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Eastern FrontAugust 1941

A different kind of war

Why was the war against the Soviets a 'different kind of war'?
Hitler had ordered that the war in the Soviet Union would be a war of ‘annihilation’. What motivated that terrible demand, and what were the consequences of it?

Video Transcript

Commentary: Adolf Hitler could not have been clearer about the kind of war he wanted against the Soviet Union. 

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw: Hitler said when he spoke to his generals on the 30th March 1941 in 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. 

Professor 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 subhumans. 

Words of Tatiana Nanieva (Soviet prisoner of war): We weren’t people in their eyes. They had a completely different way of thinking. They were beings of a higher race and we were their subjects, slaves or underlings. We weren’t people.

Commentary: But it was the Jewish population of the Soviet Union that was particularly targeted. From the first day of the invasion Nazi killing squads were ordered to shoot selected Jews. And there were other German initiatives designed to wreak havoc on the general Soviet population – plans which called for millions of Soviets to be starved to death.

Professor Christopher Browning: Himmler, for instance, announces in mid-June 1941, on the eve of the invasion to his collection of SS generals, that there are thirty to forty million too many people in these areas who are either going to have to be killed, starved or expelled. You’re going to depopulate these areas by up to forty million people.

Laurence Rees: And how can we understand the mentality of people in the middle of the twentieth century in a cultured state, who are able to have meetings at which they are planning to depopulate by forty million people? How can we understand that?

Professor Christopher Browning: Well, I think that there’s a certain intoxication in making history. That is people get high on the notion that they are going to in fact - they don’t see it as transgression but they see it as going beyond what anybody else has done before - they are going to make history in an exhilarating way that has no precedent. And that is kind of a high.

Commentary: And in terms of destruction, what Adolf Hitler would achieve in the Soviet Union would certainly be without precedent.