Immeasurable Brutality, the Nazi–Soviet War 1941–1945: An Interview with Jeff Rutherford, PhD

As the anniversaries of Operations Barbarossa and Bagration approach, it is an opportune time to reexamine the immeasurably brutal war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

German soldiers watch as a synagogue in Lithuania burns

Top Photo: German soldiers watch as a synagogue in Lithuania burns, June 1941. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bil 183-L19427/Zoll/CC-BY-SA 3.0

In its scale, fanaticism, and sheer criminality, Nazi Germany’s war against the Soviet Union has few rivals in the history of armed conflict. A titanic struggle fought over incredibly vast spaces—from the Arctic Circle to the Caucasus—the Third Reich’s military, supported by several allies and satellites of Berlin, waged what is universally characterized as a Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation) on the Eastern Front. Aligned with the view held by Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis that the USSR was the bastion of a deadly “Judeo-Bolshevism,” the German army proved a reliable instrument far beyond its combat roles, participating in the Hitler dictatorship’s policies of forced labor and starvation of Soviet POWs and civilians, and in the campaigns targeting for death Jews, Communist Party officials and commissars, and partisans. To gain some perspective on this immeasurably brutal conflict, which took some 25 million to 30 million lives, The National WWII Museum’s Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy reached out to Jeff Rutherford.

Rutherford is a teaching professor of history at Xavier University who specializes in the military and ideological aspects of the Nazi–Soviet War. He is the author of Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front: The German Infantry’s War (2014) and coauthor of The German Army on the Eastern Front: An Inner View of the Ostheer’s Experiences of War (2018), as well as coeditor of Nazi Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941: Total War, Genocide, and Radicalization (2012). His current projects include writing a history of the German army during World War II for Cambridge University Press and editing a collection on the Nazi–Soviet War for Cornell University Press. Jason Dawsey conducted the interview with Professor Rutherford by email in May 2024. 

Jeff Rutherford

Jeff Rutherford

For the better part of two decades, you have been writing about the Nazi–Soviet War in general and the German army on the Eastern Front in particular. How did your interest in this very difficult history develop, and what works inspired your thinking on the subject?

My father sparked my interest quite unintentionally. One of his friends loaned him a copy of an episode of the British series World at War and I sat down and watched it with him. I was immediately fascinated by what was on the screen and became very interested in the Second World War, especially Germany’s war. My parents encouraged this and bought me books on the conflict. Since the idea of the “clean Wehrmacht” dominated popular writing on the army during the 1980s–’90s (and still does to a large extent), I read a lot of operational histories, memoirs, and biographies of men like Erwin Rommel, Erich von Manstein, and Heinz Guderian. These types of books introduced me to the monstrous scale of the military conflict in the east. During my freshman year of college, I took a class with George Stein on Nazi Germany and the war. Stein had written the standard book on the Waffen-SS in 1966 (which wasn’t surpassed in German until 1980 and not in English until 1990), and he suggested I read Omer Bartov’s newly released Hitler’s Army. That book—as well as a slim volume edited by Gerhard Hirschfeld titled The Policies of Genocide that contained translated chapters by Christian Streit and Jürgen Förster—revealed another side of the war in the east. Germany’s criminal war in the east increasingly came into focus for me, as did the importance of ideology for the German political and military leadership, and the individual soldier on the Eastern Front. The stakes of the war against the Soviet Union were existential: only one ideological vision could triumph. This led to a struggle where the clash of armies dwarfed other theaters of war and where the traditional norms of war were simply ignored in pursuit of victory. My career has thus been focused on examining Germany’s war in the east in its totality. Only the integration of battlefield events and brutal occupation policies reveals the scale, savagery, and criminality of the German war.

Among your influences, Michael Geyer has stood out. What elements of Geyer’s contributions to the study of the German armed forces during the Nazi years have shaped what you do?

I first came across Michael Geyer in the 1986 version of Makers of Modern Strategy. I read his chapter, “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare, 1914–1945,” during my undergraduate years and have returned to it time and again in the succeeding decades. It’s simply brilliant. He was one of the first historians I read who deftly situated traditional military history—and by that I mean discussions of doctrine, tactics, and battlefield events—into the larger context of social history. In other words, he placed the Imperial German Army, the Reichswehr, and the Wehrmacht into the societies from which they emerged. His subsequent writings on war and genocide, violence and nationalism, the link between tactics and German soldiers’ participation in mass killings, or the debate within the German military leadership about a levée en masse in 1918 all grapple with what I once heard him term the central question for the Third Reich: why did Germans kill so willingly during the Second World War? My small contribution to this debate has been an attempt to answer why the German army behaved so savagely during the war. His tackling of the big questions and his creativity in doing so are models for younger historians. While I haven’t always agreed with his conclusions, his writings are always extremely suggestive and thought-provoking.

Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb

Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb (center), commander of German Army Group North, studies a map with Colonel General Erich Hoepner (to Leeb’s immediate left), leader of Army Group North’s Panzer Group IV, September 1941. Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-212-0214-08A/Hansen/CC-BY-SA 3.0. 

Your 2014 monograph, Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, emphasizes Army Group North, commanded initially by Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb. Why did you choose to focus on Army Group North, and why does it often go overlooked in popular perceptions of the course of the war on the Eastern Front? 

The focus on Army Group North came about due to a few factors. My initial goal was to follow the path trodden by Bartov and look at three different divisions. In contrast to his approach, which analyzed, for lack of a better word, “elite” divisions—a panzer division, a first-wave infantry division, and the Grossdeutschland Division—I wanted to look at units that were much more representative of German society. I also wanted to compare units that had roughly the same experiences during the war; by keeping as many variables similar as I could, I hoped to be able to make some valid comparisons. Finally, I was just as interested in the army’s occupation policies as I was in combat, so I wanted to look at units that remained in place for an extended period of time. This would allow for the evolution of German occupation policy to come into focus. So my research started by trying to find divisions that fit these into these categories, and I located three units—the 121st, 123rd, and 126th Infantry Divisions—that checked each box.

I also wanted to investigate a theater of war that was relatively neglected. Books on the Battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk are legion, and thus the contours of operations in the central and southern sections of the front are relatively well-known. Outside of the siege of Leningrad, however, events in northwest Russia remained in the shadows. This is largely because after the Germans settled into besieging the city in late 1941, the front remained largely the same for the next two-plus years. Instead of the blitz-campaigns launched by the Germans on Moscow in late fall 1941 and the drive that culminated in the Caucasus and Stalingrad in 1942, or the massive clash of arms around the Kursk salient in 1943, the war in northwest Russia became an attritional struggle that resembled the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. With German armor largely withdrawn from the region to participate in Operation Typhoon, the final attack on Moscow in 1941, the front solidified and, for the next two years, the Germans fought grinding defensive battles against the Red Army’s attempts to breakthrough and roll up German positions. While the fighting along the Volkhov River or in the Ladoga battles was just as ferocious as that on other sectors of the front, it lacked the drama of a Battle of Stalingrad or Kursk. Of course, this positional warfare meant that the lines stayed relatively static, and this made the rear area of its combat divisions an excellent area to investigate German occupation policies. As a result, researching Army Group North allowed for a different understanding of the German–Soviet War than one that focused on events in the center or southern section of the front.

You have attempted to avoid the focus on “chaps and maps” and panzer units and to stress the salience of the infantry for the Third Reich’s war of annihilation against the USSR. What insights do we gain by shifting our attention to the war waged by the infantry?

From a purely battlefield perspective, the historiographical focus on Germany’s mechanized and motorized formations is entirely justified. German hopes of victory in the war against the Soviet Union entirely relied upon its panzer and motorized units. Only by exploiting their speed and mobility could the Germans hope to destroy the Red Army and win the war in the narrowing window before the entrance of the United States into the conflict. There have been excellent books on the German use of armor during the war as a whole and in the Soviet Union in particular—the works of Karl-Heinz Frieser, David Stahel, and The National WWII Museum’s own Robert Citino come to mind here. An emphasis on these units is therefore absolutely necessary: they put Germany into a position of continental hegemony by 1941. Mobile units, however, constituted a distinct minority in the German army. Of the 150 divisional-sized units that invaded the Soviet Union, only 26 were mechanized or motorized formations that could carry out far-reaching operations at accelerated speed; the remainder of them marched at the speed of Frederick the Great’s army. Obviously, the tasks of infantry divisions were vital to any chance of German victory. They needed to pacify the area that the panzer divisions had darted through to ensure sufficient supply could reach the armored units, as well as close up to them as quickly as possible to reduce the encirclements of Soviet troops. During the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa, infantry units played a very important, if secondary, role on the battlefield.

If one switches the focus to the war of annihilation, however, infantry divisions assume a new importance. At the most basic level, this is because they were far more numerous than the mobile divisions. Since they advanced at a much slower pace than the on-rushing mechanized and motorized divisions, they also had far more interactions with the civilian population. This was especially the case when it came to supply. The German High Command logically funneled the majority of its motorized supply to support the panzer divisions. This meant that the infantry divisions were generally reliant on horse-drawn supply. Some 600,000 horses accompanied the German army into the Soviet Union, but the strains put on these animals—especially in the scorching heat of the summer and in the winter months when the steppe simply provided no fodder—led to hundreds of thousands falling out during Operation Barbarossa. Exceptionally poor roads, different rail gauges, and the priority given to munitions over food resulted in German soldiers “living off the land.” This idea of German soldiers finding their food along their advance had been part of prewar planning and it meant that German soldiers simply stole food from an already destitute Soviet population. This was part of the Hunger Plan, or the attempt to starve the cities of northern and central Russia, of which Leningrad is the most well-known example. One soldier described his comrades as a swarm of locusts who descended on fields and villages and consumed everything they could before they moved on. 

As the front solidified for Army Groups North and Center from early 1942 on, these same infantry divisions became long-term occupiers. The majority of the army’s mechanized and motorized units deployed on the southern section of the front for the Stalingrad campaign, while the few remaining on the other sections of the front were used as firemen type units, rushing from Soviet breakthrough to Soviet breakthrough to stich up the front. Infantry divisions thus took on the bulk of occupation duties, and these included anti-partisan operations, forced labor of Soviet civilians, and eventually the scorched earth retreats of 1943 and 1944. Thus, when the various elements of the war of annihilation are examined, especially as it evolved during the later years of the war, it is clear that infantry divisions were intimately involved in each piece of the crimes committed by the German army in the Soviet Union. German infantry divisions forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilians to work both in Germany and at the front for the army, they consumed Soviet agricultural production at the expense of the native population, they participated in brutal anti-partisan sweeps that devastated countless villages, they participated in the Holocaust, and they were the main drivers of the scorched earth retreats that transformed enormous swathes of the Soviet Union into what the Germans themselves termed “deserts.” 

German soldiers in the Soviet Union, 1941.

German soldiers in the Soviet Union, 1941. Photographs Taken by Propaganda units of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) and the Waffen-SS, National Archives, NAID 540155.

The concept of “military necessity” is crucial for you. How do you understand the evolution of “military necessity” and why does it help us better comprehend the ultra-vicious war carried out by the Germans than interpretations that prioritize ideology over everything else?

At its most basic level, military necessity can be understood as doing whatever was necessary to achieve victory, regardless of past practice, ethics, or morals. This was a strand in German military thinking stretching back to the Franco-Prussian War, in which excesses committed during the war were legitimized by the necessity of defeating the enemy. It was most closely associated with German forced requisitioning of food from French peasants and German reprisals for French franc-tireur, or guerrilla, activity. Most armies have individuals who subscribe to this idea of war, but in the German case, it became much more institutionalized. The way this concept was understood by the German army is fundamental to understanding its actions during the war against the Soviet Union. It gave the army a flexibility, but it also meant that there were fewer boundaries to limit its behavior. 

The limits placed on the army essentially evaporated during the Second World War, particularly in the war against the Soviet Union. Hitler demanded a literal war of extermination against what he viewed as the “Judeo-Bolshevik” leadership of the Soviet Union. This demand was then put into concrete form by the army in a series of orders known as the “criminal orders.” Nazi ideology pulsed through these orders and directives, ranging from the agreement with the Einsatzgruppen—which was tasked with the murder of all male Soviet Jews of draft age—to the Commissar Order that called for the murder of all political officers in the Red Army and the Curtailment of Military Jurisdiction, which both provided a pre-emptive pardon for all crimes committed by German soldiers and called for the collective punishments of communities in the vicinity of partisan attacks on the German army. All of these orders demonstrate the importance of ideology in waging the war against the Soviet Union. Looked at from another angle, though, they can be viewed as being necessary for the army’s goal of achieving a quick and decisive victory. The army knew it would have to drive as quickly and deeply as possible into the Soviet rear and this meant that its rear area would need to be pacified. The army detailed several security divisions for this task, but it was clear they wouldn’t be sufficient for this task. The Einsatzgruppen were thus seen as welcome additions to eliminating Communist-inspired resistance in the rear. Just as Communists were seen as inevitably sparking popular resistance, the Communist commissars were seen as the cement holding the Red Army together through the liberal use of terror; if they were eliminated then, the Red Army would simply fall apart. Finally, the Jurisdiction decree could be seen as a way of not only crushing popular resistance quickly, but by giving German soldiers the freedom to do what needed to be done to achieve victory, the Soviet Union could be defeated in short order. So even in a period in which ideological considerations clearly drove both the state and the army’s thinking about the war, military necessity also played a role in army policy. 

If ideology was the sole driver of German policy, one would expect German behavior to only worsen during the course of the war. The longer the war dragged on and the more bitter the fighting at the front became, it would stand to reason that the army’s approach would become increasingly Nazified and their treatment of civilians would only worsen. Of course, the mass shootings and forced starvation of 1941 would be difficult to surpass. On the ground level, however, the army’s treatment of civilians markedly changed. In recognition that only by a harnessing of the Soviet civilian population for the German war effort was victory possible, army units across the theater began to implement more conciliatory policies towards civilians in hopes of winning them over to the German cause. Military necessity thus led to a reformulation of German policy. Widespread propaganda campaigns were accompanied by more tangible programs, with the most important focusing on food. Not only did German units expand their program of feeding Soviet civilians working directly for them, but they also did so for civilians working in agriculture. There were even isolated instances of infantry units feeding civilians simply to stop them from starving, though the German High Command would put a halt to such practices if the local inhabitants were not actively toiling for the German army. By 1943, the integration of Soviet civilians into the German war effort—both voluntary and forcibly—was now a fundamental piece of German occupation policy. Conciliatory actions, however, existed alongside much more violent ones, such as forced evacuations, exceedingly brutal anti-partisan operations, and scorched earth retreats. I think this is where the concept of military necessity has a real utility. Situations mattered. Commanders who felt that their immediate situation and that of the larger war required a lighter touch towards civilians were thus able to structure their occupations in ways that ran counter to Nazi visions for the east. Those who believed that a much more violent approach was necessary to stabilize their situation were similarly empowered to carry out very different policies. The importance of Nazi ideology should not be underrated: it created a context in which the German army could conduct itself ruthlessly in pursuit of final victory. But the evolution of the army’s occupation policy was very much in line with its traditional understanding of military necessity: whatever needs to be done to win the war—whether or not it’s in accordance with the political leadership’s goals—will be done.

In your contribution to the volume, Nazi Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941, you address an organization called the Wirtschaftsstab Ost (Economic Staff East). What should we know about this organization and its policies of plunder in Eastern Europe and how did it interact with Army Group North?

Plunder is the precise word that should be connected to Wirtschaftsstab Ost, or Economic Staff East. The organization was developed by the economic colossus that was Herman Goering’s Four-Year Plan explicitly to seize the Soviet Union’s resources for use by the Reich. By late 1940, it became clear to German bureaucrats that the country did not possess the necessary food reserves to maintain a relatively high standard of living and this was a nightmare scenario for the Nazi leadership. Fully believing that Germany lost the First World War because the German home front caved due to a mixture of exhaustion, hunger, and the nefarious activities of Communists, Social Democrats, and Jews, among others—the infamous stab-in-the-back myth—the Nazi leadership was determined to keep German stomachs full, believing this would maintain support for the war effort. Herbert Backe, the State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture, devised what became known as the Hunger Plan, or Starvation Plan. Essentially, the agricultural surplus harvested in the Ukraine and normally sent north to feed Soviet cities such as Moscow and Leningrad would instead be diverted to feed Germans, resulting in the starvation of what various German bureaucrats and leaders believed to be about 30 million Soviet civilians. Fortified with the agricultural bounty of the east, Germany would thus be able to successfully prosecute the war against Great Britain and the increasingly antagonistic United States. To ensure that Soviet food would be consumed by Germans, Economic Staff East was conceived. It had a three-fold mission: assist German soldiers in living off the land during the invasion, utilizing Soviet raw materials (such as oil) for the German war effort, and shipping large amounts of Soviet food to Germany. German soldiers received orders to assist the economic authorities in carrying out their tasks, since they were there to support the troops during the invasion.

During the course of 1941, however, Economic Staff East’s attempts to carry out a planned and systematic exploitation of Soviet resources was frustrated by German troops. On more than one occasion, economic authorities complained that the single greatest obstacle to the fulfillment of their mission were individual German soldiers, who simply stole what they wanted, when they wanted. As supply difficulties already mounted in the very early weeks of the campaign, German divisional commanders ordered their men to find their own food during the advance. So instead of a rational exploitation of Soviet foodstuffs, millions of German soldiers confiscated food for themselves or a close group of their comrades. As a result, two different levels of plunder occurred in 1941: an uncoordinated action occurring at the ground level and a more centrally directed systematic operation. In Army Group North, the tension between the army and Economic Staff East existed almost from the very beginning of the war, and despite the efforts of the military hierarchy to limit the requisitioning of individual soldiers, the continual issuing of these orders up through 1943 indicate that the troops never stopped casually taking food wherever they found it. 

Evidence also exists demonstrating that elements of Army Group North worked closely with Economic Staff East. In the town of Pavlovsk, for example, the army and the economic authorities worked together to introduce ration cards in hopes of ending starvation in the region—a starvation caused by German predatory policies—and when the army needed warm clothes for the winter, Economic Staff East provided civilian workers to produce them. As the war progressed into 1942 and 1943, Wirtschaftsstab Ost’s focus on food was increasingly complemented by one on labor. Germany’s need for workers both at home and at the front led to close cooperation between German frontline units and economic authorities, with the former carrying out the forced evacuations of eventually hundreds of thousands of civilians who were plugged into the German war economy in one way or another. Once the German army’s scorched earth retreats began in 1943, Economic Staff East issued its own orders to paralyze and destroy the Soviet territory being abandoned. The devastation of Soviet territory during German withdrawals in 1943 and 1944 were thus joint operations between the army and Economic Staff East, whose objective transformed from economic exploitation to the destruction of any and all economic resources it controlled.

Herbert Backe

Herbert Backe, State Secretary, Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 1942. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J02034/CC-BY-SA 3.0. 

In January 2020, you and Edward Westermann held an excellent seminar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on German treatment of Soviet prisoners of war. Christian Streit’s 1978 Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen 1941–1945 (No Comrades: The Wehrmacht and Soviet Prisoners of War 1941–1945) is still a major point of reference for research on this subject. Could you tell our audience about why this book was so significant and what its value is to scholars today?

Christian Streit’s book appeared during a very fertile period of German-language research on the war of annihilation. Stretching from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, scholars uncovered the various elements of the army’s complicity in the Nazi war of extermination. Studies on the army’s cooperation with the Einsatzgruppen, the criminal orders, and its occupation policies in 1941 all appeared. Streit’s contribution, however, highlighted the largest crime that the German army was responsible for: the deaths of over 3.3 million of the 5.7 million Soviet soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans. This 57% death rate compares to the 3.5% death rate of British and American prisoners of war in German captivity. But due to the Cold War, the fate of Soviet POWs was simply ignored. Streit’s extensive research uncovered the immense crime, demonstrating how the army not only allowed members of the Einsatzgruppen to carry out the murders of Jewish prisoners in the camps, but that its anti-Bolshevik attitude, combined with a ruthlessly utilitarian attitude towards these men, led to mass death, especially during the winter of 1941–42. Shootings of prisoners who fell out on the long marches to the rear, exposure to the elements in camps that consisted of barbed wire enclosures and not much else, disease, and especially starvation culminated in what the Dutch historian Karel Berkhoff has convincingly suggested was a genocidal policy towards Soviet POWs. Streit’s book remains one of the standard works on the topic, despite originally being published in 1978. While research into German policy towards Soviet POWs and their fate has increased—particularly in the German and Russian languages—work in English is scarce; the fact that Streit’s work has never been translated into English illustrates the lack of work on this topic in the UK and the US. The Canadian historian Maris-Rowe McCulloch will soon be publishing an excellent chapter from the Soviet perspective on life in the camps, so research is ongoing and will hopefully continue to flesh out Streit’s seminal contribution to the debate.

You have noted that, in terms of the Nazi–Soviet War, so much of the attention has been directed to 1941, to the period between the launching of Operation Barbarossa on June 22 of that year and the Soviet counter-offensive launched on December 5 to save Moscow. You call for more attention to 1942-44. Besides the momentous Soviet victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, what other aspects of the Eastern Front during these two years do you hope to illuminate?

1941’s Operation Barbarossa has rightfully received a tremendous amount of attention. I agree with David Stahel’s contention that Germany lost the war in August 1941 when Army Group Center became mired in extremely costly attritional fighting in the Smolensk-Yelnya fighting. When the massive encirclement battles of Kyiv and Viazma-Briansk and the desperate fighting around Moscow is included, it’s clear that the military events of the war’s first phase were momentous and decisive. The ideological war unleashed by the Third Reich also demonstrated the shift from what had been fought as a generally conventional war to a genocidal one, though the invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland certainly pointed in this direction. Outside of analyses of the Operation Blue—the German campaign to seize the oil in the Caucasus that ended catastrophically at Stalingrad—and Operation Citadel—the failed offensive at Kursk—the events of 1942 and 1943 have received much less attention. This neglect, however, means that the evolution of German policy remains rather hazy in both popular and scholarly accounts. 

Only by examining German occupation in this time-period do the contours of what the Germans wanted to achieve and how they tried to do it come into focus. If the ideologically motivated murder of Soviet Jews and the starvation of Soviet civilians, particularly in cities, marked German policy in 1942, attempts to exploit Soviet civilians for the German war effort predominated in 194243. This led to contradictory policies all across the front, alternating between conciliation and violence. On the one hand, as discussed above, German units tried to win over elements of the Soviet population to support the German war effort. This period also witnessed the creation of native police and so-called auxiliary units, consisting of Ukrainians, Estonians, and various Turkic peoples, as well as the integration of several hundred thousand Hilfswilligen, or Soviet volunteers, into the army who were utilized by the Germans for various purposes up to and including combat at the front. None of these changes showed that the German army had a change of heart and now viewed Soviet civilians as human beings who deserved care, though there are certainly cases of German commanders making this very case to their troops; rather they show the pragmatism that existed within military necessity. In other words, if it could help the German army win the war, the army would try it.

On the other hand, these conciliatory policies were accompanied by much more brutal practices, including the destruction of villages, the murder of alleged partisans, the confiscation of foodstuffs, and the deportation of men, women, and children for forced labor. This approach culminated in the scorched-earth retreats that accompanied the German army as Soviet forces forced it back west. The destruction of these retreats was immense, demonstrating an attempt to cripple the Soviet Union’s economy for years to come, and they were accompanied by the forced evacuations of hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilians from their homes. In my opinion, these retreats demonstrate the culmination of the war of annihilation. If it focused in 1941 on ideological enemies, by 1943–44 it had evolved into a war that looked to depopulate large swathes of Soviet territory, destroy all shelters and productive enterprises, and remove all food from a region. Examining the full development of German occupation policies in the latter years of the war is absolutely necessary to fully understand both the nuances and utter brutality of the German war in the east.

Lagg-3 fighters of the Red Air Force

Lagg-3 fighters of the Red Air Force, 1942-43. Credit: Library of Congress

The 80th anniversary of Operation Bagration is drawing near. This gigantic offensive by the Soviet armed forces is still not that familiar to most Americans. In retrospect, what is essential for us to know about Bagration?

Operation Bagration is slowly penetrating the popular consciousness, but I agree with your point that it is generally unfamiliar to most Americans. Launched on June 22, 1944, the operation gets lost in the attention given to the Allied invasion of Normandy that occurred two weeks previously. Operation Bagration is important for several reasons. First, the operation ensured the American and British forces in France faced a manageable number of German units; once the Red Army’s attack began, the Germans simply could not draw reserves from the Eastern Front to send west. Second, the battle demonstrated the massive chasm between the Soviets and the German when it came to numbers of men and machines. The Red Army assembled some 2.5 million men, 45,000 artillery pieces and over 6,000 tanks and assault guns and these were opposed by some 486,000 German troops, 3,200 guns, and 570 tanks and assault guns. Even if the German army remained tactically and operationally superior to the Red Army, such numbers would have been nearly impossible to overcome. This, however, leads into the third important point about Bagration: since the catastrophes of 1941, the Red Army had made up much ground separating it from the German army. Part of this was due to the increasing skill of the Red Army. Operation Bagration displayed the hallmarks of a maturing, professional force. The Soviets effectively used deception to hide their intentions and successfully coordinated their armor, artillery, infantry, and supply to create deep penetrations that drove upwards of 350 miles into German lines and smash Army Group Center. It also reflected a German army that was moving in the wrong direction operationally. Taking his cue from Hitler and his dislike of mobile operations—because they tended to give up territory, even if only temporarily—the commander in chief of Army Group Center, Field Marshal Ernst Busch, settled on more of a positional defense, with newly established “fortresses” peppering his army group’s area. These so-called fortresses were cities and towns situated on lines of communication that needed to be defended to the last bullet. The Red Army simply went around these positions, strangling the forces now encircled there. Operation Bagration thus provided an excellent example of mobile war, though now it was the Soviets and not the Germans waging this type of operation in the east. Finally, the Soviet attack resulted in the largest defeat in German military history. The Germans suffered approximately 390,000 losses in nine weeks of fighting, surpassing the defeats at Stalingrad and Tunis as the costliest German campaign in the Second World War and it even surpassed the losses suffered at Verdun during the First World War. These heavy losses translated into 28 shattered German divisions and the virtual crippling of Army Group Center, one of four German army groups deployed on the Eastern Front. 

The twin assaults on the German position in June 1944—the Allied invasion of Normandy and the Soviet attack on German Army Group Center—demonstrated that the Third Reich’s defeat was only a matter of time. The landing of American and British troops on the Continent proved vital to defeating Nazi Germany. But they may have been more important in determining the fate of postwar Europe, ensuring that the entirety of the continent did not fall under Soviet dominion. Because as Operation Bagration demonstrated, the initiative on the Eastern Front was now entirely in the hands of the Red Army, which now paired a significant superiority in manpower and weapons with an officer corps that was increasingly more adept at exploiting these advantages.

German prisoners, captured during Operation Bagration

Some of the 57,000 German prisoners, captured during Operation Bagration, paraded in Moscow on July 17, 1944. Credit: RIA Novosti Archive, Image #129359 

So much critical discussion about Nazi Germany’s barbaric invasion and occupation of Soviet territory turns on the issue of the Nazification of the German army. How successful, ultimately, was the Hitler regime in Nazifying the army, an old and powerful institution in Germany’s history?

This is perhaps the question when it comes to the German army and the Nazi state. On the one hand, it is a rather easy question to answer. The litany of the crimes discussed above certainly corresponded to Hitler’s goals for the war in the east. The army’s actions indicate that the regime’s attempts to Nazify it were successful. If we scratch beyond the surface, however, the question becomes more difficult to answer. As previously noted, there are other explanations for the crimes committed by German soldiers. So what other types of evidence is there for Nazification of the army? One prominent example of Nazism penetrating the army is the rhetoric used by commanders and the rank-and-file. Examples of German army group and army commanders—including Field Marshals Walter von Reichenau, Ferdinand Schörner, and Erich von Manstein—issuing orders calling for “the complete annihilation of the false Bolshevik doctrine” to “liberate the German people . . . from the Jewish-Asiatic danger” are legion, and such language crept into orders issued by lower-level commanders as well. In the letters that the troops wrote home to family and friends, Nazi imagery and beliefs frequently animated their writing, with Jews and Communists described as filthy, dangerous enemies that needed to be dealt with once and for all. The use of this type of language was most prominent during Operation Barbarossa and during the final phase of the war, especially in orders issued by senior leadership; during the middle years of the fighting, it is noticeably absent from directives and orders from combat units. 

The second piece of evidence is to look at the evolution of the German military leadership. The men who staffed the highest levels of the German army, both in the Army High Command and in the field armies, up through 1942 were generally socialized in the ranks of the Imperial German Army and while all of them distributed the criminal orders in their units in 1941, there nonetheless remained some distance between their outlooks and those of the regime. In late 1942, however, the army’s officer selection policy transformed. Instead of men with Bildung, that untranslatable German word that refers to both education and cultivation of an individual’s character, battlefield exploits now became the primary determining factor for elevation into and then through the officer corps. The recasting of the officer corps itself was not a unique experience; all armies go through such processes during long wars, as older or incompetent officers are replaced by younger, more energetic men who have demonstrated ability to lead men in battle. In the German case, however, the evaluation of officers was now frequently placed into the context of Nazi values, including an officer’s conviction in National Socialism. As a result, younger men, socialized at least to some extent during the Third Reich, transformed the officer corps from a relatively conservative prewar organization to one much more in line with Nazi values.

Of course, many of the characteristics and values important to the Nazis were also fundamental to the German army. Adjectives such as “courageous,” “decisive,” “energetic,” “unflappable,” and “willing to sacrifice” were ones shared by both institutions. For the army, these traits were fundamental for officers who could effectively wage a mobile war that required quick and decisive decision-making to be successful. For the Nazi regime, these concepts highlighted their view of the Aryan hero, who would lead the German people to the racial empire they deserved. Mirroring this overlap at the individual level, the army shared the state’s ferocious anti-Bolshevik outlook, and while the Nazis’ murderous antisemitism found few rabid supporters within the army’s senior leadership, traditional antisemitism certainly permeated the institution. And as events at the front clearly demonstrated, the army as an institution provided no opposition to the murder of Soviet Jewry and, in contrast, actively supported mass shootings, such as Babi Yar.

Perhaps the most successful Nazification of the army occurred in the creation of sense of “community of fate” within the army as it tried to keep the Red Army out of Germany in 1944 and 1945. The combination of savage combat, knowledge of crimes committed by the Germans in the occupied east, Nazi propaganda painting the Red Army as an “Asiatic horde” set on raping and pillaging Germany, and Soviet behavior that provided some evidence that this was indeed true, led to an embattled nationalism, one that kept the army in the east in the field. This example, I think, demonstrates that instead of the Third Reich successfully Nazifying the army, perhaps it is more useful to argue that the Nazi regime radicalized pre-existing tendencies within the institution of the army. This resulted in traditional values and traits nurtured by the army taking on a new sheen, while the army’s political views that developed in the post-First World War era were radicalized by a Nazi movement that saw Bolshevism as a Jewish-inspired plot to destroy European civilization. So even if I would argue that the Nazi regime failed to completely turn the German army into “Hitler’s Army,” the war it waged was very much in line with what the regime demanded.

You have spoken about the famous War of Extermination: Crimes of the Wehrmacht traveling exhibition of the 1990s, organized by the Hamburg-based Institute for Social Research. What were, in your opinion, the strengths and weaknesses of how the exhibit tackled the absolutely vital issue: the relationship between the efforts of the German armed forces in World War II and Nazi policies of genocide against Jews, Roma, and other targeted groups?        

The Wehrmacht Exhibition was the moment when the war of annihilation moved from the realm of scholarly discourse to that of the public. Consisting of photos, letters, and diaries of rank-and-file soldiers, the exhibition exploded the popular image of the “clean Wehrmacht” still prevalent in German national consciousness. The idea that the crimes of the Nazi state could be placed on Hitler and his inner circle or the SS, thus absolving the remainder of the German population from responsibility, was no longer tenable after the exhibition displayed the complicity of “ordinary Germans” in the atrocities in the east. The initial exhibition became a topic of much public conversation and debate, and opposition to it became extremely heated, with one site actually being damaged by a pipe bomb. After objections that several of the images in the original exhibition were actually those of atrocities committed by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, the exhibition was shut down and subjected to a rigorous appraisal by historians. The commission determined that only 20 of the some 1,400 pictures in the exhibition were incorrectly labeled and a new, revised exhibition began to tour Germany. The original exhibition’s catalog has been translated into English and is well worth a careful reading. Unfortunately, the much larger companion volume for the revised exhibition has only been published in German.

In my opinion, the exhibition conclusively demonstrated the German army’s deep involvement in the war of annihilation and made this a matter for public consumption. Historians had long uncovered how the upper echelon of the army planned and conducted a war of annihilation, but these findings had not yet entered the public consciousness by the 1990s. The Wehrmacht Exhibition destroyed the myth of “the clean Wehrmacht” in German society and demonstrated that the armed forces—home to 18 million men during the war and the grandfathers, fathers, and uncles in German society in the 1990s—was a vital component of the war of annihilation.


Jason Dawsey, PhD

Jason Dawsey, PhD, is ASU WWII Studies Consultant in the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. 

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