The Eastern Front in World War II

WORLD WAR II – The Eastern Front (Part I)

 

            World War II was without a doubt the greatest war of all time and between 1939 and 1945, 70 million, or more, people were killed. (1) A disproportionate number died on the eastern front as the military forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought ferociously and cruelly. Of a pre-war Soviet population of 194 million, between 20 and 24 million lost their lives. More than one in four of the Soviet population were killed or wounded. (2)

            The first victims of German aggression were Czechoslovakia and Poland. The conquest of Poland was completed in September 1939 with Germany taking the western part of the country and the Soviet Union taking the east in accordance with a secret agreement made the previous August. Britain and France declared war on Germany but it was too late to save Poland. (3)

            On 22 June 1941, despite having a Non-Aggression Pact, Germany began Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. There is much controversy about the German Dictator Adolf Hitler’s decision to go to war but it’s possible he was pre-empting an attack by the Soviets. (4)

            The Soviet Union, under the Dictator, Josef Stalin had already attempted to invade Finland in what became known as the Winter War. Although not conquering the little nation Stalin’s regime managed to force it to cede territory. (5) Stalin’s army also invaded the small Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Demands were made on Romania over Bessarabia. (6)

            The Soviet army was better equipped than Germany’s. As early as the 1930s Stalin had decided on a naval fleet construction plan that should have made the Soviet Union the strongest naval power in the war. By June 1941 they had at least 213 submarines. The Red Army possessed 24,000 tanks including 1,861 type T34 tanks, probably the most effective armoured weapon in the war. Added to these were 148,000 artillery pieces and mortars of various types. Their air force had a total of 23,245 military aircraft. (7)

            There is evidence that Stalin and his cohorts had ambitions beyond the Baltic. As early as 1925 Stalin had declared that if war broke out the Soviet Union would enter as the last belligerent and play a decisive role. War between fascist Germany and the West would provide an opportunity to liberate Europe from capitalism. The Non-Aggression Pact with Germany encouraged Hitler to attack Poland, as Stalin expected, and hence European war broke out. At a meeting in Berlin in November 1940, V.M. Molotov, who was responsible for Soviet foreign policy, made it clear that he wanted the Soviet sphere of influence to include Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece. These demands and others appear to have been a provocation to Germany. (8)

            When Germany attacked they were initially fairly successful, but the war soon become one of attrition, destroying millions of soldiers and huge quantities of material. (9)

            While both sides had secret police the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (Narodnyg Kommissariat Vnutremikh Del or NKVD) was particularly brutal. This suited Josef Stalin’s paranoia and need for total control. (10)

            Stalin, originally from Georgia, and named Josif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, sought leadership of the Soviet Union on the death of Vladimir Lenin in January 1924. His main rival Leon Trotsky was expelled and fled to Mexico. In August 1940 he was murdered by a Spanish Stalinist, Ramon Mercador, who had been recruited by the NKVD. (11)

            To feed Stalin’s paranoia, the NKVD under Nikolai (the Dwarf) Yezhov, focussed on the Red Army, hinting at a possible coup d’état. It’s possible he was given false evidence which had originated from the Nazis. A notable victim was Marshal Mikhai Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky, who after torture involving sleep deprivation and bashings with a truncheon, was executed in June 1937, along with eight other senior military commanders. (12)

            Yezhov himself fell out of favour with Stalin and in 1939, five months before the outbreak of war he was taken to his own slaughterhouse. He was shot by Vasili Blokhin, the NKVD’s chief executioner and master of assassinations, tortures, intimidation and executions. (13)

            The new head of the NKVD was Lavrenti Beria, who like Stalin came from Georgia. He was to play an important part in mistreatment of Poles who Stalin hated since the Polish Army had crushed the Red Army in an attack in 1920. (14)

            With the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 many citizens, thought to be 200,000 in number were rounded up and thrown into a number of camps where they were either left to freeze and starve, or forced to labour on highways in the Carpathians or mines in Ukraine. Between February 1940 and June 1941, two million Polish mothers and their children were sent to Siberia and central Asia, while their men were sent to concentration camps. (5) Worse was to come for Polish army officers and other leaders among the conquered Poles.

            In some regions, such as Pinsk south-west of Minsk, things were more brutal with important officials and notables arrested and executed within days. Anyone who wore a uniform, even postmen or boy scouts was arrested and either executed or sent to a concentration camp. (16)

            Atrocities were piling up well before Germany declared war on the Soviet Union and it was often the Germans who uncovered the evidence. In April 1943 the bodies of 300 Polish officers were uncovered in the Katyn forest. Another seven mass graves of Poles who had been massacred were uncovered, a total of at least 4,500 victims. (17)

            As early as 1941 the Germans had found evidence of 30,000 executions in Kurapaty in Belorussia, although some had been killed as early as 1937. (18)

            Atrocities by the NKVD were carried out in Ukraine which led to an uprising by some of the population. Many prisoners escaped from jails although a few were too frightened to leave. These were later murdered by the NKVD. (19)

            A colony of ethnic Germans who had lived near the Volga since the time of Catherine the Great were forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan and other district regions. They numbered 400,000 and were joined by German-speaking people from other parts of the country. A lot of these people were murdered and the survivors put into concentration camps until 1943 when many were dispatched to the front to work in labour battalions. (20)

            With the rapid advance of the German military, the fleeing NKVD was instructed by Beria to slaughter the inmates of any prisons and concentration camps that could fall into German hands. Thousands of prisoners were still found by the Germans and released, but these were a lucky minority. (21)

            In Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye, pretty well all prisoners, including thousands of leftist political prisoners, were slaughtered. In the Kabardino-Balkar Republic hundreds of slave workers were machine gunned. In the Ukraine a train full of prisoners was halted when artillery fire was heard nearby. The NKVD killed most of the prisoners by machine gun or grenades. Only a lucky few, about 14, survived. (22)

            At Tcherwene in White Ruthenia thousands of Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Russians and Lithuanians were mown down with machine guns. (23)

            In a forest near Telsiai in Lithuania, 73 prisoners were killed by particularly cruel methods. Some had their eyes gouged out, others were scalped and had their brains squeezed out. Tongues were torn out, bodies and legs slowly cut open, or bayonets thrust into the victim’s mouths and down their throats. Most bodies had so many wounds it was not possible to determine the precise cause of death. (24)

            The most notorious massacre occurred in the Ukrainian city of L’vov which the Germans took on 29 June. They found a city stinking of putrefying flesh and the prisons surrounded by agonised relatives. A German Field Police Group investigated next day and found that about 3,500 people had been killed. In the prisons bodies were stacked four or five deep on the cellar floor and the ceiling splashed with blood. One room had a floor covered with dry blood, 20 centimetres deep. Some of the men had had their sexual organs, and some women their breasts, ripped or cut open. Eyes were gouged out and bodies beaten into unrecognisable shapes. Faces showed expressions of unimaginable agony. A Polish lady who visited the prison found the hanged body of a girl about eight years of age. Later it came to light that the NKVD had employed Jews as informers and guides when searching for their victims. This provoked an outburst of anti-Semitism but most of the informers were also killed by the NKVD. (25)

           

 

            WORLD WAR II – The Eastern Front (Part II)

 

            Meanwhile the German Blitzkrieg continued north, south and centre. The German armies had 117 divisions and 22 in reserve. They were backed by 14 Romanian divisions. (26)

            The Germans took hundreds of thousands of prisoners as whole Soviet armies collapsed and most of European Russia was invaded. The Germans however had underestimated the strength of Stalin’s army, especially the number of tanks. Within the first six weeks the Germans lost 60,000 dead. (27)

            In the north the Germans liberated Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and then proceeded to Leningrad. Finland entered the war on Germany’s side. (28)

            The Germans laid siege to Leningrad and this lasted from September 1941 to January 1944. Almost three-quarters of a million German Troops were bogged down for 900 days while in the city 641,803 people died, mainly from hunger and disease. (29)

            The German centre army reached Moscow and entered some outer suburbs but failed to take the city. The Germans were disadvantaged by a lack of adequate supply lines. Marshal Zhukov, Stalin’s most outstanding general organised a counter attack and in December 1941 the Germans were forced into an orderly retreat. (30)

            The Germans then concentrated on the south and made advances in the Kharkov area in May and June 1942. They then took the Crimea including the city of Sevastopol. They then attacked Stalingrad and in October had control of much of the city. Stalin sent Zhukov to recapture the city and in November 1942 the Germany Sixth Army, then numbering 200,000 men, was encircled. By 31 January 1943 there were only 91,000 Germans left, giving their leader, Field Marshal von Paulus little choice but to surrender. (31)

            Stalin’s tactics were not just military but also psychological and he began to appeal to his people’s patriotism. He reminded the Russians about their ancestors had defeated Napoleon and Kaiser Wilhelm. Religion was no longer to be repressed and churches were reopened. (32)

            A lot of effort was put into anti-German propaganda and Soviet journalists, literary hacks, artists and historians were called on to produce works that caused Soviet citizens and soldiers to hate the Germans. It appears that the German attack on 22 June 1941 was anticipated and the war propaganda machine had a pre-established program. The writers included Nobel Prize winner, Mikhail Sholokhov and Alexei Tolstoy, a descendant of the famous Leo Tolstoy. (33)

            The most important, and infamous propagandist however was Ilya Grigoryevich Ehrenburg, son of a Jewish beer brewer and proud of his Jewish origins. He has been compared to the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher who was sentenced to death at the Nuremburg trials. Ehrenburg had already written novels promoting Communism and the defeat of the bourgeoisie, as well as one written after the fall of Paris which showed his contempt for the French bourgeoisie. Stalin wanted hate, not only against Fascism but also against everything German. Ehrenburg’s propaganda delivered this. Germans were not human and needed to be pitilessly exterminated. Ehrenburg’s incitements were often read to Soviet troops before the start of a battle. (34)

            Another cruel tactic of Stain was a rejection of the Geneva Convention which regulated the treatment of wounded and prisoners of war. This meant that those captured by the Soviet forces were not guaranteed humane treatment and gave the Germans an excuse to not treat Soviet prisoners properly. Soviet soldiers who were captured by the Germans were actually considered criminals by their own country. (35)

            The Soviet forces set up “blocking detachments” which were placed behind military units to execute those who retreated or spread panic. Initially these were part of the red Army but later they came under the NKVD which, like the Nazi SS, had its own large military force with 15 infantry divisions, tanks and artillery. In the first ten months of the war the blocking detachments detained 700,000 officers and men of the Red Army, for acting with suspicion. Most were returned to the front but about 10,000 were shot. In September 1041, Zhukov, at the behest of Stalin, ordered machine guns to be turned on retreating battalions. (36)

            Eventually the progress of the war turned in favour of the Soviet forces. This however did not stop the atrocities.

            Mass purges were carried out as the border Troops and the Special Troops of the NKVD, similar to the German Einsatzgruppen followed the Red Army. In March 1943 the city of Kharkov was briefly captured by the Soviets and at least 4,000 people were shot. (37) Elsewhere hundreds of thousands were killed. During 1943-44 mass deportations of a number of minorities occurred. This included Kalmucks, Chechens, Ingushs and the Crimean Tartars. These deportations were carried out under inhumane conditions and would constitute the crime of genocide. (38)

            The Soviet Union incidentally had been producing poisonous gas, capable of killing masses of people, for years before the war and had gas chambers in operation as early as 1938. Not surprisingly the Soviets were pushing the story about the Germans murdering people with gas early in the war and it formed an important part of their anti-German propaganda. The Soviets also tried to attribute some of their crimes to the Germans. (39)

            Virtually from the start of the fighting German prisoners were murdered, including many who were wounded. Some were tortured, mutilated or burnt to death. German medical personnel were not spared and were killed along with their patients. (40)

            Stalin reinforced the motivation to kill prisoners in a proclamation made on 6 November 1941 that stated it was the task of the Soviet forces to “exterminate to the last man all Germans having invaded the territory of our homeland”. Ilya Ehrenburg continued the vitriol with calls for the indiscriminate murder of all Germans. In an about turn, Stalin, on 23 November 1942, gave an order that the Red Army spare the lives of German soldiers if the surrender. This could have been just for propaganda as the murder of prisoners continued. (41)

            The Germans issued instructions not to retaliate for the murders. An exception was made for those fighting out of uniform as partisans and a few officers responsible for atrocities. (42)

            Soviet crimes appear not to have abated and as the Red Army entered German territory atrocities against the civilian population began on a mass scale. This included the wholesale murder of prisoners of war and civilians of all ages, the disgusting rape of females including the old and children, and the plundering and arson of both public and private property. This was followed by the mass deportation of tens of thousands of men and women for slave labour in the Soviet Union. Many died during transportation. (43)

            The total number killed is not known exactly but it would run into hundreds of thousands. Under the inhumane conditions of the Soviet military administration, 90,000 died in Konigsberg alone. (44)

            As many as 270,000 defenceless Germans were murdered in Czechoslovakia beginning in May 1945. (45)

            As many as 2.2 million may have died in the “Expulsion areas” which would constitute an anti-German genocide. Similarly allowing soldiers to commit atrocities or even participating in these acts meant that many high ranking Soviet commanders were liable to be charged for war crimes but, unlike Nazi Leaders, they were not. (46)

            The “liberated” peoples of Poland, the Baltic States, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania were also subject to excesses, violence, theft and murder. (47)

            By May 1945 the Soviet forces had taken Berlin, Hitler having committed suicide in his bunker on 30 April. On 7 May Germany unconditionally surrendered on all fronts. Stalin acquired eastern Poland, the Baltic States, Bessarabia and Bukovina, as well as territory taken from Finland during the Soviet-Finnish war. Poland was compensated with German territory east of the rivers Oder and Neisse. The Soviet Union now dominated Eastern Europe including the soviet zones in Germany and Austria. (48)

References:

1. Ralby, Dr Aaron, “Atlas of Military History”, Paragon, Bath, p. 303

2. Grenville, J.A.S., “Collins History of the World in the Twentieth Century”, Harper Collins Publishers, London, 1994, p. 292

3. ibid., pp. 244-251

4. Tolstoy, Nikolai, “Stalin’s Secret War”, Pan Books, London, 1981, pp. 214, 223-224; Hoffman, Joachim, “Stalin’s War of Extermination 1941-1945”, Castle Hill Publishers, Uckfield, 2015, pp. 54-88

5. Grenville, op cit., p. 258

6. ibid., p. 269

7. Hoffman, op cit., pp. 33-35

8. ibid., pp. 29-32

9. Grenville, op cit., p. 269

10. Butler, Rupert, “Stalin’s Secret War”, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2010, pp. 9-14

11. ibid., p. 44

12. ibid., pp. 15-17

13. ibid., p. 17

14. ibid., pp. 17-19

15. ibid., p. 21

16. ibid., p. 22-23

17. ibid., pp. 28-31

18. ibid., p. 31

19. ibid., p. 33

20. Tolstoy, op cit., p. 244

21. ibid., p. 245

22. ibid., pp. 245-246

23. ibid., p. 246

24. ibid., pp. 246-247

25. ibid., pp. 247-248

26. Grenville, op cit., p. 298

27. ibid., p. 298

28. ibid., p. 299

29. ibid., p. 300

30. ibid., p. 300

31. ibid., p. 300

32. Tolstoy, op cit., pp. 257-259

33. Hoffman, op cit., p. 154

34. ibid., pp. 155-159

35. ibid., p. 144

36. Butler, op cit., p. 51

37. Hoffman, op cit., p. 212

38. ibid., p. 227

39. ibid., p. 276

40. ibid., pp. 246-248

41. ibid., pp. 270-272

42. ibid., pp. 276-277

43. ibid., pp. 281-282

44. ibid., p. 282

45. ibid., p. 283

46. ibid., p. 283

47. ibid., pp. 284-285

48. Grenville, op cit., pp. 313-315

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Butler, Rupert, “Stalin’s Secret War”, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2010 (ISBN 978 1 84884 053 9)

Grenville, J.A.S., “Collins History of the World in the Twentieth Century”, Harper Collins Publishers, London, 1994 (ISBN 0 00 255169 1)

Hoffman, Joachim, “Stalin’s War of Extermination 1941-1945”, Castle Hill Publishers, Uckfield, 2015 (ISBN 1 59148 120 1)

Ralby, Dr Aaron, “Atlas of Military History”, Parragon, Bath, 2013, (ISBN 978 1 4723 0962 4)

Tolstoy, Nikolai, “Stalin’s Secret War”, Pan Books, London, 1981 (ISBN 0 330 26824 4)