Book Review – Fegelein’s Horsemen and Genocidal Warfare: The SS Cavalry Brigade in the Soviet Union

Henning Pieper, Fegelein’s Horsemen and Genocidal Warfare: The SS Cavalry Brigade in the Soviet Union. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. HbK. xi + 250 pp.

Reviewed by Jonny Briggs, PhD Candidate, University of Buckingham

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Henning Pieper’s new book, based on his recent University of Sheffield PhD thesis, is, on the face of it, both a Waffen SS unit history, of which many have been published over the past few years, and an account of aspects of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, again, an area on which much has been written in the last twenty years. However, in tying together these two strands and setting them in their political context, in terms of the National Socialist Government and the leadership of the SS, Pieper has produced an insightful study, which is likely to become a key work in understanding German policy and actions in the East, providing a detailed micro-view which sheds light on many larger issues.

The book is fundamentally a study of what Pieper calls the SS Cavalry Brigade’s ‘dual role’ as both a political paramilitary force with ideological goals and as a conventional military unit. As such, Pieper notes he is exploring both military history and perpetrator history; in the latter he declares his approach has been strongly influenced by Christopher Browning, a position he calls a ‘productive, multi-causal’ (p. 7) one in contrast with Daniel Goldhagen’s approach.[1] Browning’s position is influenced by the work of psychologists Phillip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram (with Milgram particularly influential) and places peer group pressure and deference to authority as central to the participation of German personnel in mass killings while still acknowledging the impact of Nazi ideology and the brutalising effect of war. Indeed, in tying together peer group pressure, ideology and unit morale and cohesion Pieper presents an argument is also in some ways similar to Omer Bartov’s work, particularly in his focus on the indoctrination of recruits and the harsh discipline to which they were subjected.[2]

The book places Hermann Fegelein centre stage. Fegelein is often a somewhat peripheral character in accounts of the Third Reich, perhaps best known for marrying Eva Braun’s sister and being executed for cowardice and desertion in the final days of the war. In Pieper’s book we see far more clearly that he was an influential figure in SS circles; a confidant of Henrich Himmler and on good terms with many senior SS leaders. His status as one of pre-war Germany’s premier show jumpers and a member of their Olympic equestrian team is also highlighted and shown to be one of the factors allowing him to help create and lead the new SS mounted units. The section on the early SS-Reiterstandarten is a fascinating window onto the process of National Socialist Gleichschaltung (generally translated as ‘co-ordination’ or ‘synchronisation’) in a little-known area of German life in the 1930s. The Party’s influence was extended to cover the many riding clubs and equestrian associations by subsuming them into either the SA or SS. Himmler used this process as Pieper notes:

for the purpose of integrating the rural elites, including many members of the German nobility, into his organisation […] in order to win them over, Himmler accepted members of the equestrian associations into the SS regardless of their political views. (pp. 13-4)

Himmler’s social climbing had some surprising side-effects that Pieper highlights; those early SS-Reiterstandarten contained men whose views of Nazi Germany were not in line with most others in the SS and ‘In 1933, 11 equestrians who refused to take the SS oath were interned in concentration camps’ (p. 17). Furthermore, a senior regional leader was assassinated during the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in 1934 due to his covert support for side-lined traditional conservative groups.

Pieper argues convincingly that the SS-Reiterstandarten rapidly became regarded as an elite due to their association with both the nobility and with top Olympians, the social cachet helped to attract diplomats, civil servants and the ‘financial elite’ (p. 15). Unlike many other paramilitary organisations in Germany, the story outlined by Pieper shows a relatively slow descent into overtly racist actions and state-sponsored violence. The units were primarily used for ceremonial occasions and retained an air of respectability. This respectability was reinforced by success in national and international equestrian competitions. As Pieper states:

in no other field of sport did the SS become so successful: this record was unmatched even by their bitter rivals in the Wehrmacht and helped the organisation gain further prestige. (p. 21)

Nonetheless, many who were committed Party members and supporters of the wider SS ethic joined the Reiterstandarten in the 1930s, this period saw both Joachim Peiper and Hans Kammler become members (p. 18).

In the late Thirties with war approaching and the nascent Waffen SS (the SS-Verfugungstruppe) set up, the role of the Reiterstandarten began to change. There was an increasing emphasis on a paramilitary policing role and the beginnings of an explicitly military one. Fegelein used his close relationship with Himmler to ensure that his units were not conscripted into the Wehrmacht or even the police (despite pressure for both) but kept as part of the increasing SS military strength. Shortly before the outbreak of the war with Poland, elements of the Reiterstandarten were grouped to form an SS Cavalry Regiment, which was used as a paramilitary occupation force in conquered Poland very shortly after that. Pieper charts the growth and development of the SS Cavalry with admirable clarity given that, as with so many organisations in Germany, it is a story of Byzantine hierarchies and competing authorities. As with much of the historiography of the Third Reich since the Nineties, it is an account full of people ‘working towards the Führer’ (or his appointees at least), where ideological fervour and radicalism are encouraged and rewarded.[3] Fegelein’s Horsemen demonstrates strong proof that this concept is fundamental to the understanding of both the Third Reich and the Holocaust by showing how these processes worked at squadron and regiment level within one small part of the Waffen-SS.

After the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the SS Cavalry, now two regiments strong, became involved in so-called ‘anti-partisan’ operations. While the regiments certainly did fight partisan groups on some occasions, these security sweeps were in fact primarily aimed at non-combatants. The chapters devoted to this contain the bulk of the perpetrator studies material and, as is always the case with such material, this is disturbing to read in many places. Pieper demonstrates via an enormous range of original documents and testimony obtained from veterans in the 1960s and 70s, much of it for trials in Germany, that the SS Cavalry was deeply involved in both the early phases of the Final Solution and in the brutal occupation of the Soviet Union. There are dozens of well-documented incidents where the two regiments were responsible for the massacres of civilians; primarily this involved the mass killings of the Jewish population, but Pieper shows how Russian civilians were targeted too. He argues that the SS Cavalry Regiments were instrumental in further radicalising German policy regarding Jewish communities by their actions in the Pripet Marshes in August 1941 (pp. 79-121). As Pieper clearly acknowledges, he is not the first historian to point this out, he makes important reference to Martin Cüppers’s 2006 book Wegbereiter der Shoah (approximately the pathfinders or outriders of the Shoah) which sadly appears not to be available in English translation.[4] The reports of the SS Cavalry regarding mass killings in the Pripet Marshes are among the best known and documented texts of their kind and are thus frequently quoted, but Pieper adds significant detail and context that sheds further light on these horrific events.[5] He demonstrates how leadership from one radical officer, Sturmbannführer Gustav Lombard, helped to normalise the killing of women and children and allow this to become standard practice across the SS Cavalry before the Einsatzgruppen had adopted it.

The positioning of the SS Cavalry within the overall structure of the SS organisation is examined. Fegelein’s influence secured his units a ‘prime’ position. For much of their existence, they were part of the Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS, a group of units under the direct control of Himmler’s personal staff. After sustaining heavy casualties on the Eastern Front, the brigade would eventually be disbanded and used to form the nucleus of the first cavalry division of the Waffen SS in mid-1942.

In September 1941, the two SS Cavalry Regiments were combined and given additional resources, principally more artillery and two companies of bicycle-mounted infantry, to form the SS-Kavallerie-Brigade. The Brigade received more explicitly military tasking in late 1941 and into 1942, over time it was reorganised to incorporate an engineer element, an anti-aircraft battery and a now battalion strength cycle unit as well. Their initial combat performance appears to have been poor, Pieper cites various reports from both the German Army and senior SS leaders that express dissatisfaction, but, he also demonstrates how Fegelein went to great lengths to both cover-up and excused these failings. Nonetheless, the Brigade appears to have improved its performance significantly by the middle of 1942, winning praise from their Army and Corps commanders (both Wehrmacht) for their actions during the ferocious fighting around Rzhev in the spring of that year.

It is in the coverage of these military operations and particularly around how the Brigade was organised tactically and how it fought that Pieper’s book seems at its least satisfying. One comparatively minor issue that this reviewer found both a little confusing and irritating was the odd mixture of terminology used for units within the Brigade. While the text is unsurprisingly peppered with German military and political terms, Pieper uses a blend of British and American terminology to describe units and sub-units and switches between cavalry and infantry nomenclature. Taking the Cavalry terminology from one or the other or retaining the German originals would surely have been a better option. More significantly, in describing the tactical level actions of the Brigade, there is a lack of detail about how they fought and indeed, where this sat compared to German cavalry doctrine of the period. Given the ad hoc nature of much of their early training, comparisons with mounted units in the Wehrmacht would have been interesting. The expectations around mounted troops in mechanised warfare in the Twentieth Century are not explored which is a shame as this would surely have added valuable context.

The book, however, remains both a detailed account of a Waffen SS unit with a complex history and a penetrating study of how this unit carried out numerous atrocities. The clarity of both these elements of the ‘dual role’ is enhanced by the appendix containing short biographies of many of the Brigade’s principal officers which gives much insight regarding their backgrounds opening the possibility of sociological and/or psychological examinations of these key figures. Pieper has produced a fascinating book of value to anyone studying the Holocaust, the SS or the Eastern Front. Highly recommended.

A copy of the review can be downloaded here: Jonny Briggs – Fegelein’s Horseman

Citation: Jonny Briggs, ‘Review of Fegelein’s Horsemen and Genocidal Warfare: The SS Cavalry Brigade in the Soviet Union’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 10 December 2015

[1] Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992); Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

[2] Omar Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (London: Macmillan, 1985).

[3] The concept originally used by Ian Kershaw, first set out in ‘Working towards the Führer: Reflections on the Nature of the Hitler Dictatorship’, Contemporary European History, 2 (2) (July 1993), pp. 103-18.

[4] Martin Cüppers ‘Wegbereiter der Shoah: Die Waffen-SS, der Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS und die Judenvernichtung 1939-1945’ (Darmstadt: Primus Verlag Gmbh, 2006).

[5] See, for instance, Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, 1939-42 (London: Arrow Books, 2005), pp. 279-84; Richard Evans The Third Reich at War (London: Penguin, 2008), pp. 225-6.

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