In the early 1930s, Hermann Fegelein, one of Germany’s most successful jockeys, met Heinrich Himmler. In 1937, he was appointed head of the main riding school of the SS. By July 1941 the SS Cavalry Brigade he had helped establish was in Belarus carrying out one of the most notorious instructions of the Holocaust: ‘All Jews must be shot, drive Jewish women into the swamps.’
This Himmler order survives as a plain pencil note, written down by a signaller from the SS Cavalry Brigade. Since I first held this note in my hands at the German Military Archives about six years ago, I have realised its crucial significance for genocide research. My new book, Fegelein’s Horsemen and Genocidal Warfare, tells the story of this cavalry brigade.
Under Fegelein, the SS’s riding school became an institute of recognised national and international standing. When the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 dashed his hopes of winning Olympic gold, he turned to his sponsor to prevent horses and sportsmen from being drafted into the Wehrmacht. Protection was granted under the condition that Fegelein formed mounted units for occupation duty, a new task that saw the transfer of 250 volunteers and their horses to Poland in late September 1939. Within two years, two full cavalry regiments were created and used for executions of Jews and people considered belonging to the Polish elites.
Between mid-1941 and mid-1942 the two regiments were amalgamated into a brigade and sent to the Soviet Union. Behind the combat zone, large territories soon had to be policed by the Germans, a task for which the new cavalry formation was ideally suited as it was highly mobile and well-equipped. The horsemen had no scruples about eliminating partisans, communists, and Jews. Between late July and late September 1941, more than 20,000 Soviet Jews were killed by the SS Cavalry Brigade. Most of them were shot near their native villages or hometowns as the troopers went over to what has been termed ‘Holocaust by bullets’. They targeted all Jews they encountered, as opposed to other German units which only murdered male Jews following the invasion of the Soviet Union. Einsatzgruppen and police battalions, however, began to follow suit, which altered the course of the Holocaust.
After the mission in Belarus, the cavalrymen found themselves in a very different situation. From late December 1941, they had to defend a hard-fought sector of the front some 250 miles west of Moscow. The failure of Operation Typhoon and the ensuing Soviet counteroffensive meant having to hold out against superior enemy forces under the grim conditions of the Russian winter. Within only a few months, the SS Cavalry Brigade sustained casualties of about 50% until it was relieved in the summer of 1942.
What is striking about this episode is not only the staggering figure of losses but the hubris of Hermann Fegelein, who ignored the fact that military training being had been a lesser priority for his men than ideological warfare. Eager to prove himself, he sent them to the front, although they had displayed severe shortcomings in the few combat missions since 22 June 1941.
The role of Fegelein’s soldiers in the second half of the war, when they formed new SS cavalry divisions, has yet to be viewed in further detail. What I have found out for the years 1941 – 1942, however, is an institutional brutalisation on a massive scale, extending from the brigade leadership to the rank and file. In this case, the process of ‘working towards the Führer’ resulted in the death of more than 30,000 Soviet citizens, most of whom were unarmed and singled out as Jews or during reprisals in anti-partisan missions.
This study of the SS Cavalry Brigade represents the interface of genocide research and military history. In 1941-1942, the unit initiated the destruction of entire Jewish communities – men, women, and children – and thus became responsible for an escalation of the Holocaust. In addition, it was deployed against the Red Army during Germany’s attempt to conquer Moscow. The brigade’s ‘dual role’, which combined the function of a killing squad with the tasks of a regular front-line unit, was unique to a Waffen-SS formation and has not been researched before.
Henning Pieper completed a PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2012, supervised by Professor Bob Moore. He is currently working at the Belsen Memorial alongside conducting further research on postwar court proceedings against former Waffen-SS soldiers. You can follow Henning on Twitter @hhpieper. Fegelein’s Horsemen and Genocidal Warfare. The SS Cavalry Brigade in the Soviet Union is published by Palgrave Macmillan in the series ‘The Holocaust and its Contexts’.
Image from Wikimedia Commons: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Adendorff-002-18A / Adendorf, Peter / used under a CC-BY-SA licence.
 Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by bullets: a priest’s journey to uncover the truth behind the murder of 1.5 million Jews. New York, NY; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
 The principle of ‘working towards the Führer’ was formulated by Sheffield’s Emeritus Professor Ian Kershaw. See Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (London: Penguin, 2001), pp. 527–91.