Michael Geyer
“States of Exception: The Nazi-Soviet War as a System of Violence, 1939-1945”
Chapter 9 of Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared
Part 1 (Introduction) is below: To read the complete Chapter including footnotes, click here.
Michael Geyer
Michael Geyer is the Samuel N. Harper Professor of German and European History. His research and teaching focus on twentieth-century German and European history, with a sub-focus on multinational history and the history of humanitarian movements. Geyer has written on a wide range of topics, including the history of the German military, resistance movements during the Third Reich, the politics of memory, religion, the culture of death and sacrifice, and German intellectual history.
By the Author, Michael Geyer
The Cambridge History of the Second World War (Volume 3) The Cambridge History of the Second World War (Volume 3)

For ordering information, please click here.

The conflict that ended in 1945 is often described as a 'total war', unprecedented in scale and character. Volume 3 of The Cambridge History of the First World War adopts a transnational approach to offer a comprehensive and global analysis of the war as an economic, social and cultural event.
1. Introduction

“Step forward: We hear that you are a good man. Listen, we know you are our enemy. Therefore, we now shall put you against a wall. But in consideration of your merits and virtues, it will be a good wall, and we shall shoot you with good bullets from good guns, and we shall bury you with a good shovel in good soil.”
  —(Bertolt Brecht)

“And as to you, when the time has come that man will be his brother’s keeper, look back on us with forbearance.”
  —(Bertolt Brecht)

The trouble is that neither the Wehrmacht nor the Red Army considered merit and virtue and, inasmuch as they buried the dead, they did not bury them in good soil. Neither did those born afterward show forbearance, for they were either too caught up in the dark times they tried to escape after defeat or never saw the darkness in the bright light of victory.

The Soviet Union and the German Reich fought a war that denied virtue and honor to enemy soldiers and set entire people against each other in a life-and-death struggle. Memorializing the war did not bring, or has not brought yet, together what the war had torn asunder. In the new century, there are some indications that the time for forbearance or, in any case, for commemoration in the spirit of mutuality may yet come.

However, the moment is most certainly right for a reconsideration of the single most destructive war of the twentieth century, the war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and to approach this war not as a German or a Soviet affair, respectively, but as a ferocious and brutal antagonism in a wider field of European and global war.

The lethal encounter between the militarized polities of Germany and the Soviet Union on what the Germans called the “Eastern Front” (Ostfront) and the Soviets the “Great Patriotic War” can only be essayed in the literal sense; that is, as an experiment or, in one of the OEDs definitions, a “first tentative effort in learning.”

The reasons differ. Simply put, our knowledge about the Soviet side, judges one of the premier military historians of this conflict, “remains appallingly incomplete.” Notwithstanding manifestos calling for historians of Russia finally to focus on the war, so far only few studies have emerged that go beyond the excellent operational studies of John Erickson, David Glantz, and Jonathan House. As Catherine Merridale – whose work is among the few exceptions to that rule – has recently pointed out, we still know very little “about the lives, background and motivation of the [Soviet] troops themselves.”

The main struggle is to find sufficient evidence to back up the vast claims popular historians have made about Stalin and the Soviet Union at war. In contrast, we know much, much more about the German side. In fact, the density of historical research on the “Eastern Front,” on occupation and collaboration, as well as on annihilation and extermination is staggering.

Moreover, the Nazi-Soviet war has been subject to a host of documentaries, films, exhibitions, often with extensive Russian footage and documentation that have engendered intense public debates. Germans now know, or can know, what kind of war their war on the Eastern Front was.

But knowledge of the German war, deep and vast as it is, can only become insight if and when it is matched and, indeed, entangled with the knowledge of the other side. For war, and surely war of this magnitude, is only accounted for inasmuch as both sides see each other and see themselves reflected in the other in their deadly encounter.

We may doubt on practical and philosophical grounds that they will ever see the same, but as long as the two sides perceive and, thus, recognize each other, they can at least begin recalling and writing a history in which Brecht’s wisdom may apply – in hindsight if not necessarily with forbearance. Whether this history will then be a suitable instrument for mending the tear that ruptured the bond between the two nations is another question.

Given the unequal development of historiography, the ambition of this essay may be foolish – not only to provide a sketch of a history of the adversaries’ conduct of war, but also to reflect on the peculiar, expansive, and intensive system of violence that made both German and Soviet societies subjects and objects of destruction.

That is, we have to account for a war that reached inside to remake the respective war-fighting society in a war of excisions much as it reached outside in order to subjugate and, indeed, destroy, annihilate, and exterminate the enemy – all the while it was fought in bloody battles by huge armies with utmost intensity along a hyperextended front.

We think of the former as a “civil war,” that is, a war that aimed at remaking (and obliterating) entire populations, and the latter as a “war of destruction” with its own dynamic toward all-out annihilation. And this does not even account yet for the fusion of interior and exterior war in the territories and with the people in between that became pawns in the hands of both sides.

Our argument unfolds in a number of steps. First, the unparalleled lethality of this theater of war had its roots not simply in the destructive ideology of the one or the other side, or in a universal dynamic of total war. Rather, the devastating nature of this war, we suggest, is the consequence of the inimical interrelationship of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

This was a war fought with utter unrestraint from the start, the result of the assessment of the enemy as peculiarly heinous. From the start, this was not a “conventional” war, but a war in which the imperative was to win by whatever means necessary or to perish entirely.

Military institutions and militarized societies are highly self-contained and self-involved, and this is quite apart from the self-encapsulation of the two regimes. Their mutual hatred sufficed to unleash extreme violence. However, they always also engage the other – if only to learn how better to destroy the enemy.

In this case, both sides needed the other (the image and, as it turns out, combat and occupation practice) in order to perpetuate and deepen their respective practices of “destructive war” or what some scholars call “degenerate war,” that is, first and foremost extreme and unrestrained violence.

This unrestraint had its own dynamic – an escalation that emerged locally and from the bottom up as it were. By deliberately removing checks on violence, the two combatants set in motion – each in its own time – a relentless process of escalation that was near impossible to stop, even when and where restraint appeared strategically or politically prudent. It is commonly overlooked, given the atrocities of 1941, that the conduct of war got more ferocious, and more deliberately ferocious, as the war progressed.

Second, the Nazi-Soviet war was an all-out civil war between two militarized polities. That is, this war was fought as a war on an interior and on an exterior front, a deliberate overthrow of military tradition (and in this sense quite literally a revolution in military affairs). It was a war between two armed camps from the outset but was fought with and against society from the start. Again, this war had its own logic of escalation.

At its most intense, it became radicalized into a war of all-out extermination – either threatened as in the Soviet case or practiced as in the German one. The Holocaust, we argue, is the literally pivotal aspect of this civil war of all-out extermination. Inasmuch as this radicalization turned war into a life-and-death struggle, not of armies, but of entire people and nations, we might also characterize this process as “barbarization.”

Rather than denoting sheer lethality (escalation) or extermination (radicalization), “barbarization” captures the mythical or, as it were, “barbarian” understanding of a war locked in a state of exception, in which each side fights (or insists they must fight) until one side is utterly and completely subjugated, incapable of renewing itself on its own devices. The victor survives as “the last man standing”; the vanquished is not only dead but also ravished. We should note in passing that this barbaric “ideology” is a persistent potential of modern, Western war.

Third, useful as these distinctions may be, they do not capture the fundamentally asymmetric nature of the conduct of war between the two combatants. Seen as a totality, the war in the “East” started with a rapid-fire escalation of unrestraint on the German side (in which practice surpassed ideology) and was countered by a distinct radicalization and barbarization in the context of defense measures by the Soviets, which in turn triggered a radicalization and barbarization process on the side of the aggressor.

The all-out defensive war of the Soviets in response to the German onslaught mobilized the entire nation and was fought on an interior and an exterior front. It was fought as a civil or, in view of the French precedent in 1792/3, as a national-revolutionary war, as an upheaval of the nation to wipe out its interior and exterior enemies.

The German equivalent became fully apparent in 1941–2, when German warfare was recalibrated into a war of extermination – also a war against interior and exterior enemies but single-mindedly focused on eradicating them with the Holocaust serving as its aggressive prong and the utter despoliation of the people and the territory of the Soviet Union as its regressive or retreating one. In the German, as in the Russian, case we need to remember that 1941 was just a beginning. The war reached its zenith in 1943–4.

Fourth, the corollary of both escalation and radicalization on a subjective and psychological level was a process of “brutalization,” a term that is most appropriate for describing and analyzing the “passions of war” to use Clausewitzian terminology. Soldiers on both sides committed extraordinary atrocities and the likelihood of their doing so increased with their sense of impunity and just cause, such as revenge.

Beyond a sizable core of what we call cadres of totalitarian violence, who were prepared for and ideologically committed to this kind of brutalized conduct, the majority of soldiers and officers were drawn into and out of acts of brutalization, largely dependent on time and place. Hate propaganda, word of mouth, and experience interacted to incite slaughter and atrocity, a compulsion to destroy, ravage, and kill.

Again asymmetry prevails. On the German side even the passions of war were driven, more often than not, by cold calculation and the deliberate, and efficacious, use of extreme unrestraint. Anger, fear, and rage of individual soldiers were a subsidiary to this calculus.

An extreme level of discipline prevailed, and was demanded, in the midst of utter destruction – certainly in terms of self-image, but also in practice. On the Soviet side, by contrast, the passions of war were systematically unleashed, coupled with brutal coercion against one’s own, as this turned out to be the most successful means to make peasant soldiers fight and die for a regime which only a decade earlier had declared all-out war on this same majority of the population.

Alas, these passions, once unleashed, could not be stopped, when it mattered politically, in 1944–5. Soviet soldiers went on a rampage when prudence dictated restraint by a victor who had long abandoned its initial, irrational, and utterly panicked call for an all-out war of extermination.