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Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust Paperback – August 12, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

Masters of Death is Richard Rhodes's chronological account of the Third Reich's Einsatzgruppen (a hand-picked task force) and its death work--the executions of 1.5 million people, Jews and non-Jews--in Russia and Eastern Europe from 1941 through 1943. Rhodes sees these operations (the victims were, almost exclusively, shot) as a ghastly prelude to the subsequent (and much more written-about) horrors of the death camps. In chilling--and occasionally excessive--detail, Rhodes describes the killings and the reasons behind the Reich's cautious, rather than precipitous, escalation of the same: the military's "concern for German and world opinion"; the need to improve methodology; and finally, the need to "condition" the troops, thereby avoiding "disabling trauma." Rhodes makes good use of firsthand accounts and outlines the effects the larger war (Pearl Harbor; the failure to defeat Britain) had on Hitler's attempted obliteration of European Jewry. His chapters on the nature of evil seem hurried and not particularly fresh. --H. O'Billovich --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This is not for the squeamish. Rhodes, a Pulitzer winner for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, has pulled together a mountain of research on the mass murders of Jews perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen special task forces organized by the SS commanders Himmler and Heydrich before the gruesome death camps industrialized the Final Solution. The catalogue of horrors, drawn not only from postwar memoirs and interrogations but also from the Nazi fanaticism for statistical detail, is profoundly appalling, even revolting: some of the malefic perpetrators were so sickened by the slaughter that Himmler set up mental hospitals and rest camps for the insufficiently sadistic. By January 1942, when the Wannsee Conference implicitly authorized the death camps, more than a million Jews crowded the killing pits, some of them later torched to conceal the massacres. Relatively few in the Nazi command structure would pay for their crimes. John J. McCloy, U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, Rhodes reminds us, reduced 10 of 14 death sentences in U.S. war-crimes trials, and by 1958 all surviving Einsatzgruppen defendants had been freed. German courts were also lenient. But he also suggests that genocide is new only as a word in the dictionary: "The Final Solution...was intended to be only the first phase of a vast, megalomaniacal project of privation, enslavement, mass murder and colonization modeled on the historic colonization of North and South America and on nineteenth-century imperialism but modernized with pseudoscientific theories of eugenic restoration." Thus Rhodes holds the mirror up. 16 pages of photos and six maps not seen by PW.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (August 12, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375708227
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375708220
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #198,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Rhodes is the author of 25 works of history, fiction and letters. He's a Kansas native, a father and grandfather. His book The Making of the Atomic Bomb won a Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He lectures widely on subjects related to his books, which run the gamut from nuclear history to the story of mad cow disease to a study of how people become violent to a biography of the 19th-century artist John James Audubon. His latest book is Hell and Good Company, about the people and technologies of the Spanish Civil War. His website is

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68 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Fred M. Blum on December 1, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust by Richard Rhodes is one of the most difficult and disturbing books that I have ever read. It tells the story of the creation of the SS-Einsatzgruppen, the formations that were created by Himmler to kill the Jews, Poles and Russians that had the misfortune to fall behind the German lines. This is book about more than the mere numbers of the dead, although the numbers themselves are horrific. What makes the book so upsetting is the description of the way in which the deaths took place.
Rhodes is not writing about civilians who were killed as part of a military exercise. The SS-Einsatzgruppen were not military fighting formations; rather, they were tasked with the job of eliminating all Jews and other undesirables from lands occupied by the Nazi's. The descriptions include thousands of men, women and children lined up like in a grocery line and walked into pits to lie down one next to another where they were shot. They also include citizens of countries that were occupied who used the opportunity to round up Jewish citizens and kill them through the use of sledge hammers. These are just two examples, but they are representative of the dozens that are described by Rhodes. As one might tell, this is not bedtime reading.
Rhodes does an excellent job in describing the formation of the SS-Einsatzgruppen, as well as the men who formed it. What appears to be the underlying premise of the book is how could the men who carried out these terrible crimes have done so and kept even some semblance of sanity. Rhodes describes the heavy drinking and other diversions used as well as the peer pressure used to extract conformance. In this case conformance meant systematic close up murder of thousands.
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118 of 126 people found the following review helpful By Brian D. Rubendall HALL OF FAME on July 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Warning: Richard Rhodes's "Masters of Death" is one of the most horrific books you're ever likely to read. It details very completely the history of the roving death squads who followed Adolf Hitler's armies into the conquered territories of the Soviet Union and unleashed the opening salvos of what would later become known as The Holocaust. Many people today think of The Holocaust in terms of Auschwitz and the other death camps. What tends to be forgotten is that the Eisatzgruppen units that started the mass killings of Jews racked up a death toll at least as high as those of the camps. And in most instances, the murders by these minions were even less humane, if that's possible.
Rhodes, a fine writer and first rate historian, pulls no punches. Wherever possible, he uses the first hand accounts of both the survivors and the perpetrators to tell his gruesome story. The ghastly pictures that accompany the book only begin to hint and the true horror of the events described. Along the way, Rhodes explores the psychology of the murderers, particularly that of both Hitler and of Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler, the man who allowed his whole personality to be subjugated to the Fuhrer. Rhodes also provides enough of the history and ideology of Nazi Germany to set the proper context.
At just under three hundred pages of text, the book makes its point concisely. Lest the reader think that what happened has been confined to the dustbin of history, Rhodes points out that Einsatzgruppen methods were recently resurrected by the death squads in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Overall, an incredibly powerful and important book that serves as a grim reminder of the darker side of human nature.
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49 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh VINE VOICE on July 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Rhodes is one of my favorite writers of non-fiction. His book The Making of the Atomic Bomb remains the best book I have ever read on the subject. He has also written interesting books on disease and the psychology of murder. In fact, this book seems to have grown from his study of the work of Lonnie Athens, an American criminologist, who was the subject of Rhodes' last book, Why They Kill. Here Rhodes investigates the SS-Einsatzgruppen, the teams of killers in Hitler's Germany who would begin the slaughters that would become the Holocaust.
When most of us think of the Holocaust, we think of death camps like Auschwitz, the gas chambers and crematoria. What most people forget is that the earliest killings were done by groups of SS-Einsatzgruppen in the field. Literally millions of people were simply murdered through beatings, firing squads and other "basic" methods long before the construction of the first death camps. It was the effect of this "face-to-face" slaughter on the morale and morals of the men who carried it out that would lead to the more industrial, impersonal methods of the death camps in later years.
Rhodes reminds of something very important in this book: yes, the Holocaust was a horrible thing but it was conducted by human beings, not monsters. The Holocaust did not just suddenly appear as a particularly horrible idea. The development of the Holocaust was a process that can be traced and, possibly, understood. And Rhodes makes an excellent stab at trying to understand what happened. In the process, he examines the psychology of people like Heinrich Himmler and many of the other people who attempted to carry out the Final Solution. Plus, he gives a fresh look at an important part of history that gets swamped in our knowledge of the Holocaust. It is well worth the read.
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