Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mass Murder in Russia

Mass murder in Russia

 - this is a picture from a political pamphlet for the "Great anti-Bolshevist Exhibition" - a Nazi political indoctrination exhibit from the late 1930s. 

Below is the introduction to my senior research - being written this semester - on the mass murder of Jews in Eastern Europe in what is today western Russia, and the formerly Soviet states of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus. While my topic is focused on the German side of the killings, there are many interesting aspects to this that come from the Russian side. One of the primary tropes of the Germans used to justify killings en masse of not only Jews, but nationalists and ethnic slavs was partisan warfare (a partisan is an armed combatant that wages unconventional warfare behind enemy lines). Partisan war was widely used as an explanation for the Wehrmacht's (German armed forces) role in the shootings. In this and other tropes, ideology and worldview play an imperative role in explaining these murders not as fanatical Nazis killing indiscriminately, but combating what they perceived as a legitimate threat to their safety and existence. Among these are also the Jews who supposedly began and operated the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the fanatically committed ideology of Soviet Commissars, and strain between simultaneously a racial ideology that sought to liberate the Slavs from brutal Soviet rule, and the perception of Slavs as Untermenschen worthy of destruction. 
What I think is interesting and worthy of investigation  (and now that I'm thinking about it, maybe I should add it into my senior research) is that when analyzing Nazi ideology in the Eastern theater of Operations (Eastern Europe/Western Russia), the way they perceived the Soviet military, citizens and above all else the Jews who supposedly ran the Soviet government stands out as being vastly important to the opening phases of the Holocaust in 1941-42. The role of ideology is closely linked to that of propaganda, and numerous books have been written regarding the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of Nazi propaganda on the German populace. However, the worldview regarding the Soviets/Russians/Jews seems to go beyond basic propaganda rhetoric, instead lying deeper in the German psyche. These are really just musings about the possible directions of my research, but questions that this writing brings up in my mind are
how committed were average Russian soldiers to their cause? Couldn't their willingness to fight even after being overrun by the Wehrmacht be simply the result of fighting for their homeland, rather than any fanatical loyalty to the Soviet regime? If this is so, why did the Nazis ignore these aspects of "normal" warfare in favor of orders like the Commissar order which stated that all political commissars were to be shot on sight? (subsequently, this was one order that was expressly utilized in killing the Jews. Jews=Bolshevik Commissars in the Nazi mind). Anyways, this is probably way too much text for anyone to get through willingly, but below is the introduction to my senior research as it is.

With the invasion of the Soviet Union – code named Operation Barbarossa – in June 1941, a new chapter was opened in the book of Nazi-Jewish relations. Historians differ as to the exact date, but between June and December the decision was made that all Jews were to be killed. This genocidal policy would find its ultimate expression in the systematic murders of the gas chambers at camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka; but before these camps were opened, the Holocaust was well underway in the East. Geographically this onslaught took place primarily in the areas that today comprise the nations of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Poland. Early historiography focused primarily on the role of the SS in their Einsatzgruppen for the mass shootings that took place, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, another group came under scrutiny for their role in the first stages of the Holocaust: the Wehrmacht.[1] Contrary to the image of a “Clean Wehrmacht” that had been in no way complicit or aware of the scale of mass shootings in the east – an image that had been propagated by former Wehrmacht officers and soldiers from the time of the Nuremberg Trials – in the early 90s Omer Bartov argued that the Wehrmacht was not only complicit in mass shootings, but broadened its role in the Eastern Front as active perpetrators of the “Holocaust by Bullets.” This began a slow deconstruction of the “clean” image of the German military on the Eastern Front and led to numerous new studies situated both geographically and around tropes such as partisan warfare. More recent authors have fine-tuned this discussion including Waitman Beorn and Ben Shepherd.[2] Both of these men investigate so-called anti-partisan warfare as a primary trope utilized by the Wehrmacht, and how it was utilized as an all-encompassing blanket to cover even the most obvious killings of non-combatants. This trope of partisan warfare was buttressed by soldiers’ general anxiety as to the nature of the “Bolshevik menace” or the new fight they were getting involved in, as well as orders such as the Commissar Order and others, exclaiming the danger of the Russians and the need to combat the evils of Bolshevism[3] 
In all of these discussions is an overarching issue that has been dealt with in varying levels by historians: the role of ideology in the Eastern Theater. The idea is that the SS were the most ideologically indoctrinated and fanatical troops, and consequently their participation in mass shootings have been explained accordingly.[4] For the Wehrmacht the claims are quite different. As seen above, one of the ways that the Wehrmacht’s role in the first days of the Holocaust can be explained is by their engagement in so-called Partisan warfare (Shepherd, Beorn). But when investigating the role of ideology, one must come to terms with Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men.[5] Browning stresses that his subject group did not belong to the ideologically fanatical or intensely indoctrinated, which brings to light the most prominent (and in my opinion valid) counter theses to arguments of ideological indoctrination or fervor – that of various psychological and group mentality pressures – as regards the beginning phases of the Holocaust during Operation Barbarossa. In his (in)famous rebuttal to Browning, Daniel Goldhagen provided the extreme opinion that a particular, eliminationist, racist ideology played a pivotal role in the actions of Police Battalion 101 specifically, but in the German military and mindset in general.[6]

[1] The cornerstones of these two additions to the historiography are Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: soldiers, Nazis, and war in the Third Reich, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991; The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German troops and the barbarization of Warfare. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
[2] Waitman Beorn, “A Calculus of Complicity: The Wehrmacht, the Anti-Partisan War, and the Final Solution in White Russia, 1941–42,” Central European History (Cambridge University Press / UK). Jun2011, Vol. 44 Issue 2, p308-337; “Negotiating Murder: A Panzer Signal Company and the Destruction of the Jews of Peregruznoe, 1942.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 23, Number 2, Fall 2009, pp. 185-213; Ben Shepherd, Terror in the Balkans: German armies and partisan warfare. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012; “The Continuum of Brutality: Wehrmacht Security Divisions in Central Russia, 1942.” German History. Jan2003, Vol. 21 Issue 1, p49-8;1 War in the wild East: the German Army and Soviet partisans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.
[3] Commissar Order (IMT document), specific instances in memoirs forthcoming.
[4] Helmut Langerbein, Hitler’s Death Squads: The Logic of Mass Murder, (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004).
[5] Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
[6] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, New York: Random House, 1996.

If you got to the end of this, thanks for reading. Enjoy a brief youtube video of witty repartee between various Russian leaders from the last 100 years. 

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