Operation Barbarossa Was a War of Racial Annihilation

The Nazis reserved two fates for the Soviet Union's people: slavery or extermination. The outside world still hasn’t fully registered the scale of the horrific crimes unleashed by the Nazis' invasion of the Soviet Union on this day in 1941.

German tanks invade Minsk during Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

A barrage of artillery fire extending over a front that was 1,200 miles long launched Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the wee hours of June 22, 1941. Panzer and motorized divisions charged onto enemy soil, while bomber planes began to strike nearby Soviet airfields and distant naval bases. The Wehrmacht had amassed more than three million soldiers for this, the most powerful military assault in human history.

Operation Barbarossa — code-named after a medieval German emperor who, in addition to championing expansion into Eastern Europe, led a crusade to the Holy Land — was no ordinary war. Hitler saw it as a gigantic showdown between two rival ideologies that were contending for global supremacy: Nazism and Soviet communism (or “Judeo-Bolshevism” in his parlance).

In Nazi eyes, communism was a deadly weapon that Jewish intellectuals had forged to harm the world’s most developed races — the German people above all. For Germany to flourish, communism had to die. In the fight against Bolshevik “criminals,” Hitler explained to his generals ahead of the invasion, military conventions held no worth: “The communist is not a comrade beforehand and not a comrade afterwards. It is a war of extermination.”

The Nazis racialized their enemy in the East as a “Jewish-Asiatic” force, so devious and cruel that German soldiers stood no chance of prevailing lest they forego their innate chivalry and act with the utmost ruthlessness. The High Command of the German armed forces drew up decrees ordering soldiers fighting on Soviet soil to flout international norms on the conduct of warfare that Germany respected in other theaters of the war. They prepared the attack on the Soviet Union with maximum secrecy so as to annihilate with a single strike the country with which Germany had signed a nonaggression pact.

Only on June 21 did company leaders let their soldiers know about the aims of the impending campaign. Their instructions read as follows:

  1. Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the National-Socialist German people. Germany’s struggle is directed against this subversive worldview and its bearers.
  2. This struggle demands ruthless and energetic drastic action against Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs, Jews and complete elimination of any active or passive resistance.

“Racial Struggle Without Mercy”

The invaders struck against Soviet Jews with particular force, convinced as they were that every Jew on Soviet soil carried the Bolshevik plague. Whenever German units encountered strong resistance, they reflexively blamed the Jews. Police leaders in the occupied territories trained their men in seminars entitled: “Where there is a partisan, there is a Jew, and where there is a Jew, there is a partisan.” After a series of bombs planted by Soviet agents went off in Kiev five days into the city’s occupation, killing several hundred Germans, the occupiers carried out a revenge massacre among Kiev’s Jewish population.

Over the course of two days, they executed 33,771 Jewish men, women, and children. As they reported the mass killings in Kiev’s Babi Yar ravine, SS officials cast them as a sweeping political operation to destroy the mainstays of Soviet power. About the victims they remarked: “It can be stated positively today that the Jews without exception served Soviet Bolshevism.”

While focusing in particular on Soviet Jews, German wrath against the enemy in the East extended further. Military leaders believed most soldiers of the Red Army to be infected by Bolshevism. In advance of the campaign, they made no provisions to build barracks or hand out food to the millions of enemy soldiers that they expected to capture. Rolls of barbed wire were the only items supplied to military districts for the purpose of detaining the captured “Bolshevik hordes.”

When the Wehrmacht brought convoys of captured Soviet soldiers to the improvised camps, the guards had orders not to share food with the prisoners. A delegation of Ukrainian women who wanted to feed the POWs in a camp near Zhitomir pleaded with the Austrian commander for permission. He turned down their request, citing a directive by Hitler to “exterminate Bolshevism, including the people spoiled by it.”

An instruction for camp guards issued in September 1941 labeled every Red Army man a Bolshevik and “Nazi Germany’s mortal enemy.” Using language that likened the Soviet captives to wild animals, the instruction ordered German guards to always keep their eyes on the prisoners. They were to subdue them with gestures and glances that conveyed German “pride and superiority,” in addition to speaking with their guns.

The policy of stamping out the supposed Bolshevik threat was brutally effective. By early 1942, more than two million Soviet POWs in German captivity had died from starvation, disease, and a range of innovative murder techniques first tested on Soviet citizens, such as stationary gas chambers, gas vans, and “neck shooting facilities.” The death rate then slowed down somewhat as the Germans began to use Soviet prisoners as an expendable labor force.

The war against Bolshevism continued with undiminished rage. When German forces failed to take Stalingrad in fall 1942, a German newspaper offered the following explanation. If Stalingrad were defended by Britons or Americans, it claimed, Germans would have conquered the city in a matter of days. The difference was that the foe confronting the Germans did not consist of fellow humans, but Bolsheviks — bestial creatures who fought “with the power of unchained inferiority” because they did not treasure life.

After their catastrophic rout at Stalingrad in February 1943, the Germans only managed to defeat the Red Army one more time, when they retook Kharkov the following month. As they entered the city, soldiers of the Waffen SS division Adolf Hitler came upon four hundred severely wounded Soviet soldiers in an army hospital. The Germans shot scores of the wounded, before locking the building and setting it on fire.

Days later, speaking in Kharkov’s university, SS leader Heinrich Himmler reminded his men about the stakes. According to Himmler, Germany’s gigantic clash with “with Asia and Jewry” was “necessary for evolution” and the flourishing of the Third Reich. It was “here in the East” that the world war was being decided:

Here must the Russian enemy, this people numbering two hundred million Russians, be destroyed on the battlefield and person by person, and made to bleed to death . . . we have only one task, to stand firm and carry on the racial struggle without mercy.

“Total Impunity”

Eighty years after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, reams of folders containing the transcribed voices of hundreds of survivors of the Nazi occupation have surfaced in former Soviet archives. Produced in the immediate aftermath of the German army’s retreat in 1943–44, the transcripts were the work of historians who trailed the Red Army on its path of liberation or reconquest. They visited smoldering towns and villages in Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia, where they sat down to speak with eyewitnesses, stenographing each of their words.

Among their respondents were several Jews who miraculously survived. An actress from Kiev had jumped into the ravine at Babi Yar before the executioners’ bullets reached her. She lay in the pit for hours, drenched in the blood of fellow Jews and pretending to be dead, before crawling out under the cover of night. Over the next two years, she lived like a vagrant in a hostile land, denounced by friends and rescued by strangers. A hairdresser from Brest survived by hiding under a bed for months on end. He made it a rule to lie on his stomach, so as not to cough.

The historians interviewed a wide range of witnesses: teachers, engineers, industrial workers, party officials, and peasants. They spoke to men and women who had fought the Germans as partisans, as well as churchmen who struggled to explain why they had included Adolf Hitler in their public prayers. For all their varied backgrounds, virtually all witnesses defined German rule as inhuman and exceedingly cruel.

Multiple Soviet survivors had witnessed mass killings. Residents of Kiev described the procession of the city’s Jews to their execution site; children observed the shootings, perched on trees. A doctor from Kharkov helplessly watched the army hospital go up in flames. The fate of the Soviet POWs drew overwhelming compassion. Convoys of wretched prisoners, barely walking, repeatedly passed by a village school in Eastern Ukraine, on their way to a nearby machine factory.

A schoolteacher reported:

Several times class was disrupted, because every one of the schoolchildren had a father, a brother at war. Once, when the principal forbade them to go out and look at the prisoners, the children cried so much that it was impossible to hold classes. They were crying, and I was sitting there crying.

Witnesses understood how the practice of violence flowed from the utter contempt of the German occupiers for the Soviet people, and how integral it was to their claims of racial supremacy. A woman from Lvov recalled the first beating she had witnessed. It was one week into Lvov’s occupation when she saw a German on the street punching a woman in the face:

Then, it was the order of the day. They treated all of us with great contempt. All of us equally. They felt like demigods. Everywhere, they were saying, “Yes, yes, we’ve got this land to ourselves.”

The woman, whose background was Polish, added the following remark: “We saw and understood full well that as soon as they finished with the Jews, they’d begin to do the same with us as well.” This addition makes clear that the victim of the assault she witnessed was Jewish.

A man from Tarnopol recalled walking to a nearby village one day in 1942 when he saw a peasant who had just delivered his grain quota and was on his way home:

He was riding a good horse and wanted to get through more quickly. And because wagons were still driving there, he rode out into the middle of the road. Meanwhile, a car was coming. It signals. While he was turning the horse, the car was forced to stop. Then a German jumped out of the car and started to beat the peasant. [The peasant] was beaten up very severely. Several women got out of a wagon and helped him get home, but at home, he died before too long.

This witness went on:

But whoever the Germans killed, they never took responsibility, it was impossible to bring any charges against them. There was total impunity. Even people who worked for the Germans voluntarily dared not say anything to the Germans. For the slightest protest, they were murdered at once.

Restoring Serfdom

The preferred German method of disciplining Soviet workers was by flogging or whiplashing them in public. The Germans, witnesses recounted, would beat workers for not offering a proper greeting or for keeping a hand in their pocket.

Corporal punishment had been abolished in Russia in the early twentieth century, and Soviet textbooks described it as a sordid remnant of the country’s feudal past. The fact that the Germans wielded canes and whips suggested to observers on the ground a return to serfdom. A song made the rounds in Ukrainian villages in summer 1942: “The tsar in Russia abolished serfdom long ago/But here Hitler ordered slavery brought in.”

Multiple witnesses commented on the hangings of suspected partisans and “bandits” that, judging from scattered evidence, the Germans conducted by the thousands. They strung up people on the railings of balconies, on street posts, or on trees, and left their bodies dangling for weeks so as to terrorize the population. Everyone was to see the corpses, witnesses emphasized.

Walking through central Kharkov in mid-November 1941, a local professor counted more than sixty bodies hanging from the second-floor balconies of buildings:

Their legs were at a distance of one and a half to two meters from the ground, and it was easy to touch them with the hand. The majority were men, but among those who were hanged were also women. A dreadful spectacle!

In at least some cases, the Germans even carried out hangings with a twist in order to accentuate their debasing cruelty. “I’ve never seen anywhere in history that they hanged people like the Germans did,” a kolkhoz chairman from the Tula region said, describing the hanging of a woman who had wrongly been accused of being a partisan. “They hanged her like this: they undressed her, caught her by the chin with a hook, and hung her up. She screamed for four days.”

One Belorussian partisan was interviewed as early as December 1942, having been flown to Moscow with other fighters to update Communist officials on the state of partisan warfare in the swamps and forests of Belorussia. He spoke about the gallows that the Germans had set up “on squares, in parks and in front of theaters. Lately gallows were put up in every village district. They string them up with hooks in their jaws, like fish.”

Unprecedented Violence

Almost without exception, Soviet men and women had experienced a great deal of violence throughout their prewar lives. They had lived through a bloody civil war, a most brutal collectivization campaign, and an ensuing famine. Several million people fell victim to recurrent waves of arrests in the 1920s and ’30s. In spite of this record of suffering, many Soviet witnesses characterized the violence inflicted by the German occupiers as unprecedented on account of its debasing nature.

As they described German rule, they made use of the lexicon of the Russian revolution which sharpened their sense of their dignity and abuses inflicted on it. The Stalinist regime addressed people as citizens and made a point to reason with them, even though it arrested or killed thousands who did not bend to its official logic. In contrast, as Soviet witnesses pointed out, the Germans communicated solely by barking orders or resorting to outright physical violence. Time and again, witnesses mentioned the signs, “Entrance for Russians strictly forbidden,” that the occupiers affixed on public bathrooms or on the entrances of city squares, sometimes — as they pointed out — in faulty Russian.

Many of the nearly five million Soviet civilians who were dispatched to Germany as forced laborers experienced their degradation with particular sharpness. After disembarking from freight trains at “distribution camps” outside large German cities, they were disinfected, photographed, and had their fingerprints taken. Those who were assigned to work in weapon factories received a little wooden plaque bearing the letters OST (“EAST”) with a number printed next to it. Henceforth they were addressed solely by their identification number.

Other workers were offered to farmers and restaurant owners for purchase. A twenty-one-year-old woman from Chernigov described the scene at the Nuremberg labor office:

They undressed us and placed us in orderly fashion in a line of naked people. Customers were walking around us and tapping us in the back with a cane.

Employers bid individually, depending on the laborer’s age and health. A close inspection of their teeth and eyes was part of the routine. “We made for a horrifying sight. The Germans looked at us just like we were animals,” a female student from Mogilev remembered.

A librarian from Simferopol who was twenty-nine at the time of her interview in August 1944 watched as farming couples began to squabble, with men seeking to buy younger girls, while their wives preferred older women:

They looked us over from all sides, like cattle. Remember Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — they were buying slaves.

After Liberation

Soviet survivors recalled the moment of their liberation with precision. A nurse from Kiev had sought refuge in a dugout as the Germans fought to control the city against advancing Soviet troops. On the morning of November 7, 1943, which was a revolutionary holiday, someone told her that there were Red Army men on the streets. The nurse rushed outside.

She was still at a loss for words to convey her feelings during her interview:

I . . . you . . . to me . . . I can’t describe it. I was crying. A soldier took my hands and kissed them, my dirty hands. That’s when I broke down in tears.

A Jewish survivor from Lvov who had escaped from a death camp and survived in hiding remembered being so weak that he could only walk with crutches. “This is the state in which the Red Army found me . . . I had let go of myself. Life for me had no more meaning.”

Soviet soldiers who entered ravaged towns and villages described scenes of wrenching desolation. “I will never forget how we were met in Poltava,” an officer wrote to his sister in September 1943:

An old woman cried in my arms. When we parted, she made the sign of the cross over me, again and again. On a square, there was a very old little woman walking around with a bag of apples. Silently she gave out two apples to every soldier. When you see all this you want to cry.

Everywhere in the liberated areas, forensic experts uncovered the remains of executed civilians who had been thrown into anti-tank ditches or ravines. Communist officials assembled soldiers and residents at the crime sites to mobilize them further for the war against the Germans. For the traumatized survivors, these gatherings also had a cathartic function.

In Melitopol, city officials brought together all townspeople for a meeting just days after the city’s liberation. Among the speakers were four young people, two men and two women, who had joined the partisans after the Germans shot their families and parents. “What we witnessed was not a regular meeting,” a witness told the historians, “it was a single roaring and howling. The stories were so horrible, we all stood there, unable to move.”

In Germany, meanwhile, anti-Bolshevik sentiment soared to new heights. A wave of suicides roiled Germany’s East in early 1945, in anticipation of the arrival of the Soviets. Fear and hatred of Russians gripped most of the nation, as Hitler predicted that the fate of all Germans would be destruction, rape, and slavery, with “immense columns of men treading their way to the Siberian tundra,” unless they stepped up their war effort.

These feelings endured even after Hitler himself committed suicide and his Third Reich collapsed. An American intelligence officer toured western Germany — an area never touched by the Red Army — in spring 1945. The officer, who was himself Jewish, was astonished to note a near-total absence of antisemitism among the population, despite the enormous efforts made by the Nazis to drum such prejudice into their heads. However, he was even more struck by what he described as a near-universal “phobia about the Russians.” Everywhere he heard people remark on the “uncultivated,” “barbarous,” “greasy” Russians.

From a Hamburg suburb, a German diarist observed how liberated Soviet POWs were roaming the streets in early May, asking for food, and resorting to force when local people refused their requests. The diarist recorded the hysterical mood among the population: “The Russians are looting!”, “The Russians are all murderers and criminals!” Men would gather with bats and sticks, ready to defend their villages.

The project of a German-led crusade against Bolshevism outlived the Nazis: with some modifications, it became a defining feature of the Cold War. The United States, rather than Germany, took up the lead in this renewed struggle. Instead of Jewish Bolshevism, the West’s new enemy was Russian Bolshevism, but the criminality and the global designs ascribed to the Russians resembled Nazi imagery of the Jews.

This scheme firmly presented the Soviet Union as an aggressor power, whose victims included its own people. It could not conceive of Soviet people as victims of external aggression. They had no place in the Western anti-communist conscience. This explains why to the present day so little remains known about so many Soviet victims of Nazi occupation.

Recent initiatives such as Father Patrick Desbois’s “Holocaust by Bullets” documentation, or Yad Vashem’s exploration of the murder sites of the Jews in the occupied territories of the former USSR, have begun to begun to map the “Holocaust on Soviet soil.” However, their focus on the murder of 2.75 million Soviet Jews neglects the millions of POWs, other suspected “Bolsheviks,” partisans, and slave workers who also lost their lives in Germany’s campaign of annihilation in the East. The crucial Soviet chapter in modern history’s most terrible war remains to be fully told.

The website sovietsurvivors.com, launched on June 22, 2021, presents a small selection of the interviews that the historians described in this article conducted with Soviet survivors of the German occupation regime. The site also describes the creation and the work of the wartime historical commission in more detail.

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Jochen Hellbeck is distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. He is currently writing a book on the German-Soviet war. Together with Daria Lotareva and Viktoria Naumenko, he is also preparing a documentary volume, Soviet Suffering Under Nazi Rule: The First Testimonies.

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