, Yitzhak (1999). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Indiana University Press. pp. 152–153. ISBN 978-0-2532-1305-1. 
  11. Arad, Yitzhak (1999). Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. p. 76. 
  12. Carol Rittner, Roth, K. (2004). Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-8264-7566-4. 
  13. Public Record Office, Kew, England, HW 16/23, decode GPDD 355a distributed on January 15, 1943, radio telegrams nos 12 and 13/15, transmitted on January 11, 1943.
  14. Hanyok, Robert J. (2004). "Eavesdropping on Hell: Historical Guide to Western Communications Intelligence and the Holocaust, 1939–1945". Center for Cryptographic History, National Security Agency. p. 124. 
  15. Browning, Christopher (2000). Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers. Cambridge. p. 71. 
  16. "SS-Hauptscharfuehrer Konrad Morgen - the Bloodhound Judge". Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  17. Snyder, Louis Leo (1998). Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 978-1-8532-6684-3. 
  18. Between March and December 1942, the Germans deported some 434,500 Jews, and an indeterminate number of Poles and Roma (Gypsies)to Belzec, to be killed. Bełżec extermination camp
  19. In all, the Germans and their auxiliaries killed at least 167,000 people at Sobibor. Sobibor extermination camp
  20. The Höfle Telegram indicates some 700,000 killed by 31 December 1942, yet the camp functioned until 1943, hence the true deaths total likely is greater.Reinhard: Treblinka Deportations

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