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Oskar Dirlewanger
Oskar Dirlewanger in 1944
Birth name Oskar Paul Dirlewanger
Born (1895-09-26)September 26, 1895
Died 7 June 1945(1945-06-07) (aged 49)
Place of birth Würzburg
Place of death Altshausen
Allegiance German Empire German Empire (to 1918)
Germany Weimar Republic (to 1922)
Nazi Germany Third Reich (1936–1945)
Service/branch Flag of the German Empire.svg Deutsches Heer
Condor Legion
Flag Schutzstaffel.svg Waffen-SS
Rank SS-Oberführer der Reserve
Commands held SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger
Battles/wars World War I
German Revolution
Spanish Civil War
World War II
Awards Iron Cross 2nd Class 1914 & 1939
Iron Cross 1st Class 1914 & 1939
Spanish Campaign Medal
Spanish Cross in Silver
German Cross in Gold
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Close Combat Clasp (Bronze)
Wound Badge in Gold
Slovak War Victory Cross Order

Dr. Oskar Paul Dirlewanger (26 September 1895 – 7 June 1945 (certificate of death)) was a German military officer and the founder and commander of the infamous Nazi SS penal unit "Dirlewanger" during World War II. Dirlewanger's name is closely linked to some of the worst crimes of the war. He also fought in World War I as well as in the post-World War I conflicts, and in the Spanish Civil War. He died after World War II while in Allied custody, apparently beaten to death by his guards.

He was invariably described as an extremely notorious figure by historians and researchers, including as "a psychopathic killer and child molester" by Steven Zaloga,[1] as "violently sadistic" by Richard Rhodes,[2] as "an expert in extermination and a devotee of sadism and necrophilia" by J. Bowyer Bell,[3] and as "a sadist and necrophiliac" by Bryan Mark Rigg.[4] World War II historian Chris Bishop called him the "most evil man in the SS."[5] According to Timothy Snyder, "in all the theaters of the Second World War, few could compete in cruelty with Oskar Dirlewanger."[6]


World War I and the interwar period

Oskar Dirlewanger was born in 1895 in Würzburg. He served as an infantry officer in World War I and won the Iron Cross 2nd Class and 1st Class medals, having been wounded six times.[7] Dirlewanger was nicknamed "Gandhi" because of his slender build.[8] According to Richard C. Lukas, "though intelligent, he was a liar, an alcoholic, and a pervert who molested children."[9]

After the end of World War I, Dirlewanger, described in a police report as "a mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of erupting into violence under the influence of drugs,"[10] joined different Freikorps paramilitary militias and fought in Ruhr, Saxony and Upper Silesia. He fought against the German Revolution of 1918–19 with the Freikorps in the cities of Backnang, Kornwestheim, Esslingen, Untertürkheim, Aalen, Schorndorf and Heidenheim near Stuttgart, in the Ruhr at Dortmund and Essen in 1920 and in eastern Germany in 1920 and 1921.[11] He served in Freikorps Epp, Freikorps Haas, Freikorps Sprösser and Freikorps Holz during this period.[7][11] Later, he commanded a troop manned by students, set up by him under the Württemberg "Highway Watch".[7][12] On Easter Sunday 1921, Dirlewanger moved towards Sangerhausen, which had been occupied by the rebel communist militia of Max Hoelz.[7][11] An attack by Dirlewanger failed, and the rebels succeeded in cutting off his troops. After the latter were reinforced during the night, the insurgents withdrew from the town and the troops then wreaked revenge on the remaining ones. During this operation, Dirlewanger was grazed on the head by a gunshot. After the Nazi Party (NSDAP) gained power, Dirlewanger was celebrated as the town's "liberator from the Red terrorists" and received its honorary citizenship in 1935.[13]

Between his militant forays, he studied at the Goethe University Frankfurt and in 1922 obtained a degree in political science.[14] The following year, he joined the NSDAP and later also the SS. Dirlewanger held various jobs, which included working at a bank and a knit-wear factory,[14] he was also repeatedly convicted for illegal arms possession. In 1934, he was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment for sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl from the League of German Girls (BDM), as well as the illegal use of a government vehicle and damaging said vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Dirlewanger also lost his job, his doctor title and all military honours, and was expelled from the NSDAP. Soon after his release, Dirlewanger was arrested again on similar charges for criminal recidivism. He was sent to the Welzheim concentration camp, as was standard practice for deviant sexual offenders in Germany at the time,[15] but he was released and reinstated in the general reserve of the SS following personal intervention of Gottlob Berger, the head of the SS Head Office (SS-Hauptamt, SS-HA) and long-time personal friend of the SS chief Heinrich Himmler, with the stipulation that he intended to go to Spain to serve with the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War.[14]

Dirlewanger served with the Condor Legion from 1936 to 1939 and was wounded three times. Following further intervention on his behalf by his patron Berger, he successfully petitioned to have his case reconsidered in light of his service in Spain.[16] Dirlewanger was reinstated into the NSDAP, albeit with a higher party number (#1,098,716). His doctorate was also restored by the University of Frankfurt.

World War II

At the beginning of World War II, Dirlewanger volunteered for the Waffen-SS and received the rank of Obersturmführer. He eventually became the commander of the so-called Sonderkommando Dirlewanger (at first designated as a battalion, later expanded to a brigade and eventually a division), composed originally of a small group of former poachers along with soldiers of a more conventional background. It was believed that the excellent tracking and shooting skills of the poachers could be put to constructive use in the fight against partisans. Later, Dirlewanger's soldiers were mostly recruited from volunteers among convicted German criminals (civilian and military) and concentration camp inmates, eventually including even political prisoners and mental asylum patients.

The unit was assigned to security duties first in occupied Poland (General Government), where Dirlewanger also served as an SS-TV commandant of a labour camp at Stary Dzików. The camp was a subject of an abuse investigation by the SS judge Georg Konrad Morgen, who accused Dirlewanger of wanton acts of murder, corruption and Rassenschande, that is the crime of sexual relations with non-Aryans (Morgen consequently himself got reduced in rank and sent to the Eastern Front).[17] According to Morgen, "Dirlewanger was a nuisance and a terror to the entire population. He repeatedly pillaged the ghetto in Lublin, extorting ransoms." Atrocities committed by Dirlewanger included injecting strychnine into young Jewish female prisoners, previously undressed and whipped, to watch them convulse to death in front of him and his friends for entertainment.[18] According to Raul Hilberg, this camp was where "one of the first instances that reference was made to the 'soap-making rumor';"[19] according to the rumour, Dirlewanger would "cut up Jewish women and boiled them with horse meat to make soap."[20] Dirlewanger's primary patron in the SS hierarchy was Berger, who provided Himmler with a massive political boost by numerically increasing the Waffen-SS through his position as chief of the SS-Hauptamt. In Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, Richard C. Lukas described Dirlewanger as "a sadist whose brutality was well known ... one of those degenerates who, in saner days, would have been court-martialed out of the German army."[9] According to Peter Longerich, Dirlewanger's leadership "was characterized by continued alcohol abuse, looting, sadistic atrocities, rape, and murder—and his mentor Berger tolerated this behaviour, as did Himmler, who so urgently needed men such as the Sonderkommando Dirlewanger in his fight against 'subhumanity'."[10] In his letter to Himmler, SS-Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik recommended Dirlewanger, who "in charge of the Jewish camp of Dzikow ... was an excellent leader."[10]

In January 1942, however, the local Higher SS and Police Leader, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger threatened: "[Unless] this bunch of criminals disappears from the General Government within a week, I will go myself and lock them up."[21] In February, the unit was promptly reassigned for anti-partisan duties in occupied Belarus, "with a speciality of 'pacifying' an area by slaughtering every man, woman and child."[5] Himmler was well aware of Dirlewanger's reputation and record, but awarded him the German Cross in Gold on 5 December 1943,[22] in recognition of his regiment's successes during this time, such as Operation Cottbus. In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder wrote that "Dirlewanger's preferred method was to herd the local population inside a barn, set the barn on fire, and then shoot with machine guns anyone who tried to escape."[6] Rounded-up civilians were also repeatedly used as human shields and marched over minefields.[7] In Masters of Death, Richard Rhodes wrote that Dirlewanger and his force also "raped and tortured young women and slaughtered Jews Einsatzgruppen-style in Byelorussia beginning in 1942."[2] Snyder cautiously estimated that the Sonderkommando, by then regiment-sized, killed at least 30,000 civilians in its Belarusian tour of duty.[6] Some other estimates are much higher, such as at least 120,000 civilians killed in 200 villages.[8] Jan Valtin wrote: "The Dirlewanger Brigade is marching! How many hundred villages erased? How many hundred thousand lives snuffed out? Ask Colonel Dirlewanger!"[23]

Members of the SS-Sturmbrigade "Dirlewanger" in Warsaw, August 1944

In 1944, during the German rout from Belarus, Dirlewanger's unit suffered heavy losses in the rear-guard fights against Soviet regulars. It was used again (by then, reformed into a brigade), in the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising. Historian Martin Windrow wrote that "in summer '44 Dirlewanger led his 4,000 butchers, rapists and looters into action against the Warsaw Uprising, and quickly committed ... unspeakable crimes."[22] In Warsaw, Dirlewanger participated in the Wola massacre, together with police units rounding up and shooting some 40,000 civilians in just two days.[6] In the same Wola district, Dirlewanger burned three hospitals with patients inside, while the nurses were "whipped, gang-raped and finally hanged naked, together with the doctors" to the accompaniment of music.[6] Later, "they drank, raped and murdered their way through the Old Town, slaughtering civilians and fighters alike without distinction of age or sex."[7] In the Old Town – where about 30,000 civilians were killed – several thousand wounded in field hospitals overrun by the Germans were shot and set on fire with flamethrowers.[6] Reportedly, "the Dirlewanger brigade burned prisoners alive with gasoline, impaled babies on bayonets and stuck them out of windows and hung women upside down from balconies."[24] SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, overall commander of the forces pacifying Warsaw – and Dirlewanger's former boss in Belarus – described Dirlewanger as having "a typical mercenary nature";[25] von dem Bach's staff officer sent to summon Dirlewanger before him was driven off at gunpoint.[26] Nevertheless, in recognition of his work to crush the uprising and intimidate the population of Warsaw, Dirlewanger received his final promotion, to the rank of SS-Oberführer, on 15 August 1944. In October, he was also awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, recommended for it by his superior officer in Warsaw, SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth (after the war, Reinefarth lied about his role in Warsaw, even denying Dirlewanger had been under his command).[17]

Dirlewanger then led his men in joining the efforts to put down the Slovak National Uprising, eventually fighting against the Red Army in Hungary and Germany. On 17 April 1945, he was injured in combat for the 12th time and sent to the rear.


Dirlewanger was arrested on 1 June 1945 near the town of Altshausen in Upper Swabia by the French occupational authorities while wearing civilian clothes and hiding under a false name in a remote hunting lodge – reportedly recognised by a former Jewish concentration camp inmate – and brought to a detention center. He died around 5–7 June 1945 in a prison camp at Altshausen, probably as a result of ill-treatment.[8][14][27][28] The exact cause of Dirlewanger's death is unknown, which over time led to numerous speculations. His death certificate issued by French authorities stated that Dirlewanger died on 7 June 1945 of natural causes. However, the certificate has been questioned, especially by the German historians.[29] According to Rolf Michaelis,[30] a Luftwaffe lieutenant Anton Füssinger (now deceased) claimed he was Dirlewanger's cell mate, and said that he witnessed Dirlewanger being gravely beaten by Polish guards in the French service on the night of 4 to 5 June, resulting in his death. However, no one else corroborated any of his statements, despite further research by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. Contemporary Polish sources suggest that those guards could have been recruited from among former forced labourers, although a Polish survivor of the original Nazi camp at Altshausen stated that its former Polish prisoners did not know anything about Dirlewanger's death.[29]

The lack of corroborating evidence led to even more rumours after the war ended. Many sightings of Dirlewanger were made around the world over the years. Although the French recorded that Dirlewanger was buried on 19 June 1945, there were rumours and tabloid stories suggesting that he had escaped, including one popular story of Dirlewanger serving with the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam during the First Indochina War and later defecting to Egypt to serve Nasser's army. He was even being still officially wanted by the Polish government for murdering over 30,000 people in Poland.[31] In response, the department of public prosecution in Ravensburg arranged the exhumation of Dirlewanger's corpse to confirm his identity in November 1960.[8][32] The place of his burial was confirmed, although it was liquidated later.[29]

In popular culture

A fictional character inspired by Dirlewanger (the SS commander with a small primate based on Dirlewanger's exotic pet as described by Johannes Frießner[33] and Ales Adamovich[34]) is featured in the Elem Klimov's 1985 Soviet war drama film Come and See, loosely based on Dirlewanger's massacre of the village Khatyn in Belarus in 1943.[35] Dirlwanger and his unit were the subject of the 1961 novel Brigade Dirlewanger by Will Berthold,[36] the 1979 novel Reign of Hell by Sven Hassel,[37] and the 2012 graphic novel Monkeywanger by Peeler Watt;[38] the unit itself is also featured in the 2009 video game Velvet Assassin by SouthPeak Games.[21] A surviving Dirlewanger is the villain of Jeremy Robinson's 2013 science fiction novel I Am Cowboy, that is set in Egypt after WWII.[39] The character "SS-Standartenführer Dirlewanger" will be played by Tom Savini in the upcoming horror film The 4th Reich.[40]


  1. Steven J. Zaloga, The Polish Army 1939–45, page 25
  2. 2.0 2.1 Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust
  3. J. Bowyer Bell, Besieged: Seven Cities Under Siege, page 190
  4. Bryan Mark Rigg, Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military, page 334
  5. 5.0 5.1 Chris Bishop, Michael Williams, SS: Hell on the Western Front. Zenith Imprint, 2003, page 92. ISBN 0760314020.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, page 241-242, 304
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger Hitler's Most Notorious Anti-Partisan Unit by French L. MacLean (Schiffer Military History 1998)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Joseph Howard Tyson, The Surreal Reich, pages 434–436
  9. 9.0 9.1 Richard C. Lukas, Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation, 1939–1944, page 197
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: A Life, pages 345–346 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Longerich" defined multiple times with different content
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Die Einheit Dirlewanger – Institut für Zeitgeschichte (German)
  12. Ritterkreuzträger Oskar Dirlewanger (German)
  13. French MacLean, The Cruel Hunters (ibidem), page 37. Schiffer Pub., 1998. ISBN 0764304836.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Wistrich, Robert S. (2001). Who's Who of Nazi Germany: Dirlewanger, Oskar. Routledge, p. 44. ISBN 0-415-26038-8.
  15. Stein, George H. (1984). The Waffen SS. Cornell University Press, p. 266. ISBN 0-8014-9275-0.
  16. Maguire, Peter H. (2002). Law & War: An American Story. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 163. ISBN 978-0-231-12050-0.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Philip W. Blood, Hitler's Bandit Hunters: The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe
  18. Grunberger, Richard. The 12-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany, 1933–1945. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971; p. 104.
  19. David Crowe, Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activites, and the True Story Behind the List, page 346
  20. Myths : Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies : University of Minnesota
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Axis History Factbook: SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 Martin Windrow, The Waffen-SS, page 26
  23. Richard Julius Herman Krebs (Jan Valtin), Wintertime
  24. Terry Goldsworthy, Valhalla's Warriors: A History of the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front 1941–1945, page 74
  25. Andrew Borowiec, Destroy Warsaw!: Hitler's Punishment, Stalin's Revenge, page 101
  26. Gordon Williamson, The Waffen-SS (4): 24. to 38. Divisions, & Volunteer Legions, page 37
  27. Walter Laqueur, Judith Tydor Baumel (2001). Dirlewanger, Oskar. Yale University Press. p. 150. ISBN 0300084323.,+Oskar+(1895%E2%80%931945)%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=BGLnT7nXO-fS2AXXwq3ZCQ&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22Dirlewanger%2C%20Oskar%20(1895%E2%80%931945)%22&f=false. Retrieved 24 June 2012. 
  28. Walter Stanoski Winter, Struan Robertson. Winter Time: Memoirs of a German Sinto who Survived Auschwitz. 2004. Page 139. ISBN 1-902806-38-7.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Editorial board (2008). "Dopaść rzeźnika Warszawy (Get the butcher of Warsaw)" (in Polish). Interview with historian Janusz Roszkowski. Gruner & Jahr, Polska. pp. 1 and 2. Retrieved 30 June 2012. 
  30. Rolf Michaelis (2005) (in Polish, in translation). SS-Sonderkommando "Dirlewanger. Wydawnictwo "Militaria". pp. 72 pages. ISBN 8372192251. Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  31. Michael Bar-Zohar, The Avengers, page 145
  32. Kurt P. Tauber, Beyond Eagle and Swastika: German Nationalism Since 1945, Volume 2, page 1116
  33. Krisztián Ungváry, Battle for Budapest: 100 Days in World War II , page 21
  34. "• View topic - Dirlewanger's monkey". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  35. Nancy Ramsey (2001-01-28). "FILM; They Prized Social, Not Socialist, Reality - New York Times". Retrieved 2013-07-23. 
  36. Brigade Dirlewanger: Roman nach Tatsachen - Will Berthold - Google Books
  37. Reign of Hell - Porta's Kitchen - Sven Hassel Web Site
  38. Monkeywanger - Google Books
  39. I AM COWBOY by Bestselling Author, Jeremy Robinson
  40. The 4th Reich (2013) - IMDb

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