Above: Einsatzgruppe performs an execution
The German word 'Einsatzgruppe' means "task force". The Nazi Einsatzgruppen were mobile death squads that carried out mass executions of civilians, Communists, Gypsies, and intellectuals caught behind the lines of the advancing German army. They originated during the Anschluss as ad-hoc commando units formed by Reinhard Heydrich to secure government buildings and documents while also interrogating civil servants in German-occupied lands.
With the beginning of the Second World War Einsatzgruppen (under the command of SS and police officials) performed different tasks in Western and Eastern Europe. In occupied Poland for example, they were entrusted with killing Polish intelligentsia, resisters and Jews. Meanwhile, in France and other west European countries they continued their original mission of securing governmental institutions.
During the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army as it advanced deep into Soviet territory. These units composed of four battalion-sized operational groups: Einsatzgruppe A moved out from East Prussia across Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia toward Leningrad. It massacred Jews in Kovno, Riga, and Vilna. Einsatzgruppe B started from Warsaw in occupied Poland, and penetrated across Belorussia toward Smolensk and Minsk, massacring Jews in Grodno, Minsk, Brest-Litovsk, Slonim, Gomel, and Mogilev. Einsatzgruppe C began operations from Krakow moving across the western Ukraine toward Kharkov and Rostov-on-Don. Its personnel directed massacres in Lvov, Tarnopol, Zolochev, Kremenets, Kharkov, Zhitomir, and Kiev, where infamously in late September 1941, it massacred 33,771 Kiev Jews in the ravine at Babi Yar.
Of the four units, Einsatzgruppe D operated farthest south, carrying-out massacres in the southern Ukraine and the Crimea, especially in Nikolayev, Kherson, Simferopol, Sevastopol, Feodosiya, and in the Krasnodar region.
By the spring of 1943, the Einsatzgruppen and related battalions had Soviet Jews and political commissars, partisans, Roma, and institutionalized disabled persons. According to their own records, the Einstatsgruppen murdered more than one million people, almost all civilians. Some estimate the total as high as 1.5 million victims.