The Soviet Union: Terror Unleashed

 Figure 8

 Figure 8 Operation Barbarossa was intended to overwhelm with swift, decisive, and relentlessly brutal tactics.

That it was long Hitler’s intent to wage a war with the Soviet Union is of little question; such an assumption is only further supported by evidence dated December 18, 1940. Titled "Directives for Special Areas to Order #21" (Barbarossa), it specifically laid out the various areas of operation, the governing authorities, and Hitler’s incontrovertible primacy over the Wehrmacht. Occupied territory was divided between the North (Baltic countries), Center (Byelorussia), and the South (Ukraine). One particular paragraph ordered that the commanding officer in each of their territories was "the supreme representative of the Armed Forces in the respective areas and the bearer of the military sovereign rights. He has the tasks of a Territorial Commander and the rights of a supreme Army Commander or a Commanding General." Thus, they were given the following responsibilities:

"Close cooperation with the Commissioner of the Reich in order to support him in his political task… Exploitation of the country and scouring its economic values for use by German industry... Exploitation of the country for the supply of the troops according to the needs of the OKH… [and] Billeting for armed forces, police and organizations, and for IW’s inasmuch as they remain in the administrative areas."
One last stipulation held that the commanding officer’s orders superseded all others, including civilian agencies and commissioners of the Reich.106 These orders are significant because they provided Wehrmacht commanders with orders that spelled the crimes to be committed by them. As it will later be evidenced, the Wehrmacht supported and engaged in numerous crimes against the Soviet population and POWs in accordance with their authority prescribed here. Thus, authority within these occupied territories rested predominately in the hands of the Wehrmacht high command, imputing them full accountability.

When previously discussing the justifications for the Vernichtungskrieg that occurred on the Eastern front, an overarching theme was the collective desire to punish a reified Communist enemy who was truly believed to be Untermenschen. The Soviet Union embodied this deplorable enemy for most Wehrmacht soldiers. Years of propaganda harping on historical circumstances and xenophobic sentiments avidly promoted such notions prior to invasion on June 22, 1941. According to the testaments of Wehrmacht commanders (including Brauchitsch, Manstein, Halder, Warlimont, and Westphal) who represented the Wehrmacht during the Nuremburg trials, Hitler explicitly defined the nature in which the war in the Soviet Union would be fought from the outset. He informed them that "the war with Russia could not be fought with chivalry. It might be a fight of metaphysical and racial contrasts, to be fought with unrelenting hardness. The officers would have to free themselves of traditional views."107 Given the harsh nature of combat on the Eastern front, it appears that they most definitely shed themselves of traditional soldierly codes.

What André Mineau terms the Barbarossa Orders further legitimized the systematic implementation of the liquidation of the Soviet populace. Released at various times throughout the year of 1941, these were a series of preparatory orders that established a precedent for the conduct of war in the East. They would be amended by individual commanders over the course of the war, especially when the Partisan war against the Soviet Union became a viable threat. Although it was specifically directed at the Soviet Union, the methods discussed had been informally applied elsewhere, and therefore served only as pseudo-legal validations.

Barbarossa Orders

The precedent for a series of discriminate military policies was overtly established with the presence of top Wehrmacht officials. Szymon Datner argues that the first intimation of Hitler’s plan for a Vernichtungskrieg against the Soviet Union was given at a conference in the Reich Chancellery on March 30, 1941. Here, leading Wehrmacht leaders like Keitel, Halder, Leeb, Manstein, Höppner, and Brauchitsch were present as Hitler disclosed his decision to invade the Soviet Union and precisely how it would be waged. Here he pressed for the extermination of "Asiatic barbaric Bolshevism" and a "preventative," unchivalrous war that was legitimated because Russia had not signed the Geneva Convention. Moreover, the Soviet intelligentsia, including the commissars, were a grievous threat to National Socialism. As such, they were not to be treated as regular soldiers, but instead shot so as to avoid any war decades later. The war in the east, he stressed, was to be a war of extermination to curb any such possibility.108 Mineau believes these sentiments to have been so lucidly conveyed that the “criminal orders” would result from the meeting. Moreover, the Wehrmacht command’s presence alone is enough to effectuate criminal liability through cognizance.109 Yet the extent of their complicity clearly extends beyond that, as they readily enacted the criminal orders on the battlefield.
OKH-Sipo-SD Agreement
[The Sicherheitspolizei, or Security Police, were comprised by the Gestapo and Kripo. The Sipo and SD merged on September 27, 1939 and were headed by Reinhard Heydrich.]

Signed on April 28, 1941, this agreement established the terms of cooperation between the Wehrmacht and SS groups. Signed by Nazi General Reinhard Heydrich, it designated "the arrest of leading emigrants, saboteurs, terrorists, and so on, coupled with the struggle against endeavors hostile to state and Reich" under the necessary purview of Sipo-SD tasks. Mineau argues that "and so on" enabled Heydrich to extend the list as he saw fit. Furthermore, these tasks were to be done in conjunction with the Wehrmacht who would provide assistance where needed. In effect, this agreement was a formal mandate to liquidate civilians – something the Wehrmacht knowingly singed on to when Brauchitsch signed it.110

Military Jurisdiction Decree

The Military Jurisdiction Decree was dispersed to the OKW on May 13, 1941, and served primarily as a reference order for the Wehrmacht’s conduction of war in the Soviet Union. Signed by Keitel but descending from Hitler, this decree permitted the execution of "enemy" civilians without trial as well as collective reprisals against entire populations. As long as they could conceivably be deemed insurgents or Partisans, Wehrmacht troops were permitted to consult an officer on whether they can be executed.111 As a result, "decisions regarding life and death lay in the hands of the officer nearest at hand."112 What this decree effectively accomplished was the establishment of defined limitations on reprisals and executions of civilians; however practically speaking it merely enabled individual soldiers and officers to arbitrarily condemn civilians (usually Jews and Communists) to death without trial.

The Commissar Order

Szymon Datner considers the Commissar Order to be "one of the most iniquitous directives ever known in the history of modern warfare."113 Issued by the OKW on June 6, 1941, the "Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars" called for the comprehensive liquidation of all Soviet commissars. This is because they were deemed the "real bearers of resistance" who would employ "barbaric, Asiatic methods" of warfare and would treat German POWs cruelly and inhumanely. Accordingly, commissars were, "as a matter of principle," to be separated and shot immediately, if not handed over to the SD.114 This order was disseminated along with the "Guidelines for the Behavior of Troops in Russia" and resulted in the discriminate killing of countless Soviet POWs. It had the reverse effect, however, of invigorating Soviet forces when they eventually discovered the order.

The "Guidelines for the Behavior of Troops in Russia"

On June 12, 1941, the OKW issued the "Guidelines for the Behavior of Troops in Russia". This order extended the enemy to be eliminated to "Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs, [and] Jews…" Moreover, it called for the "complete elimination of any active or passive resistance," which Bernd Boll and Hans Safrian argue was a "proviso designed to justify extending the definition of the enemy at any time."115 This resulted in an unmitigated display of cruelty to the Soviet population that would only intensify with later orders.

Command Directive of the AOK 6 (High Command of the 6th Army)

 Figure 9

 Figure 9 Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau’s orders signed the death warrants of thousands of Russians

This particular order issued on July 10, 1941, did little in terms of the extension of the scope of enemy inclusion. Rather, it provided the formal criteria for on-the-spot executions and immediate arrests under a pretext of "security." For instance, soldiers in civilian dress were to be executed immediately once discovered (except deserters), civilians deemed "hostile in posture or action" were to be executed as "irregulars," and "unreliable elements, for example Soviet civil functionaries in localities… are to be arrested." Appended to that on July 19 was the approval of "collective measures" (of execution and their houses burned) to be taken against Jews or Russians when acts of sabotage occurred and the saboteur could not be ascertained. These orders resulted in troop commanders’ discretionary murder of Red Army soldiers as "Partisans" whenever they saw fit. 116

Reichenau Order

Mineau argues that several ensuing directives constituted "complementary orders" of the "Barbarossa Orders." One significant order he does not mention however is the "Reichenau Order." Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau was the Commander-in-Chief of the 6th Army during their murderous march through Russia and issued an order on October 10, 1941 that would be highly lauded by Hitler and promptly distributed to the entire Wehrmacht. His order was essentially to serve as an addendum to the existing orders on the "conduct of the troops in the East." He noted that confusion still existed among troops on how to regard the Bolshevist system, and stressed that "the primary goal of the campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevist system is the absolute destruction of the means of power and the eradication of Asian influence in the European cultural sphere." He then contends that the German soldier is fighting for the entire Volk and avenging any atrocities heretofore committed against them. The culprit of such atrocities, he argues, are the "Jewish subhumanity" who "always instigate[s]" uprisings in the rear. His resolve: "the soldier has two tasks to fulfill… the utter destruction of Bolshevik heresy, of the Soviet state and its war machine" and "the merciless extermination of foreign cunning and cruelty" as a means to liberate "the German people once and for all from the Asiatic-Jewish peril."117 The result was an explicit call for the discriminate persecution of Jewish individuals. As it will later be evinced, Reichenau’s order was by no means novel to the 6th Army, as such overt discrimination was already a standard mode of operation.

The Barbarossa Orders had the desired effect of truly dictating the conduct of war in the Soviet Union. When Germany’s blitzkrieg offensive faltered early on, Germany was left scrambling for any strategic advantage they could acquire. Fortunate for Hitler, he could exploit the staunchness of Soviet resistance, justifying his long-enacted Vernichtungskrieg. Perhaps the ease of previous campaigns in Eastern Europe effectuated the brutality in the Soviet Union. Facing their fiercest competitor, the Wehrmacht may have become disillusioned to any moral codes of war as they readily accepted Hitler’s political war of extermination. Instances of internal opposition, both from the top and bottom, did in fact exist; however the large majority of the Wehrmacht engaged in Hitler’s war, seemingly throwing their consciences to the wind. The case of the Soviet Union is quite unique: by now, troops were well aware of the SD’s missions, having either seen or participated in them. When the war in the Soviet Union began, this relationship was maintained, with more of an initial focus (at least in theory) on preserving a façade of Wehrmacht integrity through passive assistance – of course exceptions existed. As the blitzkrieg failed, the Wehrmacht involved itself more directly in the liquidation of the designated "enemies." When the campaign’s failure appeared inevitable, they assumed the passive role again as they began practicing deniability. The cases to be examined are Belorussia, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia. Although the succeeding examination will highlight certain aspects of Wehrmacht crimes in particular locations, that does not negate the fact that throughout the Soviet Union, POW executions, death marches, rampant starvation, and Partisan executions were ubiquitous. For the sake of clarity, thus, the format was segmented for the most part by locality, rather than category of crime.

The Partisan War in the Soviet Union

Some attention should be given to the Partisan War in the Soviet Union before proceeding further. This is because much of the Wehrmacht’s crimes against the Soviet populace were, like in Yugoslavia and Greece, legitimated as an anti-Partisan war. In fact, Stalin had issued an order for the Partisan War to be unleashed on July 3, 1941, mere weeks after Barbarossa began.118 Yet prior to the invasion itself, Stalin rejected any warnings that Germany would, should they attack, occupy Soviet territory. As a result, no preparations were made, and the Soviet leadership was left scrambling to assemble what Thomas Anderson argues was "an uncoordinated patchwork of very diverse Partisan groups that had little impact on the Wehrmacht’s progress."119 As it would turn out, the Partisan movement never materialized as a viable threat until 1943.120 Still, to the Nazi leadership, Stalin’s initial order had provided an impetus for unbridled warfare against Partisans. Recovered following the war, documents written by Heinrich Himmler evince this attitude: "Now, the Russians have issued an order to initiate Partisan warfare behind our lines. This Partisan warfare has its advantages for us. It gives us the possibility to exterminate anybody who opposes us."121

Operation Barbarossa: Lithuania

 Figure 10

 Figure 10 Wehrmacht soldiers idly watch, while some photograph a pogrom perpetrated by Lithuanians in Kaunas upon their arrival.

Almost immediately succeeding the commencement of Barbarossa on June 22, Wolfram Wette argues that a precedent was set by the Wehrmacht regarding the nature of their occupation. Contravening the military standards of occupation, the Wehrmacht would remain, at best, in tacit compliance with the SS’s incitement and involvement in the mistreatment and murder of Jews.122 Wette examines Kaunas during the Germans invasion from June 25. During the following two nights, members of the SS Einsatzgruppe A insidiously encouraged Lithuanians to carry out a pogrom against Jews. By the 26th, more than 1,500 Jews were eliminated according to the Einsatzgruppe’s Brigadeführer Franz Stahlecker.123 Moreover, synagogues and Jewish houses were burned, and Jews were herded and beaten in broad daylight. This was all done under the Wehrmacht’s supervision, and the extent of their involvement was joining the crowds to view the spectacle and in some cases take photographs. Thus, no effort to intervene was made as the Wehrmacht crudely proclaimed that they would have no part in the assistance of marginalized and threatened Jewish populations. Instead, they would eventually become willful participants in the crimes themselves. The Wehrmacht would become more and more involved in the terrorization of the civilian population as the war protracted, including in Lithuania, but the bulk of such historical evidence illuminates crimes committed elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

Operation Barbarossa: Latvia

In Latvia, Wehrmacht forces were met with staunch resistance. In particular, Margers Vertermanis examined the siege of Liepaja during the early weeks of Barbarossa. Led by Generalleutnant Herzog, Vertermanis discusses the two months of German occupation during the summer of 1941. During this time, the Wehrmacht took it upon themselves to engage in the radical “pacification” of the town once it was under their control. Accounts from witnesses in Liepaja describe the extent of this pacification: one survivor named David Swizon recalled Germans seizing seven Jews and twenty-two Latvians and shooting them next to a bomb crater. He could only describe the Germans as having worn field gray uniforms, which suggests the potential culprits were Wehrmacht, likely the 505th Grenadier Regiment which occupied that area of town.124 Eventually Police Battalion units assumed the role of executioners as mass shootings were systematized, and the Wehrmacht commanders began ordering the public identification of Jews. This, as elsewhere, was done "in the guise of hostage justice," which Vestermanis qualifies as "a typical example of the crimes of the Wehrmacht." Moreover, witnesses recall soldiers "gawking" at the spectacle of public executions, noting an apparent "indifference" and "satisfaction" written on their faces.125

Andrew Ezergailis would support this claim: in the introduction to his book The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944, he argues that although evidence of physical participation in executions is scant, "it is equally true that the Wehrmacht created the conditions in which the killings could take place." This is because martial law prevailed in Latvia, and therefore there is "no question that the Wehrmacht could have stopped the killings had it been determined to do so."126 Moreover, on June 30th, the military commander of the 291st Infantry Division ordered the creation of self-defense (or Selbstschutz) forces that were to be comprised by sympathetic Latvians. It was explicitly stated that their only duty was to assist groups like the SS and SD in "pacifying the land and cleansing it of Bolshevik terror and scattered Russian stragglers."127 Thus, the Wehrmacht called for the establishment of proxy death groups that did, indeed, systematically and discriminately execute undesirable Latvians. Given the semantics of Nazi ideology, when the Wehrmacht commander ordered the cleansing of the "Bolshevik terror," this came to include primarily Jews, who were believed to be the standard ideologues of Bolshevism. A report by Wehrmacht Security Battalion 868 confirms this:

"Two hundred Communists and Jews from the district of Rezekne were shot in the morning hours by the Latvian Self-Defense. This measure produced some indignation. This is partly understandable because no German can imagine the suffering which the population had to bear when the Jews were standard-bearers of Bolshevism."128
Ezergailis attributes the rhetoric of this statement to the Wehrmacht author’s absorption of Nazi propaganda about the Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy. This thereby enables him to justify the killings.129

Although the Wehrmacht’s role as an active participant in Latvia is a bit more obscure, it is nevertheless significant because scholarship on this Soviet state lucidly demonstrates Wehrmacht complicity through association. Because they were fully aware and accepting of the mistreatment of specific populations, their guilt is certain – this, of course, does not even take into account their promotion of Latvian death squads. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, active participation was far more evident.

Operation Barbarossa: Byelorussia

Byelorussia, or White Russia, was home to a sizable number of Jews – estimated to be over one million following their absorption of surrounding areas. By the war’s end, the large majority were killed with over 2.2 million Byelorussians dead.130 Here, the Wehrmacht was involved in the establishment of ghettos and eventual liquidation of its occupants, the cleansing of Jews from the countryside, and the unmitigated war against "Partisans" (which was unambiguously a euphemism for Jews). Byelorussians were for the most part ignorant of the terror that would be unleashed on them. The area was historically mistreated by its occupying rule – whether that be Poland or Russia. As a result, they greeted the German army with gifts and approval, earnestly believing the terror of Stalin to be over as they recalled the Germans’ proper treatment of them during WWI. 131 As the German invasion penetrated further, that would all change.

During the initial months, the SS and police units were the primary agents of execution; as was the norm, this did not negate the fact that many members of the Wehrmacht would engage in crimes on their own. For instance, in Mogilev in December 1941, one German soldier haphazardly shot a native in passing, prompting his friends to attack the Germans. The Germans then killed all but one member of the group on the spot. The following day, seven men between the ages of twelve and sixty were randomly selected from the village and shot.132 It is difficult to explain why this incident occurred beyond speculating that the soldier was merely exercising his perceived superiority over a Byelorussian. More organized executions existed, however.

Mass killings were made more efficient with the construction of ghettos for Jews – this was particularly true in Minsk. Byelorussia’s capital of 250,000 was captured by around June 28, and a system was established for the registration, resettlement, and eventual annihilation of Jews. The Economic Inspection of the occupying Wehrmacht forces reported by July 22: "Jews suspected of agitation have been shot in large numbers amounting to several thousand persons. As a result, the Jewish population is intimidated and eager to work."133 Hannes Heer argues that this demonstrated awareness by the Wehrmacht of the fate of the Jews "struck eastern European Jewry [its] ‘first blow.’ It depersonalized and degraded the individual Jew and thus transformed hundreds of thousands into ‘garbage’ to be cleared away systematically by the Einsatzgruppen, police, and Waffen-SS."134 The case of Minsk is significant, therefore, because it elucidates the complicity and full awareness of Wehrmacht occupying forces in the ghettoization and liquidation of Untermenschen.

Cognizance certainly does not relieve the Wehrmacht of their guilt, yet any such debate is rendered moot given their substantial involvement in the liquidation of Jews throughout Byelorussia by October of 1941. Heer designates this the point in which the "troops go 'Jew-hunting,'" which a litany of documented crimes evidence. For instance, in the village of Krupka on October 5, Corporal Richard Heidenreich of the 354th Infantry Regiment reported in his diary the battalion’s execution of over 1,000 Jews. According to his account, fifteen men with "strong nerves" were selected and told that 1,000 Jews lived in the village, all of which "needed to be shot today." After being taken to a nearby swamp, the executions began: "Ten shots sounded, ten Jews were blown away. This went on until all were taken care of… The children clung to their mothers, women to their men… A couple of days later a similarly large number was shot in Kholoponichi. I was involved here too."135 These incidents were not isolated and their unequivocal purpose was to liquidate Jews: following other executions, when the overseeing commander returned, "he then informed the 1st Secretary S. that several Partisans had been shot in action. In reality, it was generally known in the company that this meant Jews who were in no way Partisans."136 Orders emanated from the top, as Major General von Bechtolsheim issued guidelines on September 29 specifying that "Jews must disappear from the countryside." He later clarified (as if it truly needed to be) that to make them disappear, his regiment would need to remove Jews "entirely" from villages because "In case after case, it is clear that these are the sole support the Partisans find in order to survive both now and through the winter. Their annihilation is therefore to be carried out in whatever manner."137 By December, around 20,000 Jews had been resultantly executed by the Wehrmacht.

During this same period, Wehrmacht engagements against Jews extended into the systematic liquidations in ghettos. With the influx of Jews from various areas of Europe, Heer argues that Lt. Gen. Walter Braemer, who was to oversee the military’s security in Ostland, became concerned by the potential of Partisan infection by Jews in ghettos. Moreover, he was wary of the effectiveness of the unproved SIPO and SD in preventing this in Minsk. Thus, with Bechtolsheim urging him to take radical action, Braemer lifted the ban that forbade the Wehrmacht from involving themselves in ghetto actions.138 Their engagements seem innumerable: assistance of 7,000 in Borisov on October 20; the 8th Company’s 4,500 Jews in Nesvizh on October 30; in November, 5,000 in Bobruysk; 1,800 in Mir on November 9 to commemorate a holiday; and eventually around 10,000 in 1942.139 The last cleansing in particular was noted by Wilhelm Kube, an SS-man and General-Kommissar of occupied Byelorussia, who criticized the Wehrmacht in a July 31, 1942 letter:

 Figure 11

 Figure 11 But one mass shooting conducted by the Wehrmacht

"Through an… already reported encroachment on the Rear Area, Army Group Center, our preparations for liquidating the Jews in the area around Glubokie have been interrupted. The Rear Area, Army Group Center, has, without consulting me, liquidated 10,000 Jews whose systematic extermination we had… already planned."140 Clearly the Wehrmacht’s role had expanded into the realm of complicit executioners by this point. The numbers were astounding by 1942, and would only grow: at least 20,000 in Byelorussia within the first half of 1942.141 The emergence of an existing and formidable Partisan enemy only worsened matters for the Jews and other "Untermenschen."

By the summer of 1942, Partisan numbers swelled from 30,000 to 150,000, with most of them operating in Byelorussia.142 The Wehrmacht’s murderous rampage during the winter of 1941 had essentially provoked a Partisan movement. Shortly before in the Spring, Bechtolsheim responded to the emerging threat by launching "Operation Bamberg," which aimed at combatting the Partisans in southern Byelorussia. By the end of the week-long operation, about 3,500 "Partisans and accomplices" were shot to the Germans’ sixteen casualties (only six dead).143 The disproportionately is glaring, but predictable. Only two exchanges of fire were reported, meaning the primary target of the operation was civilians.144 The mass killings were never precipitated by Partisan activity, nor did the manner in which they were carried out reflect any sort of tactical engagement: "they were taken to the edge of the village and driven into the mill. The mill was then set on fire. Those attempting to flee were shot on the spot."145 By the middle of 1942, the nefarious Heinrich Himmler was placed in charge of combatting the Partisans, whom he now referred to as "bandits." In December, all legal repercussions were rescinded when the OKW issued orders on the war against the "bandits." Women and children were expressly named as potential enemies, and "no German involved in the war against these bandits may be subject to disciplinary action or to a court-martial for his behavior…"146 Moreover, in 1943 the OKW categorized the war against the “bandits” as normal warfare, and joint operations between the Wehrmacht and the SS, SD and police commenced.147 This would be the standard mode of operation until the end of the war. One example is “Operation Cottbus” in which 6,087 “bandits” were killed in battle and 3,709 after. This was contrasted against the Wehrmacht’s 88. Even during this stage, the militancy of its enemy was nonexistent: "We then proceeded to the third village. We didn’t come across any Partisans there. But we still burnt down the village and shot around 50 people. Even women and children."148

When the invasion began, Byelorussians warmly greeted the Wehrmacht; to their dismay, they would serve as the quarry for the definitive radicalization of the Wehrmacht. This level of violence was exhibited elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but perhaps nowhere else was it so comprehensive.

Operation Barbarossa: Ukraine

Ukraine, situated on the Soviet Union’s border with Europe, was an invasion point for Operation Barbarossa on June 22. By the war’s end, the Soviet state’s losses were devastating: home to more than 2.4 million Jews on the eve of invasion, all but about 850,000 (most of whom fled) were killed.149 Initial resistance was scant, as one soldier reported, "Only a few small special detachments fought stubbornly. The great majority of Red soldiers was not influenced at all by a spirit of resistance."150 This was largely a consequence of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s which decimated both the will and numbers in Ukraine; the result was about 3.6 million POWs taken by November, with about 1.3 million of those Ukrainian. 151 As it can be inferred, Ukraine met German advances mostly with surprise and conviviality. Such illusions proved to be fleeting, however, and Nazi racial policies were quickly implemented in the area.

Almost from the outset, Einsatzgruppen were the arbiters of death in Ukraine. Per the standard operational procedures, members of the SD were ascribed with carrying out executions in the rear of army groups as acts of "retribution." The Wehrmacht identified and sequestered these "criminals," who were eventually plainly identified as Jews. Nevertheless, Wehrmacht complicity during the early stages can at best be categorized as cognizant arrestors, since often times its members assisted in the shootings themselves. In a field letter from a Major in Luts’k, for instance, he describes how on July 11, "1,000 Jews are shot in the old citadel on this day. This is an act of retribution for the 2,800 Ukrainians executed during the Bolshevist period. In return, 5,800 Russians lose their lives." During this occasion, an official post called for all "able-bodied Jews" to gather at a specified location for excavation work – 1,000 would come. Waiting for them was an execution squad comprised by members of the SS, Order Police, and Wehrmacht.152 As it may be surmised, Ukrainians welcomed these actions, viewing Jews as tenable scapegoats for past injustices committed by the Soviet Union. Yet to chalk up their treachery to strict anti-Semitism would be presumptuous. Truman Anderson believes that in Ukraine, and arguably elsewhere, the civil populace’s attitude can best be described as "docile and malleable" because "with the exception of the Partisans themselves and small numbers of pro-Soviet and pro-German activists who were willing to risk death in order to serve their respective causes, most people seem to have been willing to obey whichever antagonist appeared most credible at a given time."153 Anti-Semitism merely provided an avenue for infidelity.

Indeed, cooperation appeared to have been the most efficacious option at the time given the numerous accounts of pogroms committed by Ukrainians. These pogroms, however, were insidiously promoted by SD and in some cases, the Wehrmacht assisted. For example, in Zhytomyr on August 7, 1941, a vehicle belonging to the 6th Army Propaganda Company drove through the town announcing that a public execution of two Soviet regional court officials was to take place in the marketplace. Four hundred Jewish men who had been arrested were gathered by the gallows and the opportunity to "settle" any business with them was offered; they were promptly beaten and kicked, mostly by Ukrainians, and eventually the two officials were hanged. All the while, "the soldiers who were watching shouted ‘slowly, slowly,’ so they could take better photographs."154 The 400 Jews were then taken out of the town by the SD and shot in the presence of the 6th Army’s General Staff. In the August 20 Operational Situation Report describing those events, it was reported: "the relationship with the Wehrmacht remains untroubled; above all, there is a constantly growing interest in Wehrmacht circles in the tasks and concerns of security police work… the Wehrmacht is itself engaged in promoting the accomplishment of security police tasks."155

Fearing that unruliness among the rank and file would result from the Wehrmacht’s participation, however, Reichenau ordered for rigid divisions of labor to be upheld: the army would cordon off areas, the Secret Police and Military Police would arrest and guard Jewish civilians, and the SD would liquidate the "saboteurs."156 This specification of duties was for the most part upheld in preceding weeks. While this removed soldiers from physical engagement in executions, it still left them exposed to the mass murders. This is significant not only because it removes plausible deniability, but it also conforms to Hannes Heer’s hypothesis that the Reich leadership planned to radicalize the army through mass killings of Soviet civilians (Slavs as well as Jews).157 Much like in Serbia, exposure served as a means to desensitize. Thus, Reichenau and the OKW may have believed that they could simultaneously maintain an orderly and hardened rank and file with congruent war aims. Reichenau’s rescission of delineated Wehrmacht and SS functions with his "Reichenau Order" supports this claim.

During this transient period of a more detached Wehrmacht, the army was involved in two of the more barbaric events that typified the Holocaust in the Eastern Front. The first was the murder of 90 Jewish children in Belaya Tserkov’. In this town, members of the Wehrmacht were involved in ordering the registration of Jews that would be executed by SS groups. Many of the parents, unaware of their fate, had brought along their children to the registration; in total, 90 children were left behind in a school-like building. Hearing the whimpers of the children one night, one non-commissioned officer approached two military chaplains, Ernst Tewes and Gerhard Wilczek. The chaplains then informed the divisional chaplains of the 295th Infantry Division, Dr Reuss and Kornmann, who subsequently visited the scene. Dr Reuss’s report to their division Lt. Col. Groscurth details the scene as follows:

"The children [aged from a few months old to five or six years] lay or sat on the floor which was covered in their feces. There were flies on the legs and abdomens of most of the children, some of whom were only half dressed. Some of the bigger children (two, three, four years old) were scratching the mortar from the wall and eating it… The lorry-driver had told [nearby military policemen] that these were children of Jews and Jewesses who had already been shot and the children were now going to be taken to be executed… I consider it necessary to report this matter to my HQ [because]… there is no German watch or supervision… and… German soldiers are able to enter it at any time… provoke[ing] a reaction of indignation and criticism."158

 Figure 12

 Figure 12 Babi Yar, location of one the largest mass executions committed on the Eastern Front.

Clearly the scene repulsed troops who happened upon it, but this letter demonstrates the awareness of members of the Wehrmacht. In subsequent hours, discussions were held between the Wehrmacht and SS about whether the children should be executed. Lt. Col. Groscurth in particular argued that consent from a higher authority within the army was necessary. Appeals eventually reached Reichenau, who concluded that "on principle… the operation that had begun should be properly carried through."159 On August 21, the children were carried by tractor to nearby woods. Awaiting them were Ukrainian militiamen (the Wehrmacht and SS both rejected carrying out the executions themselves) and a fresh grave dug by the Wehrmacht.160 The massacre at Belaya Tserkov’ was discussed by the Wehrmacht before and after it occurred, with Reichenau issuing the final approval. Boll and Safrian argue that this decision meant that "the 6th Army was no longer fighting merely against Jewish ‘commissars,’ ‘snipers,’ ‘saboteurs,’" but instead "making itself a willing accomplice to genocide" without a special order from Hitler.161

Another poignant example of Wehrmacht complicity via passive acceptance and participation was the massacre at Babi Yar. Babi Yar, a ravine outside of Kiev, served as the location for the execution of 33,771 Jews on September 29 and 30. Joshua Rubenstein designated this massacre as “an emblematic atrocity.”162 When measured in terms of sheer magnitude, such an assertion is certainly warranted. Although the Wehrmacht was not involved in the physical executions the Jews, they were complicit in that commanders offered their support prior to, Propaganda Company 637 printed the posters ordering assembly, individual units assisted in corralling the Jews in town, and army engineers dynamited the edges of the ravine to hide the mass grave. The executions were a response to recent bombings in Kiev, and on September 27, a meeting was held "regarding counterintelligence measures in Kiev" – present were officers of the Wehrmacht, SD and SS. In a statement by an officer of the Army Corps XXIX, "evacuation” plans were arranged for the Jews; however all present knew evacuation was a euphemism for execution.163 Clearly the SS believed they had the Wehrmacht’s support following the meeting: in a situational report by Sonderkommando 4a, they stated, "The Wehrmacht welcomes measures and requests radical action."164 Thus, Propaganda Company 637 printed posters ordering Jews to assemble with their "papers, money, valuables, and warm clothing…" All who failed to do so would be shot.165 While only 5,000 to 6,000 were expected, over 30,000 Jews of all ages showed up genuinely expecting to be relocated. On September 30, after the task was completed, the army engineers blew up the edges of the ravine. Many have argued that the majority of the Wehrmacht was unaware of what occurred at Babi Yar, however an officer from the 454th Security Division named Froreich had the following entry in his diary: "The Jews of the city had been ordered to assemble… to be relocated… Approximately 34,000 of them appeared, including women and children. All of them were killed…"166 The accuracy of this uninvolved soldier’s report demonstrates the relative indiscretion of the event among the Wehrmacht.

The city of Kharkov was taken by the Wehrmacht in October 1941. However a retreating Red Army left explosive charges in multiple buildings, resulting in the deaths of seven Germans. The occupying Command’s response: hundreds of civilians, many Jews and Communists, were hanged in public places as retribution. The war journal of one officer in Kharkov reveals the anti-Semitic nature of the Wehrmacht’s subsequent suspicion of civilians that ensued: "The Jews, in particular, who are often left behind as contacts or communications agents, are suspected."167 The most pressing problem here, however, was malnutrition – which was certainly an issue throughout the Soviet Union.

Starvation quickly became a pandemic concern as Barbarossa skidded to a violent halt. Strategists forecasted that the Soviet Union would be taken in a matter of weeks, so only twenty days of rations were supplied. Any foodstuffs thereafter would be procured from the occupied territories – namely Ukraine where their grain surplus was estimated to be 8.7 million tons. This grain would also supply Germany in the event of domestic food shortages. The continuation of the war well beyond a few weeks thwarted this plan. Regardless of their gaffe regarding the timetable of the war, however, Germany had at any rate planned to starve its enemy’s population when it anticipated obtaining its rations only from Southern Ukraine.168 Thus, the prolongation of the war several years beyond meant the Soviet Union would be looted en masse and forced into an extreme famine.

In Kharkov, for example, "feeding the population" was designated in a report by the Commander of the Army Group South Rear Area as being "the most pressing problem." One Wehrmacht officer recommended evacuating the entire population, while another suggested a mass murder program that would select all Jews, commissars, politically "suspicious," and those who were not local residents to be executed. This of course would be performed by the SD. They instead opted to place food procurement in the hands of the civilian authorities, offering voluntary emigration out of Kharkov. The result, however, was the deaths of many Ukrainians a day by the end of 1941.169

The Wehrmacht of course attempted to divert liability for their inability to feed prisoners and occupied populations. On November 10th, the Wehrmacht Propaganda Office issued statements that Moscow’s scorched-earth campaign was responsible for the famine. To expect the Wehrmacht to transport food for prisoners was, by their logic, outlandish given that they were engaged in a war. However, this argument "lacked any validity under international law," and the deaths had little to do with the Soviet’s scorched-earth campaign, according to Geoffrey Megargee.170

Operation Barbarossa: Soviet POWs & Russia

Russia experienced many of the same terrors that other Soviet states did, however conventional warfare (that is, tactical engagements with the regular Red Army) concerned the Wehrmacht most here. The resiliency of the Red Army when it was backed into a corner in cities like Moscow and Stalingrad helped turn the tide of the war; also significant, they helped deny further penetration by the Wehrmacht into Russia. Since these fronts were never truly exposed to the rear areas of the Wehrmacht (where as we know now was the location for the most heinous crimes), most of its citizens were spared at least death by execution. Still, murders of Russian civilians and Jews did occur on a smaller scale in these areas, especially when the Wehrmacht began its retreat. Furthermore, huge numbers perished as they became collateral damage; these included those who died from starvation because of Wehrmacht blockades, from bombings, or from the recklessness of their Soviet protectors. Because of the unique nature the war in Russia, rather than delve into particular crimes committed there, attention will be turned towards the pervasive mistreatment of Soviet POWs.

 Figure 13

 Figure 13 Army Group Center's commander, Fedor von Bock.

Given the issuance of the Commissar Order on June 6, 1941, the murder of Soviet commissars was the most overt contravention of international law regarding the treatment of POWs. As previously mentioned, it called for the execution of all Soviet commissars under the pretense that they would rouse dissent among POWs. Determining whether the commissar possessed such intentions was left to the discretion of officers. In effect, the Wehrmacht served as judge, jury and executioner – one of the more formal aspects of their war crimes during WWII. Disseminated in writing only to the commanders of armies and the heads of air commands,171 its diffusion by word of mouth to the lower ranks of the officer corps generated two vital consequences: first, it permitted various interpretations of who it should target and, in some cases, whether it would be enforced at all; and second, it diminished the amount of written evidence should the crime ever be brought to trial.

Evidence exists that reveals some Wehrmacht commanders’ protestation of the order. Commanders like Kluge, Weichs, Guderian and Leeb opted to ignore the order, for example. Tresckow appealed to Army Group Center’s commander, Bock, who did submit a formal protest to the OKH. Historian Robert Kane notes that when Bock was confronted by Tresckow, he expressed "feigned" surprise over the stipulations of the order; Kane clarifies that he used the word "feign" because Bock was present during a March 30, 1941 meeting in which Hitler explicitly outlined his intent for the ideological war in the Soviet Union. Kane then claims that when appeals were subsequently denied, Bock "self-righteously lauded himself for his protest – 'Let it be noted, gentlemen, that Field Marshal Bock protested' – but he protested no further!"172 In May 1942, the order was temporarily suspended by Hitler after Kluge made a personal appeal to him. It is important to recognize, however, that with the exception of a few, nearly all appeals to rescind the order were made because of the effect it could have on troop discipline. Kluge, for instance, was concerned about the order’s impact on the "good order and morale of German soldiers".173 On the other hand, other commanders eagerly embraced the criminal order, expecting their troops to do the same: head of the Army General Staff, Franz Halder, for instance, commented that "troops must do their share in the ideological struggle of the eastern campaign."174 And that they did. The Third Panzer Group of Army Group Center reported that on July 31, 1941, in a matter of weeks, it had executed "about 170” commissars".175 In a report by the 6th Army dated October 4, 1941, they noted no enemy contact, but that 122 commissars were liquidated.176 Similar reports were rampant, yet no definitive number can be given on just how many Soviet commissars were killed during World War II. The fact remains, however, that the Wehrmacht was actively involved and the commissars’ deaths were part and parcel of a much larger deliberate extermination of Soviet POWs. Christian Streit places the number at 3.3 million prisoners out of a total of about 5.7 million.177

 Figure 14

 Figure 14 Blatantly disregarding international law, POWs were marched long distances in treacherous conditions, often times dropping dead.

While Soviet POWs’ deaths should be designated "deliberate," the Wehrmacht’s high command maintained that that was not the case during the ensuing Nuremberg Trials. Much like the starvation of the occupied populations, the Wehrmacht attributed the mistreatment of POWs to logistical inevitabilities that were unforeseen. Given the sheer size of the Red Army, expecting the Wehrmacht to provide adequate quarter and nourishment, by their logic, was near impossible. This argument suggests an extraordinarily naïve Wehrmacht high command, who evidently did not anticipate a victory in the Soviet Union. Success was most definitely contingent upon the capture of large amounts of Red Army soldiers during the campaigns initial stages. Still, the formal plans for the treatment of Soviet POWs were not as brutal, at least on paper. POWs were to be put to work, and those who were not would be moved to larger collection points in rear areas, then to transit camps there, eventually to the USSR’s Western borders, and finally to camps in Germany. The Wehrmacht’s inability to achieve this, Geoffrey Megargee argues, "had more to do with Wehrmacht negligence than fate."178 When the swift capture of hundreds of thousands of Soviets occurred in 1941, however, the Wehrmacht’s implementation of these plans differed. Their ultimate resolve was to order death marches, purposefully induce famines and malnourishment, and perform outright executions. Indeed, the Commissar Order served another critical purpose, regardless if it was ever stated: it provided a tactical guise to lessen POW numbers.

The transport of prisoners took on a truly cruel nature in the Soviet Union, and can be credited with the deaths of thousands of POWs. Orders emanating from General Wagner on July 31, 1941, stipulated that prisoners be transported by foot, or empty trains on platform cars. According to Szymon Datner, this order did not specify under what conditions or distances such modes of transportation could be carried out.179 Thus, the Wehrmacht transported its POWs in the most deplorable conditions. The train cars, for example, were tightly packed and locked on both sweltering and frigid days. Compounded by their extreme hunger, numerous prisoners arrived at camps dead. Marches were equally gruesome. Prisoners were given below the minimum amount of food and water for survival and forced to walk in all sorts of weather for hundreds of kilometers. Any individual who broke away from the column to drink from a puddle or snatch something to eat from a field was shot on the spot. Moreover, any individual who appeared too exhausted or wounded to continue was shot. Nearly two million prisoners perished during 1941, and the brutal procedures contracted only after commanders protested that their work force was weakening and the deaths were giving the Wehrmacht a bad reputation among the civilians (ironically this was a concern). In Col. Erwin Lahousen’s "Observations and findings while traveling in the East," he recognizes the "physical exertion of the marches" and the "meager diet" that results in POWs breaking down and commonly dying. He writes, "The 6th Army has given orders that all prisoners of war who break down are to be executed. Unfortunately, this is done on the road, even in towns…"180 Written in October 1941, his report reveals, first, the 6th Army’s resolve for weakened POWs; second, the conditions of travel; and third, the uneasiness of some commanders that these acts are done publicly. By the end of October, the Wehrmacht leadership resolved to temporarily suspend such treatment because of the failure of blitzkrieg and consequent need for manual labor.181 This did little to curb crimes and it only truly began to be followed by about mid-1942 (individual crimes still occurred, however).

POW camps, for the most part, can hardly be considered “camps.” Datner describes them as follows:

"… a dozen or so acres of vacant land were surrounded with barbed wire, shelters and sentry boxes for camp guards were erected… and the camp was ready. No barracks, no tents, no stores, no water for washing and often not even for drinking, no food during the first days, etc."182

 Figure 15

 Figure 15 Camp conditions were deplorable, yet Soviet POWs were nevertheless packed in.

Thus, the meager food rations led to widespread starvation, the insufficient hygienic facilities led to endemic diseases, and the poor conditions of camp hospitals essentially condemned its occupants to death. In some cases, prisoners would resort to cannibalism – they were of course promptly shot. As the war dragged on and more and more prisoners flooded camps, massive exterminations were implemented to make room. In Dulag 131, a POW transit camp in Bobruysk, roughly 4,000 Soviet POWs were executed in early November 1941. Then a camp commandant, Carl Languth, recounted before a military tribunal in December 1945 a discussion held with Lt. Col. Freiherr von Roeder, the commandant of Dulag 131. Roeder mentioned to Languth the overcrowded conditions and lack of railway transport for prisoners. Roeder then described: "Colonel Sturm (the staff officer for prisoners of war) has received orders from OKW Berlin which provide for the annihilation of prisoners of war in such cases." Thus, the Wehrmacht high command explicitly provided orders for the extermination of what appears to be "extraneous" prisoners. Roeder continued: "Camp IV, the barracks, will go up in flames. Prisoners of war will die in a blaze… Arson by the prisoners of war and an attempt to escape will be simulated. A special detachment chosen by Colonel Sturm will set the fire." According to the Hamburg Institute, the fire commenced as described, and fleeing POWs were shot by four machine guns.183 Clearly Soviet POWs in camps did not die only from malnourishment and diseases, but from the bullets (either by order or direct involvement) of the Wehrmacht as well.

Of particular importance is the discriminate mistreatment of Jewish POWs. While other prisoners were to be transported to the back lines or to Germany, Jews were singled out. Per a special order by General Wagner, all POWs of Jewish origin were to be removed with other "intolerables" (presumably other categories of Untermenschen and commissars) and summarily executed. This practice was confirmed in the testimony of an army doctor from Dulag 160 in Khorol: "Each load of Soviet POWs was screened by the Wehrmacht in search of commissars… The Jews were being selected and handed over to special camps, to be shot by the SD." Moreover, "at that time each officer and soldier found it natural that each Jew was shot dead."184 Unsympathetic to the treatment of POWs, particularly those of Jewish descent, the Wehrmacht was complicit by consent.


The nature of war that Hitler sought to wage in the East was unparalleled, necessitating, as Daniel Goldhagen described them, "willing executioners." [ This is an extension of Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis that ordinary Germans comprised the SS and Police Battalions; these "willing executioners" should be extended to include members of the Wehrmacht as well.] To relieve the Wehrmacht of any responsibility would be felonious, as they, at the very least, tacitly permitted the murder of millions of individuals simply because they were designated Untermenschen. At a certain point, justifications of duty no longer hold their merit. Prominent scholars have contributed to the untarnished perception of the Wehrmacht as they knowingly dismissed their crimes, instead opting to focus on those of the SS and SD. Simon Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to prosecuting and exposing Nazi war criminals, is one such individual – "'it would never occur to me to prosecute a soldier who in the face of an enemy defended his life with his weapon'… He asserted that he was more interested in those who had not dared to reach the front lines, but had instead abused the inmates of concentration camps." Wiesenthal, according to his biographer Tom Segev, adhered to an "innocent until proven guilty" mentality when it came to the Wehrmacht’s complicity; moreover, he like many historians of his time, purposely afforded a great deal more focus on the SS than the Wehrmacht.185 While I intend in no way to berate Mr. Wiesenthal and his noble life’s work, he represents the traditional currents of Holocaust historians that neglected the role of the Wehrmacht in their historical inquiry. Desensitization to heinous crimes should not dictate due justice, however. The crimes of the Wehrmacht may have as a whole paled in comparison to what occurred in the concentration camps, but relativity does not preclude complicity. One need only examine two poignant postwar accounts by Wehrmacht soldiers:

"We had just shot the four men when I saw two women and three children running away. My rifle still contained five bullets and I took one shot at each of them. All five fell over, and by the time I got to them they were already dead. I had hit four in the back and one child was shot through the neck."186
This account was given by a lance-corporal on trial for an operation conducted by his company that required the liquidation of a small "Partisan" town. Another quote details the saturation of anti-Semitism within the Wehrmacht:
"Our returning comrades-in-arms tell us that they had to shoot several Jewish families… from smaller villages located in the area around the convent… One of the company… said, in his exact words, ‘Jew brain, that tastes good.' He said they had just shot Jews, and their brains had sprayed him right in the face… I can still remember how I saw a child grabbed by the head and then shot. The child was then thrown into a hole… H. also told how children had run away during the execution, and that these children were skewered onto a bayonet and then thrown into a hole."
Not only does this reveal the grisly nature of the crimes, but it exhibits the sadistic, anti-Semitic thought of its perpetrators. Each of these accounts was described by individuals whose accountability was eventually questioned. But as this essay has demonstrated, similar operations were commonplace among the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Yet how many soldiers actually stood trial? At this point, all it seems we can do is recognize that the crimes of Nazi Germany extended well beyond those committed by members of the Party. Moreover, the scope of what is considered “criminal,” should also be extended to include inactive permission. The Wehrmacht, as such, was wholly complicit in the realization of the Holocaust in the East, with their crimes ranging anywhere from passive compliance to active participation.