The notorious 36th Waffen Grenadier Divison of the SS earned its horrible reputation mostly on the Eastern Front where they freely conducted numerous war crimes against civilians. They were encouraged to do so by the top state structures, predominantly Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler’s idea was to form a band of criminals as he believed their willingness to break the law was an act of unconventional courage that could certainly come in handy during wartime.
The unit was first formed in 14th of June, 1940 in the German town of Oranienburg. Before its formation, Hitler announced the pardoning of men convicted of poaching in Bavaria and Austria. His diabolical plan involved the assimilation of poachers into the Waffen SS so they could use their skills of tracking and hunting wild animals on potential guerilla groups in the occupied territories. This was only the beginning of his amnesty campaign that utilized prisoners for the war effort.
The group needed a leader. A leader much worse than these common criminals. Then came Oskar Dirlewanger, who was, by some historians, the most perverted and violent Nazi officer ever.
Dirlewanger was himself a convicted criminal who enjoyed a reputation as a violent alcoholic and a sadist. He was first a member of the NSDAP but was evicted and imprisoned in 1934 when he raped a 14-year-old girl, stole a car and crashed it while driving drunk. After serving a two-year sentence, he was released and imprisoned soon after for sexual assault. This time, Dirlewanger was sent to a concentration camp. He pulled his strings and was once again released. Since he was a veteran of WWI, Oscar Dirlewanger volunteered to serve on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War, in hope that the service would bring him the merit he desperately needed to rejoin the Nazi Party. Dirlewanger’s cruelty came in focus in Spain, and his new rise in the Nazi Party structures began.
For Hitler, it was the perfect pick. Mad, sadistic, and cruel, Dirlewanger proved to be pure evil. Some SS officials strongly protested against the use of criminals in warfare, not for the ethical reasons but for the fact that they considered the SS to be an elite formation that shouldn’t be mixed with murderers, thieves, and rapists.
They were all silenced when Dirlewanger was sent to Poland with his unit of 55 specially trained poachers to hunt down the members of the Polish resistance. The company was soon joined by three SS NCOs of similar criminal record and 30 recruits. The unit was first called Wilddiebkommando Oranienburg (“Oranienburg Poacher’s Unit”). Nevertheless, Hitler appointed the unit to be “under SS control” instead of being part of the SS. Thus, the unit was dubbed the Special Unit Dirlewanger.
In Poland, the unit grew to 300 men. The original idea of poachers hunting partisans was unofficially abandoned as the ranks were filled with criminals accused of premeditated manslaughter and the criminally insane. The decision was controversial from the start, but no one could argue with Hitler who, through Himmler, supported the atrocities of the Dirlewanger Unit. Some Nazi ideologists justified the use of these criminals, as they represented the “pure primitive German men” who were “resisting the law” in a rather Nietzschean fashion.
The company became notorious in Poland for their guard duties in the Lublin Ghetto in 1940. Various reports stated that during this period rape, murder, extortion, beatings and other crimes methods were employed by the members of the Special Dirlewanger Unit. The police chief of the Lublin Ghetto, Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, was so appalled by the conduct of throat-cutting madmen that he appealed several times for them to be stopped. Instead, he was transferred to Belarus. So were the Dirlewangers, after their “work” in Poland was done.
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