Hjalmar Schacht was an economist of the Weimar Republic and for the Nazis until his dismissal in 1937 due to his opposition to German rearmament. He was known for working with or developing several schemes that the Germans used throughout the interwar period.
The first scheme he was known for was the introduction of the Rentenmark. The currency of the Weimar Republic was normally the Reichsmark, but several things happened after World War I that caused great turmoil in the German economy. Many Germans considered the reparations to be a great outrage (as reparations are paid in “defeat,” and in the view of many Germans, Germany had not lost the war). To that extent, the Germans were willing to sabotage their own economy in an attempt to get the reparations waived or dismissed, due to a supposed German inability to pay it. This is all documented in Sally Marks’ “Myths of Reparations.”
One mechanism of their attempts to sabotage the reparations was to print large amounts of their currency. While there were several relatively sane ways that the Germans could purchase the gold and goods necessary for reparations, such as issuing bonds, raising taxes, or even taking on foreign currency debt, the Germans instead deliberately chose to print Reichsmarks, in an effort to wreck the German economy, thus bringing the Entente to the table to renegotiate the reparations. And it worked-the Dawes and Young Plans, created in the wake of the ensuing Weimar Hyperinflation, allowed to Germans to restructure and reduce the amount of reparations. This was of course at the expense of two years of German economic growth, which resulted in gross wealth destruction and was only fixed by the introduction of the Rentenmark. The Rentenmark, which Schacht was one of several economist that developed the scheme, was a substitute Reichsmark that used German land (real estate) as collateral, much in the lines several other countries used gold or silver to back their currencies. This was introduced into the German economy and helped to restore stability.
It should be noted that during this time, Schacht was only one of a handful of economists and political figures that assisted in the Weimar Republic’s return to economic growth. Hans Luther and Karl Helfferich were the main economists responsible for the Rentenmark.
Schacht in Nazi Germany, because of his political support and his rather sketchy if not outright illegal financial maneuvering to support the Nazis, was able to become Minister of Economics. During this time, he continued the programs of the previous German administration (namely, public works to artificially lower unemployment numbers, such as the autobahn) and expanded them into a general plan for German autarky. The two main issues he had to deal with were the lack of foreign reserves (caused by the German sell off due to the Great Depression) and the means of rearmament.
Simply put, if Germany ran out of foreign reserves, it would not only be hard pressed to trade with other countries but it would also severely weaken the strength of the German mark. To get around this, Schacht helped structure several trade transactions with South American, European, and even a handful of Asian countries whereby German could acquire strategic materials necessary for rearmament in exchange for either German marks or German goods, which would allow time for the Nazis to balance the foreign reserves deficit (which they never did, instead doubling down on it to increase the rate of rearmament).
The Mefos bills that he created were another tool whereby the Germans could secretly rearm themselves using economic tricks. As president of the Reichsbank, Schacht in theory was only supposed to be a lender of last resort-namely, his job was to be independent of the government and only to step in to preserve monetary stability. However, by issuing Mefos bills, he was able to secretly (if not fraudulently) loan money directly to the German government through a dummy corporation.
This allowed the German government to take on far more debt than any sane investor would have bought on, at a lower rate of interest. For a simple finance lesson, the more debt a country has, the greater the risk. An investor would demand a higher interest rate in return for taking on this higher risk. Since the interest rate for Germany was essentially fixed around 4.50%, this meant there was a theoretical ceiling after which nobody would be willing to buy German government bonds. Through the use of the Mefos bills, in addition to hiding arms purchases from Britain and France, they were also able to bypass this ceiling.
Of course, this would have been completely unsustainable, and would have required the acquisition of large amounts of foreign reserves to balance out the fact that the ostensibly independent Reichsbank was in fact loaning money to the German government, which would otherwise cause rapid inflation as it turned out German currency wasn’t worth what people thought it was. This was part of the reason why the Nazi government chose to invade many countries-one of their most important objectives was the seizure of all the currency and reserves in the various banks, to feed the gaping maw in the German economy left by Schacht and the Nazis’ policies.
At the end of the day, Schacht wasn’t a particularly brilliant economist, but he did participate in both legitimate economic schemes (as the Rentenmark) as well as some more fraudulent ones (like the Mefos bills) in order to keep Germany’s economy afloat. Still, the fact remains that despite his willingness to fund German rearmament, Nazi rearmament was still too fast even for him, which eventually led to his resignation and collaboration with the German resistance. This should show that he was not in fact some lone genius, but rather one of several German economists that happened to be in a position of leadership during the Weimar Republic and later the Nazi regime.
Sally Marks, The Myth of Reparations
Adam Tooze, Wages of Destruction
Nazi General Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad, Italy; ca. 1945.
General Dostler ordered and oversaw the unlawful execution of fifteen captured US Soldiers. The soldiers were sent behind the German lines with orders to demolish a tunnel that was being used by the German army as a supply route to the front lines. They were captured and upon learning of their mission, Dostler ordered their execution without trial. The US soldiers were wearing proper military uniforms and carried no civilian or enemy clothing and were in compliance with Hague Convention to be considered non-combatants after their surrender. Under the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, it was legal to execute “spies and saboteurs” disguised in civilian clothes or enemy uniforms but excluded those who were captured in proper uniforms. Since fifteen U.S. soldiers were properly dressed in U.S. uniforms behind enemy lines and not disguised in civilian clothes or enemy uniforms, they were not to be treated as spies but prisoners of war, which Dostler violated. They shot the Americans and buried them in a ditch by their field headquarters.
The general was convicted and sentenced to death by an American Military Tribunal. The trial found General Dostler guilty of war crimes, rejecting the defense of superior orders. He was sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad on December 1, 1945 in Aversa. The execution was photographed on black and white still and movie cameras.
*You can see this photo being taken at 1:22 here:
“Before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Emperor Hirohito criticized plans to go to war with the United States as ‘self-destructive,’ and opposed an alliance with Nazi Germany, though he did little to try to stop the war that Japan waged in his name, according to the long-awaited official history of his reign released on Tuesday.” (Source)
Well, I can imagine that there are some things doctored, but there is definitely some truth behind this. For years, there has been information coming out how the Emperor was hesitant about the war, as well as wanting to surrender well before Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It isn’t out of the question for Emperors/Kings to be ‘taken’ advantage of in times of war. Look at the bombings of England in WWI by Germany, the Kaiser was some-what left out of the loop there.
I am more interested if these texts talk about the war crimes that Japan committed and on what level was the emperor aware of these atrocities, not so much the whole US/Japanese relations. Japan terrorized and murdered millions of people, and that is often forgotten in the western world. And this is a sensitive subject for Japan and countries in its close proximity, mostly because Japan does not admit these things actually happened.
The Emperor was not held accountable what-so-ever for the crimes that were committed in his name; (imagine if Hitler didn’t shoot himself, surrendered, and then set free. That’s how some countries feel about this). In the western world, the German people were held personally responsible for WWII (I’m not saying this was right or wrong, just that it happened), while Japan was more or less ‘forgiven’ after having some higher-ups executed.
To this day, countries still HATE one another because of what happened in this time in history. While in Europe (Western Europe anyways), countries have made great progress in improving the relations between one another.
SA (Sturm Abteilung or “Brownshirts”) call for the boycott of Jewish shops in Friedrichstraße, Berlin; April 1, 1933.
The sign says: “Germans, Attention! This shop is owned by Jews. Jews damage the German economy and pay their German employees starvation wages. The main owner is the Jew Nathan Schmidt.”
One reason is certainly the vastness of the whole conflict. The ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Korean’ Wars can largely be said to confine within the geographical limits of those two countries. Obviously they involved the US, China, Soviet Union and extended geographically into other areas, but you get the point. WORLD WAR, however, carries a much more epic connotation.
So if we lay out a few things, I think it’ll make it clearer. Let’s discuss scope, including beligerents, the origins, and the ramifications or long-term results.
1.Scope: The enormity of the war defies logic, and it really should be classified as ‘The World Wars of 1937-1954’ if you ask me. When an American student is asked to assess WWII, s/he will often begin with Pearl Harbor, some 8 years after the start of the Asian Theatre. The Wars transformed the ‘dynamic of destruction’ begun in WWI into a truly catastrophic and epoch-defining conflict in which Race, Ethnicity and Combatant-Status were given entirely new meanings. The Wars involved nearly everyone on the globe (not literally) fighting nearly everyone else, and in seemingly any single theatre of fighting, the complexities are mind-boggling enough to almost defy explanation. In looking at the scope of destruction in Warsaw in 1939, it’s difficult to imagine that War could be more brutal, until you look at the ‘Rape of Nanking’ or the fratricidal and very confusing wars fought in the Balkans. The scope of the war also involved ideologies on a scale not really seen before. The clash of western liberalism, national socialism and marxist inspired communism really dealt a sense of seriousness and existentialism to the conflicts. By that I mean there was a real sense of an apocalyptic showdown: each saw the ‘other’ as not only the enemy, but barbaric and even ‘evil.’ Barbarism is present in all wars, but again, the scope, the severity of the death and destruction of both individuals and of groups of people, is staggering.
2.Origins: What caused the War(s)? The answer to many is even more disturbing than the actual war, because it appears to many that the origins of this brutal war lie in a decision by the victors of WWI to impose a settlement upon Germany that would end all wars. What does this really mean? It means that even without Hitler, the suffering of the Germans prior to the outbreak of hostilities was incredible. The moral and physical landscape of Europe had been ravaged by WWI to such an extent that it would seem no war could ever take place again. The Great Terror and Holodomor in the USSR had already hit their peaks by 1939 (the traditional start of WWII) and that was only the beginning. The origins of the war lie in nefariousness, in cunning, in duplicity, in deceit and in imperialism. Which means it basically started like any other war – except this time ideologies were the driving force, rather than economics. Hitler didn’t invade Poland to secure minerals, to acquire natural forests or to take advantage of their industry. He essentially invaded to secure ‘living room’ for his Germanic peoples, his ‘Volk’. In his moral landscape there was no room for the Jew, the Slav or the undesirables. At the same time, Stalin invaded to secure the territory of the Ukraine and the Baltic countries in a bid to continue his centralization of Soviet power into a country denied to him in 1921. Russia had all the natural resources in the world with the open tundra of Siberia, so he was not after resources either, his was an ideological mission to spread Communism.
3.Ramifications: We are in the year 2014 and the United States is the lone super-power. Yet in 1938 the US was far from a global super-power in today’s sense of the word. The War(s) dramatically impacted the United States’ meteoric rise to the top of the world. The US was spared the civilian bloodshed and infrastructural damage of the European/Asian wars, yet reaped the physical and moral benefits by defeating Nazism, culturally colonizing Western Europe, and catapulting her economy into superstardom through the tremendous industrial capabilities gained through the War’s result. The USSR and USA came out of the conflicts much better off, and to cut this answer a little short – the Korean War and Vietnam Wars don’t exist without the USA’s triumph in WWII. Neither does our current predicament in Afghanistan. The Soviets continued expanding and went into Afghanistan in 1980, a place even the Tsars at the height of their empire couldn’t do very well. The US’s interventions in Asia and Latin America and the Soviet Union’s interventions and expansions into Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus were direct results of the situation in Europe after 1945.
In a nutshell, that is why people are still fascinated with the Wars of 1937-1954. That and the well-publicized and relatively unprecedented genocide of Europe’s jewry which spawned our idea of, and our word for, Genocide.
The Katyn Massacre was horrifying. 22,000 prisoners of war from the officer corp and high ranking civilians who surrendered peacefully to the soviets when Poland was invaded, murdered simply so there would be less resistance to Soviet rule.
Detailed information on the executions in the Kalinin NKVD prison was provided during a hearing by Dmitrii Tokarev, former head of the Board of the District NKVD in Kalinin. According to Tokarev, the shooting started in the evening and ended at dawn. The first transport on 4 April 1940, carried 390 people, and the executioners had a hard time killing so many people during one night. The following transports held no more than 250 people. The executions were usually performed with German-made 7.65×17mm Walther PPK pistols supplied by Moscow, but 7.62×38mmR Nagant M1895 revolvers were also used. The executioners used German weapons rather than the standard Soviet revolvers, as the latter were said to offer too much recoil, which made shooting painful after the first dozen executions. Vasili Mikhailovich Blokhin, chief executioner for the NKVD—and quite possibly the most prolific executioner in history—is reported to have personally shot and killed 7,000 of the condemned, some as young as 18, from the Ostashkov camp at Kalinin prison over a period of 28 days in April 1940.
The killings were methodical. After the personal information of the condemned was checked, he was handcuffed and led to a cell insulated with stacks of sandbags along the walls and a felt-lined, heavy door. The victim was told to kneel in the middle of the cell, was then approached from behind by the executioner and immediately shot in the back of the head. The body was carried out through the opposite door and laid in one of the five or six waiting trucks, whereupon the next condemned was taken inside. In addition to muffling by the rough insulation in the execution cell, the pistol gunshots were also masked by the operation of loud machines (perhaps fans) throughout the night. This procedure went on every night, except for the May Day holiday.
…but what happened with the discovery of the Katyn burial site is a lesson in how screwed up the world was at that time. when the Germans found the massacre site, they used it as propaganda material against the Russians.
When the Russians retook the area, they planted evidence and said the Germans committed the massacre.
The whole era was colossal race to the bottom: who can kill the most people, in the most brutal fashion, and claim their enemy killed more, in a more brutal fashion. a sort of anti-morality. it really makes you wonder, how humanity can be that screwed up.
When, in September 1943, Goebbels was informed that the German army had to withdraw from the Katyn area, he wrote a prediction in his diary. His entry for 29 September 1943 reads: “Unfortunately we have had to give up Katyn. The Bolsheviks undoubtedly will soon ‘find’ that we shot 12,000 Polish officers. That episode is one that is going to cause us quite a little trouble in the future. The Soviets are undoubtedly going to make it their business to discover as many mass graves as possible and then blame it on us”.
Having retaken the Katyn area almost immediately after the Red Army had recaptured Smolensk, around September–October 1943, NKVD forces began a cover-up operation. A cemetery the Germans had permitted the Polish Red Cross to build was destroyed and other evidence removed. Witnesses were “interviewed”, and threatened with being arrested as German collaborators if their testimonies disagreed with the official line. Since none of the documents found on the dead had dates later than April 1940 the Soviet secret police planted false evidence that pushed the massacre date forward to the summer of 1941 when the Nazis controlled the area. A preliminary report was issued by NKVD operatives Vsevolod Merkulov and Sergei Kruglov, dated 10–11 January 1944, concluding that the Polish officers were shot by the Germans.
The way I like to talk about this is in this way: what are the phases necessary for developing a nuclear weapon? In some ways, it’s easiest to first talk about this in the context of the American Manhattan Project.
In 1939, Einstein and Szilard wrote the famous letter to Roosevelt about bomb issues. FDR said, “sounds interesting,” and made a very small exploratory committee to look into it (the Uranium Committee at the National Bureau of Standards). This is what we might call an exploratory stage. It was basically theoretical studies and small laboratory studies. The questions they were trying to answer were very basic: Is atomic energy something worth worrying about? Can an atomic bomb, or an atomic reactor, be built in the near term by anybody?
The conclusions they came to weren’t encouraging. By 1941 the top science advisors in the US had basically concluded that while it might be possible to make nuclear weapons, it was going to be very difficult to do so and probably not worth spending a lot of money and time on in the near term. The atomic bomb, they reasoned, was unlikely to play a role in World War II.
Towards the end of 1941, though, they received a report from scientists working in a similarly exploratory capacity in the UK which concluded that the bomb could probably be built in a short amount of time if a sufficient effort was put into it. The British scientists were successful in convincing the American administrators that the program should be moved into a new stage of development.
This new stage we might call the pilot stage. It sought to establish on a small scale some of the key aspects that would go into a real production model. Roosevelt approved this just before Pearl Harbor. Basically this required building several small-scale production plants, and funding work on building an experimental nuclear reactor.
By mid-1942 it became clear that they felt this was all worth spending more money on, and by late 1942 it was decided that the US Army should be brought into the matter, because they had the experience necessary to construct the massive factories and plants necessary to produce actual atomic bombs. This is the transition into the production phase. You’ll note that in this case, the pilot stage was very brief. This was unusual and noted even at the time; they were really flying by the seat of their pants, drawing up plans to build full-scale industrial reactors even before the first experimental nuclear reactor had gone online (which happened in December 1942).
It is this final phase, from 1943 to 1945, that is the Manhattan Project proper, when it was run by the Manhattan Engineer District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. This is the full (crash) production program to make atomic bombs, and required a huge expenditure of resources.
There is some irony in the fact that the original, 1941 estimate by the US scientists about the difficulty of making an atomic bomb was more or less correct. They had concluded that a bomb, though feasible, would be very difficult to make, and that nobody else was likely to really be working on one. The UK scientists underestimated the difficulty substantially. The final bomb project cost about 5X what was estimated in 1942, when it started the transition into the production phase, to give some indication of the disparity of estimates. And we now know, of course, that making an atomic bomb was difficult and no other nation did get very far in it during the war.
OK, but back to Germany. Where did they end up? They started their exploratory phase in 1939, the same as the USA (and the same as the USSR, Japan, France, and the UK). Like the US, they concluded that this was interesting but pretty difficult. Nobody thought this was going to be an issue in the present war — which, of course, Germany was doing very well in, early on.
By 1942, they started to realize that things weren’t going so well. They started to get more interested in the uranium issue. But even then, it was still just a transition towards the pilot stage — they were looking into building an experimental reactor. They were hampered in this by many factors.
They never got to the end of this phase before the war ended. What if they had? They still would have to start a production phase, which was the most difficult and most costly of the phases.
So by 1945 they were almost to the phase that the United States moved out of in 1942. They were pretty far from getting a bomb, and even if they had decided, in 1942, to start building one, it’s really unclear that they would have been able to pull it off, merely because the sizes of the buildings required for such a program would make them very attractive bombing targets.
The Nazis had carefully preserved the pants from the Operation Valkyrie assassination attempt and the allies inherited them after the war. They were concerned that if they put them in a museum they’d end up becoming a shrine to Hitler so they burnt them instead.
Operation Barbarossa was planned to carry out a swift land grab, with combat ending by Fall at the latest and pursuit following after. Hitler and the military commanders and staffs working under him generally agreed that the campaign’s casualties would be proportionately small (275,000 men according to Halder), the strain of combat on ammunition and fuel would be low after the first weeks, and the political system of the Soviet Union would be unable to handle such rapid defeats. Even before the air war over Britain was decided, the promise of swift and easy conquest of the Soviet Union proved too difficult to resist.
War with the Soviet Union began to be seriously discussed a month after France signed its armistice. General Fritz Halder, Chief of the General Staff of the Army, noted in his diary that on 22 July, 1940 Hitler made his intention to conquer and subjugate the Soviet Union clear to all his commanders; the day before had ordered the Commander in Chief of the Army, Walther von Brauchitsch, to begin developing plans to invade the Soviet Union. General Erich Marcks was selected to head this initial study.
From its inception the plan was marked by several assumptions and flaws. First, the vast distances of the Soviet Union, while noted, were not properly addressed or prepared for. Second the pervasive racism of German military and political leadership caused them to demean Soviet capabilities, technology, and leadership, leading in turn to the assumption that the war would be short and easy. Third, the rivalry between the two main German military bodies, OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, High Command of the Armed Forces) and OKH (Oberkommando ders Heeres, High Command of the Army), led to friction, compartmentalization, and competition. The plan was as much about soothing egos and meeting racial expectations as achieving victory.
Marck’s initial concept representing OKH’s view, codenamed Operation Otto, was delivered to Hitler on August 5, 1940 and formed the basis for future variants of what would become Operation Barbarossa. His plan assumed that Moscow would be the campaign’s main objective that the war would last only “9 to 17 weeks”, and most importantly, that the Red Army’s 170 combat ready divisions, an inaccurate number, would be destroyed along the border west of the Dnieper River.
A second study, called the “Lossberg Study”, conducted separately by OKW called for a stronger focus on Ukraine and Leningrad, though Moscow would remain the central objective. It also was more concerned with the flanks of the Ostheer as it advanced into the interior of Russia than OKH’s proposal, concerns which would be repeated by Hitler later in the final plan. Though never presented to Hitler, it influenced subsequent planning by Goering and the Reich Ministry of Economics and from there likely reached his ears.
Halder presented OKH’s final plan, codenamed Operation Fritz, to Hitler on December 5, 1940, with the three objectives now being Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. The Red Army was assumed to be destroyed within 500 kilometers of the border within the first weeks of war, followed by a pursuit to the Archangelsk-Astrakhan Line.
On December 18, 1940, Hitler issued Fuhrer Directive 21, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, which was a synthesis of the past 3 months’ planning. In the final plan the Red Army was still to be destroyed near the border, with the assumption that future reserves could not be raised. Three Army Groups, North, Center, and South, would advance on Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, respectively. However, the plan stressed that while Moscow was the most important objective Army Group Center should be diverted to assist Army Groups North and South if they failed to seize their objectives. Rambling and vague, Directive 21 failed to resolve the disputes planning had opened and in fact was a plan only to defeat the Red Army, not the Soviet Union as a whole.
The planning for Operation Barbarossa was marred by a number of problems. Most importantly, logistics and the factor of space were never addressed; Martin Crevald in Supplying War notes that an absurd number of problems were swept under the rug, from fuel consumption to rolling stock. German planners also lacked a unity of command which led to a mixture of objectives and no clear focus. OKH and OKW had each had their own assumptions about what objective would achieve final victory, and forces were diluted along the Northern, Central, and Southern axis to achieve all of them; the Germans entered the campaign with only the vaguest idea of what success meant. Finally, racism towards Slavs caused the Germans to underestimate their opponents and ignore potential problems, maintaining confidence that ultimate victory could be achieved quickly and easily.
German planning for Barbarossa was confused and unrealistic, to the point of absurdity. Thus it’s impossible to look at Barbarossa vs Sealion from a rational standpoint as Hitler and his inner circle were driven by irrational assumptions in their decision to go to war. Adam Tooze uses the phrase “mad logic”, and I think that best sums it up; Barbarossa seemed like the best option within their own worldview, even if today its flaws are easily apparent to us.
Supplying War by Martin van Crevald
Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East by David Stahel
Barbarossa: Planning for Operational Failure by John D. Snively
Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941 by David Glantz
The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality by Wolfram Wette
The Strategy of Barbarossa by Austin C. Wedemeyer
Operational Logic and Identifying Soviet Operational Centers of Gravity During Operation Barbarossa, 1941 by Major David J. Bongi
Aww, that’s kind of cute. Maybe Hitler wasn’t so bad after all, eh? Let’s see what Wikipedia says:
“Hitler expressed doubts about the cyanide capsules he had received through Heinrich Himmler’s SS. To verify the capsules’ potency, Hitler ordered Dr. Werner Haase to test them on his dog Blondi, and the dog died as a result.”
When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth, Unknown by Glory, but upheld by Birth, The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe, And storied urns record who rests below. When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen, Not what he was, but what he should have been. But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend, The first to welcome, foremost to defend, Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own, Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone, Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth, Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth – While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven, And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven. Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour, Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power – Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust, Degraded mass of animated dust! Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat, Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit! By nature vile, ennobled but by name, Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame. Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn, Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn. To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise; I never knew but one – and here he lies. Lord Byron [1788-1824], Epitaph to a Dog.
I’ve always loved this picture. It’s so hard to imagine what was going through these GIs’ minds as they pushed forward against German fire. The distance between the cliffs and the Higgins boat really shows the enormity of what was accomplished that day.
Germans returning after the Battle of Berlin gaze up at the new order of things, Berlin; ca. July 1945
The text says: “Да здравствует победа англо-советско-американского боевого союза над немецко-фашистскими захватчиками”
Translation : “Long live the victory of the Anglo-Soviet-American battle union over the German-Fascist conquerors.”
Many Germans (even non-Nazis) accepted the idea of gaining Lebensraum as a historical inevitability. As early as the late 19th century, German writers such as Ernst Haeckel combined Darwinian notions of the survival of the fittest with romantic nationalism to create a deterministic ideology which argued that in order for the German people to thrive, they had to acquire more resources in a Darwinian struggle against other peoples.
The concept of Lebensraum was originally defined by Friedrich Ratzel who conceptualized it as a biological concept defined as the geographical area required to support a species according to its metabolism, and that human societies had to expand their Lebensraum through agrarian colonization or perish. These beliefs would be implemented by the Nazi government, who argued that war and conquest were necessary to gain new resources to sustain their race in a Darwinian understanding of international politics. German expansion was thus seen as inevitable by the Nazis because they perceived of history and politics as a deterministic struggle for resources between races.
The German experience in the occupied Russian Empire during WWI saw the establishment of a sort of colonial state called ‘Ober Ost’ which was informed in part by theories such as Ratzel’s. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ book War Land on the Eastern Front argues that Germans involved in the occupation saw the east as barbaric and primordial, and they began to formulate notions that the native population should be removed. In 1917 the German High Command and Foreign Office even approved of a plan to establish colonies of German settler-soldiers in the occupied East.
Liulevicius states that this experience had an important role in shaping the Nazi perception of the east: “Ober Ost’s categories and practices were taken up again and radicalized [by the Nazis]: the gaze toward the East, cleansing violence, planning, subdivision and ‘intensification of control,’ forced labor. Chief among them was the lesson of Raum.” The Nazi dictatorship, inspired by Ober Ost, began to prepare its youth for a push towards the East: in schools, history and geography courses taught pupils that the historic German “Drive Towards the East” was a biological phenomenon and to look at land through the mystical doctrine of “Blut und Boden”, and Hitler Youth members were taught military skills and songs with lyrics such as “we will give [the East] a German face with sword and plow! To the East blows the wind!” The Nazi idea of widespread colonization of Eastern Europe was consequently inherited from theories and practices begun in Wilhelmine Germany.
Nazi Germany’s goal of exterminating Eastern Europe’s population and replacing it with German colonists had real economic goals. Although it might sound absurd to modern readers, early 20th century Germany faced serious land shortage. Germany was more densely populated and had a higher proportion of rural inhabitants than either France or the United Kingdom and lacked extraterritorial colonies where its excess population might emigrate to. Although it was a large country, the actual amount of arable land available for cultivation per farmer was comparable with countries such as Ireland, Romania or Poland, which was compounded by the fact that most of it was held by large estates; in 1933, 75% of Germany’s farms cultivated only 19% of its arable land. The majority of German farmers (88% of them, some 12 million people who made up 18% of Germany’s total population) consequently lived in poverty on economically unsustainable farms.
According to Adolf Hitler, the establishment of an international colonial empire was an unattractive solution because it meant spreading precious German blood over too great of an area; what Germany needed was a contiguous colonial empire carved out of Eastern and Central Europe. Arable land would have to be taken by conquest and its inhabitants driven out. Plans from the Reich-Fuhrer SS dictated that 85% of Poles, 75% of Byelorussians, 65% of Ukranians and 50% of Czechs would have to be deported from German-occupied territory to Western Siberia at the end of the war to make room for German colonists, with the remaining population being forcibly ‘Germanized’. These deportations may well have been a euphemism for a planned genocide, where the displaced Slavs might have been worked to death in Siberia.
Hitler viewed German expansion eastwards and the displacement of that region’s Slavs as a similar process to the expansion of European colonial states in the Americas, as evidenced by his statement made to Reich Minister Todt and Gauleiter Saukel on the 17th of October, 1941: “There’s only one duty: to Germanise this country [the occupied Soviet Union]… and to look upon the natives as Red-skins…I don’t see why a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.” The conquest of the Soviet Union and its colonization by Germans was seen by Hitler as Germany’s version of Manifest Destiny, where the Volga, as he declared, would become Germany’s Mississippi. Slavic place names would be replaced with Germanic ones, especially in places like the Crimea. During the war, the Crimean towns of Simferopol and Sevastopol were renamed Gotenburg and Theodorichhafen respectively. The Germans planned to construct an autobahn directly to Crimea (and likely others elsewhere in Russia), because the Black Sea was to become a German Mediterranean.
The Nazi’s plans for the establishment of Eastern Lebensraum were concretely planned out as early as November 1940 when they proposed the establishment of 50 to 100 acre farms meant to support large families of ten or more, nucleated around massive farms of 300 acres. The east was supposed to be entirely rural; average German settlements were intended to be villages of some 300 to 400 inhabitants. The largest settlements in the east were planned to be large villages known as a ‘Hauptdorf’ (head village) which would contain economic and civic establishments intended to service the smaller settler communities surrounding it as well as rural power stations to remove their dependence on urban cities. Besides these communities of soldier-farmers, there would have been SS estates run by veterans of the war, and massive estates given to high ranking Nazis; the dictatorship even promised its generals huge tracts of land to make them more committed to winning the war in the east. There were two main competing theories for the pattern of settlement: waves of dispersed settlements spreading out gradually eastwards, or a “pearl string” pattern where settlements would be set up along roads and railways and spread into the hinterland over time. IIRC the pearl-string plan became the official pattern for colonization.
According to Hitler, urban areas and industry would not be tolerated in the east; in a private table talk in October 1941, he declared that “we shan’t settle in Russian towns, and we’ll let them fall to pieces without intervening.” Not only would Soviet towns be allowed to crumble, but its main urban centers of Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad would be destroyed. Furthermore, Hitler stated that those Slavs that remained in German colonial territory as slave laborers would only be given only the most rudimentary education; they would learn basic arithmetic and how to read signs but nothing else. The German East was meant to be entirely rural and agricultural, and would produce enough food and resources to make the Reich an autarkic economy, comparable to the internal markets of the United States of America. This establishment of a German autarkic economy would make it a world power capable of competing with the USA for global influence. The Nazis didn’t want to conquer the world; they wanted to compete for international influence without overseas colonies like the USA.
Cameron, Norman & R.H. Stephens, trans., Hitler’s Table Talks. New York: Enigma Books, 2000
Kamenetsky, Ihor. “Lebensraum in Hitler’s War Plan: The Theory and the Eastern European Reality” in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 20 No. 3 (April 1961)
Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship, Problems & Perspectives of Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel. War Land on the Eastern Front, Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Smith, Woodruff D. “Friedrich Ratzel and the Origins of Lebensraum” in German Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (February 1980)
Stein, George J. “Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism” in American Scientist, Vol. 76 No. 1 (January-February 1988). (Tooze, 2008)
Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
Because conditions varied wildly over time and across the different camps (political prisoner camps, forced labor camps, ghettos, etc.), I will concentrate on Auschwitz since there is rather a lot of material available about this harrowing subject.
Warning: this is not pleasant reading
Before the autumn of 1944, when systematic gassing of Jewish inmates was halted, all Jewish babies were killed upon birth, generally together with the mothers who were guilty of the “crime” of arriving or falling pregnant in Auschwitz. If the pregnancy was discovered before the birth, the women were killed too. This led to the drama of improvised abortions and concealed births followed by infanticide, either by the hands of the mothers or by the physicians, nurses or midwives among the inmates that were assisting them in their labor. The most famous of these doctors was Gisella Perl, a Jewish-Romanian gynecologist who wrote I was a doctor in Auschwitz in which she describes how she performed many abortions to save the mothers’ lives.
After October 1944, Jewish babies were not automatically killed, but this didn’t increase their chances of survival significantly, as no accommodation was made for the welfare of mother and child, and the women were expected to continue with the excruciatingly hard work and subsist on literal starvation diets. There are only eight recorded births of Jewish babies in Auschwitz. There is no record of any surviving.
The Family Camps:
There were two “family camps” at Auschwitz where certain groups were allowed to live on as best they could on starvation rations and racked by diseases caused by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The inmates in these “family camps” were not subjected to wholesale gassing of children, the sick and the elderly upon arrival as the regular transports were and families were allowed to stay together.
The “Gypsy” camp was established before it was finally decided that these people were all to be exterminated too. There were sporadic gassings, though. It housed Sinti and Roma families from February 1943 to August 1944. Occasionally, groups of inmates were sent to other camps for forced labor. On August 1944, almost all the remaining inmates were killed. More than 370 children were born in this camp, though it is unclear whether any survived.
The Theresienstadt family camp was in operation from September 1943 to May 1944 and was part of the whole Theresienstadt propaganda effort to “prove” to the outside world that Jews were not being killed after deportation. It housed families deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Bohemia who were forced to write letters about how good they had it at Auschwitz and that the families were staying together. Pregnant women were allowed to give birth. However, after six months the camp was liquidated to make room for new transports from Theresienstadt, and these inmates in turn were all killed in July 194
Non-Jewish and Non-”Gypsy” Women:
Most of these women were Polish and Soviet “political” prisoners, though there were some German inmates (Jehovah’s Witnesses, women convicted of crimes, prostitutes, etc) as well as a smattering of “political” prisoners from other countries. Policies were more erratic here. At first, these women were killed upon arrival if they were found to be pregnant. If they fell pregnant after entering Auschwitz, they generally resorted to secret abortions much in the same way as did the Jewish women. Starting from 1943, women were allowed to give birth, but many babies were subsequently killed, sometimes immediately, sometimes later, depending, it seems, on the whims of the SS. Generally, the women were forced to kill their own babies, or this was done by the medical staff who were inmates themselves. However, some blond and blue-eyed babies were taken away to the Potulice concentration camp or similar places that acted as transit camps for Polish children who were deemed to look “Aryan” enough to be subsequently adopted by German couples. In September of 1943, the first baby was officially registered as a camp inmate and received the distinctive Auschwitz tattoo with its inmate number. At liberation there were 156 children of less than three years still alive in Auschwitz, but it is not known how many (if any) of these were actually born there (a number of children were sent to Auschwitz in the wake of the Warsaw uprising of autumn 1944). The living conditions were such that a baby had very little chance of survival.
Langbein, Hermann. People in Auschwitz. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) in Auschwitz
Bársony, János, and Ágnes Daróczi, eds. Pharrajimos: the fate of the Roma during the Holocaust. IDEA, 2008.
Gutman, Yisrael, and Michael Berenbaum, eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz death camp. Indiana University Press, 1998.
The differences between German military doctrine and the Allied and Soviet doctrine during World War Two
German doctrine differed a lot from both the Allies and the Soviets.
All of course changed throughout the war, as what was available to commanders changed and the strategic possibilities and constraints changed.
The Germans entered World War Two with one of the absolute best armies the world have ever seen. Building on their experience in World War One, where they had developed both operational and tactic doctrines that were well-adopted for both trench and more open fighting. Flexible defense, where you deployed small groups of troops to the front to hold the line and reserves to the back allowed them to delay and then counter-attack an enemy attack both tactically and operationally (note – tactics involves small units, operations divisions and corps and strategy large armies and logistics). A quick counter-attack to retake lost territory while the enemy was still trying to organize his defense, bring his heavy weapons up, entrench and re-align his artillery to provide defensive fire was often devastatingly effective.
On the offence, the Germans had developed infiltration tactics, meaning that small heavily armed groups of men would attack and bypass strong-points and heavy resistance to allow following troops to neutralize them, and continue deep into the enemy line to attack support weapons, artillery and logistics and other rear area troops to cause the most destruction.
Building on these two doctrines, the Germans added a concentration of force – especially tanks – and the idea of punching even deeper to completely disrupt the enemy force. This is what Anglo-Saxon sources love to call‘Blitzkrieg’ (the Germans themselves never gave it a name other than ‘Schwerpunkt’ – “main focus, focal point, center of gravity”). Combined with a strong air force and close co-operation between tactical bombers (German infantry would often have Luftwaffe liaison officers attached for communication and requests of air support), the Germans brought a revolutionizing co-ordination and focus on air support to the battlefield in World War Two.
German NCOs were extremely well trained – the Reichswehr, the 100 000 man army the Wiemar Republic was allowed was trained so that every soldier could be an NCO, every NCO an officer and so on, to allow for a rapid expansion. German NCOs led from the front, died at a higher rate than regular soldiers, trained with their soldiers, ate with their soldiers and brought a very strong unit cohesion to German units, especially early war. It can probably be said that German NCOs led and kept the German army together throughout the war.
German officers and NCOs were not only very well trained – they were also allowed an extreme level of independence of action in what the Germans called auftragstaktik, or mission tactics. The unit was given a mission to solve and allowed a high degree of freedom to solve the mission how they saw most fit (as they were on the ground close to the objective). NCOs and lower officers were also encouraged to take opportunities without waiting for orders as the time to get a confirmation from higher command could mean that the opportunity was lost.
The Germans excelled in tactics and operations, but were not as good in artillery tactics, logistics and strategy as their opponents, especially the British and Americans.
Auftragstaktik was picked up by the Western Allies after the war, and is more or less standard for any western army today. Combined arms warfare, adapted to the armies of the time, is also standard in all armies today, as is concentration of armored assets in specialized divisions.
The Soviets entered World War Two with an interesting mix of experience from World War One, the Russian Civil War, their own type of deep battle doctrine and a political reversal of much of this, which proved disastrous.
The Eastern Front was never as locked or entrenched as the Western Front had been in World War One. The massed attack was on several occasions more successful here – the Central Powers broke through at Gorlice-Tarnow 1915, the Russians almost broke the Austro-Hungarians at the Brusilov offensive 1916 and the Germans managed to break Russia with their Baltic offensive 1917.
The Russian Civil War had also seen armies operating mostly independently from each other with a for the time minimal logistics train.
Generally, the Soviets had experienced that the more strong-willed and politically coherent army would win but also that adding resources to a successful attack would produce excellent results.
Tactically, the Soviets focused on overwhelming firepower and force on the attack and tenacity, excellent entrenchment and camouflage on the defense. The Soviets had also developed their own version of theschwerpunkt idea in their deep battle doctrine, in which armored, mechanized and cavalry formations would be grouped together, force a breakthrough and then act independently by rushing through and going for the deep of the enemy territory.
However, the 1937 and 1938 purges changed this. The idea of deep battle was lost, and armor was assigned to the infantry for support, although some dedicated mechanized and armored formations remained, as well as a large independent cavalry force. The purges also froze the initiative of the Red Army – NCOs and officers would not dare to do anything without orders for the risk of being accused of being a traitor. Tactical flexibility suffered heavily as a result.
In Spain, the Soviets more or less re-built the Spanish army 1937 along Soviet lines and tried to use zeal and discipline as replacements of tactical flexibility – while the Republicans had plenty of zeal, most soldiers came from the various militias and were unused to military discipline. The attempt to replace firepower and tactical flexibility with zeal and discipline spelled disaster during the Ebro offensive.
The Soviet system also proved devastatingly lousy during the Finnish Winter War. The lack of tactical flexibility, the lack of a short-range and long-range patrol doctrine in dense terrain (things the Finns excelled at) as well as operational and strategical planning failure in sending mechanized or motorized heavy formations into dense forests where they were road-bound and easy to cut up in mottis proved the failure of the Soviet system.
However, the Soviets did learn a lot from Finland, lessons they would put to good use against the Germans on the Eastern Front once they had recovered from the initial shock.
1941 the Red Army could in some circumstances be described as an armed mob without any real communications, leadership or even purpose.
The 1945 Red Army was a completely different beast and one of the best armies in the world. What happened?
The losses in Finland, and especially in the first year of the Eastern Front shock the Soviets to the core and allowed them to start learning what they were good at – but especially what they were not good at.
The Soviets understood that they could not match the Germans in tactical flexibility and in the training and education of NCOs and lower officers (since they did not have the same stock of educated people to draw from and because of the extreme casualties they suffered). So the Soviets developed that they called an operational doctrine. Specialized staffs of officers from the central command, STAVKA, was attached to sectors of the front where heavy fighting was expected. Heavy artillery, which had been attached to divisions and made them heavy and unwieldy (and hard to use since the divisions lacked the radio equipment and dedicated artillery staff as well as forward observers etc to use it well), was moved to special artillery formations. Large armored and mechanized formations were created and placed under high command orders.
These formations were attached to these staffs and used where it was deemed necessary. If an attack ran into heavy resistance and slowed down, resources was quickly shifted to a part of a front where the attack was more successful.
Adding to this was maskirovka or large scale camouflage and deception. Hiding troops by radio silence, camouflaging large formations and especially creating the false impressions they were at another part of the front by laying phone lines, creating massive radio chatter, placing dummy tanks and artillery and have trucks run back and forth to create the impression of new roads and well-used supply lines, the Soviets concentrated overwhelming force and tricked the Germans into assigning their reserves elsewhere and then used operational flexibility to keep their enemies off their balance.
The Soviets, learning from the Finns, also created the idea of constant small raids, patrols and infiltration for information gathering at a large scale – the Western Allies and the Germans had used patrol activity to take prisoners and do reconnaissance on the Western Front in World War One, but the Finns taught the Soviets about long-range patrol activity, something which they used frequently and with good effect against the Germans.
The western allies developed their own version of maskirovka (notably by creating their false army that was to attack Calais on D-day), but the Soviets pioneered it, and it became standard tactics for all armies, although at a larger scale and more common among the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies during the Cold War.
Long-range patrol activity is now also a very common concept in all armies – special forces usually take this duty nowadays, akin to how the British commandos operated during World War Two.
The British exited World War One with several sets of experiences. They had excelled at logistics and firepower and towards the end of the war, at the pre-planned set piece battle. The British focused on overwhelming firepower and protected movement during the inter-war years and developed the Universal Carrier to carry mortars, MGs and other support weapons for the infantry to allow them to protect themselves against a German-style flexible defense counter-attack. It would also provide a (lightly) armored LMG carrier for the troops to advance (or retreat) behind, akin to a mobile MG bunker.
On a larger scale, the British had re-introduced conscription in January 1939 and were still in the process of building a large modern force when World War Two started. Large parts of the forces employed by the British all over the Empire were more suited to colonial police duties than to modern warfare. This can be seen in how differently several Indian divisions, such as the 4. and 5. performed expertly, while others melted away at the sight of the enemy. The British were scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel and had problems manning all of their large Empire, the front against the Japanese in India, the North African theater (later Italian theater) and then the Western Front in France, not even speaking of the extensive air war, the Royal Navy and the merchant navy all over the world needed to supply their vast Empire. The British started to form armored divisions 1940, but clung to a flawed doctrine of infantry (for infantry support) and cruiser (for penetration and fast movement) tanks.
The British did very well in logistics. Pre-planning logistics, building infrastructure and ensuring supplies were in place. The British built railroads from Alexandria to El Alamein and from El Alamein to Tobruk in very short time to supply their troops. Likewise, the mulberry harbors to supply the troops landed in the Normandy invasion was a British innovation.
They were surely superior in mobile warfare to the Italians in the desert during Operation Compass, but came up short against the Germans.
Strategically, the British focused on logistics and decisive set-piece battle. Buy time to bring their logistic superiority to bear, fix the enemy in one place and grind him down through superior firepower, superior logistics and superior numbers. The only real step away from this the British conducted in World War Two was the Market-Garden operation, where the British 30. Corps was to link up with previously dropped airborne forces along a very narrow front, seizing bridges, routing the opposition and entering the Rhur area and ending the war. The operation failed due to faulty intelligence and German resilience.
The British had a strong tradition of dominating the terrain around an enemy from World War One and trench patrols and used this actively throughout the war. They also developed this into the long-range raids of the commandos and the LRDG (Long-Range Desert Group) which would consist of highly trained troops inserting themselves behind enemy lines for sabotage and raiding as well as intelligence gathering.
The long-range insertion of special forces still lives as a concept of most western armies. The level of logistics established by the British and their pre-planned logistics is still the mainstay of western warfare.
While the French were knocked out in 1940, before that they were considered the primary land power of the world and their tactics and doctrine were widely copied.
The French had suffered extreme casualties being on the offensive during World War One and thus focused on the defensive. The French wanted to be operationally on the offensive and tactically on the defensive. They developed excellent medium and light mortars and their system (Brandt) is still in use with all mortars in the world today. The French alternatively believed in the decisive battle or the slow, attritional warfare and mostly a combination of both.
The French wanted to move into Belgium to ensure fighting did not happen on French soil (since northern France held most of the French industry and coal and iron deposits) and to grind down the enemy there – they were prepared to take large casualties in this battle, as long as the enemy took more. The combination of a British blockade, intact French industry and the combined eventual strength of the British and Commonwealth Armies, the French Army and the Belgian Army was supposed to be able to grind the Germans down.
The French artillery system of pre-calculating artillery data for any possibility as soon as a battery has placed itself was revolutionizing for the time and had served them extremely well towards the end of World War One. Their divisions included heavy artillery for counter-battery fire and (as opposed to its Soviet counterpart) the artillery staff, supply service and forward observers to use it effectively. However, it was a system entirely unsuitable for mobile warfare. It was intended for the set-piece battle and slow-moving front of World War One. However, the basis of this system of pre-calculating artillery firing data, developed further by the British and especially the Americans to today’s modern system.
The French also formed the balanced armored division in their Division Légère Mécanique – infantry in armored tracked transports, a strong armored component, a strong reconnaissance component, a strong artillery component with half-tracked transport and its own integral engineering part. This basic design turned out to be how all armored formation would look towards the end of the war.
The US had, as opposed to other powers that had fought World War One, a strong belief in the individual firepower of the rifleman and a disdain for the LMG. While other countries focused heavily on magazine-fed LMGs with rapidly interchangeable barrels (or in the German case, a rather heavy GPMG in the MG 34 and MG 42), the US issued semi-automatic rifles and automatic rifles (without an interchangeable barrel, the BAR was not an LMG as it could not provide sustained fire) and relatively few MGs and all of them (except for the paratroopers) on unwieldy and heavy tripods.
The US built surprisingly much of their doctrines on French and to some extent British ideas. The pre-World War One US army had been very small and mostly fighting colonial police battles rather than European regular forces, and was cut down drastically after World War One. The budding armored corps was disbanded and what few vehicles were developed given to the still horsed cavalry.
The US had a belief that a rifle squad would be able to provide its own covering fire with rifles, which turned out to be less than ideal. The US also believed that tanks would not fight other tanks – that was the job of tank destroyers. Tank destroyers and sometimes also tanks were attached to infantry formations to help them fight tanks and tanks were equipped with weapons more suited to fire high-explosive shells.
The US also created very tank-heavy formations that looked quite a bit like the early German panzer divisions with what was probably too little artillery and infantry for the armored division to act on its own against a prepared enemy.
The Americans learned logistics from the British and built a supply system that outdid their old masters. They learned artillery tactics from the French and outdid them too by pre-calculating a lot of the data needed for defensive artillery fire and bringing down the time from fire request to accurate fire to mere minutes.
One can study which nations built assault guns – artillery on turret-less tanks. The Italians, Germans, Hungarians and Soviets did – the British, French and Americans did not. Because they did not need direct artillery fire against enemy bunkers, MG nests and trenches, since they could quickly call down accurate artillery fire on the problem.
The US learned from the French and included massive amounts of mortars in their formations.
Above all, the US had what no-one else had. The industrial capacity to actually build, move and supply forces entirely mechanized and motorized (the British did it too, at least on the Western Front, a lot of their troops on other theaters were on foot). While the Germans never reached more than 17% of their forces motorized, armored or mechanized, the US reached 100%.
Strategically, the Americans learned from the French again – a broad front, grinding the enemy down and then pursuing violently (as the French plan for 1940 had been). When Montgomery’s Market-Garden failed, Eisenhower did not allow for any exceptions to the broad front – no narrow spearheads that could be cut off.
Pictures like this make me think of this quote from Lord of the Rings:
You wonder what his name is, where he comes from, and if he really was evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, and would he not rather have stayed there… in peace?
Plans over what to do with Nazi leadership were debated between the Allied leadership and shifted throughout the course of the war. I don’t believe its truly possible to definitively state that any single course of action would have been planned and followed through had Hitler been taken alive. While the Moscow Declaration of 1943 did state that punishment for crimes with no specific geographic locale would be handled jointly by the Allied powers, this could be open to interpretation. As the Red Army reached Berlin significantly before the other Allied powers, if Hitler we’re alive he would have surely been under Soviet custody. Whether Stalin would claim that the extreme Soviet losses in the course of the war gave a specific geographic locale for (many of) Hitler’s crimes and thus allowed themselves to take charge in meting out punishment is a highly likely possibility, it cannot be positively concluded.
As for what the specific punishment would have been, as I previously mentioned the thoughts of the Allied leadership on the matter of general post-victory punishment shifted as the war progressed and concluded. There was disagreement over how to punish Nazis generally upon the war’s conclusion at the Tehran Conference in 1943. The intent of Stalin (who would have had custody of Hitler) at the conference can be seen in his suggestion to simply summarily execute roughly 50,000 German officers. A simple summary execution (whether under official Red Army auspices or more akin to the fate of Muammar Gaddafi), is certainly one likely possibility. Although the other Allied leaders were somewhat less bloodthirsty than Stalin in their thinking regarding the punishment of Nazi leadership, immediately executing Hitler and definitely ending the war in Europe is a likely scenario.
On the note of trials, it is highly unlikely that Hitler would have been prosecuted by the German people. The judiciary of Germany was comprised just about exclusively of Nazi party members. The only Germans who could even theoretically prosecute Hitler somewhat reliably would have been those with communist leanings, which simply puts the ball into Stalin’s court regardless. Were a trial to be held under strictly Soviet custody, there is absolutely no doubt that the event would be a show trial in Moscow leading to inevitable execution. If Stalin were instead to abide by the previous arrangement for joint decision making on the punishment of Nazi leadership, Hitler would have been tried jointly by the Allies at Nuremburg or potentially separately at a unique trial for himself alone. It should be noted that, essentially, all roads lead to execution. Any plans for the Denazification of Germany would have been seriously hampered by Hitler still being alive. The risk of Hitler returning, being freed, or acting as a living figurehead for a potential resurgence of Nazism would simply be too great. The only real questions are the exact method leading up to execution, and the extent of involvement from Truman and Churchill in it.
[The Post-war plans for the Nazi leadership in general differed between the Allied leadership. Given that Hitler was not captured alive, it cannot be definitively said that the potential road map for Allied leadership jointly dealing with Nazi leadership would have even been followed in Hitler’s case. The only thing for certain is the conclusion: inevitable execution.]
Mass rapes, summary executions, torture, mutilation. Looting and pillaging. The officer corps largely turned a blind eye to it (or actively participated). Those who did speak out were often silenced, and official reports ignored or fudged. Soviet propaganda had been painting Germans as beasts and urging its soldiers on to gorge themselves in violence against the enemy for months, perhaps without thinking through the inevitable consequences. Revenge was a particularly ubiquitous theme throughout the propaganda posters:
“Open fire on murderers of our wives and children!”
“Revenge for the people’s misery!”
Soldiers were encouraged from on high to personally commit acts of revenge for every crime they had witnessed (or heard about) from the Germans. Command wanted to instill hatred into the conscript army as a primary motivator. And it worked; the Red Army was practically frothing at the mouth by the time it entered East Prussia. It succeeded to the point where command had to start backpedaling and trying (with varying degrees of success) to rein in the troops, as the regular atrocities were starting to seriously impact discipline.
Some quotes from historians on how bad things were at the start.
•Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany:
[Five days after the capture of Nemmersdorf], hardly one civilian inhabitant survived. Women had been nailed to barn doors and farm carts, or been crushed by tanks after being raped. Their children had been killed. Forty French prisoners of war working on on local farms had been shot, likewise avowed German communists. The Red Army’s behavior reflected not casual brutality, but systematic sadism rivaling that of the Nazis.
•Richard Overy, Russia’s War:
“In the first villages they occupied in October 1944 the soldiers slaughtered the population, raping and torturing the women, old and young. Refugees were shelled and bombed and crushed beneath the tracks of advancing tanks.”
Things got worse from there.
Officially, rape was a capital crime if a soldier was caught at it. In practice, it was ignored. Men and women who tried to save their children or families from being gang-raped in front of them were killed or mutilated, and then the children were shot or, in the worst cases, left crucified against a wall or door when the troops moved on. When Stalin was informed of the behavior of the soldiers he shrugged, saying:
“Imagine a man who has fought over thousands of kilometres of his own devastated land, across the dead bodies of his comrades and dearest ones? What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors? The Red Army is not ideal, nor can it be. The important thing is that it fights Germans.”
The Soviets had ample cause for revanchism. Over the past few years they had lost, at a low estimate, twenty million people. Twenty million. Those who had fought and lived had survived against a foe who would offer them no quarter, who were reported to have committed atrocities against mass numbers of civilians. And these reports were starting to be borne out as the first of the death camps were being liberated. It seemed to the Red Army that the propaganda was almost downplaying what the Nazis were. The Germans were, in their eyes, monsters – civilians and soldiers alike.
What’s more, they were monsters who did not seem to have had any need to invade Russia in the first place. Houses in the German heartlands were filled with foods and goods that the Communist peasant soldier had never seen even before the outbreak of war, let alone what they had been living on for the past few years. I read a fairly amusing anecdote a while back about a unit who stumbled across a cache of a mysteriously oily white substance. The commander guesses that it might be lubricant for farm machinery. After two days, a private works up the nerve to try eating some of it, praying silently that it’s not poison (or just poisoned). When he wakes up the next day, he goes to the commander and says “I think I’ve heard about this stuff – it’s called ‘margarine’.” Whereupon the whole unit feasts on pancakes. My point is that it would be one thing if the Germans were desperate and looking for “Russian riches”. But these people were, comparatively speaking, living in the lap of luxury before they began slaughtering everyone to the east of them. When the Red Army discovered the truth of this for themselves, it just added more fuel to the fires of envy and rage.
The German forces also inadvertently made it worse for the civilian population by leaving behind large untouched caches of hard liquor. The thought was that a drunk soldier is a soldier easily killed. Unfortunately, an angry drunk soldier is all the more likely to join in the gang rape of the wives and daughters of the men who had invaded and killed their own families.
The Russians were also constantly exhorted to be on the look out for partisans, irregular troops who might attack the supply lines once the front moved past them. Which made for a handy excuse when looking to kill whoever they wanted to. And it was an excuse they often fell back upon, especially after the first of the death camps were liberated and it became clear just what had been going on even in the German homeland.
I don’t want to downplay the fact that everything the Soviets did to Germany had already been done ten-fold by Germans in Russia. And the people “returning the favor” were not the same troops who had started the war. Those were, by and large, already dead. By the time the Red Army arrived in Germany, a sizable portion of it was made up of violent prisoners released as an emergency measure, or prisoners of war who had felt brutality at the hands of the Germans themselves, or foreigners “recruited” at gunpoint with no reason to reflect well upon their unit and with resentment against both sides. But, regardless of any excuses or mitigating circumstances, it was still a horrific sequence of events.
After the liberation on Aug 26, 1944, Parisian women with their children run for cover as remaining German snipers open fire from the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
This striking photo, taken on Aug. 26, 1944, during the liberation of Paris and held in the National Archives’ collection of Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity, shows Parisians running for cover on the Place de la Concorde as snipers fired on the city’s ongoing celebration. The image shows civilians caught in the crossfire, transitioning quickly from party to self-preservation mode.
While the Germans had officially surrendered the city to Allied forces the day before and citizens were out in the streets in force, pockets of French collaborators and German soldiers remained. French Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who paraded through the streets to the Champs-Élysées on the same day this picture was taken, took fire from snipers several times. Later in the day, de Gaulle famously came under sniper ﬁre inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame.