This Convicted Criminal And Rapist Would Become The Nazis’ Most Perverted War Criminal

Oskar Dirlewanger was born in the German city of Wurzburg in 1895, and like so many men of his generation, he fought in the First World War. In 1913, Dirlewanger joined the Prussian Army and fought in the mud and blood of the trenches on the notoriously brutal Western Front. In fact, he saw action in both Belgium and France.

During this time, Dirlewanger clearly served with courage and distinction. Indeed, the German was wounded six times and won the Iron Cross – both first and second class. And by the end of the war, he had been promoted to lieutenant in command of a machine gun company on the Eastern Front.

When the conflicted ceased, however, Dirlewanger received some unwanted orders: defeated German troops were to surrender into captivity in Romania. But that didn’t suit the lieutenant, and so he led some 600 soldiers on a march home to Germany. And this high-handed conduct offers a clue as to the sort of man he was.

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Back in his homeland, Dirlewanger wasn’t content to simply return to a peaceful civilian life. So it perhaps suited him that post-war Germany was being torn apart by conflict between right-wingers and communists, with the latter intent on instigating a revolution.

Dirlewanger was a rightist, and not just an armchair one. He now joined the Freikorps, an extreme right-wing organization dedicated to suppressing communists and socialists by force of arms. And a police report from this time offers us another glimpse into Dirlewanger’s character. In the document, the lieutenant is described as “a mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of erupting into violence under the influence of drugs.”

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But in addition to his hostile exploits with the Freikorps – which included the commandeering of an armored train – Dirlewanger also found time for some serious study. Indeed, he earned a doctorate in political science from Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Dirlewanger also held down respectable jobs in the 1920s and ‘30s, working in a bank and managing a textiles factory.

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However, Dirlewanger’s seemingly conventional employment was coupled with more sinister activities. In 1923, he joined the Nazi Party, while he was also in trouble with the law on various occasions for weapons offences and embezzlement. Then, in 1934, Dirlewanger was sentenced to two years in jail for raping a 14-year-old girl.

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And this transgression cost Dirlewanger more than just his freedom. In fact, it proved an act too abhorrent for even the Nazis, and he was promptly expelled from the party. Despite this, the lieutenant then got into further trouble that led to a two year stretch in a concentration camp. On Dirlewanger’s release, however, an old World War I comrade with influence in the Nazi Party, got his old friend a position in the SS reserves.

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Like many extreme rightists, Dirlewanger then travelled to Spain in 1936 to fight alongside Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Subsequently, he joined the notorious Condor Legion, a volunteer force made up of German fighters. He was wounded three times while fighting in the Iberian peninsula, which may have been part of the reason why he gained reinstatement to the Nazi Party in 1939.

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With the outbreak of World War II, Dirlewanger now joined the Waffen SS – a unit which would become infamous for its depraved war crimes. Then in 1940, the same friend who had got Dirlewanger back into the SS previously now set up him with his own unorthodox SS division.

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What’s more, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was behind the move to give Dirlewanger this special role. The unit’s men were to be drawn from the ranks of convicted poachers serving jail sentences, and their mission would be to hunt down partisan fighters in occupied Poland. Apparently Himmler believed the particular skills of the poachers would make them well-suited to their task.

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Some members of the SS, however, balked at the idea of the elite body taking on convicted criminals. But their objections were simply brushed aside, and the mission went ahead as planned. Dirlewanger’s first job, then, was to run a labor camp in Poland. But his conduct in doing so, resulted in an official enquiry by an SS judge.

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Indeed, Dirlewanger was accused of various gruesome crimes. For instance, he was said to have injected young Jewish girls with strychnine simply for the pleasure of watching them die. So appalled was the SS judge, he said that, “Dirlewanger was a nuisance and a terror to the entire population.” But in a telling example of the Nazis moral values, it was the judge who was demoted and sent to the Eastern Front. Dirlewanger, meanwhile, got off scot-free.

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Yes, Dirlewanger and his band of sadists and rapists were allowed to continue as they were. And the unit were then assigned to a so-called “anti-bandits” mission in Belarus – a country sandwiched between Poland and Russia. It was a brutal operation, and one that saw the extermination of several “bandits,” many of whom are believed to have been regular civilians. There is some uncertainty as to the number of people that Dirlewanger and his unit murdered in Belarus; a low estimate is 30,000, while a high one is 120,000.

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By this point, the unit had expanded to include hardened criminals, and its reputation in Belarus was fearsome. Academic Timothy Snyder has written that, “Dirlewanger’s preferred method [of execution] 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.” Meanwhile, historian Richard Rhodes has stated that Dirlewanger and his band of perverts “raped and tortured young women and slaughtered Jews Einsatzgruppen-style.”

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Remarkably, in 1943, Dirlewanger’s barbarous slaughter of innocent Belarusians was rewarded with a German Cross in gold. The medal, created by Hitler in 1941, was ostensibly for bravery in combat, rather than cold-blooded murder of civilian populations. Dirlewanger’s unit was, in fact, fairly useless when they faced regular Red Army troops.

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By 1944, then, the Red Army had swept across Belarus, ousting the Nazis. But there was another opportunity for the unit to display its unbridled brutality: the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. This insurrection was a Polish rebellion against Nazi rule that aimed to liberate the country and help the Allied war effort.

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The Polish campaign enjoyed early success, too, taking and initially holding most of central Warsaw. But the Nazis fought back, ultimately overwhelming the comparatively lightly armed Poles with artillery and air attacks. And during this time, it seems that Dirlewanger was up to his usual, terrible tricks. The historian Martin Windrow has written that the commander led his unit of “butchers, rapists and looters into action against the Warsaw Uprising, and quickly committed unspeakable crimes.”

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Indeed, in one fortnight alone, Dirlewanger’s men along with other units murdered some 40,000 Polish civilians in Warsaw’s Wola district. After Warsaw, as the Russians fought their way into Germany, Dirlewanger was wounded. Consequently, the officer was sent to the rear before he disappeared from view in April 1945.

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Then, on June 1, 1945, French soldiers apprehended Dirlewanger in the German countryside. The war criminal was in hiding and dressed in civilian garb. A few days later, Dirlewanger was dead. But although the German’s death certificate said he had died of natural causes, persistent rumors claimed that Poles had beaten him to death. And if that is true, it’s hard not to think that it was a fittingly violent end to a life of savage cruelty.

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