One of the best things my Dad ever did for me was purchase a subscription to a magazine called the History of the Second World War–published by Marshall Cavendish in the U.K. around the early 70’s. It was an illustrated encyclopedia of the Second World War that arrived as a weekly supplement. The magazines provided an objective, chronological, and comprehensive history of World War Two. Many of the articles were written by people who had experienced the conflict first-hand–both military and civilian.
I was only about nine years-old at the time when I received my first magazine. At first, like most boys my age, I just wanted to check out the pictures–tanks, planes, soldiers and the like. But once I had bored at looking at the same image over and over again, I attempted to start reading the articles. Needless to say, at that time, some of the vocabulary and concepts were over my head. But as I read more and more, my interest increased into why such a horrible struggle had ever occurred in the first place. My interest has never ceased.
One of the most vicious and titanic struggles during WWII was the infamous Eastern Front–the war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. In my own experience, many Americans aren’t very knowledgeable about the ferocity of the fighting which occurred in the cities and lonely steppes of Mother Russia following the German invasion. It was a colossal clash of two giant state machines that resulted in the brutal deaths of millions and millions of people.
Before Adolf Hitler launched his audacious invasion of the Soviet Union–codenamed “Operation Barbarossa”–he had signed a Non-Aggression Pact with then Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Both leaders pledged to not attack each other in the agreement on August 23, 1939. That pact was to last ten years. It lasted less than two.
On 22 June 1941, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union began. The German front stretched for over 1,500 miles and pushed deep quickly into Russia. Soviet defenses were simply overwhelmed by the violent onslaught of modern combined operations being employed by the Germans from the air and the ground. The Soviet Army was ill-prepared to deal with a well-disciplined fighting force like the German Army (Wehrmacht) and Luftwaffe (German Air Force).
During the first days of the invasion, the chaos behind the Russian lines was so bad some Soviet commanders in the field radioed their superiors frantically informing them they were under attack, but were then told “that’s impossible!” The calls were ignored. The Soviets suffered over one million casualties in the first months of Operation Barbarossa alone.
One of the major factors that contributed to the devastating losses the Soviets suffered at the hands of the Germans was Stalin’s purging of the professional officer corps within the Soviet Army. Theories abound as to why Stalin purged the officer corps. Some have stated it was due to a grudge Stalin formed when he was refused entry into the Russian Army during World War One on medical grounds. But one might surmise the reason for the purge was Stalin’s need to gain complete control over the military. Professional officers–a threat to Stalin’s power–were replaced with political commissars who would enforce Stalin’s will and further the communist cause. By the time of the German invasion, there were very few competent and trained officers to lead the Soviet troops in battle.
Soviet Commissars were known by the red star on the sleeve of their uniform. The Germans later implemented the merciless Commissar Order, which called for the execution of all captured Soviet Commissars on site. The order was not always carried out by the Germans, but many times it was.
The Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (known as the “NKVD”) sent untold multitudes of people to GULAG camps, and hundreds of thousands were executed by the NKVD. There have been numerous incidents recorded of the NKVD being better armed than the Soviet troops in battle against the Nazis, yet these arms were used against Soviet troops who would run from the front-line because they had not been armed. All of this contributed to disaster on the battlefield early in the war for the Soviets. It appeared, in 1941, the German Army was invincible.
But as one evil ruler (Stalin) of a giant state machine set his own military and people up for untold suffering, Der Führer (Hitler) was setting his own military and people up for annihilation as well.
When the Nazi armies first entered the Ukraine, they were welcomed as liberators–such was the hatred for Stalin. But the Nazis had no intention of being merciful to what what they had been taught were “sub-humans.” Hitler hated all Slavic people, as well as Jews. The Nazis engaged in a brutal and genocidal rampage which turned the Ukrainian population firmly against the Nazis. Horrible atrocities occurred in the region. Entire Jewish populations of cities and towns were stripped naked–men, women and children–marched out and shot at the edge of mass graves. Russian civilians were regularly raped, tortured and executed by German forces at the Eastern Front.
Desertions and suicides among the Wehrmacht (German Regular Army) were beginning to increase after the failure of the Kursk Offensive and the crushing defeat of Field Marshal Von Paulus’ Sixth Army at Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga River in early February 1943. Hitler’s maniacal insistence to fight to the last man at Stalingrad proved disastrous for the German Army and the momentum then swung to the Soviets. It was the turning point of the war. The German Army was no longer seen as invincible.
As dissension began to grow among the ranks of the Wehrmacht, the German High Command (OKW) began to implement severe measures against their own troops.
But by 1943 as the tide of war changed for Nazi Germany, the Feldgendarmerie were given the task to maintain discipline in the Wehrmacht. Many ordinary soldiers deemed to be deserters were summarily executed by Feldgendarmerie units. This earned them the pejorative Kettenhunde (English: chained dogs) after the gorget they wore with their uniforms. The arbitrary and brutal policing of soldiers gave them the other nickname Heldenklauer (English: hero-snatcher) because they screened refugees and hospital transports for potential deserters with orders to kill suspected malingerers. Rear-echelon personnel would also be checked for passes that permitted them to be away from the front.
Of course, not all Germans approved of the barbaric tactics being employed by their own leaders. One story that clearly illustrates the struggle to heed one’s conscience in the midst of death and destruction can be found in a series entitled The German Wehrmacht (Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | Pt. 4 | Pt. 5). Heinz Drossel, a former Wehrmacht soldier who served from 1941-1945 on the Eastern Front, described his experience of witnessing a young 20 year-old Wehrmacht soldier (unknown) who turned in his weapons to his ordinance officer after three days of fighting on the Eastern Front (Pt. 4 @ 27 min.). He was immediately arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to face the firing squad. Drossel claims he tried to talk the young soldier into just firing in the air, but the young 20 year-old Wehrmacht soldier would hear none of it. Drossel claims the young soldier told him that he had been “raised to respect humanity,” and to tell his mother why he did not change his mind. Drossel alleges the young Wehrmacht soldier was led out early in the morning to be executed by firing squad by his own men. He insisted on not wearing a blind fold.
I wonder if I could do what the young German conscientious objector age did back during those awful times. But I can’t help but applaud him for it. For what the Nazis did in Russia, and across the globe, is unspeakable. He didn’t want to be a part of it. He was willing to die for it. He was even willing to look his executioners in the eye.
Soldiers take an oath to do their duty onto death to protect their homelands and people. But two parties must uphold their part of the oath–the sovereign and the soldier. If one breaks it, then the oath is broken. Hitler broke his oath to the German people. So did Stalin. It was the Russian people and military that won the war against the Nazis on the Eastern Front, not Stalin.
Now, as I watch another leader (Obama) attempt to build a giant state machine, I can’t help but wonder what’s next. I just know it’s never good.
The German Wehrmacht