“Red Army units also shot their German captives, especially Luftwaffe pilots who had baled out. There were few opportunities for sending them to the rear, and they did not want them to be saved by the enemy advance.” – Antony Beevor, ‘Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege‘
Operation Barbarossa launched on June 22nd, 1941; the German army invaded the Soviet Union in a move which surprised no one except the leaders of the Soviet Union. In the next three weeks, the German army advanced well into the Soviet Union and over 2 million Soviet soldiers were killed.
The Ostfront is a bleak chapter of human history, with atrocities to go around. And while apologies should never be made for the murder of prisoners of war (at which, if course, the Nazis also excelled), there is something devastating about soldiers so certain of the enemy’s advance that they execute POWs lest they find themselves fighting them again. Imagine the desperation they must have felt as the German army advanced further and further into their country, closer and closer towards their homes and families.
Have you ever been moderately or seriously injured? Shot, stabbed, sliced, had a bone badly or visibly broken? The moment you realize that the boundaries of your body have been breached is a bad one. There is a sick, sinking feeling, before anything actually hurts, when you see that the world has intruded into you and you understand that you are not OK.
I wonder whether that is at all how it felt to watch the Germans advance into your country. One’s relationship to one’s country is obviously different, more complicated and less…implicit, than one’s relationship with one’s own body, but they might be equally vulnerable to the sense that something hostile and alien and hard has come driving into a space which was your’s and safe and has hurt it. Two million Russian soldiers killed in three weeks – which does not include civilian deaths – a rate of killing which must have felt like national hemorrhaging.
One of the challenges in thinking about the Ostfront is finding someone to really root for. With one genocidal regime pitched against another, it’s hard to feel good about any outcome. But while some evils are perpetrated by evil individuals, some are perpetrated by sad, misguided, or desperate ones. While Soviet soldiers certainly committed evil acts, they were being borne down on upon by one of the most frightening forces humans ever unleashed upon one another. They were angry and they were scared, and we can understand that without apologizing for it.
Quotation at the top is from Antony Beevor’s book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943.