Military history


No holds were to be barred in the taking of Russia. Hitler insisted that the generals understand this very clearly. Early in March 1941, he convoked the chiefs of the three armed services and the key Army field commanders and laid down the law. Halder took down his words.73

The war against Russia [Hitler said] will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion. This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness. All officers will have to rid themselves of obsolete ideologies. I know that the necessity for such means of waging war is beyond the comprehension of you generals but … I insist absolutely that my orders be executed without contradiction. The commissars are the bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism. Therefore the commissars will be liquidated. German soldiers guilty of breaking international law … will be excused. Russia has not participated in the Hague Convention and therefore has no rights under it.

Thus was the so-called “Commissar Order” issued; it was to be much discussed at the Nuremberg trial when the great moral question was posed to the German generals whether they should have obeyed the orders of the Fuehrer to commit war crimes or obeyed their own consciences.*

According to Halder, as he later remembered it, the generals were outraged at this order and, as soon as the meeting was over, protested to their Commander in Chief, Brauchitsch. This spineless Field Marshal* promised that he would “fight against this order in the form it was given.” Later, Halder swears, Brauchitsch informed OKW in writing that the officers of the Army “could never execute such orders.” But did he?

In his testimony on direct examination at Nuremberg Brauchitsch admitted that he took no such action with Hitler “because nothing in the world could change his attitude.” What the head of the Army did, he told the tribunal, was to issue a written order that “discipline in the Army was to be strictly observed along the lines and regulations that applied in the past.”

“You did not give any order directly referring to the Commissar Order?” Lord Justice Lawrence, the peppery president of the tribunal, asked Brauchitsch.

“No,” he replied. “I could not rescind the order directly.”75

The old-line Army officers, with their Prussian traditions, were given further occasion to struggle with their consciences by subsequent directives issued in the name of the Fuehrer by General Keitel on May 13. The principal one limited the functions of German courts-martial. They were to give way to a more primitive form of law.

Punishable offenses committed by enemy civilians [in Russia] do not, until further notice, come any longer under the jurisdiction of the courts-martial …

Persons suspected of criminal action will be brought at once before an officer. This officer will decide whether they are to be shot.

With regard to offenses committed against enemy civilians by members of the Wehrmacht, prosecution is not obligatory even where the deed is at the same time a military crime or offense.

The Army was told to go easy on such offenders, remembering in each case all the harm done to Germany since 1918 by the “Bolsheviki.” Courts-martial of German soldiers would be justified only if “maintenance of discipline or security of the Forces call for such a measure.” At any rate, the directive concluded, “only those court sentences are confirmed which are in accordance with the political intentions of the High Command.”76 The directive was to “be treated as ‘most secret.’”

A second directive of the same date signed by Keitel on behalf of Hitler entrusted Himmler with “special tasks” for the preparation of the political administration in Russia—“tasks,” it said, “which result from the struggle which has to be carried out between two opposing political systems.” The Nazi secret-police sadist was delegated to act “independently” of the Army, “under his own responsibility.” The generals well knew what the designation of Himmler for “special tasks” meant, though they denied that they did when they took the stand at Nuremberg. Furthermore, the directive said, the occupied areas in Russia were to be sealed off while Himmler went to work. Not even the “highest personalities of the Government and Party,” Hitler stipulated, were to be allowed to have a look. The same directive named Goering for the “exploitation of the country and the securing of its economic assets for use by German industry.” Incidentally, Hitler also declared in this order that as soon as military operations were concluded Russia would be “divided up into individual states with governments of their own.”78

Just how this would be done was to be worked out by Alfred Rosenberg, the befuddled Balt and officially the leading Nazi thinker, who had been, as we have seen, one of Hitler’s early mentors in the Munich days. On April 20 the Fuehrer appointed him “Commissioner for the Central Control of Questions Connected with the East-European Region” and immediately this Nazi dolt, with a positive genius for misunderstanding history, even the history of Russia, where he was born and educated, went to work to build his castles in his once native land. Rosenberg’s voluminous files were captured intact; like his books, they make dreary reading and will not be allowed to impede this narrative, though occasionally they must be referred to because they disclose some of Hitler’s plans for Russia.

By early May, Rosenberg had drawn up his first wordy blueprint for what promised to be the greatest German conquest in history. To begin with, European Russia was to be divided up into so-called Reich Commissariats. Russian Poland would become a German protectorate called Ostland, the Ukraine “an independent state in alliance with Germany,” Caucasia, with its rich oil fields, would be ruled by a German “plenipotentiary,” and the three Baltic States and White Russia would form a German protectorate preparatory to being annexed outright to the Greater German Reich. This last feat, Rosenberg explained in one of the endless memoranda which he showered on Hitler and the generals in order, as he said, to elucidate “the historical and racial conditions” for his decisions, would be accomplished by Germanizing the racially assimilable Balts and “banishing the undesirable elements.” In Latvia and Estonia, he cautioned, “banishment on a large scale will have to be envisaged.” Those driven out would be replaced by Germans, preferably war veterans. “The Baltic Sea,” he ordained, “must become a Germanic inland sea.”79

Two days before the troops jumped off, Rosenberg addressed his closest collaborators who were to take over the rule of Russia.

The job of feeding the German people [he said] stands at the top of the list of Germany’s claims on the East. The southern [Russian] territories will have to serve … for the feeding of the German people.

We see absolutely no reason for any obligation on our part to feed also the Russian people with the products of that surplus territory. We know that this is a harsh necessity, bare of any feelings … The future will hold very hard years in store for the Russians.80

Very hard years indeed, since the Germans were deliberately planning to starve to death millions of them!

Goering, who had been placed in charge of the economic exploitation of the Soviet Union, made this even clearer than Rosenberg did. In a long directive of May 23, 1941, his Economic Staff, East, laid it down that the surplus food from Russia’s black-earth belt in the south must not be diverted to the people in the industrial areas, where, in any case, the industries would be destroyed. The workers and their families in these regions would simply be left to starve—or, if they could, to emigrate to Siberia. Russia’s great food production must go to the Germans.

The German Administration in these territories [the directive declared] may well attempt to mitigate the consequences of the famine which undoubtedly will take place and to accelerate the return to primitive agricultural conditions. However, these measures will not avert famine. Any attempt to save the population there from death by starvation by importing surpluses from the black-soil zone would be at the expense of supplies to Europe. It would reduce Germany’s staying power in the war, and would undermine Germany’s and Europe’s power to resist the blockade. This must be clearly and absolutely understood.81

How many Russian civilians would die as the result of this deliberate German policy? A meeting of state secretaries on May 2 had already given a general answer. “There is no doubt,” a secret memorandum of the conference declared, “that as a result, many millions of persons will be starved to death if we take out of the country the things necessary for us.”82-And Goering had said, and Rosenberg, that they would be taken out—that much had to be “clearly and absolutely understood.”

Did any German, even one single German, protest against this planned ruthlessness, this well-thought-out scheme to put millions of human beings to death by starvation? In all the memoranda concerning the German directives for the spoliation of Russia, there is no mention of anyone’s objecting—as at least some of the generals did in regard to the Commissar Order. These plans were not merely wild and evil fantasies of distorted minds and souls of men such as Hitler, Goering, Himmler and Rosenberg. For weeks and months, it is evident from the records, hundreds of German officials toiled away at their desks in the cheerful light of the warm spring days, adding up figures and composing memoranda which coldly calculated the massacre of millions. By starvation, in this case. Heinrich Himmler, the mild-faced ex-chicken farmer, also sat at his desk at S.S. headquarters in Berlin those days, gazing through his pince-nez at plans for the massacre of other millions in a quicker and more violent way.

Well pleased with the labors of his busy minions, both military and civilian, in planning the onslaught on the Soviet Union, her destruction, her exploitation and the mass murder of her citizenry, Hitler on April 30 set the date for the attack—June 22—made his victory speech in the Reichstag on May 4 and then retired to his favorite haunt, the Berghof above Berchtesgaden, where he could gaze at the splendor of the Alpine mountains, their peaks still covered with spring snow, and contemplate his next conquest, the greatest of all, at which, as he had told his generals, the world would hold its breath.

It was here on the night of Saturday, May 10, 1941, that he received strange and unexpected news which shook him to the bone and forced him, as it did almost everyone else in the Western world, to take his mind for the moment off the war. His closest personal confidant, the deputy leader of the Nazi Party, the second in line to succeed him after Goering, the man who had been his devoted and fanatically loyal follower since 1921 and, since Roehm’s murder, the nearest there was to a friend, had literally flown the coop and on his own gone to parley with the enemy!

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