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Culture

Wehrmacht had 'policy of starvation' in Leningrad

The Siege of Leningrad ended 70 years ago. The historian Jörg Ganzenmüller talks about the siege as part of the Russian campaign and the guilt of the Wehrmacht.

The population of Leningrad was trapped for nearly 900 days by the Wehrmacht - 900 days of being hungry and cold. On September 8, 1941, the Wehrmacht closed the blockade around Leningrad, called St Peterburg today. But Hitler didn't want to conquer the second biggest city of the Soviet Union. He wanted to starve its population to death.

In the enclosed city the fight for the survival was under way. The citizens ate nearly everything they could get their hands on: they cooked leather, they scratched the glue of the wallpaper and they hunted cats and rats. There were even acts of cannibalism.

Around one million people died of hunger or hypothermia. The Red Army wasn't able to free the besieged city until January 27, 1944. The historian Jörg Ganzemüller from the eastern German city of Jena has researched the history of the Siege of Leningrad. In an interview with DW, he speaks about the significance of the tragedy from an historical perspective and the plight of the civilians.

DW: How did the people of Leningrad experience the end of the siege?

Women in dark coats carry buckets with water(Foto: imago/ITAR-TASS)

Citizens of Leningrad fetching water during the winter of 1941/42

Ganzenmüller: The siege was ended in two steps: the Red Army was able to establish a supply route at the beginning of 1943. So the residents had more food. But the definite end of the siege on January 27, 1944, was greeted with gun salutes.

The people were certainly too weak to dance in the streets, but the relief in the city was huge. The importance of that day is obvious, it is kept alive in the cultural memory and it is being commemorated in St Petersburg every year.

The memory of the Siege of Leningrad hardly plays a role in Germany. Why is that?

For a long time, those places of the German-Soviet war that had a large number of German victims were remembered in Germany. That's why the myth of Stalingrad as a "German sacrifice" is so pivotal in German memory.

The crimes of the Wehrmacht were hardly remembered until the 1980s. The Siege of Leningrad was seen as conventional means of warfare. But it was blanked out that the goal wasn't to conquer Leningrad but to starve it.

In what sense has the handling of this topic changed today?

After German reunification the East and West German view on the Siege of Leningrad was combined. In East Germany, the memory of the siege was much more alive than in West Germany, for example. It was part of the curriculum. The second Wehrmacht exhibition, in which the Siege of Leningrad had a prominent part, was also very important.

In that exhibition the Siege of Leningrad was placed in the context of the German annihilation policy. Today the Siege of Leningrad is much more present in the media. In 2001, for example, the then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the Russian President lay a wreath at the central memorial in St. Petersburg.

Two women drag and pull a dead body (Foto: dpa)

Around one million people died of hunger and cold during the Siege of Leningrad

In your book, you write that the Siege of Leningrad was part of the German annihilation policy. What was its goal?

During the campaign in Russia Leningrad soon became a secondary battlefield. The Germans saw the city from a supply policy point-of-view, as they wanted to supply the Wehrmacht during the campaign in Russia from within the country.

The Germans established beforehand that that would only be possible if the civil population would be left to starve. In this context people in the big cities were seen as the part of the population which couldn't be fed. When the Wehrmacht got supply problems in the summer of 1941, it stated that it wasn't possible to feed a city of three million people.

So there weren't ever any plans to conquer the city?

That's difficult to say. But Hitler gave clear instructions to raze Leningrad to the ground. The main question was: what happens to the local people? There weren't any clear instructions on that.

Expelling people was also seen as an option. When the Wehrmacht reached Leningrad, expelling them was seen as not workable but, at the same time, they didn't want to feed the population. The intent to destroy the city turned into a strategy of besiegement, which amounted to the annihilation of the entire population.

Two German Wehrmacht soldiers look to the horizon (Foto: archiv ullstein bild)

Two Wehrmacht soldiers observe the Soviet defense near Leningrad

Why did Hitler want to destroy Leningrad?

He generally wanted to destroy Russian cities, especially in North and Central Russia. He often mentioned Leningrad and Moscow in the same breath.

In what way is the Siege of Leningrad an example for the war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht?

The German policy of starvation was implemented in two cases: in Leningrad and with the handling of the Russian prisoners of war. These were the crimes committed under the command of the Wehrmacht. They are examples for crimes committed by the Wehrmacht, not by other organizations like the SS.

Jörg Ganzenmüller is a lecturer for Eastern European history at the University of Jena. He also published a book on the Siege of Leningrad and its significance in the German and Russian culture of remembering.