On February 6, 1959, two former SS guards from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp were sentenced to life imprisonment by a German court in Bonn. Outside Germany this belated war-crimes trial excited only the barest interest; it was no novelty in the postwar world for the murder of prisoners of war in 1941 to be the subject of a judicial verdict pronounced more than seventeen years later. The two SS men had been repatriated to West Germany with other war criminals by the Soviet government in 1956, on the condition that they would continue to serve their sentences. The Bonn Ministry of Justice had ordered a retrial to satisfy the public conscience: it had been asserted that duress alone could have procured the monotonous replies of “Jawohl” which followed every one of the public prosecutor’s inconceivable charges at the huge open trial held by the Russians in East Berlin in 1947.
Surprisingly, nearly all the implausible admissions made at this trial were repeated at Bonn twelve years later. The defendants, Gustav Sorge and Wilhelm Schubert, made no attempt to deny that they had taken part in the slow and systematic murder, night after night, for six weeks, of 10,800 mainly invalid Russian prisoners of war—murders for which they had questioned neither the motive nor the necessity.1
After a trial lasting nearly four months the German conscience was assuaged. The Federal Republic had demonstrated that it would not accept the plea of “duty” to excuse the atrocities of the former SS. But there was something else that the trial did not show and was not intended to show. The real murderers of hundreds of thousands of helpless prisoners of war had not been crass, dull-witted NCO’s from the Totenkopfverbaende of the SS, but the hereditary officer caste of Germany, the High Command of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. It was they who, in 1941, rejected the responsibility they bore for the lives of men who had surrendered honorably on the field of battle. The German officer corps had done so according to a protocol for which no precedent exists in the entire history of war, and they had rejoiced that the guilt would fall on the men of the SS, who were not soldiers at all according to their definition.
In 1959 it suited no government west of the Iron Curtain to be reminded of these phantoms, nor was the connection apparent between the gruesome confessions of the SS men Sorge and Schubert, and Hitler’s famous “Commissar Order,” which had been the subject of protracted argument both at the International Nuremberg trial of 1945-46 and at the High Command trial of 1948. In 1959 the evidence, so terrible at the time, had been forgotten. It had moreover been ambiguous. The evidence had shown that Hitler’s order for the summary execution of captured Russian political functionaries had been circulated to 340 commands; yet there had been doubts about its application. Some divisional corps commanders and possibly one or two army commanders had neglected to pass the order on. It had been suggested that fake executions had been reported in order to silence criticism at Hitler’s headquarters. A few military memoirists had subsequently mentioned real executions and even Wehrmacht collaboration, but all the witnesses seemed to agree that the Commissar Order had died a natural death within a few months of the invasion of Russia, and that the Nuremberg prosecution had exaggerated its importance. What was the shooting of a few hundred or even a thousand alleged political commissars, when the German Prisoner of War Office admitted that four million out of five million Russian prisoners had died or disappeared by May 1944? And what was it, compared with the one million German prisoners who were estimated to have died in Russia?
When, however, the estimate of General Reinecke’s Prisoner of War Office is examined,2 it will be found that in May 1944, 473,000 Russian prisoners were entered as exterminated. Were all these men political commissars? The fact was that the executions in the field were the least part of the workings of Hitler’s order, which had entitled the execution teams of the SS to screen all prisoner-of-war camps and cages, to remove whomever they pleased, and to execute them where and when they chose. The order had involved not only suspected politruks (army political commissars), but prisoners who for any reason whatever were a nuisance to their captors and guards, prisoners who were not considered worth feeding, such as Jewish soldiers, and soldiers who were desperately wounded or seriously ill. This had happened because the same field commanders who thought that they had done the decent thing in not themselves executing politruks, passed on millions of prisoners from the combat zone to the rear. Under the rule of OKW, the High Command of the Wehrmacht, the execution teams of the SS functioned in the rear zone with very little obstruction from the military. Thus the martyrs of Sachsenhausen and other concentration camps had been handed over to these institutions with the full connivance of the military staffs in each German Wehrkreis.
Apart from the failure of the Nuremberg war trials to present any clear picture of this monstrous thing, the subject was regarded in Western countries as so unclean as to be best forgotten—with this result: in February 1959, when the German public was still being reminded most embarrassingly of its Schuberts and Sorges, a British Prime Minister went to Moscow apparently hoping to persuade the Russians that the West German Bundeswehr must have its atomic weapons and Herr Krupp his nuclear reactor. Even that was not the most fatuous of the in-comprehensions of the West in the years of the cold war. Would there have been a Bundeswehr at all, or a Bonn constitution either, if, for instance, 10,800 sick and wounded British soldiers from Dunkirk had been done away with in Sachsenhausen, if 80 per cent of all British and American prisoners held by Germany had been found in May 1945 to have died of hunger, typhus, and plain extermination? In the light of postwar history, Hitler seems to have possessed an uncanny sense of when to observe the traditional usages of war and when to ignore them. Malmédy and le Paradis were mistakes, made by subordinates. It was never intended that British and American soldiers should be treated in such a way that they might find common cause with the Untermenschen from the East.
We now know, as a result of the war trials, that Hitler planned the extermination of Russian prisoners of war at least as early as March 1941. One of the ways by which he obtained the acquiescence of subordinates was to point out the failure of Stalin in 1929 to subscribe to the Geneva agreement for the protection of prisoners of war by neutral powers. Hitler argued in March 1941, three months before the invasion—and he repeated his argument in September—that the Russians clearly meant to do away with their prisoners. He brought up alleged cases from the Finland war in 1939.3 Among the rank and file, used to party indoctrination, this argument worked even better than among the generals. It was easy to convince Sorge and Schubert, murdering night after night for an extra ration of fried potatoes and beer, that German prisoners in Russia would never return either.
It is extremely probable that an agreement on the rights of prisoners of war could have been reached in the beginning, had Hitler wanted it. The Russians had not renounced the Hague convention of 1907 and their objection to the Geneva agreement of 1929 with its notion of “protecting powers” had been nothing more than a typical post-revolution dread of foreign interference. But once Hitler had shown his hand regarding the Russian prisoners, Stalin could hardly be expected not to follow. There was no Russian order for the execution of captured Nazi party members, but after Stalingrad, when for the first time Germans fell into Russian hands in large numbers, there was no objection to letting them die as the Russian prisoners had died.
The conception that war against an ideology differs from normal warfare, and is not subject to normal restraints, was by no means new in 1941. The religious wars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance offered a precedent, while the belief that followers of certain political ideas were too vicious to be treated as human beings was at least as old as the French Revolution. That somewhat inflated apostle of liberty, Edmund Burke, had written in 1791: “If ever a foreign prince enters into France, he must enter it as a country of assassins. The mode of civilized war will not be practiced; nor are the French who act on the present system, entitled to expect it.”4
This sounds much like Hitler’s reported language in 1941. But in 1791 these threats were public, and had the effect of strengthening the determination of the French revolutionaries, so that, when there was a short-lived occupation of a portion of French soil, the occupying power was too fearful to behave with anything but restraint. With Hitler it was otherwise. His plans were made in secret, and it only became apparent after the invasion had begun that “the mode of civilized warfare” would not be practiced.
It was not at all clear what Hitler expected to gain from such a method of waging war, for oddly enough, he never at any time envisaged a permanent occupation of the main territory of Russia. The murder of the Russian officers, party leaders, and state employees was to be a political preparation for future Russian secessionist states.
On this subject, Hitler was deliberately vague. On March 13, 1941, he told Franz Halder, his chief of staff, that these states would have to remain socialist because that was the only way of life the Russians understood, but it must be socialism with “limited intelligence.”5 Before any handpicked leaders could be found for these states, all traces of Bolshevism must disappear. It might become necessary to send police units of the SS to the front line itself, so that Hitler could prepare the new political system. This was to proceed not simply by political purges but by the “extermination of entire grades of society.”
In his first public declaration of his plan, on March 30, 1941, Hitler did not make it clear whether he intended to murder all Red Army officers and all state employees, or whether he merely intended to weed out inveterate militant Communists. On July 16, however, when the Commissar Order had been in force for nearly four weeks, following the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, Hitler produced before a small, select audience a very different theory concerning “political preparations.” The socialist secessionist states had dropped out. “Every successor of the Fuehrer should know that security for the Reich exists only if there are no foreign military forces west of the Urals.” Though “we ourselves must know clearly that we shall never leave these countries,” the fact must not be advertised to the world. Commanders and officials must act as though they had a temporary mandate simply to preserve order and security. This meant that they could proceed with the “shooting and resettlement” necessary for a final solution, without the nature of that solution becoming apparent to the world. Hitler then went on to enumerate the territories which would be incorporated immediately into Germany, including areas as far afield as the German Volga Republic and the Baku oilfields. For the rest of Russia, there would be something resembling the British occupation of India.6
This analogy, which Hitler used more than once at this time, implied among other things that he had abandoned the idea of murdering the entire Russian administrative class and that Russian collaborators would be sought and tolerated, if not precisely welcomed. But the execution of the Commissar Order, which in fact amounted to a license for the wholesale murder of Russian prisoners of war and civilians, remained uninfluenced by Hitler’s changing views on Russia’s destiny after German victory. The Commissar Order was issued early in June 1941, two weeks before the invasion, and was never repealed; it was still on the statute books in 1944, when Hitler himself endorsed the plan of a Russian liberation army to fight against Stalin.
Originally Hitler had intended this program of extermination to be entirely in the hands of the SS, but on March 30, 1941, when he addressed his generals in the Reich Chancellery, he had already changed his mind. In a speech lasting two and a half hours, he explained that the elimination of the present Russian leadership would be as much in the hands of individual military commanders as in the hands of Himmler and his special police units. These measures were not a matter for military courts. The troops would be “expected to strike toward the rear with the same methods which they used in attacking an enemy in the field.” Commissars and GPU men were “criminals and should be treated as such.” If the commanders failed to grasp the fact that this was a war of extermination, they would have to fight the same enemy thirty years hence. The commanders must therefore forget the code of military honor and make up their minds to the sacrifice of their scruples. At this point Franz Halder’s diary breaks off with the significant entry: “Noon—all invited to lunch.”7
Had the High Command eaten that lunch in the Reich Chancellery on March 30 and then declared that they would not go on with Hitler’s plans, there would have been no Commissar Order and probably no invasion of Russia. But that is not a realistic hypothesis. As Alfred Jodl, head of the Operations section of the High Command (OKW), told his German counsel from the Nuremberg witness stand, German officers were not trained for revolution, though he believed that in the year 1848 the Prussian generals had struck the ground with their sabers.8 But the generals did less than that in March 1941. To a knot of perspiring, overexcited field marshals and generals, Walter von Brauchitsch, the Commander in Chief, declared that it was useless to argue with Hitler, once he had stated his mind in public. But allow him time and trust him, Brauchitsch, to find a way of circumventing the order. That kept them quiet, but Franz Halder proved more difficult. He knew a little more about Hitler’s intentions, having been in the secret since March 5. Halder now proposed that both he and Brauchitsch should resign. Brauchitsch refused, because of his responsibilities toward his troops and because he thought that he could still get Keitel, as chief of OKW, to oppose Hitler’s plan.9 Finally, he reminded Haider that the latter had promised at the beginning of the Polish campaign never to leave him in the lurch. That settled the matter. Haider stayed at his post and left it to Brauchitsch to defeat the Commissar Order.
The history of the drafting and circulation of the Commissar Order was that of a long struggle by the generals to save face. Brauchitsch, ostensibly pledged to do what he could to defeat the order, conceived the issue as a question of jurisdiction. The first prerequisite was to secure military control over the special units of Himmler’s Security Service. In Poland, where there was a civilian German administration, the Wehrmacht had no authority over these units. In France and Belgium, however, where there was a military government, the powers of the Security Service were severely limited by protocol. In the hope of reaching a similar agreement for Russia, Brauchitsch sent his Quartermaster General, Eduard Wagner, to see the notorious Reinhard Heydrich a few days after March 30.
Heydrich was the head of the Main Security Office (RSHA), a huge overgrown bureaucracy which ran every branch of the Security Service, including the Criminal Police and the Gestapo. Although the RSHA was but one branch of Himmler’s SS organization, it was in reality Heydrich’s private kingdom. As security chief, Heydrich was more interested in the military intelligence side of his duties than in his better-known role as mass executioner of Jews and political enemies. But his ambitious encroachment into the military sphere had not been easy, and in 1937 Heydrich had been forced to come to terms with Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr or Military Intelligence Service. Since these terms, known as the “twelve commandments,”10 were still in force in March 1941, they could be used as a brake on the proposed activities of Himmler and Heydrich in Russia.
Brauchitsch’s spokesman, Wagner, was met by Heinrich Mueller, the chief of the Gestapo. Mueller, the Beria of Hitler’s Reich, had none of the attributes of the more remarkable police chiefs of history; he was a dull, overpromoted Bavarian policeman with an admiration for what he conceived to be the Soviet police system. Faithful to Hitler’s declared wishes, Mueller tried to reserve for Himmler and Heydrich the control of police measures even up to the front line. Wagner, an impatient man, refused to continue the discussion. It was resumed by Heydrich himself, who brought with him his military intelligence expert, Walter Schellenberg, to make out the draft of an agreement. Heydrich had already admitted to Schellenberg that freedom of action for the Security Service up to the front line was an impossibility.11 So, in an interview which passed very amicably, Heydrich surrendered the rights, which Hitler had apparently accorded him, on condition that the High Command fed and billeted his men and equipped them with motor transport. Wagner apparently regarded this as a victory.
Schellenberg’s draft of the agreement was circulated by Brauchitsch on April 28, 1941, exactly four weeks after Hitler’s lecture in the Reich Chancellery. It had not been discovered at the time of the first Nuremberg trial, but when produced at the High Command trial in 1948, it completely refuted a myth—the myth of the army officers who had been tied hand and foot by an agreement between the High Command and the SS. Under the Heydrich-Wagner agreement, the authority of an army commander in his own area of operations was unimpaired. Any instructions that Heydrich might give his men had to be reported by a representative of his Security Service stationed at army headquarters, and these instructions had to yield precedence to army orders. The same applied to the rear zone which was controlled by an army rear area commander or Korueck. Only in the zones administered by German civil government could Heydrich’s authority not be contested by the Wehrmacht.
In spite of these restrictions, there were many instances of Koruecks who assisted the Security Service in the massacres of the Jewish population, or of army commanders who failed to bring the police squads of the Security Service to heel, or who, like Rundstedt and Reichenau, published orders which forbade their subordinates to interfere. Heydrich knew that he would gain more than he lost by such a generous agreement. He knew that the army commanders would be too busy and too frightened of the Nazi system to concern themselves with his affairs. His strength lay in the section of the agreement which released him from reporting to the Wehrmacht in areas of civil government, for to these areas and to Germany proper the captured enemy must sooner or later be removed. Here he could execute Hitler’s Commissar Order without any interference at all.12
Brauchitsch and Wagner, however, persisted in acting as if they had won a victory. Following the talks with Heydrich, the first draft of the Commissar Order was circulated by Brauchitsch on May 12, 1941, the final draft on June 8. It was drafted by Walter Warlimont, a party general who had commanded the German volunteers in the Spanish civil war and was now deputy to Alfred Jodl, the head of the Operations Section of the High Command (OKW). In spite of his Nazi reputation, Warlimont tried to evade the assignment and suggested to Wagner that the latter might issue the order orally. Wagner objected that, if Hitler discovered this, he would be quite capable of repudiating all that Wagner had gained from Heydrich. Up to the present, Wagner had stopped the Security Service from giving the Wehrmacht orders at the front, but even this might follow if Hitler demanded it. So, on May 12, Warlimont produced the first draft. On the suggestion of Alfred Rosenberg, the Minister Designate for occupied Russia, Warlimont exempted Russian officials who stayed at their posts without offering resistance. (In the final draft, these “peaceful administrators” for whom Rosenberg had recommended exemption from the order were exempted only from shooting at sight.) In each case a decision would have to be taken later whether to hand them over to the Security Service. However, identification as a political functionary by any German officer possessing disciplinary powers was sufficient for executing a Russian prisoner, provided the officer got the support of one other officer and one NCO.13
There was still no definition of a commissar. For this purpose, Warlimont consulted Rudolf Lehmann, head of the legal section of the High Command. Lehmann was already engaged in preparing the parallel decree, known as the Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order; this order was designed to protect the German soldier when he “struck toward the rear with the same methods as when attacking the enemy in the field.” Distributed by Keitel on May 14, 1941, to no less than 340 commands, the Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order protected the German officer who “gave orders that appealed to the impulses of his people.” It became for the next three years the soldier’s charter for partisan warfare, but the two orders were not strictly complementary, as Lehmann was reminded when he raised the question of defining a commissar with Keitel. “Herr Ministerialdirektor,” he was told, “we are talking only of jurisdiction here.”14 But Lehmann was not to be put off. If the generals wanted to shift their responsibility to OKW, so Lehmann wanted to shift the responsibility of the Judge Advocate’s department—and he succeeded in getting his own rider incorporated in the order. “Military courts must not be charged with the measures indicated under I and II.” Thanks to Lehmann, Hitler realized his threat to “leave the courts at home.”15
Alfred Jodl, however, as head of the operations section at OKW, felt less complacent about the repercussions of the Commissar Order than his chief, Keitel. Before the draft went off to Hitler, he scribbled a marginal note that the order might be described as a reprisal. In a war that had not even begun, Jodl declared that they would have to count on Russian reprisals against captured German airmen.16 Jodl’s assumption took an even broader form in the final text as circulated by Brauchitsch:
When fighting Bolshevism, one cannot count on the enemy’s acting in accordance with the principles of humanity or international law. In particular, one must expect that the treatment of our prisoners by the political commissars of all types, who are the true pillars of resistance, will be cruel, inhuman, and dictated by hate.17
“Of all types”! Neither Warlimont nor Brauchitsch had the slightest notion of what a political commissar was. Brauchitsch apparently thought that these people would be so accommodating as to surrender, wearing a red star and an inwoven sickle and hammer on their sleeves. The form in which Brauchitsch finally issued the order provided no definition of a commissar: “On principle,” the order reads, “the personal impression of the commissar’s attitude is of more importance than the facts of the case, for which proof may not exist.”
The same Walter von Brauchitsch, who signed the final draft of the Commissar Order on June 8, had undertaken personally before the High Command on March 30 to see to it that no such orders were issued. However, when interrogated on the subject at Nuremberg in 1946, Brauchitsch maintained that he had killed the Commissar Order by issuing another order “for the maintenance of discipline along the lines and regulations that had applied in the past.”18 The counter-order had been effective, Brauchitsch maintained, though apparently Hitler had never reproached him for it. During one of the most inadequate cross-examinations of that historic trial, Brauchitsch swore that he knew of no case of Hitler’s Order being carried out. This was untrue, as we shall see, and Brauchitsch knew it.
At the High Command trial of 1948, both the full text of the Commissar Order, as distributed by Brauchitsch, and the alleged counter-order were produced. But by this time Brauchitsch, blind and dying, had been declared unfit to plead. His perjury was never brought home to him, though his counter-order, when read out in court, turned out to be no counter-order at all. In the first place, it was dated May 24, 1941, that is to say, two weeks before Brauchitsch issued the Commissar Order. It was actually an annex to Keitel’s Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order of May 14. That order, as it was drafted by the devious-minded Lehmann, was as dangerous to German discipline as it was to any Russian civilians who incurred suspicion. Lehmann had laid it down that soldiers could be court-martialed for offenses against civilians only when these offenses threatened military discipline. Moreover, the sentences for such cases were to be severe only when outright mutiny was proved.19 “Senseless destruction of property” is specifically mentioned as an instance where leniency would be expected.
It was this, the problem of German military discipline, and not the wholesale execution of prisoners, which worried Brauchitsch. He tried to explain in his annex that the troops must not be allowed to become unmanageable; the order was not to be construed by the soldier as license to act as he pleased toward civilians; he must always be bound by the orders of his officers. But since it had been laid down that a captain could shoot anyone he liked after consulting a lieutenant and an NCO, authority for the soldier to treat civilians as he pleased was not going to be difficult to obtain. Brauchitsch’s annex of May 24 was, in any case, suppressed in subsequent issues of the Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order, which made the killing of civilians a matter beneath the attention of courts-martial till the very end. One general who was tried in the High Command case, Karl von Roques, construed the order as entitling him to impose the standing penalty of sixty days detention for insubordination on soldiers who shot Jews on their own initiative.20
In fact, the annex, which Brauchitsch issued on May 24, did not deal with the treatment of captured commissars at all. It merely stated that orders on this subject would be issued shortly. But after he had issued the Commissar Order on June 8, Brauchitsch made a curious attempt to smooth out the contradictions. On June 11, he called a conference of intelligence officers and judges advocate at Warsaw. Here Major General Eugen Mueller, Brauchitsch’s “special assignments” general, explained that it was not always necessary to shoot civilians in cases of disobedience. In minor cases they could be flogged, a precedent which the Russians themselves had provided in 1914, when they had occupied a portion of East Prussia.21
That this was for the ears of the intelligence officers (IC’s) is explained by their unique position as links between the army commands and the police squads of the Security Service. It was not their first briefing. A few days earlier, the IC’s had been addressed by Heydrich, Admiral Canaris, and Eduard Wagner, in the old War Office building in the Bendlerstrasse. It seems most probable that the ultrasecret and purely verbal part of the Commissar Order, the instructions for the racial extermination of the Jews of the Soviet Union, was communicated to the higher intelligence officers who stayed behind after the meeting.22
In addition to Walter von Brauchitsch, the man who is most usually discussed in connection with the resistance to the Commissar Order is Admiral Canaris. While some German writers have credited Brauchitsch with encouraging an army plot to depose Hitler at the time of the war crisis of 1938, Canaris has been credited with opposition activities which lasted until his arrest in July 1944.
Canaris’s personal honor was as much involved in the Commissar and Barbarossa Jurisdiction orders as Brauchitsch’s, and he seems to have been aware of it. According to his biographer, Karl Abshagen, he warned the IC’s at this stage that the new powers of the Security Service were a trap to involve them in the murderous policies of the SS and make impossible any future resistance to them.23 Canaris, however, did not make this objection to Keitel, with whom he was on good terms, and certainly not to Hitler. In fact, he waited for the initiative to come from the other side. In the absence of any rules for identification, the screening teams of the Security Service picked out Tartars and other Asiatics from the prisoner-of-war cages and shot them on the pretense that they were circumcised Jews. This conflicted with Hitler’s own instructions that prisoners from the Soviet minority races were to receive preferential treatment. It was therefore the head of the Prisoner of War Office at OKW, General Hermann Reinecke, who took the initiative in calling a joint meeting with Canaris and with Mueller of the Gestapo.
It is odd that Canaris’s pious biographer should have to record that this great Chief of Intelligence was too afraid of “Gestapo Mueller” to go himself,24 sending instead the head of his Section II, the Austrian Brigadier Erwin Lahousen. At Nuremberg, Lahousen declared that he had been chosen because “in his subordinate position he could use stronger language [with Mueller] than Canaris.” On these lines Canaris would have done better still to have sent the office charwoman, but then Canaris was always a mystery to his colleagues.25 The meeting took place in Reinecke’s office on July 15. Lahousen came, armed with evidence that the Russians already knew about the screenings and executions and were exploiting them as propaganda; that German soldiers were becoming demoralized by the spectacle of mass executions. These, Mueller replied, could be held in remote places and he would give the orders, but he refused to define the Security Service rules for screening. Indications of superior intelligence or of being Jewish were reason enough to be chosen for execution. Reinecke, a desk officer who had begun the war in charge of civil defense in Berlin, backed up Gestapo Chief Mueller throughout the discussion, declaring that German staff officers did not understand National Socialism and still lived in the Ice Age. In exasperation Lahousen turned to Mueller and asked, “Do you determine it by the height of the person or by the size of his shoes?”26
Two days later, however, Keitel embodied Mueller’s proposal in an order, which was again issued to 340 commands. It confirmed that executions must take place at least 600 yards from the prisoner camps. The camp commanders, members of the Wehrmacht, would be relieved completely of responsibility for screening prisoners. The selection teams of the Security Service, who were allowed to employ trustworthy prisoners as informers, were declared by Keitel to be fully trained and competent. For the denunciation of “political, criminal, or in some way undesirable elements,” former Communist informers were not barred, though henceforward the evidence of more than one informer would be required.27
The same vague terms were repeated by Reinecke on September 8 in a code of rules for the treatment of Russian prisoners. In this code the original Commissar Order became expanded into a license to exterminate all prisoners who gave the slightest trouble.28Any indulgence by German guards, any friendly disposition, was to be punished with severity. The guards must use their arms at the slightest indication of disobedience. Where prisoners were at work, the guards must keep enough distance to enable them to use their firearms at once, firearms which they would also need against civilians who tried to speak with prisoners.
The certainty that these widely circulated rules would be conveyed to the enemy within a short time spurred Canaris to intervene again, furtively and indirectly, at OKW. A week later he forwarded to Keitel a memorandum which had been drafted by an expert on international law, none other than James Helmuth von Moltke, grandnephew of the famous Field Marshal and one of the members of the conspiracy against Hitler who were executed after July 1944. The memorandum cited the Reinecke rules on the one hand, and on the other the latest Soviet rules, which had been published as recently as July and which contained no divergences from the Hague convention of 1907. Knowing that this argument would not appeal to Hitler, the author was clever enough to insinuate that under the actual conditions of war neither side would be able to apply its rules, whose main use would be for home consumption. If Russian propaganda could show that their own rules were more humane, Germany would lose her prestige among likely collaborators. It would also become impossible to protest at the ill-treatment of German prisoners in Russia.29
Keitel declared at Nuremberg that he had not only submitted the memorial to Hitler but that he had even proposed that he should abolish the screening teams. Hitler however would change nothing, declaring that there would be no way of ascertaining whether the Russians were treating their prisoners according to the international conventions or not.30 Yet Keitel’s marginal comments, scribbled on the rejected memorandum, tell a different story. Against the complaint that the screening operations were secret, he wrote “Highly expedient,” and he vigorously rejected the complaint that the results could not be checked. Finally he scribbled a postscript: “These objections arise from the military conception of chivalrous warfare. We are dealing here with the destruction of a world philosophy and therefore I approve such measures and sanction them—Keitel.”31
Of course, Keitel explained that he had only written what Hitler told him to write. Nevertheless the Canaris memorandum was the most damning document in the entire dossier that brought Keitel to the gallows, and it left Canaris with the laurels of a hero. But what had Canaris done after his memorandum was returned to him? He still shrank from direct intervention and direct protest and the obvious results followed. In spite of Canaris’s much-described dossier on SS atrocities, his IC officers with the various army commands made no use of their powers of veto. Some of the bulletins, issued by the commanders of extermination groups, even acknowledge the help of Canaris’s own Secret Field Gendarmerie in arranging the massacres.
Resistance to the Commissar Order, such as it was, now passed into the hands of individual army and army corps commanders, while the three field marshals commanding army groups still waited for the lead that had been promised them by Brauchitsch. After the publication of the Reinecke rules, on September 8, they became more restive. Von Bock forwarded a memorandum to Hitler, which had been drafted by his adventurous Chief of Staff, Henning von Tresckow, but he toned it down to something fairly innocuous. Von Rundstedt forbade his soldiers to take part in “measures of the Security Service” or to witness them or, above all, to take photographs.32 Both signed the protest of their colleague, Friedrich Ritter von Leeb, commander in chief of the Northern Army Group.
Leeb was a sixty-four-year-old officer who had been ennobled by the Kaiser in the First World War, but he had reacted so negatively to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg plans that the Hassell-Goerdeler circle wanted to enroll him in their conspiracy. Although Leeb admitted that he was terrified of Hitler, whom he regarded as “a demon, a devil,” he felt bolder in his headquarters in Kovno, where in the course of their visits he persuaded Keitel and Brauchitsch to support his complaints. Finally, ten days after the return of Canaris’s memorandum, the criticism of the three field marshals was presented to Hitler in a document drawn up by Eugen Mueller. It was argued in this report that the power of the political commissars would not be as strong in the Red Army if they did not face the certainty of execution after surrender.33
Nevertheless, when presented to Hitler at the daily Lagebesprechung, the report was promptly rejected, while a few days later Brauchitsch was instructed to re-issue the Commissar Order and its screening rules to a still wider list. There had been little reason to expect Hitler to change his mind. On September 25, 1941, his armies surrounded Leningrad and were about to enter Kiev. The final assault on Moscow was due to begin within a few days and the Blitzkrieg was to be won before the winter. Since Hitler already held over a million Russian prisoners, while Stalin only held a few thousand Germans, fear neither of reprisal nor nemesis caused him serious anxiety. So the screening rules were not relaxed till early in 1942, after the sobering effects of a winter campaign and the acute labor shortage had caused utilitarian counsel to prevail at court. Even then, no part of the original Commissar Order and Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order was ever repealed. In June 1943, Haider’s successor as Chief of Staff, Kurt Zeitzler, wanted to rescind the Commissar Order, because it discouraged Russian desertions. Hitler would not revoke it formally—perhaps because it was too dangerous to admit that the order existed.34
While the direct execution of suspected political commissars ceased to be carried out by Wehrmacht commanders after the first winter campaign, the Security Service never lost the authority to drag whomever they liked out of the camps in order to murder them in secret places. However, after February 1942, the right was exercised only at the request of camp commanders. One such case occurred as late as December 1942, when 78 badly wounded and maimed prisoners were moved by a Wehrmacht camp commandant at Zhitomir in the Ukraine to a so-called “education camp” run by the SS, in reality a penal establishment. From here they were taken in two batches to a lonely spot and shot under Wehrmacht supervision, though a few of them escaped.35 This close cooperation occurred nearly a year after the alleged lapsing of the Commissar Order.
The Nuremberg prosecution had difficulty in finding out how far Wehrmacht commanders had carried out the order themselves. Most of the execution reports which were produced at the 1948 High Command trial concerned Leeb’s Northern army group. In this group there was Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Army which claimed the liquidation of 172 commissars in the first four weeks. More modestly the 16th and 18th Armies on Leeb’s front claimed to have shot 96 commissars by December 1941.36 Leeb, still asserting that he had fought the Commissar Order, explained that these figures really proved how successful he had been. Leeb assumed that one man in every eighty of the 340,000 prisoners, taken in the advance to Leningrad, would be a politruk—and that made 4,250 politruks. To have shot only 96 of them was indeed a sabotage of Hitler’s orders. That a German field marshal could believe that there was a political commissar to every Russian platoon was odd enough, but anybody could be made to pass as a political commissar. One of the prisoners who was executed on this front was a septuagenarian professor of Slavonic literature from the Leningrad Academy of Sciences, who was caught while visiting a Home Guard unit with a mobile cinema van.37
The ingenious argument of Ritter von Leeb did not appeal to his co-defendant, General Hans Reinhardt, who declared that the execution figures were fictitious from beginning to end. At that time Reinhardt had been a corps commander under Erich Hoepner, whom the world knows better as one of the conspirators of July 20, 1944. According to Reinhardt, Hoepner used these figures in order to silence the OKW hierarchy and to make them believe that he had carried out the order.38 The same story had been told at Nuremberg in 1946 by another of Hoepner’s corps commanders, Erich von Manstein. Nevertheless the commander of Heydrich’s special extermination group on Leeb’s front had written to his master that he had found Hoepner’s cooperation “close and almost cordial”—and this in a notorious report which described the murder of 221,000 Jews in the Baltic States and White Russia.39
These executions, carried out by the Wehrmacht between June and December 1941, were but a fraction of one per cent of the total killings, which were done by the Security Service under cover of the Commissar Order. Some of them took place on German soil, where the apparently native need to record everything in writing has preserved something of their extent and nature. Toward the end of August, “Gestapo Mueller” appears to have issued a decree, concerning the special screening rules applicable to Germany. The screened prisoners were to be transferred from Wehrmacht jurisdiction to the SS. The execution warrants had to be countersigned in Mueller’s office and the executions themselves could only take place in concentration camps. In this way Mueller was kept fully conversant with the progress of extermination. On October 10, 1941, he admitted to an anxious delegation from the Ministry of Labor and the Rosenberg Ministry that of 20,000 Russian prisoners who had been screened in German camps 16,000 had already been executed.40 Reinecke told the delegation that in future Russian prisoners who had been sent to Germany to work would not be screened. That, however, was not the end of the executions.
In Germany, Mueller was able to trade on the panic fear of Communism, which had caused the abandonment of the original plan to bring in all the Red Army prisoners. Warlimont’s circular of June 16, 1941, mentions eighteen camps which were intended for the reception of 790,000 prisoners.41 Inadequate as it was, this space was not taken up, since Hitler forbade Brauchitsch to send any more Russian prisoners back to Germany and this was a month after the invasion, when more than a million prisoners had been taken. Franz Haider then complained that it was impossible to provide camps or subsistence for such numbers in the war zone, where starvation and cannibalism were being reported everywhere. It took many months for the OKW to organize camps in the civil government areas so that, already by February 1942, 2,800,000 prisoners had died, most of them in open compounds close to the battlefields where they had surrendered.42
No doubt Hitler preferred that these masses should die outside Germany, but the panic fear of the spread of Communism must have been an added argument, used by the party leaders to persuade him to such a complete change of policy. In the offices of the provincial Gauleiters there was but one idea, to rid the German rationing system as quickly as possible of the burden of the Russian prisoners who had arrived before the ban. Thus the terms of Mueller’s decree were exploited by unscrupulous camp commandants, backed by the Gestapo offices and the Gauleiters, in order to get rid of the sick and incapacitated as well as the Jews and the politically suspect. The 10,800 victims of Sachsenhausen concentration camp were dispatched in the months of September and October alone. At the first Sachsenhausen trial, figures of 13,000 and even 18,000 were mentioned. Often a machine was used, allegedly the inspiration of the first inspector of the concentration camp system, Theodor Eicke. It was disguised as a measuring apparatus and it put a bullet in the victim’s neck without alarming the waiting line in the adjoining room.43 The same apparatus was used later in the war at Mauthausen.
At Auschwitz the commandant, Rudolf Hoess, used Russian prisoners for his first experiment with the “Zyklon B” gas, which became the principal means for exterminating the Jews. On September 15, 600 invalid Russian prisoners and 250 inmates of the camp infirmary were packed in Block No. 11 and the building was filled with gas.44 Hoess, who admits that the method was inefficient, describes how he gassed another 900 Russian prisoners more successfully in the infirmary morgue. Another 10,000 Russians died during the winter while constructing the second Auschwitz camp at Birkenau. They had been delivered in a state of advanced starvation by the Wehrmacht commander of Lamsdorf camp, the one who recommended that prisoners should make their own bedding out of paper refuse.45 Hoess merely failed to keep them alive, though his memoirs describe their condition with clinical precision and almost with sympathy.
The genuine hunt for political commissars, as opposed to the mere reduction of the numbers of prisoners of war under the cloak of the Commissar Order, was naturally hottest in officer camps. The largest was at Hammelburg, east of Frankfort, an institution which housed such VIP’s as Stalin’s son. A captured Red Army judge-advocate, turned fascist, assisted the Gestapo, with the aid of a secret camp cabal and some former Czarist officers from outside. The Gestapo inspector, Paul Ohler, examined 15,000 captured officers, 500 of whom were taken in trucks to Dachau and shot on the rifle range of the camp guards.46
It was the same story of continuous shootings and phenol injections at other concentration camps, Lublin, Buchenwald, Flossenbuerg, and Gross-Rosen. In a Germany where civilians moved freely and where there were infinite opportunities for gossip, official criticism fastened on the waste of prisoner labor. Supported by Himmler and Heydrich, Mueller’s position was so strong that Reinecke’s assurances of October 10 bore no immediate fruits. However, on October 31 Keitel obtained Hitler’s authority to lift the ban on importing further prisoners from Russia, while on November 7 Goering declared that scruples were of secondary importance compared with the value of Russian labor. Bolshevism in Germany was a matter which could safely be left in the hands of the Security Service.47 Yet indiscriminate mass-screening did not end till February 1942, when the crisis ceased at the front and Russian prisoners in hundreds of thousands crawled out of the box-cars to savor the culture of the West and to nibble the grass outside the incredibly neat railway stations.
In the meantime there had been one unique case of opposition by the military, brilliantly documented at the Nuremberg trials by a complete Gestapo file which had survived. On September 12, 1941, the Munich Gestapo began to busy themselves with the 5,328 Russian prisoners of war at Moosburg camp. Having learnt from Reinecke’s office that the screening of these prisoners had been only superficial, they sent a Security Service team to Moosburg in November. With the aid of confidential agents in the camp, 410 “intolerable persons” were weeded out. They included 25 Jewish interpreters, 47 incurably sick prisoners, and 147 alleged fanatical Communists. Of these 310 were taken to Dachau to be shot.
Major Meinel, deputy prisoner-of-war inspector for Wehrkreis VII, protested to the Gestapo. He attacked Reinecke’s contract with Mueller and threatened to raise the whole question of treatment of prisoners with OKW. The Gestapo agent then went off to the “Higher SS and Police Leader” for Bavaria, Baron Friedrich von Eberstein, to demand Meinel’s recall. Eberstein approached Mueller, who did not reply, and in the meantime discovered that Meinel enjoyed the full support of Major-General von Saur, his chief. These two officers were protecting 400 Russian prisoners who had been screened at Moosburg and Regensburg camps and who should have been delivered to the SS. On January 16, 1942, Meinel refused to hand any more prisoners over to the Gestapo, declaring that he had received instructions from OKW not to do so. In view of the changed policy announced by Goering, this was possibly no bluff but the truth. The Gestapo, however, were not put off by that. From Munich they again approached Mueller, declaring that Meinel had formed his 400 Russians into a labor detachment.
There was still no reply from Mueller, but on February 9, the Munich Gestapo office persuaded von Eberstein to make a personal telephone call to Mueller’s deputy in Berlin, Colonel Panzinger. Eberstein was a figurehead SS man, who was considered so respectable that during the Nuremberg trial he was chosen by the SS as their spokesman—on account of his gentlemanly ignorance of anything that had ever happened anywhere. But the prosecution never asked Eberstein about his officious telephone call which resulted in the delivery of all 400 Russian prisoners to Buchenwald camp, where, on February 17, 1942, they were duly murdered.48 Possibly it was the last mass execution of Russian prisoners in Germany, though in that country no serious effort was made in the following years to keep Russian prisoners alive, unless they chose to become collaborators.
The official German figure of 473,000 Russian prisoners exterminated, represents barely an eighth of those who died. Today it may be too late to speak any more about barbarism in war. The Germans began the war with the indiscriminate bombing of a European capital, thus initiating something for which they paid with 410,000 civilians killed and perhaps as many maimed and mutilated. The whole world has since lived in the shadow of the atom bomb; in the uncertainties of the future, the Hague and Geneva conventions may be superannuated instruments. In March 1941, they were not. The regulations comprised in Hitler’s Commissar Order were the most monumental abuse known to history of what Edmund Burke had called “the mode of civilized warfare.”
Among the generals who carried out the regulations, Keitel and Jodl were hanged; Brauchitsch, Leeb, Rundstedt, and Reinhardt are dead; Warlimont, Reinecke, Lehmann, and Roques have been released from prison. Some are writing memoirs to explain how Hitler lost the war for them, and others still are back on the army list.
1 Heinrich Toeplitz (ed.), SS im Einsatz, pp. 217-8.
2 Secret “Anweisungen” of the General Wehrmacht Office (AWA), May 1, 1944, in Alexander Dallin, German Rule in Russia, p. 427. For German prisoners in Russia, see the London Times, March 13, 1957.
3 Evidence of Hans Reinhardt in the High Command Trial, in Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (U.S. Government) Vol X, p. 1110; hereafter designated Trials.
4 Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, p. 213.
5 Hellmuth Greiner, Die Oberste Wehrmacht-fuehrung, p. 369.
6 Nuremberg Document, L 221. Full text in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression (U.S. Government).
7 The Haider Diary, in Trials, vol. X, p. 950.
8 Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal (official proceedings of the first Nuremberg trial), vol. XV, p. 286; hereafter designated IMT.
9 Ibid., vol. XXI, p. 32. Trials, vol. X, p. 1284.
10 Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence, p. 34.
11 The Schellenberg Memoirs, pp. 123, 210.
12 Trials, vol. X, pp. 1239-41; doc. NOKW 1080.
13 IMT, doc. PS 790, PS 884. Trials, vol. X, pp. 1071-3.
14 Trials, vol. X, p. 1058.
15 Ibid., p. 1082.
16 IMT, vol. XV, pp. 291-2; doc. PS 884.
17 Trials, vol. X, pp. 27, 124, 1057; doc. NOKW 1076.
18 IMT, vol. XV, pp. 32, 38.
19 Trials, vol. X, pp. 1189-90; vol. XI, p. 519.
20 Ibid., vol. X, p. 1288.
21 Ibid., vol. XI, pp. 588-9; doc. NOKW 2672.
22 IMT, doc. PS 3710 (affidavit Walter Schellenberg, November 26, 1945).
23 Karl Abshagen, Canaris, p. 200 (English text).
24 Ibid., p. 201.
25 IMT, vol. I, p. 279 (evidence Lahousen).
26 Ibid., pp. 280-2.
27 IMT, vol. III, pp. 203-4; doc. PS 502
28 IMT, doc. PS 1519.
29 Ibid., vol. XI, p. 74; doc. EC 338.
30 Ibid., vol. XI, p. 33.
31 Ibid., p. 74.
32 Trials, doc. NOKW 541.
33 Ibid., vol. XI, p. 565.
34 Ibid., vol. X, p. 1070.
35 IMT, vol. VII, pp. 2-8, doc. USSR 311.
36 Trials, vol. X, pp. 1088-9.
37 Ibid., p. 1090; doc. NOKW 2096.
38 Ibid., pp. 1098-1101.
39 IMT, vol. XXI, p. 50 (evidence Manstein); doc. L 180.
40 Trials, vol. X, p. 1090; doc. NOKW 147.
41 IMT, vol. VII, p. 317.
42 Ibid., vol. I, p. 282 (evidence Lahousen); doc. PS 1201.
43 Heinrich Toeplitz, op. cit., pp. 217-8. The London Times, October 21, 1958.
44 IMT, doc. D 749 (affidavit Rudolf Hoess). Philip Friedman, This Was Oswiecim, p. 18.
45 IMT, vol. VII, pp. 312-17. Rudolf Hoess, Kommandant im Auschwitz, pp. 102-3, 155.
46 Trials, vol. XI, p. 26. Juergen Thorwald, Wen sie verderben wollen, pp. 171-8.
47 IMT, vol. VII, p. 23; doc. EC 194.
48 The whole of the foregoing narrative is derived from the Nuremberg Document R 178, of which 27 pages are printed in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression (U.S. Government).