Michael Geyer
When practice exceeds expectation: Operation Barbarossa
Part 2 of “States of Exception: The Nazi-Soviet War as a System of Violence, 1939-1945” is below:
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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
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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.
2. When practice exceeds expectation: Operation Barbarossa

Preparations for the war against the Soviet Union commenced on 31 July 1940 with Hitler’s order “to finish off Russia” amidst wider strategic deliberations concerning the continuation of war. Directive 21, of 18 December 1940, established the goal of the military operation: to envelop and destroy the vast majority of Soviet forces “in a quick campaign” while preventing their retreat by way of deep penetration.

With the Red Army annihilated, a new defense perimeter against “Asian Russia” would be established along a general line reaching from Arkhangel’sk to the river Volga. Although there were cautionary voices, the goal seemed attainable, because the Red Army appeared ill equipped and badly trained, and the Soviet Union was expected to fall apart once the Communist regime was destroyed.

The rationale for aggression was strategic: Control of the Russian space and its resources made Germany “invulnerable” in an age of global power. The goal was not occupation, certainly not liberation, but imperial and colonial conquest – the “securing and ruthless exploitation of the land” and settlement in choice areas.

Expectation dictated a war without regard for the enemy. Instead of peace there would be subjugation. By the same token, the Nazi and military leadership agreed that Operation Barbarossa would be war in a new key. This was to be war against a fanatical regime whose agents counted on subversion and treachery and held society in an iron grip. Such wars had for a long time been the staple of nationalist myth, which made war into a heroic life-and-death struggle between races.

But it was World War I that set the mold, forming the experience that haunted the Nazis’ and the Wehrmacht’s leadership in their preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union. In their view Operation Barbarossa was, at one and the same time, an eminently “just war” that ascertained the sovereignty and well-being of the German people in a hostile world and a highly unconventional war. Much could be learned from the past, and especially the German military leadership did not step out of tradition lightly. But there was also a sense that this war would break the mold.

Three initiatives in particular established the ground rules for the conduct of war. First, war would be fought as a combined strategic operation with a military, a security, and an economic component. To this end, a division of labor – typically haphazard, but overall effective – was worked out between the Wehrmacht, Himmler’s security forces, and an economic apparatus (to which we should add the civilian occupation apparatus).

What matters is less the division between the military, security, and political and economic institutions than the shared preparation for the destruction on the Soviet regime and its roots in society and the instant wholesale pillage of people and territory. There was agreement not only on the principle (that enemy groups within the civilian populations must be destroyed), but also on the substance (that Jews and Bolsheviks were the agents of the regime to be annihilated).

Further, it was understood that German requests for provisions were to be satisfied before those of the occupied. The debate on these preparations remains unsettled, but the basic fact is that the German leadership prepared a war against an entire society, attacking with the purpose of destroying the regime and killing its agents in order to exploit what was expected to be inchoate masses – the human and natural resources of the Soviet territory.

The utter disregard for Soviet human life was built into the combined operation to subdue the Soviet Union. The second thrust of preparations focused on generating the “ruthlessness” necessary for fighting a treacherous enemy. Soldiers were to be made ready to fight – not only an enemy army and society, but so-called fanatics and criminals amidst the enemy. Propaganda about the Soviet regime grotesquely played up Jewish-Bolshevik cadres and thus contributed to the everyday brutality of the war.

But the German military had never really banked on images and motivations and did not do so in this case either. Instead, they granted preventative immunity for criminal conduct in the pursuit of war and, because war making targeted the civilian population, impunity also pertained to the “treatment of the local population.”

The Decree on the Exercise of Military Jurisdiction put “military necessity over a consideration what is lawful.” The power of definition rested entirely with the commanding officer, who was also called upon to ascertain military discipline. The purpose was to create an armed force that was at one and the same time unrestrained in pursuit of its goals and a uniquely disciplined instrument in their conduct.

The combination of sheer destructiveness and extreme discipline remained tenuous, but much as we might emphasize bloodlust or the compulsion to kill (“Shoot every Russian that looks askance”), the cold rage of disciplined annihilation was the order of the day and defined German warfare. No doubt, the latter also served as cover for individual and group brutalization.

The third strand of war preparations authorized targeted murder. The Decree for the Treatment of Political Commissars, the famous Commissar Order, ordered that Soviet commissars and other undesirables such as Jews were to be separated in order to be killed. The targeted groups in the Commissar Order were specific, but the Guidelines for the Behavior of Troops in Russia widened the list, demanding “ruthless and energetic measures against Bolshevik agitators, partisans, saboteurs, Jews, and [the] complete eradication of any active or passive form of resistance.”

In the end, the list of people and groups to be executed remained fuzzy. But the main enemy was racial: because the cruel and perfidious war was instigated by the Jewish-Bolshevik regime and its agents, so the main rationale, extermination of Jews and Commissars, was the chief priority. Others – such as female soldiers, Asian minorities, “asocials” – were associated with the main target group, the common military denominator being that they lacked honor and were by their very nature suspect of perfidy.

Targeted killing thus appears both as the prerequisite for bringing down the regime and the means for (re)establishing a more natural order of things. Specific task groups (Einsatzgruppen) were set up in order to expedite the process. Typically, they facilitated killing away from the troops and were supposed to minimize the opportunity for “atrocities” (Metzeleien). As far as the military leadership was concerned, maintaining discipline and, whenever possible, distance was the only qualification for deliberate murder, which otherwise found ready support.

The fervor to get the Army of the East set up for a quick and decisive campaign and the cold passion of avenging defeat and revolution remade the Wehrmacht into a school of extreme violence. Much of what was planned, built on older precedent; a great deal emerged from interwar learning processes about World War I and about the postwar civil wars; but the entire setup amounted to a distinct revolution in military affairs.

First, the plan for a quick and decisive victory that relied on overwhelming force fit the German military tradition. But now any restraints on the use of force were lifted in the pursuit of the war’s goals. Extreme violence was built in as it were. Second, the pursuit of quick and overwhelming victory had produced a great deal of collateral (civilian) death and damages in the past (as in Belgium), but now the murder of entire enemy groups, foremost Bolsheviks and Jews, was premeditated and deemed an essential and necessary condition for victory.

The German conduct of war fused military and civilian elements into an unprecedented, murderous totality. Third, the desire to establish the security of the territory, especially the fear of partisans, had led to hostage taking and shooting already in Belgium in 1914. But the plans for pacification of the occupied territory once again broke the mold in that they made terror the operative principle in the short run and counted on the permanence of violent subordination in the long run (for which task forty to fifty divisions were to be readied after victory).

The colonial precedent looms large, but terror as a tool of pacification was novel. Military planners broke the mold of experience in preparing for Barbarossa. Hitler’s intervention and his overarching rationale were responsible for this development inasmuch as he opened up the opportunity for the all-out pursuit of quick victory.

Thus, while military preparations were utilitarian (how best to achieve quick victory), the recourse to absolute, unrestrained violence was entirely ideological. Not kennt kein Gebot is, of course, an old maxim, but the Wehrmacht leadership prepared for extreme violence because they held that they had to exterminate in order to subject, and not just defeat and occupy, the enemy and its territory.

If the general rule holds that nothing is ever quite as extreme in practice as it is in theory, this rule was the first thing to go, when Operation Barbarossa commenced on 22 June 1941. Historians have rightly cautioned us that the war in the East had many faces, that accommodation was as much an aspect of the war as brutalization. But during Barbarossa the inherent frictions of war did not moderate, but rather unleashed and escalated extreme violence.

Accommodation, wherever and whenever it occurred, was pierced by mass murder and sooner or later gave way to destructive war. Newest research shows how unsettled midlevel German officers in the field were about the unrelenting violence especially against the civilian population and how counterproductive many of them considered it to be. But in 1941 none of this altered the ratcheting up of violence both at the front and behind the front.

Two points are worth making. First, the actual practice of Operation Barbarossa exceeded what had been prepared. Within months, Operation Barbarossa turned from its preplanned security measures to a free fall into utter destruction, callous and inhuman negligence, and all-out extermination.

The murder of targeted enemy groups escalated from the first days of the campaign on. The rapid German advance and the occupation of major cities created conditions of endemic famine – not unlike the “hunger plan” for Soviet cities that had come up in the context of economic preparations for Barbarossa.

There is a heated debate whether such a “plan” existed in the first place, but the practice of war made real what preparations had left in the realm of potentialities. Second, the killing and dying of soldiers and civilians – and there were more civilian casualties than military ones – during the first six months of the war were so horrendous that many historians treat the rest of the war as a continuum of violence.

But the difficult truth is that the escalation of violence during Operation Barbarossa was followed by much worse between 1942 and 1944 – and again in 1944/5. While war rarely follows a linear path, in this war – German and Soviet soldiers agreed – the crooked line led straight to hell.

The reasons for this escalation – alternatively called “barbarization” or “radicalization” by historians – in the conduct of war in summer and fall 1941 are still debated. Was it the preemptive, ideologically motivated overkill of the directives, the criminal decrees, and the guidelines for the troops that were responsible?

Or was it the situation on the ground, the exigencies of a harsh war against an implacable enemy that led from planned overkill to a free fall into extreme violence? There is general agreement that Omer Bartov’s once dominant interpretation does not hold, because the “barbarization” of the conduct of war he describes takes hold before the preconditions he sets for this turn (destruction of small groups, depletion of materiel) become apparent.

We rather see a willful destructiveness at work that escalates relentlessly. This spiral of violence is made more explicit by the internal doubts about the usefulness and, less so, moral appropriateness of ratcheting up violence especially behind the front, without ever being able to stop it. In our view, this escalation across the board during the first months of Barbarossa was conditioned first and foremost by the imperative of decisive victory and the unrestraint that was meant to achieve this end.

This imperative generated a groundswell of violence from the bottom up that was further advanced by the pervasive insecurity due to the quick advance. This situation reminds us of 1914. But again, the difference is telling. The German military had learned from the failure of the Schlieffen Plan that only utmost unrestraint, deliberate overkill, would lead to victory and, therefore, escalation preceded frictions rather than followed them.

However, we must keep in mind that what followed escalation was much worse: a radicalization and recalibration of violence, still in the expectation of victory, but in the knowledge that the war would continue beyond Barbarossa. In 1941, even the victorious advance of the Army of the East was a double-edged affair.

The Wehrmacht appeared to be absolutely invincible and the Soviet enemy infinitely inferior. Even when the military advance was slowed down at Smolensk, there seemed to be nothing that could stop it. A sense of elation captured not just Hitler and the military leadership, but also the rank and file and the people at home.

This euphoria gave rise, in summer 1941, to some of the more elaborate fantasies of turning Russia into a veritable Garden of Eden – a paradise, from which evil was to be expelled once and for all. In Hitler’s flights of rhetoric German happiness unmistakably was linked to purging evil and that was to exterminating the Jewish and the Bolshevik enemy.

We see a rapid escalation of the murderous aspects of the German conduct both from the bottom up and from the top down. Within months the murder of Jews escalated from pogroms and the killing of adult males to the extermination, in September/October 1941, of entire communities of men, women, and children – the beginnings of a systematic and comprehensive practice of extermination.

These murderous effusions of invincibility were also always tinged by the recognition of utter vulnerability. The Army of the East did not slice through the Soviet forces and the Soviet regime did not crumble as was expected. While the Red Army lost nearly 4 million of its soldiers in the German onslaught, it fought tenaciously in an armed retreat. It never folded and radicalized self-defense into all-out destruction.

The frontline troops fought with utter brutality. While more than 3 million soldiers ended in captivity, there were many – especially in the later battles in October and November – who were not captured and formed the nucleus of partisan units – or rather of groups of armed young men roaming the countryside – increasing the insecurity of the territory.

German forces did not suffice to control the hinterland. They were inadequate to guard the prisoners of war. They were unable to supply themselves and the population. And not least, they were outmanned and even outgunned at the front increasingly in November/December 1941.

The response was unequivocal across the board. Deficiencies were mastered with recourse to more brutal fighting at the front, a worsening regime of death marches and mass starvation for prisoners of war, more starvation for the urban population in occupied areas, and more terror in the occupied territories.

Extreme unrestraint was the answer to all frictions. In the last quarter of 1941, practice evolved faster than ideology, but escalatory practice was inconceivable without its underlying ideological justification in the first place.

When victory faded out of sight, the deficiencies of Barbarossa became glaringly obvious. In racing from battle victory to battle victory, the Army of the East dug an ever deeper hole for itself. The troops up front were called upon to fight more relentlessly, the economic agencies plundered more egregiously, and the security forces expanded their mass killings in leaps and bounds.

This escalation of violence was not some kind of anonymous “dynamic,” but it was driven by the precepts that Wehrmacht and Nazi leadership had set for them- selves: to fight without mercy, to treat the conquered population as dispensable, and to kill Jews and Bolsheviks as the instigators of resistance. Especially between September and November 1941, the entire spectrum of violence was relentlessly ratcheted up.

The deleterious reality of the war overtook even the vilest imagination. Long before the situation became truly critical, in the winter counteroffensive of 1941–2, German soldiers, security forces, and occupiers were ready to think of the war they fought as a life-or-death struggle. It was either win and live or lose and die.

And they acted accordingly. The German term for this sentiment was Verbitterung (embitterment). Against all dictates of prudence and against any pangs of mercy, German forces fought with “increasing bitterness.” A series of midlevel orders, most famously the one by General Reichenau, expressed this general sentiment in their own, more or less Nazified language, but they all expressed the conviction that only utter ruthlessness would defeat the enemy. Quite on their own, the soldiers did the Nazis’ bidding and sought their own final solutions for bringing this war to an end.

It is harebrained to deduce that the Soviet Union’s striking back was responsible for the German escalation of violence. The Red Army was responsible for withstanding the German onslaught. It was responsible for undoing the German battle plan and the expectations for a quick victory. It certainly contributed to the feeling of insecurity and the growing bitterness, but if anything German duress reinforced ideology. German soldiers had come to find an exceptional enemy – and they found more of it than they had ever dreamed. Therefore, we must now turn to the Soviet side with the simple caveat to readers that, at this point, they desist from making premature conjectures about the German radicalization of violence that ensued when the spell of German invincibility was broken.