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Hitler's war in the East

LAURENCE REES: To what extent did Hitler see this war in the East as a 'different kind' of war?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Oh, a completely different sort of war to the war in the West. The war in the West was, from Hitler’s point of view and the perspective of the German military leadership and so on, much more of a conventional war. Not in a military sense – they had new tactics and so on – but what I mean is that the treatment of the enemy was relatively lenient in the case of France, for instance, in the case of the Scandinavian countries and the rest of it, and what they wanted, as I’ve already said, in Britain was some sort of deal done rather than to demolish Britain and wipe it out.

In the case of the war in the East it was a very different situation. There  Bolshevism was seen as the ideological arch-enemy and the people who were envisaged as being behind Bolshevism were the Jews who were, of course, the racist enemy number one for Germany for this Nazi regime. And so there, right from the very beginning, racial annihilation – genocide – was built into the equation. And Hitler said when he spoke to his Generals on the 30th of March 1941, preparing for this war in the East, that this will be a different sort of war, this will be what he called a war of annihilation. So that type of absolutely extreme brutality and ruthlessness, of taking no quarter, was there right in the planning of Operation Barbarossa. Right even to the way in which, for example, the Soviet prisoners of war would be treated, and the Soviet Commissars, their political Commissars who were attached to military units, that they will be captured and simply shot without military tribunal at all.

And this was a different way of no quarter taken or given - the ruthless demolition of the system and its representatives at every level without any hesitation. And for the military, in the case of the prisoners of war, this was going to be a war where you couldn’t feed these people and therefore they would be captured and large numbers of them, vast numbers of them would simply starve to death, because the food was needed for Germany. And in reality round about three million captured Soviet soldiers never saw their homeland again because they died in captivity, many of them starving to death.

LAURENCE REES: Could the Germans have won this war? For example, there is this point in October 1941 when it seems like the whole Soviet regime might crumble if Moscow is taken. Do you actually think the Nazis could have won this war?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: I find it difficult to imagine them winning the war in the long run. I think they could have attained a temporary victory through maybe Stalin coming to terms with them. At one time he appears to have contemplated trying to make overtures to Germany to come to some peace arrangement with them. They might have drawn a line which temporarily helped, but I can’t see that the Germans could have won this victory in the long run. Because even when they were aiming to conquer the European part of the Soviet Union – plans had already been made to move vast installations, industrial installations and so on, behind the Urals, Stalin might have left Moscow but then would have set up some government elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

The oil of the Caucasus was a different matter too – if that was going to be taken by military means as well, as attempted in the winter of 1942 and ‘43, then again it was an absolutely enormous military effort with very long supply lines.  In the meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Americans were rearming like mad, they had taken the decision that they would have to defeat Germany and a Germany which in turn had gained victory over the Soviet Union. So total victory for Hitler I can’t see as being likely even if they’d won immediate victories in 1941 and consolidated a line after a fashion for a bit.

LAURENCE REES: Which makes it all the stranger that so many sensible, informed people at the time thought Hitler could win the war against the Soviet Union?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Yes, but I think there they did feel that if you got this territorial gain in the Soviet Union, if you got the bread basket of the Ukraine, if you were able to then build fortifications and to create German settlements on a big scale right through the Soviet Union and so on, you could then effectively have won the war and this would then force the Americans to back off and Germany would be able to sustain itself forever more. That was the sort of notion that people had, but how realistic that was is another question. And I think that was ultimately unrealistic because the [enemy] forces, even with the Soviet Union defeated in this way, would have not been defeated permanently and the other [enemy] forces were not defeated at all.