Germany to the East II


Clockwise from top left: German soldiers advance through Northern Russia, German flamethrower team in the Soviet Union, Soviet planes flying over German positions near Moscow, Soviet prisoners of war on the way to German prison camps, Soviet soldiers fire at German positions.


Just as worrisome was the growing realization of the serious materiel deficiencies facing the German armed forces. Following the defeat of France, Hitler had ordered a redirection in armaments production to favor the navy and air force, but with the decision for Barbarossa the priority had to shift, at least somewhat, back to the army. To compound problems, in expectation of a quick victory in Russia only part of German war production was targeted at the needs of the Russian campaign, with the remainder continuing to produce for the anticipated confrontation with Britain and America. Since German industry could not quickly or easily convert from one type of production to another, delays were inevitable, with one result being a serious deficiency in ammunition. Between July and December 1941, that is, the first six months of Barbarossa, the production of army weapons actually fell by an average of 38 percent. The German war economy also suffered from a lack of skilled labor. To free workers for a return to industry, an elaborate system had been worked out in the winter of 1940–1941 whereby experienced soldiers were given an “armaments holiday” while new recruits were trained for the army. In this way, soldiers would manufacture the weapons they and their comrades would later use in the Soviet Union. Once these worker-soldiers returned in large numbers to the army, however, production would suffer, a potential for disaster that could be averted only if the campaign in Russia was short and did not involve above-average losses in men and materiel. Further compounding the problem, armaments industries attempted to delay the release of soldiers back to the army as long as possible, which cut into the time available for the training of the new divisions.

Nor were production problems the only concern. In late December, General Friedrich Fromm, head of the Reserve Army, informed Halder of existing shortages in key raw materials and warned that food requirements could be met only by “swindling ourselves through 1941.” A month later, OKW economic staffers reinforced this message, pointing out that an invasion of the Soviet Union would interrupt deliveries of key raw materials and accelerate the depletion of already inadequate stocks of fuel and rubber. At a conference on 28 January called by Halder to address the economic situation, General Georg Thomas, the economic expert in the OKW, presented a devastating picture: tire requirements were deficient by some 50 percent, while sufficient fuel existed for only about two months of combat. Halder observed soberly in his diary, “Purpose [of Barbarossa] not clear. We do not hit the British that way. Our economic potential will not be substantially improved. Risk in the west must not be underestimated. It is possible that Italy might collapse. . . . If we are then tied up in Russia, a bad situation will be made worse.” Halder’s spirits certainly did not improve three days later when he met with his army group commanders, all of whom voiced misgivings about the operation. In a meeting with Hitler on 1 February, Field Marshal von Bock gave voice to these anxieties, agreeing that “we would defeat the Russians if they stood and fought,” but worrying that it might not be possible to force them to make peace. Hitler, visibly upset, replied, “If the occupation of the Ukraine, and the fall of Leningrad and Moscow did not bring about peace, then we would just have to carry on . . . and advance to Yekaterinburg.” In any case, Hitler insisted angrily, “I will fight. . . . Our attack will sweep over them like a hailstorm.”

Despite Hitler’s protestations, the key dilemma had been voiced by Halder—that a conquest of Russia would not improve German economic potential—for it called into question Hitler’s fundamental assumptions about the gains to be realized from military conquest. As early as 10 August 1940, a study completed by the Military Geography Branch of the General Staff warned that the capture of Moscow, Leningrad, and Ukraine would not necessarily compel Russia to make peace as, beyond the German reach in the Urals, the Soviets had built a significant armament industry along with a solid industrial and agricultural base. In October, Gebhardt von Walther, a staffer at the German embassy in Moscow, sent an even more pessimistic assessment to Halder, warning against the expectation of Soviet collapse or any immediate economic benefits from Ukraine, especially foodstuffs. The German occupation in 1918 had yielded meager results, Walther argued, and the area was now even more overpopulated and impoverished. Furthermore, Thomas pointed out, maintaining or increasing agricultural production in Ukraine depended on using a huge fleet of tractors and trucks. This would be impossible without simultaneously seizing the oil fields of the Caucasus, which were beyond the initial German reach. Reich minister of finance von Krosigk also noted that the Russians would likely burn their fields and storage facilities, with the result that less grain would actually be collected through an invasion. Since the mid-1920s, Hitler had justified an inevitable showdown with Russia on economic and racial grounds; now, the former assumption seemed to be put in serious doubt.

Despite this gloomy prognosis, Halder and the army leaders, perhaps remembering their falsely pessimistic assessments in spring 1940, could not bring themselves to confront Hitler. At a conference on 3 February, Halder mentioned supply and economic difficulties only briefly, preferring instead to stress the means by which these could be overcome as well as the poor quality of Russian troops and equipment. Still, on 5 February, Hitler called for a study of the various Soviet industrial areas to gauge their ability to sustain centers of resistance. The War Economy and Armaments Office under Thomas had already prepared such a study, one that again pointed to serious economic deficiencies. Keitel, however, informed Thomas that Hitler would not be influenced by such arguments, so Thomas began to modify his conclusions to better suit the Führer. On 13 February, Thomas issued a larger report, “The Effects of an Operation in the East on the War Economy,” that now predicted Germany’s food and raw material situation would be markedly improved if a rapid conquest should succeed in capturing large stocks intact. In the event of a longer war, Germany would have to solve a number of problems, among them transportation, securing oil supplies, and guaranteeing delivery of food and raw materials. The collapse of the Soviet Union, moreover, could be expected only by the loss or destruction of the industrial areas of the Urals. Still, Thomas predicted that the campaign would overrun 75 percent of the Soviet war industry, a conclusion that would hardly discourage Hitler. Indeed, if anything, the urgent economic needs outlined in Thomas’s report served to justify an invasion as a solution for Germany’s problems, a point Hitler could hardly miss.

What transpired now was indicative both of the amorphous decisionmaking process in the Third Reich and of the incremental way in which Barbarossa took on the dimension of an ideological and racial war of destruction. Nazi occupation policy in Poland and the various proposals for solving the Jewish question already assumed, in a rather inchoate fashion, the deaths of large numbers of people. In thinking through the economic imperatives of the invasion, economic planners, ministerial officials, and others now adopted a merciless pragmatism, independent of direct orders from the Führer, that helped set in motion a process of escalating radicalization and mass murder. As it became clear that Hitler was determined to achieve Lebensraum in Russia, that for him the question was not whether to proceed but how to achieve maximum profit, Thomas began to collaborate more closely with the one economic official, State Secretary Herbert Backe in the Agriculture Ministry, who had long been an advocate of expansion in the east on economic grounds. Given Germany’s experience in World War I, Backe’s main priority was securing the food situation of the Greater Reich. By the end of 1940, this necessity loomed even larger since occupied Western Europe also faced substantial net grain deficits. Furthermore, the massive Ostheer, numbering some 3 million men, would also have to be fed. Since the British blockade precluded the importation of additional foodstuffs from outside Europe, Germany faced the bitter prospect, as in 1917–1918, of food shortages, hunger, and political upheaval. Worryingly, Belgian miners had already gone on strike in the winter of 1940–1941 to protest the meager food supplies, while on 1 May 1941 German civilians had to face a drastic reduction in their own rations. Nazi leaders, obsessed by the example of World War I, would not again allow domestic convulsions to undermine a war effort, so Ukraine had to be exploited as a source of grain. Backe, however, knew full well that Ukraine was not the limitless granary of myth, that, as a result of backward Soviet agricultural methods and rapid population growth, it barely produced a surplus of grain. The problem, then, was that even a successful German invasion would result in little immediate benefit.

For Hitler, the conquest and immediate exploitation of food supplies and raw materials was the key priority, so a solution had to be found. Steps in that direction came in February 1941, when Thomas’s office broached the idea that not the entire occupied territory, but only its economically important parts, should be sustained. Territories that were of “no economic importance for the conduct of operations, or for the greater German war economy” were to be “economically neglected after the most extensive exploitation.” Special importance was attached to attaining surpluses in foodstuffs and oil. Even the experts in Backe’s office, however, had to admit that any invasion would disrupt normal harvests for at least two years: “These losses can only be made good over several years. . . . For that reason, no surpluses should be expected . . . for several years.” His agricultural experts, however, had calculated that Germany and occupied Europe needed 8–10 million tons of grain, which had to be collected from Russia. Backe had promised Hitler that possession of Ukraine would end all economic worries, so a way out of the conundrum had to be found. The solution worked out by Backe’s staff was breathtakingly radical: a deliberate strategy of hunger and starvation. The agricultural surpluses of southern Russia would be diverted to Central Europe, while the areas of deficiency in central and northern Russia, especially the big industrial cities, would be cut off from their food sources. A double burden, in fact, would be imposed on these “deficit areas,” for the army’s supply plan was based on the assumption that the troops would live off the land for the duration of the campaign. Not only would the local population of these areas receive no incoming foodstuffs, but their own inadequate supplies would also first be used to feed the German forces.

At a 2 May conference of state secretaries representing the ministries involved in the occupation, Thomas and Backe spelled out with remarkable clarity what this “hunger policy” meant:

  1. The war can be continued only if the entire armed forces are fed from Russia in the third year of the war.
  2. Tens of millions of people will undoubtedly starve to death if that which we require is taken out of the country.
  3. Of greatest importance is the securing and removal of oil crops . . . , with grain occupying a lower priority. Available fat and meat will presumably be consumed by the troops.

Amazingly, with no evidence of protest or disagreement, key representatives of the German state agreed with a proposal that sentenced millions to death as an acceptable price to pay for the acquisition of maximum food “surpluses.” In order to serve the needs of the German Großraumwirtschaft, the Soviet Union was to be exploited as a colonial possession, with the only question being, “How does this help Germany?” The consequences for the affected areas were inescapable and discussed in detail. “The gradual death both of the industry and of a large portion of the population in the former deficit areas” was indispensable, concluded one report: “Many tens of millions will become superfluous in those areas and will have to die or emigrate to Siberia. Any attempts to save the local population from death by starvation through the importation of surpluses . . . can only be at the expense of the food supplies for Europe. They would undermine Germany’s and Europe’s immunity to blockade.”

How many “tens of millions” would be affected? Backe himself put the figure for the “surplus population” at between 20 and 30 million. Practical implementation, not concern for their fate, dominated discussions, as Goering dismissed their starvation as essential to the German war effort. Indeed, to top Nazis a beneficial side effect of the hunger policy would be the elimination of precisely those elements of the population that were considered racially unworthy or politically threatening. Their starvation would then create a colonial land open to settlement by racially valuable German colonizers. Himmler certainly understood this, remarking, “It is a question of existence . . . , a racial struggle of pitiless severity in the course of which twenty to thirty million Slavs and Jews will perish through military actions and crisis of food supply.” In his instructions to agricultural administrators, Backe stated dismissively, “Poverty, hunger, and frugality have been borne by the Russian individual for centuries. His stomach is elastic—therefore, no false pity.” Alfred Rosenberg on 20 June put it more brutally, saying, “The feeding of the German people undoubtedly holds the top place now on the list of German demands in the east. . . . We certainly do not see that we have any duty to feed the Russian people.” For Rosenberg, in fact, both economic policy and racial policy justified the starvation of millions. German rule was to be ensured, and vast lands opened for German settlement, by the annihilation of millions of racially inferior peoples. “The Russians,” he conceded, “will have some very hard years ahead of them.”

Not as well understood but no less significant, the material gains secured by the seizure of Lebensraum in the east would profit not only the state and heavy industry but everyone in Germany as well. Nazi propaganda had long promoted the notion that the key to increasing the German standard of living was securing resources commensurate with the racial value of the Volk. The war for Lebensraum was, thus, not one for “throne and altar,” as Goebbels put it dismissively, but one

for grain and bread, for a well-rounded breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a war for the achievement of the material prerequisites for the solution of the social question, the question of housing and street construction, the construction of a military, commercial, and cruise fleet, the construction of automobiles and tractors, of theaters and cinemas for the people even in the tiniest village, a war for raw materials, for rubber, for iron, and ores. . . . We want finally, just once, to cash in. . . . In the immense fields of the east sways the golden grain, enough and more than enough, to nourish our people and all of Europe. . . . That is our war aim.

Goebbels expressed well the feeling, as Adam Tooze has put it, of “beleaguered poverty” that afflicted Germans in the interwar period, a fierce resentment at economic inequality and the stranglehold the “Anglo-Saxons” had on the resources of the world. Hitler had long insisted that the German people deserved better, that the principal domestic goal of National Socialism was to raise the individual’s living standard. Ultimately, however, this could be accomplished, Hitler believed, only through conquest of the vast resources of European Russia. That had been the lesson of World War I. Only by securing Lebensraum within the “area of our own weapons” could Germany become economically secure and prosperous.

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