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German invasion of the Soviet Union

LAURENCE REES: Of course, the German leadership would all have remembered the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, signed with the fledgling Soviet state, which gave to Germany large amounts of territory. So there was a precedent about invading Russia and then doing an advantageous deal. 

ADAM TOOZE: Yes, but Brest-Litovsk, of course, relies on actually having a Russian regime that’s willing to come to terms and, of course, the Bolsheviks were a small minority of Russia in 1918 and their decision to agree to Brest-Litovsk provokes a bitter civil war which undoes the Russian state. And the German ability to actually control the Ukraine in the summer of 1918 is absolutely in doubt. This is something, again, they discover, when they begin to look back at their experience and begin to think, for instance, about the potential economic benefits of occupying the Soviet Union. Nothing in their experience of 1918 tells them that this is actually going to be a viable exercise and their experience in 1918 is that they expect to get at least a million tons of grain immediately from the Ukraine and they get virtually nothing in the first summer there, which is a huge disappointment and provokes a crisis in the domestic morale. So that’s an important shift that goes on within German thinking over the winter of 1940-41.

LAURENCE REES: And we’ve also got to see the invasion of the Soviet Union as a gigantic ideological act of commitment, in which there are two appalling plans to destroy millions of people.

ADAM TOOZE: Even three in fact.

LAURENCE REES: So what are the Germans actually thinking that they’re going to do to this place, even before they get in there?

ADAM TOOZE: Can we make another point about ideology before that, in the sense that one of the points that I would really want to stress is that there is a tendency to separate this off. And it’s for very good and obvious reasons to separate the war after 1941 from the war before 1941, in terms of the war after 1941 being an ideological war and the war before that being in some senses a conventional European war. This seems to me fundamentally misguided, because of the significance that I attribute, and I think we ought to attribute, to ideology in the decision making in 1939. If you believe that you have to go to war with Britain and France and fight that war to the finish against what you believe at the time to be appalling odds, because Roosevelt is essentially a slave of American Jewry, then the war from the very beginning is an ideological war.

You may not terrorise the French population the way you do the Poles, you may not commit genocide in France in 1940 in the way that you’ve already begun to do in Poland in 1940, but the wider strategic logic of the war is, as far as I could see for Hitler, a single piece. It isn’t as though he fights one war rather reluctantly because it’s a practical war that Chamberlain or somebody has forced on him and then finally gets to face eastwards and fight the ideological war he’s always wanted to fight. It’s precisely because he understands world Jewry to have reorganised its campaign against Germany and to have refocused it via America in the West that the war in the West is already an ideological struggle.

What happens when you begin to think about the war in the East is that you can begin to realise visions of Lebensraum and if you are a conspiratorial anti-Semite you also, of course, encounter the brute geographical fact that the vast bulk of European Jewry lives in what used to be the Tsarist pale, in the space between Poland and western Russia. And so when the Germans begin to prepare the invasion they get the green light in early weeks of December 1940.

Three plans for mass murder bubble up very quickly. One is the Judeo side: Heydrich receives orders to begin to package together a European solution from Goering, we think, in the first weeks of January 1941. Another one is the Generalplan Ost: the planning not just for the elimination of the Jewish population in the areas which were occupied, but the strategic long term removal by death, starvation or displacement of the Slavic population. These are plans which had already begun to be formulated in Poland and at that point have already been closely linked with the killing or displacement of Jews in 1939 and early 1940. And these plans now begin to take on, in some senses, a more realistic aspect, because there’s simply more space to work with. The problem of planning in Poland was it was overpopulated and too small. As soon as you are able to think of the entire space to the Urals, for instance, as your playground and drawing board, then settlement planning becomes much more 'viable'. And the third element, separate from those two, both of which are being pushed by the SS and Himmler and Heydrich, is the now notorious Hunger Plan which is formulated not in the first instance by the SS but in conjunction with the military, the logistical planners and the economic planners of the military, and Herbert Backe who's the Secretary of State in the Agricultural and Food Ministry, who is himself a prominent SS man and personal friend of Reinhard Heydrich. But that planning goes forward down a different track. But each one of these plans involves the deliberate conceptualisation of the killing, murdering and starving of millions, and in the case of both the Generalplan Ost and the Hunger Plan, tens of millions of people.