Michael Geyer
War by Any Means
Part 3 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 Samuel N. Harper Professor of German and European History at the University of Chicago.
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.
3. War by any means

When, on 22 June 1941, the Third Reich invaded the Soviet Union with overwhelming force, it crushed through the mass of Soviet forces deployed along the western border in the newly occupied territories and in three prongs pushed deep into Soviet territory. Soviet casualties were enormous. Time and again, the Red Army appeared to be teetering on the abyss. The Red Air Force was nearly wiped out. But although German forces pushed ever deeper, the Soviet defenders fought tenaciously and slowed the German thrust sufficiently to overthrow German expectations.

Many historians consider the Battle of Smolensk a key turning point in this respect. By the same token, as horrific as Soviet casualties were, the Red Army and the Soviet regime managed to stage a fighting retreat. Neither the army nor the regime shattered as Hitler had expected. That they proved to be far sturdier than foreseen exacerbated the debate within the German military and political leadership of how, if at all, this enemy could be defeated.

The Soviet army and the regime fought back and they fought aggressively to a fault. They took on the enemy by whatever means available (“pikes, swords, home-made weapons, anything you can make in your own factories”), and they drove home the point as quickly as possible that anyone who did not do likewise would be treated as an enemy as well.

The immediate reflex of the Soviet military was not to organize defensive battles or retreat to defense positions, but to attack. The goal of battle, not unlike the German doctrine, was the complete destruction of the enemy. On 22 June 1941, at 0715 hours, the People’s Commissar of Defense ordered “the Soviet forces to engage the enemy with all means at their disposal and annihilate them.”

 This strategy of relentless counterattack was improved over time, but never abandoned, as the fighting at Moscow in 1941–2, Operation Mars in 1942, and the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk in 1942 and 1943 show. While many rank and file soldiers made a run for it or surrendered, enough refused to give up and kept on fighting doggedly.

A small minority of civilians (largely communists), NKVD personnel, and some surrounded Red Army units went into hiding and started partisan warfare behind the enemy’s lines. These were, to be sure, futile attempts at this stage of the war, but they did have the desired effect of provoking disproportionate German reprisals.

The standard accounts of the beginning of the war stress the lack of Soviet preparations, the chaos, and incompetence. As far as military and strategic readiness is concerned, this is very much to the point. The Soviet armed forces were in the middle of an enormous expansion and a partial redeployment to new positions. Equipment had not arrived and the available technology was substandard.

Trained personnel were lacking as were the necessary technology and infrastructure to keep the tanks rolling and the planes flying; because radios were a rarity, communication in battle both within a branch of arms and across different arms was hard or impossible. The officer corps had been subjugated (and partially decimated) in the Great Purges; there was a lack of qualified leadership on all levels, at times including such basic “qualifications” as mere literacy or the ability to read a map; and the power of political officers (reintroduced shortly after the invasion) predominated over that of military specialists. The army was, in other words, in shambles.

However, seen from a different vantage point, the Soviet Union was very much ready for war. This was a society which in many ways resembled a wartime economy in peacetime. The Soviet system was conceived during what Peter Holquist has called a “continuum of crisis” stretching between World War I and the end of the Russian civil war in 1921.

The mono-organizational society which emerged in this cauldron of violence was, in terms of institutional structure and a whole range of practices, a child of total war. The language and thought of Bolshevism were highly militaristic, too. Communists loved to talk of “fronts” and “assaults” even when talking about plainly civilian matters.

The party itself was understood in military terms as the “vanguard” of the proletariat. Stalin’s Revolution from Above was a reaction to perceived military threats, and the explicit goal was the creation of an industrialized society which could withstand modern warfare. The result was a highly centralized polity already mobilized in peacetime and thus well prepared for war.

In terms of mentality, also, much of Soviet society was already mobilized. War had been a recurrent phenomenon in the forty years since the turn of the century. And these wars became more and more total: the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 was still a relatively conventional conflict, although it already drew in enough of civilian society to trigger a first revolution in 1905.

World War I necessitated the mobilization of all resources for the war effort and overtaxed the imperial political system; Russia imploded into two revolutions in 1917 which triggered the civil war of 1918–21 – a truly total, if not “totalitarian” war that not only called for the complete mobilization of resources by the warring parties, but also undid the distinction between combatant and noncombatant.

In this war, the goal was not to force concessions out of the adversary (“politics by other means”), but to produce complete physical destruction of the enemy and all his allies. In the mentality born of this conflict – which would form part of the ground on which Stalinism was built – politics became an extension of war, not the other way around.

The experience of unfettered violence formed the mental background to the peculiarly Soviet reaction to the German invasion. This was not a society where peace was normal and war best avoided. This was a political system “whose innate harshness replicated life in the military in many ways.” In principle, war was seen as inevitable and had been expected for decades.

A children’s novel of the 1920s not only predicted world Communism to arrive by the late 1950s, but also made it clear to its young readership what to expect between the miserable present and the bright future – revolutionary war as world war. The Civil War in Spain was a major staple of popular culture in the 1930s, and movies with titles like If Tomorrow Brings War (1938) celebrated the coming conflict.

Soviet citizens fantasized about “Spain” in their daydreams, which they recorded in their diaries; at night they sometimes dreamed their way into the slaughter, participating in a more heroic reality than their mundane and often numbing everyday existence afforded. Soon, they could act out such wishes in real life.

A particularly impressive example of this psychological-cum-cultural preparation for the coming conflict and one’s own likely violent death was the writer Alexander Afinogenov. In 1940 he started writing a play called On the Eve. It documented “the eve and the first days of the great war that, he was sure, was imminent.” Within days of the beginning of Barbarossa, the play was commissioned and the author “had only to endow the abstract enemy forces of his first draft with the faces of the invading Nazi forces.”

The symbolic means to engage the coming violence were thus readily available. Russian nationalism had developed as a strong theme throughout the 1930s, which explains why the conflict could be termed the (Great) Patriotic War right from the outset. The corollary – the repression, deportation, or execution of members of “enemy nations” – was also not a result of the war but an escalation of practices of the past decade.

The criminalization of captivity was, likewise, in place. Already the Criminal Code of 1926 had defined “giving oneself over to the enemy” (sdat’sia v plen) as treason, if it was not caused by the “battle situation”; in the 1930s, the security organs were keenly interested in people who had been POWs during World War I or in the Soviet-Polish war; and during the winter war with Finland in 1939-40 recovered captives had been treated as traitors.

The Red Army’s propaganda apparatus threatened soldiers already on 24 June 1941 with “the highest form of punishment” for the “treason and betrayal” of “giving oneself into captivity.” The repressive policies against POWs connected to Stalin’s order No. 270 of 16 August 1941 were thus just reinforcements and radicalizations of what was already in place.

Something similar can be said about the brutality against their own troops, which would characterize the wartime Red Army and which was symbolized in the famous “blocking detachments.” New disciplinary regulations introduced on 12 October 1940 had given commanders far-reaching authority to punish subordinates – including “employing force or weapons.”

Finally, the hate propaganda which became so central to the war effort of the Soviets had a history which went back at least as far as World War I and the Civil War. The representation of the animal like German soldier in wartime posters was not simply a symbolic expression of the enemy’s real-life monstrosity. It was that, too, but it also drew on an established pictorial repertoire – the fascist monster of the 1930s.

Soviet propagandists were thus ready for this war, and the atrocity agitation was at full pitch long before German behavior could confirm these expectations. Moreover, important groups of Soviet citizens – what we might call the cadres of totalitarian violence –  were not only mentally, but also practically prepared for this war. A (due to the purges) thinning, but nevertheless important section of the officer corps had gained prior wartime experience in the fierce Russian and Spanish Civil Wars.

 In fact, the top circles of power during the war years included many men whose worldview was deeply influenced by the savage fighting of 1918–21 – Timoshenko, Voroshilov, Kulik, Budennyi, Zhukov, and of course Stalin himself. The latter’s conduct during the Civil War pointed to things to come – preference for severe discipline and force over persuasion, callous sacrifice of soldiers, and disregard for obscene casualty numbers.

Likewise, the civilian population included people like Iosif Prut, an utterly peaceful scriptwriter, who two decades earlier had liquidated anti-Soviet rebels in Central Asia, delivering the head of one of these “bandits” as proof of an accomplished mission to his commander.93 Such men brought their knowledge of all-out civil warfare with them into the army. They joined thousands of younger communists who had participated in the civil war against the peasantry in the early 1930s and had been well-enough schooled in dialectics to see the violence of collectivization and the ensuing mass famine as historically necessary and thus progressive.

Finally, large numbers of NKVD personnel had learned during the Great Purges that the physical destruction of enemies – even potential foes – was part of the course of revolutionary action. And, of course, Stalin himself thought of violence as a normal ingredient of political struggle.

 Once his empire expanded beyond its initial borders (Poland 1939, the Baltic states and Bessarabia in 1940), the subjected peoples were treated to a terror regime at times bordering on genocide. The forest of Katyn, where in 1940 several thousand Polish officers were buried after their execution on direct orders by the Politburo, became the symbol for the brutality of Stalin’s “revolution from abroad.”

 While the Nazi fantasy world of Aryan people of light locked in mortal combat with bloodthirsty Jewish-Bolshevik subhumans of the night has little to recommend itself as a description of reality, the Germans did not need to invent much when it came to the brutality of Stalin’s regime. The Katyn mass graves, as well as the 1941 slaughter of at least 8,789 and maybe as many as 100,000 prisoners, whose corpses were left behind by retreating NKVD troops, are the most infamous examples.

These horrific episodes, which German propagandists quickly seized upon and the Soviets immediately denied, were consistent with the “mass operations of repression of anti-Soviet elements” in 1937 and 1938, when all kinds of undesirables had been liquidated. The main difference was that in the late 1930s carefully planned quotas for shootings were distributed, while in 1941 the massacres happened in the chaos of retreat. Also reminiscent of the Great Terror was the initial hunt for scapegoats for the military catastrophe of the first weeks of war – frontline generals were accused of treason, arrested, and shot.

In this immediate escalation of self-defense into a civil war against enemies within as well as without, the Soviet leadership could rely on the loyalty of a core group of cadres ready to defend “the revolution,” cost it what it may. Such support, however, was not enough to win this war. It was clear that the majority of Soviet citizens – the peasants and ex-peasants against whom the regime had waged war since collectivization – were unlikely to fight for Bolshevism.

Already in 1928 Stalin had predicted that in case of an attack, the regime needed to be prepared to hold out for six months, as this was the time “the peasant” needed “to come to his senses, become familiar with the dangers of war, to understand what’s going on and pull himself together for the common task of defending the country.”

In order to help the muzhiki familiarize themselves with these dangers the regime immediately radicalized the conduct of war, once it became clear that the Red Army was unable to stop the German juggernaut at the border. All-out war would, it was hoped, slow the German advance long enough for “the peasant” to come “to his senses.” On 29 June the government ordered the complete evacuation or destruction of “all valuable property” and the immediate organization of guerrilla warfare if a region had to be abandoned to the enemy.

 Shortly thereafter, in his first public appearance after the invasion, the Supreme Commander called the German challenge a “matter of life and death of the Soviet state, of life and death of the peoples of the USSR.” This was “no ordinary war” and it would be fought with all means necessary. All of society immediately was to be mobilized for war; soldiers and civilians were told to “defend every inch of Soviet soil, fight to the last drop of blood for our towns and villages,” while those who refused to do so – “whiners and cowards, panic-mongers and deserters” – had no place “in our ranks.”

When retreat was unavoidable, anything the enemy could use – from means of transport to fuel, from cows to grain – was to be either evacuated or destroyed; in the occupied territories a partisan war was to be unleashed, destroying infrastructure, attacking the German troops and their collaborators, killing them wherever they were to be found and thus to “create unbearable conditions for the enemy.”

This was a program for total war and a radicalization of the initial response, formulated by Molotov immediately after the German invasion. Still expecting that the Red Army could stop the aggressor quickly, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs focused on “bloodthirsty fascists” as the enemy, who had forced “the German people” into this war. He asked for discipline and patriotism, but not for an all-out war.

 This was on 24 June. By early July, the Soviets had clearly taken off whatever gloves they might have worn. However, it was not yet a program for a war of extermination against the invaders. That was the next step, a further radicalization caused by the experience with the German conduct of war. Four months after his initial address to the Soviet people, in a speech on 6 November 1941, Stalin quoted from captured Wehrmacht documents and accepted warfare on German terms:

The German invaders want a war of extermination (istrebitel’naia voina) with the peoples of the USSR. Well, then, if the Germans want a war of extermination, they will get it. (Thunderous, lengthy applause).

Henceforth our task, the task of the peoples of the USSR, the task of the soldiers, commanders and political workers of our army and navy will be to exterminate (istrebit’) each and every German who has forced his way as an occupier onto our homeland. (Thunderous applause; exclamations: “‘That’s right!” Shouts of “Hurray!”)

No mercy to the German occupiers! Death to the German occupiers! (Thunderous applause).

This speech was widely propagated at the front, flanked by talks with titles such as “Atrocities of the Fascist cannibals towards captured and wounded Red Army soldiers, commanders, and political workers.”  In the process, the few subtleties of the message quickly got lost – in Stalin’s careful wording this was a program to exterminate, not “each and every German” but “each and every German who has forced his way as an occupier onto our homeland.”

“Excesses” could thus be blamed on subordinates, but the main goal was reached. Confronted with an enemy who promised not just to defeat the Bolsheviks but to annihilate them and enslave whatever was left of the Soviet people the response was a complete, total war of annihilation of the enemy by whatever means necessary and at whatever cost to their own side.

As the Supreme Commander advised his military leaders on 13 November 1941, the best way to deal with Germans entrenched in a village was to “completely destroy the settlement and burn it to the ground,” burying the enemy under the rubble.

This radicalization of war making was one aspect of the attempt to concentrate the mind of “the peasant.” Brutal discipline, the threat and actual administration of violence against those unwilling or unable to fight, and the systematic unleashing of the passions of war through a savage atrocity propaganda were the other aspects of the program.

The results were at times so counterproductive that by early 1942, Stalin tried to pull back a little. In an order to the troops on the anniversary of the founding of the Red Army, the Supreme Commander stressed that the Soviet Union was waging a defensive war of liberation, not an offensive, imperialist war of conquest:

Sometimes the foreign media jabber, that the Red Army has the goal to exterminate (istrebit’) the German people and to destroy the German state. That, of course, is stupid nonsense and silly slander of the Red Army. The Red Army could not have such idiotic goals. It would be funny to identify Hitler’s clique with the German people, the German state. History teaches that the Hitler’s come and go, but the German people, the German state, live on.

The Red Army captures German soldiers and officers and saves their lives, if they surrender. The Red Army destroys German soldiers and officers, if they refuse to put down their weapons and [continue] to attempt, gun in hand, to enslave our Homeland. “If the enemy does not surrender, he will be destroyed.”

It seems that this was meant as a real de-escalation of the war of extermination, not just as an address to the Allies or enemy soldiers. German military intelligence learned in December 1941 that officers had prohibited the wild shooting of prisoners. Ambiguities remained, however. The new pronouncement was promoted to the troops together with the November call for a war of extermination.

Speeches and lectures, talks and articles informed the front line that the Red Army “destroys German soldiers if they refuse to put down their weapons and [continue] to attempt to enslave our Homeland.” The stress was still on destruction, and the alternative was hidden in incomplete excerpts: “If the enemy does not surrender, he will be destroyed.” (Toward the enemy lines, the message was more straightforward: “The Red Army captures German soldiers and officers and saves their lives, if they surrender.”)

 Still, this was a partial de-escalation, flanked also by attempts to change the approach to senseless sacrifice of men. A month after Stalin’s speech, a directive of the Military Council of the Western Front ordered commanders to stop the “thoughtless” and “abnormal” approach to infantry losses and punish those guilty. In May 1942, Stalin advised the leaders of the South-Western front to learn to fight less bloodily, “as the Germans do it.”

Meanwhile the Soviet regime in general and Stalin in particular had reasserted control and discipline after months of ferocious fighting. All energies were now concentrated on winning the war, and the control of many nonessential sectors was all but given up. The management of housing and the consumption of the civilian population devolved onto the local and sometimes enterprise level, cultural policies were relaxed, the Orthodox Church was drafted into the war effort, and after an initial reinstatement of the authority of the irritating commissars on 16 July 1941, unity of command was firmly given to the officer corps from 9 October 1942 onward.

At the top, the party-state had been centralized in the new State Defense Committee (GKO) with Stalin at its head, but its members, bestowed with plenipotentiary powers, were much freer to act than they had been in the 1930s. They became “semiautonomous leaders.” Access to the top decision makers was relatively unrestricted for high-level military as well as civilian leaders, who could now show up uninvited if matters demanded. Republic and regional authorities were strengthened, too, to help them solve problems and reach production targets. Stalin did meddle with military affairs, but by and large he functioned as a central coordinator and let the professionals do their work.

Everything was now geared toward making the Red Army, not least with Lend & Lease support, into a more efficient, more motorized, more industrial, and more lethal force – nothing else mattered. In the end, in 1943–4 Stalin did get what he had spoken of in 1941 – a mass army with an industrialized core. It is easy to overstress the level of mechanization – the “army of quality” made up maybe 20 percent of the overall forces; cavalry played an important role in the war of movement until the end; and requisitioned peasant carts rather than Studebaker trucks made infantry units able to keep up with the tank forces. This war was won by the horse as much as the tank.

Nevertheless, this (given the casualties) new army was now able to use tank forces “effectively” and implement prewar theories of “deep battle” – the Soviet equivalent of the Blitzkrieg. It was, if not better trained, better equipped, more mobile, and altogether more efficient and effective in fighting war. It was the army that overwhelmed the defenses of Army Group Center in 1944 in the most stunning battle victory of World War II and in January 1945 began its fighting advance toward Berlin that crushed the remnants of the German Army of the East.

 This military recovery allowed a de-escalation of the all-out war against enemies within and without. A more forward-thinking military now began to view civilians and soldiers left behind the front in German-occupied territory not only as likely traitors but also as potential partisans.

 And not least, the Soviet regime began to pursue a more active, revolutionary politics that aimed to draw Germans in POW camps, at the front, and even back in Germany (by way of letters written by prominent POWs) onto their side, having abandoned its initial internationalism following the first flush of the German attack. By the same token, the Soviet regime was the first major combatant to turn to war crimes trials in the effort to separate (military and civilian) criminals from the mass of Germans that fought the war.

We telescope this entire development because the problem that we face is how and why this militarily superior and, effectively, newly recruited and trained army turned out to be the one that engaged in massive atrocities, rape, pillage, and sadistic murder in its sweep into central Europe and into the German lands long after the initial call for a war of extermination against the aggressor had been given up – and this is quite apart from the systematic pursuit of a political strategy that aimed at securing Soviet control of the liberated and occupied territories.

Again, we ask our readers to hold their judgment for the moment, because part and parcel of this story is the way in which the German conduct of war reacted first to the tenacity of the Soviet retreat, which turned the notion of a short war into an illusion, and, after 1942–3, to the inexorable advance of Soviet forces against a retreating Wehrmacht.