Germany's invasion of the USSR was the largest excess of violence in modern history. Millions of soldiers and civilians lost their lives, but it took decades for both countries to come to terms with the past.
German soldiers began the invasion 70 years ago
June 22 marks the 70th anniversary of the start of Germany's offensive against the Soviet Union in World War II. To examine the historical significance of this, Deutsche Welle spoke with Wolfram Wette, a professor of history at the University of Freiburg.
DW: What was the objective of the military offensive "Operation Barbarossa," which began on June 22, 1941?
Wolfram Wette: The objective was to conquer the Soviet Union, to decimate its population, to exploit the land - in order to colonize the country with Germans in the distant future. So it was a war for the capture of "Lebensraum," or "living space," in the East. They wanted to colonize the Soviet Union up to the Ural Mountains in order to create an self-sufficient, strongly protected Greater German Reich from the Atlantic to the Urals.
Was it then a racially motivated campaign of annihilation?
This aspect belongs directly to that aim, and is inseparably linked with the war in Russia. Hitler was convinced that Russia was dominated by "Jewish-Bolsheviks." And of course you could conquer this area and be able to use it for German purposes once you eliminate this establishment. The plans were made based on a speech by Hitler on March 30, 1941, given before 250 generals commanding the Eastern Army.
There he said very clearly that it was a war of annihilation in which no prisoners would be taken. Hitler said the Red Army soldier should not be considered a comrade protected by the rules of war. In practice, this meant that of the 5.7 million captured Red Army soldiers, more than 3 million perished in German camps.
The German invasion cost millions of German and Russian lives
Was there any opposition at the time? Did the military elites express moral reservations?
There was isolated opposition. And many apologists for the armed forces say this was where the army showed its good heart in contrast with the criminal demands of Hitler. But if you look more closely, the partial opposition from the chief of the army high command, Field Marshal Keitel, was simply swept aside. He played no roll in the planning and execution of the Russian war.
The generals did not decide to protest against Hitler's ideas of annihilation, and thus made themselves into collaborators in his racial ideology that went along with the military war. They are also fully responsible for what occurred on the orders of Hitler's speech on March 30.
The German military initially experienced rapid success - in the Baltic states and in Belarus....
They had in mind the Blitzkrieg against France that came to such a quick end in 1940. And they imagined that they could conduct a comparable Blitzkrieg in the Soviet Union with fast-moving tanks. The dominant concept was that while Russia was enormous, it was a brittle colossus that would quickly be shattered by the onslaught of the German army. In fact, the first weeks of the war advanced quite rapidly.
The Baltic countries were overrun in a few weeks. The German troops were already in Belarus and Ukraine. But in winter, from December of 1941 onward, there was no passing beyond Moscow. This so-called turning point before Moscow made it clear to everyone in Germany that they had gotten themselves into a campaign whose outcome was uncertain. Perhaps some of them finally remembered what befell Napoleon, when, even with his great army, he failed and returned to the West with just a few soldiers.
German troops made quick advances in the Baltics and Ukraine
The whole Russian war cost millions of lives. Three million Wehrmacht soldiers marched across Russian borders on June 22, 1941. And approximately the same number, three million, never returned from Russia. But Russia itself suffered some 10 times the casualties, around 27 million lives. Of those, it's estimated that 10 million were in the Red Army - fighting soldiers. More than three million were, as I said, Russian prisoners of war in German camps.
And then three million Russian Jews were systematically murdered by the Germans. Remaining are the six to 10 million Soviet civilians about whose fate still far too little is known, for lack of historical research in Germany and Russia. Some six million Soviet civilians fell victim in one way or another to the German annihilation policy - be it through the systematic hunger policy that was carried out by the German side, or through the burning of villages and cities and other atrocities. We have at least twice as many civilian deaths in the Soviet Union [as in Germany], which is a fact Germany must remember much more than it does. Otherwise there arises a complete imbalance in how we judge the numbers of the dead.
Even decades after the Second World War, Germany has tried very little to talk about these terrible deeds, to push them aside. Why has the invasion of the Soviet Union been such a non-issue for so long?
After 1945, the army elite very systematically spread the legend of the clean and professional Wehrmacht. And in doing that, they placed all of the responsibility for the crimes that took place in the East on the SS. They said they did the dirty work. And we conducted a war in accordance with human rights.
This legend of the clean Wehrmacht was very gladly accepted by all who served. Even the small soldier said, "I fought for a clean military, not for a band of criminals." So there was a collective exoneration, a collective excuse that carried on for decades. And it took a long time until the historical research was able to create cracks in the body of the legend.
Could one then say today that the war against the Soviet Union has a place in the collective consciousness of the Germans?
Wolfram Wette is an author and professor of history
Well I would give the hopeful answer that the German war against the Soviet Union has since found a fixed place in the historical-political consciousness of Germans. I think that the field of historical studies in Germany has achieved a lot here. And also the media, which have transmitted the story to the people in an appropriate way.
All together there has been a learning process in the consciousness of the German population that astonishes people in other countries, and that's spoken of very positively. We have managed a cultural achievement that we by no means have to hide.
And how does that look on the Russian side?
Naturally very different. The Soviet Union was a victor in the Second World War. Stalin was exalted by the people at the time of capitulation as someone who mobilized the country, who held together the huge Red Army, who brought weapons production up to speed - which in the end resulted in victory. So everything concentrated positively on the personality of Stalin - with the consequence that all of the crimes of Stalin were repressed.
The victory of the Soviet Union at that time was something that welded the country together, that stabilized it and that made it possible for it to become a world power for a half century. In this respect, the German aggression against the USSR turned out to be a stabilizing factor for communist domination - even though it was intended to end Bolshevik rule.
It's quite astounding to see that Russian people today hardly feel any hate toward Germans. No one looks at the other as an enemy. The Germans could not hope for a better situation. A large learning process has taken place in the last few decades in Russia as well.
Interview: Cornelia Rabitz / acb
Editor: Michael Lawton