In 1930, Bach-Zelewski joined the National Socialist Party and its elite SS, or bodyguard, unit. After 1934, he commanded SS units in East Prussia and Pomerania. In 1939, he was promoted to SS general, and two years later, he was assigned to Army Group Center on the Eastern Front. Bach-Zelewski was largely responsible for masterminding and carrying out the massacre of ethnic and political enemies of the Reich. In July 1941, he took control of 11,000 SS troops, four times the number assigned to the special execution squads (or Einsatzgruppen). Around 6,000 ordinary police were also under his authority. By the end of 1941, Bach-Zelewski commanded over 50,000 men, whose job it was to kill "race enemies," such as Jews, Gypsies, and the mentally and physically disabled.
In June 1943, the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, appointed Bach-Zelewski as the antipartisan chief on the entire Eastern Front. In the late summer of 1944, he commanded the German units responsible for crushing the Warsaw Rising. Known for his brutality and improvisational skills, he ended the war as a corps commander.
The fact that Bach-Zelewski testified for the prosecution at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and denounced his fellow police chiefs spared him extradition to the Soviet Union. In March 1951, he was condemned by a Munich court to 10 years of special labor, which in practice meant being confined to his home in Franconia. The only individual among the mass murderers who personally took responsibility for his wartime actions, Bach-Zelewski was never prosecuted for his role in the anti-Jewish massacres. Instead, he was tried in 1961 for his participation in the 1934 Blood Purge and sentenced to four and a half years in prison. Indicted again in 1962 for the murder of six communists in 1933, he was tried at Nuremberg and received the unusually harsh sentence of life imprisonment. Neither indictment mentioned his wartime role. Bach-Zelewski died in a prison hospital in Munich on 8 March 1973.
Gerlach, Christian. Kalkulierte Morde: Deutsche Wirtschafts und Vernichtungspolitik in Weissrussland 1941–1944. Hamburg, Germany: Hamburger Edition, 1999.; Reitlinger, Gerald. The SS: Alibi of a Nation, 1922–1945. New York: Viking, 1957.