In June 1941, some 3.5 million German troops and their allies invaded the Soviet Union, starting a ‘war of annihilation’. The previous two years had already seen extensive atrocities, particularly in Poland and the Balkans. Now killings of selected groups turned into a policy of mass extermination of Jews from all parts of Europe under German influence. Dedicated Einsatzgruppen, police battalions, and local auxiliaries were at the forefront of killings, although regular army troops were also involved in massive numbers. Behind the front, some newly-conquered areas were ‘Germanised’ through the expulsion of local populations and the ‘resettlement’ of these areas by ethnic Germans.
The scale and extent of war-time atrocities turned genocide into a pan-European phenomenon that implicated people across the continent. Attempts by states, institutions and individuals to represent the past as acceptable were affected by radically different conditions in Eastern and Western Europe both during and after the war.
‘Hunting for partisans’ (Auf der Partisanenjagd). This picture was taken in southern Belorussia, in the Pripyat marshes. The area was difficult to access, so many Jews went into hiding there. It was also used as a base by partisan groups. Under the guise of conducting anti-partisan operations, German forces indiscriminately combed the area, often killing everyone they encountered, among them many Jews. The practice was ‘justified’ by the cynical view that ‘where the partisan is, there is the Jew’.
© Private collection Bastiaan Willems. Photographer: unknown. 1942.
The German High Command had prepared a set of orders in advance of the invasion of the Soviet Union. Now collectively known as Nazi Germany’s ‘criminal orders’, they envisaged the deaths of tens of millions of Slavs, and tied the largest single group of actors – German soldiers – to the regime’s racist mission.
Many other groups were also involved. In late June 1941, for example, a large pogrom took place in the Romanian city of Iași, where Romanian government troops killed over 13,000 Jews. In the countries German troops ‘liberated’ from communism, including Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland, local people often committed atrocities for their own material or political reasons, including nationalism and anticommunism, or because they shared antisemitic beliefs.
Young men from across Europe were mobilised to participate in the fight against what the Nazis portrayed as ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’. Foreigners could join specially formed SS-divisions, and often became involved in mass killings. A Dutch volunteer who served in the SS-division Wiking wrote in his diary in early July 1941 ‘how nice it was to see how in Tarnopol we hung a Rabbi from the tower of his synagogue, which we then set on fire’.
Brutalization of the troops
In what ways were German soldiers affected by Army policies and practices?
During their service on the Eastern Front the behaviour and attitudes of German soldiers became more brutal. The ‘Barbarossa Decree’ of 13 May 1941 effectively turned the area into a lawless zone. It stipulated that Soviet citizens accused of crimes could be punished without due process, while crimes committed against Soviet civilians would go unpunished. Many soldiers used the leeway this gave them to behave in an increasingly brutal manner. Some did so because they believed in the Nazi vision, others because they felt pressured by their comrades or thought they lacked other options, while some did so out of careerism.
At the same time, Wehrmacht soldiers were part of a strict military hierarchy, which meant they could be ordered to execute Red Army ‘commissars’ (political officers), participate in ‘anti-partisan warfare’, or carry out ‘scorched earth’ measures. Many commanders rightly feared that long-term exposure to this excessive violence – compounded by the strain of battle – would permanently change troops’ attitudes and behaviour. Even in retreat, when they were defending German territory in 1944-1945, German soldiers persisted in brutal behaviour – clearly influenced by their experiences on the Eastern Front. Some men would continue to struggle to adapt to the norms of the post-war world.
The Hunger Plan
Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s most trusted advisors, had played a pivotal role in the development of Nazi-Germany’s economic policies. He openly spoke about German policies that accepted and even intended the starvation of the Soviet population.
Order of the 281st Security-Division regarding the forced deployment of the civilian population in mine clearance, 16 July 1943
Source quoted in: Norbert Müller (ed.), Okkupation, Raub, Vernichtung: Dokumente zur Besatzungspolitik der faschistischen Wehrmacht auf sowjetischen Territorium 1941 bis 1944 (East-Berlin: Militärverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 1980), p. 152.
Direct and indirect involvement
© Private collection Bastiaan Willems. Photographer: unknown. Ca. 1942.
After the war, veterans portrayed themselves as having served in a ‘clean army’, barely involved in genocidal policies. They followed the lead of prominent men like Field Marshal von Manstein, who introduced his memoirs as ‘the personal narrative of a soldier’ and ‘deliberately refrained from discussing political problems or matters with no direct bearing on events in the military field’. This narrow interpretation conveniently avoided discussing atrocities committed by German forces. Views like this were accepted by many Germans.
In 1995 the exhibition ‘War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944’ presented hundreds of photographs showing German troops involved in war crimes. The historical research presented in the exhibition clashed head-on with the (self-)representation of former Wehrmacht personnel.
The exhibition provoked considerable controversy. A prominent conservative Bavarian politician, Peter Gauweiler (CSU), called it a ‘moral campaign of destruction against the German people’.
Following criticisms of some details, a revised exhibition was opened in 2001. Many Germans now accept the fact that the Wehrmacht was integral to carrying out mass murder.
Other countries have also had difficulties in confronting past involvement in Nazi atrocities. In Poland, debates over the massacre of their Jewish neighbours by the villagers of Jedwabne continue to stir passions today. In Lithuania and Latvia, the notion of ‘double genocide’ is often used to celebrate former anti-communists as national heroes, while ignoring the role they played in slaughtering Jews.