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Progression of the brutality in the East

LAURENCE REES: It’s important to understand that the war in the East starts brutal and stays brutal, is that not so?

OMER BARTOV: I think that is a crucial question and I’m not sure that one can give a complete answer to that. For one thing, armies generally are worried about brutalisation among their own soldiers, and I know that from having served in a military organisation. I mean, you want to keep control of the troops that are walking around with arms and told to act violently, and there’s tension between these two things. So that is one element. The second is you want to motivate your soldiers against an enemy in some way and yet you have to make sure that they behave in a way that does not completely go out of bounds, whichever bounds you set. In the case of the German Army there was brutalization - this is what I claimed myself - there was a barbarisation of warfare during the fighting itself and it gets very bitter. The losses are terrible, conditions are horrendous and people start doing things more naturally, without any compunction, on a much larger scale as things deteriorate and get worse in the fighting.

At the same time it is true that the German Army had already behaved brutally in Poland in 1939, and that it is equipped with these orders already when it marches into the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June 1941. So there is a play between the two. Had the German military been able or wished to clamp down on this and to tell soldiers that they could not do this or that, up to a certain point it would have been able to do that.  But first of all it was serving the Nazi regime, and secondly, the military itself bought into this ideology that this was a different kind of war. And so the play between these two elements is what creates an increasingly brutal war. German commanders were complaining about the Commissar order because they said it caused Commissars, who were the political officers of Soviet Red Army units, to know that they would be executed upon being captured and therefore would incite their troops to fight to the bitter end. The German Commanders said that it was not serving their purpose, and so would rather have them surrender. So by spring 1942 this order is done away with, and that does not mean that the German Army starts behaving nicely, but it does mean that there are orders you can actually change in the other direction if you decide to do so.