An Ordinary Military Operation


BERLIN/KARLSRUHE (Own report) - In a study on Nazi Germany's aggression on the Soviet Union seventy years ago, the historian, Wigbert Benz is strongly criticizing the German historian profession. He writes that there are "some still advocating the thesis of the preventive war." They explain, "when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union June 22, 1941, he was merely preempting a Soviet attack." "A reciprocal radicalization process taking place between the Red Army and the German Wehrmacht" allegedly caused the German war of annihilation against the inhabitants of the Soviet Union. Numerous pieces of evidence in German historical publications substantiate the validity of Benz's thesis. Just recently, the thesis of reciprocal "escalation" of the warfare in the USSR was again advocated by renowned German historical scholars, who allege that the Nazi Wehrmacht's "extreme exactions on neutral civilians" was due to the "disorientation" of German soldiers in their struggle against Soviet partisans.

Reciprocal Radicalization

In his most recent work on the German war of annihilation against the Soviet Union from 1941 - 1945, the historian Wigbert Benz from Karlsruhe strongly criticizes colleagues of the German historian profession. Benz demonstrates that, from the outset, the German campaign was carried out under criminal orders with the objective of starving "umpteen million people." The author points also to revisionist tendencies in German historiography. According to Benz, some German historians are still "advocating the so-called thesis of a preventive war," claiming "that when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union June 22, 1941, he was merely preempting a Soviet attack." Benz explains that according to "a repeatedly advocated thesis," the "barbarization of the German war effort" had been due to a "reciprocal radicalization process between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht."[1]

Thesis of a Preventive War

Prominent proponents of the "preventive war thesis," identified by Benz include the historian Stefan Scheil, of Neuhofen, near Mannheim (Baden-Wurttemberg). According to Scheil, the Nazi Wehrmacht's attack on the Soviet Union was an expression of the German "self-defense" strategy, given the fact that the Soviet head of state, Josef Stalin had thought, "of making his own attack back, in 1941." An integral component of this planned attack had been a scenario developed by Stalin's Chief of General Staff, Georgy Zhukov, for an "annihilating attack against German forces in Poland."[2] This historian - who publishes both in the media of the extreme right and in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the most influential German dailies - revives precisely the justification given in 1941 by the German foreign ministry for its attack on the USSR. The foreign ministry stated, "Bolshevik Moscow is preparing to stab National-Socialist Germany, which is struggling for its existence, in the back. Germany does not want to accept idly this serious threat on its eastern borders. The Fuehrer has therefore issued the order for the German Wehrmacht to counter this threat by all means necessary."[3]

New Perspectives

Scheils revisionist thesis is arousing benevolent interest in circles of the extreme right, but also within circles of established German scholars. For example, the historian Klaus Jochen Arnold, one of the heads of the Hannover Educational Center of the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation, declared in an article published on the website of the prominent Humanities, Social and Cultural History (HSozKult) that Scheil's characterization of World War II, based on a "welcomed modification of the perspective," was "as fascinating as it was provocative".[4] Arnold, on the other hand, is one of those historical scholars identified by Wigbert Benz, who characterizes the German war of annihilation against the Soviet population as the results of the "reciprocal radicalization process between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht." In a study, Arnold alleges that the wave of massacres carried out by bands of German soldiers in the Soviet Union, derived not from the criminal orders issued by their Nazi state and military commanders, but rather from the resistance put up by the Soviet military and the partisans. "The atmosphere was conditioned by imminent threat from (an) elusive enemy, a situation inherently conducive to a tendency toward disproportion. In confrontation with ruthless guerrilla warfare, it was in the tactical inferiority that the seeds for brutalization were germinating." Arnold traces the "deaths of innocent victims" back to "the genesis of asymmetrical warfare." "Frustration," "fear" and "helplessness" in confrontation with a stealthily operating enemy, drove the German troops to "undifferentiated terror," alleges Arnold.[5] That study received an award from the Federal Office of Defense Technology and Procurement (BWB).

In Partisan Warfare

In their recently published work on the soldiers of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War, the historian Sönke Neitzel and the social psychologist Harald Welzer hold a similar view. The "asymmetrical war" of the Soviet partisans caused "disorientation" among the German invaders, explain the authors, and point out that it was "not in ordinary combat" that a number of German military personnel were killed, but "in unconventional attacks, through booby traps and ambushes." Neitzel and Welzer write that to "restore a secure orientation" German soldiers resorted to brutal measures. "This explains why extreme brutality was used against non-partisans and civilians, in the case of the Wehrmacht, above all in partisan warfare."[6]

Starvation by the Millions

Such assertions totally eclipse the fact that, from the very beginning, the German campaign against the USSR was waged with the objective of annihilating the civilian population to conquer "Lebensraum" ("living space") in the East." Wigbert Benz recalls "Soviet territory was supposed to be purged of millions of 'useless mouths' to free food for German interests. For this purpose, the plan was to shrink the local population by umpteen millions, primarily through starvation. Imbedded in these plans was the annihilation of the Jews, who on the scale of hierarchy (...) were considered at the bottom." On the other hand, according to Benz, actions taken by the Wehrmacht, for example the deliberate starvation of Leningrad, costing more than a million lives, are trivialized in German semi-official historiography and presented as an "ordinary military operation."[7]

[1] Wigbert Benz: Der Hungerplan im "Unternehmen Barbarossa" 1941. Berlin 2011. S. auch unsere Rezension
[2] Stefan Scheil: 1940/41. Die Eskalation des Zweiten Weltkriegs. München 2005
[3] Note des Auswärtigen Amtes an die Sowjetregierung v. 21.06.1941, zitiert nach: Erich F. Sommer: Das Memorandum. Wie der Sowjetunion der Krieg erklärt wurde. München/Berlin 1981
[4] Klaus Jochen Arnold: Stefan Scheil: Fünf plus Zwei. Die europäischen Nationalstaaten, die Weltmächte und die vereinte Entfesselung des Zweiten Weltkriegs (Rezension);
[5] Klaus Jochen Arnold: Die Wehrmacht und die Besatzungspolitik in den besetzten Gebieten der Sowjetunion. Kriegführung und Radikalisierung im "Unternehmen Barbarossa". Berlin 2005
[6] Sönke Neitzel/Harald Welzer: Soldaten. Protokolle vom Kämpfen, Töten und Sterben. Frankfurt am Main 2011
[7] Wigbert Benz: Der Hungerplan im "Unternehmen Barbarossa" 1941. Berlin 2011. S. auch unsere Rezension