Michael Geyer
Extreme Violence
Part 4 of “States of Exception: The Nazi-Soviet War as a System of Violence, 1939-1945” is below:
To read the complete Chapter including footnotes, click here.
     • To read Part 1, “Nazi-Soviet War as a System of Violence,” click here.
     • To read Part 2, “Operation Barbarossa,” click here.
     • To read Part 3, “War by Any Means,” click here.
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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4. Extreme violence

The sense of vulnerability even in victory was greatly exacerbated by the nature of the Russian retreat. It confirmed the prejudices many of the Wehrmacht officers and soldiers harbored and played into the hands of Nazi propaganda. As before with the German escalation of violence, reality (of Soviet ruthlessness) trumped imagination.

There was an element of protective rhetoric involved, but German soldiers and officers also recognized, as they did with increasing frequency in late fall and winter 1941–2, that they confronted their own escalation of violence when encountering starving and freezing women, children, and emaciated Soviet POWs.

At this point, not unlike in World War I, soldiers entered a space of combat, in which they only had themselves and their value judgments to depend on. In this situation, it mattered immensely that the only “virtue” drilled into them and repeated by propaganda was unrestrained ruthlessness in pursuit of victory – or utter defeat.

The immediate response to Soviet atrocities was a brutalization of war making. We tend to think of brutalization in terms of mass murder and of the mind- set of perpetrators. But mass murder, in which Wehrmacht units although frequent participants were not the main actors, occurred in the context of a groundswell of military acts of cruelty.

A typical case in point was the use of human shields, as, for example, in the effort to seize Brest against desperate resistance; typical also was the murder of prisoners of war who seemed dangerous or were ballast for the advancing troops (or for the detachments that guarded them); reckless destruction and unstoppable pilfering in the guise of living off the land were frequently mentioned.

Hostage taking and shooting were routine, as were the seizure, internment, and murder of suspect civilians and the bombardment of civilian evacuees in flight. We know of many of these incidents only because commanding officers perceived of them as threats to their unit’s discipline. In the first instance, these acts of cruelty indicate the everyday reality of the “criminal orders” among frontline units. They made cruelty a routine matter.

Cruelty was justified with reference to Soviet atrocities. German soldiers responded fiercely to the shooting of wounded soldiers and especially to (the actual experience and rumors of) mutilations of their bodies. They retaliated in kind and closed ranks for fear of falling into the hands of the enemy. The presumption of treachery in the civilian population, again backed up mostly by rumor, increased the readiness to destroy and kill. German soldiers reacted violently to the fighting retreat of the Soviet forces with their scorched earth tactics.

Soldiers came to anticipate booby-trapped buildings or delayed mines in towns; they faced the decomposing victims of Soviet political murders with mind-numbing regularity; they were confronted with a remarkably efficient system for the evacuation of people and things and the systematic destruction of what was left behind; they abhorred the sheer destructiveness of the Soviet retreat. The shocking reality of Soviet retreat clearly excited their imagination.

It led to a brutalization of their conduct, a readiness to use excessive force, and rallied them behind calls for an escalation of violence. In response to Soviet self-defense, German soldiers, whether Nazis or not, developed a dogged determination to crush a fiendish enemy – exactly the kind of image that the propaganda for Barbarossa had insinuated.

This shared resolve made it easier, much easier, for the many and diverse human beings that made up the Army of the East to think of the war against the Soviet Union as “another place” in which only the ruthless would survive and norms of civility could and would be set aside. It generated a kind of solidarity that over time would make the Wehrmacht into a people’s army – a fighting body unified by their experience of a war of survival.

However, it was fear, the sheer terror of survival, that made the Army of the East into a “community of fate” that was ready to use extraordinary violence as a matter of course. If you are in hell, you do as the devil does:

We are a sworn community of fate, together we know how to find a way to die. ...I give orders to shoot so and so many commissars and partisans without even blinking (besinnungslos); it is him or me – it is damned simple. ... [W]e are fighting here for our own naked lives, daily and hourly, against an enemy who in all respects is far superior.

This was the cri de coeur not of a simple soldier, but of Lieutenant General Stieff writing home on 7 December 1941. The Soviet counteroffensive   had broken his sense of invincibility; he hung on for dear life and fought a merciless war. Panic and a good deal of hysteria replaced the sense of invincibility that had predominated only months earlier. “Whoever talks about winning? Surviving is everything!”

Stieff’s response marks in an exemplary fashion the end point of a process, in which experience and expectation had been adjusted, within the bounds of common prejudice, in the rapidly escalating violence of Operation Barbarossa. His comment was an early sign of things to come. German soldiers increasingly fought without hope for a future – and with few escapes. Survival was the rule of the game – and now the old   rule did apply: Not kennt kein Gebot. Alas, it still mattered who defined the exception.

The winter panic, while important for reshuffling the military leadership and putting Hitler in command of the army, was momentary. The more important aspect was the replacement of the programmatic overkill of Operation Barbarossa, by what many historians quite correctly perceive as a more pragmatic conduct of war.

The only problem is that – contrary to the meaning of pragmatism – this more pragmatic approach also turned out to be the far more radical one. In 1941–2 Nazi Germany and, in this context, the Army of the East, entered a phase of extermination warfare. Three dimensions of this war- fare require our attention: the war against the Jews, which reached its apogee in 1942–3; the war with and against the Soviet population, which climaxed in the same two years; and the systematic pursuit of scorched earth tactics in 1943–4. In these years, war radicalized – in actual fact was radicalized – by a series of German decisions that defined the exception as a murderous life-or-death- struggle across the entire territory of the Soviet Union.

This three-pronged radicalization was the distinctly German imprint on the war. When the Red Army finally gained the upper hand in summer 1944, war continued to be exceedingly cruel in the subjection of German civilians. It was certainly deadlier than ever for the German forces, but it ceased to be a life-and-death struggle. Germany and the Germans, contrary to what Nazi ideologues believed, would suffer grievously under Soviet control, but they would survive.

The strategic background for this transition was the recognition that the Soviet Union would not fall and that the Nazi-Soviet war would continue. It was equally shaped by the fact that, beginning in December 1941, the Third Reich fought a global war. The main consequence at home was a reluctant mobilization of the civilian population. This mobilization was accompanied by an initially hesitant reconsideration of the industrial labor and, more unwillingly, the military value of populations in the East, including prisoners of war.

Ideological reluctance, foremost expressed by Hitler, was bested by crude efficiencies. Women were mobilized; “Slavic” auxiliaries were used in the Wehrmacht and recruited by force for work behind the front (Organisation Todt), as well as for industry and agriculture in the Reich.

We find a parallel recalibration of the conduct of war – from a Barbarossa-type overkill to the systematic pursuit of extermination of all those whom the Nazi (and military) leadership defined as their deadly enemies. What emerged from this recalibration of war was a thoroughly racialized and mobilized Nazi “community of fate.”

This war of extermination was fractured into many micro theaters. Systematic destruction bent to local circumstances. But effectively a military and eventually a German “community of fate” fought war as an all-out life-and-death struggle, a war of bare life as it were, on both an external and an internal front. This was not a war imposed on Germany. Typically, it was a war the military and political leadership chose to fight – and chose preemptively to fight in a situation in which they were no longer in full control of their future, although the possibility of defeat was still far off.

The key to the recalibration of war was the extermination of any and all Jews in the German sphere of control.   Indications for this radicalization of the war against the Jews were omnipresent in October/November 1941 – with the mass killings of Jews as hostages in Serbia, mass executions of entire communities (men, women, and children) in Galicia, the beginning deportation of German Jews into eastern ghettos, and not least the establishment of camps designed for the purpose of murdering people en masse.

This turn was firmed up in December 1941 with explicit reference to the strategic situation and, subsequently, worked into a bureaucratic modus operandi under the leadership of Himmler and his security apparatus at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. What matters about these deliberations is the recognition by the Nazi leadership that the “final solution” of the “Jewish problem” could not wait until after victory. “In the final analysis,” Hermann Go¨ring made clear, the war “is about whether the German and Aryan prevails here, or whether the Jew rules.”

Therefore, the comprehensive and systematic campaign against the Jewish populations in Europe was fought, as a war on the interior front, in its own theater of war, and it was fought as a war of extermination, the killing of any and all. It reached its high point in 1942, when nearly one-half of all Jews killed in the entire war were murdered. But the campaign did not let up until the Third Reich was defeated and conquered.

This was neither extermination under the guise of war nor extreme violence accompanying “ethnic cleansing.” Rather Jews were identified as “the most perilous enemy” in a war that the Nazis fought to the death. The campaign for the extermination of the Jewish population also proved to be the most lethal campaign of the entire war.

It is no coincidence that the first people killed in the new extermination facility in Auschwitz were politically suspect Soviet prisoners of war. The destruction of the social institutions and agents of the Soviet regime had been the war plan for the campaign against the Soviet Union all along. But in late 1941 this war began to stretch and was fought without fronts.

While the war planners had a highly developed sense of racial (and political, ethnic, religious) differences and while the theaters of war were institutionally subdivided between security forces and military forces, all enemies of the Third Reich and any conceivable form of overt or covert opposition came under attack in a war that covered with increasing ferocity and lethality all fronts and stretched from the zone of “combined” (military and security) operations all the way back to Germany with its millions of slave laborers.

In this war “pragmatism,” the concentration on military functionality, proved to be the crooked path to hell, because pragmatism was always already front loaded. Hell was a place, in which small “communities of fate,” outmatched frontline troops, undermanned security forces in the rear areas, and an increasingly brutal security force in the occupied territories as well as overage police forces at home, did whatever it took to terrorize an unruly enemy population into submission and to keep the Red Army at bay by all means available.

There was always concern that more violence, an even harsher regime of fighting, could only worsen the situation by strengthening resistance. Starvation plans were modified; collaboration was encouraged. The German appeals, much to the chagrin of the more ideologically committed leadership (above   all Hitler), met with considerable success even in 1943–4. Stalin’s fears about the unreliability of Soviet peoples were quite warranted because collaboration proved essential for the German war effort (and is still understudied).

The Army of the East alone came to use more than a half-million Soviet workers, and likely many more, and that does not account for all those who were dragooned into labor services for the armed forces behind the front and in the rear. But none of this altered the fact that the war at the front and in the rear became not less, but more destructive. Indeed, it turned into a war of extermination in its own right. The ideologically preplanned subjection of the local populations, the use of selective terror to deter resistance was “radicalized” into a pervasive regime of massacre, starvation, and spoliation.

The Wehrmacht and the rear administration had every reason to be more prudent in their treatment of the local population – and this is what many frontline and rear formations set out to do, only to push themselves ever deeper into a quagmire of their own making.  There was never enough food for everyone. Because locals resisted labor recruitment and demand increased exponentially, German authorities turned ever more violent in their efforts.

On top of all this were extra requisitions, surtaxes, and a host of restrictions that defined the situation on the ground: the wasteful neglect of the colonial fantasies of 1941 gave way to ever more unconstrained and out- right vicious forms of exploitation and spoliation that covered everything and everybody and made a mockery out of professions of prudence. By 1942–3, the comprehensiveness and severity of exploitation ran well ahead of all but the most hard-core ideological imagination – again not everywhere and all the time, but enough to taint German rule forever.

Systematic and violent coercion became the pervasive feature of exploitation. If pillage, living off the land, was the political and economic end of violence, it merged increasingly with the sheer physical destruction of people and habitat in the war against partisans. Antipartisan warfare has received a great deal of attention, which tends to focus on the gradations of brutality.

As it turns out even the most unrelenting commanders in the antipartisan effort had second thoughts and units acted according to their own judgment of the situation more or less brutally.  But differential brutality only matters inasmuch as it occurs in a spectrum of violence, which overall shifted dramatically. We discover in the context of antipartisan warfare that there is a distinct “grammar” of extreme violence.

Again, we need to recapitulate the situation in 1941. Even then the danger of partisans was not entirely made up by the German conquerors. Mostly undermanned German security forces, which were primed to ferret out racial enemies, faced huge numbers of armed men in a situation in which they were incapable of controlling the conquered territory. Himmler’s famous notation of 18 December 1941, “Jewish question/exterminate as partisans,” shows the racialized intent of partisan warfare.

Himmler and others like Heydrich, quite typical for the Berlin leadership, indeed thought that they could use the war as subterfuge for their final solution of the Jewish problem. But these ideas also exuded a sense of superiority and control that was even fantastic in 1941 and was slipping away in 1941–2 and was completely gone in 1943. As we discovered, the “Jewish question,” notwithstanding Himmler’s comment to that end, was not resolved as a partisan issue.

In turn, the partisan question gained urgency in its own right – and it was resolved with an all-out war of terror against partisans and increasingly against the entire civilian population in partisan-controlled or endangered territories. By and large the commanders of the rear security forces were keenly aware of the dilemma they faced. They depended on the goodwill of the population, but goodwill, which was already tested by requisitioning, labor recruitment, and corve´es, was undermined by brutal antipartisan tactics.

 The more prudent commanders resolved the problem by prohibiting excess, disciplining arbitrariness and brutality. But they were moving –  and driven by Führer directives in 1942 – to ever harsher measures all the same. Directive 46 of 28 October 1942 stated unequivocally: “In the entire eastern territory the war against the partisan is a fight for the complete extermination.” Therefore, it had to be fought with “utter brutality,” which was made possible by granting complete immunity in the fight against partisans.

In 1942–3 antipartisan warfare became the quintessence of what we call the “radicalization of war.” Harshness defined as “complete extermination” is certainly one feature. But there is more. First, all Germans on site (and collaborators, although the use of local forces remained a divisive issue) irrespective of function and status were called upon to partake in partisan warfare. Second, partisan territory and its entire population were made into targets of German all-out attacks.

That is, partisans were killed, the population deported, animals and foodstuffs were requisitioned, and villages, towns, as well as infrastructure were destroyed. The end result, particularly in the partisan-controlled areas of Belorussia, was so-called Tote Zonen, dead zones, which were stripped bare and made uninhabitable. The term for this, Verwustung (desertification), is telling and entirely appropriate.

Under these circumstances pacification was impossible and was no longer even intended. This was extreme violence, in which the winner took all – all male and female labor, all foodstuffs, all animals, all shelter – and fought the enemy “without restraint (ohne Einschra¨ nkung) also against women and children with every means.”

In February 1943, Himmler suggested that all males suspected of partisan activities should be deported as forced labor; in summer 1943 Hitler   ordered the full-scale evacuation of the “partisan-infected” territory of the northern Ukraine. Such “evacuations” of entire territories had been practiced by the retreating Red Army in 1941 and they had become a German tactic in the first Soviet counterattack in winter 1941–2. Again, we have the typical warnings over a lack of discipline, arbitrary plunder and pilfering, and the “by now customary burn-offs.”

 But practice pointed in the opposite direction, the ever more comprehensive and encompassing use of scorched earth tactics that aimed at utter spoliation and desertification of the country left behind. The forced evacuation – in September 1943 of 900,000 in the area of Army Group Center – and destruction left behind a territory that was made uninhabitable, populated by the weak and unproductive, who were pushed toward the enemy and were lucky if they were not used as human shields. In 1943, radical partisan warfare and scorched earth retreat combined in a conduct of war that only knew survivors and vanquished.

The year 1943 is the culmination point of a war that was started as the ideological fantasy of colonial conquest and ended in the extreme violence of   a deliberately chosen life-and-death struggle, a war by all means against an entire territory and its people. It is in this situation that the distinction between brutalization and radicalization of war collapses (much as it collapsed in the Holocaust). Brutality had become an aspect of the grammar of war.

There was no escape and little room for decency. It was the German conquerors and their collaborators against the rest of the population and against the Soviet regime – and it was the German side that set out to eradicate sustainable life on their retreat. This war was won by the Soviet regime – and not simply in a metaphorical sense.

When finally, on 22 June 1944 (Operation Bagration), three years after the war began with the German conquest, Soviet forces smashed through Army Group Center in the greatest victory of Soviet forces, the ground was prepared by Soviet partisans who effectively destroyed the communications and transportation infrastructure, blinding the enemy, and thus liberated Soviet territory from the German yoke.

There was still a long way to Berlin, but now the definition of the exception lay in Soviet hands. The question, therefore, was whether there would be survival for the defeated Germans – life which the Germans had denied to their enemy first in a bout of ideological overkill and subsequently in a pragmatic radicalization of war into a life-and-death-struggle, which the Nazi leadership firmly believed could only end in the complete destruction of one or the other and, hence, prepared for self-destruction.