Theodor Eicke (17 October 1892 – 26 February 1943) was a German SS functionary during the Nazi era. He was one of the key figures in the development of Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Eicke served as the second commandant of the Dachau concentration camp from June 1933 to July 1934, and together with his adjutant Michael Lippert, was one of the executioners of SA Chief Ernst Röhm during the Night of the Long Knives purge. In 1939, Eicke became commander of the SS Division Totenkopf of the Waffen-SS, leading the division during the Second World War on the Western and Eastern fronts, and continuing to expand and develop the concentration camp system.
Eicke was killed on 26 February 1943, when his plane was shot down during the Third Battle of Kharkov.
Early life and World War I
Theodor Eicke was born on 17 October 1892, in Hampont (renamed Hudingen in 1915) near Château-Salins, then in the German Reichsland (province) of Elsass-Lothringen, the youngest of 11 children of a lower middle-class family. His father was a station master described as a German patriot. Eicke was an underachiever in school, dropping out at the age of 17 before graduation. Instead he joined the Bavarian Army (23rd Bavarian Infantry Regiment at Landau) as a volunteer, and then was transferred to the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment in 1913. Upon the start of First World War in 1914, Eicke participated in the Lorraine campaign, fighting at both the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 and the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, and was with the 2nd Bavarian Foot Artillery Regiment at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Eicke served as a clerk, an assistant paymaster, and a front-line infantryman, and for his bravery during the war was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. Despite being decorated, Eicke spent most of the conflict behind the lines as a regimental paymaster.
Late in 1914, Eicke's commander had approved his request to temporarily return home on leave to marry Bertha Schwebel of Ilmenau on 26 December 1914, with whom he had two children: a daughter, Irma, on 5 April 1916 and a son, Hermann, on 4 May 1920.
Following the end of the First World War, Eicke remained as an army paymaster now in service of the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic, until resigning from the position in 1919. Eicke began studying at a technical school in Ilmenau, but was forced to drop out shortly due to a lack of funds. From 1920, Eicke pursued a career as a police officer working for two different departments, initially worked as an informant and later as a regular policeman. Eicke's police career was ended in 1923 due to his open hatred for the Weimar Republic and his repeated participation in violent political demonstrations. He found work in 1923 at IG Farben in Ludwigshafen and remained there as a "security officer" until 1932.
Nazi activism, early SS membership, and exile
Eicke's views on the Weimar Republic mirrored those of the Nazi Party, which he joined as member number 114,901 on 1 December 1928, and also joined the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi Party's paramilitary street organization led by Ernst Röhm. Eicke left the SA by August 1930 to join the Schutzstaffel (SS) as member number 2,921, where he quickly rose in rank after recruiting new members and building up the SS organization in the Bavarian Palatinate. In 1931, Eicke was promoted to the rank of SS-Standartenführer (equivalent to colonel) by Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the SS.
In early 1932, his political activities caught the attention of his employer IG Farben, who subsequently terminated his employment. At the same time, he was caught preparing bomb attacks on political enemies in Bavaria for which he received a two-year prison sentence in July 1932. However, due to protection received from the Bavarian Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, a Nazi sympathizer who would later serve as minister of justice under Adolf Hitler, Eicke was able to avoid his sentence and flee to Italy on orders from Heinrich Himmler. Italy at the time was already a fascist state under the rule of Benito Mussolini, and Eicke was entrusted by Himmler with running a "terrorist training camp for Austrian Nazis" at Lake Garda, and once even had the privilege of "showing Italian dictator Benito Mussolini around."
Return to Germany
In March 1933, less than three months after Hitler's rise to power, Eicke returned to Germany. Upon his return, Eicke had political quarrels with Gauleiter Joseph Bürckel, who had him arrested and detained for several months in a mental asylum in Würzburg. During his stay at the mental hospital, Eicke was stripped of his rank and SS membership by Himmler for having broken his word of honor. Also during the same month, Himmler set up the first official concentration camp at Dachau, about which Hitler had stated that he did not want it to be just another prison or detention camp. In June 1933, after the mental asylum's director informed Himmler that Eicke was not "mentally unbalanced," Himmler arranged his release, paid his family 200 Reich marks as a gift, reinstated him into the SS, and promoted him to SS-Oberführer (equivalent to senior colonel). On 26 June 1933, Himmler appointed Eicke commandant of the Dachau concentration camp after complaints and criminal proceedings were brought against the camp's first commandant, SS-Sturmbannführer Hilmar Wäckerle, following the murder of several detainees under the "guise of punishment". Eicke requested a permanent unit and Himmler granted the request, forming the SS-Wachverbände (Guard Unit).
Development of concentration camp system
Eicke was promoted on 30 January 1934 to SS-Brigadeführer (equivalent to Generalmajor in the German Army and a brigadier general, in the US Army), and began to extensively reorganize the Dachau camp from its original configuration under Wäckerle. Eicke fired half of the 120 guards who had been billeted at Dachau when he arrived, and devised a system that was used as a model for future camps throughout Germany. He established new guarding provisions, which included rigid discipline, total obedience to orders, and tightening disciplinary and punishment regulations for detainees. Uniforms were issued for prisoners and guards alike, and it was Eicke who introduced the infamous blue and white striped pyjamas that came to symbolize the Nazi concentration camps across Europe. The uniforms for the guards at the camps had a special "death's head" insignia on their collars. While Eicke's reforms ended the haphazard brutality that had characterized the original camps, the new regulations were very far from humane: heavy-handed discipline, including death in some cases, was instituted for even trivial offenses. Eicke was known for his brutality, detested weakness, and instructed his men that any SS man with a soft heart should "... retire at once to a monastery". Historian Nikolaus Wachsmann asserts that while it was Himmler who established the "general direction for the later SS camp system," it was Eicke who "became its powerful motor." Eicke's anti-semitism, anti-bolshevism, as well as his insistence on unconditional obedience towards him, the SS, and Hitler, made a positive impression on Himmler. By May 1934, Eicke had already styled himself as the "inspector of concentration camps" for Nazi Germany.
Night of the Long Knives
In early 1934, Hitler and other Nazi leaders became concerned that Ernst Röhm, the SA Chief of Staff, was planning a coup d'état. On 21 June, Hitler decided that Röhm and the SA leadership had to be eliminated, and on 30 June began a national purge of the SA leadership and other enemies of the state in an event that became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Eicke, along with hand-chosen members of the SS and Gestapo, assisted Sepp Dietrich's Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler in the arrest and imprisonment of SA commanders, before they were subsequently shot. After Röhm was arrested, Hitler gave him the choice to commit suicide or be shot. Eicke entered the cell and placed a revolver on Röhm's prison-cell table and informed him that he had "ten minutes to make good on Hitler's offer." When Röhm refused to kill himself, he was shot dead by Eicke and his adjutant, Michael Lippert, on 1 July 1934. Eicke proclaimed that he was proud for having shot Röhm, and shortly after the affair on 4 July 1934, Himmler officially named Eicke chief of the Inspektion der Konzentrationslager (Concentration Camps Inspectorate or CCI). Himmler also promoted Eicke to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer in command of the SS-Wachverbände. As a result of the Night of the Long Knives, the SA was extensively weakened, and the remaining SA-run camps were taken over by the SS. Further, in 1935, Dachau became the training center for the concentration camps service.
In his role as the Concentration Camps Inspector, Eicke began a mass reorganisation of the camps in 1935. On 29 March 1936, the concentration camp guards and administration units were officially designated as the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV), and the introduction of forced labour made the camps one of the SS's most powerful tools. This earned him the enmity of Reinhard Heydrich, who had already unsuccessfully attempted to take control of the Dachau concentration camp in his position as chief of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), but Eicke prevailed due to his support from Heinrich Himmler. In April 1936, Eicke was named commander of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head Troops) and the number of men under his command increased from 2,876 to 3,222; the unit was also provided official funding through the Reich's budget office, and he was allowed to recruit future troops from the Hitler Youth based on regional needs. Ideological training intensified under Eicke's command, and military training for new recruits working the camps was intensified. The numerous smaller camps in the system were dismantled and were replaced with new larger camps. Dachau concentration camp remained, then Sachsenhausen concentration camp opened in summer 1936, Buchenwald in summer 1937 and Ravensbrück (near Lichtenburg concentration camp) in May 1939. Following the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, new camps were set up there, such as Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, opened in 1938. Sometime in August 1938, Eicke’s entire supporting staff was moved to Oranienburg (near Sachsenhausen) where the Inspektion office would remain until 1945. Nonetheless, Eicke's role as the person designated to inspect concentration camps placed him within the framework of Heydrich’s SD secret state police; whereas his command of the Death’s Head units, made him accountable to the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) of the SS. All regulations for SS-run camps, both for guards and prisoners, followed the model established by Eicke at the Dachau camp.
SS Division Totenkopf
At the beginning of World War II in 1939, the success of the Totenkopf's sister formations, the SS-Infanterie-Regiment (mot) Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and the three Standarten of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) led to the creation of three additional Waffen-SS divisions by October 1939. Eicke was given command of a new division, the SS Division Totenkopf, which was formed from concentration camp guards of the 1st (Oberbayern), 2nd (Brandenburg) and 3rd (Thüringen) Standarten (regiments) of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, and soldiers from the SS Heimwehr Danzig. After Eicke was assigned to combat duty, his deputy Richard Glücks was appointed the new CCI chief by Himmler. By 1940, the CCI came under the administrative control of the Verwaltung und Wirtschaftshauptamt Hauptamt (VuWHA; Administration and Business office) which was set up under Oswald Pohl. In 1942, the CCI became Amt D (Office D) of the consolidated SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (SS Economic and Administrative Department; WVHA) also under Pohl. Therefore, the entire concentration camp system was placed under the authority of the WVHA with the Inspector of Concentration Camps now a subordinate to the Chief of the WVHA. Pohl assured Eicke that the command structure he had introduced would not fall to the jurisdiction of the Gestapo or SD. The CCI and later Amt D were subordinate to the SD and Gestapo only in regards to who was admitted to the camps and who was released, and what happened inside the camps was under the command of Amt D.
The SS Division Totenkopf, also known as the Totenkopf Division, went on to become one of the most effective German formations on the Eastern Front, fighting during invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, as well as the summer offensive in 1942, the capture of Kharkov, in the Demyansk Pocket, during the Vistula–Oder Offensive, and the Battle of Budapest in 1945. During the course of the war, Eicke and his division became known for their effectiveness but also brutality and war crimes, including the murder of 97 British POWs in Le Paradis, France, in 1940, while serving on the Western Front. The division was also known for the frequent murder of captured Soviet soldiers and the widespread pillaging of Soviet villages.
Eicke was killed on 26 February 1943, during the opening stages of the Third Battle of Kharkov, when his Fieseler Fi 156 Storch reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by flak of the Red Army between the villages of Artil'ne and Mykolaivka, 105 kilometers (65 mi) south of Kharkov near Lozova. Eicke was portrayed in the Axis press as a hero, and soon after his death one of the Totenkopf's infantry regiments received the cuff title "Theodor Eicke". Eicke was first buried at a German military cemetery near the village of Oddykhne (Оддихне) in the Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine. When the Germans were forced to retreat as the Red Army counter-attacked, Himmler had Eicke's body moved to a cemetery in Hegewald south of Zhitomir in Ukraine. Eicke's body remained in Ukraine, where it was likely bulldozed by Soviet forces as it was customary for them to destroy German graves.
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