Monday, June 22, 2009

22 June 1941 "Operation Barbarossa": Germany Attacks the USSR

The surprise attack by Nazi Germany on its erstwhile Soviet ally was fateful in numerous regards. It was the beginning of the full ideological and genocidal war against the twin enemies of Bolshevism and the "inferior" races of Slavs and Jews. As such, it was marked by deliberate disregard for even the minimal rules of warm, epitomized by the "Commissar Order" of 6 June, which mandated the summary execution of Soviet political officers.

As one commander explained to his troops, every officer was entitled to undertake executions on his own authority. The "decimation" and "burning down of villages as a punitive measure" were also among the acceptable actions, though these latter required clearance from a battalion commander.

Historian Felix Römer of Mainz published a new book on the Commissar Order last fall (here conveniently summarized in his article for Die Zeit) that detailed more clearly than ever just how extensive the crimes were and how cooperative (contrary to the apologetic myths) the regular army proved to be. Whereas traditional accounts claimed that many officers passively ignored or actively disobeyed the order, Römer finds hard proof that some 60 percent of officers promulgated it, and that, in all probability, fully 90 percent did so. Far from the few hundred cases once spoken of, Römer finds documentation for nearly 4000 executions of political officers and functionaries.

Horrible as this number is, it constitutes only an infinitesimal fraction of the 27 million Soviet dead between 1941 and 1945. The Commissar Order was the symbolic as well as practical trigger of what the German leaders promised would be a new way of warfare. It was moreover significant that the Nazis justified their policies as a response to what they characterized as the inhumanity of their Judeo-Bolshevik opponents, who would fight "with the most extreme cruelty and treachery." (Decades later, Ernst Nolte seemed to argue on similar grounds to excuse Nazi crimes as a preemptive defense against the genocidal policies that Germans could expect of the Bolsheviks.)

Enforcement of the order ceased only in 1942 when the generals, motivated by practical rather than ethical concerns, found that such ruthless methods (understandably enough) only increased Soviet resistance.

As the war began to turn in the Soviets' favor, they increased the efforts to persuade Wehrmacht troops to surrender rather than face certain death. One of the challenges that they faced was to assure the Germans that captivity was indeed the only hope of survival rather than just another path to death—in other words, that the Germans could expect to be better treated than they treated their Red Army captives.

A 1942 safe-passage leaflet contained rosy accounts of German POWs wearing swimming trunks in southern climes and happily cultivating vegetables. More important, it explicitly addressed German crimes, for in it, Wehrmacht POW's expressed their regret at having incinerated Soviet villages and described themselves as moved to tears that the Russians behaved so kindly "to us swine."

The bottom of the second page (above), contains a tear-off section intended to guarantee the bearer safe passage. It reads:
German soldiers who surrender to the Red Army are guaranteed: life, good treatment, and return home after the end of the war.
The line below assures Germans that if they surrender with hands raised, no one will shoot.

Although the Soviets, unlike the Germans, did not have a policy of deliberate extermination of prisoners, conditions for the average German POW bore little resemblance to what the pamphlet described, or certainly not for long. As the tide of war turned, the number of prisoners increased beyond the Soviet capacity to care for them, and the mounting toll from German atrocities did not make the USSR any more inclined to be lenient toward the captive invaders. Conditions improved only briefly late in the war, when the Soviets needed prisoners for labor, But as Max Arthur puts it, “In 1945, in Soviet eyes it was time to pay. For most Russian soldiers, any instinct for pity or mercy had died somewhere on a hundred battlefields between Moscow and Warsaw.” Death rates among POWs on both sides of the eastern front were around 60 percent. Among prisoners on both sides on the western front, by contrast, it was under 4 percent.

Read last year's post.

[updated 2016]

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