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Stalin & Hitler: Mass Murder by Starvation

AP Images
Lithuanian women in Vilnius wearing compulsory badges identifying them as Jewish, July 1941

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 (with Romanian, Hungarian, Croatian, Slovak, Finnish, and Spanish forces joining in), its armies first entered lands such as Lithuania that had just been incorporated into the Soviet Union. The German invasion force was divided into three Army Groups; Army Group North was to proceed through Lithuania and the Baltics to Leningrad. Here as elsewhere German propagandists sought to exploit and channel the national anger and shame that arose from the experience of Soviet occupation. The fundamental Nazi message was that Bolshevism was Jewish and that Jews were Bolsheviks, and thus the Soviet occupation of Lithuania was the fault of the Jews.

As Christoph Dieckmann describes German strategy in the first volume of his deeply researched new book, Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944 (German Occupation Policies in Lithuania, 1941–1944), this message was transmitted with help from Lithuanian political refugees in Berlin, far-right politicians who had been selected by the Nazis for their usefulness, and who hoped themselves to use the Nazis to gain the independence of their country. Though these men had some support at home, they had not governed Lithuania between the wars. Lithuania had been a far-right dictatorship, but it had not tolerated anti-Semitism. Its president, Antanas Smetona, gave a number of speeches opposing Nazi-style racism, and one of his chief advisers warned of extermination by gas as its logical consequence.2 This was the Lithuanian government that had been destroyed by Soviet occupation.

By equating Soviet rule with alleged domination by Lithuania’s two hundred thousand Jews, the Nazis exploited the emotions engendered by the loss of independence and Soviet repression. If the Jews were to blame, the Lithuanians could forget both that they had not resisted the Soviets and that some had indeed served in the new Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Germans offered Lithuanians superficial privileges—uniforms, weapons, ranks—in a political undertaking that was disguised as liberation.

From the perspective of Berlin’s propaganda, as Dieckmann shows, the timing of the second occupation of Lithuania could hardly have been better. The major Soviet deportation of Lithuanian citizens was underway just as German forces arrived. The retreating Soviet NKVD killed hundreds of political prisoners and left their corpses behind. The German security police organized their own pogroms against Jews, although, as Dieckmann demonstrates, this did not work as efficiently as they had hoped. What did work was the recruitment of local people (most of them Lithuanians, but also some Poles and Russians) into police detachments assigned to shoot Lithuanian Jews.

This was not yet a Holocaust. By the end of July 1941, when the Germans dismissed the Lithuanian provisional government, the German Einsatzgruppen—death squads—and other forces had, with much local help, shot some 20,000 Jews. This was the result of a program of terror conceived to secure Nazi power; it was not the result of an order for total extermination. Jews who were shot were generally men of fighting age, who were seen, following Nazi anti-Semitic reasoning, as likely Communist activists or future partisans.

By August 1941 it was clear that the initial invasion plan had not worked. Although the German advance was rapid, the Soviet Union had not collapsed. Leningrad had not fallen to Army Group North. In late September, Army Group North undertook a siege of the city by means of starvation. This deadly enterprise, the subject of Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941–1944, Anna Reid’s remarkably detailed history, reflected not the success but the failure of the German attack.3 A siege meant a long war and rising concerns over food supplies. Germany was never self-sufficient in food, and German civilians were not to suffer from a war that was supposed to bring them plenty. The Wehrmacht had to live off the land; Army Group North was to be fed from the Lithuanian countryside. But a long war also meant that Germans had to coexist with at least some of the local peoples. So long as Lithuania was feeding German soldiers at the front, Lithuanian farmers could not be deported, killed, or starved. The solution was to starve the Soviet enemy at the front and the Jewish enemy in the rear. Leningrad was besieged and Jews were given food insufficient to support life.4

Nazi leaders could not of course admit that they were losing. Yet their basic plans had changed. Rather than a quick war to be followed by a removal of Jews over the years, they now faced a long war during which they organized the rapid mass murder of Jews. Confronted by the reality of Soviet resistance, Hitler had decided in September 1941 to place his hopes on a renewed drive to Moscow. In a secondary offensive, code-named Operation Typhoon, Army Group Center raced through Soviet Belarus and into Soviet Russia in October 1941. As Reid observes, giving priority to the conquest of Moscow meant that the siege of Leningrad would continue. Jews were killed in Belarus in the rear of Army Group Center as the offensive was prepared, and then more were killed as the offensive failed. Army Group Center was turned back west of Moscow in December 1941, just as the United States entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of 1941 the Germans, with local help, had murdered most of the Jews of Lithuania. Mass murder by mass shooting had become the version of the Final Solution that could be implemented—a Holocaust.

Hitler’s war had not destroyed “Jewish” finance capitalism but brought the US and the UK together. It had not destroyed the “Jewish” USSR; it had instead roused Soviet resistance and created an improbable but unstoppable alliance between Communists and capitalists. It had not destroyed Europe’s Jews; but it had brought most of them under German power. As of the end of 1941, the Eastern European homeland of Jews was largely under the rule of a single state for the first time since the destruction of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century, and that state was Nazi Germany. Hitler made it clear that Jews would have to pay the price for a defeat that could not be named. The local stereotypes of the Jew as parasite and partisan, already linked with the regional stereotype of Jews as supporters of the Soviet system, now merged with the global stereotype of the Jew as the source of all of Germany’s woes. The threat of extermination implicit in global Nazi anti-Semitism could be realized to a great extent in Eastern Europe, since this was where most of the Jews lived, and this was where Germany ruled.

In autumn 1941 the Final Solution was accelerated, but Nazi ideas of colonization were delayed. Hitler had no realistic plan for the creation of his empire of race; Stalin had no realistic plan for the defense of his empire of class. Reid finds in the USSR a “lethal mixture of denial, disorganization and carelessness of human life.” Stalin had believed that the Germans would eventually invade, but he ignored overwhelming evidence that the invasion was coming in June 1941. Soviet authorities failed to stockpile food in cities and failed to arrange timely evacuations. When evacuation did begin, the columns were often sent straight into the German lines. Soviet terror itself went on unhindered as the German siege of Leningrad began; the NKVD continued to fulfill quotas and make arrests. One Leningrader remembered the victims awaiting deportation as “old women in old-fashioned capes and worn-out velvet coats.”

Over the long siege of Leningrad, from 1941 through 1944, some 750,000 people (according to Reid) would die. Of these, most—about half a million—died in the winter of 1941. The diaries that they have left behind have made it possible for Reid to create a remarkable portrait of mass death by a German policy of deliberate starvation. She is respectful of the contemporary writings that made her book possible, and graceful in her translations. We come to understand the daily predicaments of people in Leningrad. Leaving a shop after obtaining rationed food, they feared muggings but they were also desperate for company, for stories. Hiding as much as possible in their apartments, Leningraders only came to understand the general scale of the horror when a family member died and they tried to make funeral arrangements, which involved finding wrapping for bodies and obtaining sleds. Those who survived usually had help, friends, and self-discipline.

With the possible exception of the Warsaw ghetto at exactly this same time, there has probably been no comparable combination of malnutrition and eloquence. As in Warsaw, where Jews still lived and worked in a ghetto in 1941, even while most Lithuanian Jews were shot, the people in Leningrad who were most vulnerable were those who came from the countryside. In Warsaw these were Jews deported from small towns to the ghetto; in Leningrad, as Reid shows, they were male boarding school students, some of whom resorted to murder and cannibalism.

Unlike the Jews of Warsaw, however, Leningraders as Soviet citizens could draw on their own extensive past experience of the terror of hunger. They recalled the peasants of 1933, who, as one of them put it, had been “exterminated like cockroaches.” They could not fail to notice the similarity between a besieged Soviet city and the hungry Soviet Gulag. The first Leningraders to die were those who had just returned, still emaciated, from the Soviet concentration camps. The local rationing system imitated that of the Gulag: the strong were fed enough to work; the weak were given less and less.

The one fate that Leningraders were spared was that of collaboration with Nazi Germany. Dieckmann’s book describes the collaboration of Lithuanian citizens first with Soviet and then with German occupiers. He writes with extraordinary understanding and enviable expertise, and his account should become a guide for all those who are honestly concerned with the historical truth of the vexed question of collaboration. There were enough Lithuanians (and other inhabitants of Lithuania, including Russians and Poles) willing to carry out the shooting of Jews; horrible enough in and of itself, this pattern of killing became a model for the Holocaust. About half of the victims of the Holocaust were shot.

But direct collaboration in the German policy of murdering Jews was not limited to states such as Lithuania that had been destroyed by the USSR. It prevailed wherever the power of the state had been removed. Pre-war Soviet citizens, Russians and many others, also collaborated wherever German power extended. The death rates of Jews were about the same on both sides of the pre-war Soviet border. Local Russians collaborated in the Holocaust on the outskirts of Leningrad, turning in Jews, as Reid shows, for the same reasons they had denounced members of other ethnic minorities during the Great Terror a few years before: to take over their apartments for themselves.

  1. 2

    See Antony Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia, Vol. 3: 1914–2008 (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012), pp. 211–237. 

  2. 3

    For sociological detail on the experience of the siege, see John Barber and Andrei Dzeniskevich, Life and Death in Besieged Leningrad, 1941–1944 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). The one book that unifies German and Soviet perspectives is Jörg Ganzenmüller, Das belagerte Leningrad (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2005). 

  3. 4

    The connections between demand for food and war aims and crimes is a major subject of Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (Penguin, 2012). 

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