Account for the barbarisation of warfare on EITHER the Eastern Front (1941-45) OR in the Pacific theatre of war (1937-45).
The war on the Eastern Front in the Second World War is one of the most terrible episodes in world military history. It was the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 that would mark the beginning of one of the most violent wars ever, as Nazi Germany began exercising barbarism on an unprecedented scale. The realisation that the German army was undergoing a process of barbarisation during its years of fighting in the Soviet Union has made it essential to analyze some of the most significant accounts for this phenomenon.
In this respect, it is widely suggested that the barbarisation of warfare on the Eastern Front was the consequence of a number of major factors, such as the susceptibility to Nazi ideology, the constant and the successful political indoctrination of the troops, the brutality of the fighting itself and the harsh living conditions at the front.1
Indeed, Germany’s atrocities on the Eastern Front were highly politically motivated for, it was Hitler himself, who announced the coming massacre of the Soviet Union and prepared the generals for a war of total annihilation and a struggle with merciless harshness, as he delivered his speech in the new Reich chancellery in Berlin on March 30, 1941. Justifying that there would be no consideration of international law, as Russia had not participated in the Hague Conference, thus, had no rights under it, Hitler concluded: “I do not expect my generals to understand me, but I shall expect them to obey my orders”.2
And so they did. Not only were the Special Forces such as the SS and Security Police Units involved in the execution of Hitler’s aims, but also the regular army made an active contribution to war brutalities. In promoting its racist ideology, the Nazi leadership spread the concept of “Untermensch” (human beings of lesser value), thus, rationalizing that the Russians – and the Jews – merited harsh treatment, because of their racial inferiority.
This general feeling among German soldiers of being culturally superior meant that, being confronted with a culturally inferior enemy; they should not treat him as an opponent of equal rights. Such mental mechanism seemed to have also existed when the German army was confronted with Eastern European civilisations. Major General Felber, an officer born in 1889, wrote in his diary during the Polish campaign: “Civil population here more than lousy. Most of them Jews. We’ll be happy if we don’t have them here any longer”. 3
Therefore, as a recent research has also shown ‘there was a substantial ideological agreement between Hitler and the officer corps’. The Wehrmacht (the German army) was already indoctrinated in Nazi anti-Bolshevik, anti-Slav, and anti-Semitic ideology, as such, it was already prepared to act with ruthlessness against Soviet soldiers and civilians, even prior to the invasion. That Bolshevism was perceived as a deadly enemy and had to be completely exterminated was demonstrated by the example of those officers who, on one hand, protested against killing POWs, but who, on the other hand, confirmed the directives to liquidate ‘Bolshevists commissioners, Jews and Komsomolets’.4
Consequently, the ruthless propaganda of the regime against the ‘Jewish-Bolsheviks’, to which the soldiers had been exposed since the Nazis came to power in 1933, promoted the idea of the war in the East as a war of ideologies between two racial groups, which could neither reach any compromise, nor could they ever exist side by side. 5
Nazi indoctrination, however, cannot be held solely accountable for the criminal behaviour, for it can be argued that, the involvement of German officers and soldiers in Hitler’s war of extermination was also the result of, not only a perverted sense of absolute obedience, but also lack of character. In this context, in the long summer evenings “man hunts” used to be organised on the slightest pretext, villages would be surrounded and set alight, while the inhabitants beaten in the streets. Such events would often be followed by collections of ‘rewards’ and ‘souvenirs’, along with photographs of the scene that would be send back to friends in Germany: “….here is a lock of hair from a Russian guerrilla girl. They fight like wild-cats and are quite sub-human”6
In fact, such type of sadistic German behaviour contributed to increasing even more the brutality, in producing a type of guerrilla warfare, against which the German army persisted even more its barbaric aggression. To the German soldiers this guerrilla fighting seemed to confirm the propaganda arguments that “Russian Bolsheviks are sub-human beings”, which were put forward to their military superiors in order to justify the issued ‘criminal orders’. 7 What is more, it was the so called ‘criminal orders’ that furthered even more the criminal activities of the German troops. This complex of commands, issued by the OKW (German Armed Forces High Command) and OKH (German Army High Command) prior the invasion of Russia, determined to a large extent the brutal conduct of the troops by providing them with a disciplinary framework. 8
Indeed, the issue of such orders, which, among other things, provided for the execution of civilians and provided the German army with a “blank cheque” for the mass killings, led to the justification of extreme violence – even in the context of warfare – against the local population. Likewise, many Russian POWs were starved to death as part of an attempt at extermination, while the ill-equipped German soldiers began stealing winter clothes and boots from POWs (also from civilians), which caused even more deaths. While the treatment of POW’s by the Germans was harsh, it was not as bad as the treatment of civilians, who had, in many cases, actually aided the Germans. Such attitude on the German part certainly reinforces the conviction that the German army’s barbarities were chiefly rooted in the extreme racism ideology.9
Furthermore, many other elements that played a role in the physical hardship of living in the front effectively worsened the soldiers’ conditions. The vast distances the troops had to march early in the war and in the long retreats of later years, the fighting in sub-zero temperatures and in an unfamiliar, primitive land, all had an impact on their mental disintegration. Combined with the wretched housing facilities, the lack of appropriate winter clothes and the frequent breakdowns in supplies of food, a serious deterioration in the physical and mental condition of the front-line soldiers, was clearly observed by commanders and doctors who used to treat them. As a result, during heavy and sustain periods of fighting, the above factors occasionally caused individual and group breakdowns that were often described as ‘battle fatigue’, which might as well have resulted in the barbaric nature of the soldiers.10
The practical pressures of the war, furthermore, were worsened as the Eastern campaign was dragged and stalled. As units of subdivisional level underwent immense strains as the year progressed, such pressures played a direct role in the most horrendous crimes, with the SS and police, and the escalation of the army’s efforts against all potential sources of future partisan activity. Then again, only the criminal orders could have reinforced such brutality of the soldiers, which were also put under immense pressure by the severity of their own martial law. 11
In this context, during the war, the Wehrmacht resorted to ever harsher punishments, legitimized by the politicization of martial law, whereby offences such a desertion and self-inflicted wounds were often punished by death. During the Second World War at least 15.000 German soldiers were executed by their own army, while many more were shot on the spot, either while fleeing in panic, or failing to carry out orders on the battlefield. These facts certainly demonstrate the severity with which the Wehrmacht enforced combat discipline, by also creating a mechanism that allowed the increasingly brutalized soldiers to vent their anger at targets other than superiors and then tied them to each other with terror of the enemy’s vengeance in case of defeat.
Thus, because of the martial law, German soldiers could not be tried for offences against enemy troops and civilians, as long as they did not impinge on military discipline. In addition, Hitler’s armies remained on the Eastern Front because they had no escape, given the huge territory of the home front. After a couple of years of such immense pressure, even the most humane of men were so brutalised to shoot 600,000 prisoners of war (POW) and participate in the process that starved or overworked another 2.5 million to death.12
The fact that the German army was permitted the harsh treatment of hostile civilians outside normal military law; gave way to the consent to of group reprisals even on suspicion of guerrilla activity. During WWII some 5 700 000 Russian soldiers fell into German hands, of whom about 3 300 000 died in captivity. In a recent study, the historian Streit has argued convincingly that this terrible tragedy was not only the result of the ideological concepts of the Nazi regime, but also a consequence of Hitler’s fear that the economic burden of caring for millions of prisoners would bring unrest among the German population or even cause the collapse of the ‘civilian morale’. 13
What further contributed to the pre-planned murder of certain categories of prisoner, was the so-called ‘commissar order’, issued in June 1941, by which the armed forces were instructed to root out communists and Jewish intellectuals among Red Army prisoners (as well as civilian communist officials). As mentioned above, the German armed forces alone are said to have executed an estimated 600,000 soviet prisoners during the war. 14
What can also be argued to have led to the committing of such atrocities is the nature of the German campaign itself that might as well have played a part in the soldiers’ conduct of warfare. Had the campaign have had limited objectives – occupation rather than extermination -, the warfare might not have needed to be so violent. The barbaric plans of achieving an easy and quick German victory were made even worse by the fierce fighting, causing atrocities on both sides, and resulting in the Soviet government’s declaration of its own war of ideology.
In fact, the Russian underground repaid its oppressors in the same barbaric way, by derailing, for instance, a hospital train at night, and the wounded burned with paraffin; or poisoning water supply of the barracks. Although the barbarous treatment of POWs was almost comparable to both Germany and the Soviet Union, there were two differences among the opponents: for one, the Soviets did not murder outright large numbers of prisoners on orders of higher authority, and the Red Army was not – not at first, at least – fighting a war of aggression. Yet, Soviet treatment of Germans – military and civilian – was severe, and had elements in common with the policy of the Third Reich. However, as far as the USSR was concerned, it had suffered three years of damage and torture under the Axis occupiers, hence; it had a valid claim to use the Axis labour in the slow process of the country’s reconstruction.15
In reality, it is often suggested that Stalin had never been friend to the many non-Russians peoples, as such; he used the war as an opportunity to settle scores with any nationality whose loyalty he doubted. Overall, all nationalities from the areas bordering the Black Sea and the Caucasus: the Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingushi, Karachai, Balkars and others – many had collaborated with the invader indeed – were subjected to Russian aggressiveness. Over half a million men women and children were uprooted from their homes, from which, at least 530,000 died from the bleak conditions of journeys to deportations. 16
Therefore, while the German troops launched the invasion of the Soviet Union and were encouraged to act with the maximum cruelty against the Red Army and the civilian population, the Red Army, on the other hand, did not have such directives. Still, although it is estimated that the number of Soviet soldiers killed is up to a staggering 14.7 million, and the number of civilians killed close to 20 million, for its part, elements of the Red Army wreaked a most terrible revenge; raping at least two million women as they invaded and occupied Germany. Then again, in spite of the numerous cases of brutality committed by Russian soldiers when they marched into Eastern Germany, it is clear that the Soviet Union had no plans of genocide regarding the German population. Likewise, although the Allies’ bombing of Germany can be said to have had an element of vengeance, – also to end the war – it was not part of a campaign to exterminate the German people. 17
On the whole, there was an obvious evolution in the German army that, eventually, led to German soldiers accepting criminal orders, which, most probably, would not have been executed had they been issued in a war against the Western European armies. Indeed, Germany did not have a rational government, thus, did not have rational objectives, other than racial and ideological ones. In this respect, racism was primarily in defining the brutalisation of the German army and whatever did the soldiers think of the Nazi party, they were – most of them – firm believers of Hitler’s ideological and political goals.
While, individual soldiers might have had a mix of motives for the barbarisation of warfare on the Eastern Front, it is clear that, on the whole, the combination of ideology, military harshness, the Nazi racial, anti-Bolshevism hatred, the distance from refuge and guilt, not only held the German army together, but also defined their cooperative barbarisation. It thus seems that political indoctrination legitimised and exacerbated the barbarisation of warfare in Russia, which, coupled with the brutality of nature of the war itself, and the severity of Russia’s climate and its vast poor territory led to the destruction of Western Russia by the German army. Such factors certainly provide a fairly convincing explanation for the barbarisation of warfare on the Eastern front.
> Omer Bartov (2001) The Eastern Front, 1941-45, German Troops And the Barbarisation Of warfare. Second Edition. Hampshire: Palgrave. p.106
> Omer Bartov (1992) The Conduct of War: Soldiers and the Barbarization of Warfare. The Journal of Modern History [www], 64, S32-S45
> Alan Clark (1995) Barbarossa: The Russian-German conflict 1941-1945. London: Weidenfel & Nicolson
> Malcolm Cooper (1989) Reviewed Work: The Eastern Front, 1941-45. German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare by Omer Bartov. The English Historical Review [www], 104 (410) 273-274
> John Erickson and David Dilks, ed. (1994) Barbarossa: The Axis and The Allies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
> Paul Fleming, Jr. “Operation Barbarossa: The Failure of Nazi Ideology at the Eastern Front”. http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/fleming.htm. [Accessed 18 March 2007]
> Evan Mawdsley (2005) Thunder In The East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945. London: Hodder Education
> Richard Overy (1999) Russia’s War. Great Britain: Penguin Books
; Ben Shepherd (2004) War In The Wild East, The German Army and Soviet Partisans. England: Harvard University Press
; John G. Stoessinger (2001) Why Nations Go To War. Eighth Edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s
1 Malcolm Cooper (1989) Reviewed Work: The Eastern Front, 1941-45. German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare by Omer Bartov. The English Historical Review [www], 104 (410) 273-274
2 John G. Stoessinger (2001) Why Nations Go To War. Eighth Edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. p. 34-35
3 John Erickson and David Dilks, ed. (1994) Barbarossa: The Axis and The Allies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 233-234
4 John Erickson and David Dilks, ed. (1994) Barbarossa: The Axis and The Allies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 234-235
5 Omer Bartov (2001) The Eastern Front, 1941-45, German Troops And the Barbarisation Of warfare. Second Edition. Hampshire: Palgrave. p.114-115
6 Alan Clark (1995) Barbarossa: The Russian-German conflict 1941-1945. London: Weidenfel ; Nicolson. p. 154
7 John Erickson and David Dilks, ed. (1994) Barbarossa: The Axis and The Allies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 229-230
8 Omer Bartov (2001) The Eastern Front, 1941-45, German Troops And the Barbarisation Of warfare. Second Edition. Hampshire: Palgrave. p.106
9 Paul Fleming, Jr. Operation Barbarossa: The Failure of Nazi Ideology at the Eastern Front. http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/fleming.htm. [Accessed 18 March 2007]
10 Omer Bartov (2001) The Eastern Front, 1941-45, German Troops And the Barbarisation Of warfare. Second Edition. Hampshire: Palgrave. p.143
11 Shepherd (2004) War In The Wild East, The German Army and Soviet Partisans. England: Harvard University Press. p. 226 227
12 Omer Bartov (1992) The Conduct of War: Soldiers and the Barbarization of Warfare. The Journal of Modern History [www], 64, S32-S45
13 Omer Bartov (2001) The Eastern Front, 1941-45, German Troops And the Barbarisation Of warfare. Second Edition. Hampshire: Palgrave. p.107-108
14 Evan Mawdsley (2005) Thunder In The East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945. London: Hodder Education. p. 111-112
15 Evan Mawdsley (2005) Thunder In The East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945. London: Hodder Education. p. 239-240
16 Richard Overy (1999) Russia’s War. Great Britain: Penguin Books. p. 233-234
17 Omer Bartov (2001) The Eastern Front, 1941-45, German Troops And the Barbarisation Of warfare. Second Edition. Hampshire: Palgrave. p.154