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The German Military mentality in the Soviet Union

LAURENCE REES: To what extent do you think the German troops who entered the Soviet Union in June 1941 were predisposed to behave in a different way than German forces had in the West?

OMER BARTOV: They were predisposed quite differently. The most important reason for this being that their view of the war they were going to  fight in the East was moulded both by their education in the years preceding the war, and by specific orders regarding how that war in the Soviet Union would be conducted. There were also some of them who were influenced by previous experiences in the war, not so much in the West but the war in Poland in 1939, which set a precedent and was an introduction to the kind of war that would be fought in the Soviet Union.

LAURENCE REES: And what were their beliefs about the people they were going to fight?

OMER BARTOV: The general notion about the war in the East was that one was going to fight a war against a Bolshevik regime that was ruled by Judeo-Bolshevism - as it was called - so it was ruled by Jews, and that the people ruled by this regime were Slavs who were generally considered to be Untermenschen or sub-humans. So the general view of that war was that it would be, as Hitler called it, a war of keine Kameraden, a war in which there would be no comrades in arms. It would not be fought according to the rules of war as the Germany Army itself had followed to a large extent during the fighting in the West, but rather a war of extermination, a war in which one side would have to entirely eradicate the other in order to win.

LAURENCE REES: To what extent was this German mentality in the East planned, or the product of individual decision-making by each soldier?

OMER BARTOV: You can always think about the individual’s experience as being somewhat different from the general picture, and each person had their own experience and also his or her own memory of the event which is not necessarily the same as their experience; it’s filtered through other media. But the fact of the matter is that the German Army marched into the Soviet Union with very specific orders as to how to behave, and those orders, despite what German Generals said in their memoirs after the war – that these orders were never passed down – well they were lying. These orders were handed down to the smallest units; soldiers were aware of them. So, for instance, the 'Commissar Order' basically gave directions that every Soviet Commissar who fell into German hands should be taken aside and shot without trial, without hearing, without anything, just because they had a red star on their cap.

The same was seen to a greater extent with crimes regarding the prisoners of war, and the German Army’s own way of planning war. The German war plan was for battles of encirclement - expecting and anticipating large numbers of prisoners of war. Then the question would be what do you do with these prisoners of war? And what they did with them was practically nothing, they just surrounded them with barbed wire and let them die, or they marched them, having often taken off their boots or their coats, marched them hundreds of miles to the rear during which they were hardly fed, hardly clothed, hardly sheltered and they died in vast numbers. So there was clearly a view that in this war the kind of rules that applied to - and had been applied to - wars in the past or even during that war would not apply at that Front. There was yet another element to that, apart from a general view of the war against the Soviet Union as a war of extermination, which was that there were specific categories of people that had to be targeted, and it was known by the military that these had to be targeted and done away with.

One, of course, was the Communists, the Bolsheviks, the Komsomol - members of the youth movement - and so forth, but also Jews. And the German Army was aware of that and identified those targets for the forces that came behind it, and often participated actively in the killing of large numbers of people who were not in uniform. Thirdly, the German Army was instructed at the beginning of the campaign that this was a blitzkrieg, a lightning campaign, and that it would carry as few supplies as needed for the military campaign itself but that otherwise it would have to live off the land, which meant that they had to take their food from the population. And since they were moving into very poor areas, such as what is now called Belarus, White Russia, they basically caused widespread famine followed by widespread disease, which led to the death of millions of civilians. This was directly connected to military policies.

LAURENCE REES: And yet soldiers fighting on the Western Front behaved completely differently, how can this be explained?

OMER BARTOV: When the Germany Army goes to France in 1940 it has very strict orders how to behave with civilian populations. And I’ve seen many files of soldiers who were charged with plunder, with robbery, with rape, and they were very severely punished, soldiers were executed for armed rape or armed robbery, and that does not happen in Russia of course. In Russia military jurisdiction does not apply, so that soldiers - as long as what they do does not go against combat discipline - can do whatever they like, and their officers would have had a very hard time acting against it if they wished, but they often didn’t wish to. So that is true; but there is something else that is interesting. When German units that were fighting in the Soviet Union transferred back to the West, then they began to apply methods that they had already applied in the East.

The best example, of course, and the French remember it very well, is the example of Oradour. Now, in Russia there were thousands of Oradours; it was nothing very special to wipe out a village because there were some partisans in the vicinity. It was normal practise for the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces in the Soviet Union. In France it was not, but the division that did it was Das Reich, the Waffen SS Division, which had been on vacation in France recuperating from the fighting in the East when the Allies invaded, and as they passed by a community it was attacked, and they acted as if this was quite normal. For the French it was, of course, extraordinary that somebody would behave like that. And still this view persisted. I remember many years ago when I was a student at Oxford one of my examiners was Sir Michael Howard and I remember speaking with him. He was an Armoured Division Officer in World War Two and he fought on the Western Front after Normandy. And he was telling me that they fought for a long time against the same German Panzer Division and they caught some of their people and the Germans caught some of theirs and they treated them decently. If they caught some officers then they had a drink with them and behaved properly with them. And he was reading my PhD dissertation at the time and he said that 'this was not at all the kind of experience that we had', and he was somewhat taken aback.

We forget that the major experience for German soldiers was not fighting the British or the Americans it was fighting the Red Army - that’s where most of the German Army was, that’s where the German Army was broken and that’s where most of the losses were. For them the experience of war was completely different from the experience of war that the British or the Canadians or the Americans had.