Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, 1899-1972

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (1899-1972) was an SS General who took part in the anti-partisan campaign on the Eastern Front and who was responsible for crushing the Warsaw uprising in 1944.

Bach was born in Pomerania on 1 March 1899 into an established military family. He joined the army in 1914 and served throughout the First World War. He then joined a Freikorps, before entering the tiny German Reichswehr.

In 1924 Bach was forced to leave the army. At the Nuremburg trials he claimed this was because two of his sisters had married Jews, but other evidence suggests that he was actually a Nazi agitator. Bach claimed that he wasn't associated with the Nazi party until 1934, and that he only joined to protect his career, but this was almost certainly a post-war invention. Bach was probably the S.S. organizer on the Austrian border in 1931. He was involved in the murder of six communists in 1933.

Bach's military career resumed in 1934. He openly joined the Nazi party and the S.S., and had enough influence to be able to add a name to the list of people to be murdered during the Night of the Long Knives of 1934. The unfortunate victim was Anton Freiherr von Hoberg und Buchwald, the holder of a job that Bach wanted.

Bach rose rapidly after joining the S.S. He was promoted to SS General in 1939, and took part in the invasion of Poland. Here he committed his first war crimes, taking part in the mass killing of Jews at Riga, Minsk and Mogilev. In November 1940 Bach dropped the Zelewski from his name because he felt it sounded too Polish.

After the invasion of the Soviet Union Bach became Higher SS and Police Chief in Russia. In October 1942 Himmler was made responsible for counter-guerrilla operations, and he appointed Bach as his Chief of Anti-Partisan Units. In July 1943 he was given command of all anti-partisan activities on the Eastern Front, but this was a short-lived appointment and by the start of 1944 he had been moved to a similar post in Poland.

As a result of this transfer Bach commanded the German response to the Warsaw Uprising of 1 August 1944. Bach personally commanded a battleground during the fighting, as well as having overall command. For 63 days the Soviets watched as the Germans crushed the uprising. German troops committed countless atrocities during this battle, but the White Russian brigade (Kaminski) and a brigade of German convicts were the worst. Eventually Guderian insisted that these brigades were withdrawn. Hitler agreed, and they were pulled out of the battle. Bach went one step further and had Kaminski shot, possibly to try and cover up his own role in the atrocities.

The uprising finally ended on 2 October 1944, with the surrender of Bor-Komorowski. Bach was ordered to raze Warsaw to the ground, after removing any useful items, and leaving strong points to defend against the inevitable Soviet offensive. At a point where the Germans were being pushed back on all fronts, their powerful 25in siege mortar was allocated to this task.

Soon after receiving this order Bach was sent to Budapest, where Skorzeny was attempting to prevent Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian dictator, from agreeing a separate peace with the Soviets. Bach wanted to use the 25in mortar to crush any resistance, but Skorzeny refused, and used a combination of blackmail and rapid action to prevent the Admiral from acting.

After the war Bach was a prime candidate for a war crime trial, but he avoided all prosecution at this stage by agreeing to act as a prosecution witness at the Nuremburg trials. This was a temporary reprieve. In 1951 a Munich denazification court sentenced him to ten years of 'special labour'. This was turned into a suspended sentence and house arrest, but in 1961 was sentenced to four and a half years for his role in the Night of the Long Knives and in 1962 he was sentenced to ten years for the six murders committed in 1933. Bach died in prison in 1972.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 November 2011), Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, 1899-1972 ,

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