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if we shoot dead all the Jews, allow the prisoners of war to die, dish out famine to the majority of the urban population, and in the coming year a proportion of the rural population to hunger, the question remains unanswered: who will actually produce the economic goods?4 German failure to manage the economy quickly tipped into starvation and violent oppression, which in turn provoked a powerful backlash. The remarkable turnaround from German victories in 1940 and 1941 to getting bogged down and then routed by the partisan and Soviet armies can be explained without leaning on platitudes about Russian heroism (there was heroism, and cowardice, in the Wehrmacht and the Red Army alike). The watershed was the German occupation’s own collapse, under the weight of its own shortcomings, which created the opening for Germany’s opponents.
On the battlefield, the Red Army would inflict the most serious defeats on the Wehrmacht in the war. Eighty per cent of all German losses were in the east. The desert war in North Africa, and the Normandy landing were comparatively much less important. Still, as impressive as the Soviet victories were – all the more so seeing just how bad the Russian position was in 1941 – Germany’s empire in the east was set to implode. The German army was over extended. Operation Barbarossa left Germans tending supply lines over a front 600 km wide and 1,500km deep.5 That was a serious problem, but it was not the worst problem. Even with the technical challenges, the Wehrmacht was a formidable power.
Under generals like Manstein and von Paulus the tank war was as deadly as ever.
The real failure was not the army but the administration of the population. Fixated on conquest and even extermination, the German empire was so hateful that it alienated the vast mass of the peoples of the east – so much so that it provoked ever greater opposition wherever it turned. SS Brigade-Fuhrer Otto Kumm said ‘the effort to convert the masses to our ideology hinged upon how they were treated’. Kumm explained ‘we could reduce a village and think that we had solved the problem in that area, only to realise that the problem had just increased in severity’. ‘We could not convince our superiors in Berlin to agree’, he said, to try to build local leadership. Even without the Red Army to contend with, the German forces of occupation were set on an insanely destructive, and ultimately self-destructive course.
In the Ukraine, where Hitler had been lauded as a liberator, the Einsatzgruppen (Special Forces) attacked nationalists and intellectuals to crush any national sentiment even though that sentiment was largely anti-Soviet, and even pro-German. In September 1941 Erich Koch was put in charge of a commissariat over 50 million Ukrainians and others. ‘Our job is to suck from the Ukraine all the goods we can get hold of’ Koch explained to his staff: ‘I am expecting from you the utmost severity towards the native population’.6 Ukrainians were killed for being able to read, for withholding food, and flogged for not doffing their caps.
Around 250 villages were razed in collective punishments. Ukrainians starved in their thousands. Ukrainians were also made to go to Germany to work in homes and factories, where they were kept in barracks behind barbed wire with ‘Ost’ armbands. Eighty per cent of all forced labour from the east was Ukrainian. And this was how the German empire treated its supporters.
Before General Zhukov’s Soviet army turned the tide against the Wehrmacht, the German administration in the east had been consumed by a war with irregular partisan units.
On 23 July 1941 Hitler had promised to ‘spread the kind of terror’ that would make the population ‘lose all interest in subordination’. But the terrible atrocities and revenge attacks only made more partisans. On 18 August 1942 Hitler signed the High Command Directive No 46 calling for measures against ‘partisan disorder in the east’, which ‘seriously threaten the provisioning of the front and the economic exploitation of the territories’. The Partisan bands, he said, should be ‘virtually exterminated by the winter’. By the end of 1942 there were some 300,000 partisans – supposedly working with Moscow, but often on their own, fighting because they had little to live for under German rule. Partisans in Byelorussia and around Smolensk liberated large territories behind German lines. That winter, Hitler called for no restraint in the war against the Partisans ‘more than ever one of to be or not to be’.7 Belgian SS volunteer Leon Degrelle said afterwards that ‘Partisans were our greatest
nightmare we as soldiers faced in the east’:
With the Red Army, we knew their tactics … However the Partisans were dangerous because they did not wear uniforms and didn’t operate as a disciplined, traditional military force. Instead the functioned as a random hit and run guerrilla unit, striking anywhere and everywhere without warning.
Partisans harried German troops destroying 65,000 vehicles and 12,000 bridges, driving the occupying forces into the state of terror Hitler had promised the partisans.8 The German victories of 1940 and 1941 were built on the Soviet Union’s weaknesses.
The Soviet state had brutalised the countryside under ‘collectivisation’, most of all the Ukraine, and these areas fell to the Wehrmacht because they had little loyalty to Moscow.
But after that the Wehrmacht faced the Soviet Union’s strengths. The Soviet state’s core support was in the cities, where its rapid industrialisation gathered masses of Soviet citizens. One after the other, the German army besieged Russia’s main cities, Leningrad (from September 1941 to January 1944, it is today called St Petersburg), Moscow (in the winter of 1941-2) and Stalingrad (in the winter of 1942-3 – it was renamed Volgograd in 1961). In each case the Soviet leadership succeeded in defending against extraordinary odds. Already, as 1941 drew to a close, the German High Command knew it was in trouble.
In December 1941 Southern Command chief Gerd von Runstedt retired to be replaced by the NSDAP stalwart Marshal von Reichenau. General Field Marshall Walther von
Brautchitsh retired and Hitler made himself Commander in Chief. More chiefs were replaced:
Fedor von Bock and Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb were both removed, along with some divisional chiefs. These were panic measures. The failure to take Moscow in operation Typhoon revealed the weakness of the German campaign.9 In a sense the Soviet leadership’s determination to fight needs no great explanation. As Arno Meyer said ‘Unlike the political class of France’s Third Republic, which Berlin proposed to break without utterly destroying it and its homeland, the Soviet elite was marked for extinction and its country for conquest and dismemberment.’ 10 They really had nowhere else to go.
Historian Richard Overy explains how the Soviet Union’s mobil-isation made the
no other state diverted so much of its population to work for the war effort; no other state demanded such a heavy and prolonged sacrifice from its people.
It was, he says, the most extreme case of ‘total war’.11 The Soviet Union could do this because it was neither a democracy nor a free market society, but one that worked on the basis of orders issued from above (euphemistically called ‘planning’ – though the demands were chaotic and without any evidence base). In times of peace, the ‘command economy’ was fundamentally weak because the ‘plan’ was unrealistic, and evaded by a truculent citizenry and defensive lower officials. But the war gave the Soviet people a sense of purpose even greater than the revolution of 1917. The rule of the Communist Central Committee gave way to the rule of the military council. Stalin reluctantly deferred to his generals on military matters. The role of the ‘political officers’ (who had been there to ensure the party’s rule over the military) was downgraded and army rank honoured once again in epaulettes and gold braid.
On 16 December 1941 Hitler issued the Halt Befehl order that troops should not fall back, but stand and fight. In July 1942 Stalin issued Order 227, ‘Not a Step Back!’ that forbade retreats: ‘each metre of Soviet territory must be stubbornly defended to the last drop of blood’. Special ‘blocking units’ were made up to stop deserters and push the infantry on into gunfire – though these proved ineffective and the job was given to the NKVD.12 Ideologically the Soviet leadership appealed less to the internationalism of Lenin, more to Great Russian chauvinism. Traditional military honours were revived, like the Tsarist ‘Nevsky Order’ (named after Alexander Nevsky, who drove back the Teutonic Knights in the Thirteenth Century). British Ambassador in Moscow Clerk Kerr reported to the Foreign Office that the portraits of the military heroes of the Napoleonic era were prominent – ‘interesting as a further symbol of the throwback to the past which has been manifesting itself’, while ‘Marx and Engels looked allout in the cold in the corner they had been pushed into’.13 Toasting Red Army Commanders in May 1945, Stalin said Russia was ‘the leading nation of all the nations belonging to the Soviet Union’ – it had earned in war ‘recognition as the guiding force of the Soviet Union’.14 In 1942 the Russian Orthodox Church – that had been roundly persecuted – was welcomed back and Metropolitan Sergei answered by blessing the war against the Germans.15 ‘Let holy hatred become our chief and only feeling,’ wrote Pravda, the official government newspaper. ‘If you can hold a weapon, even a spade or a pitchfork, attack the Germans with it,’ Lieutenant Mikhail Alekseyev urged ordinary Russians. ‘Kill a German and save the Motherland.’ 16 The defence of Stalingrad over 1942 and into 1943 was the propagandistic turning point of the war. The Stalingraders were driven to near extinction, but pressed to hang on.
Marshall Zhukov’s counter was a pincer movement that led to the encirclement of von Paulus’ Sixth Army and the 4th Panzer Army – some 330,000 men. On 22 January 1943, the Sixth Army, against Hitler’s express orders, surrendered, along with von Paulus.
The Red Army defended Stalingrad while the Allies refused to open a Second Front in west Europe, and the battle was fought primarily with Soviet-made tanks and guns, as the re-located war industries in the east were whipped into shape. In the second half of 1942 Soviet tank production outstripped Germany’s.17 Stalin buried the belief in Washington and London that the USSR would fall in a matter of weeks. Western propaganda even talked up the heroic defence of Stalingrad to give hope to their own people – and also gave succour to communists in the West.
Military success won the Soviet leadership something they had craved throughout the life of the USSR: western technological input for their industrialisation drive. That had been, after all, one of the central planks of collaboration with Germany since the agreement at Rapallo in 1922, and also of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. After Stalingrad the promised lend lease aid began to arrive. Between 1942 and 1945 the share of US lend lease industrial goods in Soviet supplies grew from 23.1 per cent to 39.5 per cent. America and Britain gave the radios, telephones and cable that put the Red Army in touch with the Moscow leadership and around half of all military supplies, including jeeps, aircraft, tanks, ships and ammunition. Officially, lend lease was said to be of minor importance. ‘US and British supply of arms were negligibly small’, Soviet historian G. Deborin wrote, ‘the Soviet Union defeated Hitler Germany with home-made arms and home-made equipment’. In private, though, Marshall Zhukov admitted that without aid ‘the Soviet Union could not have continued the war’. Stalin, too, said that ‘without the use of these machines, through lendlease, we would lose the war’, at the Teheran Conference, 1 December 1943. Military aid helped change the Soviet military industrial complex so that it became less labour-intensive, more capital-intensive, equipping 43 new tank corps and 22 new mechanized corps from 1942.18 So spectacular was the collapse of the German Empire in the east that the Red Army
successes stacked up. In 1944 alone they won these ten victories:
Relief of Leningrad (January) Encirclement of German troops in South West Ukraine (February) Destruction of German forces in Crimea (May) Defeat of the Finnish forces and restoration of the 1940 frontier (June) Liberation of Byelorussia (June) Entry of Soviet Forces into Poland (July) Occupation of Romania and Bulgaria (August) Occupation of Latvia and Estonia (September-November) Liberation of Belgrade (October) Expulsion of German troops from Finland and Norway (October) The cost, though, was high. According to official statistics 8,668,400 Soviet troops and 27 million Soviet Citizens overall were killed.19 Some 5,754,000 were taken as prisoners of war, of whom 4,700,000 died from disease and starvation, made worse by forced labour, or by execution.20 These troops died to drive the Wehrmacht from their country, but also cemented Stalin’s rule over the survivors. They died, too, as Roosevelt’s proxy army, sacrificed to save the loss of America’s armed forces in the defeat of its German rival.
The Soviet machine that would roll over Eastern Europe was armed and built with American industrial supplies. Its success and dominance over Poland, Middle Europe and the Balkans came as it filled the vacuum left by the internal collapse of the Third Reich’s eastern Empire. Stalinism’s expansion came thanks to the failure of western capitalism, both in its German and American exponents.
Chapter Twenty Four The ‘Final Solution’ Anti-Semitism was key to the ideology of the National Socialist Workers – Nazi – Party (NSDAP). The Jews were scapegoats in NSDAP thinking for the suffering of the ruined middle classes from which it drew its base. The spectral figure of ‘The Jew’ in Nazi appeals pulled together fear of big business (‘plutocracy’) especially banks (‘money-lenders’) but also Bolshevism, which was supposed to be a Jewish plot. Professional Jews were blamed for ruining Germans. The migrant Jewish poor from the east were seen as the very worst of the masses. Blaming the Jews was a way of saying that Germany’s problems came from abroad, and the hand of Jewish financiers was seen in the onerous reparations imposed on Germany at Versailles.