Military history



The twenty-second of June 1941 is one of the most significant days in the history of Europe. The German invasion of the Soviet Union that began that day under the cryptonym Operation Barbarossa was much more than a surprise attack, a shift of alliances, or a new stage in a war. It was the beginning of a calamity that defies description. The engagement of the Wehrmacht (and its allies) with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers, not to speak of the comparable number of civilians who died in flight, under bombs, or of hunger and disease as a result of the war on the eastern front. During this eastern war, the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and more than three million prisoners of war.

In the history of the bloodlands, Operation Barbarossa marks the beginning of a third period. In the first (1933-1938), the Soviet Union carried out almost all of the mass killing; in the second, during the German-Soviet alliance (1939-1941), the killing was balanced. Between 1941 and 1945 the Germans were responsible for almost all of the political murder.

Each shift of stages poses a question. In the transition from the first stage to the second, the question was: How could the Soviets make an alliance with the Nazis? In the transition from the second to the third, the question is: Why did the Germans break that alliance? The Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe made by Moscow and Berlin between 1939 and 1941 meant occupation or loss of territory for Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Romania. It also meant mass deportations and mass shootings for the citizens of Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States. But for the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, it meant fruitful economic cooperation, military victories, and expansion at the expense of these countries. What was it about the Nazi and Soviet systems that permitted mutually advantageous cooperation, between 1939 and 1941, but also the most destructive war in human history, between 1941 and 1945?

Very often the question of 1941 is posed in a more abstract way, as a matter of European civilization. In some arguments, German (and Soviet) killing policies are the culmination of modernity, which supposedly began when Enlightened ideas of reason in politics were practiced during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The pursuit of modernity in this sense does not explain the catastrophe of 1941, at least not in any straightforward way. Both regimes rejected the optimism of the Enlightenment: that social progress would follow a masterly march of science through the natural world. Hitler and Stalin both accepted a late-nineteenth-century Darwinistic modification: progress was possible, but only as a result of violent struggle between races or classes. Thus it was legitimate to destroy the Polish upper classes (Stalinism) or the artificially educated layers of Polish subhumanity (National Socialism). Thus far the ideologies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union permitted a compromise, the one embodied in the conquest of Poland. The alliance allowed them to destroy the fruits of the European Enlightenment in Poland by destroying much of the Polish educated classes. It allowed the Soviet Union to extend its version of equality, and Nazi Germany to impose racial schema upon tens of millions of people, most dramatically by separating Jews into ghettos pending some “Final Solution.” It is possible, then, to see Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as representing two instances of modernity, which could emanate hostility to a third, the Polish. But this is a far cry from their representing modernity as such.1

The answer to the question of 1941 has less to do with the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment and more to do with the possibilities for imperialism, less to do with Paris and more to do with London. Hitler and Stalin both confronted the two chief inheritances of the British nineteenth century: imperialism as an organizing principle of world politics, and the unbroken power of the British Empire at sea. Hitler, unable to rival the British on the oceans, saw eastern Europe as ripe for a new land empire. The East was not quite a tabula rasa: the Soviet state and all of its works had to be cleared away. But then it would be, as Hitler said in July 1941, a “Garden of Eden.” The British Empire had been a central preoccupation of Stalin’s predecessor Lenin, who believed that imperialism artificially sustained capitalism. Stalin’s challenge, as Lenin’s successor, was to defend the homeland of socialism, the Soviet Union, against a world where both imperialism and capitalism persisted. Stalin had made his concession to the imperialist world well before Hitler came to power: since imperialism continued, socialism would have to be represented not by world revolution but by the Soviet state. After this ideological compromise (“socialism in one country”), Stalin’s alliance with Hitler was a detail. After all, when one’s country is a fortress of good surrounded by a world of evil, any compromise is justified, and none is worse than any other. Stalin said that the arrangement with Germany had served Soviet interests well. He expected it to end at some point, but not in 1941.2

Hitler wanted the Germans to become an imperial people; Stalin wanted the Soviets to endure the imperial stage of history, however long it lasted. The contradiction here was less of principle than of territory. Hitler’s Garden of Eden, the pure past to be found in the near future, was Stalin’s Promised Land, a territory mastered at great cost, about which a canonical history had already been written (Stalin’s Short Course of 1938). Hitler always intended to conquer the western Soviet Union. Stalin wanted to develop and strengthen the Soviet Union in the name of self-defense against just such imperialist visions, although his fears involved Japan and Poland, or a Japanese-Polish-German encirclement, more than an invasion from Germany. The Japanese and the Poles took more trouble than the Germans to cultivate national movements within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. Stalin assumed that anyone who would assay an invasion of his vast country would first cultivate an ally within its boundaries.3

The contradiction was not a matter of ideas acting on their own. Hitler wanted a war, and Stalin did not—at least not the war of 1941. Hitler had a vision of empire, and it was of great importance; but he was also courting the possibilities and rebelling against the constraints of a very unusual moment. The crucial period was the year between 25 June 1940 and 22 June 1941, between the unexpectedly swift German victory in France and the invasion of the Soviet Union that was supposed to bring a similarly rapid triumph. By the middle of 1940, Hitler had conquered much of central, western, and northern Europe, and had only one enemy: Great Britain. His government was backed by Soviet wheat and oil, and his army was seemingly unbeatable. Why, given the very real gains to Germany of the Soviet alliance, did Hitler choose to attack his ally?

In late 1940 and early 1941, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were the only great powers on the European continent, but they were not the only two European powers. Germany and the Soviet Union had remade Europe, but Great Britain had made a world. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany influenced each other in certain ways, but both were influenced by Great Britain, the enemy that defied their alliance. Britain’s empire and navy structured a world system that neither the Nazis nor the Soviets aimed, in the short run, to overturn. Each instead accepted that they would have to win their wars, complete their revolutions, and build their empires, despite the existence of the British Empire and the dominance of the Royal Navy. Whether as enemies or as allies, and despite their different ideologies, the Soviet and Nazi leaderships faced the same basic question, posed by the reality of British power. How could a large land empire thrive and dominate in the modern world without reliable access to world markets and without much recourse to naval power?4

Stalin and Hitler had arrived at the same basic answer to this fundamental question. The state must be large in territory and self-sufficient in economics, with a balance between industry and agriculture that supported a hardily conformist and ideologically motivated citizenry capable of fulfilling historical prophecies—either Stalinist internal industrialization or Nazi colonial agrarian-ism. Both Hitler and Stalin aimed at imperial autarky, within a large land empire well supplied in food, raw materials, and mineral resources. Both understood the flashy appeal of modern materials: Stalin had named himself after steel, and Hitler paid special attention to its production. Yet both Stalin and Hitler understood agriculture as a key element in the completion of their revolutions. Both believed that their systems would prove their superiority to decadent capitalism, and guarantee independence from the rest of the world, by the production of food.5

As of late 1940 and early 1941, war factored into this grand economic planning very differently for the Soviets than it did for the Nazis. By then Stalin had an economic revolution to defend, whereas Hitler needed a war for his economic transformation. Whereas Stalin had his “socialism in one country,” Hitler had in mind something like National Socialism in several countries: a vast German empire arranged to assure the prosperity of Germans at the expense of others. Stalin presented collectivization itself both as an internal class war and as a preparation for the foreign wars to come. Hitler’s economic vision could be realized only after actual military conflict—indeed, after a total military victory over the Soviet Union. The secret of collectivization (as Stalin had noted long before) was that it was an alternative to expansive colonization, which is to say a form of internal colonization. Unlike Stalin, Hitler believed that colonies could still be seized abroad; and the colonies he had in mind were the agrarian lands of the western Soviet Union, as well as the oil reserves in the Soviet Caucasus. Hitler wanted Germany, as he put it, to be “the most autarkic state in the world.” Defeating Britain was not necessary for this. Defeating the Soviet Union was. In January 1941 Hitler told the military command that the “immense riches” of the Soviet Union would make Germany “unassailable.”6

The willingness of the British to fight on alone after the fall of France in June 1940 brought these contradictions to the fore. Between June 1940 and June 1941, Britain was Germany’s lone enemy, but stronger than it appeared. The United States had not joined the war, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made his commitments clear. In September 1940 the Americans traded fifty destroyers to the British for basing rights in the Caribbean; as of March 1941 the president had the authority (under the “Lend-Lease” act) to send war matériel. British troops had been driven from the European continent when France had fallen, but Britain had evacuated many of them at Dunkirk. In summer 1940 the Luftwaffe engaged the Royal Air Force, but could not defeat it; it could bomb British cities, but not intimidate the British people. Germany could not establish air superiority, a major problem for a power planning an invasion. Though an amphibious assault upon the British Isles would have involved a major crossing of the English Channel with men and matériel, Germany lacked the ships necessary to control the waters and effect the transport. In summer 1940 the Kriegsmarine had three cruisers and four destroyers: no more. On 31 July 1940, even as the Battle of Britain was just beginning, Hitler had already decided to invade his ally, the Soviet Union. On 18 December he ordered operational plans for the invasion to “crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign.”7

Hitler intended to use the Soviet Union to solve his British problem, not in its present capacity as an ally but in its future capacity as a colony. During this crucial year, between June 1940 and June 1941, German economic planners were working hard to devise the ways in which a conquered Soviet Union would make Germany the kind of superpower that Hitler wanted it to become. The key planners worked under the watchful eye of Heinrich Himmler, and under the direct command of Reinhard Heydrich. Under the general heading of “Generalplan Ost,” SS Standartenführer Professor Konrad Meyer drafted a series of plans for a vast eastern colony. A first version was completed in January 1940, a second in July 1941, a third in late 1941, and a fourth in May 1942. The general design was consistent throughout: Germans would deport, kill, assimilate, or enslave the native populations, and bring order and prosperity to a humbled frontier. Depending upon the demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million people, mostly Slavs, were to disappear. In one redaction, eighty to eighty-five percent of the Poles, sixty-five percent of the west Ukrainians, seventy-five percent of the Belarusians, and fifty percent of the Czechs were to be eliminated.8

After the corrupt Soviet cities were razed, German farmers would establish, in Himmler’s words, “pearls of settlement,” utopian farming communities that would produce a bounty of food for Europe. German settlements of fifteen to twenty thousand people each would be surrounded by German villages within a radius of ten kilometers. The German settlers would defend Europe itself at the Ural Mountains, against the Asiatic barbarism that would be forced back to the east. Strife at civilization’s edge would test the manhood of coming generations of German settlers. Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor. The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, “in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.9

Here ideology met necessity. So long as Britain did not fall, Hitler’s only relevant vision of empire was the conquest of further territory in eastern Europe. The same held for Hitler’s intention to rid Europe of Jews: so long as Britain remained in the war, Jews would have to be eliminated on the European continent, rather than on some distant island such as Madagascar. In late 1940 and early 1941, the Royal Navy prevented Hitler’s oceanic version of the Final Solution. Madagascar was a French possession and France had fallen, but the British still controlled the sea lanes. The allied Soviet Union had rejected Germany’s proposal to import two million European Jews. So long as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies, there was little that the Germans could do but accept the Soviet refusal and bide their time. But if Germany conquered the Soviet Union, it could use Soviet territories as it pleased. Hitler had just ordered preparations for the Soviet invasion when he proclaimed to a large crowd at the Berlin Sportpalast in January 1941 that a world war would mean that “the role of Jewry would be finished in Europe.” The Final Solution would not follow the invasion of Britain, plans for which were indefinitely postponed. It would follow the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The first major shooting actions would take place in occupied Soviet Ukraine.10

The Soviet Union was the only realistic source of calories for Germany and its west European empire, which together and separately were net importers of food. As Hitler knew, in late 1940 and early 1941 ninety percent of the food shipments from the Soviet Union came from Soviet Ukraine. Like Stalin, Hitler tended to see Ukraine itself as a geopolitical asset, and its people as instruments who tilled the soil, tools that could be exchanged with others or discarded. For Stalin, mastery of Ukraine was the precondition and proof of the triumph of his version of socialism. Purged, starved, collectivized, and terrorized, it fed and defended Soviet Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union. Hitler dreamed of the endlessly fertile Ukrainian soil, assuming that Germans would extract more from the terrain than the Soviets.11

Food from Ukraine was as important to the Nazi vision of an eastern empire as it was to Stalin’s defense of the integrity of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s Ukrainian “fortress” was Hitler’s Ukrainian “breadbasket.” The German army general staff concluded in an August 1940 study that Ukraine was “agriculturally and industrially the most valuable part of the Soviet Union.” Herbert Backe, the responsible civilian planner, told Hitler in January 1941 that “the occupation of Ukraine would liberate us from every economic worry.” Hitler wanted Ukraine “so that no one is able to starve us again, like in the last war.” The conquest of Ukraine would first insulate Germans from the British blockade, and then the colonization of Ukraine would allow Germany to become a global power on the model of the United States.12

In the long run, the Nazis’ Generalplan Ost involved seizing farmland, destroying those who farmed it, and settling it with Germans. But in the meantime, during the war and immediately after its (anticipated) rapid conclusion, Hitler needed the locals to harvest food for German soldiers and civilians. In late 1940 and early 1941 German planners decided that victorious German forces in the conquered Soviet Union should use the tool that Stalin had invented for the control of food supply, the collective farm. Some German political planners wished to abolish the collective farm during the invasion, believing that this would win Germany the support of the Ukrainian population. Economic planners, however, believed that Germany had to maintain the collective farm in order to feed the army and German civilians. They won the argument. Backe, Göring’s food expert in the Four-Year-Plan Authority, reputedly said that the “Germans would have had to introduce the collective farm if the Soviets had not already arranged it.”13

As German planners saw matters, the collective farm should be used again to starve millions of people: in fact, this time, the intention was to kill tens of millions. Collectivization had brought starvation to Soviet Ukraine, first as an unintended result of inefficiencies and unrealistic grain targets, and then as an intended consequence of the vengeful extractions of late 1932 and early 1933. Hitler, on the other hand, planned in advance to starve unwanted Soviet populations to death. German planners were contemplating the parts of Europe already under German domination, requiring imports to feed about twenty-five million people. They also regarded a Soviet Union whose urban population had grown by about twenty-five million since the First World War. They saw an apparently simple solution: the latter would die, so that the former could live. By their calculations, the collective farms produced just the right amount of food to sustain Germans, but not enough to sustain the peoples of the East. So in that sense they were the ideal tool for political control and economic balance.14

This was the Hunger Plan, as formulated by 23 May 1941: during and after the war on the USSR, the Germans intended to feed German soldiers and German (and west European) civilians by starving the Soviet citizens they would conquer, especially those in the big cities. Food from Ukraine would now be sent not north to feed Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union but rather west to nourish Germany and the rest of Europe. In the German understanding, Ukraine (along with parts of southern Russia) was a “surplus region,” which produced more food than it needed, while Russia and Belarus were “deficit regions.” Inhabitants of Ukrainian cities, and almost everyone in Belarus and in northwestern Russia, would have to starve or flee. The cities would be destroyed, the terrain would be returned to natural forest, and about thirty million people would starve to death in the winter of 1941-1942. The Hunger Plan involved the “extinction of industry as well as a great part of the population in the deficit regions.” These guidelines of 23 May 1941 included some of the most explicit Nazi language about intentions to kill large numbers of people. “Many tens of millions of people in this territory will become superfluous and will die or must emigrate to Siberia. Attempts to rescue the population there from death through starvation by obtaining surpluses from the black earth zone can only come at the expense of the provisioning of Europe. They prevent the possibility of Germany holding out until the end of the war, they prevent Germany and Europe from resisting the blockade. With regard to this, absolute clarity must reign.”15

Hermann Göring, at this time Hitler’s most important associate, held overall responsibility for economic planning. His Four-Year-Plan Authority had been charged with preparing the German economy for war between 1936 and 1940. Now his Four-Year-Plan Authority, entrusted with the Hunger Plan, was to meet and reverse Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. The Stalinist Five-Year Plan would be imitated in its ambition (to complete a revolution), exploited in its attainment (the collective farm), but reversed in its goals (the defense and industrialization of the Soviet Union). The Hunger Plan foresaw the restoration of a preindustrial Soviet Union, with far fewer people, little industry, and no large cities. The forward motion of the Wehrmacht would be a journey backward in time. National Socialism was to dam the advance of Stalinism, and then reverse the course of its great historical river.

Starvation and colonization were German policy: discussed, agreed, formulated, distributed, and understood. The framework of the Hunger Plan was established by March 1941. An appropriate set of “Economic Policy Guidelines” was issued in May. A somewhat sanitized version, known as the “Green Folder,” was circulated in one thousand copies to German officials that June. Just before the invasion, both Himmler and Göring were overseeing important aspects of the postwar planning: Himmler the long-term racial colony of Generalplan Ost, Göring the short-term starvation and destruction of the Hunger Plan. German intentions were to fight a war of destruction that would transform eastern Europe into an exterminatory agrarian colony. Hitler meant to undo all the work of Stalin. Socialism in one country would be supplanted by socialism for the German race. Such were the plans.16


Germany did have an alternative, at least in the opinion of its Japanese ally. Thirteen months after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had alienated Tokyo from Berlin, German-Japanese relations were reestablished on the basis of a military alliance. On 27 September 1940, Tokyo, Berlin, and Rome signed a Tripartite Pact. At this point in time, when the central conflict in the European war was the air battle between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe, Japan hoped that this alliance might be directed at Great Britain. Tokyo urged upon the Germans an entirely different revolution in world political economy than the one German planners envisioned. Rather than colonizing the Soviet Union, thought the Japanese, Nazi Germany should join with Japan and defeat the British Empire.

The Japanese, building their empire outward from islands, understood the sea as the method of expansion. It was in the interest of Japan to persuade the Germans that the British were the main common enemy, since such agreement would aid the Japanese to conquer British (and Dutch) colonies in the Pacific. Yet the Japanese did have a vision on offer to the Germans, one that was broader than their own immediate need for the mineral resources from British and Dutch possessions. There was a grand strategy. Rather than engage the Soviet Union, the Germans should move south, drive the British from the Near East, and meet the Japanese somewhere in South Asia, perhaps India. If the Germans and the Japanese controlled the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, went Tokyo’s case, British naval power would cease to be a factor. Germany and Japan would then become the two world powers.17

Hitler showed no interest in this alternative. The Germans told the Soviets about the Tripartite Pact, but Hitler never had any intention of allowing the Soviets to join. Japan would have liked to see a German-Japanese-Soviet coalition against Great Britain, but this was never a possibility. Hitler had already made up his mind to invade the Soviet Union. Though Japan and Italy were now Germany’s allies, Hitler did not include them in his major martial ambition. He assumed that the Germans could and should defeat the Soviets themselves. The German alliance with Japan would remain limited by underlying disagreements about goals and enemies. The Japanese needed to defeat the British, and eventually the Americans, to become a dominant naval empire in the Pacific. The Germans needed to destroy the Soviet Union to become a massive land empire in Europe, and thus to rival the British and the Americans at some later stage.18

Japan had been seeking a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union since summer 1940; one was signed in April 1941. Chiune Sugihara, the Soviet specialist among Japanese spies, spent that spring in Königsberg, the German city in East Prussia on the Baltic Sea, trying to guess the date of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Accompanied by Polish assistants, he made journeys through eastern Germany, including the lands that Germany had seized from Poland. His estimation, based upon observations of German troop movements, was mid-June 1941. His reports to Tokyo were just one of thousands of indications, sent by intelligence staffs in Europe and around the world, that the Germans would break the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invade their ally in late spring or early summer.19

Stalin himself received more than a hundred such indications, but chose to ignore them. His own strategy was always to encourage the Germans to fight wars in the west, in the hope that the capitalist powers would thus exhaust themselves, leaving the Soviets to collect the fallen fruit of a prone Europe. Hitler had won his battles in western Europe (against Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France) too quickly and too easily for Stalin’s taste. Yet he seemed unable to believe that Hitler would abandon the offensive against Great Britain, the enemy of both Nazi and Soviet ambitions, the one world power on the planet. He expected war with Germany, but not in 1941. He told himself and others that the warnings of an imminent German attack were British propaganda, designed to divide Berlin and Moscow despite their manifest common interests.

Apart from anything else, Stalin could not believe that the Germans would attack without winter gear, which none of the espionage reports seemed to mention.20


That was the greatest miscalculation of Stalin’s career. The German surprise attack on the Soviet Union of 22 June 1941 looked at first like a striking success. Three million German troops, in three Army Groups, crossed over the Molotov-Ribbentrop line and moved into the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine, aiming to take Leningrad, Moscow, and the Caucasus. The Germans were joined in the invasion by their allies Finland, Romania, Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia, and by a division of Spanish and a regiment of Croatian volunteers. This was the largest offensive in the history of warfare; nevertheless, unlike the invasion of Poland, it came only from one side, and would lead to war on one (very long) front. Hitler had not arranged with his Japanese ally a joint attack on the Soviet Union. Japan’s leaders might have decided to attack the USSR on their own initiative, but instead decided not to break the neutrality pact. A few Japanese leaders, including Foreign Minister Yōsuke Matsuoka, had urged an invasion of Soviet Siberia. But they had been overruled. On 24 June 1941, two days after German troops had entered the Soviet Union, the Japanese army and navy chiefs had adopted a resolution “not to intervene in the German-Soviet war for the time being.” In August, Japan and the Soviet Union reaffirmed their neutrality pact.21

German officers had every confidence that they could defeat the Red Army quickly. Success in Poland, and above all in France, had made many of them believers in Hitler’s military genius. The invasion of the Soviet Union, led by armor, was to bring a “lightning victory” within nine to twelve weeks. With the military triumph would come the collapse of the Soviet political order and access to Soviet foodstuffs and oil. German commanders spoke of the Soviet Union as a “house of cards” or as a “giant with feet of clay.” Hitler expected that the campaign would last no more than three months, probably less. It would be “child’s play.” That was the greatest miscalculation of Hitler’s career.22


Ruthlessness is not the same thing as efficiency, and German planning was too bloodthirsty to be really practical. The Wehrmacht could not implement the Hunger Plan. The problem was not one of ethics or law. The troops had been relieved by Hitler from any duty to obey the laws of war toward civilians, and German soldiers did not hesitate to kill unarmed people. They behaved in the first days of the attack much as they had in Poland. By the second day of the invasion, German troops were using civilians as human shields. As in Poland, German soldiers often treated Soviet soldiers as partisans to be shot upon capture, and killed Soviet soldiers who were trying to surrender. Women in uniform, no rarity in the Red Army, were initially killed just because they were female. The problem for the Germans was rather that the systematic starvation of a large civilian population is an inherently difficult undertaking. It is much easier to conquer territory than to redistribute calories.23


Eight years before, it had taken a strong Soviet state to starve Soviet Ukraine. Stalin had put to use logistical and social resources that no invading army could hope to muster: an experienced and knowledgeable state police, a party with roots in the countryside, and throngs of ideologically motivated volunteers. Under his rule, people in Soviet Ukraine (and elsewhere) stooped over their own bulging bellies to harvest a few sheaves of wheat that they were not allowed to eat. Perhaps more terrifying still is that they did so under the watchful eye of numerous state and party officials, often people from the very same regions. The authors of the Hunger Plan assumed that the collective farm could be exploited to control grain supplies and starve a far larger number of people, even as Soviet state power was destroyed. The idea that any form of economic management would work better under Soviet than German control was perhaps unthinkable to the Nazis. If so, German efficiency was an ideological assumption rather than a reality.24

The German occupiers never had the ability to starve when and where they chose. For the Hunger Plan to be implemented, German forces would have had to secure every collective farm, observe the harvest everywhere, and make sure that no food was hidden or went unrecorded. The Wehrmacht was able to maintain and control the collective farms, as were the SS and local assistants, but never so effectively as the Soviets had done. Germans did not know the local people, the local harvest, or the local hiding places. They could apply terror, but less systematically than the Soviets had done; they lacked the party and the fear and faith that it could arouse. They lacked the personnel to seal off cities from the countryside. And as the war continued longer than planned, German officers worried that organized starvation would create a resistance movement behind the lines.25

Operation Barbarossa was supposed to be quick and decisive, bringing a “lightning victory” within three months at the latest. Yet while the Red Army fell back, it did not collapse. Two weeks into the fighting, the Germans had taken all of what had been Lithuania, Latvia, and eastern Poland, as well as most of Soviet Belarus and some of Soviet Ukraine. Franz Halder, chief of staff of the German army, confided to his diary on 3 July 1941 that he believed that the war had been won. By the end of August, the Germans had added Estonia, a bit more of Soviet Ukraine, and the rest of Soviet Belarus. Yet the pace was all wrong, and the fundamental objectives were not achieved. The Soviet leadership remained in Moscow. As one German corps commander noted pithily on 5 September 1941: “no victorious Blitzkrieg, no destruction of the Russian army, no disintegration of the Soviet Union.”26

Germany starved Soviet citizens anyway, less from political dominion than political desperation. Though the Hunger Plan was based upon false political assumptions, it still provided the moral premises for the war in the East. In autumn 1941, the Germans starved not to remake a conquered Soviet Union but to continue their war without imposing any costs on their own civilian population. In September Göring had to take stock of the new situation, so disastrously different from Nazi expectations. Dreams of a shattered Soviet Union yielding its riches to triumphant Germans had to be abandoned. The classic dilemma of political economy, guns or butter, was supposed to have been resolved in a miraculous way: guns would make butter. But now, three months into the war, the men carrying the guns very much needed the butter. As the war continued beyond the planned twelve weeks, German soldiers were competing with German civilians for limited food supplies. The invasion itself had halted the supply of grain from the Soviet Union. Now three million German soldiers simply had to be fed, without reducing food rations within Germany itself.27

The Germans lacked contingency plans for failure. The troops had a sense that something was wrong; after all, no one had given them any winter coats, and their night watches were getting cold. But how could the German population be told that the invasion had failed, when the Wehrmacht still seemed to be pushing forward and Hitler still had moments of euphoria? But if the Nazi leadership could not admit that the war was going badly, then German civilians would have to be spared any negative consequences of the invasion. Grumbling of stomachs might lead to the grumbling of citizens. Germans could not be allowed to make a sacrifice for the troops on the front, at least not too much, and not too soon. A change in domestic food policy might allow them to see the truth: that the war, at least as their leaders had conceived of it, was already lost. Backe, Göring’s food specialist, was sure about what had to be done: the Soviets would have to be deprived of food so that Germans could eat their fill.28

It was Göring’s task to spare the German economy while supplying the German war machine. His original scheme to starve the Soviet Union after a clear victory now gave way to an improvisation: German soldiers should take whatever food they needed as they continued to fight a war that was already supposed to be over. On 16 September 1941, just as the timeline for the original “lightning victory” was exceeded, Göring ordered German troops to live “off the land.” A local commanding general was more specific: Germans must feed themselves “as in the colonial wars.” Food from the Soviet Union was to be allocated first to German soldiers, then to Germans in Germany, then to Soviet citizens, and then to Soviet prisoners of war. As the Wehrmacht fought on, in the shorter days and longer nights, as solid roads gave way to the mud and muck of autumn rains, its soldiers had to fend for themselves. Göring’s order allowed their misconceived war to continue, at the price of the starvation of millions of Soviet citizens, and of course the deaths of millions of German and Soviet and other soldiers.29

Hitler’s henchman Göring in September 1941 behaved strikingly like Stalin’s henchman Kaganovich had in December 1932. Both men laid down instructions for a food policy that guaranteed death for millions of people in the months that followed. Both also treated the starvation their policies brought not as a human tragedy but as enemy agitation. Just as Kaganovich had done, Göring instructed his subordinates that hunger was a weapon of the enemy, meant to elicit sympathy where harshness was needed. Stalin and Kaganovich had placed the Ukrainian party between themselves and the Ukrainian population in 1932 and 1933, forcing Ukrainian communists to bear the responsibility for grain collection, and to take the blame if targets were not met. Hitler and Göring placed the Wehrmacht between themselves and the hungry Soviet population in 1941 and 1942. During the summer of 1941, some German soldiers had shared their rations with hungry Soviet civilians. A few German officers had tried to ensure that Soviet prisoners of war were fed. In autumn this would have to cease. If German soldiers wanted to eat, they were told, they would have to starve the surrounding population. They should imagine that any food that entered the mouth of a Soviet citizen was taken from the mouth of a German child.30

German commanders would have to continue the war, which meant feeding soldiers, which meant starving others. This was the political logic, and the moral trap. For the soldiers and the lower-level officers, there was no escape but insubordination or surrender to the enemy, prospects as unthinkable for German troops in 1941 as they had been for Ukrainian communists in 1932.31

In September 1941, the three Wehrmacht Army Groups, North, Center, and South, greeted the new food policy from rather different positions. Army Group North, tasked to conquer the Baltic States and northwestern Russia, had laid siege to Leningrad in September. Army Group Center raced through Belarus in August. After a long pause, in which some of its forces assisted Army Group South in the battle for Kiev, it advanced again toward Moscow in early October. Army Group South meanwhile made its way through Ukraine toward the Caucasus, much more slowly than anticipated. Platoons of German soldiers resembled the communist brigades of a decade before, taking as much food as they could as quickly as possible.


Army Group South starved Kharkiv and Kiev, the two cities that had served as capitals of Soviet Ukraine. Kiev was taken on 19 September 1941, much later than planned, and after much debate about what to do with the city. Consistent with Generalplan Ost, Hitler wanted the city to be demolished. The commanders on site, however, needed the bridge over the river Dnipro to continue their advance east. So in the end German soldiers stormed the city. On 30 September the occupiers banned the supply of food to Kiev. The logic was that the food in the countryside was to remain there, to be collected by the army and then later by a German civilian occupation authority. Yet the peasants around Kiev found their way into the city, and even ran markets. The Germans were unable to seal the city as the Soviets had done in 1933.32

The Wehrmacht was not implementing the original Hunger Plan but rather starving where it seemed useful to do so. The Wehrmacht never intended to starve the entire population of Kiev, only to ensure that its own needs were met. Yet this was nevertheless a policy of indifference to human life as such, and it killed perhaps as many as fifty thousand people. As one Kievan recorded in December 1941, the Germans were celebrating Christmas, but the locals “all move like shadows, there is total famine.” In Kharkiv a similar policy killed perhaps twenty thousand people. Among them were 273 children in the city orphanage in 1942. It was near Kharkiv that starving peasant children in 1933 had eaten each other alive in a makeshift orphanage. Now city children, albeit in far smaller numbers, suffered the same kind of horrible death.33

Hitler’s plans for Leningrad, the old capital of imperial Russia, exceeded even Stalin’s darkest fears. Leningrad lay on the Baltic Sea, closer to the Finnish capital Helsinki and the Estonian capital Tallinn than to Moscow. During the Great Terror, Stalin had made sure that Finns were targeted for one of the deadliest of the national actions, believing that Finland might one day lay claim to Leningrad. In November 1939 Stalin had ensured for himself the enmity of the Finns by attacking Finland, which was within his area of influence according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In this Winter War, the Finns inflicted heavy losses and damaged the reputation of the Red Army. They finally had to concede about a tenth of their territory in March 1940, giving Stalin a buffer zone around Leningrad. So in June 1941 Hitler had a Finnish ally, since the Finns naturally wanted to retake land and take revenge in what they would call the “Continuation War.” But Hitler did not want to take Leningrad and give it to the Finns. He wanted to remove it from the face of the earth. Hitler wanted the population of Leningrad exterminated, the city razed to the ground, and then its territory handed over to the Finns.34

In September 1941, the Finnish Army cut off Leningrad from the north, as the Army Group North began a campaign of siege and bombardment of the city from the south. Though German commanders had not all known about Hitler’s most radical plans for Soviet cities, they agreed that Leningrad had to be starved. Eduard Wagner, the quartermaster general of the German army, wrote to his wife that the inhabitants of Leningrad, all 3.5 million of them, would have to be left to their fate. They were simply too much for the army’s “provision packet,” and “sentimentality would be out of place.” Mines were laid around the city to prevent escapes. The surrender of the city was not forthcoming, but had it come it would not have been accepted. The German goal was to starve Leningrad out of existence. At the very beginning of the siege of Leningrad, on 8 September 1941, German shells destroyed the city’s food warehouses and oil tanks. In October 1941 perhaps 2,500 people died of starvation and associated diseases. In November the number reached 5,500; in December, 50,000. By the end of the siege in 1944, about one million people had lost their lives.35

Leningrad was not starved completely because local Soviet authority functioned within the city and distributed what bread there was, and because the Soviet leadership took risks to provision the population. Once the ice froze over Lake Ladoga, there was an escape and supply route. That winter the temperature would fall to forty below, and the city would face the cold without food stockpiles, heat, or running water. Yet Soviet power within the city did not collapse. The NKVD continued to arrest, interrogate, and imprison. Prisoners were also dispatched across Lake Ladoga; Leningraders were among the 2.5 million or so people whom the NKVD transported to the Gulag during the war. The police and fire departments performed their duties. Dmitrii Shostakovich was a volunteer for a fire brigade when he wrote the third movement of his Seventh Symphony. Libraries remained open, books were read, doctoral dissertations written and defended.36

Within the great city Russians (and others) faced the same dilemmas that Ukrainians and Kazakhs (and others) had faced ten years before, during the collectivization famines. Wanda Zvierieva, a girl in Leningrad during the siege, later remembered her mother with great love and admiration. She “was a beautiful woman. I would compare her face to the Mona Lisa.” Her father was a physicist with artistic inclinations who would carve wooden sculptures of Greek goddesses with his pocketknife. Late in 1941, as the family was starving, her father went to his office, in the hope of finding a ration card that would allow the family to procure food. He stayed away for several days. One night Wanda awakened to see her mother standing over her with a sickle. She struggled with and overcame her mother, or “the shadow that was left of her.” She gave her mother’s actions the charitable interpretation: that her mother wished to spare her the suffering of starvation by killing her quickly. Her father returned with food the following day, but it was too late for her mother, who died a few hours later. The family sewed her in blankets and left her in the kitchen until the ground was soft enough to bury her. It was so cold in the apartment that her body did not decompose. That spring Wanda’s father died of pneumonia.37

In the Leningrad of the day, such stories could be multiplied hundreds of thousands of times. Vera Kostrovitskaia was one of many Leningrad intellectuals who kept diaries to record the horrors. Of Polish origin, she had lost her husband a few years earlier in the Great Terror. Now she watched as her Russian neighbors starved. In April 1942 she recorded the fate of a stranger she saw every day: “With his back to the post, a man sits on the snow, tall, wrapped in rags, over his shoulders a knapsack. He is all huddled up against the post. Apparently he was on his way to the Finland Station, got tired, and sat down. For two weeks while I was going back and forth to the hospital, he ‘sat’:

1. without his knapsack

2. without his rags

3. in his underwear

4. naked

5. a skeleton with ripped-out entrails.”38

The best-recalled Leningrad diary of a girl is that of eleven-year-old Tania Savicheva, which reads in its entirety as follows:

“Zhenia died on December 28th at 12:30 A.M. 1941
Grandma died on January 25th 3:00 P.M. 1942
Leka died on March 5th at 5:00 am. 1942
Uncle Vasya died on April 13th at 2:00 after midnight 1942
Uncle Lesha died on May 10th at 4:00 pm 1942
Mother died on May 13th 7:30 am 1942
Savichevs died
Everyone died
Only Tania is left”39

Tania Savicheva died in 1944.

The greater the control the Wehrmacht exercised over a population, the more likely that population was to starve. The one place where the Wehrmacht controlled the population completely, the prisoner-of-war camps, was the site of death on an unprecedented scale. It was in these camps where something very much like the original Hunger Plan was implemented.

Never in modern warfare had so many prisoners been taken so quickly. In one engagement, the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Center took 348,000 prisoners near Smolensk; in another, Army Group South took 665,000 near Kiev. In those two September victories alone, more than a million men (and some women) were taken prisoner. By the end of 1941, the Germans had taken about three million Soviet soldiers prisoner. This was no surprise to the Germans. The three German Army Groups were expected to move even faster than they did, and thus even more prisoners could have been expected. Simulations had predicted what would happen. Yet the Germans did not prepare for prisoners of war, at least not in the conventional sense. In the customary law of war, prisoners of war are given food, shelter, and medical attention, if only to ensure that the enemy does the same.40

Hitler wished to reverse the traditional logic. By treating Soviet soldiers horribly, he wished to ensure that German soldiers would fear the same from the Soviets, and so fight desperately to prevent themselves from falling into the hands of the enemy. It seems that he could not bear the idea of soldiers of the master race surrendering to the subhumans of the Red Army. Stalin took much the same view: that Red Army soldiers should not allow themselves to be taken alive. He could not counsel the possibility that Soviet soldiers would retreat and surrender. They were supposed to advance and kill and die. Stalin announced in August 1941 that Soviet prisoners of war would be treated as deserters, and their families arrested. When Stalin’s son was taken prisoner by the Germans, he had his own daughter-in-law arrested. This tyranny of the offensive in Soviet planning caused Soviet soldiers to be captured. Soviet commanders were fearful of ordering withdrawals, lest they be personally blamed (purged, and executed). Thus their soldiers held positions for too long, and were encircled and taken prisoner. The policies of Hitler and Stalin conspired to turn Soviet soldiers into prisoners of war and then prisoners of war into non-people.41

Once they had surrendered, Soviet prisoners were shocked by the savagery of their German captors. Captured Red Army soldiers were marched in long columns, beaten horribly along the way, from the field of battle to the camps. The soldiers captured at Kiev, for example, marched over four hundred kilometers in the open air. As one of them remembered, if an exhausted prisoner sat down by the side of the road, a German escort “would approach on his horse and lash with his whip. The person would continue to sit, with his head down. Then the escort would take a carbine from the saddle or a pistol from the holster.” Prisoners who were wounded, sick, or tired were shot on the spot, their bodies left for Soviet citizens to find and clean and bury.42

When the Wehrmacht transported Soviet prisoners by train, it used open freight cars, with no protection from the weather. When the trains reached their destinations, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of frozen corpses would tumble from the opened doors. Death rates during transport were as high as seventy percent. Perhaps two hundred thousand prisoners died in these death marches and these death transports. All of the prisoners who arrived in the eighty or so prisoner-of-war camps established in the occupied Soviet Union were tired and hungry, and many were wounded or ill.43

Ordinarily, a prisoner-of-war camp is a simple facility, built by soldiers for other soldiers, but meant to preserve life. Such camps arise in difficult conditions and in unfamiliar places; but they are constructed by people who know that their own comrades are being held as prisoners by the opposing army. German prisoner-of-war camps in the Soviet Union, however, were something far out of the ordinary. They were designed to end life. In principle, they were divided into three types: the Dulag (transit camp), the Stalag (base camp for enlisted men and noncommissioned officers), and the smaller Oflags (for officers). In practice, all three types of camps were often nothing more than an open field surrounded by barbed wire. Prisoners were not registered by name, though they were counted. This was an astonishing break with law and custom. Even at the German concentration camps names were taken. There was only one other type of German facility where names were not taken, and it had not yet been invented. No advance provision was made for food, shelter, or medical care. There were no clinics and very often no toilets. Usually there was no shelter from the elements. The official calorie quotients for the prisoners were far below survival levels, and were often not met. In practice, only the stronger prisoners, and those who had been selected as guards, could be sure of getting any food at all.44

Soviet prisoners were at first confused by this treatment by the Wehrmacht. One of them guessed that “the Germans are teaching us to behave like comrades.” Unable to imagine that hunger was a policy, he guessed that the Germans wanted the Soviet prisoners to show solidarity with one another by sharing whatever food they had among themselves. Perhaps this soldier simply could not believe that, like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany was a state that starved by policy. Ironically, the entire essence of German policy toward the prisoners was that they were not actually equal human beings, and thus certainly not fellow soldiers, and under no circumstances comrades. The guidelines of May 1941 had instructed German soldiers to remember the supposedly “inhuman brutality” of Russians in battle. German camp guards were informed in September that they would be punished if they used their weapons too little.45

In autumn 1941, the prisoners of war in all of the Dulags and Stalags went hungry. Though even Göring recognized that the Hunger Plan as such was impossible, the priorities of German occupation ensured that Soviet prisoners would starve. Imitating and radicalizing the policies of the Soviet Gulag, German authorities gave less food to those who could not work than to those who could, thereby hastening the deaths of the weaker. On 21 October 1941, those who could not work saw their official rations cut by twenty-seven percent. This was for many prisoners a purely theoretical reduction, since in many prisoner-of-war camps no one was fed on a regular basis, and in most the weaker had no regular access to food anyway. A remark of the quartermaster general of the army, Eduard Wagner, made explicit the policy of selection: those prisoners who could not work, he said on 13 November, “are to be starved.” Across the camps, prisoners ate whatever they could find: grass, bark, pine needles. They had no meat unless a dog was shot. A few prisoners got horsemeat on a few occasions. Prisoners fought to lick utensils, while their German guards laughed at their behavior. When the cannibalism began, the Germans presented it as the result of the low level of Soviet civilization.46

The drastic conditions of the war bound the Wehrmacht ever more closely to the ideology of National Socialism. To be sure, the Germany military had been progressively nazified since 1933. Hitler had dismissed the threat of Röhm and his SA in 1934, and announced German rearmament and conscription in 1935. He had directed German industry toward arms production and produced a series of very real victories in 1938 (Austria, Czechoslovakia), 1939 (Poland), and 1940 (Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, and above all France). He had had several years to choose his favorites among the higher officers, and to purge those whose outlook he found too traditional. The victory in France in 1940 had brought the German military command very close to Hitler, as officers began to believe in his talent.

Yet it was the lack of victory in the Soviet Union that made the Wehrmacht inseparable from the Nazi regime. In the starving Soviet Union in autumn 1941, the Wehrmacht was in a moral trap, from which National Socialism seemed to offer the only escape. Any remnants of traditional soldierly ideals had to be abandoned in favor of a destructive ethic that made sense of the army’s predicament. To be sure, German soldiers had to be fed; but they were eating to gain strength to fight a war that had already been lost. To be sure, calories had to be extracted from the countryside to feed them; but this brought about essentially pointless starvation. As the army high command and the officers in the field implemented illegal and murderous policies, they found no justification except for the sort that Hitler provided: that human beings were containers of calories that should be emptied, and that Slavs, Jews, and Asians, the peoples of the Soviet Union, were less than human and thus more than expendable. Like Ukrainian communists in 1933, German officers in 1941 implemented a policy of starvation. In both cases, many individuals had objections or reservations at first, but the groups in the end implicated themselves in the crimes of the regime, and thus subordinated themselves to the moral claims of their leaders. They became the system as the system became catastrophe.

It was the Wehrmacht that established and ran the first network of camps, in Hitler’s Europe, where people died in the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, and finally the millions.

Some of the most infamous prisoner-of-war camps were in occupied Soviet Belarus, where by late November 1941 death rates had reached two percent per day. At Stalag 352 near Minsk, which one survivor remembered as “pure hell,” prisoners were packed together so tightly by barbed wire that they could scarcely move. They had to urinate and defecate where they stood. Some 109,500 people died there. At Dulag 185, Dulag 127, and Stalag 341, in the east Belarusian city Mahileu, witnesses saw mountains of unburied corpses outside the barbed wire. Some thirty to forty thousand prisoners died in these camps. At Dulag 131 at Bobruisk, the camp headquarters caught fire. Thousands of prisoners burned to death, and another 1,700 were gunned down as they tried to escape. All in all at least thirty thousand people died at Bobruisk. At Dulags 220 and 121 in Homel, as many as half of the prisoners had shelter in abandoned stables. The others had no shelter at all. In December 1941 death rates at these camps climbed from two hundred to four hundred to seven hundred a day. At Dulag 342 at Molodechno, conditions were so awful that prisoners submitted written petitions asking to be shot.47

The camps in occupied Soviet Ukraine were similar. At Stalag 306 at Kirovohrad, German guards reported that prisoners ate the bodies of comrades who had been shot, sometimes before the victims were dead. Rosalia Volkovskaia, a survivor of the women’s camp at Volodymyr Volynskyi, had a view of what the men faced at the local Stalag 365: “we women could see from above that many of the prisoners ate the corpses.” At Stalag 346 in Kremenchuk, where inmates got at most two hundred grams of bread per day, bodies were thrown into a pit every morning. As in Ukraine in 1933, sometimes the living were buried along with the dead. At least twenty thousand people died in that camp. At Dulag 162 in Stalino (today Donetsk), at least ten thousand prisoners at a time were crushed behind barbed wire in a small camp in the center of the city. People could only stand. Only the dying would lie down, because anyone who did would be trampled. Some twenty-five thousand perished, making room for more. Dulag 160 at Khorol, southwest of Kiev, was one of the larger camps. Although the site was an abandoned brick factory, prisoners were forbidden to take shelter in its buildings. If they tried to escape there from the rain or snow, they were shot. The commandant of this camp liked to observe the spectacle of prisoners struggling for food. He would ride in on his horse amidst the crowds and crush people to death. In this and other camps near Kiev, perhaps thirty thousand prisoners died.48

Soviet prisoners of war were also held at dozens of facilities in occupied Poland, in the General Government (which had been extended to the southeast after the invasion of the Soviet Union). Here astonished members of the Polish resistance filed reports about the massive death of Soviet prisoners in the winter of 1941-1942. Some 45,690 people died in the camps in the General Government in ten days, between 21 and 30 October 1941. At Stalag 307 at Dęblin, some eighty thousand Soviet prisoners died over the course of the war. At Stalag 319 at Chełm some sixty thousand people perished; at Stalag 366 in Siedlce, fifty-five thousand; at Stalag 325 at Zamość, twenty-eight thousand; at Stalag 316 at Siedlce, twenty-three thousand. About half a million Soviet prisoners of war starved to death in the General Government. As of the end of 1941, the largest group of mortal victims of German rule in occupied Poland was neither the native Poles nor the native Jews, but Soviet prisoners of war who had been brought west to occupied Poland and left to freeze and starve. Despite the recent Soviet invasion of Poland, Polish peasants often tried to feed the starving Soviet prisoners they saw. In retaliation, the Germans shot the Polish women carrying the milk jugs, and destroyed whole Polish villages.49

Even had the Soviet prisoners all been healthy and well fed, death rates in winter 1941-1942 would have been high. Despite what many Germans thought, Slavs had no inborn resistance to cold. Unlike the Germans, Soviet soldiers had sometimes been equipped with winter gear; this the Germans stole. The prisoners of war were usually left without shelter and without warm clothing, enduring temperatures far below freezing. As the camps were often in fields, no trees or hills broke the ruthless winter winds. Prisoners would build for themselves, by hand in the hard earth, simple dugouts where they would sleep. At Homel three Soviet soldiers, comrades, tried to keep one another warm by sleeping in a tight group. Each would have a turn sleeping in the middle, in the best spot, taking the warmth of his friends. At least one of the three lived to tell the tale.50

For hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, this was the second political famine in Ukraine in the space of eight years. Many thousands of soldiers from Soviet Ukraine saw their bellies swell for the second time, or witnessed cannibalism for the second time. No doubt very many survivors of the first mass starvation died in the second one. A few Ukrainians, such as Ivan Shulinskyi, managed to survive both. The son of a deported kulak, he recalled the starvation of 1933, and told people that he came from the “land of hunger.” He would cheer himself in German captivity by singing a traditional Ukrainian song:51

If I only had wings
I would lift myself to the sky
To the clouds
Where there is no pain and no punishment

As during the Soviet starvation campaign of 1933, during the German starvation campaign of 1941 many local people in Ukraine did their best to help the dying. Women would identify men as relatives and thus arrange their release. Young women would marry prisoners who were on labor duty outside the camps. The Germans sometimes allowed this, since it meant that the men would be working in an area under German occupation to produce food for Germans. In the city of Kremenchuk, where the food situation seems not to have been dire, laborers from the camps would leave empty bags in the city when they went to work in the morning, and recover them full of food left by passersby in the evening. In 1941 conditions were favorable for such help, as the harvest was unusually good. Women (the reports are almost always of women) would try to feed the prisoners during the death marches or in the camps. Yet most prisoner-of-war camp commanders, most of the time, prevented civilians from approaching the camps with food. Usually such people were driven away by warning shots. Sometimes they were killed.52

The organization of the camps in the east revealed a contempt for life, the life of Slavs and Asians and Jews anyway, that made such mass starvation thinkable. In German prisoner-of-war camps for Red Army soldiers, the death rate over the course of the war was 57.5 percent. In the first eight months after Operation Barbarossa, it must have been far higher. In German prisoner-of-war camps for soldiers of the western Allies, the death rate was less than five percent. As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War.53


Just as the Soviet population could not be starved at will, the Soviet state could not be destroyed in one blow. But the Germans certainly tried. Part of the idea of the “lightning victory” was that the Wehrmacht would cover terrain so quickly that the soldiers, and the trailing Einsatzgruppen, would be able to kill Soviet political elites and Red Army political officers. The official “Guidelines for the Behavior of the Troops in Russia,” issued on 19 May 1941, demanded a “crackdown” on four groups: agitators, partisans, saboteurs, and Jews. The “Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars” of 6 June 1941 specified that captured political officers were to be killed.54

In fact, local Soviet elites fled to the east; and the more elite such people were, the more likely they were to have been evacuated or to have had the resources to arrange their own escape. The country was vast, and Hitler had no ally invading on another vector who might be able to capture such people. German policies of mass murder could affect the Soviet leadership only in the lands that were actually conquered: Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and a very thin wedge of Russia. This was not very much of the Soviet Union, and the people in question were not of critical importance to the Soviet system. People were shot, but with only minimal consequences for the Soviet state. Most Wehrmacht units seemed to have little difficulty in obeying the “commissar order”; eighty percent of them reported having executed commissars. The military archives preserve the records of 2,252 shootings of such people by the army; the actual number was probably greater .55

Shooting civilians was mainly the task of the Einsatzgruppen, one that they had already performed in Poland in 1939. As in Poland, the Einsatzgruppen were assigned to murder certain political groups so that the state would collapse. Four Einsatzgruppen followed the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union: Einsatzgruppe A following Army Group North into the Baltics toward Leningrad, Einsatzgruppe B following Army Group Center through Belarus toward Moscow, Einsatzgruppe C following Army Group South into Ukraine, and Einsatzgruppe D following the 11th Army in the extreme south of Ukraine. As Heydrich clarified in a telegram of 2 July 1941, after having issued the relevant orders orally, the Einsatzgruppen were to kill communist functionaries, Jews in party and state positions, and other “dangerous elements.” As with the Hunger Plan, so with the elimination of people defined as political threats: those in confinement were most vulnerable. By mid-July the orders had come through to carry out mass murder by shooting in the Stalags and Dulags. On 8 September 1941 Einsatzkommandos were ordered to make “selections” of the prisoners of war, executing state and party functionaries, political commissars, intellectuals, and Jews. In October the army high command gave the Einsatzkommandos and the Security Police unrestricted access to the camps.56

The Einsatzkommandos could not screen the Soviet prisoners of war very carefully. They would interrogate Soviet prisoners of war in their holding pens, immediately after they were taken. They would ask commissars, communists, and Jews to step forward. Then they would take them away, shoot them, and throw them into pits. They had few interpreters, and these tended to remember the selections as being somewhat random. The Germans had imprecise notions of the ranks and insignia of the Red Army, and initially mistook buglers for political officers. They knew that officers were allowed to wear their hair longer than enlisted men, but this was an uncertain indicator. It had been some time since most of these men had seen a barber. The only group that could easily be identified at this point were male Jews; German guards examined penises for circumcision. Very occasionally Jews survived by claiming to be circumcised Muslims; more often circumcised Muslims were shot as Jews. German doctors seem to have collaborated willingly in this procedure; medicine was a highly nazified profession. As a doctor at the camp at Khorol recalled: “For every officer and soldier it was, in those times, the most natural thing that every Jew was shot to death.” At least fifty thousand Soviet Jews were shot after selection, and about fifty thousand non-Jews as well.57

The German prisoner-of-war camps in the East were far deadlier than the German concentration camps. Indeed, the existing concentration camps changed their character upon contact with prisoners of war. Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz became, as the SS used them to execute Soviet prisoners of war, killing facilities. Some eight thousand Soviet prisoners were executed at Auschwitz, ten thousand at Mauthausen, eighteen thousand at Sachsenhausen. At Buchenwald in November 1941, the SS arranged a method of mass murder of Soviet prisoners that strikingly resembled Soviet methods in the Great Terror, though exhibiting greater duplicity and sophistication. Prisoners were led into a room in the middle of a stable, where the surroundings were rather loud. They found themselves in what seemed to be a clinical examination room, surrounded by men in white coats—SS-men, pretending to be doctors. They would have the prisoner stand against the wall at a certain place, supposedly to measure his height. Running through the wall was a vertical slit, which the prisoner’s neck would cover. In an adjoining room was another SS-man with a pistol. When he saw the neck through the slit, he would fire. The corpse would then be thrown into a third room, the “examination room,” be quickly cleaned, and the next prisoner invited inside. Batches of thirty-five to forty corpses would be taken by truck to a crematorium: a technical advance over Soviet practices.58

The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more. All in all, perhaps 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war were killed. The brutality did not bring down the Soviet order; if anything, it strengthened Soviet morale. The screening of political officers, communists, and Jews was pointless. Killing such people, already in captivity, did not much weaken the Soviet state. In fact, the policies of starvation and screening stiffened the resistance of the Red Army. If soldiers knew that they would starve in agony as German captives, they were certainly more likely to fight. If communists and Jews and political officers knew that they would be shot, they too had little reason to give in. As knowledge of German policies spread, Soviet citizens began to think that Soviet power was perhaps the preferable alternative.59

As the war continued into November 1941, and more and more German soldiers died at the front and had to be replaced by conscripts from Germany, Hitler and Göring realized that some prisoners of war would be needed as labor inside the Reich. On 7 November Göring gave the order for positive selections (for labor). By the end of the war more than a million Soviet prisoners of war were working in Germany. Mistreatment and hunger were not easily overcome. As a sympathetic German observer noted: “Of the millions of prisoners only a few thousand are capable of work. Unbelievably many of them have died, many have typhus, and the rest are so weak and wretched that they are in no condition to work.” Some four hundred thousand prisoners sent to Germany died .60


By the terms of the German plans, the invasion of the Soviet Union was an utter fiasco. Operation Barbarossa was supposed to bring a “lightning victory”; in late autumn 1941, no victory was in sight. The invasion of the Soviet Union was supposed to resolve all economic problems, which it did not. In the end, occupied Belgium (for example) was of greater economic value to Nazi Germany. The Soviet population was supposed to be cleared; in the event, the most important economic input from the Soviet Union was labor. The conquered Soviet Union was also supposed to provide the space for a “Final Solution” to what the Nazis regarded as the Jewish problem. Jews were supposed to be worked to death in the Soviet Union, or sent across the Ural Mountains, or exiled to the Gulag. The Soviet Union’s self-defense in summer 1941 had made yet another iteration of the Final Solution impossible.61

By late 1941 the Nazi leadership had already considered, and been forced to abandon, four distinct versions of the Final Solution. The Lublin plan for a reservation in eastern Poland failed by November 1939 because the General Government was too close and too complicated; the consensual Soviet plan by February 1940 because Stalin was not interested in Jewish emigration; the Madagascar plan by August 1940 because first Poland and then Britain fought instead of cooperating; and now the coercive Soviet plan by November 1941 because the Germans had not destroyed the Soviet state. Though the invasion of the USSR provided no “solution,” it certainly exacerbated the Jewish “problem.” Germany’s eastern zone of conquest was now essentially identical with the part of the world most densely inhabited by Jews. In occupying Poland, the Baltics, and the western Soviet Union, the Germans had taken control of the most important traditional homeland of European Jews. About five million Jews now lived under German rule. With the exception of the late Russian Empire, no polity in history had ever ruled so many Jews as Germany did in 1941.62

The fate of some of the Soviet prisoners who were released from camps in the east suggested what was to come for the Jews. At Auschwitz in early September 1941, hundreds of Soviet prisoners were gassed with hydrogen cyanide, a pesticide (trade name Zyklon B) that had been used previously to fumigate the barracks of the Polish prisoners in the camp. Later, about a million Jews would be asphyxiated by Zyklon B at Auschwitz. At about the same time, other Soviet prisoners of war were used to test a gas van at Sachsenhausen. It pumped its own exhaust into its hold, thereby asphyxiating by carbon monoxide the people locked inside. That same autumn, gas vans would be used to kill Jews in occupied Soviet Belarus and occupied Soviet Ukraine. As of December 1941, carbon monoxide would also be used, in a parked gas van at Chełmno, to kill Polish Jews in lands annexed to Germany.63

From among the terrorized and starving population of the prisoner-of-war camps, the Germans recruited no fewer than a million men for duties with the army and the police. At first, the idea was that they would help the Germans to control the territory of the Soviet Union after its government fell. When that did not happen, these Soviet citizens were assigned to assist in the mass crimes that Hitler and his associates pursued on occupied territory as the war continued. Many former prisoners were given shovels and ordered to dig trenches, over which the Germans would shoot Jews. Others were recruited for police formations, which were used to hunt down Jews. Some prisoners were sent to a training camp in Trawniki, where they learned to be guards. These Soviet citizens and war veterans, retrained to serve Nazi Germany, would spend 1942 in three death facilities in occupied Poland, Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec, where more than a million Polish Jews would be gassed.64

Thus some of the survivors of one German killing policy became accomplices in another, as a war to destroy the Soviet Union became a war to murder the Jews.

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