As preparations for the invasion were intensifying in Berlin, Hitler’s official deputy, Rudolf Hess, became increasingly worried at the prospect of a war on two fronts, a war for which ominous historical precedents, above all in 1914-18, were ever present in the minds of the leading Nazis. Slavishly devoted to Hitler, Hess was convinced, not without reason, that the Nazi Leader’s main objective in the west since the conquest of France had been to bring Britain to the negotiating table. Over the past few years, Hess, never the sharpest of the Nazi minds, had lost influence steadily; his access to Hitler had been seriously reduced since the outbreak of the war in September 1939, and the considerable powers of his office had been increasingly wielded by his ambitious deputy, Martin Bormann. Hess had not been involved in the planning for Operation Barbarossa and indeed he had never played any role in foreign policy at all. Yet he considered himself well qualified to do so. Hess’s teacher, the geopolitical theorist Karl Haushofer, had instilled in him a belief that it was Britain’s destiny to join in the world struggle against Bolshevism on Germany’s side. In the resentful and befuddled mind of the Deputy Leader there took shape a daring plan. He himself would fly to Britain to negotiate peace. Delivering an agreement would restore him to Hitler’s favour and secure Germany’s rear for the forthcoming attack on the Soviet Union. Despite Hitler’s explicit orders to the contrary, Hess continued to hone his flying skills in secret. He had a Messerschmitt Me110 specially prepared for his use, and he obtained maps and weather charts for Germany, the North Sea and northern Britain. At six in the evening on 10 May 1941, he put on a fur-lined flying-suit, took off from the airfield of the Messerschmitt works in Augsburg and headed north-west, in the direction of the British Isles.146

Five hours later, Hess parachuted out of the plane near Glasgow, leaving it to continue, pilotless, until eventually it burst into flames and crashed. He landed, somewhat awkwardly, in a field. Approached by a local farmhand, he said his name was Alfred Horn, and he had a message for the Duke of Hamilton, whose home was in the vicinity. The aristocrat had been a member of the Anglo-German Society before the war, and Haushofer’s son Albrecht had told Hess that he would be an important addressee for peace overtures. The advice showed both Haushofer’s ignorance and Hess’s gullibility. In fact, Hamilton was not a particularly significant political figure in British politics. By this time a wing-commander in the Royal Air Force, he was extremely unlikely to act as a willing conduit for German peace overtures. Summoned in response to Hess’s request, Hamilton arrived at the Home Guard hut where Hess had been taken and was quickly convinced that he was face-to-face with the Deputy Leader of the Nazi Party. After the stress of his daring flight, Hess’s mental confusion was such that he made no real attempt to discuss a separate peace with the Duke, and indeed he could think of nothing more than to repeat Hitler’s vague ‘peace offer’ made the previous July. The diplomat Ivone Kirkpatrick, who had served in the Berlin Embassy from 1933 to 1938 and spoke good German, was sent to Scotland to interrogate Hess, and managed to extract a bit more information. Hess, he said in his report, ‘had come here without the knowledge of Hitler in order to convince responsible persons that since England could not win the war, the wisest course was to make peace now.’ Hess knew Hitler better than most, and he could assure Kirkpatrick that the German Leader had no designs on the British Empire. This was feeble stuff. ‘Hess,’ concluded Kirkpatrick, ‘does not seem ... to be in the near counsels of the German government as regards operations.’147 For the rest of the war, Hess was kept imprisoned in various places, including the Tower of London. His self-imposed ‘mission’ had been completely pointless. It reflected nothing but his own mental confusion and lack of realism.148

Hitler himself knew nothing about Hess’s flight until one of the Deputy Leader’s adjutants, Karl-Heinz Pintsch, arrived at the Berghof towards midday on 11 May 1941 to deliver a letter in which Hess told the Nazi Leader of his intentions and informed him that he would be in England by the time he read it. If he disapproved of the venture, Hess wrote, then Hitler could simply write him off as a madman. No news had yet leaked out from the British. Appalled, Hitler immediately summoned Bormann and told Goring over the telephone to come straight away from his castle near Nuremberg. ‘Something dreadful has happened,’ he said.149 Desperately worried in case the British should break the news first, thus suggesting to Mussolini and Germany’s other allies that he was trying to make a separate peace with Britain behind their backs, Hitler sanctioned a radio announcement that was broadcast at eight in the evening on 11 May 1941, taking up Hess’s own suggestion and ascribing the flight to the Deputy Leader’s mental derangement and hallucination. The broadcast told the German people that Hess had flown off towards the British Isles but had probably crashed en route. On 13 May 1941, the BBC reported Hess’s arrival in Scotland and his subsequent capture. In the meantime, on the advice of Otto Dietrich, Hitler’s press chief, a second announcement had been put out over German radio underlining Hess’s delusional state and mental confusion. Goebbels, arriving at the Berghof later in the day, thought this only compounded the disaster. ‘At the moment,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘the whole thing is still really confused.’ ‘The Leader is completely crushed,’ he added. ‘What a spectacle for the world: a mentally deranged second man after the Leader.’150

As soon as he received the news of Hess’s defection, Hitler abolished the post of Deputy Leader and renamed Hess’s office the Party Chancellery, to be led as before by Bormann, but now under the formal supervision of Hess’s former eminence grise. This move considerably enhanced Bormann’s power. There remained the problem of what spin to put on the event. Hitler had already summoned all the Reich Leaders and Regional Party Leaders to the Berghof. On 13 May 1941 he repeated to them that Hess was mentally ill. In an emotional appeal to their loyalty, he declared that Hess had betrayed and deceived him. At the end of the speech, as Hans Frank, who was present, told his staff in the General Government a few days later: ‘The Leader was more completely shattered than I have ever experienced him to have been.’151 As Goebbels had thought, the idea that his deputy had been mentally deranged for many years did not cast a particularly favourable light upon either him or his regime. Many Party members refused to believe the news at first. ‘Depression and uncertainty’ were the prevailing feelings noted by Nazi surveillance operatives.152 ‘Nobody believes he was ill,’ reported a local official in the rural Bavarian district of Ebermannstadt.153 No one to whom Field Marshal Fedor von Bock spoke about the ‘mysterious story’ believed the official account either.154 ‘Why doesn’t the Leader say anything about the Hess affair?’, asked Victor Klemperer’s friend Annemarie Köhler. ‘He really ought to say something. What excuse will he use - Hess has been sick for years? But then he shouldn’t be Hitler’s deputy.’155 Lore Walb, now studying history at Heidelberg University, agreed. ‘If he had really been ill for a long time before (mentally ill, from time to time?), then why did he keep his leading position?’ she asked.156 Most people seem to have felt sympathy for Hitler at his deputy’s betrayal.157 They relieved their anxiety, bewilderment and disorientation by telling jokes. ‘So you’re the madman?’ one joke had Churchill saying to Hess as he arrives in the Prime Minister’s office for an interview. ‘No,’ Hess replies, ‘only his deputy.’ ‘British Press Notice: “Today we learned that Hess is indeed insane - he wants to go back to Germany.” ’ ‘That our government is mad is something we’ve known for a long time,’ Berliners were reported as saying, ‘but that they admit it - that’s something new!’158


The week or so he was forced to spend dealing with the Hess affair was an unwelcome distraction for Hitler. By the middle of May 1941, however, the Nazi Leader was turning his mind back to his plans for the creation of ‘living-space’ in Eastern Europe. His vision for the future of this vast area, stretching through Poland, the Ukraine and Belarus across wide tracts of European Russia and down into the Caucasus, was articulated most unrestrainedly in the monologues to which he subjected his lunch- and dinner-companions. From early July 1941 onwards, they were noted down on Bormann’s orders, and with Hitler’s agreement, by a Party official, Heinrich Heim, sitting unobtrusively in a corner of the room (for some periods he was replaced by another junior official, Henry Picker). The notes were later dictated to a stenographer, then handed to Bormann, who corrected them and filed them away for posterity. When Hitler was dead, they would be published, and his successors in the thousand-year Reich would be able to consult them for guidance on what their great Leader had thought on a whole range of political and ideological issues.159 Despite their tedious repetitiousness, they are indeed valuable as a guide to Hitler’s thinking on broad, general issues of policy and ideology. His views at this level changed little over the years, so what he was saying in the summer of 1941 give a good idea of what he must already have been thinking in the spring.

In July 1941, Hitler amused himself by painting castles in the air for his guests on the subject of the future of Eastern Europe. Once conquest was complete, he said, the Germans would annex vast masses of territory for their own racial survival and expansion. ‘The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle, by allowing the survival of the fittest.’160 ‘It’s inconceivable that a higher people should painfully exist on a soil too narrow for it, whilst amorphous masses, which contribute nothing to civilisation, occupy infinite tracts of a soil that is one of the richest in the world.’161 The Crimea and the southern Ukraine would become ‘an exclusively German colony’, he said. The existing inhabitants would be ‘pushed out’.162 As for the rest of the east, a handful of Englishmen had controlled millions of Indians, he said, and so it would be with the Germans in Russia:

The German colonist ought to live on handsome, spacious farms. The German services will be lodged in marvellous buildings, the governors in palaces . . . Around the city, to a depth of thirty to forty kilometres, we shall have a belt of handsome villages connected by the best roads. What exists beyond that will be another world, in which we mean to let the Russians live as they like. It is merely necessary that we should rule them. In the event of a revolution, we shall only have to drop a few bombs on their cities, and the affair will be liquidated.163

A dense network of roads would be constructed, he went on, ‘studded along their whole length with German towns’, and around these towns ‘our colonists will settle’. Colonists of German blood would come from all over Western Europe and even America. There would be twenty million of them by the 1960s, while Russian towns would be allowed to ‘fall to pieces’.164

‘In a hundred years,’ Hitler declared, ‘our language will be the language of Europe.’ It was not least for this reason that he had replaced Gothic lettering with Roman lettering in all official correspondence and publications in the autumn of 1940.165 Some months later, he returned to his vision for the new German east. New railways would have to be built to ensure ‘rapid communication’ between major centres all the way to Constantinople:

I envisage through-trains covering the distances at an average speed of two hundred kilometres an hour, and our present rolling-stock is obviously unsuitable for the purpose. Larger carriages will be required - probably double-deckers, which will give the passengers on the upper deck an opportunity of admiring the landscape. This will presumably entail the construction of a very much broader-gauge permanent way than that at present in use, and the number of lines must be doubled in order to be able to cope with any intensification of traffic . . . This alone will enable us to realise our plans for the exploitation of the Eastern territories.166

The new railway system would be augmented by an equally ambitious network of six-lane motorways. ‘Of what importance will the thousand-kilometre stretch to the Crimea be,’ he asked, ‘when we can cover it at eighty kilometres an hour along the motorway and do the whole distance easily in two days!’ He envisaged a time when it would be possible to go ‘from Klagenfurt to Trondheim and from Hamburg to the Crimea along a Reich Motorway’.167

As this scenario developed, Russian society would be left far behind. ‘In comparison with Russia,’ he declared, ‘even Poland looked like a civilised country.’168 The Germans would show ‘no remorse’ towards the indigenous inhabitants. ‘We’re not going to play at children’s nurses; we’re absolutely without obligations as far as these people are concerned. ’ They would not be provided with medical or educational facilities; not only would they be denied inoculation and other preventive measures, but they should be persuaded that vaccinations were positively dangerous to their health.169 Eventually Russian society, these views implied, would wither away and disappear, along with other Slavic societies in Belarus, the Ukraine and Poland. In a hundred years’ time, the Slavic population of Eastern Europe would have been replaced by ‘millions of German peasants’ living on the land.170 What this would mean in more concrete terms was already clear by the beginning of 1941. The aim of the war against the Soviet Union, SS chief Heinrich Himmler told SS leaders at the Wewelsburg Castle in January 1941, was to reduce the Slavic population by 30 million, a figure that was later repeated by other Nazi leaders, including Hermann Goring, who told the Italian Foreign Minister Ciano on 15 November 1941: ‘This year, 20-30 million people in Russia will starve.’171 The 30 million, not just Russians but also other inhabitants of the Soviet Union in areas controlled by the Germans, were to die of hunger, then, and not over the long term, but almost immediately. Soviet cities, many of them created by Stalin’s brutal forced industrialization in the 1930, were to be starved out of existence, while practically the entire food production of the conquered areas was to be used to feed the invading German armies and maintain nutritional standards at home, so that the malnourishment and starvation that (Hitler believed) had played such a baleful part in the collapse of the German home front in the First World War would not be repeated in the Second. This ‘hunger plan’ was developed above all by Herbert Backe, the State Secretary in the Agriculture Ministry, a hardline Nazi who had worked with Reich Agriculture Minister Richard Walther Darré, the leading Nazi ideologue of the peasantry, for many years and was on good personal terms with Heydrich. But it was also agreed by General Georg Thomas, the leading arms procurement figure in the central administration of the armed forces. Meeting with General Thomas on 2 May 1941, the State Secretaries of the relevant ministries agreed that the armed forces would have to live off the resources of the conquered lands in the east, and concluded that ‘without doubt, umpteen million people will starve if what is necessary for us is taken out of the country’.172

These ideas found concrete expression in the so-called ‘General Plan for the East’, which Himmler commissioned from the office of the Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of the German Race on 21 June 1941. The first version of the plan was handed to Himmler on 15 July 1941 by Professor Konrad Meyer, the academic expert in the office who specialized in settlement policy. After a good deal of discussion and further refinement, it was finalized in May 1942, approved by Hitler, and formally adopted by the Reich Security Head Office in July 1942. The General Plan for the East, now the official policy of the Third Reich, proposed to remove between 80 and 85 per cent of the Polish population, 64 per cent of the Ukrainian and 75 per cent of the Belarussian, expelling them further east or allowing them to perish from disease and malnutrition. Not counting the Jewish population of these areas, the Plan thus envisaged the forcible uprooting of at least 31 million people from their homes, in what would no doubt be a murderously violent process of dispossession; some estimates, taking into account projected population increases, put the number at no fewer than 45 million. Not only the Polish territories incorporated into Germany, but also the General Government, Latvia and Estonia and indeed the greater part of East-Central Europe would become completely German within twenty years. The space vacated by the Slavs would be occupied by 10 million Germans. The borders of Germany would in effect be extended a thousand kilometres to the east.173

Himmler and the SS presented this as the resumption and completion of what they saw as the civilizing mission of the Crusading Teutonic Knights of the Middle Ages. But it was to be a mission updated and modernized to suit the conditions of the twentieth century. The new German settlers, Meyer proclaimed, would not be hidebound traditionalists but progressive farmers, equipped with the latest machinery, dedicated to creating an agricultural wonderland that would keep the new, vastly extended Germany well fed and supplied. They would own farms much like those of the Reich Entailed Farmers back home.174 A third of them would be retired SS officers, providing an ideological and military underpinning to the whole enterprise. And they would be joined by labourers from the overcrowded peasant regions of the German south-west, since native labour would no longer be available. The Plan took into account Hitler’s vision of large, modern towns and industrial centres linked by advanced means of communication, too: it aimed at a farming population little more than a third of the total in the new regions of German settlement. Meyer put the total investment required to realize the Plan at no less than 40 billion Reichsmarks, a sum Himmler revised upwards to 67 billion, equivalent to two-thirds of Germany’s Gross Domestic Product in 1941, or half a million Reichsmarks for every square kilometre of the newly settled regions. This gigantic sum would be raised from a variety of sources: the state budget, SS funds, local authorities, the railways and the private sector. The ambition of the Plan was simply staggering. It proposed destruction on a scale never before contemplated in human history.175

The invasion of the Soviet Union would transfer to a vastly bigger area the brutal and murderous policies that had already been implemented in Poland since the beginning of the war: ethnic deportation and resettlement, population transfer, Germanization, cultural genocide and the reduction of the Slavic population by expropriation, starvation and disease. But it was to be even more radical than the occupation of Poland. Hitler, the Nazis and most of the leading generals saw Poles as little more than Slavic subhumans, but they saw the Soviet Union as a threat, since its Slav inhabitants were led by what they regarded as ruthless and cunning leaders of the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ world conspiracy to undermine the German race and German civilization. While he had nothing but contempt for the Poles and their leaders, Hitler repeatedly expressed his personal admiration for Stalin, ‘one of the most extraordinary figures in world history’, as he called him in July 1941.176 ‘Stalin, too,’ Hitler told his dinner companions a year later, ‘must command our unconditional respect. In his own way he is a hell of a fellow! He knows his models, Genghiz Khan and the others, very well...’177 ‘Stalin,’ said Hitler on another occasion, ‘is half beast, half giant . . . If we had given him another ten years, Europe would have been swept away, as it was at the time of the Huns.’178 Thus, Hitler told army chiefs on 17 March 1941, ‘The intelligentsia deployed by Stalin must be annihilated.’179 Just as the Polish intelligentsia had been killed, now the same fate was to befall its Soviet counterpart. On 30 March 1941 Hitler elaborated on this view in a speech the essential points of which were noted down by General Halder. The coming war would be no ordinary war: ‘Struggle of two world-views against one another. Annihilatory judgement against Bolshevism, it’s the same as asocial criminality. Communism tremendous danger for the future. We must abandon the standpoint of soldierly comradeship. The Communist is first and last no comrade. This is a war of annihilation.’180 Political commissars in the Red Army in particular were to be treated not as soldiers but as criminals and dealt with accordingly. Hitler demanded the ‘annihilation of the Bolshevik commissars and the Communist intelligentsia . . . The conflict, ’ he warned, ‘will be very different from the conflict in the west.’181


On 19 May 1941, guidelines issued to the troops for the invasion demanded ‘ruthless and energetic action against Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs, Jews and total elimination of all active and passive resistance’.182 The inclusion of ‘Jews’ as a separate category in this list was of enormous significance. Here was the German army being given licence, in effect, to kill Jews wherever it encountered them, on the assumption that all of them were part of the Bolshevik resistance. The conquest of Poland had already demonstrated the murderous and often sadistic violence regular German troops would visit on ‘Eastern Jews’. The invasion of the Soviet Union was to reproduce this violence on a vastly larger scale. The inclusion of the deliberate murder of prisoners in the invasion plan was underlined on 6 June 1941, when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the Combined Armed Forces Supreme Command, issued an order that all political commissars in the Red Army, whom he characterized as the ‘originators of barbaric, Asiatic methods of fighting’, were to be shot immediately on capture.183

By the time of the invasion, the kind of doubts that had assailed senior officers like Johannes Blaskowitz in Poland had long since been quelled. None of the generals raised any open objections to Hitler’s orders. The traditional anti-Communism and antisemitism of the officer corps had been augmented by years of incessant Nazi propaganda and indoctrination. The experience of Poland had hardened them to the idea that Slavs and Jews were to be repressed in the most brutal manner possible. Only a very few, such as Field Marshal Fedor von Bock or Lieutenant-Colonel Henning von Tresckow, quietly instructed their officers to ignore the order to kill commissars and civilians as incompatible with international law or dangerous to discipline, or both. The vast majority of the generals transmitted the orders further down the line.184 Already on 27 March 1941, before Hitler’s speech, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, had issued an instruction that the troops ‘must be clear about the fact that the conflict is being fought between one race and another, and proceed with the necessary rigour’.185 The soldiers were instructed accordingly, in a propaganda effort of considerable dimensions that included the inevitable reference to ‘the struggle against World Jewry, which [is striving] to arouse all the peoples of the world against Germany’.186 The normal rules were set aside. Officers were not just officers but also leaders in a racial struggle against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’. As General Erich Hoepner wrote in the marching orders for his troops on 2 May 1941:

The war against Russia is a fundamental part of the German people’s struggle for existence. It is the old struggle of the Germans against the Slavs, the defence of European culture against the Muscovite, Asiatic deluge, the defence against Jewish Bolshevism. This struggle must aim to smash the Russia of today into rubble, and as a consequence it must be carried out with unprecedented harshness.187

Similar orders were issued by a variety of other generals as well, including Walter von Reichenau, Erich von Manstein and Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel (later a member of the military resistance).188

Discussions between the Army Quartermaster-General Horst Wagner and SS Security Service chief Reinhard Heydrich resulted in a military order issued on 28 April 1941 giving the SS the power to act on its own initiative in carrying out the Commissar Order and similar ‘security’ tasks behind the lines. Four SS Security Service Task Forces, A, B, C and D, numbering 600 to 1,000 men apiece, were set up to follow the army into Russia in four zones running from north to south. Behind them came smaller groups of SS and police. Finally, in areas well behind the front line placed under civilian control, battalions of SS soldiers were to provide for ‘security’. The police units consisted of 23 battalions with 420 officers and 11,640 men, selected from volunteer applicants and subjected to ideological training by the SS. Most of them were in their thirties, older than the average soldier. A substantial number of the officers had been Free Corps soldiers in the violent years of the early Weimar Republic. Many of them were long-term policemen, drawn from the decidedly right-wing ‘Order Police’, formed in the Weimar Republic to deal with civil unrest, mostly from paramilitaries on the left. Some of the men were Nazi brownshirts or ethnic-German ‘self-protection’ militiamen from Poland. A small number of the battalions were drawn from police reservists. All were volunteers, carefully screened by the SS and subjected to a process of indoctrination that included a heavy dose of antisemitism. They were specially selected for service in the Soviet Union. Most of them were recruited from the lower middle class; it was assumed that the Order Police members had small businesses which their wives could carry on in their absence. From the middle of May 1941 they were put into training at the Border Police School in Pretzsch, near Leipzig, where they were subjected to ideological training that would amply reinforce their existing prejudices against Slavs and Jews. These were, therefore, despite claims to the contrary by later historians, neither ‘ordinary men’ nor ‘ordinary Germans’.189

On 2 July 1941 the Task Forces and police battalions were told to execute all Communist functionaries, people’s commissars, ‘Jews in party or state positions’ and ‘other radical elements (saboteurs, propagandists, snipers, assassins, agitators, etc.)’.190 The order to shoot only one particular category of Jews seemed at first sight to signal a more restricted approach than the one the army had been ordered to take. It directed the Task Forces’ attention in the first place to those identified by Hitler as the Communist intelligentsia and the Jewish elite, two categories which he and Heydrich and most other leading Nazis as well as many army generals considered to be more or less identical. And it targeted only men, much as was initially the case in Serbia. However, women and children were not explicitly ruled out. Moreover, the identification of Jews with Communists was encouraged not only by years of antisemitic propaganda but also by the fact that Jews were indeed the largest single national group in key parts of the Soviet elite, including the secret police, a fact that had never been hidden from general view. All of them without exception, at least until the Nazi invasion and its accompanying antisemitic atrocities, had long since repudiated their Jewish ethnic and religious background. They identified completely with the supranational, secular ideology of Bolshevism. Beyond this, the inclusion of ill-defined categories such as ‘propagandists’ and ‘agitators’ was an open invitation to kill all male Jews, since Nazi ideology considered in principle that all Jewish men fell into these groups. Finally, the treatment of the Jewish population of Poland not only by the SS but also by the army strongly suggested that the Task Forces and police battalions would from the beginning not be too choosy about which Jews they shot, or how many.191


By the early hours of 22 June 1941, the months of planning were finally over. At 3.15 in the morning, just before dawn on the shortest night of the year, a huge artillery barrage opened up along a front stretching more than a thousand miles southwards from the Baltic. More than 3 million German soldiers, with another half a million troops from Romania and other allied countries, crossed the Soviet border at numerous points from the Finnish border in the north all the way down to the Black Sea hinterland in the south. They were equipped with 3,600 tanks, 600,000 motor vehicles and 700,000 field guns and other artillery. Some 2,700 aircraft, more than half the entire strength of the German air force, had been assembled behind the lines. As the first motorized ground assaults began, 500 bombers, 270 dive-bombers and 480 fighter planes flew overhead and onwards, to wreak destruction on Soviet military airfields. This was the largest invading force assembled in the whole of human history to this point. The military aim was to trap and destroy the Soviet armies in a massive series of encircling movements, pinning them back against the line of the rivers Dnieper and Dvina, some 500 kilometres from the invasion point.192 On the first day alone, German air strikes against 66 Soviet airfields destroyed more than 1,200 Soviet aircraft, almost all of them before they had had a chance to take off. Within the first week the German air force had damaged over 4,000 Soviet planes beyond repair. Bombing raids were also carried out on a range of major cities from Bialystok to Tallinn, Kiev to Riga. With the command of the skies assured, the three main army groups pushed forward with their tanks, supported by dive-bombers and followed up by fast-moving infantry, smashing through the Red Army defences, and inflicting huge losses on the ill-prepared Soviet troops. In the first week of the invasion, Army Group Centre broke decisively through Soviet defences, encircling the Red Army troops in a series of battles. It had already taken 600,000 prisoners by the end of the second week in July. By this time, more than 3,000 Soviet artillery pieces and 6,000 tanks had been captured or destroyed, or simply abandoned by the troops. 89 out of 164 divisions in the Red Army had been put out of action. German forces took Smolensk and pushed on towards Moscow. Army Group North seized Latvia, Lithuania and much of Estonia and advanced on Leningrad (St Petersburg). Army Group South was driving towards Kiev, overrunning the agricultural and industrial regions of the Ukraine. Finnish troops, aided by German units, cut off the port of Murmansk and made towards Leningrad from the north, while German and Romanian troops entered Bessarabia in the far south.193

Surprise and speed were crucial in throwing the Soviet forces into disarray. The German troops were marching up to 50 kilometres a day, sometimes more. The invasion, wrote General Gotthard Heinrici to his wife on 11 July 1941, ‘for us means running, running until our tongues hang out, always running, running, running’.194 The soldier Albert Neuhaus was astonished by the ‘columns of vehicles that roll through here day after day, hour after hour. I can tell you,’ he wrote to his wife on 25 June 1941, ‘such a thing happens only once in the whole world. One grasps one’s head again and again and asks oneself where all these endless millions of vehicles come from.’195 In the dry summer heat, the huge German armoured columns threw up vast clouds of choking dust. ‘Even after a short while,’ wrote one soldier already on the first day of the invasion, ‘the dust is lying finger-thick on my face and uniform.’196 General Heinrici found himself driving along roads ‘on which you wade ankle-deep in dust. Every step, every moving vehicle, raises up impenetrable clouds of it. The march routes are characterized by yellow-brown clouds that hang before the sky like long veils.’197 As the headlong advance continued, the Red Army collapsed in chaos all along the front. Its communications were severed, transport broke down, ammunition and equipment, fuel, spare parts and much more besides quickly ran out. Unprepared for the invasion, officers could not even guess where the Germans would strike next, and there was often no artillery available to blunt the impact of the incoming German tanks. Many of the Red Army’s own tanks, from the BT to the T-26 and 28, were obsolescent: more of the total of 23,000 tanks deployed by the Red Army in 1941 were lost through breakdowns than to enemy action. Radio communications had not been updated since the Finnish war and were coded in such a basic manner that it was all too easy for Germans listening in to decrypt them. Worst of all, perhaps, medical facilities were wholly inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of dead and treat the scores of thousands of injured. In the absence of proper military planning, officers could think of little else to do than attack the Germans head-on, with predictably disastrous results. An orderly retreat was made almost impossible by the Germans’ prior destruction of roads, railways and bridges behind the lines. Desertion rates rocketed in the Red Army as demoralized soldiers fled in confusion and despair. In a mere three days in late June 1941, the Soviet secret police caught nearly 700 deserters fleeing from the battle on the south-western front. ‘The retreat has caused blind panic,’ as the head of the Belarus Communist Party wrote to Stalin on 3 September 1941, and ‘the soldiers are tired to death, even sleeping under artillery fire . . . At the first bombardment, the formations collapse, many just run away to the woods, the whole area of woodland in the front-line region is full of refugees like this. Many throw away their weapons and go home.’198


9. Operation Barbarossa and the Eastern Front, 1941

Some idea of the depth of the disaster can be gauged from the diary of Nikolai Moskvin, a Soviet political commissar, which records a rapid transition from optimism (‘we’ll win for sure,’ he wrote on 24 June 1941) to despair a few weeks later (‘what am I to say to the boys?’ he asked himself gloomily on 23 July 1941: ‘We keep retreating’).199 On 15 July 1941 he had already shot the first deserters from his unit, but they kept on fleeing, and at the end of the month, after being wounded, he admitted: ‘I am on the verge of a complete moral collapse.’200 His unit got lost because it did not have any maps, and most of the men were killed in a German attack while Moskvin, unable to move, was hiding in the woods with two companions, waiting to be rescued. Some peasants found him, nursed him back to health, and conscripted him into helping with the harvest. As he got to know them, he discovered they had no loyalty to the Stalinist system. Their main purpose was to stay alive. After battles, they rushed on to the field to loot the corpses. What in any case would loyalty to Stalin have brought them? In August 1941, Moskvin encountered some Red Army soldiers who had escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp. ‘They say there’s no shelter, no water, that people are dying from hunger and disease, that many are without proper clothes or shoes.’ Few, he wrote, had given a thought to what imprisonment by the Germans would mean. The reality was worse than anyone could imagine.201

In the light of the orders it had received, the German army had no interest in keeping hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war alive. Hitler and the army leadership had already ordered the Soviet political commissars who accompanied the Red Army to be shot on sight, and the commanders on the ground carried out these orders, often handing them over to the SS for ‘special treatment’. Tens of thousands were taken to concentration camps in Germany and killed there by firing squads.202 During the first weeks, many ordinary troops were also shot immediately on capture as well. ‘We are only taking very few prisoners now,’ wrote Albert Neuhaus to his wife on 27 June 1941, ‘and you can imagine what that means.’203 There was, as many soldiers reported in their letters, ‘no pardon’ for Red Army troops who gave themselves up in the first weeks of the campaign.204 The fate of those who were spared was not much better. In October 1941 Zygmunt Klukowski witnessed a column of 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war passing through his district. He was shocked by what he saw:

They all looked like skeletons, just shadows of human beings, barely moving. I have never in my life seen anything like this. Men were falling to the street; the stronger ones were carrying others, holding them up by their arms. They looked like starved animals, not like people. They were fighting for scraps of apples in the gutter, not paying any attention to the Germans, who would beat them with rubber truncheons. Some crossed themselves and knelt, begging for food. Soldiers from the convoy beat them without mercy. They beat not only prisoners but also people who stood by and tried to pass them some food. After the macabre unit passed by, several horse-drawn wagons carried prisoners who were unable to walk. This unbelievable treatment of human beings is only possible under German ethics.205

The following day, as another column of prisoners shuffled through, local people placed bread, apples and other items of food on the pavements for them. ‘Even though the soldiers from the convoy started shooting at them while they fought for food,’ Klukowski noted, ‘the prisoners did not pay any attention to the Germans.’ After forcing the local people to remove the food, the Germans subsequently agreed it could be loaded on a cart and distributed to the prisoners. Klukowski thought the prisoners looked ‘more like the skeletons of animals than humans’.206

Many Soviet prisoners of war died from hunger and exhaustion on their way to the camps. Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau ordered his guards ‘to shoot all prisoners who collapse’. Some were transported by rail, but only open freight cars were available for the purpose. The results, particularly as winter set in, were catastrophic. Closed wagons were only deployed on 22 November 1941 after 1,000 out of 5,000 prisoners on a train transport from Army Group Centre froze to death on the journey. Even so, the next month an official German report noted that ‘between 25 and 70 per cent of prisoners’ died en route to the camps, not least because no one troubled to give them any food. The camps that were erected behind the lines hardly deserved the name. Many were just open fields crudely fenced in by barbed wire. Almost no preparations had been made for dealing with such huge numbers of prisoners, and nothing was done to supply the prisoners with food or medication. One prisoner who escaped and made his way back to the Soviet lines told his police interrogators that he had been penned in a camp in Poland consisting of twelve blocks each housing between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners. The German guards used the inmates as target practice and set their dogs on them, placing bets on which dog would inflict the worst injuries. The prisoners were starving. When one of them died, the others fell upon the corpse and devoured it. On one occasion, twelve men were shot for cannibalism. All of them were lice-ridden, and typhus spread rapidly. Their light summer uniforms were totally inadequate to protect them from the bitter winter cold. By February 1942 only 3,000 out of the original 80,000 were left alive.207

The same experience was repeated in other camps behind the line. Visiting Minsk on 10 July 1941, Xaver Dorsch, a civil servant in the Todt Organization, found that the army had set up a camp for 100,000 prisoners of war and 40,000 civilians, almost the entire male population of the city, ‘in an area roughly the size of the Wilhelmplatz’ in Berlin:

The prisoners are packed so tightly together in this area that they can hardly move and have to relieve themselves where they stand. They are guarded by a company-strong unit of active soldiers. The small size of the guard unit means that it can only control the camp by using the most brutal level of force. The problem of feeding the prisoners of war is virtually insoluble. Some of them have been without food for six to eight days. Their hunger has led to a deadly apathy in which they only have one obsession left: to get something to eat . . . The only language possible for the weak guard unit, which has to carry out its duties day and night without relief, is that of the gun, and they make ruthless use of it.208

Over 300,000 Red Army prisoners had died by the end of 1941. Wilm Hosenfeld was shocked by the way in which the Russian prisoners were left to starve, a policy he found ‘so repulsive, inhumane and so naively stupid that one can only be deeply ashamed that such a thing can be done by us’.209 The inhabitants of the surrounding areas offered to help feed the prisoners, but the German army banned them from doing so.210 Franz Halder, Chief of the Army General Staff, noted on 14 November 1941 that ‘numerous prisoners are dying of starvation every day. Dreadful impressions, but it does not seem possible to do anything to help them at the moment.’211

It was practical rather than moral considerations that led to an eventual change of policy. By the end of October 1941, the German authorities had begun to realize that Soviet prisoners could be used as forced labour, and measures were taken to provide proper, though still barely adequate, food, clothing and shelter for them.212 Many (though not all) were put into disused factories and prisons. A large number were still living in dugouts in January 1942, however. Conditions deteriorated again in 1943, though they never reached the absolute low point of the first months of the war; by this time, there were enough German prisoners in Soviet hands for the German armed forces leadership to be worried about reprisals. Over the whole course of the war, German forces took some 5.7 million Soviet prisoners. Official German records showed that 3,300,000 of them had perished by the time the war was over, or some 58 per cent of the total. The actual number was probably a good deal higher. By comparison 356,687 out of about 2 million German prisoners taken by the Red Army, mostly in the later stages of the war, did not survive, a death rate of almost 18 per cent. This was far in excess of the mortality rates of British, French and other servicemen in German captivity, which were below 2 per cent until the last chaotic months of the war, not to mention those of German servicemen taken prisoner by the Western Allies. But the high mortality rates of German prisoners in Soviet camps reflected the terrible conditions of life in the Soviet Union, and in the Gulag camp system in general, following the massive destruction wrought by the war, and the bad harvests of the immediate postwar period, rather than any particular spirit of revenge towards the Germans on the part of their captors. Indeed, there is no evidence that German prisoners were treated any differently from other prisoners in Soviet camps, except in the intensity with which they were subjected as ‘fascists’ to programmes of political re-education.213

By contrast, Red Army prisoners in German hands perished as a direct consequence of Nazi racial doctrines, shared by the overwhelming majority of the German officer corps, which wrote off ‘Slavs’ as expendable subhumans, not worth keeping alive while there were hungry German mouths to feed.214 This was, in a sense, the first stage of the implementation of the ‘General Plan for the East’. Only a few German officers protested against the maltreatment of Soviet prisoners of war. One such was Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, leading Army Group Centre. Bock noted on 20 October 1941: ‘Terrible is the impression of tens of thousands of Russian prisoners of war who, scarcely guarded, are on the march towards Smolensk. These unfortunate people are tottering along weary unto death and half-starving, and many of them have collapsed along the way, exhausted or dead. I talk to the armies about this,’ he added, ‘but assistance is scarcely possible.’ And even Bock, the epitome of the traditionally ‘correct’ Prussian officer, was more concerned in the end with preventing such prisoners from escaping and joining the partisan groups formed by the thousands of Red Army soldiers who had been trapped behind the lines by the rapid advance of the German forces. ‘They must be supervised and guarded more rigorously,’ he concluded after seeing the bedraggled Russian prisoners, ‘otherwise we will be nurturing the partisan movement more and more.’215 Disquiet amongst senior officers like Bock was quelled by Hitler’s insistence that the Soviet prisoners of war were not to be treated as ordinary soldiers but as racial and ideological enemies; the junior officers who had them in their charge on a daily basis had few qualms about seeing them die.216 Those prisoners who were eventually liberated and returned to the Soviet Union - well over one and a half million - had to face extensive discrimination following an order issued by Stalin in August 1941 equating surrender with treason. Many of them were despatched to the labour camps of the Gulag after being screened by Soviet military counter-intelligence. Despite attempts after Stalin’s death by top military leader Marshal Georgi Zhukov to end discrimination against former prisoners of war, they were not formally rehabilitated until 1994.217


At 3.30 a.m. on 22 June 1941 the Chief of the Red Army General Staff, Georgi Zhukov, telephoned Stalin’s dacha to rouse the Soviet leader from his sleep. The Germans, he told him, had begun shelling Red Army positions along the frontier. Stalin refused to believe that a full-scale invasion was under way. Surely, he told a small gathering of civilian and military leaders in Moscow later in the morning, Hitler did not know about it. There must be a conspiracy among the leaders of the German armed forces. It was only when the German Ambassador, Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, met Foreign Minister Molotov in the Kremlin to hand over the German declaration of war that Stalin recognized he had been duped by Hitler. Initially shocked, embarrassed and disoriented, Stalin soon pulled himself together. On 23 June 1941 he worked at his desk in the Kremlin from 3.20 in the morning to 6.25 in the evening, gathering information and making the necessary arrangements for the creation of a Supreme Command to take charge of operations. As the days went by, he became increasingly dispirited by the scale and speed of the German advance. At the end of June, he left for his dacha, saying, in his inimitably coarse way, ‘Everything’s lost. I give up. Lenin founded our state and we’ve fucked it up.’ He made no address to the Soviet people, he did not talk to his subordinates, he did not even answer the phone. German planes, indeed, dropped leaflets over the Red Army lines claiming that he was dead. When a delegation from the Politburo arrived at the dacha, they found Stalin slumped in an armchair. ‘Why have you come?’ he asked. With a thrill of terror, two members of the delegation, Mikoyan and Beria, realized he thought they had come to arrest him.218

Convinced that the Soviet system was in such bad shape that it needed only one decisive push for it to fall to pieces, Hitler and the leading generals had staked everything on the swift defeat of the Red Army. Like their predecessors in 1914, they expected the campaign to be over well before Christmas. They did not hold major formations in reserve or make any provisions for the replacement of men and equipment lost on the front. Many of the pilots who fought in the campaign expected to be transferred back to the west to fight the British by the beginning of September. The stunning military victories of the first weeks convinced them that they were right. The Soviet armies had surely been completely destroyed. Hitler shared in the general euphoria. On 23 June 1941 he travelled from Berlin to his new field headquarters behind the front, at Rastenburg, in East Prussia. A large compound located deep in the woods, with its own railway spur, along which, from time to time, Göring would trundle in on his luxurious personal train, the head-quarters had been under construction since the previous autumn. The compound contained a number of bunkers and huts, hidden from their surroundings and camouflaged from the air. There were barracks for the guards, dining facilities and conference rooms. An airstrip allowed light aircraft to ferry people to and from the headquarters when haste was needed. Two other fenced-off complexes not far away were used by the armed forces chiefs and planning staffs. Hitler called the headquarters the ‘Wolf’s Lair’, a reference to his nickname in the 1920s. It was here that he received briefings from the leaders of the armed forces, and engaged in the lengthy lunch- and dinner-time monologues that Bormann had ordered to be noted down for the benefit of posterity. Hitler did not intend to stay there for more than a few weeks. ‘The war in the east was in the main already won,’ he told Goebbels on 8 July 1941.219 He was doing no more than echoing the opinion of the military. On 3 July 1941, Chief of the Army General Staff Franz Halder, noting that the Red Army appeared to have no more reserves to throw into battle, had already given vent to his euphoria. ‘So it’s really not saying too much,’ he noted in his diary, ‘if I claim that the campaign against Russia has been won in 14 days.’220

On 16 July 1941, therefore, Hitler held a meeting to make arrangements for the governance of the conquered territories. In nominal overall charge was the Nazi Party’s chief ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, named Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. His Baltic German origins made him seem the appropriate man for the job. Rosenberg’s office had been planning to co-opt some of the Soviet Union’s subject nationalities in the area, and in particular the Ukrainians, as a counterweight to the Russians. But these plans were futile. Hitler explicitly removed not only the army but also Himmler’s SS and Göring’s Four-Year Plan organization from Rosenberg’s area of competence. And not only Himmler and Göring but also Hitler himself envisaged the ruthless subjugation, deportation or murder of millions of inhabitants in the occupied areas rather than their co-optation into a Nazi New Order. In pursuit of this goal Hitler appointed Erich Koch, the Regional Leader of East Prussia, to lead the Reich Commissariat of the Ukraine, with a brief to be as hard and brutal as possible. He fulfilled it with gusto. His counterparts in the Reich Commissariat of the Eastern Land, which included the former Baltic states, and the General Commissariat of Belarus, Hinrich Lohse and Wilhelm Kube, proved respectively weak and corrupt, and were in the end as widely disregarded as Rosenberg himself. Even more than in Poland, therefore, the SS was allowed to do more or less what it wanted in the newly occupied territories.221

Hitler was aware of the possibility that his plans for the racial subjugation and extermination of the indigenous populations of the occupied areas were so radical that they might alienate world opinion. Propaganda, therefore, he said on 16 July 1941, had to emphasize that the German forces had occupied the area in order to restore order and security and liberate it from Soviet control.222 The invasion was sold to the German people not only as the decisive phase in the war against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, but also as a preventive measure designed to forestall a Soviet assault on Germany. Indeed, on 17 September 1941 Hitler told his dinner companions that he had been obliged ‘to foresee that Stalin might pass over to the attack in the course of 1941’, while Goebbels already recorded him on 9 July fulminating ‘about the Bolshevik leadership clique which had intended to invade Germany’. How far these statements reflected the two men’s real beliefs is a moot point: both of them knew their words would be recorded for posterity - Hitler’s by Bormann’s stenographers, and Goebbels’s by his secretaries, for by this time he had gone over to dictating his diaries rather than writing them himself, and had signed a contract for their publication after his death.223 But this was certainly the line that was fed to the mass of ordinary Germans.

The announcement of the invasion took most German people almost completely by surprise. On many previous occasions, the imminence of war had been obvious in a massive escalation of hostile propaganda pumped out against the prospective enemy by Goebbels’s media machine. But because Hitler had wanted to deceive Stalin into thinking there would be no attack, such propaganda had been entirely absent on this occasion, and indeed in mid-June there were even rumours that Stalin was about to pay a formal visit to the German Reich. Most people’s attention was still focused on the conflict with Britain and the hope of reaching a settlement. Not surprisingly, therefore, people’s initial responses to the announcement of the launching of Barbarossa were mixed. The student Lore Walb captured the public reaction perfectly in her diary. People felt, she wrote, ‘great apprehension and depression at the same time, but also, somehow, they breathed a sigh of relief’. At least, she felt, the air had been cleared by the ending of the tactically necessary but politically false alliance between Germany and Soviet Bolshevism.224 The local authorities in the rural Bavarian district of Ebermannstadt reported that the people were making ‘anxious faces’ and were concerned ‘that the war was once more dragging itself on long into the future’.225 Luise Solmitz too thought that the invasion of the Soviet Union heralded war without end.226 ‘The first thought we all have is about the length of the war,’ wrote the journalist Jochen Klepper, who had been enlisted as a reserve officer with German units in Bulgaria and Romania, ‘but then the conviction that a reckoning with Russia was necessary sooner or later.’227

Some were worried that Hitler was biting off more than he could chew. Melita Maschmann was walking past a beer-garden by Lake Constance on 22 June 1941, on a visit to her parents, when she heard Hitler on the radio announcing the invasion of the Soviet Union. She later remembered that her initial reaction had been one of fear and apprehension. A war on two fronts had never been a good idea, and not even Napoleon had been able to defeat the Russians.

The people round me had troubled faces. We avoided one another’s eyes and looked out across the lake. Its farther shore was shrouded in mist under a grey sky. There was something cheerless in the mood of that cloudy summer’s morning. Before the broadcast was over it had started to rain. I had a sleepless night behind me and I was cold. I walked along the shore in a fit of depression. The water lapped, grey and indifferent, against the quayside. There was one thing the invasion of Russia would certainly mean. The war would be prolonged for many years, and there would perhaps be immeasurably greater sacrifices.228

The stunning victories of the German armies, trumpeted over the media from 29 June 1941 onwards, raised some people’s spirits and convinced many of them that the war might not last so long after all; yet enthusiasm continued to be outweighed by apprehension amongst the great majority. 229 An official in Ebermannstadt summarized reactions with remarkable honesty some weeks later, on 29 August 1941. The number of people who ‘are passionately following the progress of events, from fanatical enthusiasm’, he wrote, ‘is infinitesimally small. The great mass of people waits for the end of the war with the same longing as the sick person looks for his recovery.’230

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!