Written by Dr. Leon Tressell exclusively for SouthFront
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the defeat of German fascism and its allies. Across the world there will be events commemorating the ‘greatest generation’ which defeated Nazi tyranny and secured peace in Europe. Pious words aplenty will pour from the mouths of politicians who will use the occasion to wave the patriotic flag and use wartime rhetoric to try and consolidate support for their social and economic policies battling the twin threats of economic depression and the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the VE Day commemorations Western media outlets and politicians will no doubt continue to rewrite the history of World War Two and eulogise the role of the D-Day landings in bringing about Hitler’s defeat. Ignoring the role of the Soviet Union and its Red Army in breaking the back of the German Wehrmacht.
Nothing will be said about the resurgence of neo-fascism in Germany which has resurrected the myth of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’. Alternative for Germany has now achieved the status of being the largest opposition party in the Bundestag and has substantial representation in the state parliaments of Germany. It is central to this revisionist history which denies the responsibility of the Wehrmacht for killing over 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union.
It brings to mind the famous warning that Bertolt Brecht gave to German workers after the war:
“For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
Alexander Gauland, co-founder of the AfD and one of its leading lights in the Bundestag, has commented how, “Germans should be proud of “the achievements of German soldiers” during World War 2. Gauland has gone further and praised the ‘bravery of German soldiers’. According to Gauland millions of German soldiers served with distinction and should take no blame for the criminal policies of the Nazi dictatorship.
This represents yet another attempt to rewrite history and perpetuate the myth of the ‘Clean Wehrmacht’ whose reputation was ‘unblemished’ by the military campaigns that it fought on behalf of Hitler’s genocidal regime.
This myth that was firmly rooted in large parts of the German population was first challenged by the hugely controversial exhibition “War of Annihilation Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944″ that toured 33 cities in the mid to late 1990s. It was received by a deluge of criticism and ‘massive protests’ to such a degree that it was suspended and later re-released after some ‘editing’.
Twenty years later and here we are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. At a time of Cold War 2.0 it is unlikely we will have any kind of acknowledgement by the Western media or political classes of the terrible price paid by the people of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
This revisionist history is also exemplified in the resolution passed by the European Parliament in 2019 which blames the Nazi regime and Soviet Union for the outbreak of World War 2. This piece of revisionist history contains may omissions regarding the war. As journalist Jamie McKay noted at the time the motion was passed, one of the gravest omissions is
” … the absence of any recognition that the EU’s very existence was made possible by the military campaigns of both the Red Army and other communist affiliated groups. The Nazis were not defeated by a roster of liberally-minded and benevolent democrats as some nostalgic films, like Christopher Nolan’s recent Dunkirk, have presented it.”
Worse still, is the fact that the motion laments the many victims of the Nazi dictatorship and Stalin’s regime and makes no mention of the 27 million Soviet citizens who were killed by German fascism and its many allies from all over Europe.
The genocidal race war that Hitler launched against the unsuspecting people of the Soviet Union represents the largest act of genocide committed by any government during the bloody 20th century.
The American military historian Jeff Rutherford in his account of the Wehrmacht’s genocidal activities, Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front: The German Infantry’s War, 1941-45, has commented:
“While the Wehrmacht’s participation in the Holocaust was perhaps the vilest stain on its mantle, its treatment of Soviet civilians constituted the larger crime in terms of scale that it committed during the war.”
Origins of the war of extermination against the Soviet Union
By late summer 1940 Hitler stood triumphant astride the continent of Europe. Considering his next move he was decisively influenced by economic and ideological factors.
The worsening food situation in Europe and in Germany undermined the Reich’s power. It also brought back memories of Germany’s defeat in 1918 when endemic hunger helped bring about the Revolution of October 1918 which led to widespread mutiny within the armed forces and the nations’ signing of the armistice in November. Hitler and his advisors were determined to make sure there would be no repeat of this home front trauma again.
Hitler was obsessed by the threat posed by communism and its heartland in the Soviet Union. He had seen first hand how communist uprisings during the 1918-23 period had led to widespread social instability across Germany. He saw Communism as a mortal threat to both Germany and the European continent.
Since coming to power in January 1933 Hitler had warned the German people of the mortal danger posed by Communism to their way of life. He linked the threat of Communism with his fanatical anti-Semitism and portrayed the USSR as a ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ menace that would have to be dealt with one day.
As an aside, central to British and French diplomacy throughout the 1930s was the objective of turning Hitler’s attentions eastward towards the Soviet Union.
As he looked eastward Hitler saw the natural solution to his problems lay in the invasion and destruction of the Soviet Union. Its agricultural and mineral resources together with its vast land mass would provide the Reich with a sustainable means of creating a new empire based on Aryan supremacy.
However, the invasion of the Soviet Union would represent a new kind of warfare that was a radical departure from the traditional forms that had prevailed during the conquest of continental Europe during 1939-40. This new war of annihilation would be ideological in nature. The Soviet Union was not just to be conquered. Its major cities would be destroyed and urban population decimated in their millions while the rural population would serve as slave labour for the Reich.
At a meeting of 200 senior military commander on 30 March 1941 Hitler clearly outlined the Wehrmacht’s approach to the coming war with the USSR. Franz Halder, chief of the general staff of the army high command (OKH), recorded Hitler’s lecture in his diary.
According to Halder the Fuhrer declared that the upcoming clash with the Soviet Union would be a “war between two ideologies” that would be very different to the war in the West during 1939-40. The Soviet Union represented a threat to Germany’s existence. Hitler made it clear to his senior commanders that:
“communism [is] an enormous danger for our future … We must forget the concept of comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before or after the battle. This is a war of extermination. (…) Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their personal scruples.”
Hitler impressed upon his audience that ”Bolshevik commissars” serving in the Red Army as well as the ‘Soviet intelligentsia” needed to be destroyed as they had ”earned no mercy.” German soldiers were to be excused from the conventions of normal warfare as they needed to ‘defend themselves with the means” that the evil Bolsheviks would surely use. In other words, German soldiers were given legal immunity to commit acts of murder against Red Army prisoners and the civilian population.
This genocidal approach to the coming war with the USSR was codified in a series of criminal orders that were given to units throughout the Wehrmacht.
The first of these orders concerned the close cooperation between the SS Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht during the invasion of the Soviet Union. On 28 April an agreement was reached that established a division of labour between the two organisations. As Wehrmacht troops advanced they would be closely followed by the SS death squads who would be responsible for ‘pacifying’ rear areas. This pacification was to involve the immediate execution of Red Army commissars, communist bureaucrats and intellectuals as well as Jewish males of military age.
The second genocidal order came on 13 May known as the Barbarossa Decree (“Decree on the Jurisdiction of Martial Law and on Special Measures of the Troops”) which removed any legal constrains upon German soldiers on how they prosecuted the war in the east. It left them free to destroy villages and commit acts of mass murder with impunity. Partisan attacks on the Wehrmacht were to be met with the principle of collective responsibility whereby whole communities could be annihilated for any such attacks. The order declares:
“German soldiers who commit crimes against humanity, the USSR and prisoners of war are to be exempted from criminal responsibility, even if they commit acts punishable according to German law.”
This was closely followed by a third order,’ Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops in Russia‘ which was issued on 19 May 1941. It gave detailed guidelines regarding the conduct of soldiers during the invasion of the USSR:
“Bolshevism is the deadly enemy of the National Socialist German people. This corrosive Weltanschauung – and those who support it – are what Germany’s struggle is against. This struggle demands a ruthless and strenuous crackdown on Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs and Jews, and the complete elimination of both active and passive resistance. The Asiatic soldiers, in particular, are inscrutable, unpredictable, underhand and unfeeling.”
This quartet of genocidal orders was completed on 6 June 1941 with the issuance of the notorious Commissar Order by the German High Command. It instructed German soldiers that all Red Army prisoners should be immediately sifted for ”active representatives of the Bolshevist ideology”. Those identified as such should be immediately executed or handed over to SS units for execution. The order made it clear that:
“In the battle against Bolshevism, the adherence of the enemy to the principles of humanity or international law is not to be counted upon. In particular it can be expected that those of us who are taken prisoner will be treated with hatred, cruelty and inhumanity by political commissars of every kind.
The troops must be aware that:
1. In this battle mercy or considerations of international law is false. They are a danger to our own safety and to the rapid pacification of the conquered territories.
2. The originators of barbaric, Asiatic methods of warfare are the political commissars. So immediate and unhesitatingly severe measures must be undertaken against them. They are therefore, when captured in battle, as a matter of routine to be dispatched by firearms.”
The genocidal nature of the war in Soviet Union was further cemented by the Reich’s adoption of its food polices towards the coming war in the east. These became known as the “Starvation Plan” and envisaged that 30 million Soviet citizens would die from the Wehrmacht’s seizure of foodstuffs as it lived off the land during its advance into the vast hinterland of the USSR.
The German High Command saw the upcoming campaign as a brief, brutal, ideologically driven conflict that would involve the mass murder of the Soviet population and Red Army soldiers taken as prisoners.
It put considerable efforts into propaganda campaigns aimed at ensuring the rank and file of the Wehrmacht clearly understood what was expected of them in the war of annihilation to come.
Historian Jeff Rutherford has noted the propaganda efforts of the German High Command which involved extensive efforts at “ideological education”. Soldiers attended a series of lectures outlining the Nazi ideology on a range of topics which emphasized the “special mission” in the east which was a life and death struggle for Germany. Rutherford has observed:
“The cumulative effect of this concerted effort to indoctrinate the rank and file and of the criminal orders was to create an atmosphere in which German soldiers and policemen, as the unquestioned Herrenmenschen, were actively encouraged to murder specific groups of Soviet citizens and treat others as mere obstacles to final victory.”
Rutherford’s detailed examination of letters and diaries of soldiers in Army Group North reveal that large numbers of German soldiers had clearly absorbed the ‘language and ideas of this ideological indoctrination’. Many would become Hitler’s willing executioners in the ensuing race war on the eastern front that left over 20 million civilians dead.
Military records from Wehrmacht infantry divisions together with letter and diaries from rank and file soldiers reveal the total complicity of the German army in the genocide committed against the people of the Soviet Union.
Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944
Operation Barbarossa, code name for the Nazi invasion of the USSR, gave Army Group North the task of destroying Red Army forces in the Baltic region and then capturing Leningrad. By 8 September 1941 an exhausted Army Group North had reached the suburbs of the city and the front stabilized as both sides took time to regroup. The Red Army had halted the German juggernaut at a huge cost in casualties and prevented Army Group North from capturing the city.
On 22 September 1941 units of Army Group North received a Fuhrer directive that gave them the genocidal task of laying siege to the city and destroying its inhabitants through a blockade that would cause mass starvation:
“The Fuhrer has decided to erase the city of St. Petersburg form the face of the earth. I have no further interest in the existence of this large city after the deaf of the Soviet Union…We propose to blockade the city tightly and erase from the earth by means of artillery fire and continuous bombardment from the air.”
Military historian David M. Gantz, in his account of these events The Siege of Leningrad writes:
“The German blockade of Leningrad trapped more than 3 million souls in the city. With winter approaching, the food and fuel supplies cut off, and inadequate reserves dwindling, the city’s inhabitants faced a frozen hell of starvation and disease while they fought for survival under enemy fire.”
The siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days and killed between 800,000 and 1 million civilians. All told the number of civilians and soldiers who perished during the siege of Leningrad amounted to 1.6-2 million dead.
David M. Glantz has put this figure in perspective:
“These figures associated with the defence of a single city are six times greater than the United Sates’ total death toll during the entirety of World War 2.”
Destruction of villages and their inhabitants by Army Groups North, Centre and South
The great Russian writer Ales Adamovich wrote an auto-biographical novel Khatyn about his experiences of surviving the war as a partisan in Belarus. Adamovich cites a military archive which mentions that 9,200 villages in Belarus alone were destroyed by the Wehrmacht. In over 600 of these villages the inhabitants were shot or burned alive.
When villages were destroyed the population were either killed, evacuated or left to starve. The Wehrmacht was expected to live off the land for a large part of its provisions leading to mass looting of food and animals from the civilian population leading to widespread starvation for many.
Adamovich’s novel quotes from a Wehrmacht report of the massacre of the inhabitants of the village of Zabolotye on September 21, 1942. According to the filed report by a Captain Pels:
“The outcome of the operation was the following: 289 people were shot, 151 farmsteads were burned down, 700 head of cattle were rounded up, as well as 400 pigs, 400 sheep and 70 horses.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilians were evacuated by Wehrmacht forces to be used as slave labour in German war industries where many died of neglect and abuse.
In northern and southern Russia the civilian population had similar experiences.
In many cases villages were destroyed and the inhabitants murdered as reprisals for partisan attacks on German units. In other cases, villages and their inhabitants were destroyed by brutalised soldiers who saw civilians as obstacles in the way of their military operations. On many occasions, villages were destroyed by retreating German units. Rutherford has noted how the destruction of civilian housing became part of the army’s “daily routine” before Hitler’s demand that all, “farms given up [by army units in retreat] are to be burned.”
This left massive numbers homeless and destined to die of hunger and exposure during the harsh Russian winters. Over a million dwellings were destroyed by the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union leaving over 25 million people homeless.
During the winter of 1941-42 the genocidal activities of Wehrmacht soldiers also extended to forcibly taking felt boots and winter clothing from Soviet civilians. The 123rd Infantry Division issued an instruction to its men that, “all felt boots are to be immediately taken from the population without consideration of age or sex,” condemning large numbers of men, women and children to frostbite and death. Hitler’s order to this effect was not issued until late December yet German units across all fronts had been operating in this manner for several weeks.
The German army ruthlessly mobilized all village inhabitants, including children, for forced labour for the construction of fortifications and other defensive tasks. Refusal to work was often met with instant execution. This use of forced labour had been prevalent within the Wehrmacht since June yet it reached new heights during the winter of 1941-42 as it struggled to cope with the Russian winter. Not surprisingly, many tens of thousands died from this forced labour as civilians workers were given tiny rations while working outside in sub zero temperatures many without winter clothing or felt boots.
The mass murder of Red Army prisoners
During the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the USSR it took millions of Red Army soldiers prisoner. Immediately, commissars and any others suspected of communist sympathies were weeded out for execution. The remaining troops were stripped of their food supplies, and clothing during the winter of 1941-42, and sent on death marches to so called camps. In the main these consisted of open areas surrounded by barbed wiring and watch towers with no housing for prisoners.
Daniel Goldhagen, in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners has noted that “2.8 million young, healthy Soviet POWs” were killed by the German army units, “mainly by starvation… in less than eight months” of 1941–42.
Between 150,000 and 500,00 Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) were transferred to Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Most were killed by firing squad or gassing. It is worth noting that Zyklon B was tested on Red Army prisoners before being used at Auschwitz and other death camps. Thousands of Soviet POWs also died from starvation or exposure.
At several camps Red Army prisoners organised uprisings against their Nazi guards. At Sobibor a 2nd Lt. Alexander Perchevsky led a successful mass break out which forced the SS to close the camp and cover up the evidence of its mass murder.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Soviet POWs ended up being used as slave labourers in German industries. Over 200,000 died during their forced labour.
Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint in their book Total War have observed that 5.7 million Red Army soldiers were taken into captivity by the German army, Of these 3.5 million had died by mid 1944. They comment that this mass murder of Red Army soldiers was no accident:
“This slaughter of prisoners cannot be accounted for by the peculiar chaos of the war in the east…. The true cause was the inhuman policy of the Nazis towards the Russians as a people and the acquiescence of army commanders in attitudes and conditions which amounted to a sentence of death on their prisoners.”
The destruction of the Jewish population of the USSR
As the Wehrmacht advanced into the Soviet Union during the summer of 1941 the Einsatzgruppen death squads followed close behind. Their tasks was to round up and murder the Jewish population of the Soviet state. Hitler had made it clear that in his mind the struggle against Bolshevism and Jewry was inextricably interlinked. Estimates vary but many suggest around 1 million Soviet Jews were murdered principally by mass shooting during 1941-42. Hundreds of thousands more were shipped to the extermination camps in Poland to be gassed to death
This genocidal murder was chronicled by two Red Army journalists Illya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman who produced The Black Book: The Ruthless Mass Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout The Temporarily Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland During the War of 1941-45. Some of the evidence that they gathered was used at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials and helped convict leading Nazis.
The mass murder of Soviet Jewry was part of Hitler’s so called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. The historian Yitzhak Arad makes the point that the Nazi regime also viewed these actions, “as a means of destroying the Soviet state and of preparing the territories of the Soviet Union for German colonization.”
Nazi genocide in the Soviet Union
On the 75th anniversary of the defeat of German fascism we should remember the Nazi genocide against the people of the Soviet Union. It is a genocide that has been largely ignored by the West due to its Cold War against the USSR which continues to this present day with Cold War 2.0 waged against Russia.
The British military historian Richard Overy provides us with a succinct yet powerful testimony to the genocide suffered by the people of the Soviet Union at the hands of German fascism:
“There is no dispute that the Soviet population suffered out of all proportion to the suffering of the Soviet allies, and suffered in many cases was not a quick end from a bomb or bullet but an agonizing end from starvation, or torture, or enslavement, or from countless atrocities whose mere recital still, after the accumulation of almost sixty years of further miseries world wide, humbles and defeats the imagination.”