Philip W. Blood on Birds of Prey

The historian of the Second World War has uncovered new detail on atrocities in eastern Poland.
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Philip W. BloodBirds of Prey is an extraordinary piece of work using groundbreaking research to produce an original book on the Second World War. Not an easy feat. Was this a story you discovered, or one you always wanted to tell?

The book is both a narrative I was compelled to share and a journey of discovery. It originated from my PhD research. In 1997, I unearthed a small collection of Luftwaffe documents from the military archive in Freiburg, Germany. These were diaries, combat reports, and muster rolls, all carefully laminated for long-term preservation. The archivists had no record of why these documents survived the war. My supervisor, Professor Richard Holmes, encouraged me to include some of this content in my PhD thesis and to expand it into a comprehensive book. The background investigation and evidence gathering took much longer than anticipated, but the result is this detailed account.

The Bialowieźa Forest in eastern Poland is where you write about. What was its significance during WW2?

German involvement with the Białowieża Forest is a long and complex saga. For centuries, this royal forest was a jewel of the Polish monarchy. After the third partition of Poland, New East Prussia annexed the forest from 1795 to 1807. Following the Treaty of Tilsit, it was ceded to the Imperial Russian Empire. German expertise in forestry and hunting was introduced through the employment of professional gamekeepers, primarily to protect the forest’s prized European bison. During the Great War, German occupation led to overhunting and severe depletion of the game population. The forest itself was heavily logged to supply wood for the Hindenburg Line on the Western Front. In the interwar period, the forest became a battleground during the Soviet-Polish War.

In the 1930s, Nazi fascination with the myths of Germania’s giant forests grew. At a Berlin hunting exhibition, Białowieża was showcased as the pride of Poland and Europe. Although Hermann Göring was deeply interested in the politics of the forest, his hunt-master noted he only hunted there once, in the winter of 1938, due to his morbid fear of snakes. In 1939, a German Panzer Division briefly occupied the forest before it was handed over to the Soviet Union. The Germans returned in June 1941, and by August, they had “cleansed” the forest of Jews and Russians. Göring then arranged for then

What part does Herman Göring play in your book?

In the eighty years since the war, Göring has increasingly been ridiculed in war history and marginalized in Holocaust accounts. While in power, Göring was ruthless, virulently antisemitic, devious, and fiercely loyal to Hitler. Their unbreakable bond, forged long before they seized power, nearly realized their mutual goals. These goals were often contradictory, fuelling rumours and myths that painted Göring as a comedic figure.

In Birds of Prey, Göring’s pivotal role within the Nazi regime is examined on multiple levels. His geopolitical mission focused on nation-building—redefining Germany’s borders and advancing Grossdeutschland. This ambition is often mistakenly conflated with Hitler’s Lebensraum and Nazi colonial ambitions in the east. Grossdeutschland partly motivated the annexation of the Białowieża Forest, which in turn exposed Göring’s virulent antisemitism.

Before the war, Göring’s antisemitism was evident in his extreme slogans against Jews. After Kristallnacht in 1938, he likened Jews to ugly beasts of the forest. His letter to SS leadership on July 31, 1941, ordering a “final solution to the Jewish question,” initiated policies leading to mass extermination camps. Within hours, Göring’s senior foresters instructed the SS to execute all male Jews in Białowieża aged 16 to 60, carried out on August 5.

Göring was instrumental in the rise of the Luftwaffe, the Nazification of forestry and hunting, and introducing the Gestapo. He participated in the removal of anti-Nazi resistance, including the extermination of the SA leadership in 1934. After Röhm’s removal, supposedly for wanting to build a Nazi Wehrmacht, Göring planned for the Luftwaffe to replace the Wehrmacht and the Army, a plan already underway before the war.

In Birds of Prey, Göring’s military leadership is closely examined. Like Hitler and many Nazi leaders, Göring relied on advice before making decisions. He used the Luftwaffe’s military system to assess situations and make recommendations, often negotiating outcomes agreed upon by all parties. He was not above erasing records and, in one negotiation, offered a promotion to a battalion commander if he reduced the number of Jews killed to an acceptable ‘collateral’ figure.

Göring established political etiquette for the organizations under his control. Analysing this etiquette reveals an alternative understanding of how class, professionalism, and status functioned within key sectors of the Third Reich. For example, Luftwaffe flyers adopting hunting language highlighted their social and honour codes. This understanding of political rituals within emerging Nazi culture shows how some elements have outlasted the regime. In September 1942, Göring sacrificed two royal stags to Nazi rituals the same week he committed the Luftwaffe to the Stalingrad campaign, agreed to clear ghettos and deport Jews to extermination facilities, received reports from Dachau medical experiments, and ordered a security battalion to Białowieża Forest to hunt Jews escaping into the woods.

The Luftwaffe are often presented as an example of ‘Good Germans,’ a branch of the military that did not participate in war crimes. However, *Birds of Prey* reveals this is not the case. The Luftwaffe committed war crimes long before World War II. Göring’s regiment conducted crimes against Communists and Socialists before 1936. After they were absorbed into the Luftwaffe, they became the cadre for the Hermann Göring Panzer Division, which consistently committed crimes against allied POWs and engaged in art theft across occupied Europe. The Fallschirmjäger, paratroopers, committed heinous crimes in Holland, Crete, Italy, and France. The Luftwaffe’s close air support missions often targeted villages and civilians in Spain, Soviet Russia, Yugoslavia, and Greece, framing them as resistance or partisans. In this context, it is unsurprising that Luftwaffe troops killed civilians in Białowieża Forest. The surprise was that ordinary soldiers perpetrated extreme acts of violence without officers ordering them to kill civilians.

What role did hunting, and the state forestry organisation play in genocide?

Forestry was both a myth and a reality in the Third Reich. The myth originated from the idea of ‘Germania’ in an ancient Roman poem and the romanticization of Germanic tribes. Göring used these cultural ideas to shape his vision of Germany, a confused mix of cultural, industrial, military, environmental, and social order elements. This vision was riddled with contradictions, such as the clash between industrialization and environmentalism. Militarily, Göring saw forest wilderness bastions on the eastern frontier as defensive barriers central to Nazi national security, presumably policed from above by the Luftwaffe. Forestry was a strategic centrepiece of the Nazi drive toward economic self-sufficiency. Göring convinced Hitler that forests could become the heart of a synthetic economy, supplying fuel, clothing, and food. This dichotomy of myth and reality emerged in Białowieża Forest, where part of the forest was exploited for logging while wilderness areas were expanded.

Hunting was implicated in acts of Holocaust violence during the Nuremberg trials. Evidence showed that Erich Koch, the Nazi boss of East Prussia and nominal owner of Białowieża Forest, exploited Jewish labour to build his hunting estates. While evidence was presented, there was no specific trial. In *Hitler’s Furies*, Wendy Lower describes how a Nazi boss’s secretary went on a drunken hunt in Poland with Jews as the game. It is notable that Göring’s godfather, a Jewish man, taught him to hunt and was heir to Mauterndorf Castle. However, this Jewish legacy had no restraint on Göring’s behaviour. Early in the regime, both forestry and hunting excluded Jews and imposed Aryanization on hunting estates, weapons, and businesses. In Białowieża Forest, Jews trespassing into the forest faced the death penalty.

Do we know how many victims of the Nazis were killed in the forest?

Unfortunately, we might never know the final total of victims. There are three sets of accounting. The first battalion had a list that did not include many victims handed over to the SS for execution. A second set of figures reduced the number of Jews from the first draft, reclassifying them as collateral damage. This was because Białowieża Forest was legally under German civilian law, making Luftwaffe troops liable for the “murder” of civilians as a civil crime, as defined in their military pay books.

The second battalion did not keep a tally of the killings but rewarded soldiers who killed Jews or partisans with marksmanship or for using their initiative. I suspect the numbers were higher but not recorded since there had been difficulties in the first reporting. From an overall estimation based upon those who were shot, deported to ghettoes and transported to Treblinka extermination camp it’s possible to identify about 1,500 Jews from the local communities and persons who fled to the forest to escape the killing actions.

What role did GIS play in your research, and why was it significant?

Initially, GPS failed in the forest due to the dense canopy and remote location, making it useless in some areas. In 2008, the initial research relied on maps and compasses. Subsequent visits saw gradual improvements in communications, but some areas remained isolated even today.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) enabled the mapping of vast digital data into layers of information on digital maps for inferential analyses. We utilized the research data to formulate different levels of activity. The first analysis aimed to explain how a 600-man battalion could police 166,000 hectares, an area larger than the Shenandoah Valley. The second layer involved determining the patrol cycles of companies, squad patrol limits, and the length/distance of hunting expeditions. The third level identified killing areas and the sites of bunkers used by Jews and partisans to hide out. A fourth level explained how battalions formed up for large-scale operations and to confront the Soviet advance in 1944. Finally, the last level involved walking in step with German soldiers during hunting actions.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have two new projects set to begin in September 2024. One is a discourse about the influence of history on western politics. The second involves a return to Białowieża Forest (in Poland) the setting for my second book Birds of Prey in 2021. This time the research focuses upon Imperial Germany’s occupation of Poland during the Great War.

Philip W. Blood is a historian and the author of Birds of Prey: Luftwaffe, Ordinary Soldiers, and the Holocaust in Poland published by Ibidem.