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Even before Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union began in 1941, several orders from the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the German Army High Command, made it apparent that the campaign in the East was to be a conflict untrammeled by the laws of war. All of these orders either originated with Adolf Hitler personally or were issued with his full knowledge and approval. The OKH’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Franz Halder, kept a detailed diary during the planning stages of Barbarossa. In his diary entry for March 13, 1941, Halder wrote that Hitler spoke of the need for an “extermination of entire grades of society” once Soviet territory was under German control. Four days later, according to Halder, Hitler took that line of thinking even further. “The intelligentsia established by Stalin must be exterminated,” the Führer said, adding that “the most brutal violence is to be used” against the Soviet Union. What Hitler meant by the phrase “most brutal violence” was soon spelled out in several formal directives, one of which was the infamous Kommissarbefehl, or Commissar Order.

When Germany unleashed its invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 in Operation Barbarossa, its war against the Soviet Union immediately took on stark contrasts with the conflict already underway in the West. In numeric terms, Barbarossa was the largest ground invasion ever mounted in the history of warfare. It was also the bloodiest theatre of the Second World War, with more than 5 million military casualties: Germany and its allies of Italy, Finland, and Romania lost more than 1 million men combined; Soviet losses tallied nearly 4 and a half million. Those casualties also underscored the other grim reality that marked the Eastern Front as ideologically different from the rest of the war. As many as 2 million Soviet soldiers died not in combat but as prisoners of war under deliberate policies of starvation and neglect when the Germans refused to accord them the protections guaranteed as legitimate prisoners of war. Even more damning on the ledger of German war guilt, however, were the tens of millions of Soviet civilians killed as a result of Nazi policies such as ethnic cleansing, collective reprisals, and outright genocide.

International laws of land warfare applied to the war in the East as much as they did in the West, even if the belligerent nations ignored them. The Soviet Union was not a signatory to the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War and had not accepted the Hague Convention it inherited from the imperial Russian government that existed before the USSR came into existence. Germany was a signatory of both treaties and so was legally obligated to abide by the Convention’s restrictions. As Article 28 made clear, “In case, in time of war, one of the belligerents is not a party to the Convention, its provisions shall nevertheless remain in force as between the belligerents who are parties thereto.” In legal terms, Germany did not have the option of disregarding the requirements of lawful war, no matter its enemy’s stance on the matter. For the Soviets’ part, their refusal to join the Convention may have had more to do with communist revolutionary xenophobia and a paranoia about foreign influences than any explicit intent to murder prisoners of war in any future conflict, but it suited Nazi ideology to couch it in those terms.

Commissars, known in Russian as politruks (Politicheskiy rukovoditel), were the political officers of the Soviet Army. In a military system that prioritized political indoctrination over mere military capability, the commissars were embedded at every level of the army. As ideologically reliable Communist Party functionaries, they were responsible for educating the rank and file in correct doctrine while ensuring that any hints of dissension or reactionary thinking were quickly reported and dealt with. As serving officers, uniformed and marked with conspicuous insignia, they were legitimate soldiers even if their role was more political than military. To the Germans they represented a pernicious threat.

For Nazi Germany the war against the Soviet Union was not just a war between states. It was a war between the intractably hostile ideologies of fascism and communism, and each regarded the other as its mortal enemy. It was also a war between entire groups of humanity, as Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler made clear in his “Memorandum on the Treatment of Alien Peoples in the East,” issued on May 25, 1940. The people in the territories of German conquest, according to Himmler, “comprise a permanently inferior population…” who Himmler believed would be useful as a slave labor force; if they were not needed for that function, then they would be eliminated. But one political class, in all its forms, was to be exterminated summarily and without question: the Soviet Army’s political commissars.

Halder (left) was responsible for organizing and perpetrating war crimes on the Eastern Front but ended up working for the U.S. after the war. Leeb (center) was tried at Nuremberg for war crimes in the East but received a light sentence. Reinhardt (right) was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but was released early in 1952. (Ullstein Bild Dtl., Right: Bettmann/Getty images)

This mindset permeated all levels of German command, both military and political. Three weeks before the launch of Barbarossa, Hitler addressed a meeting of senior commanders at the Führer Headquarters. According to Halder’s notes, Hitler told the assembled field marshals and generals: “The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion. This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting harshness. All officers will have to rid themselves of obsolete ideologies… I insist absolutely that my orders be executed without contradiction. The commissars are the bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism. Therefore the commissars will be liquidated.” There is no doubt that Hitler clearly knew this was a criminal order because he went on to say, “German soldiers guilty of breaking international law… will be excused. Russia has not participated in the Hague Convention and therefore has no rights under it.” This was reinforced by the so-called Barbarossa Decree of May 13, 1941 which stated: “Collective drastic action will be taken immediately against communities from which treacherous or insidious attacks against the Wehrmacht are launched…” and added, “For acts which members of the Wehrmacht or its retinue commit against enemy civilians, there is no compulsion to prosecute, even when the act represents at the same time a military crime or offense.” These instructions were nothing less than a carte blanche for war crimes.

The Kommissarbefehl, or Commissar Order, was issued on June 6, 1941. The directive was couched in explicitly ideological terms, and seems to have been worded in anticipation that Wehrmacht officers might protest that it contradicted established laws of international warfare. The Kommissarbefehl instructed German soldiers to remember two things: “1.) That in this fight it is wrong to trust such elements [commissars] with clemency and consideration in accordance with International Law. They are a menace to our own safety and to the rapid pacification of the conquered territories. 2.) That the originators of the Asiatic-barbaric methods of fighting are the political commissars. They must be dealt with promptly and with the utmost severity.” To remove any question as to what that meant, the order insisted that all Soviet Army commissars “must, on principle, be shot immediately… those commissars will not be recognized as soldiers; the protection granted prisoners of war in accordance with International Law will not apply to them.”

These policies already existed in broad strokes, because the “Guidelines in Special Areas to Instructions No. 21 (Case Barbarossa)” directive issued before the invasion made a point of spelling out the necessity of close cooperation between the Wehrmacht and the Einsatzgruppen and Sonderkommandos of the SS in the Eastern theatre of operations. The regular army was expected to be an active participant in the effort to “neutralize at once leading Bolsheviks and commissars.” But this order, which specifically required the military to violate long-established laws of war, presented German commanders with a moral dilemma. As was so often the case with war crimes prosecution after Germany’s defeat in 1945, the question of guilt at the operational end quickly came down to the problem of determining who knew what, knew it when, and who obeyed orders they knew to be criminal.

The official draft of the Kommissarbefehl issued on June 6, 1941 was marked “top secret for general officers only” and dissemination down to subordinate commanders was authorized to be done only by “word of mouth.” The Nazi high command was not keen on the order’s existence being widely known, certainly not internationally. As one German historian, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, says, “There was never any doubt in the minds of German Army commanders that the order deliberately flouted international law; that is borne out by the unusually small number of written copies of the Kommissarbefehl which were distributed.” German war records indicate that the Commissar Order was distributed to the senior commanders of at least 340 separate operational units, but how it was handled after that depended largely on the individual commanders who received it. As one study in 1956 noted, “Some divisional corps commanders and possibly one or two army commanders had neglected to pass the order on.” If indeed that is true, then it bears noting that in both legal and moral terms, quietly refraining from passing on an unlawful order from higher headquarters is not nearly the same thing as publicly refuting it or formally protesting its issuance.

Within the Wehrmacht, resistance to the Commissar Order was muted, at best. The OKH chief, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, assured uneasy generals on the eve of Barbarossa that he would mitigate the severity of the Führer’s directive. Halder, who was close to Hitler throughout the war but was also at least peripherally in support of conspiracies to assassinate him, threatened to resign in protest over the Kommissarbefehl. In the end, neither Brauchitsch nor Halder carried through with their opposition in any meaningful way that might have imperiled their careers, and by their acquiescence implicated themselves in the criminality of the order.

It is hard to determine exactly how many Soviet commissars were executed under the Kommissarbefehl. The records of the Nazi government’s Prisoner of War Office indicate that by May 1944, at least 473,000 Soviet prisoners were listed as having been “exterminated,” specifically differentiating them from the 2 million who died of starvation and systemic abuse in prison camps. It should not be assumed that all of those 473,000 were identified as politruks. Based on an assessment of German conduct in all areas of the Eastern Front, especially in 1941–42, it is probably safe to conclude that the actual number of executed commissars was higher than what was officially reported, not least because there was some confusion among the Germans as to what a commissar actually was and who might fit that definition. For that reason, the Kommissarbefehl had allowed a terrible latitude for local commanders down to the battalion level to determine, on their own, which prisoners were politruks and so should be shot out of hand.

At the High Command Trial of senior German officers conducted by the American Military Tribunal in 1948, Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, who commanded Northern Army Group during Barbarossa, offered in his defense records which indicated that no more than 168 Soviet prisoners were identified as commissars and shot in his area of operations. Leeb asserted that at least 4,250 politruks were among the 340,000 prisoners taken by Northern Army Group in 1941; to have executed so few of them surely proved that he had deliberately contravened Hitler’s directive. (His estimate of the overall number, though, was based on an assumption of one commissar for every 80 regular Soviet soldiers, an overestimation not in line with Soviet tables of organization circa 1941.) Leeb’s co-defendant, Gen. Hans Reinhardt, took a different tack and insisted that reports tallying such executions were entirely fictious and that in his area of responsibility all reports of eliminated politruks were created simply to pacify his masters back in Berlin and convince them he was complying with the order. Reinhardt’s claim was contradicted by an official memorandum from 1941 written by the senior SS commander in his area, who had informed his superior, the notorious Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office, that the SS enjoyed “close and almost cordial” assistance from the Wehrmacht in operations to exterminate undesirables such as commissars and at least 221,000 Jews. Clearly, people were lying in an effort to save their own necks.

German officers who had commanded forces in war in the East had good reason to think themselves in real jeopardy over their handling of the Kommissarbefehl when they faced prosecution after the war. At the first Nuremberg Trial before the International Tribunal in 1946, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, who was Chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht for much of the war, produced in his defense a memorandum he had endorsed in 1941 which attempted to scale back some of the Kommissarbefehl’s procedures. What Keitel did not mention were the notes he wrote in the memorandum’s margin after Hitler rejected it, which painted his position in a rather different light. “These objections arise from the military conception of chivalrous warfare,” he had written. “We are dealing here with the destruction of a world philosophy and therefore I approve such measures and sanction them.” Keitel was condemned to death and went to the gallows under the weight of his guilt, a fate from which German officers in the later trials were keen to save themselves.

In the end, the Kommissarbefehl was one of the points on which Leeb and most of his codefendants were convicted (two men were acquitted). As Article 46 of the court’s findings stated, “Unlawful orders initiated, drafted, distributed, and executed by the defendants directed that certain enemy troops be refused quarter and denied the status and rights of prisoners of war and that certain captured members of the military forces of nations at war with Germany be summarily executed.” In the court’s determination, such actions were just some among many of the long list of war crimes and crimes against humanity of which these men were guilty. 

When it came to levying sentence against the defendants, however, the court failed to impose penalties commensurate with the terrible crimes of which they were convicted. Sentences ranged from five years imprisonment to life. Leeb was sentenced to time served, which amounted to a little over three years at that point, and was released. He died of a heart attack in 1956. Reinhardt was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment but was released on “compassionate grounds” in 1952 and died in 1963. By 1955, 10 of the 11 men sentenced to imprisonment were free; the other had died in prison a year after the trial. 

In the climate of Cold War tensions that dominated the decade after the Second World War, the Western governments seemed reluctant to dig too deeply into the criminal culpability of their former enemies because West Germany was now important in the alliance against Communism. Hitler’s illegal Commissar Order, therefore, became a convenient excuse that West Germany’s NATO allies could use to justify their ignoring any further prosecutions of the war crimes committed in 1941–45 by their new Bundeswehr colleagues.

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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