Aktion Reinhardt


Himmler and Globocnik Lublin

Einsatz Reinhardt or as it is better known Aktion Reinhardt was the code name for the extermination of Polish Jewry in the former General Gouvernement and the Białystok area. The term was used in remembrance of SS- Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the co-ordinator of the Endlosung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish Question) – the extermination of the Jews living in the European countries occupied by German troops during the Second World War. Members of the Czech underground resistance fighters, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš ambushed Heydrich in his car on 27 May 1942, in a suburb of Prague, en-route to his office in Prague, from his home at Panenské Březany. Heydrich died from his wounds at Bulovka Hospital on 4 June 1942. Four days after his death about 1,000 Jews left Prague in a single train which was designated AaH (Attentat aus Heydrich). This transport was officially destined for Ujazdów, in the Lublin district, Poland, but this transport was gassed at the Bełżec death camp. The members of Odilo Globocnik’s resettlement staff henceforward dedicated the murder programme to Heydrich’s memory, under the name Einsatz Reinhard.

The head of Aktion Reinhardt was SS- Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik the SS and Police Chief of the Lublin District, appointed to this task by the Reichsführer- SS Heinrich Himmler at the end of July 1941. On 13 October 1941, Himmler, Globocnik and Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer Ost Friedrich – Wilhelm Krüger, (the leading Police official in the General Gouvernement)  met at the Führer’s Headquarters near Rastenburg (today Ketrzyn in the Mazurian Lake district of north-eastern Poland), and at this meeting Globocnik was authorized to build a death camp at Belzec. This was the first death camp to use static gas chambers and the first of three such death camps eventually to operate in Nazi Occupied Poland under the designation ‘Aktion Reinhardt.’

On 20 January 1942, in an SS- villa at Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58 in Berlin, SS- Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich chaired an extraordinary conference at which the implementation of the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe’ was discussed. Those attending the Wannsee Conference included the Secretaries of State in the relevant ministries, senior representatives of the German authorities in the occupied coutries, and senior members of the SS, including Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo, and Adolf Eichmann, head of Department IV B4, the Jewish Affairs section of the Gestapo.    

Odilo Lothario Globocnik was born on 21 April 1904 in Trieste, the son of an Austro- Slovene family, a construction engineer by trade. He joined the Nazi party in Carinthia, Austria in 1930 and after the banning of the Nazi Party in Austria in 1934, earned the reputation as one of the most radical leaders of its underground cells. In 1933 Globocnik joined the SS, which also became a prohibited organization in Austria in 1934, and was appointed deputy Gauleiter (deputy Party District Leader).

After serving several short terms of imprisonment, for illegal activities on behalf of the Nazis, he emerged as a key figure in the pre-annexation plans for Austria, serving as a key liaison figure between Adolf Hitler and the leading pro-Nazi Austrians. Globocnik’s star was rising and he was appointed to the coveted key position of Gauleiter of Vienna on 24 May 1938. His tenure was short-lived and on 30 January 1939 he was dismissed from this lofty position for corruption, illegal speculation in foreign exchange and tax evasion – all on a grand scale. After demotion to a lowly SS rank and undergoing basic military training with an SS-Standarte, he took part with his unit in the invasion of Poland. Eventually pardoned by Himmler, who needed such unscrupulous characters for future ‘unsavoury plans,’ Globocnik was appointed to the post of SS- und Polizeiführer Lublin on 9 November 1939. Globocnik had been chosen by the Reichsführer- SS as the central figure in Aktion Reinhardt, not only because of his ruthlessness, but also because of his virulent anti-Semitism.

In Lublin, Globocnik surrounded himself with a number of his fellow Austrians, SS- Officers like Herman Julius Höfle, born in Salzburg on 19 June 1911.  Höfle became Globocnik’s deputy in Aktion Reinhardt, responsible for personnel and the organization of Jewish deportations, the extermination camps and the re-utilisation of the victims’ possessions and valuables. Höfle was later to play a significant role in mass deportation actions in Warsaw and Bialystok. Ernst Lerch from Klagenfurt became Globocnik’s closest confidante and adjutant. Georg Michaelsen from Oppeln in Silesia was another adjutant and he, too, participated with Höfle in the deportation of Jews from the ghettos in Warsaw and Bialystok. Another member of this group was Amon Göth, who cleared the Tarnów and Krakow ghettos, and later became the notorious commander of Plaszow Arbeitslager.

The headquarters of Aktion Reinhardt was located in the Julius Schreck Kaserne at Litauer Srasse 11, close to the city centre in Lublin, and  Höfle not only worked but lived in this building. Also in Lublin was located the buildings where the Jewish belongings and valuables were stored, at Chopin Strasse, the former ‘Katolische Aktion’ and at the sorting hangers located at the Alter Flugplatz (Old Airfield) just outside Lublin.

The most infamous member of Aktion Reinhardt was SS- Obersturmführer / Kriminalinspektor Christian Wirth, the first commandant of Belzec and later Inspector of Aktion Reinhardt. Before his transfer to Poland, Wirth had been a leading figure in ‘Aktion T4,’ the extermination of the mentally and physically disabled in psychiatric institutions in the Reich. The role of the ‘T4’ euthanasia programme was fundamental to the execution of Aktion Reinhardt, the great majority of the staff in the death camps served their ‘apprenticeships’ in mass murder at the euthanasia killing centres of Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim, Sonnenstein where the disabled victims had been murdered in gas chambers. The senior officers in both Aktion T4 and Aktion Reinhardt were all police officers with SS ranks, and with Himmler’s approval SS-NCO’s had emptied the gas chambers and cremated the bodies of the victims. This work, they carried out wearing civilian clothes. 

The SS authorities also supplemented the forces guarding the death camps, and the transports using former Red Army Prisoners of War, mostly Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) and Ukrainians who were trained at Trawniki SS camp, and were particularly suited to this kind of activity. On 1 November 1941, construction of the first Aktion Reinhardt death camp began near the village of Belzec, 125 kilometres south-east of Lublin, and became operational in mid-March 1942. Construction of the second camp, at Sobibor, between the cities of Włodawa and Chelm on the River Bug, north-east of Lublin,came into operation at the end of April 1942. The third and last of these camps was located near the village of Treblinka, about 100 kilometres north-east of Warsaw. All three camps had some common vital facts: they were all situated on or close to main railway lines for the speedy delivery of the victims to their deaths and they were located in sparsely –populated regions. The true fate of the Jews was initially hidden from them by announcing that they were being ‘transported east for resettlement and work.’  The Aktion Reinhardt death camps were very similar in layout, each camp being an improvement on its predecessor, and the extermination process developed at Belzec by Christian Wirth was implemented at the other two camps.

In the course of Aktion Reinhardt approximately 1.6 million Jews lost their lives in the three camps. Jewish property to the value of RM 178, 045, 960 was stolen by the Nazis, and many individual SS, policemen and guards helped themselves to valuables, so the true figure will never be known. The Aktion Reinhardt mass murder programme ended officially in November 1943 and Himmler ordered Globocnik, who was now Higher SS and Police Leader for the Adriatic Coast in Trieste, to produce a detailed ‘Balance Sheet’ for the murder programme. Globocnik did this and Heinrich Himmler, in response, thanked Globocnik for his ‘services’ to the German people.’

After they finished their bloody work in Poland, most of the men were sent to northern Italy to fight partisans. Many of them served in the Risiera di San Sabba police camp in the outskirts of Trieste in Italy, where Jews were murdered in gas vans, beaten or shot and their bodies cremated in ovens in the former rice mill. 

The key members of Aktion Reinhardt, mostly escaped justice, Globocnik and Höfle both committed suicide, whilst Wirth and Reichleitner were killed by partisans. Amon Göth was tried and sentenced to death for crimes committed in the Plaszow concentration camp (today a suburb of Krakow) in September 1946. Dr Irmfried Eberl, the first commandant of Treblinka committed suicide, but Franz Paul Stangl, the second commandant of Treblinka and Kurt Franz the third and final commandant of Treblinka were brought to trial and both were found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment.


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Photograph – Chris Webb Archive    

© Holocaust Historical Society 2014