The Quiet Death of a Nazi

After the war, Friedrich Anijalg, a guard at the Jägala labor camp, testified that "Dr. Sandberger was present at the shooting site" during a mass execution in the Estonian town of Kalevi-Liiva. There is no evidence to support this claim. It is more likely that Sandberger's version is correct. His version is that whenever his underlings, wielding clubs, drove the Jews to the open trenches that contained the bodies of those who had already been shot, or when "enemies of the people" were executed, he was busy doing something else.

In her groundbreaking study, "The Security Police in Estonia: 1941-1944," historian Ruth Bettina Birn writes that Sandberger was guilty "of the murder of the Estonian Jewish population and the large-scale murder campaigns" beginning in the summer of 1941. According to Birn, Sandberger perceived himself as the "ideological motor" of his office. Restless, demanding, and a thorough Nazi, he was able to enthusiastically depict a future SS settlement as far afield as Arkhangelsk, Russia, on the White Sea. Meanwhile, back in his humdrum routine at his desk in Estonia, he signed death warrants against antisocial elements, the "racially inferior," and Bolsheviks.

The euphemism used at the time for execution was "special treatment." Sometimes, however, Sandberger was more direct, and wrote "death by hanging" in the margins of records.

Four out of five of those executed in Estonia by the summer of 1942 were communists or people denounced as communists. Before the military court in Nuremberg, the defendant Sandberger would later quantify his share of the blame in a remarkable dialogue. "Were you in Estonia at the time?" -- "Yes, but it was not my responsibility that they (all the executed communists) were shot. I was only responsible for 350." -- "For 350?" -- "That is my estimate."

And what about the 450 murdered Jews from Tallinn, the court wanted to know? "They were shot, is that correct?" -- "Yes." -- A "consequence of the Fuehrer's order?" -- "Yes."

The supposed "Fuehrer's order" was the mantra of all those who, after the war, claimed that they were not guilty of the crimes committed behind the Eastern Front. They argued that Hitler issued orders to the SS commando units to murder all Jews before they began their march to the Soviet Union. The myth of the "Fuehrer's order" as an instruction to carry out the Holocaust became "historically validated," not least because of Sandberger's statements, complains historian Birn. In truth, says contemporary historian Hans Mommsen, the SS extermination campaigns on Soviet soil, including those conducted by Sandberger's special commando unit, were the result of radicalization in the field -- in other words, "advance genocide."

Part 3: Friends in High Places

If Sandberger was a pioneer of genocide and not a vicarious agent, why did so many people support him after the war? The list of his advocates reads like an excerpt from some almanac of upstanding German citizens: most notably, Theodor Heuss, West Germany's first full-term president; followed by Carlo Schmid, vice-president of the German parliament, the Bundestag; Gebhard Müller, governor of the state of Baden-Württemberg; Martin Haug, state bishop.

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