Helmut Langerbein, a history instructor at Hartnell College, is the author of a new book, Hitler's Death Squads: The Logic of Mass Murder, which looks at the dictator's special units that had the reputation of being the most cold-blooded of all Nazi killers.
The units - known as the Einsatzgruppen - were formed with the special charge of executing Jews, communists and members of other targeted groups in the preparations for the German invasion of the Soviet Union, according to Langerbein.
After the war, the German government investigated 1,770 former Einsatzgruppen members and brought 136 of these men to trial. In his book - published by Texas A & M University Press - Langerbein systematically examines the trial evidence in search of characteristics shared by these mass murderers.
Particular traits and degrees of anti-Semitism, self-aggrandizement, sense of duty to obey superiors, and peer pressure may each have played a role in the cases of individual officers, but Langerbein concludes that the only characteristic common to all his subjects was the war itself. "It was above all the extraordinary circumstances and brutality of the Eastern Front that shaped their behavior," he says.
An adjunct instructor at Hartnell for three years, Langerbein also teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).
The book grew out of his Ph.D. dissertation at UCSC. Langerbein himself grew up in Germany where he served as an officer in the German Air Force for 12 years. He moved to California in 1991.