Hitler’s racist motive in attacking the Soviet Union

The first of a few snippets from Stalin’s Wars (Roberts; Yale, 2006). What was Hitler’s agenda in attacking the Soviet Union? To protect Germany’s eastern border? To knock out a potential threat? Possibly, but crucial to the attack was the idea that Slavic peoples were Untermenschen, sub-humans only fit for exploitation and slavery. Even more, the USSR was seen as a Judaeo-Bolshevik state, a communist state under Jewish control. Hitler told his generals in March, 1941, as Operation Barbarossa was in its final stages of preparation: ‘the war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion; the struggle is one of ideological and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unrelenting and unmerciful harshness’. In that light, special Einzatsgruppen were formed, special action teams that followed the German army and eliminated communist officials, activists and intellectuals. And in May of that year Hitler issued a decree that exempted German soldiers from punishment should they commit any atrocities. Once the USSR was occupied, the city populations were to be starved to death and the cities repopulated from the German upper class.

At the same time the Wehrmacht issued its ‘Guidelines for the behaviour of the fighting forces in Russia’:

1. Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the National Socialist German people. Germany’s struggle is aimed at that disruptive ideology and its exponents (that pretty much sums up Churchill’s and Truman’s approach to the USSR after the war – in which ‘free world’ replaces ‘National Socialist German people’).

2. That struggle demands ruthless and energetic action against Bolshevik agitators, guerrillas, saboteurs, Jews and the complete liquidation of any active or passive resistance.

3. Extreme reserve and the most alert vigilance are called for towards all members of the Red Army – even prisoners – as treacherous methods of fighting are to be expected. The Asiatic soldiers of the Red Army in particular are inscrutable, unpredictable, insidious and unfeeling.

The key slogan used was: ‘A Jew is a Bolshevik is a partisan’.

The result: 8-9 million soldiers killed; 15-16 million civilians; tens of millions more with physical injury and psychological trauma. The total destruction of life was 14% of the USSR’s prewar population. Further: totally destroyed were 1710 towns and cities, 70,000 villages, 6 million buildings, 31850 industries, 98,000 collective farms. 25 million people were made homeless. In sum, about 25% of the USSR’s material structures were destroyed in the populous western region. Makes one wonder how the USSR recovered at all to beat the Wehrmacht.

10 thoughts on “Hitler’s racist motive in attacking the Soviet Union

  1. the counterfactual of no revolution in russia is kind of interesting in this context cos hitler hated the german aristocracy but held his nose and brought them into the party (or accepted them when they came). if the russian revolution hadn’t wiped the aristocracy out I wonder if hitler would have just co-opted them or if he still would have pursued the same plan but replaced ‘bolsheviks’ with ‘asiatic despots.’ there’s even a direct reference to the asiatic stuff in the wehrmact document’s 3rd point. would that have been the fall back reason to invade?

    that’s a pretty awesome description of an enemy though. I wouldn’t mind being called inscrutable, unpredictable and insidious. I wonder if that’s a translator’s license being deployed or if official army documents were actually that inspired. I know american army documents read like they were written by total idiots.

    1. My sense is that the anti-Slavic and anti-Asiatic stuff would have become the main reason. Mein Kampf mentions the invasion of a Russia as a key factor – for grain, oil and a massive source of labour. The stuff on ‘inscrutable, unpredictable and insidious’ may as well have come from Australian depictions of the Japanese in WWII.

    2. “the counterfactual of no revolution in russia is kind of interesting in this context cos hitler hated the german aristocracy but held his nose and brought them into the party (or accepted them when they came).”

      Hitler might not have personally been in awe of the German aristocracy, but that was mainly because he correctly saw that they had failed to lead the German nation to victory in the First World War. But “hate” is too strong a description of his attitude towards the aristocrats: the latter were a crucial bastion of support for the Nazi Party, without which it would not have been able to accede to power.

      The Nazi Party, like all mass parties, was a coalition of different elements: the lumpen petty-bourgeoisie* provided the masses, the capitalists coughed up the money, the aristocrats delivered the state bureaucracy, including, crucially, the essence of the state: the security apparatus. Prior to 1933 the Nazis were unable to defeat the Socialists and Communists in direct street violence; they needed the iron fist of the state forces to do that.

      The aristocrats hated the socialists; they hated them long before Bolshevism was a blip in Lenin’s eye. Their alliance was no mere unlucky reaction to the alleged Communist threat.

      Allying with the aristocracy enabled the Nazis to crush the left, a long-held ambition of the German ruling class. Furthermore, Hitler himself was sent into the Nazi Party as an agent of German Military Intelligence – as ever a bastion of the old order – with a view to influencing it along lines congenial to the state. The large rise in Nazi support after 1929 meant that Hitler could develop significant autonomy from his original backers. But the Nazis could never cut the ties with them and indeed could only come to power when they made a deal in January 1933 that safeguarded the aristocracy’s command of the armed forces.

      The aristocracy only bailed on that deal in 1944, when they had a go at assassinating Hitler. By that stage, of course, the war was well lost. In the meantime those proud Prussian aristocrats hadn’t baulked at piling the bodies pretty damn high while they looked like winning.

      The narrative of Hitler “hating” the aristocracy lets the latter off the hook with regard to responsibility for the crimes of Nazism. One sees it in the focus on the July 1944 plot and the cult of von Stauffenberg, of whom many films are made. In contrast, who today has heard of Georg Elser?

      *Contrary to the American fixation of Nazism being a form of socialism, the mass of workers remained loyal to the Socialists and, to a lesser extent, the Communists.

  2. You must read
    The Wages of Destruction: The Making and the Breaking of the Nazi Economy
    by Adam Tooze

      1. I don’t know about the percentage. You may have a pre D-Day figure. So what? As Churchill himself said:

        “It is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place, but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.” (Aug. 2, 1944)

        By the way you may have missed the recent exchange of letters in the FT. Here is the latest from Prof Geoffrey Roberts

        “Churchill and Stalin admired one another”

      2. Churchill often spoke with a forked tongue. On the one hand, he wrote to Stalin, ‘your life is not only precious to your own country, which you saved, but to the friendship between Soviet Russia and the English-speaking world’. On the other, in his infamous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in March 1946 (after he lost the elections to Attlee), he said, ‘From Stettin the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent … Communist parties have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control’. So he called on Western countries to stick together and oppose the USSR. Even so, it’s quite clear that had Roosevelt and Churchill hung around for longer – like Stalin – they would have been able to establish a lasting peace. That was Stalin’s clear desire and he worked hard at it. But Truman was an uncooperative bastard and the English labour prime minister Attlee was far more anti-USSR than Churchill – as Stalin himself noted.

  3. “What was Hitler’s agenda in attacking Russia? To protect Germany’s eastern border? To knock out a potential threat? Possibly, but crucial to the attack was the idea that Slavic peoples were Untermenschen, sub-humans only fit for exploitation and slavery. Even more, the USSR was seen as a Judaeo-Bolshevik state, a communist state under Jewish control.”

    All those elements were factors. The underlying geo-strategic reasons for the invasion of the USSR was to establish Germany as a continental power. Hitler was peculiarly insightful in some ways, especially given that his fundamental philosophy was based on a crackpot view of Darwinian struggle between ethnically defined nationalities (crackpot because they don’t actually exist thanks to humanity’s delightfully irrepressible tendency towards fornication).

    Anyhow, Hitler based his geo-political strategy on that of the United States. Yes, the Nuremberg Laws weren’t the only slavish copying the Nazis took from the Land of the Free. Hitler saw how the European settlers established a continental base for themselves and he saw how strong the US was then becoming. Sheer size was a major factor in their rise to power.

    He also saw how the European settlers had basically exterminated the native population of North America. Since for various reasons, he was not pre-disposed to establish a maritime Empire, he was left with the strategy of establishing a land empire in Europe. The relatively undeveloped nature of the East made it ripe for the plucking.

    The policy of extermination – and it was a policy, not an unfortunate by-product of a nasty war – stems from the initial geo-political assessment and Darwinian nationalism. In order for the German race to prosper it needs rise above the size of a nation state and become a continental state. But for reasons of racial purity it cannot do that through mere alliances with other countries; it must reserve huge areas for the German people themselves. But those areas are already populated by other ethnic groups. Extermination follows.

    The Nazis concentrated the extermination in a much shorter time frame than the Europeans conquest of North America, bringing the horror to the fore in a much more direct way. And Hitler’s forthright enunciation of such a barbaric strategy is a distinguishing factor. The US slaughtered a couple of million Vietnamese, but it’s not placed front and centre as something to boast about. On the contrary, western propaganda is the propaganda of the memory hole. Let our sins be forgotten and they will be washed away.

    Naturally, the Nazis’ anti-Semitism plumbs the depths of European hostility to the Jews. But it goes further than that, as shown by the unique scale of the holocaust – a qualitative and quantitative leap in barbarity if ever there was one. The religious fear of Jews was dissipating rapidly in Europe and particularly Germany by the 20th century. Intermarriage rates were actually quite high.

    Hitler’s attitude towards Jews was shaped by his ethnic nationalism, which entailed exalting pure blood lines. Intermarriage with Jews and other nationalities upset that. Worse, Jews, having no nation state were the foremost purveyors of socialism, that is, of internationalism. If the Jews had been confined to some small, piddling geographical area, they would not have been such a threat.

    Instead, however, European Jews had not country and were the schoolmasters of international socialism. Marx, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Trotksy, the list is legion. About 70% of the top Bolshevik leadership were Jews and more than 80% of the top Mensheviks. All advocates of pollution of the Volk bloodline! All advocates of transcending of the nation-state! The sheer virulence of the Nazi’s anti-Semitism is only explicable by the strength of international socialism and its intimate connection to Jews at that time.

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