When Hitler turned on Stalin

Eighty years ago, at precisely 3.15 a.m. on the night of 22 June 1941, General Heinz Guderion moved his Panzers across the bridge, spanning the River Bug. This was the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union — an invasion which took the lives of over 20 million Soviet citizens including over two and a half million Jews.

Hitler believed that it would be a walkover and that the Red Army would collapse by the autumn of 1941 before a methodical Nazi onslaught. Three million German troops and their allies had been assembled for the task along an 1,800 mile border. Hitler was so impressed that the Finns had initially repulsed an attack by the numerically superior Soviet forces during the Winter War of 1939/1940 that he confidently instructed the German military to prepare plans for the invasion of the USSR.

After the early decimation of Soviet forces, Hitler pressed ahead to expand German settlement in the conquered territories. He therefore instructed Himmler to set in motion the mass deportation of Jews from the Nazi heartlands.

The Jews of Brest-Litovsk, just a few miles from the River Bug, were murdered within a few days of the Nazi advance. This included the parents and brother of Menahem Begin. By July, Einsatzkommando 3, reported that 7,000 Jews in Kovno had been killed. Another 10,000 were executed in Kishinev. Systematic mass murder took place in ravines at the Ninth Fort (Kovno), Babi Yar (Kiev) and Rumboli (Riga). By the end of 1941, a million Jews had been killed and the Nazis were already experimenting with exterminating Jews in Chelmno by using the exhaust fumes of trucks and vans.

Instructions had been issued to initially kill just Jewish members of the Communist party. This expanded into killing all Jewish males and then into any Jew that they should come across. Himmler told his underlings that Jewish children should not be considered any less dangerous than their parents.  

Stalin, of course, had famously been warned about the attack many months previously — and did nothing. One warning came from Leopold Trepper, the Jewish head of the Soviet spy network in occupied Europe, the Red Orchestra, on the very day before the invasion.

The Soviets and the Nazis had amicably cooperated according to the terms of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939. On the outbreak of war, the British were therefore unable to mount an arms and trade blockade of Germany as they had done during World War I. Then they relied on their ally, the Tsar. Stalin instead supplied grain, oil and iron ore to Germany and offered the Nazis a naval base near Murmansk from where they could attack allied shipping. The NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, happily handed over hundreds of prisoners — often German Communists who had found refuge in the USSR — to the Gestapo. This included several Jews who were greeted with anti-Semitic taunts by their new captors. In November 1940, Hitler presented a written proposal to the Kremlin that the Soviet Union join the Axis Powers — Germany, Italy and Japan.  

In this country, numerous Jewish Communists in Britain resigned from the party over this volte-face that effectively aligned them with Hitler. Others such as Eric Hobsbawm and Ivor Montagu accepted the doctrine of revolutionary defeatism and remained in the Communist party. When Hitler eventually invaded the USSR in 1941, they reverted to their former position.

Many British Jews were initially surprised at the Nazi assault on their former ally — and then in hindsight were not, given their unremitting hatred for Hitler. The JC editorial gave full vent to this anger, terming the Führer as ‘that treacherous gangster, that monumental corrupter of morals, that enslaver of the human mind’. Such words perhaps hid a fear that Hitler would quickly vanquish the Soviets and then turn his attention once again to the conquest of the British Isles.

Indeed the invasion of the USSR was named ‘Operation Barbarossa’ after Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who led the third crusade to the Holy Land with Richard the Lionheart. This recalled the massacres of Jews in medieval England during that period — most notably in Clifford’s Tower in York. Was this then a twentieth century repetition on a much vaster scale?

In his new book, Barbarossa: How Hitler Lost the War, Jonathan Dimbleby points out that even though Bletchley Park had revealed that Jews were quite clearly the victims of the Nazi advance, Churchill refrained from mentioning this fact when he gave his broadcast on the invasion. Dimbleby suggests that Churchill did this to prevent revealing that this knowledge of the systematic killing of Jews could only have been obtained from Ultra, the decrypted cypher traffic from the Enigma machine. A second factor was that Allied policy was not to single out Jews from other victims in case this might stoke the fires of local anti-Semitism. Even after all these years, such an interpretation remains controversial, yet Churchill tried to rectify this lack of recognition, albeit indirectly, in a message to the JC in November 1941 on the centenary of its founding. He said:

 ‘(The Jew) has borne and continues to bear a burden that might have seemed to be beyond endurance. He has not allowed it to break his spirit.’

Hitler’s raison d’être for the invasion was his desire to eliminate ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ in a glorious pan-European crusade against Communism. This appealed to both governments and individuals across occupied Europe. There were allies who sent military units to fight alongside the advancing Nazis — this included Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Slovakia. There were the East Europeans who did not wish to become Soviet satellites under Stalin — this included the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russian nationalists. Finally, assorted fascists, anti-Communist nationalists and Nazi sympathisers volunteered from Spain and France, Belgium and Holland, Denmark and Norway.

For many Catholics, this pan-European ideal dipped deeply into the anti-Judaism of past centuries. It fuelled the idea that all Jews were both Communist oppressors and capitalist exploiters. Most Spanish bishops had sided with Franco.

Cardinal Alfred Baudrillart, the rector of the Catholic Institute in Paris, described the French volunteers as the crusaders of the twentieth century. ‘May their arms be blessed. The tomb of Christ will be liberated’. In October 1941, La Gerbe in Paris published a cartoon, entitled La Dernière Croisade and caricatured Maxim Litvinov, born Meir Wallach, Stalin’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs as the stereotypical hook-nosed Jew.

The Algerian nationalist, Said Mohammed who had worked closely with the Mufti of Jerusalem in wartime Berlin, fought in Operation Barbarossa and was awarded the Iron Cross. After 1945, he joined the FLN in Algeria’s fight for independence and became a member of Ben Bella’s government in the early 1960s.

The motivations and actions of the foreigners who served in Operation Barbarossa produce a mixed picture. Some collaborators, particularly those in Eastern Europe, were enthusiastic to kill Jews. Others such as the Spanish Blue Legion may have been fascists and disliked Jews, but they refused to become involved in acts of genocide. Some nationalist volunteers simply did not want to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler.

History records that the Nazis reached the outskirts of Moscow and were pushed back. If history had taken a different direction, the extermination of the Jews would have been far greater, the Yishuv in Palestine would have been overrun and Hitler would have made good his promise in Mein Kampf to provide lebensraum for his triumphant people.

Too many were groomed to see the Jew as the enemy within. The friendly neighbour evolved into the liquidator of the Jewish-Bolshevik subhuman. History has shown time and again how easy it is for ordinary people to become sucked into a vortex of evil. It is still a chilling thought to recall how they became Hitler’s willing executioners in the killing fields of 1941.

Jewish Chronicle 18 June 2021

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