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Discussion with the henchman by Kazimierz Moczarski

A book review by Hatto Fischer

“Discussion with the henchman” (or ‘with the executioner’ as official English title) by Kazimierz Moczarski is an amazing reconstruction of the biography of Juergen Stroop, SS man, who was responsible for the liquidation of 50 000 Jews who had resisted German troops in the Warszawa Ghetto. It can shatter anybody’s assumptions about the feared SS charged with implementing the anti-Jewish program of Hitler’s National Socialism. Based on personal conversations he had with Juergen Stroop it can shatter any assumption one may have had about the SS. Comparable to Hannah Arendt’s description of Eichman and who was bewildered when seeing that man in the docks of an Israeli court by the ‘banality of evil’, the polish poet Zbiegniew Herbert refers as well to that paradox or as George Steiner calls it ‘a cultural ennui’ with the appearance of a normal person on the one hand, while in terms of real actions as an abstraction from life it was only directed against the life of certain other people, in particular the Jewish people:

What I Saw (1956)

To the memory of Kazimierz Moczarski

I saw prophets tearing at their pasted-on beards

I saw imposters joining sects of flagellants

butchers disguised in sheepskin

who fled the anger of the people

playing on a block-flute I saw I saw

I saw a man who had been tortured

he now sat safely in the family circle

cracked jokes ate soup

I looked at the opened mouth

his gums - two bramble twigs stripped of bark

I saw his whole nakedness

the whole humiliation


a solemn meeting

many people flowers


someone spoke incessantly about deviations

I thought of his deviated mouth is this the last act

of the play by Anonymous

flat as a shroud

full of suppressed sobbing

and the snickering of those

who heave a sigh of relief

that again it has worked out

and after clearing away the dead props


raise the blood-drenched curtain


Zbiegniew Herbert

Moczarski lifts an important veil and provides insights into the operative nature of the SS. The book came about after having shared with Juergen Stroop together with a third person also from the SS but for the ‘Sittenpolizei’ or ‘police for moral conduct’ the same prison cell for about eight months. As such the book provides a first hand insight into the mentality of one SS man who thought to make career and dreamt about obtaining a huge estate in the Ukraine provided Hitler’s end victory would be in sight.

Kazimierz Moczarski took care when sounding out Juergen Stroop not to provoke but to let this man reaccount himself what he had done not only in Warszawa, but in Greece and elsewhere whenever Himmler needed him for some special action. Certain things are illuminated to connect individual to what was happening at that time with Hitler’s ascend to power and the liquidation of the Jews becoming an official program. There is the childhood with an early love for uniforms and always an ambitious mother wishing for her son to succeed where the father had not. The father was a local police officer in the district of Lemberg, home of one of the most Teutonic monuments and as thus prone to become a rallying point of National Socialism placing its cult upon a revival of the Germanic mythology. This was Racism in the making and Juergen Stroop although having completed only primary school but with no further education staying for some time apart while captivated already by the wish to have ‘riding boots polishes so well that whenever he went out on a walk to promenade them the entire city would be reflected in that polished leather’. Such fantasies from an early childhood provoke Moczarski to make the observation what happens if in a society there is no experience of freedom and positive deviance from the norm based on order only achievable if contacts to the upper class, the rich and the influential is established. It means but serving till getting promoted in order to have others below oneself. This being beneath others with higher social ranking while wanting to order around others without regard to their humanity, this was a part of a childhood in which no experiences of justice could be made at home. For instance, one Christmas Juergen Stroop discovered that his shoes in which the gifts were supposed to be were empty. His younger brother had taken them. Juergen Stroop decided to confront his brother and then proceeded to beat him. Then the mother intervened to protect the younger one and chided the older one for his action. Entered the father who backed the actions of his older son by saying every thief should be punished.

These and many other details into the psyche of a henchman – Juergen Stroop was ordered by Himmler to go to Warszawa in order to liquidate the Jews causing resistance in the ghetto – is not merely about someone growing up in a Germany which had just been defeated in First World War and was resentful about the Treaty of Versailles and therefore willing to embrace anyone who would flagrant the truth of that Treaty in order to remilitarize Germany for the sake of becoming a strong state again. Rather it is about military strategy linked to training and how everyone was prepared to undertake these special actions. Moczarski makes the brilliant observation that Juergen Stroop was not really articulated due to his limited educational background but when he spoke about these actions it was as if suddenly another person was speaking. The concepts, the timing, the orders and the military perception had influenced his vocabulary and diction. Whenever any specific action was to be undertaken, he received training from scientists, researchers, military experts etc. with a key importance being given to how the action could be justified. It was a way to silence human conscience since replaced by concepts like superiority of the German race.

The strange thing about such a man like Juergen Stroop is his discipline and faithfulness to the leader held onto the end that is even when in prison and awaiting his second trial in Warszawa. The first one had been conducted by the Americans for having shot captured American pilots whose planes had been shot down and who had landed with the parachutes. This was an act violating the Geneva war code. But then the Americans handed him over to the Polish authorities especially due to his important role in the liquidation of the Jewish Ghetto in Warszawa. The strangeness observed Moczarski that Juergen Stroop got completely nervous, broke out even in sweat, the moment he discovered that the third man in the cell, this SS man from the police, had objects like a razor blade which was not allowed according to prison rules. This man who had broken every human law was afraid of being incriminated for having broken prison rules. It showed to what degree of servitude to a higher cause any own judgment about what is allowed, what not is wiped out, thereby leaving the person in fear of authority. There was no alternative to just serving and trying to be a perfect example of discipline. No wonder that Himmler upon visiting his protegee took a liking to the son of Juergen Stroop who responded immediately when asked what was his orientation shouted as reply immediately “faithfulness to the leader”.

Juergen Stroop had married a woman from a well educated man who upon death left them among other things with the inheritance of a huge library containing many wonderful books. Juergen Stroop, as uneducated as he was, did not appreciate the value of these books nor could he really take advantage of these books. Instead of keeping them he decided to sell them to a bookstore or to a library but to no avail. Finally trucks from a paper producing company came to pick them all up. The company was producing toilet paper. This was before the action of burning books by the Nazis had started.

The book is not only about a single man but through such a person reflects the military organization, its way of proceeding and planning actions. It gives an insight into how tactical moves included letting someone win a civil court case so as to hide the fact that the National Socialist regime was running all the courts according to its will and interpretation. It shows how a fellow leader despite having made a reputation for himself is allowed to make mistakes which cost so many soldiers their life only to have a sufficient pretext by which he could be disposed and gotten rid of. The competition between different persons struggling to get recognition within the military hierarchy leads to such conspiracies within the own ranks and therefore to counter measures as to who to trust, who not. At the same time, it is interesting to read how Juergen Stroop estimated his enemies, in particular the Jews who put up such a fierce resistance that upon arrival Juergen Stroop had first of all to restore the morale of the own SS troops before venturing again into the Warszawa Ghetto to fight from house to house. He had gotten orders from Himmler to liquidate the Ghetto as quickly as possible but instead of two or three days it took three weeks and more before the skillfully constructed bunkers, tunnel systems, pockets of resistance at roof tops etc. could be flushed out and blown up. After having been hit by Jewish snipers he took the precautionary measure of setting the houses on fire. Since then the Jewish fighters jumping from the fourth floor but not before they had thrown down mattresses and other things to land on were known as ‘burning angels’. Their bodies already in flames they fought till the end. This included Jewish women who Stroop feared the most since upon arrest would suddenly have the courage to blow themselves up along with the officers arresting them. In order to avoid further casualties he ordered immediately that women were no longer to be arrested but immediately to be shot. As the account of Moczarski continues, the reader gets a feeling of how such military advancements were accompanied by the actions of one man giving himself the luxury to enjoy good coffee and excellent food after a day’s work in the ghetto. He would telephone with Himmler to give a day’s account and earn further praise while being further instructed on how to proceed with speed. Juergen Stroop set then a date as to when his actions to liquidate the Jewish Ghetto would end and he planned to mark this by blowing up the Synagogue. He put experts to work and remarked how long it took them as it was a most complicated and diverse building.

The charges of the Warszawa court prior to sentencing him to hang in 1952 can be read out again against all those who commit crimes against humanity. The fact that Juergen Stroop pleaded ‘not guilty’ since just following orders belongs to this category of military men who never take personal responsibility for their actions. Moreover in many cases it was difficult to prove exactly what he had done. As in the case of Milosovic and other war criminals, they know how to cover their ground and not to leave any traces. Before the American troops entered and Juergen Stroop had to leave his last post in Wiesbaden, he made sure that all files were destroyed in a three folded manner: after being first burned, the ashes were made into sludge and then transported off to be dumped where no one could tell these were the SS files. There was made sure that the high command had no visible direct linkage with what the troops on the ground were doing. Even then as photos taken from that time of the Warszawa Ghetto liquidation Juergen Stroop could be seen not only in the background but entering sometimes with his troops the ghetto to inspect what damages had been done and what more was needed to overcome this unexpected strong and intelligent resistance.

Although the American troops had broken down one front after another, Juergen Stroop believed till the end that they could weather the American occupation and still continue thereafter to realize Hitler’s total victory. They had not only plans to retreat to Germany’s south thought to be the safest area but had instructed scientists to study the Polish resistance thought to be the most forceful and intelligent force capable of operating effectively under conditions of occupation and suppression. As such the last months before his arrest, the account about Juergen Stroop provides evidence for the conclusion drawn by a colloquium conducted at the Science of Religion of the Free University in Berlin under the guidance of Prof. Klaus Heinrich. They saw 1945 not as a defeat of Fascism, but as a force that had ‘learned to mask itself better’.


This article appeared first in heritageradio 4.August 2006 at



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