Pretzsch is a normal small town on the River Elbe, 35 miles north east of Leipzig, with little or nothing to suggest its dark past. Eighty years ago, in the spring of 1941, it became a mustering point for a cadre of men who would perform ‘special tasks’ during the forthcoming Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Over the spring and early summer months, around 3,000 men arrived in Pretzsch. Quartered in SS accommodation, the men eventually learnt they would be part of four Einsatzgruppen — special task forces — who were to move behind the German front line. Their task was framed as maintaining security and eliminating resistance. By the time they entered Soviet territory on 22 June 1941, they understood what this meant in practice: mass murder, with the Jews of Eastern Europe a primary target.
The actions of the Einsatzgruppen were an integral part of the Holocaust. By 1944, around two million people had been murdered — commonly at close quarters through mass shooting. Critically, this swathe of killing was not hidden away; rather, it was conducted ‘in broad daylight’. Its ‘success’ depended upon the collaboration, acquiescence, and logistical support of thousands — from local populations to sections of the German military, and so-called ‘ordinary men’. This, therefore, is history that raises fundamental questions about how man-made atrocities are possible and who bears responsibility for them. These are elemental matters of the human condition.
‘The past is a foreign country’, in L.P. Hartley’s phrase, ‘they do things differently there’. Today, it is easy to look back at what was taking shape in Pretzsch and see it as horrific and lamentable but fundamentally alien to who we are now. There are, of course, always substantive differences between the past and the present; the world of 2021 is certainly not that of Europe in 1941.