On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, overwhelming Polish forces in a matter of weeks. A series of German offensives in the spring of 1940 conquered Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France. Germany’s ally Italy joined the fighting during the last stages of the war against France. But Britain, under the new government of Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who succeeded Neville Chamberlain in May 1940, refused to consider peace negotiations and resisted the German bombing campaign designed to break British morale.
In the summer of 1940, Hitler decided to attack the Soviet Union, even though Britain remained unconquered, and even while the United States, without entering the war, found ways to support its friend and ally. On December 18, 1940, Hitler directed the German military to prepare a campaign against the Soviet Union. “Directive No. 21 Operation Barbarossa” reflects Hitler’s view that Stalin was presiding over a weak colossus in danger of simply collapsing; it also shows just how vast Germany’s territorial objectives were. Though fateful, Hitler’s decision to declare war on the Soviet Union stemmed from his original insistence on German Lebensraum (living space); it was neither impulsive nor based on a misjudgment of Soviet intentions.
Shortly before the invasion, the High Command of the Army and the High Command of the Armed Forces followed Hitler’s lead by instructing their men on the racial-ideological nature of the conflict and the need to physically eliminate the bearers of Bolshevism. Wilhelm Keitel (1882-1946), chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces, signed an order authorizing the execution of political commissars attached to Soviet troops. The view, widespread among officers, that Jews were intrinsically linked to Bolshevism encouraged the military to cooperate with SS and police units that systematically shot Jews en masse. Orders for barbarities originated at the top of the military chain of command, even before the Soviet campaign was launched.
Less than a month into what seemed to be a successful German campaign, Hitler and some of his top-level subordinates discussed German occupation policy in the Soviet Union. According to Martin Bormann’s protocol, Hitler sketched out his policy in broad strokes, and Nazi officials proceeded to wrangle for influence and jurisdiction. The tone of this meeting foretells what one scholar has described as a process of barbarization that spread throughout the ranks of the German army in the East once the German offensive became bogged down and frustration increased (30). Complete disregard for the lives and loyalties of non-German peoples in the Soviet Union was also expressed in the Generalplan Ost [General Plan for the East], which envisaged the reduction of the resident population by about thirty million.
Despite tremendous early successes, the German campaign of 1941 failed to break the Soviet resistance. German troops were able to hold most of their ground deep inside Soviet territory, but they were not prepared for the winter of 1941-42, and casualties were high. Bloodletting in the East, together with Germany’s declaration of war against the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, set off a worldwide struggle in which economic mobilization and resources became increasingly important over time.
(30) Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarization of Warfare (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), and Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford, 1992).