The Nazi regime has gone down in history as one of the most monstrous regimes in all of history. Six million Jews and five million Roma, Sinti, LGBTQ individuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Polish people were killed by the Nazis during the 1930s and throughout WWII.
Over 44,000 incarceration sites, including detention centers, labor camps, and death camps, were built under the Nazi regime. When discussing the Nazi Party and the Holocaust (Shoa), a few notorious Nazis are known by anyone who has learned about the Holocaust). Men like the “Beast of Belsen” Josef Kramer, Herman Göring, Josef Goebbels, the “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele, and Heinrich Himmler will forever be seen as inhuman.
But one Nazi commander, Oskar Dirlewanger, could be said to be by far the worst of the worst. His actions were so brutal and barbaric that other Nazi leaders were disgusted by his deeds and behavior.
He was the commander of a division of the SS that built and ran the death camps like Auschwitz II. But most infamously, Oskar Dirlewanger was the commander of The Dirlewanger Brigade, a group of soulless monsters whose brutality knew no bounds.
The Dirlewanger Brigade
The official name for the Dirlewanger Brigade was the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger. Also known as the 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, or The Black Hunters, this was a unit of convicts that were so evil other members of the Nazi Party were disgusted by them.
The Dirlewanger Brigade was initially made up of “honorable poachers.” Eighty convicted poachers were selected and released from prison for training. Fifty-five men were ultimately selected, and the rest were sent back to prison.
Heinrich Himmler appointed Oskar Dirlewanger to lead this group of men who were not expected to survive, a real life “Suicide Squad”. To understand the severity of crimes committed by the Dirlewanger Brigade, it is first necessary to understand its leader, Oskar Dirlewanger.
Historians described him as “an expert in extermination and a devotee to sadism and necrophilia” and “the most evil man in the SS”. Considering the Nazis committed mass murder and torture, to label one individual the evilest man in the SS is a pretty severe indictment.
Oskar Dirlewanger was a veteran of WWI. After the war he led 600 prisoners and soldiers from the Romanian front back to Germany, became a member of the Nazi Party and earned his doctorate degree in political science.
Once a member of the Nazi Party, Oskar would revel in the violence his position offered, beating up German communists, stealing money and other items from his employers, and, worst of all, using his status in the Nazi Party to rape a 13-year-old girl.
Oskar was convicted in a German court of statutory rape, kicked out of the Nazi Party, and his college revoked his doctorate degree. Oskar Dirlewanger served two years in prison for his crimes. He was far from a model prisoner; a Reich police report from 1942 described Dirlewanger as “a mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of erupting into violence under the influence of drugs”.
While in prison, Oskar got in touch with an old war buddy named Gottlob Berger, who was a high ranking official in the Nazi Party and worked closely with Heinrich Himmler. Berger was able to have Dirlewanger released from prison and sent to fight with the German units in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-9.
Oskar Dirlewanger served with distinction and was welcomed back into the Nazi Party upon his return to Germany. Berger brought Oskar into the elite of the SS and chose him to be the commander of a “unique” unit.
The Early Days
In 1940, the SS started an experiment in response to resistance from partisan insurgents as the Nazis moved across Europe. A pardon was granted to “non-violent, non-trap-using” poachers in German prisons.
The idea was that these woodsmen would be perfect for hunting and killing partisans in German-occupied territories. Dirlewanger was made commander of the unit, and they were sent to Poland. For about a year and a half, the Dirlewanger Brigade was a labor battalion then guards at the Lublin “Jew Reservation.”
The issue was that the Nazi Party wanted absolutely nothing to do with Oskar, who was a convicted rapist, but his friend Berger defended him, and the unit was made an official part of the SS. Under the protection of the Nazi regime, this unit of criminals was put into action, but none of its members were guilty of anything like its leader.
At least, at first they weren’t. The Dirlewanger Brigade began to run out of poachers and decided to accept anyone who wanted to join his unit. Criminals, deserters, Nazi soldiers punished for poor conduct, and the criminally insane all joined the Dirlewanger Brigade.
The unit became known for its war crimes: rape, looting, and pillaging of villages were not uncommon. Even the other Waffen SS units were disturbed by the Dirlewanger Brigade and constantly tried to have Oskar removed from combat and argued for the prosecution of the soldiers for “atrocities”.
Time and time again, Berger would defend Oskar and silence any and all complaints about the Dirlewanger Brigade. The complaints kept coming, and the unit was often sent to another country or area and was subject to “out of sight, out of mind” thinking to stop the criticisms. Wherever the Dirlewanger Brigade went, abject horror followed them.
The Worst of the Worst
The actions of the Dirlewanger Brigade disturbed other Nazis. The same Nazis who built mass graves and shot prisoners or sent children to the gas chambers and performed medical experience on concentration camp prisoners were horrified by the wanton cruelty demonstrated by these evil men. That is saying something.
Some of the atrocities of the Dirlewanger Brigade that occurred in the Soviet Union included burning women and children alive and sending starved packs of wild dogs to eat the severely burned people.
The Dirlewanger Brigade experimented with injecting Jews with strychnine. When a human is exposed to or injected with strychnine, the body’s muscles start to spasm violently. The victim experiences lockjaw, non-stop convulsions, and opisthotonos (severe arching of the back and neck). Death is caused by the breaking down of skeletal muscles (rhabdomyolysis), overheating, and the neural pathways that control breathing become paralyzed and cause asphyxiation.
It is a violent, cruel, and torturous death that can take up to three hours. The Dirlewanger Brigade loved to watch the Jews convulse and contort their bodies until death for fun and entertainment.
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In Poland, serving as guards at Lublin, the Dirlewanger Brigade would steal, rape, beat, and slaughter prisoners and innocent civilians. Apparently, the Police Leader of the SS Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, a known war criminal and mass murderer, was so horrified by the actions of the Dirlewanger Brigade that he also complained, and the unit was transferred to Byelorussia, present-day Belarus.
In Byelorussia, the Dirlewanger Brigade would gather civilians into barns and set the barns on fire. If anyone tried to escape the burning building, the soldiers would shoot them with machine guns. This was the Dirlewanger Brigade’s favorite method of slaughter.
The brigade killed more than 30,000 civilians and soldiers in Byelorussia. In September of 1942, the Dirlewanger Brigade also murdered 8,350 Jews in the Baranovivhi ghetto, along with 389 “bandits” and 1,274 “bandit suspects.” The violence was so horrific that the SS court was asked to investigate the Dirlewanger Brigade’s actions.
The Dirlewanger Brigade returned to Poland in 1944 and was involved in the Wola massacre. The Dirlewanger Brigade massacred Polish soldiers, civilian women, men, and children in the Wola District of Warsaw. In less than two weeks, 40,000 – 50,000 civilians, including all patients and staff at the local hospital, were killed.
Oskar Dirlewanger ordered his unit to kill around 500 small children at a daycare center. In an effort to save ammo, the men were instructed to finish the children off by hitting them in the heads with the butts of their rifles or impaling them with bayonets. A witness to this gruesome scene said, “Dirlewanger’s own people called him a butcher. Blood and brain matter flowed in streams down the stairs.”
While back in Poland to suppress the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Dirlewanger Brigade committed mass murder and rape of both civilians and 15 Red Cross nurses. The unit entered a makeshift military hospital and killed all the injured with bayonets and rifle butts.
Once everyone was dead, they gang-raped the 15 nurses left alive. In one last sadistic act, the naked and bloodied nurses were forced outside and hung by their feet before being shot in their stomachs and left to die. During the Warsaw Uprising, the Dirlewanger Brigade also took part and took pleasure in the slaying of 100,000 people in Warsaw.
The Dirlewanger Brigade would suffer huge losses of men, but more criminals would always be sent to fill the ranks. Oskar Dirlewanger was said to have been seriously wounded at least 12 times, and after sustaining a shot to the chest, he went into hiding.
As the war turned decisively against the Nazis, more and more men began to desert the unit, and others fled to reach the US Army on the Elbe river and surrendered on May 3, 1945. A month before the surrender, the commander of a unit within the Dirlewanger Brigade was hanged by his own men. He was a previous commandant at the Dachau concentration camp and was sent to prison for corruption before joining the Dirlewanger Brigade.
On May 1, 1945, the Soviets killed many men from the Dirlewanger Brigade, yet 700 men survived the war. The fates of the 700 surviving members of the Dirlewanger Brigade are not mentioned in records, but it is believed they were killed or died in prison.
The vile leader of the Dirlewanger Brigade, Oskar Dirlewanger, was found hiding in Altshausen in Southern Germany by French forces. He was said to have died in their custody of natural causes on June 8, 1945. However, a man who shared his cell with Oskar claims he watched Polish guards beat the man to death.
Top Image: The Dirlewanger Brigade in Warsaw, where they were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the Second World War. Source: German Federal Archives / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Lauren Dillon