Inside the German-Soviet War
Written by: Jeff Rutherford
An Excerpt from Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front
In the introduction to Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, Jeff Rutherford examines the German war effort in the campaign against the Soviet Union.
I. The infantry’s war
“This campaign is the infantryman’s war. He wins and holds territory. He combs through the forests, he secures the supply lines, he wins the war.” So wrote Lt. Schmidt, a member of the East Prussian 121st Infantry Division (ID) in early August 1941. His appraisal of Operation Barbarossa as an infantry campaign was certainly correct: while the overall success of the operation primarily hinged on the performance of the elite motorized and mechanized tip of the Wehrmacht, 107 of the 139 divisions that invaded the Soviet Union marched towards their objectives overwhelmingly dependent on horse-drawn transport for their supply needs. The declaration highlights the importance of the individual Landser to the German war effort: despite contemporaries’ fixation on the armored units that were racing across the steppes of the Soviet state – a fixation that has indeed persisted until the present day – it was the German infantryman who shouldered the bulk of the fighting, especially with the constant attrition suffered by armored divisions that left them severely weakened by the conclusion of the year. Lt. Schmidt did not, however, merely focus on the traditional military aims of destroying enemy forces and seizing territory. Due to the German High Command’s massive gamble that the Soviet state would crumble after only several weeks of fighting, he and other foot soldiers found themselves carrying out tasks normally set aside for rear-area formations: the securing of communication and supply lines between the front line and their logistical tails as well as apprehending thousands of scattered Red Army soldiers dislocated by the advancing German armor.
Such irregular warfare plagued the invaders from the very beginning of the campaign, as Lt. Schmidt’s diary makes clear. On the second day of the operation, he raged against guerilla forces who “seemingly shot out of every house” in the village of Vilkoviszki. Members of his 405th Infantry Regiment responded in the heavy-handed, yet traditional, manner called for by the German High Command: “as every house from which the devious guerillas shot was set on fi re, nearly the entire town was burning by evening.”
When examined in the overall context of the invasion, these two diary entries illustrate the dual nature of the invasion of the Soviet Union for the German infantryman: on the one hand, the particular circumstances of this campaign forced him to assume numerous other roles in addition to his primary, and extremely arduous, task of fighting the Red Army, while on the other hand, his own political and military leadership considered him “ a bearer of an inexorable racial value” in its ideological war that demanded any and all means to destroy the “ Jewish– Bolshevik system.” In many ways, these two entries penned by the lieutenant encompass the German infantry’ s war in the Soviet Union.
Historians have provided excellent coverage and analysis of the Wehrmacht during the period stretching from the opening of hostilities to the conclusion of the 1941– 2 winter crisis, examining the various operational, ideological, and economic facets of the war. Unfortunately, the remainder of the war in the Soviet Union has not received the same type of dedicated investigation and the twists and turns of army policy and behavior from 1942 through 1944 are much more difficult to bring into focus. The tasks faced by the German infantry only multiplied as the war dragged on. Certainly combat remained its first and most important responsibility, but as the conflict transformed from one of movement to one of grinding defensive battles, frontline combat units found themselves burdened with occupying cities, towns, and villages for extended periods of time – and these were tasks that no one within the army had even remotely planned for before the invasion due to the general belief that the campaign would be over in mere months. Now questions such as “improving . . . the hopeless food situation for evacuated Russian civilians” became ones wrestled with by combat divisions as they surveyed the misery – that they themselves had caused – in their midst. This more complicated relationship with civilians that emerged after the conclusion of the winter crisis in early 1942 and which evolved up until the scorched-earth retreats of late 1943– early 1944 underlined the fundamental contradiction facing the Ostheer (Eastern Army) during the second half of the war: while Nazi propaganda portrayed the Soviet population as an inchoate mass of subhumanity that needed to be scrubbed from the pages of history, the German Army’s only chance to achieve victory lay in mobilizing this same population behind the German war effort.
Download the full excerpt here.