Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer
In 1939, Hitler and Stalin made and executed an agreement to divide Poland and other regions of Europe between them. Hitler and Stalin were also making plans to attack each other. To Stalin’s surprise, Hitler went first.
This is not a story of military battles or political intrigue. In Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder continues his examination of the catastrophe that was life in Central and Eastern Europe during the time of Hitler and Stalin, now focusing on this period first of cooperation, then battle.
German bombs started falling on September 1, 1939. They fell on Wieluń, Poland, a militarily insignificant city. According to Snyder, the purpose of choosing this target was to test the possibility of terrorizing a civilian population via a campaign of bombing.
The lessons learned were put into practice, against Warsaw:
The tenth of September 1939 marked the first time a major European city was bombed systematically by an enemy air force. There were seventeen German raids on Warsaw that day.
Within a few days, the Polish army was defeated; yet, Warsaw continued to defend itself. Hitler wanted the surrender of the city, and dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on the city toward this end:
In all, some twenty-five thousand civilians (and six thousand soldiers) were killed, as a major population center and historic European capital was bombed at the beginning of an undeclared war.
The Germans killed prisoners, captured by the thousands in the invasion. In August, before the invasion, Hitler instructed his commanders to “close your hearts to pity.” Per the chief of staff, it was “the intention of the Leader to destroy and exterminate the Polish people.” Prisoners gunned down, thrown into pits, executions, firing on barns occupied with wounded, killing the men of the town.
Hostilities came to an end in early October. Yet the executions did not cease. Hundreds gunned down in reprisal for an unrelated murder of a German soldier; 255 Jews in Warsaw shot for failing to turn over another person mistakenly believed to be a Jew.
In Poland, the Germans encountered what was not normally seen in Germany – large communities of religious Jews, almost ten percent of the population in Poland. Of the approximately forty-five thousand civilian Poles murdered by the end of 1939, about seven thousand were Jews – somewhat more than the percentage of Jews in the total population.
A sign of the futility of living in this place at this time: refugees streamed east, away from the war but toward you-know-who. Stalin did not simultaneously invade (he would not for slightly more than two weeks), so there was at least temporary relief for the refugees. When the Soviets invaded, on September 17, many Poles – confusingly – believed they found an ally.
Half-a-million men of the Soviet Red army invaded. Stalin’s public justification for invading was as a peacekeeping mission – Poland ceased to exist, and there were Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities that needed protecting.
The Germans and Soviets demarcated the border. Polish soldiers living near the border faced an impossible decision – to which army should they surrender? Nikita Khrushchev, accompanying the Soviet soldiers, repeated the assurance of the Soviet military: those who surrendered would be given safe passage home after a brief interview. They were then taken to the train station and placed on a train, headed…east.
As they crossed the Soviet border they had the feeling of entering…“another world.” [They] shook their heads in distress at the disorder and neglect they saw.
Altogether, about 15,000 Polish officers were transported. In addition to the disorder of Ukraine, they also saw saddened Ukrainians, sad to see the Polish officers held captive on a Soviet train; they believed it would be the Polish Army that would liberate Ukraine from Stalin’s grip.
Next came, in Snyder’s words, a “decapitation of Polish society”: many of the transported officers were reservists, representing the educated and intellectual classes of Polish society – doctors, lawyers, scientists. Non-officers were left in Poland; prisons were emptied, with political prisoners – usually communists – put in charge of local government.
Then the NKVD: in the next twenty-one months, they made more arrests in occupied eastern Poland than in all of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, all was not quiet on the German side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line. With the luxury of an alien population, the methods of the SS could be turned loose. The tool of this persecution was the Einsatzgruppe; their mission was to pacify the rear areas after military advancement. “Pacify” meant death squad. It is estimated that they killed about 50,000 Poles.
At the end of September, coincident to the day Warsaw fell to Germany, the Germans and Soviets signed a new treaty, slightly changing their zones of influence in Poland and the region. Some of the territory allocated to the Germans was annexed into Germany; some was a region – a German colony – labeled the General Government. “This was to be a dumping ground for unwanted people, Poles and Jews.”
The governor of this General Government, Hans Frank, issued two orders in October, clarifying the position of the subject population:
One specified that order was to be maintained by the German police; the other, that the German police had the authority to issue a death sentence to any Pole who did anything that might appear to be against the interests of Germany or Germans.
On the Soviet side, Moscow enlarged Ukraine and Belarus into what was previously Poland. Poles had to vote in elections, held for a legislature that had only one task: to request that lands of eastern Poland be incorporated into the Soviet Union. Formalities were complete by November 15. Internal passports were required, making a military draft and deportation possible.
In December, the NKVD was ordered to expel Polish citizens deemed to be a danger:
…military veterans, foresters, civil servants, policemen, and their families. Then on one evening in February 1940, in temperatures of about forty below zero, the NKVD gathered them all: 139,794 people taken from their homes at night at gunpoint to unequipped freight trains bound for special settlements in distant Soviet Kazakhstan or Siberia.
They were being sent to forced labor in the Gulag system; well, those that didn’t die along the way. At each stop, more dead were taken off of the train. Some five thousand passed during the passage, another eleven thousand by the following summer.
The Soviets had a country and systems well designed to transport and otherwise dispose of such undesirables. They could still, superficially, claim that they were bringing equality to the masses.
Not so the Germans. Their National Socialism was national – not class. Other than the General Government, they had no large regions in which to send the Poles. They did not have the experience of the NKVD, although they came up the learning curve quickly.
There were simply too many Poles, and moving them from one part of occupied Poland to another brought little more than chaos.
Polishness was to disappear, replaced by “Germandom.” This task was given to Heinrich Himmler, now the “Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom.” He was to remove the native population and replace it with Germans. This was a big task, as Germans were outnumbered by non-Germans in western Poland by about 15 to 1. More Jews were added via the annexed territories than Germans. If the General Government was also included, more than 2 million Jews were now under German authority.
More Poles were added in this annexation than were Germans in this and all previous annexations combined. Altogether, about 20 million Poles, six million Czechs, and two million Jews were added.
On a crusade for racial purity, Germany had become by the end of 1939 Europe’s second-largest multi-national state. The largest, of course, was the Soviet Union.
Deportation to the General Government was implemented.
For the Soviets, they had a template, a system – the Great Terror. Troikas, rubber-stamped verdicts and judgments, quotas for killing. Over 95% of prisoners in three camps were executed: from the camp at Kozelsk, taken to Katyn; from Ostashkov, to Kalinin; from Starobilsk, to Kharkiv. Altogether, something over 21,000 executed. About eight percent were Jews, a rate roughly proportional to the general population of Jews in eastern Poland.
These Poles – many of them born under the same Russian Empire as was Stalin, believed they could not be sentenced or killed without a legal basis. How quickly the systems diverged.
The Polish officers were neat, clean, and had a proud bearing:
They could not be made to live like Soviet people, at least not on such short notice, and not in these circumstances: but they could be made to die like them. Many of the Polish officers were stronger and better educated than the NKVD captors. But disarmed, confused, and held by two men, they could be shot by a third.
Their families were deported – the families easily found as the Soviets allowed the prisoners, while alive, to correspond freely. Wives were told they were being sent to be with their husbands. They ended up in Kazakhstan while their husbands were being executed in the forests.
In March 1940, those who refused to take a Soviet passport were to be deported. This group was over-represented by Jews, those who fled German rule in western Poland. They feared that if they took a Soviet passport they would not be allowed to return to Poland once restored.
They had fled the depredations of the SS, only to be deported by the NKVD to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Of the 78,339 people deported in the June 1940 action that targeted refugees, about eight-four percent were Jewish.
While Beria was implementing the terror actions against Poles on behalf of Stalin, Hitler came to the conclusion that the more dangerous Poles in the General Government should be executed. Kill those already under arrest, arrest others considered dangerous and kill them, too. By the end of summer 1940, about three thousand people were executed.
When Germany later invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviets and the Poles began forming Polish armies – an awkward situation for the Poles, but an opportunity to fight the Germans who first invaded Poland.
The Polish high command realized that several thousand Polish officers were missing. Józef Czapski, a Polish officer who had survived Kozelsk, was sent to Moscow with the mission to find the missing men – where were his missing campmates? Needless to say, he found no answer from the Soviets; his missing campmates were massacred in Katyn.
June 22 1941. Germany invades the Soviet Union. Three million German troops in three army groups crossed the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, invading from the Baltics in the north to the Caucasus in the south. An undeclared war. A surprise to Stalin, who ignored or otherwise didn’t believe the many warning signs. Per Snyder, this was “…the greatest miscalculation of Stalin’s career.”
Not that Stalin wasn’t working toward a war with Hitler – according to Viktor Suvorov, Stalin was a few weeks away from invading Germany himself. Snyder also notes Stalin’s larger intentions:
[Stalin’s] own strategy was always to encourage the Germans to fight wars in the west, in the hope that the capitalist powers would thus exhaust themselves, leaving the Soviets to collect the fallen fruit of a prone Europe.
Whether Hitler (as it happened) or Stalin (as he hoped) fired the first shot would have mattered little to those living in between. Tens of millions dead: soldiers, civilians in the field of battle, and those otherwise purposely killed – millions of prisoners of war, millions of Jews and other minorities for other political reasons.
In the context of bloodlands, Snyder describes this invasion as the beginning of the third period: the first being the Soviet induced famines and terror, the second being the German-Soviet alliance, described above. During the first period, the political murder was virtually all Soviet; during the second, more balanced between the two tyrants. Snyder describes this third period as Hitler’s coming out party:
Between 1941 and 1945 the Germans were responsible for almost all of the political murder.
Snyder offers dates and events that I believe will be worthy additions to my Timeline To War; however, in this post I intend to remain focused on the overall theme of his book – life for those crushed between Hitler and Stalin. The dates of important events and decisions regarding military and political strategies are somewhat secondary for this purpose.
Beginning in early 1940, and continuing through several revisions to May 1942, SS Standartführer Professor Konrad Meyer drafted a series of plans for a vast eastern colony, “Generalplan Ost.” The document itself did not survive the war; what is known of it is inferred from other, related sources:
Nearly all the wartime documentation on Generalplan Ost was deliberately destroyed shortly before Germany's defeat in May 1945. Thus, no copies of the plan have ever been found after the war among the documents in German archives. Apart from Ehlich's testimony, there are several documents which refer to this plan or are supplements to it. Although no copies of the actual document have survived, most of the plan's essential elements have been reconstructed from related memos, abstracts and other ancillary documents.
Like most things on this topic of Germany during the war, that there is no surviving copy of the document has raised controversy in some circles regarding the full measure of Hitler’s intentions. For my purpose, Hitler’s intentions are irrelevant. People lived in central and Eastern Europe during the time of Stalin and Hitler. Life for these people was miserable, death a daily reality – no matter of the intention of the tyrants.
Returning to Snyder:
The general design was consistent throughout: Germans would deport, kill, assimilate, or enslave the native populations…. Depending upon the demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million people, mostly Slavs, were to disappear.
Eighty-five percent of the Poles, sixty-five percent of the west Ukrainians, seventy-five percent of the Belarusians, and fifty percent of the Czechs, all to be eliminated. Hitler envisioned the starvation of millions of the inhabitants – a repeat of Stalin’s famines – in order to most efficiently depopulate the region of the local inhabitants. They would die by the tens of millions.
Food was necessary to feed the invading soldiers; food was necessary to feed Germany and its environs. Germans would raze the cities; German farmers would establish new settlements producing bounties of food while defending Europe at the Ural Mountains. The lands of the western Soviet Union would be returned to a pre-industrial state, nothing more than the breadbasket for Europe. This was the Hunger Plan, formulated by May 1941.
A somewhat sanitized version, known as the “Green Folder,” was circulated in one thousand copies to German officials that June.
This was Hermann Göring’s “Green Folder.” From Yale Law School’s Avalon Project:
This directive contemplated plundering and abandonment of all industry in the food deficit regions and from the food surplus regions, a diversion of food to German needs. Goering claims its purposes have been misunderstood but admits “that as a matter of course and a matter of duty we would have used Russia for our purposes," when conquered.
For Hitler and the Germans, the invasion was expected to be both brief and successful:
German officers had every confidence that they could defeat the Red Army quickly…The invasion of the Soviet Union, led by armor, was to bring a “lightening victory” within nine to twelve weeks. With the military triumph would come the collapse of the Soviet political order and access to Soviet foodstuffs and oil…Hitler expected that the campaign would last no more than three months, probably less.
Per Snyder: “That was the greatest miscalculation of Hitler’s career.” Miscalculation or not, once again life in the bloodlands was unlivable. While the Germans were nowhere near as efficient as was Stalin in implementing a starvation policy (Hitler had neither the manpower nor the infrastructure necessary to ensure success), this was hardly to be considered good news to the inhabitants.
The lack of efficiency toward forcibly redirecting the calories also was not good news to the invading soldiers (who somehow had to be fed), nor to Germans in Germany (who no longer received grain exported from the Soviet Union).
In September, as the originally-planned three months for victory came and went, Göring set the priorities:
Food from the Soviet Union was to be allocated first to German soldiers, then to Germans in Germany, then to Soviet citizens, then to Soviet prisoners of war.
Suffice it to say, during such a devastating war over a period of several years, food production likely would not meet the needs of those on the short end of this priority list. Millions would starve.
If German soldiers wanted to eat, they were told, they would have to starve the surrounding population. They should imagine that any food that entered the mouth of a Soviet citizen was taken from the mouth of a German child.
Snyder lists numerous deprivations, starvations, attempts at starvation, and total failures of the policy – where “peasants around Kiev found their way into the city, and even ran markets.” Unfortunately, the German “successes” were sufficient to cause suffering and death.
The siege of Leningrad is noted – a siege that lasted twenty-eight months. Again, controversy – what was Hitler’s intent? To raze the city, or to rename it Adolfsburg and make it the capital of the new Ingermanland province of the Reich?
For my purpose, again, the intent is irrelevant. Three-and-one-half-million citizens were subject to almost two-and-one-half years of deprivation. “By the end of the siege in 1944, about one million people lost their lives.” From the diary of eleven-year-old (at the beginning of the siege) Tanya Savicheva:
Zhenya died on Dec. 28th at 12:00 P.M. 1941
Grandma died on Jan. 25th 3:00 P.M. 1942
Leka died on March 17th at 5:00 A.M. 1942
Uncle Vasya died on Apr. 13th at 2:00 after midnight 1942
Uncle Lesha on May 10th at 4:00 P.M. 1942
Mother on May 13th at 7:30 A.M. 1942
Only Tanya is left.
Tanya survived the siege, only to die a few months later of intestinal tuberculosis.
Where the Wehrmacht had more control over a population, the starvation was more effective. Maximum control was over the POW camps, and in these camps something close to the Hunger Plan was most effectively implemented: “…death on an unprecedented scale.”
Never in modern warfare had so many prisoners been taken so quickly…By the end of 1941, the Germans had taken about three million Soviet soldiers prisoner.
Both Hitler and Stalin completed the total reversal of the traditional European treatment of prisoners of war – at least traditional during much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From FJP Veale, when describing this earlier period of civilized warfare in Europe:
…a prisoner of war should be treated by his captors as a person under military discipline transferred by his capture from the command of his own countrymen to the command of his captors.
Prisoners marched to camps – the wounded, sick and tired were shot on the spot. Open freight cars for transport, no protection from the weather. Death rates during train transport were as high as seventy percent. Hundreds of thousands died during transport, not yet even reaching the camps.
The POW camps “were designed to end life…nothing more than an open field surrounded by barbed wire…. There were no clinics and very often no toilets.” Despite coming to the realization that implementing the entirety of the Hunger Plan was impossible, it was most certainly possible in the camps. Those who could not work were starved.
By late November 1941, death rates in some of the more notorious camps reached two percent per day. Prisoners were packed so tightly that they could hardly move. Camp by camp, they died by the tens of thousands – in the periods of days or a few weeks. In occupied Poland, far more Soviet prisoners died than did native Poles or Jews – upward of half-a-million in the General Government.
It isn’t that the Germans could not run a (relatively) more humane operation. POWs in the eastern camps (holding primarily Soviet soldiers) were up to twelve times as likely to die in the camps as those in the western camps (holding prisoners of the western Allies).
As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War. (Emphasis in original.)
Guidelines were issued regarding the conduct of German troops in Russia: ruthless measures were to be taken against “agitators, partisans, saboteurs, and Jews.” Political officers were to be killed. The same orders indicated that a large portion of the population would view the Germans as liberators, a false dream of most invading armies, it seems.
The bulk of the task for carrying out these orders – basically, shooting civilians – fell to the Einsatzgruppen; a familiar task as they practiced this art in Poland. Four groups followed the German army into Russia: into the Baltics toward Leningrad, through Belarus toward Moscow, into Ukraine, and into extreme southern Ukraine. The Einsatzgruppen were to kill “communist functionaries, Jews in party and state positions, and other ‘dangerous elements.’”
They had complete access to the prisoners held in camps; it is estimated that the Germans shot half a million Soviet POWs, with an additional 2.6 million Soviet POWs killed due to starvation and mistreatment.
Suffice it to say, the German invasion of the Soviet Union did not go as planned; it was not over in three months, it did not result in living room for the German people, Ukraine did not serve as Germany’s breadbasket, Bolshevism was not crushed.
Yet, these failures made no difference to the countless millions killed as a result of the invasion – and whether Hitler or Stalin took the first step likely would have made little difference to those who lived in the lands between the two.
Snyder next examines specifically the treatment of the Jews, the subject of my next post on this book.