In the high summer of 1940, while bombs still rained down on England and Sea Lion had not yet been officially abandoned, Hitler ordered preliminary military planning for an invasion of the Soviet Union. After Hitler quietly suspended Sea Lion in September, he was actually relieved to be free of the operation, about which he had never been enthusiastic. It was a distraction, drawing him away from his basic ideological and geopolitical objectives. Those lay, as they always had, in the East, in Russia. A war of annihilation against Judeo-Bolshevism in the Soviet Union was the bedrock of Nazi ideology and a goal Hitler had obsessively embraced throughout his political career. It was the cause that defined and animated National Socialism; the confrontation between National Socialism and Communism was for him the main event, an epic clash of ideologies that would determine the fate of Germany, Europe, and the world. It would also vastly expand the scope and savagery of the war Hitler had unleashed, and with it, geopolitics and genocide would merge into one terrifying maelstrom, transforming the very nature of the war and bringing the merciless slaughter of millions.
An attack on the Soviet Union, he assured his generals, would not draw Germany into a dreaded two-front war. England was barely clinging to life, desperately hoping for deliverance from either the United States or the USSR. A lightning conquest of the Soviet Union would eliminate Churchill’s last hope for salvation in Europe, and the Americans, despite Roosevelt’s strong anti-Nazi views, were a long way from intervening. A war in the East would provide the Reich with the Lebensraum of Hitler’s fantasies and create new opportunities to solve, once and for all, the “Jewish problem” in Europe. By late summer 1940, while German bombers blotted the skies over England and the German public was absorbed in speculation about the anticipated cross-Channel invasion, Hitler decided that he could defer his vision no longer.
On July 31 in a conference with senior military leaders, Hitler ordered planning to commence for an all-out assault on the Soviet Union. The opening portion of the conference dealt with Operation Sea Lion, but Hitler quickly moved on to the central theme he wished to emphasize. “In the event that the invasion of England does not take place,” he said, “our action must be directed to eliminate all factors that let England hope for a change in the situation.” After all, he said, “to all intents and purposes the war is won.” France was eliminated, and Italy was pinning down British forces in the Mediterranean. “Britain’s hope lies in Russia and the United States,” he declared. For the time being, the Americans were absorbed with the Japanese threat in the Pacific and would not be prepared to intervene in a major war in Europe until 1942 at the earliest. “With Russia smashed, Britain’s last hope would be shattered,” and Germany would “then be master of Europe and the Balkans.” Russia’s destruction “must therefore be made a part of this struggle. The sooner Russia is crushed the better.”
The war against the Soviet Union, he stressed, would achieve its purpose only if the Russian state could “be shattered to its roots with one blow.” Speed was critical. He estimated that “if we start in May 1941, we would have five months to finish the job. . . . The destruction of Russian manpower” was the objective, and the campaign would be divided into three major axes of advance. The first thrust would be directed toward Kiev in Ukraine and would secure the southern flank on the Dnieper River. The second would be aimed at the Baltic region and Leningrad, and then a third drive from the center on Moscow. The northern and southern spearheads would link up. Ultimately Germany would seize the Baku oil fields, Ukraine, White Russia, and the Baltic States. It was a breathtaking, “world historical” vision, as Hitler was fond of saying, and was now formally embedded in Directive No. 21, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
An undertaking of such epic magnitude demanded a fitting code name. Operation Fritz, the army’s working designation for the operation, was simply too banal and would not do. On January 18, 1941, Hitler renamed it Operation Barbarossa, for the medieval German emperor Friedrich I, known for his fiery red beard (Barbarossa) and his policy of Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East). According to legend, Friedrich, who drowned on the Third Crusade in the twelfth century, was not dead but was slumbering in the Kyffhäuser Mountains in Thuringia, waiting to emerge in Germany’s hour of need and restore it to its ancient glories. It was just the sort of mythic aura that so enchanted the Führer’s imagination.
It is striking that the German generals, who almost to a man had grave reservations about operations against the Western powers in 1940, were equally unanimous in their low estimation of the Red Army. Still feeling the effects of the purges, it had sputtered ingloriously in Finland in 1939, confirming the low regard in which it was widely held. “The Russian is inferior,” Hitler assured his generals. The Red Army lacked leadership and had failed to learn the tactical lessons of the war against Poland and the West. Despite its efforts to reorganize, the Russian army would be no better in the spring. German intelligence estimated that the Red Army possessed two hundred effective divisions and was still organized around infantry formations. The move to create armored divisions on the German model had only just begun. The Russians were also inferior to the Wehrmacht in equipment. “They have a few modern artillery batteries,” Hitler confidently asserted, “but everything else is rebuilt old material. Our tank III . . . has a clear superiority. The majority of the Russian tanks are poorly armored.” Most important in Hitler’s estimation, the Red Army was hopelessly disorganized, its morale sapped by the purges and its ranks riddled with Communism. “You have only to kick in the door,” Hitler told Rundstedt, “and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”
During a series of conferences between December 1941 and February 1942, the army presented its evolving plan for the military campaign. All agreed that the first priority was the speedy destruction of the Red Army in the western Soviet Union. If it could be annihilated—not merely defeated—in the first weeks of the campaign, all options were open. No groups capable of recuperation must be allowed to escape. Beyond that lay uncertainty. The generals favored marshaling their forces for a push toward Moscow. It was, they argued, the obvious objective: Moscow was not only the political capital, it was also a major communications and transportation hub and an industrial center. An assault on the city would also draw the best of the remaining Red Army forces into the open where they could be destroyed. While not openly disagreeing, the Führer had other ideas.
As early as December 5, Hitler signaled his priorities: the Baltic area “must be cut off”; combined air and ground operations would “destroy the sources of enemy war potential” (armaments industries, mines, oil fields) and “crush Russian manpower.” That, to Hitler, meant the Baltic, especially Leningrad, and Ukraine with its abundant raw materials. By striking with powerful spearheads north and south of the Pripet Marshes, the offensive would split the Russian front, allowing German forces to “encircle the enemy in separate pockets. . . . These two outer wings must be fast and strong!” For economic reasons, Leningrad and Kiev were to be the main focus of the offensive. Moscow, Hitler informed his High Command, was “of no great importance.”
It was understood that the first objective was the utter annihilation of the Red Army in western Russia. Following that, the Germans could choose their next objective. Differences between Hitler and the High Command were not so much resolved as pushed to the side. Army leaders assumed that events in the field would ultimately dictate objectives for the second phase of the offensive and that Moscow would inevitably become the top priority. By early spring, the focus of the discussions shifted from strategic objectives to the conduct of the war. In a secret meeting on March 17 Hitler revealed to army leaders the full ideological dimensions of the conflict. The Soviet intelligentsia, they were told, had to be “exterminated” and the machinery of the Stalinist regime “smashed.” To achieve this end, “force must be used in its most brutal form.” Although Hitler did not extend this kill order to broader elements of the Soviet population at this time, a secret army order of March 26 clearly revealed how the military had understood the thrust of his remarks.
Several days later, on March 30, Hitler addressed some two hundred commanders of what was now being referred to as the Eastern Army (Ostheer). Speaking in the Reich Chancellery he reiterated the basics of his strategic thinking—the army’s mission was to crush the Red Army and destroy the Soviet state, which he clearly assumed could be accomplished in a matter of weeks. But the real thrust of Hitler’s remarks that day dealt more directly with the underlying ideological nature of the coming battle. This campaign would be a conflict not bound by the international rules of war established in the Hague and Geneva Conventions. While Germany was a signatory to those agreements, the Soviets had allowed their commitment to lapse. Therefore, the army could expect the most savage, barbaric conduct from the Russians, and the troops must be prepared to respond in kind.
“This,” Hitler emphasized, “is a war of extermination. If we do not grasp this, we shall still beat the enemy, but thirty years later we shall again have to fight the Communist foe. We do not wage war to preserve the enemy.” He called explicitly for the “extermination of the Bolshevist commissars and the Communist intelligentsia. . . . The individual troop commanders must understand the issues at stake. They must be leaders in this fight. The troops must fight back with the methods with which they are attacked.” The commissars and other party functionaries, he concluded, were “criminals and must be dealt with as such.”
On May 13, Hitler issued the so-called Barbarossa Decree, which, in effect, gave the troops a virtual carte blanche in dealing with the Russian enemy, both civilian and military. Commanders were free to carry out summary executions and to take reprisals against whole villages or groups when individual culprits could not be identified. The decree granted unequivocal immunity to the military and SS units engaged in such activities, guaranteeing that they “would not be subject to the constraint of prosecution even if the action is also a military crime or misdemeanor.” Hitler also pledged that there would be none of the disruptive conflicts between the army and the SS that had plagued the Polish campaign; in the Soviet Union, both were now to operate from the same script.
The generals voiced no qualms about the prospect of an invasion of the Soviet Union. Although the Red Army’s equipment was bountiful—it possessed more tanks and as many aircraft as the rest of the world combined, and its manpower reserves were virtually inexhaustible—the Wehrmacht command agreed with the Führer that the Soviet Union was highly vulnerable. In making that judgment, they chose to ignore the Red Army’s smashing success in a series of major clashes with the Japanese on the Manchurian-Mongolian border in 1939, which would have told a very different story. As usual, the Führer was convincing. According to General Guderian’s later assessment, “Hitler succeeded in infecting his immediate military entourage with his own baseless optimism.” The army’s High Command (OKH) as well as the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (OKW) were so serenely confident of victory before winter set in that winter clothing had been prepared for only every fifth man in the army.
The geographic dimensions of the operation were staggering and yet did not unduly worry Germany’s military planners. Given the vastness of the terrain, they understood that the Wehrmacht could not afford to become bogged down in positional warfare. Yet, according to the plan, German troops were ultimately to establish a line from Archangel on the Arctic Ocean to Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea, a front of some 1,600 miles. It would be the most ambitious military operation in human history. “The world,” Hitler said, “will hold its breath.”
Three army groups would carry the offensive: Army Group North would advance through the Baltic countries in the direction of Leningrad, while Army Group Center would drive north of the vast Pripet Marshes toward Minsk and beyond that to Smolensk. Army Group South, operating below the Marshes, would spearhead the push toward Kiev and into Ukraine. In all, 3.2 million German ground troops would be committed to the offensive, augmented by approximately 500,000 Romanian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Croatian, and Italian troops. In all, 145 divisions would be mobilized, 102 infantry, 19 armored, and 14 motorized. The offensive would employ 3,600 tanks, 27,000 aircraft, and 17,000 artillery pieces. With its tanks and aircraft, it would be the most technologically advanced military machine in history. It is nonetheless telling that Barbarossa also required the requisitioning of 750,000 horses. Horse-drawn wagons would carry much of the army’s heavy equipment, and most of the Wehrmacht’s invading troops would enter Russia in the same way as Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812—on foot or on horse-drawn wagons.
As planning progressed a number of generals, including the commanders of the three Army Groups, expressed misgivings of one sort or another. Hitler dismissed their concerns, assuring them that the loss of Leningrad, Moscow, and Ukraine would deprive the Red Army of its economic lifeblood and compel the Kremlin to surrender. But again, speed was of the essence. A quick, decisive victory in the East was imperative not only for strategic military considerations but for economic reasons as well. The German economy was not geared for a protracted war of attrition, and Hitler wished to avoid the privations on the home front that he believed had undermined the old Reich in the Great War. The German war economy, Hitler tried to assure his military commanders, could meet the demands of the Eastern Campaign, but in February, General Georg Thomas, head of the Wehrmacht’s Office of the War Economy, submitted a cautionary report that cast a gloomy light over the whole of Barbarossa. It was the first of several bleak assessments of the military’s economic preparedness Thomas submitted to the High Command over the following months.
The army’s fuel supply, he warned, would last only for two months; the Luftwaffe might survive on its supply through the summer but no longer; essential rubber production might hold until spring 1942. He also warned that the food supply for the troops was a serious concern, especially if the war dragged on into the fall. Thomas presented his findings to Wilhelm Keitel, chief of Armed Forces High Command (OKW), with the assumption that they would be forwarded to Hitler, but Keitel dismissed them out of hand. The Führer would not allow himself to be influenced by such economic considerations, he told Thomas. It is unlikely that Keitel even bothered to pass along Thomas’s reports to Hitler. Göring, head of the Four Year Plan and hence Germany’s war economy, was equally unfazed by Thomas’s dire warnings. There was little reason to be overly concerned about these putative shortages, he assured a skeptical Thomas. The army would simply seize what it needed as it moved along.
Göring had ideas of his own about the economic exploitation of the conquered land that were as sinister if not as ferocious as Heydrich’s SS operations. From the outset of the war German planners had been concerned about the food supply, not only for the advancing troops but also the civilians of the Reich. Göring adopted a strategy, monstrous in its cold-blooded callousness, of “planned famines” to deal with the situation. It called for Russian cities in the west to be systematically starved. The agricultural goods that would have gone to the urban population would now feed the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the population of the Reich. If this “hunger plan” were effectively implemented, Göring calmly estimated that as many as thirty million Russians, many of them Jews, would starve. Hitler shared this barbaric view, commenting in July that it was his “firm decision to level Moscow and Leningrad [Russia’s two largest cities] and make them uninhabitable, so as to relieve us of the necessity of having to feed the populations through the winter.” The cities would be razed by the air force, producing a “national catastrophe which will deprive not only Bolshevism, but also Muscovite nationalism, of their centers.”
The invasion was set to be launched on May 15, after the spring rains had subsided, giving the invading forces ample time to smash the Red Army before the onset of the Russian winter. But the spring of 1941 was especially wet; rivers across Eastern Europe were swollen and roads had turned into quagmires of glutinous mud. The invasion would have to be postponed until the panzers had firm terrain. Also contributing to the delay was Mussolini’s ill-conceived invasion of Greece in April, which quickly turned into a fiasco. Like Hitler on numerous occasions, Mussolini chose not to inform his ally of his plans, and a furious Hitler was caught by surprise. Mussolini’s strike prompted Britain to rush troops into the Peloponnese in response, and the Wehrmacht could not afford to have its southeastern flank exposed as it plunged into Russia, so in April German forces came to Mussolini’s rescue. On April 6, Wehrmacht troops invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece and within a short time stabilized the situation in the Balkans. An armistice was signed with Yugoslavia on April 14, while the fighting in Greece dragged on until May 27. The Wehrmacht fought British troops on the Greek mainland and on Crete, where it sustained serious casualties (two thousand killed) before British forces could be evicted. It was the second time that the Reich had been forced to come to the imprudent Duce’s aid, having sent German troops to North Africa to bail him out of his desert war with the British.
In the spring of 1941, facing an imminent campaign of colossal proportions in the Soviet Union, German forces were now spread thinly over the Balkans, North Africa, and Western Europe, a very different situation from that which Hitler confronted in the summer of 1940. It was estimated that at least a quarter of the Reich’s troops would be stationed in these far-flung theaters of war, which meant that the size of the German army that invaded the Soviet Union was not appreciably larger than the one that had attacked Western Europe in the summer of 1940. Given these complications, the launch date for Barbarossa was pushed back to June 22—the exact date of Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia 129 years earlier.
As preparations for Barbarossa entered their final stage, Hitler was jolted by another unhappy surprise. Rudolf Hess, his slavishly devoted deputy and since 1939 second in succession to the Führer after Göring, decided to make a dramatic move. Despite his high official rank, Hess’s influence had declined precipitously in the last years of peace, and, despite his unquestioning dedication to Hitler, he had become virtually irrelevant in the Nazi hierarchy. Worst of all for the faithful Hess, he had slipped to the periphery of the Führer’s inner circle. But in the spring of 1941 he concocted a clandestine plan that he hoped would restore him to Hitler’s good graces. He was not briefed on the details of Barbarossa, but he did know how much Hitler desired an agreement with Britain. In secret, he hatched a bizarre scheme for his personal intervention with the British that would secure the peace—and on German terms. It would be direct diplomacy. He consulted no one.
On the evening of May 10, he took off in a twin-engine Me 110 from a military aerodrome near Augsburg. He had served as a pilot in the final stages of the Great War and had secretly familiarized himself with the aircraft. His destination was Scotland. He had a message for the Duke of Hamilton, who was a wing commander in the RAF, and whom Hess had met briefly at the 1936 Olympics. He hoped to play the role of intermediary between the British government and the Reich, and Hamilton would open the necessary doors. Hess parachuted out of his plane near the duke’s castle not far from Glasgow and was taken captive by a startled Scottish farmhand who took him to his cottage and gave him a cup of tea. Hess explained that he had a message of vital importance for the duke. Men from the local Home Guard soon arrived and transported Hess to their headquarters. Calls were placed, but a skeptical duke was in no rush. He did not arrive until the following day.
When he had verified that the man was, indeed, Hitler’s deputy Führer, Hamilton located the prime minister at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, his occasional weekend retreat from the air raids of London. Churchill was hosting a dinner party at which a Marx Brothers film, Go West, was to be the evening’s entertainment when the Duke of Hamilton arrived. Hess had been positively identified. It was a coup of potentially great significance. Churchill, who initially took it for a joke, was not impressed. “Hess or no Hess,” he declared, “I am going to see the Marx Brothers.”
For several days British interrogators had at him and quickly determined that Hess had little real information to offer. They also concluded that their prisoner was mentally unstable, possibly delusional, and that his proposal, coated now in a film of racial mysticism, merely repeated Hitler’s position, which they had already rejected. To his amazement, a bewildered Hess found himself bundled off to the Tower of London and would remain confined to a British prison for the duration of the war. In fact, he never emerged from Allied captivity, and died, at the age of ninety-three, the solitary inmate in Germany’s Spandau Prison, in 1987. The news of Hess’s misadventure struck Berlin and Berchtesgaden like a bolt from the blue. Hitler was stupefied. Could this be true? His faithful Hess, of all people! When presented with a letter Hess had left behind for him explaining his mission to Scotland, the Führer let loose an “inarticulate, almost animal outcry” that could be heard throughout the Berghof. He immediately sent for Göring, Ribbentrop, and other officials from his inner circle. Was a Putsch under way? Was the army behind this? What exactly did Hess know about Barbarossa? He dispatched Ribbentrop to Rome to reassure Mussolini that Germany was not trying to arrange a separate peace, and Goebbels was to formulate a propaganda strategy to explain Hess’s “betrayal.” When the British did not immediately acknowledge that Hess had been taken prisoner, for two days an anguished Hitler hoped that Hess’s plane had crashed in the sea. He inquired of the Luftwaffe staff about Hess’s chances of reaching Scotland. “Virtually none” was the reassuring response. But on May 13, only a month before the planned launch of Barbarossa, London reported that Hess was in British custody. “Hitler,” Goebbels recorded in his diary, “is completely shaken.”
The regime went into damage control. Goebbels decided that Hess must be portrayed as an idealist and committed Hitler loyalist who, due to enormous physical and mental stress, had suffered a breakdown. He certainly did not speak for the Führer. Despite Goebbels’s best efforts, the Gestapo reported that domestically the Hess incident was a “complete train wreck (a Deroute). . . . Massive uneasiness dominates public opinion,” Goebbels noted ruefully in his diary. “The people wonder, with justification, how a fool could be the second man after the Führer.” The regime struggled to manage the story, and within a short time the Hess affair was overtaken by more momentous events, and the matter receded from public consciousness. Still, the Hess episode put nerves on edge as the launch date of Barbarossa drew near. With Hess removed from Hitler’s inner circle, Martin Bormann, always alert for opportunities to increase his influence with the Führer, was appointed Hitler’s secretary and head of the Party Chancellery, posts that he would gradually transform into a position of considerable power. In doing so, he would prove to be a far more malignant force within the leadership than Hess, and as the war progressed, his influence, always exercised behind the scenes, grew.
With troops and equipment moving into their forward positions, the Wehrmacht High Command issued an order to the Eastern Army on June 6 that would pass into history as the infamous Commissar Order. The essence of that directive had been first broached in Hitler’s March 30 meeting with military leaders and now took official written form. So sensitive were its contents that only thirty copies were issued to the Wehrmacht’s top commanders, who were not to distribute it to their troops but to read it aloud to them. It was not in the strictest sense a military directive but a mission statement, offering guidelines for the conduct of the troops in Russia and an ideological justification for the war of annihilation that Hitler intended. “In the struggle against Bolshevism, we must not assume that the enemy’s conduct will be based on principles of humanity or of international law,” it read. In particular, “hateful, cruel, and inhuman treatment of our prisoners is to be expected from political commissars of all kinds as the real carriers of resistance.” As a consequence, “in this struggle consideration and respect for international law with regard to these elements are wrong. . . . The originators of barbaric Asiatic methods of warfare are the political commissars. Thus, measures must be taken against them immediately and with full severity. Accordingly, whether captured in battle or offering resistance, they are in principle to be disposed of by arms.”
Germany was embarking on a desperate life-and-death struggle that demanded “ruthless and energetic measures.” The troops had to understand the enormity of their mission: “Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the National Socialist German people,” the order began. “Germany’s struggle is directed against this destructive ideology and its carriers. This struggle demands ruthless and energetic measures against Bolshevik agitators, guerillas, saboteurs, Jews, and the complete elimination of every active or passive resistance.” Bolshevik agitators, guerrillas, and saboteurs would, of course, be difficult to ferret out, but the Jews presented an invitingly easy target. And since in Nazi ideological thinking, Jews and Bolsheviks were one and the same enemies of the Reich, these directives amounted to a death sentence for the Jews of the Soviet Union.
Some field commanders also issued orders of their own, echoing the High Command’s directive. Hitler was particularly pleased with General Walter von Reichenau’s order to his troops, which called for the German soldier to be “the bearer of an inexorable national idea and the avenger of all bestialities inflicted on the German people and its racial kin. Therefore the soldier must have full understanding for the necessity of a severe but just atonement on Jewish subhumanity. An additional aim in this is to nip in the bud any revolts in the rear of the army, which, as experience shows, have always been instigated by Jews.” The army was also to understand that in this operation the SS had orders from “the highest authority” to undertake “special tasks” in the rear of the advancing fronts and would not be subject to military command. Between March and June, Heydrich formed four task forces (Einsatzgruppen) to carry out these tasks—Einsatzgruppen A (the Baltic), B (Belorussia), C (Ukraine), and D (Romania). They ranged in size from five hundred to a thousand men and were drawn from the ranks of the SD, Gestapo, Criminal Police, and Waffen-SS; their leaders were experienced and committed Nazis. They were given special ideological training, and the leadership cadres took courses in Russian geography and other practical instruction that would help them in the execution of their mission. These forces would be augmented by units of the Order Police, an organization of all uniformed police in Germany after 1936 controlled by Himmler and the SS. Local militias as well as two brigades of SS troops under Himmler’s control also took part.
With the invasion only five days away, Heydrich convened his leaders for a final briefing, spelling out their mission in the most straightforward terms. They would move in either alongside or just behind the army. Their task was officially described as policing the occupied territories, but their mission was murder. They were to eliminate all functionaries of the Red Army and the Soviet administration. They were also to encourage pogroms among the local population, though Heydrich emphasized that German forces should remain very much in the background of such actions. After the war, some Einsatzgruppen commanders testified that on this occasion Heydrich ordered the murder of all Jews—men, women, and children—but evidence drawn from the regular Einsatzgruppen reports and other postwar testimony by Einsatzgruppen leaders suggests that Heydrich’s initial order applied only to Jewish men in service to the Soviet regime. The indiscriminate slaughter of the entire Jewish population originated not from a single Heydrich order but developed incrementally from the Einsatzgruppen on the ground.
Operating in the Baltic area, Einsatzgruppe A was the first to initiate a policy of wholesale murder, slaughtering men, women, and children from virtually the outset of the campaign. Hearing no objections from Berlin—Himmler and Heydrich explicitly approved of the mass killings once they were under way—the other groups enthusiastically followed its genocidal example. Himmler’s SS brigades were, if anything, more vicious than Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen; from the very outset of their deployment they systematically massacred Jews, killing men, women, and children. Such wanton murder would saturate German operations in the East and would only grow in intensity as the war progressed.
Shortly after 3 a.m. in the darkness of June 22, German artillery opened fire along a thousand-mile front and launched what was to become the most ferocious and deadly war in the dark annals of human conflict. More people would fight and die on the Eastern Front than on all other areas of combat around the globe combined. Twenty-seven million Soviet citizens and more than four million German soldiers would perish, and the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe, would be unleashed under the deadly cover of this conflict. It was a struggle of such barbarism and cruelty, such savage, remorseless killing that even decades after its conclusion the sheer magnitude of its horror defies comprehension.
On that June morning, the Germans achieved complete tactical surprise. Despite warnings from Britain, the United States, and Soviet agents in Japan and Germany, Stalin chose to believe that Britain and the U.S. were merely trying to sow discord between Moscow and Berlin and draw the Soviet Union into the war against Germany. Determined not to incite a German assault, Stalin scrupulously fulfilled all the economic clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and was at pains to avoid any sort of political friction with Berlin. Trainloads of raw materials and finished goods were still rolling across the frontier into German-occupied Poland as the Wehrmacht launched its offensive. Russian forces were completely unprepared for the onslaught. Stalin had chosen to position his forces far forward on the border in a thin line of defense and had not informed those forces of a possible German attack.
In the opening phase of the assault the panzers roared forward, carving up unprepared Russian units, while overhead the Luftwaffe bore down mercilessly on Russian positions. Within forty-eight hours, the Russians lost more than two thousand aircraft, mostly in their hangars and on their hardstands, and when the Red bomber force did get aloft, five hundred were shot down on June 23 alone. The world’s largest air force was decimated in a mere two days. By the first days of July, all three German army groups were hurtling forward, gobbling up vast territories at a breakneck pace, inflicting staggering casualties on panicked Russian forces, and taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners. All along the front, German armored divisions broke through Russian lines, pushed on, then swung into huge enveloping movements. While the Luftwaffe provided close air support, the infantry would then close on the surrounded enemy, engaging them and clearing the area. Meanwhile, the panzers would be off again, thrusting deeper into enemy territory. It was Blitzkrieg at its most dazzling.
In June and July all three army groups made spectacular gains. At Hitler’s eastern headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, concealed in a dark, mosquito-infested forest of East Prussia, a sense of euphoria prevailed. Day after day, at his military briefings Hitler watched the flag-shaped markers on the situation map press deeper and deeper into the Soviet Union. There was dramatic progress on all fronts. Army Group North drove 155 miles through Lithuania and into Latvia in five days; by July 10, German armor stood eighty miles from Leningrad and was closing fast. Army Group Center carried out gigantic encirclements of large Russian forces at Minsk and another near Smolensk some 200 miles farther east. Bock’s forces had covered 440 miles in twenty-three days and were only 200 miles from Moscow. On July 3, Halder wrote in his diary: “On the whole one can say that the task of smashing the mass of the Russian army . . . has been fulfilled. . . . It is probably not too much to say when I assert that the campaign against Russia has been won within two weeks.” This did not, however, mean that the battle was over. There was still much fighting to be done, Halder warned. “The sheer geographic vastness of the country and the stubbornness of the resistance, which is carried on with all means, will claim our effort for many more weeks to come.”
Advancing just behind the army, the Einsatzgruppen and attached units of the Order Police conducted a bloodbath of unimaginable savagery all across the western Soviet Union. They did not operate as complete units but broke into special commando elements, often of company or even platoon size, which acted independently. They butchered tens of thousands of Jews and other “undesirables” and submitted regular reports on their murderous achievements to Berlin, where they were evaluated in the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) and made available to a number of other Nazi officials. Altogether Einsatzgruppe A slaughtered 229,052 Jews in the late summer and fall; Einsatzgruppe B reported that it had killed 45,467 Jews; and Einsatzgruppe C claimed 95,000 victims by December 1.
The procedures varied only slightly from one killing action to another. Describing the liquidation of the ghetto in Borisov in October 1941, its SS organizer explained the procedures in terms that were both strikingly mundane and unimaginably macabre. For two days and nights before the action the policemen who were to carry out the action were “placed under the influence of alcohol and ideologically prepared to inflict atrocities on innocent people.” The commander even held a banquet in a local restaurant for them during which “the policemen had the opportunity of imbibing alcoholic drinks to excess.” At the banquet the leader of the action gave a speech in an attempt “to stimulate the Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews . . . and urged the policemen not to express any feelings of compassion and humanity towards either the adult Jews or the children.”
Two hundred policemen, mostly Latvians, carried out the action. Under the supervision of the German Secret Field Police they ordered Russian prisoners of war to dig three large pits about two kilometers from the town. These pits or trenches were about four hundred meters long, three meters wide, and up to two meters deep. During the night before the killing (October 8–9) the ghetto was sealed off, and at daybreak the police units swarmed over their unsuspecting victims. They stormed into Jewish homes, driving men, women, and children into the town square, where trucks waited to carry them to “the place of execution.” Those who could not be crammed into the trucks were marched to the trenches in groups of seventy or eighty and were beaten pitilessly all along the way. “There was no mercy shown to old people, children, pregnant women or the sick. Anyone who offered resistance was shot on the spot . . . or beaten half to death . . . on my order,” the commander proudly reported.
The doomed Jews were positioned about fifty meters from the trenches and guarded until it was their turn to be shot. Twenty Jews at a time were stripped naked, then led into the trenches, where they were forced to lie facedown. They were shot in the back of the head, execution style; in a matter of minutes another group of victims followed them into the pit, where they lay facedown on top of the first group and were shot. Wave after monstrous wave. Throughout the day the pits were “filled with groans and cries and the continual shrieks of horror of the women and children,” while the murderers ate snacks and drank schnapps in the intervals between the shootings. Many were drunk. In Berlin the action was deemed a great success: seven thousand Jews were shot in a single day.
Describing the scene of another massacre in Ukraine, a German engineer from a private firm recalled watching the arrival and execution of several hundred Jews. As the victims tumbled out of the trucks, an SS man wielding a horse whip ordered them to undress and to place their clothing on separate piles for shoes, clothing, and underwear. One pile of shoes contained approximately eight hundred to a thousand pairs, and great heaps of trousers, shirts, blouses, dresses, sweaters, and stockings rose nearby. “Without weeping or crying out these people undressed and stood together in family groups, embracing each other and saying good-bye while waiting for a sign from another SS man who stood on the edge of the ditch and also carried a whip. During the quarter of an hour in which I stood near the ditch, I did not hear a single complaint or plea for mercy.” One batch of victims after another was ordered into the ditch where “the bodies were lying so tightly packed together that only their heads showed, from almost all of which blood ran down over their shoulders. Some were still moving. Others raised their hands and turned their heads to show that they were still alive. The ditch was already three quarters full. I estimate that it already held about a thousand bodies. . . . The people, completely naked, climbed down steps which had been cut into the clay wall of the ditch, stumbled over the heads of those lying there and stopped at the spot indicated by the SS man. They lay down on top of the dead or wounded; some stroked those still living and spoke quietly to them.” Then he heard a series of rifle shots and “looked into the ditch and saw the bodies contorting or, the heads of the already inert, sinking on the corpses.” Stunned, he turned his eyes toward the man doing the shooting. “He was an SS man; he sat, legs swinging, on the edge of the ditch. He had an automatic rifle resting on his knees and was smoking a cigarette.” While he relaxed for a moment, another batch of the doomed were already descending into the pit.
The rising tide of mass murder washed across the entire front, not receding even when the German advance ebbed in late summer. In the first nine months of the Eastern Campaign the Einsatzgruppen carried out two major sweeps; the first followed the rapid advance of the army in June and July, but many Jews were left behind. During the second sweep, commencing in October, the Einsatzgruppen were reinforced by personnel from the Order Police and conducted massacres on an even grander scale. These operations reached their grisly apogee in September at a large ravine just outside Kiev called Babi Yar. There the SS shot 33,771 Jews during a three-day period. By the turn of the year the Nazi annihilation plan had already resulted in the murder of 700,000 Jews.
The army did not interfere. Instead, the troops assisted in identifying and rounding up Jews, whom they turned over to the SS. The army’s policy of retribution for guerrilla actions—burning villages, arbitrarily executing whole groups of “suspects”—also contributed to the pervasive aura of unrestrained violence and murder that engulfed the war in Russia. Not surprisingly, the savagery of this mass murder took a toll on the perpetrators directly involved in them. The men who participated in these operations were not SS bureaucrats sitting comfortably behind a desk in Berlin where the deaths could be dealt with as abstractions, as numbers on the page, but men with blood on their hands, men who confronted their victims face-to-face, who watched gasoline-drenched children, not yet dead, tossed onto a flaming pyre of bodies and heard their screams long after they had moved on to another massacre.
The psychological toll on the murderers was immense and a source of concern for SS higher officials. Examining troops in the area around Bialystok, where only days before 2,600 Jews had been shot and another 6,000 were scheduled for execution in the coming days, a visiting German doctor was besieged by police officials “who were suffering from nervous breakdowns and could not participate in another killing operation.” Even the SS and police leader for central Russia had to be hospitalized with serious stomach and intestinal ailments, produced by nervous strain. The medical report indicated that the man was suffering from recurring nightmares in which he relived the killing operations with which he had been involved.
Himmler received reports of “disputes, refusals to obey orders, drunken orgies, but also serious psychological illnesses,” and was looking for a way to reduce the psychological strain on the men involved in the shootings. One possible solution to the problems involved in these mass shooting operations was to find another mode of killing, one more efficient, more secret, and less emotionally traumatic for the perpetrators. In August 1941 the euthanasia program in the Reich was closed down, and many of its personnel transferred to the East. They had experimented with mobile gas vans in the T4 program and by fall 1941 had developed a new, more powerful model. Using carbon monoxide gas, the vans could asphyxiate forty victims at a time by connecting a metal pipe to the exhaust gas hose and inserting it into a sealed van. The powerful engines then pumped the gas into the vehicle. The specially equipped vans were first introduced into Poltava in southern Ukraine in November, and within weeks these mobile gas vans circulated across German-occupied Eastern Europe.
At this point, the German public had only vague notions of what was transpiring on the Eastern Front. So tight was the security in the run-up to Barbarossa that the invasion had come as a shock, but in the heady rush of spectacular victories in June and July, the public was swept up in the euphoria of the High Command. In late June the Gestapo reported that “the military victory over Russia has in a short time become taken as a given by every racial comrade [Volksgenosse]. . . . The optimism in some circles is so strong that they no longer wager about the outcome of the war but the date of German triumph. The timing most often heard is in the neighborhood of six weeks.” The public was not informed about the casualties.
So confident was Hitler that Germany would prevail soon that in mid-July he convened a conference at his headquarters to establish the principles and organizational structure of the Nazis’ new order in the conquered Russian lands. Before the invasion, the army had made no plans for the occupation, having been instructed that administration of the newly acquired Eastern territories was to be handed over to party officials. Only now did the regime address the question directly. Present at the five-hour meeting on July 16 were Göring, Alfred Rosenberg, Bormann, Keitel, and Hans Lammers, secretary in the Reich Chancellery. Hitler explained that the German occupiers were not to reveal their larger intentions publicly; instead the regime would continue the threadbare narrative that Germany had been forced to intervene to restore order. The Russian public was not to recognize that a final settlement was under way. “All necessary measures—shootings, deportations, etc.—we will and can do anyway.” He did not want to make premature and unnecessary enemies among the indigenous population. “We will simply act, therefore, as if we wish to carry out a mandate. But it must be clear to us that we will never again leave these territories.” Germany must emphasize that “we are the liberators,” but in reality “it’s a matter of dividing up the giant cake so that we can first rule it, secondly administer it, and thirdly exploit it.”
Hitler was not daunted by the vast territory and the millions of subjects the Reich would acquire. It would not be too difficult to control the peoples of this vast territory, Hitler maintained. “Let’s learn from the English, who with 250,000 men in all, including 50,000 soldiers govern four hundred million Indians. Russia must always be dominated by Germans. . . . We’ll take the southern part of the Ukraine, especially the Crimea, and make it an exclusively German colony. There’ll be no harm in pushing out the population that’s there now.” The native population would not be educated. “It is in our interest that the people should know just enough to recognize the signs on the roads. At present they can’t read and they ought to stay that way.” The German colonists would be hardy “soldier-peasants” made up of “professional soldiers,” preferably NCOs. Room would also be found for Nordic settlers from Scandinavia and the Netherlands—all Aryans—and Germany would build highways that would carry German settlers and tourists into what would ultimately be a German “garden of Eden.”
On July 17 Hitler selected Rosenberg to head an apparently all-powerful Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. But the office was an empty shell, a fact underscored by Hitler’s choice of the man to lead it. Rosenberg was seen by many in the party’s elite as a fuzzy-headed ideologue and propagandist with no power base in the party or state. In theory this new position placed him in charge of all matters in the Occupied Eastern Territories. But, as was the case in so many positions of ostensible power in the Third Reich, Rosenberg’s authority was a mirage, hopelessly diluted by other Nazi chieftains and their organizations.
Rosenberg hoped to co-opt the nationalities into the struggle against Moscow. Treated rather leniently but under tight German control, they could become valuable allies in the war against the Bolsheviks. Himmler, whose SS and Einsatzgruppen operated throughout Rosenberg’s realm, was disdainful of such ideas and pursued a policy of stunning brutality. To Himmler and Heydrich, the Slavs were racial enemies, inferiors fit only for extermination or ruthless exploitation. For his part, Göring was determined to exploit the economic resources of the East to the maximum, starving millions of Slavs in the process. Rather than establishing anything that remotely resembled administrative clarity or a coherent policy, it was the usual battle of all against all, as each sought to work independently toward the Führer. Hitler, who did not take Rosenberg’s ideas seriously, was, as usual, quite content with this arrangement. He had no intention of creating a series of quasi-independent Slavic satellites.
He was taken instead with Himmler’s fantastic plans for the Germanization of the East. General Plan East, Himmler boasted, would be “the greatest piece of colonization which the world has ever seen.” According to this plan, presented to Hitler in July 1942, some 45 million indigenous inhabitants in the targeted areas were to be expelled to points farther east. Thirty million of these were considered by SS demographic experts as racially undesirable. In all, 80 percent of the Polish population, 64 percent of the Belorussians, and 75 percent of the Ukrainians would be driven out; those allowed to remain would be “Germanized.” The RSHA calculated that as many as ten million Germans would be resettled across the East within thirty years. This vast agricultural region, sprinkled with modern cities connected by a vast transportation network, would meet the food needs of a vastly expanded German empire into the future.
In the meantime the German-occupied East was to be ruled with an iron fist, the Slavic peoples enslaved, their cultures suppressed, their intelligentsia annihilated. A policy of fear and repression was deemed more effective than cultivation and co-optation. Ironically, Rosenberg’s approach held far greater potential than the brutal policies adopted by his powerful rivals, but then, their policies were more in line with Hitler’s, and that, in the end, was what mattered.
Muddying the waters still more, Hitler appointed special Reich commissars for the different regions under German control. All were hard-liners, and each pursued his own policies, disregarding Rosenberg and his administration. Only the will of the Führer mattered, and each commissar interpreted that as he wished. All were petty tyrants, mostly incompetent, sometimes corrupt, always savage. Their policies were not coordinated, and if they were subordinate to any higher authority, it was not to Rosenberg and his administration but to Himmler’s SS.
As the campaign in Russia gathered steam, Hitler’s public speeches and his addresses to party and state officials grew more extreme, more apocalyptic. He made repeated references to his prophecy of 1939 that if the Jews once again pushed the peoples of Europe into a world war, “it would not end in the defeat of those nations but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” He ranted against the “Jewish global conspiracy,” and that obsessive hatred resonated throughout the Nazi regime. In speeches on October 19 and 25, and December 12 and 18, Hitler explicitly mentioned the extermination of the Jews and spoke openly about it with foreign statesmen. Goebbels and Otto Dietrich, Hitler’s press chief, were instructed to emphasize “the Jewish world enemy” in Nazi propaganda—which they did with a single-minded vehemence. Germany was not fighting England and Russia, but the Jewish plutocrats and Bolsheviks who controlled both.
In this atmosphere of paranoia and loathing, Hitler did not need to give a direct order for mass murder. Genocide was in the air. After July 1941, Himmler and Heydrich certainly proceeded as if the Führer had delivered a direct order to them—a verbal order, as was his practice—and everyone throughout the Nazi system understood his meaning and endeavored to, as Ian Kershaw has put it, “work toward the Führer.” There may have been no single Führer order but instead an accretion of murderous initiatives from Hitler, the Einsatzgruppen, the political commissars, the SS, the Wehrmacht, all pushing in one deadly direction, a direction derived from Nazi ideology and Hitler’s own ferocious obsessions.
Hitler probably had no clear idea of how his radical Judeo-phobia could be translated into action on the ground. That the Jews must leave all of Europe—still official Nazi policy in the summer and early fall of 1941—was clear, but how would this actually be accomplished? Solving that problem fell to the leadership of the SS. In October 1939 Hitler had appointed Himmler Reich commissar for The Strengthening of German Folkdom in the occupied areas and in September 1941 expanded his Reich Führer SS’s authority to the whole of occupied Russia. As previously mentioned Himmler delegated much of that authority to Heydrich in the Reich Security Main Office, where SS specialists were already at work finding a solution to the “Jewish question.”
On July 31, Heydrich met with Göring, who was still ostensibly in charge of Jewish policy. That authority was based on Göring’s assertion of leadership in Jewish policy dating from the aftermath of Kristallnacht and, typically, had never been officially superseded. Heydrich drafted a letter and obtained Göring’s signature to it that formally transferred to him the authority to “make all necessary preparations” for a “total solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.” He was to produce a comprehensive plan for a “final solution to the Jewish question” and to coordinate the participation of all organizations of party and state whose jurisdiction would be affected.
At that time, a final solution as envisioned by most within the Nazi leadership remained deportation: all Jews would be removed from the German sphere of influence and transported to the frozen wastes of Siberia, where, it was assumed, they would surely perish. But Hitler and the SS leadership assumed that this would come only after the defeat of the Soviet Union, and in the summer and fall of 1941 that had not yet happened. Meanwhile, Nazi officials in the East were complaining to Himmler that they were unable to cope with more transports of Jews for “resettlement.” The ghettos were overflowing, and the special camps constructed by the SS to serve as temporary reception areas were already inundated. With the Nazis now in control of the largest Jewish populations in Europe and a Soviet collapse not yet in sight, some solution to these mounting problems would have to be found. There are no indications that genocide, that is, the systematic mass murder of all European Jews, was considered a possible solution at this time. That hundreds of thousands of Jews, perhaps millions, would die—were dying!—was not seen as a prelude to a more comprehensive killing program. But that was about to change.
In the late summer, Hitler was coming under mounting pressure from regional leaders in the Reich to fulfill his promise to remove all Jews from Germany and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Nazi chieftains within the Reich were also calling for an order compelling Jews to wear some sort of distinguishing form of identification—a yellow star of David—as they did in the East, so that they could be easily recognized by the public. Goebbels was particularly vehement in his pleas to Hitler on both scores. As Gauleiter of Berlin, he hoped to see the Reich capital become the first German city to be declared “free of Jews.” He also led the chorus of those Nazi officials demanding that German Jews be compelled to wear some sort of badge. The Jews, he argued, were responsible for deteriorating morale at home by spreading defeatist rumors and acting as “mood spoilers.” A yellow star with the word “Jude” in black at its center would allow every German to recognize these rumormongers and defeatists. In September Hitler at last agreed to both the star and to a limited deportation program from the Reich and the protectorate. German Jews would be rounded up, and deportations to the East would begin immediately. As he told Heydrich in early October, he wanted “all Jews removed from German space by the end of the year.”
In the Reich capital these first deportations were carried out in an orderly fashion. Officials of Berlin’s Jewish community were required to help compile lists of those to be deported, and notifications, on the letterhead stationery of the Berlin Jewish Organization, were sent to those scheduled for “emigration.” These Jewish officials cooperated in the belief that those chosen were not being sent to their death but were being resettled in the East. In unthreatening language, the letters advised the terrified recipients of the date scheduled for their departure and outlined the procedures to be followed. Baggage, carefully labeled with names, address, and transport number, could be deposited at the collection point, often a synagogue, two days before their emigration. On the day of their departure their apartment would be sealed by the Gestapo, and the Jewish men, women, and children would proceed directly to the collection point. A leaflet was enclosed detailing items the deportees were permitted to bring along—medicines, warm clothing, underwear, umbrellas, and bedding, along with shaving utensils—everything to suggest that “resettlement” was just that. All personal documents—birth, marriage, and death certificates—were to be presented to the authorities as were all cash, jewelry, savings books, bonds, and financial papers. They were also to compile an inventory of all those possessions and household items—furniture, fittings, kitchenware, and other belongings that were to be left behind. The proceeds, minus payment of outstanding bills to utility companies, would ultimately be turned over to the state. In this process, the Gestapo remained as much as possible in the background, and representatives—auxiliaries, they were called—of the Jewish community carried out this initial stage of the evacuation. The superficial civility of the process was intended to allay fears and ensure calm among the anxious and fearful, all of whom were doomed to a short, hopeless future.
While this evacuation plan appealed to Nazi officials in the Reich, leaders in the East protested that they were already swamped with Jews and other “undesirables.” There was simply no room for new arrivals. They were not to worry, Himmler and Heydrich reassured them, the overcrowding in the ghettos and reception areas would be resolved. Those Jews already held in the collection areas would be shot to make room for the German Jews. The Lodz ghetto was to be the main reception center, but it could accept no more than twenty thousand Jews. Other ghettos, especially in the East, were added as reception centers to handle the anticipated influx. The first transports from Vienna bound for Lodz left the city on October 15; a day later transports from Prague and Luxembourg headed east, and on the 18th the first transport of Berlin Jews followed. To make room for the German Jews, approximately ten thousand inhabitants of the Kovno ghetto were murdered on October 28. In the first week of November, twenty transports carrying 19,593 Jews to Riga, Kovno, and Minsk—major collection areas—set off. Many of the arrivals never entered the ghettos; upon detraining they were marched into nearby woods and shot.
Still searching for an effective solution, Himmler in mid-October met with Odilo Globocnik, SS and police leader in the Lublin district, who made a radical proposal. A fanatical Austrian Nazi who had served as the top Nazi police official in Poland since 1939, Globocnik suggested that a stationary gas chamber be constructed at Belzec, an SS camp in the Lublin district of the General Government. He had consulted with personnel from the recently suspended euthanasia program, who suggested that rather than carbon monoxide a much stronger gas, Zyklon B, a deadly, fast-acting pesticide, could be used in permanently installed gas chambers. The killing would be much more efficient, and SS personnel would be liberated from the psychological stress involved in the mass shootings. Himmler was taken with the idea, and a first test was conducted at Auschwitz, not yet a major killing center, where six hundred Soviet POWs were gassed. It was deemed a success, and construction of the Belzec camp began in November 1941. It would become operational in March of the following year. Belzec would be the first installation in a new concentration camp system, distinct from the seven camps operating inside Germany. Its function was not the collection and incarceration of political prisoners but physical extermination.
While these SS killing operations gained momentum, the German army’s advance slowed in late July, and the first signs of trouble began to surface. Despite their breathtaking gains, the Germans were slowly confronting some disquieting realities. Their rapidly advancing forces had outdistanced their supplies and were encountering serious logistical difficulties. Tanks broke down and replacement parts were inadequate; ammunition and fuel were in short supply. Russian and German railways operated on different gauges, and German supply trains were forced to halt and reload their cargo into Russian trains before proceeding farther east. It was a time-consuming process, and progress was slowed even more by partisan attacks, which were becoming a constant threat. Roads were also not what German intelligence had expected. Routes that appeared on maps as highways proved to be narrow, stone-paved trails, while secondary roads were often little more than sandy cattle paths that turned to mud in wet weather.
German planners believed that they had appreciated the physical immensity of the land, but when the Wehrmacht actually plunged into the seemingly infinite vastness of western Russia, it produced a profoundly unsettling psychological impact on the troops. As one German infantryman recalled, upon entering Ukraine “we came into a land of unending horizons. Endless wide steppes and grain and sunflower fields bordered our way toward the east.” Marching for days in the sweltering summer heat—once they covered sixty kilometers in less than a day—they passed through a trackless landscape of deserted huts, burned-out tanks, overturned trucks, and “endless columns of Russian prisoners in ragged brown uniforms trudging in the opposite direction.” It was a world of “dust, mud, burning heat, thunderstorms, and an endless open space with only occasional clusters of sparse trees stretching to the horizon.”
Russian troops and their equipment were also not what the German High Command anticipated. The Germans launched Barbarossa under the assumption that Russian equipment, though plentiful, was largely obsolete or of inferior quality. In many respects this proved true, but unhappy surprises nonetheless awaited the troops. While the German infantry walked, one Landser (infantry soldier, or GI in American usage) recalled, “we were astonished at how well motorized the Soviet army was, as our own artillery was represented primarily by horse drawn equipment reminiscent of World War I.” More ominous, Halder noted without comment the arrival of a new Russian heavy tank on the battlefield. It was the first appearance of the T-34, which would prove to be the most advanced and effective tank in the Second World War.
The biggest surprise, however, were the Russian troops themselves. They had been utterly routed; the Blitzkrieg was working as if by textbook, and yet the Russian soldiers didn’t seem to understand that they were beaten. They fought tenaciously, even when there was little or no hope of survival, inflicting in the process heavy losses on the Germans. Although the Soviets were suffering horrendous casualties, so, too, was the Wehrmacht. By the close of July, German losses already exceeded casualties suffered in the entire Western campaign—and German forces had not yet achieved their primary operational objectives.
As the front moved deeper into the limitless Russian landscape, thousands of scattered enemy troops were left behind. Many stragglers and small units dissolved into the forests and swamps, suddenly reappearing to launch hit-and-run attacks far behind German lines. They struck supply trains and support units, and disrupted communications, creating for the Germans an eerie sense of vulnerability, surrounded in a strange, hostile environment where dangers lurked everywhere around them.
On the last day of August a German map depot of the Sixth Army was settling into evening bivouac at a village just off the highway leading from Korosten to Kiev. They were far behind the front lines, secure and comfortable, fraternizing with the villagers. At dusk, the Russians began to withdraw to their homes, leaving the streets virtually deserted. Then came the sound of “thundering horses and a dust cloud rising to the south.” Suddenly, one German soldier recalled, “they were upon us . . . like an American film of the wild west . . . sturdy little horses riding at a gallop through our camp. Some of the Russians were using sub-machine guns, others were swinging sabers. I saw two men killed by the sword less than ten meters from me . . . think of that, eighty years after Sadowa! [the pivotal battle of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866]. They had towed up a number of those heavy two-wheeled machine guns; after a few minutes whistles began to blow and the horsemen faded away; the machine gunners started blasting us at very close ranges . . . soon tents and lorries were ablaze and through it the screams of wounded men caught in the flames.”
As unnerving as these partisan attacks were, Hitler reacted to them with characteristic ferocity. When Stalin issued an appeal to the soldiers of the Red Army on July 3 to engage in partisan warfare, Hitler welcomed it as an opportunity to escalate the violence. “This partisan warfare gives us an advantage by enabling us to destroy everything in our path. . . . In this vast area, peace must be imposed as quickly as possible, and to achieve this it is necessary to execute even anyone who doesn’t give us a straight look.”
Despite increasing and better organized partisan attacks, the impressive string of German victories continued through the late summer of 1941. In the last weeks of July Smolensk fell to Army Group Center. During the month-long battle the Soviets suffered staggering casualties, including the loss of 300,000 prisoners and some 3,000 tanks and guns. That victory appeared to open the path to Moscow, which Hitler seemed at last to consider. By this point, all discussion of the elimination of the Soviet Union as a preliminary step to the ultimate battle with Britain had ceased. The war against Russia was all-consuming. A coup de grâce against Moscow seemed in order. But in early August, Hitler diverted Rundstedt’s forces to the south toward Kiev. While the generals lamented this diversion, the results were spectacular. Army Group South took 100,000 prisoners in the Uman pocket near Kiev, and inflicted 700,544 casualties on the overmatched Red Army. In the fighting in and around Kiev, five Soviet field armies were annihilated. It was, Hitler declared, “the greatest battle in world history,” and cemented his self-proclaimed status as “the greatest field commander of all times.”
Hitler was in high spirits. He talked excitedly about putting the economy back on a peacetime footing and transferring several divisions of the Eastern Army to Western Europe. He felt vindicated in his battle with the generals. But the generals, while satisfied with their success in these operations, continued to harbor serious reservations. Hitler floated blissfully above all difficulties, but the Wehrmacht’s spectacular victories in June and July masked a set of increasingly serious problems. The Soviets were suffering almost incomprehensible casualties, but in the process were inflicting heavy losses on their German enemy. On July 20, Halder had to acknowledge that “the costly battles involving some groups of our armored forces, in which the infantry divisions arriving from the west can take a hand only slowly, together with loss of time due to bad roads, which restrict movement and the weariness of the troops marching and fighting without a break, have put a damper on all higher headquarters.”
By August, German losses had reached alarming levels, and the severely battered Red Army still showed no signs of collapse. Halder had to admit that “the whole situation makes it increasingly plain that we have underestimated the Russian colossus,” who consistently prepared for war, he added with no trace of irony, “with that utterly ruthless determination so characteristic of totalitarian states.” At the outset of the war, “we reckoned with about 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360. Their divisions indeed are not armed and equipped according to our standards, and their tactical leadership is often poor. But there they are, and if we smash a dozen of them, the Russians simply put up another dozen.”
The Germans were beginning to feel the alarming effects of a glaring manpower shortage. Planning had been for a short war, and little thought given to the question of replacements or resupply. Although the number of divisions deployed on the Eastern Front increased by 43 to 179—impressive as Hitler studied the situation map—many were divisions in name only. The number of troops in the Eastern region had actually declined by 750,000 men since the outset of the campaign. Some companies consisted of no more than seventeen men; corporals were pressed into command positions, and replacements could not adequately fill the gaps. The huge German losses sustained in the first year of the Russian campaign would reach close to 1,300,000 men (excluding the sick), or 40 percent of the Eastern Army’s overall manpower of 3,200,000. “Certainly,” Halder grimly acknowledged in late November, “the army, as it existed in June 1941, will not be available to us again.”
Still, Hitler remained confident. “If the weather remains half way favorable,” he boasted to Goebbels, “the Soviet army will be essentially demolished in fourteen days.” But as the Russian campaign unfolded, Hitler’s constantly shifting priorities, his interference in day-to-day operations, and his frightful indecisiveness contributed to growing resentment among his commanding generals. Halder complained that Hitler’s “perpetual interference in matters the circumstances of which he does not understand, is becoming a scourge which will eventually be intolerable.”
Direction of the campaign was shifting from the Army High Command to the OKW, with Hitler as its leader and the compliant Alfred Jodl as chief operations officer. Many army commanders, especially in the OKH, were insistent that the time had come to position their available forces for what they had long considered a decisive war-winning push on Moscow. To them it had grown increasingly obvious that the Wehrmacht could no longer sustain three separate offensives but must marshal its resources for a concentrated drive on the Russian capital. The key to success, the generals believed, lay in Army Group Center, whose operations, they assumed, would now be directed toward Moscow.
But Hitler was still determined to deprive the Red Army of essential resources in the Baltic and in the Ukraine, and in mid-August Brauchitsch and Guderian approached Hitler directly to make the case for a concentrated drive on Moscow. Hitler remained intransigent. On August 21 Jodl, who increasingly acted as a mere liaison between Hitler and the Army High Command, relayed a message from the Führer to his nervous generals, in which Hitler stated unequivocally that army proposals for “future strategy in the East were not in accord with his views.” His message then repeated that the most important objective of the campaign was not Moscow and emphasized that “it was more important, before the onset of winter, to reach the Crimea and the Donetz basin in the south and cut off Russian oil supplies from the Caucasus area.” Meanwhile, Army Group Center was to halt, assuming a defensive posture, while two of its armor groups were sent to reinforce Army Group South and Army Group North. Moscow remained a distant third in Hitler’s thinking.
Halder no doubt voiced the reaction of the Army High Command when he slammed—albeit in private—“the absurdity of Hitler’s orders.” They would, he warned, result in “a dispersal of [German] forces and bring the decisive operation to a standstill.” The situation “created by the Führer’s interference is unendurable. . . . No other but the Führer himself is to blame for the zigzag course caused by his successive orders.” After a frustrating period of waffling on the proper strategic course, Jodl explained that the Führer “has an instinctive aversion to treading the same path as Napoleon. Moscow gives him a sinister feeling.” Trying to reassure the increasingly frustrated army commanders, Jodl argued lamely that “we must not try to compel him to do something which goes against his inner convictions. His intuition has generally been right. You can’t deny that.”
After dawdling through much of August, unable to decide on the next phase, Hitler at last, in early September, agreed to a direct assault on Moscow. He had by no means abandoned his view that the key to victory lay in the economic strangulation of the Soviet regime, but the campaigns in both north and south had not yielded the decisive victory he anticipated, and with winter bearing down on them, the seizure of Moscow, as his generals had maintained all along, might provide the rapid conclusion he desired. It was a race against time. The new operation got under way on September 3, and the Wehrmacht surged forward with a string of dramatic victories reminiscent of June. In mid-October forward elements of the 10th Panzer Division were seventy miles from the western fringes of Moscow, and on October 19 a state of siege was declared in the city. In the first week of December German reconnaissance patrols claimed that they could see the spires of the Kremlin in the distance.
But it was a different Wehrmacht now. Its equipment was in disrepair, fuel and food stocks low, casualties were high and replacements insufficient. The once-powerful Luftwaffe was severely degraded, a result of poor logistics and severe weather that greatly impeded air operations. Of the more than three thousand planes available at the launch of Barbarosa, only one thousand remained by the end of July, and only five hundred were operational by the late fall. The overtaxed troops were also suffering from low morale. Weeks of almost continuous combat had ground them down. Already in mid-August a grim report from Army Group South warned that recent Russian successes were less the result of a “change in the enemy situation as a revised assessment of the capabilities of our own troops. The plain truth is that they are exhausted and have suffered heavy losses.” That sense of growing pessimism was also beginning to be noticeable on the home front. “The hope for a quick collapse of Bolshevism has given way to a conviction that the Soviet Union cannot be defeated by the offensive war in its current form but by a war of attrition whose distant end is not yet in view.”
In October the offensive was slowed by weather, first by heavy rains and mud, then dense snow in November, and then howling blizzards in December. And always the bitter, implacable cold. German forces were ill prepared for a winter war. In November, with temperatures plunging to five, ten, fifteen degrees below zero Fahrenheit, equipment froze; engine blocks cracked; fires had to be lighted beneath the tanks to start their engines; coffee froze in mugs; even basic bodily functions became a torment. The Russians had executed a scorched-earth policy on the approaches to Moscow, leaving the advancing Germans in their lightweight summer uniforms little shelter, forcing them to huddle in shallow trenches to escape the frigid winds. German troops stuffed their uniforms with paper for insulation; they stole odd bits of clothing from the local population; many wrapped their boots in newspaper and rags. In late November the temperature dropped to −49 degrees Fahrenheit, and by Christmas 100,000 men had become casualties of frostbite—more than were lost to combat wounds.
In October, before the Russian winter set in, Wehrmacht commanders had pressed Hitler to issue a public appeal to the German people to donate winter clothing—caps, gloves, overcoats, sweaters—for the troops. But Hitler refused, fearing that such a move would signal that the war would go on through the winter, something his generals already knew. When, in January 1942, the regime finally issued a call for donations of winter clothing, a surprised German public responded with patriotic zeal, but troubling questions were raised: Why had the regime waited so long? people wondered. Surely, the call would have been more effective if it had been issued in September or even October. Why hadn’t the army anticipated this? The Gestapo reported a slump in German morale on the home front, caused by the unexpectedly long and deadly campaign in the East and by relentless British bombing of western German cities.
Outfitted with winter gear and undeterred by the severe weather, the Red Army launched furious local counterattacks, inflicting heavy casualties on the weary German troops. Still, the German offensive, called Operation Typhoon, struggled forward. But it was severely hampered by losses in the officer corps. During the first two years of the war 1,253 officers were killed in action; between the launch of Barbarossa in June 1941 and March 1942 the number skyrocketed to 15,000, the highest rate coming among junior combat officers.
Hitler refused to credit such ominous reports and increasingly dismissed advice from his top military commanders. On one occasion, when confronted with alarming figures on Russian tank production, Hitler flew into a titanic rage and ordered the officer who had compiled these “defeatist” numbers to be silenced. Halder, who was present at that meeting, remarked that when Hitler “went off the deep end—he was no longer a rational being . . . he foamed at the mouth and threatened me with his fists. Any rational discussion was out of the question.” If an action failed, whatever the cause, it was because the commanders in charge failed to follow his orders. Angered at Brauchitsch’s foot-dragging failure to execute his orders, Hitler relieved the general of his command in November and assumed leadership of the army himself. Frustrated by the slow advance of Army Group South, he also dismissed General Rundstedt, the conqueror of Rostov, at the beginning of December for his apparent inability to hold the city. Both men were highly respected officers, and their dismissal was greeted with concern within the military establishment and the German public. Hitler’s assumption of command of the army, which completed the Nazi hold on the military, was greeted enthusiastically on the home front but with unmistakable undertones of worry that the situation on the Eastern Front was far more serious than officially communicated.
Hitler would hear no bad news. As Field Marshal Eric von Manstein, hero of the campaign in the West and now commander of the Eighth Army in the south, observed, “Hitler was . . . disinclined to accept any reports out of hand or minimized the assertions about the enemy’s deficiencies and took refuge in endless recitations of German production figures.” When that failed to make the desired impression, he fell back on what for him was the key to victory: will, his will, Hitler believed, “had only to be translated into faith down to the youngest private soldier for the correctness of his decisions to be confirmed and the success of his orders ensured.” Such a belief in his “mission,” Manstein concluded, made him “impervious to reason” and led him “to think that his own will can operate even beyond the limits of hard reality.” There was simply no place in Hitler’s world for even a whiff of failure, and any attempt to pierce the bubble of his delusional imagination was doomed to failure.
While the Wehrmacht struggled forward, Heydrich completed his plan for a “final solution” to the Jewish problem. On November 29, 1941, he sent invitations to a small group of party, state, and police officials to a secret conference on December 9 to discuss matters related to Jewish policy. It was at this conference in Berlin that he would lay out his plan and assert the SS’s absolute authority over it. But the meeting could not be held on December 9. It was postponed, overtaken by events that profoundly changed the dynamics of the war. On December 5, the Soviets, buoyed by reinforcements from Siberia and the Far East, launched a massive counteroffensive before Moscow that caught the decimated Germans flat-footed. With the Soviet capital in their sights, the surprised Germans fell back in a frantic retreat as the Red Army pushed the overextended Wehrmacht back over one hundred miles. With little in the way of reserves available, the situation was desperate. Hitler issued a stand-firm order, and after giving ground, the Germans were able to establish strong defensive positions; by early January the lines stabilized and held. Moscow—and the Soviet Union—were saved.
But it was events all the way across the world and apparently unrelated to developments in Europe that transformed what had been two separate conflicts—the Sino-Japanese War and Hitler’s war in Europe—into a breathtakingly colossal global war. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 brought the United States at last into the war, and four days later, Hitler, to the surprise of many and the dismay of his army commanders, chose to honor Germany’s obligations to its Axis ally and declared war on the United States. Far from being worried, Hitler exulted, “We can’t lose the war at all; we now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years.” Nazi naval commanders were delighted—the U.S., they argued, had been engaged in an undeclared war against the Reich for almost two years, and American aid to Britain had been Churchill’s best hope for winning the war. Now at last German submarines could be turned loose to ravage British and American shipping.
Hitler expected that America’s attention would be focused on the war in the Pacific, and it seemed doubtful that the Americans could fight two wars on fronts thousands of miles apart. Besides it would take at least another year before America could fully mobilize its economy. The decision to declare war also had profound implications for Jewish policy. Roosevelt, Hitler was convinced, was controlled by a clique of Wall Street Jews, and Hitler had hoped to use the Jews as hostages to keep America out of the war. But that consideration was no longer relevant; there was no longer any reason for restraint, and so the full fury of the Nazi state could be turned on the Jews of Europe.
The German defeat before Moscow brought the Blitzkrieg phase of the war to an end. A speedy victory over the Soviet Union, which Hitler had promised, had proven elusive, and Germany was now confronted by a war with the two largest economic powers in the world. Many, even within the military, were coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that in the end Barbarossa had tried to do too much. While the Wehrmacht was still capable of winning battles, sometimes with spectacular results, it was not capable of winning a war that was now global in scale. The life-and-death struggle Hitler had proclaimed in the run-up to Barbarossa was now upon the German people, and for them, as well as the Jews of Europe, Armageddon beckoned.