Sunday, June 22, 2014

June 22, 1944

On this day 70 years ago, three years to the day after the beginning of Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, the Soviet army launched an offensive codenamed Operation "Bagration", which led to the Wehrmacht’s greatest defeat on the Eastern Front.

In the first edition (2011) of his book Unternehmen Barbarossa: Der deutsche Krieg im Osten 1941-1945, German historian Christian Hartmann described the results and consequences of Operation "Bagration" as follows:
The year 1944 was stylized by Soviet propaganda as the "year of ten victories". This seems somewhat artificial and has been criticized again and again ever since, rightly so. It would have been fully sufficient to point out one single Soviet victory, Operation "Bagration", which started on 22 June 1944 and in just a few days led to the complete collapse of [German] Army Group Center. It was a total victory – and by far the heaviest defeat of the Wehrmacht, with casualties so high that for a long time it was nearly forgotten, for instance in comparison with the battle of Stalingrad. The number of those who could still tell about it had considerably shrunk, at least in Germany. Army Group Center lost about 400,000 dead or captured, corresponding to 28 out of formerly 40 divisions. Accordingly large were the opportunities now open to the far superior Soviet armies. To advance into the interior of the German Reich and end the war still in 1944 seemed quite realistic. However, the Soviet leadership took advantage of these possibilities only half-heartedly. The Red Army got to the borders of East Prussia and to the Vistula until shortly before Warsaw, where it then stood at ready watching how the Polish Home Army's revolt started on 1 August and bled to death until 2 October. The halting of the Soviet advance had political reasons in this case. Otherwise it was due to the losses and efforts of the past months, to overstretched supply and communications lines and to a severe deterioration of discipline among those units that were already on German soil. Much more important, however, was the fact that the Soviet military still considered its German opponents quite formidable. That they were not invincible the Soviets had known for long, but in the previous winters they had again and again experienced the amazing regeneration capacity that the Wehrmacht possessed. Yet now, in the summer of 1944, this capacity had been finally spent. Nevertheless the idea of the Germans' uncanny military abilities was to once again have its effects. And therefore the Soviet leadership, in this incomparably favorable situation, lacked the courage and determination for the final, lethal blow against National Socialist Germany. This does not diminish the significance of the Red Army's victories in 1944, however. In that year the German occupation rule in the Soviet Union came to an end, largely as a consequence of Operation "Bagration".

Hartmann’s tiny book (a mere 115 pages of text in A5-format), which has in meanwhile been published in a second edition and translated into English, is in my opinion the best short introduction to the Nazi-Soviet war ever written. Hartmann succinctly provides the essential information about all aspects of this most destructive of conflicts, including the crimes committed by the German and the Soviet side.

Of the former Hartmann addresses the genocidal massacres of Soviet Jews, the mass dying of Soviet prisoners of war (which he considers the Wehrmacht's largest crime), crimes committed in the course of anti-partisan warfare, the siege of Leningrad, the ruthless exploitation of the occupied Soviet territories and the devastation wrought by the "scorched earth" policy that was applied during the Wehrmacht's retreat. Except for the one last mentioned, these crimes have been abundantly addressed on the HC site (see the list of links in the blog June 22, 1941, and subsequent blogs including Soviet Civilian Losses in World War II, «What is Katyn against that?», the Jäger Report series and The Kortelisy Massacre) and/or in its reference forum (see there the threads The Nazi Hunger Plan for Occupied Soviet Territories, The Siege of Leningrad, The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of Warand The Nazi struggle against Soviet partisans, among others).

When reading Hartmann’s account of German and Soviet crimes against inhabitants of the Soviet Union during the Nazi-Soviet conflict, one may gain the impression that the two totalitarian dictatorships were much alike in the methods whereby they murdered non-combatants they had defined as undesirable or whose fate was indifferent to them.

The essential difference in killing methods lies in the fact the Stalin's regime had no equivalent to the Nazi extermination camps with their gas chambers. These camps, however, accounted for only a relatively small part of the people living on Soviet territory as of 22 June 1941 who were murdered by the Nazis, namely for the Jews deported to Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka extermination camps from the General Government's Galicia District, from Lida, Minsk and Vilnius and from the Bialystok District. According to my calculations, which are based on the tables in pp. 416 to 431 of German historian Sara Berger's outstanding study about the Aktion Reinhard(t) camps and their staff (Experten der Vernichtung: Das T4-Reinhardt-Netzwerk in den Lagern Belzec, Sobibor und Treblinka), using the lower numbers provided in these tables, the total number of Jews from Soviet territory as of 22 June 1941 who were deported to and murdered at these camps was about 350,000 (ca. 220,000 deportees from the Galicia District to Bełżec, 15,000 from the Galicia District to Sobibór, 12,000 from Minsk, Lida and Vilnius to Sobibór and 103,000 from the Bialystok District to Treblinka). The total number of Jewish inhabitants of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 murdered by the German invaders was about 2.4 million (according to Hartmann) or about 2.6 million (according to German historian Hans-Heinrich Nolte), which means that even of the Soviet Union's Jewish victims alone the overwhelming majority did not perish in extermination camps with gas chambers. It should yet be pointed out that Sara Berger (as becomes apparent from p. 253 and footnote 280 on p. 570 of the aforementioned book) obviously considers the deportation figures for 1942 stated in the Höfle Telegram to be incomplete, and arrives at higher figures of deportees in 1942 to the three extermination camps.

During the Nazi-Soviet conflict the Soviet regime murdered Soviet citizens (including such who had gained this status against their will in the territories annexed in 1939/40) chiefly by causing them to die of hunger, disease, exposure or exhaustion in the Gulag camp system, in "special settlements" or on the way to either. Hartmann mentions about 620,000 deaths in the Gulag in 1942/43 alone, whereas according to a source quoted in British historian Richard Overy’s book The Dictators this was about the number of recorded deaths in the Gulag in the years 1941 to 1945. The number of "special settlers", according to Hartmann's figures, was about 2.3 million in June 1941 and increased by at least about 1.8 million (from among ethnic Finns and Germans and the Muslim peoples of the Soviet Union) until the second half of 1944. The death rate among ethnic Germans from the "Autonomous Soviet Republic of the Volga Germans", deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan in August 1941, was 20-25 % in the first four years after their deportation, which means a mortality rate of 5 % or 6.25 % per annum. Applying this rate to the minimum total population of "special settlers" in the second half of 1944 that becomes apparent from Hartmann’s figures (4,136,000, according to my calculations), and considering for each group of "settlers" the period of their "settlement" that roughly coincides with the period of the Nazi-Soviet conflict, I arrived at between ca. 680,000 and ca. 850,000 deaths during the period of the "Great Patriotic War". Adding this number to the aforementioned minimum of 620,000 wartime Gulag victims yields a minimum total of about 1.3 million Soviet citizens whose death was caused by the Gulag labor camps, or by "settlement" in remote and inhospitable regions they were supposed to "develop", in the period between 22 June 1941 and 9 May 1945.

In the same period, and mostly during the occupation that in some Soviet territories lasted over three years, the Nazi regime murdered a far higher number of non-combatants through methods akin to the "Stalinist" methods mentioned above, i.e. by deliberately causing them to die of hunger, disease, exposure or exhaustion. This was the fate of the overwhelming majority of the about 3 million Soviet prisoners of war who perished in German custody (at least 150,000, according to Hartmann’s professional colleague Dieter Pohl, were shot) and of an even higher proportion of the up to 1 million civilian victims of the siege of Leningrad, who mostly succumbed to starvation, and that primarily in the winter of 1941/42. About the number of deaths from hunger and related diseases caused by the Nazis' reckless exploitation of occupied Soviet territories there are only comparatively vague estimates – Hartmann states that the number of the occupied civilian population's deaths from hunger alone was "in the hundreds of thousands, if not in the millions", whereas Pohl holds that "presumably far over a million civilians" had to pay with their lives for the "selective hunger policy in the east". Much research remains to be done in this field.

Neither Hartmann nor Pohl advance an estimate of the number of Soviet civilians who succumbed to privation after the retreating Germans' "scorched earth" policy had deprived them of their homes, remaining possessions and food supplies. The only estimate on this subject that I have seem comes from a 1972 book by British writer Gil Eliott, who submitted the following assessment:
The violence of the invader army towards the civilian population was more severe in the retreating phase than it had been in the period of advance. In the course of the war eight million Russian houses were destroyed, and a high proportion of these were during the withdrawal from Russia. Crops and livestock were burned on a vast scale. Special systems and machines were used to destroy crops in seed, and growing crops were burned. Spring and summer. Before leaving the towns and villages the invaders commonly put to death the prisoners they had on hand in their jails. This was not a new phenomenon. In Moscow in 1920, when the death penalty was abolished, the Moscow secret police in one night executed a large proportion of their prisoners, presenting the government in the morning with a fait accompli. One writer has called this ‘liquidating their stock’: a case of ‘occupational psychosis’. Here of course the psychosis and the killings were on a vaster scale. It is likely that in the immediate privation of wrecked homes, destroyed crops and livestock and purloined food supplies, and in the farewell executions, about one million people died.

While estimates like these need to be hardened by further research, it doesn't seem exaggerated to assume that the Nazi occupiers deliberately caused at least about 5 million Soviet non-combatants to succumb to what Eliott called "privation", most of these being prisoner of war.

The second "favorite" killing method of both dictatorships, as was also pointed out by American historian Timothy Snyder, was mass shooting. During the Nazi-Soviet conflict, this method was applied against Soviet citizens to a far larger extent by the Nazis than by the Soviets, with the aggravation that the Soviets mostly shot male adults whereas the Nazis often wiped out whole populations of men, women and children, from the eldest to the youngest.

Both Pohl and Hartmann mention about 500,000 non-Jewish victims of German anti-partisan operations on the Soviet side, including both actual partisans and civilian noncombatants. The proportion of the former was only about 10 % according to German historian Christian Gerlach’s study about the occupation of present-day Belarus with the title Kalkulierte Morde, whose findings in this respect I translated for the forum thread The Nazi struggle against Soviet partisans. Hartmann, on the other hand, mentions estimates whereby between 20 and 30 per cent of those killed were actually partisans. This means that at least 350,000 civilian noncombatants were murdered in German anti-partisan operations throughout the occupied Soviet territories – either shot or, as mentioned with some concern by the Reich Commissioner for the Eastern Lands, Hinrich Lohse, in a letter dated 18 June 1943, burned alive.

Being shot was also the fate of the overwhelming majority of those Soviet Jews (between about 2,050,000 or about 2,250,000, as follows from numbers mentioned earlier in this article) who were murdered at places other than Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. An alternative killing method introduced to lessen the killers' psychological burden, the gas van, turned out to be ill-suited for mobile killing operations in the occupied Soviet territories and was accordingly not much used, as pointed out on pp. 766-767 of Gerlach’s aforementioned book Kalkulierte Morde (see my translation of the relevant passages in the blog Thomas Dalton responds to Roberto Muehlenkamp and Andrew Mathis (2)).

On pp. 115-116 of "Unternehmen Barbarossa", Hartmann mentions the estimated total number of Soviet deaths during World War II, 26.6 million. This figure includes 11.4 million members of the Soviet armed forces (thereof 3 million who died in captivity) and 15.2 million civilians. Hartmann points out that, while the numbers of some victim groups (2.4 million Jewish victims of genocide, up to 1 million civilians who perished during the siege of Leningrad, about 500,000 victims of German anti-partisan operations) are known, the traces of the remaining 11.3 million civilian dead "are often lost in the chaos of this enormous war", and a breakdown of all civilian deaths by causes has not yet been possible. Michael Ellman and S. Maksudov, who as far back as 1994 published the demographic estimate pointing to 26.6 million excess deaths during World War II in the Soviet Union, also considered Soviet civilian losses to be "a topic which still awaits serious research".

Those of our visitors who read German may find an article about Operation "Bagration", considered "excellent" by Wikipedia, on the Wikipedia page Operation Bagration.


  1. The breakdown of Soviet WWII losses by their causes is something that holds an interest for me as well and something I have been working on myself recently. In fact in doing so I have found your blog more than helpful, particularly in pointing me to some of the sources that hold relevant information. I think you would be as interested to check out my attempt at a breakdown, as I have been in your writing in this direction. You can start here if you wish.

    There are two different estimates for gulag deaths during the war around, because actually two different things are being counted. 1941-45 there were 620 thousand deaths in the camps of the gulag, however, when you add the 310 thousand deaths in gulag colonies and 85 thousand in prisons you get 1 million.

    The Cambridge History of Russia estimates 250 thousand deaths among deportees during the war. My own estimate is 300 thousand. I reckon one half of the 510 thousand excess deaths among the ten totally deported peoples estimated by Dalkhat Ediev occurred during the war, and then increase the number by tens of thousands more to account for deaths among the more settled deportees exiled before the war. In my reading (of Stephen Wheatcroft "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 1930-1945". Europe-Asia Studies Vol. 48, No. 8 (1996): 1319-1353, Table 7, Table 11.) the mortality among the more settled internal exiles after a while did not exceed that among the general population. Also Ediev reckons all deportations starting from the late 1920s taken together until 1952 resulted in 0.7 to 1 million excess deaths. So that the 0.3 million I estimate occurred during the 4.5 war years would represent about, or just over, a third of that.

    I estimate the Soviet side caused up to 1.7 million deaths among Soviet civilians of whom 1.5 million were the victims of Soviet state repression, and of whom some 200 thousand were executed and 1.3 million died due to exhaustion, malnutrition and disease.

    The German side caused up to 16 million deaths among Soviet civilians and prisoners or war, including 4 million deaths due to hard violence.

    Anyway, I invite you to check out my breakdown, and if you have any comments or critique they would be most welcome.

  2. Is there an information hub/forum for the Soviet Union/communist states in general akin to Marcus Wendel's Axis History site out there? If not, there should be.


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