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The SS-Sonderkommando “Dirlewanger”: A Memoir, edited by Rolf Michaelis, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pa., 2014, $29.99

The word “monster” is something of a cliché when it comes to describing morally reprehensible human beings, but sometimes inhumanity is so extreme that words fail. Oskar Dirlewanger is a case in point, a man whose vaulting ambition and sadistic cruelty facilitated his rapid rise from imprisoned pedophile to senior officer in the Waffen-SS, leading a private army of poachers, penal troops and foreign collaborators.

Originating as a paramilitary company at Germany’s Sachsenhausen concentration camp in June 1940, Sonderkommando (“special unit”) Dirlewanger carved a path of corruption, pillage, rape and genocide across Poland, Byelorussia and Czechoslovakia, expanding into the 36th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division before its destruction on the Oder front in April 1945. The memoir’s anonymous author was with the formation every step of the way, and his story makes a valuable, if disturbing, contribution to the limited English-language material available on the Sonderkommando. Rolf Michaelis edited the original text, published in German in 2011, and although the volume is slim (the autobiography itself is 96 pages long), it includes an appendix, a time line, endnotes, eight maps and 48 photographs—all of which are useful in placing the unit’s history in the broader context of the war on the Eastern Front.

The narrative is fast-paced and, for obvious reasons, focuses on the author’s involvement in combat operations rather than genocide. Regarding the latter, cliché must suffice: Two photographs on P. 29 appear to show a young Russian woman being forced to dig her own grave. Captioned, “Cruelty in a war behind the front lines,” they are worth more than any words I can write. Who, having committed such a terrible act, would record it for posterity? This, like so many other questions about such atrocities, remains unanswered, and the closest the author comes to regret is his admission, “I carried out orders that I myself consider criminal.” Yet more contemptible is his praise for Dirlewanger as “the one among us all who did nothing wrong,” despite the fact that Dirlewanger’s war crimes went beyond even the Nazi pale. Notwithstanding, the memoir is well worth reading, offering insight into both German counterinsurgency strategy and the futile struggle in the final months of the war. It is also a cautionary tale, as a regime that pursues victory by any means must be prepared to make heroes of such monsters.

—Rafe McGregor