War of Annihilation:
How Ideology, Rationality, and Misperception Shaped the War on the Eastern Front
“Hegemony over Europe will be decided in battle against Russia.”1 Hitler could not have been more clear; the conflict against the Soviet Union during World War II was to be cornerstone of the Nazi plan to institute a new order in Europe, permanent German dominance. The planned result of this new order would see the political, social, and economic reshaping of Europe into a racially German empire. Such a radical and absolute foreign policy objective required rigid implementation, making viable diplomatic solutions extremely unlikely. However, the authoritarian political atmosphere of central and eastern Europe made such a rigid implementation possible. This atmosphere also made it likely that states at war would take drastic actions in order to secure their interests. Nazi Germany had decided to wipe Bolshevik Russia off of the face of the Earth. The uncompromising objectives of the Third Reich were exceedingly ambitious. Nonetheless, Hitler believed it Europe could be re-shaped in just a few years. The optimism of the Nazi leadership, based on several key assumptions, were the obvious result of rampant misperception. Indeed, many of Germany’s failed objectives were the result of utopian ethnocentric ideology prevailing over practical rationality.
During the night of June 22nd, 1941, amazingly undetected, over three million soldiers invaded the Soviet Union. The struggle that ensued for the next four years remains the largest and most expensive, in terms of lives and material cost, that the world has ever seen. Some of the latest estimates put the number of exclusively Soviet dead, military and civilian, at twenty-five million.2 Along with the appalling number of casualties, the very nature of the war stands out in history as especially gruesome. The war was intertwined with the Jewish Holocaust as racial extermination was an integral part of official orders. This was to be, from the very beginning, a war of annihilation.
During World War I the objective of the German Empire was the protection of its perceived national interests, by securing a favorable balance of power relative to other European powers. In the days leading up to World War I Germany was convinced that the rest of Europe was committed to reverting the nascent central European power back into a loose confederation of smaller states as it had been for centuries preceding. A unified Germany had been a threat to the traditional European powers ever since its realization in 1871. With the precipitous ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, marking the end of World War I, Germans were left with intense feelings of resentment and betrayal. This resentment helps, in part, to explain how eventual popular justification of many extremist Nazi policies was possible. Sentiments of this nature were effectively exploited by radical groups like the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis). Those responsible for signing the treaty were labeled by Hitler as “November Criminals.”3 This became a popular slogan helping stir up the anger and hostility required for thrusting the populace into a mindset geared for total warfare.
By the 1930’s, the somewhat eclectic Nazi ideology solidified. The belief that racial Germans had an exclusive right as masters of the world, and assigning all other races to subjugation and slavery was to become foreign policy. While some of the earliest rhetoric coming from National Socialists included a sort of economic egalitarianism, once Hitler tasted real power, his highest priority, racial politics, came to the forefront. The foundation of Nazi ideals rested in the belief that Germans were superior and the origin of all the world’s ills came from the “inferior” races. Race mixing was looked down upon, viewed as bad racial hygiene.4 If racism was the core of the Nazi ideology, anti-Semitism was the core of Nazi racism. Nazis believed Jewry to be the ultimate threat to a German utopia. The Nazi party went to great lengths to “educate” the German people about the supposed evils of the Jew.5 The shame of the “November Criminals,”6 Hitler believed, lay at the feet of the Marxists and Jews, whom Hitler cognitively combined. By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Germany had a well established foundation for racism on an extreme scale. This racist foundation is influential in the subsequent adherence by many of the average German soldiers to the orders that amounted to the ethnic cleansing of the Russian people.
One of the most respected authorities on Adolf Hitler, Dr. Ian Kershaw, sums up the Nazi view of history as a “racial struggle, in which the highest racial entity, the Aryan, was being undermined and destroyed by the lowest, the parasitic Jew.”7 In Hitler’s mind the Soviet Union was the real-life, political representation of Jewish Bolshevism. This ideology put Germany, ruled by Hitler, and Bolshevik Russia in a fateful juxtaposition. With this new ideology, Germany experienced a shift in foreign policy, from protecting and expanding national interests to creating, at all costs, a new European order. Additionally, this new foreign policy was backed by the perception that constant war was beneficial for the vigilance of the German people. In other words, the absence of war will make the German people lazy.
Russia’s territory had been in Nazi sights ever since Hitler joined the young political party. When at Landsberg Prison, in 1924, Hitler made his opinion of Russia’s destiny clear. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, Hitler laid out the essence of his future foreign policy, “Territorial policy cannot be fulfilled in the Cameroons (commenting on the Kaiser’s strategy before World War I to expand in Africa) but today almost exclusively in Europe.”8 The fact that Europe was already occupied did not bother Hitler, “…nature has not reserved this soil for the future possession of any particular nation or race; on the contrary, this soil exists for the people which posses the force to take it.”9 Such unambiguous quotes make it clear that Hitler intended to invade Russia, his justification simply resting on Germany’s ability to win the war. The moment this sort of rationality was armed with the world’s most effective military and applied to Germany’s grand strategy, the stage was set for what Hitler predicted as the “greatest battle in history.”10 Hitler’s attitude towards Russia went far beyond conventional political science theory applicable to modern foreign relations. His ideology and misperception damned Germany and the Soviet Union to war.
Hitler did have rational reasons for desiring an invasion of the Soviet Union. As a matter of prevention, he feared the massive Bolshevik state as a permanent threat to the existence of a National Socialist Germany. It must be remembered, though, that Hitler’s final objective was to occupy Russian lands for German expansion. Therefore, Hitler’s view that the Soviet Union was an evil entity of Jewry which threatened German interests was arguably superfluous as a causal factor. Hitler wanted to expand for the purpose of multiplying the German race on the continent of Europe, and thought it was Germany’s destiny to rule. Any fear of or threat from the occupiers of the land he desired for Germany served as additional justification for their removal. However, this should not be interpreted that Hitler’s fear was spurious as the Soviet Union subscribed to the practical, political ideology which held that Communism must globalize to survive.11
Not only did Hitler covet the lebensraum that Russia provided, he also desired the vast quantities of natural resources present, resources that a German utopia would surely need. Hitler rhetorically asked, “Where is there a region capable of supplying iron of the quality of Ukrainian iron?” Hitler continued, “Where can one find more nickel, more coal, more manganese, more molybdenum? And on top of that so many other possibilities! With 100,000 acres devoted to the growing of rubber, our needs are covered!”12 Hitler was obsessed with Russia and could not accept that such a valuable land could be in the hands of an “inferior” people. “It is inconceivable, that a higher people should painfully exist on a soil too narrow for it, whilst amorphous masses, which contribute nothing to civilization, occupy infinite tracts of a soil that is one of the richest in the world,” Hitler complained.13 What did Hitler want to do to correct this fateful discrepancy? Hitler commanded, “A permanent war on the eastern front will help form a sound race of men, and will prevent us from relapsing into the softness of a Europe thrown back upon itself… This space in Russia must always be dominated by Germans.”14 The above passage is crucial to understanding the nature of the grand strategy of the German war machine during the inevitable clash between Germany and the Soviet Union. War was not the last resort; it was the only way.
Nazis obviously believed that might made right, but Nazis added an element to that logic: the conclusion that the might Germany possessed existed was due to their racial superiority. Furthermore, Nazis perverted Darwin’s theory into a justification of their racial policies, hijacking the theory that the strongest survive.15 War was seen as the political version of survival of the fittest, correlating perfectly to Nazi ideology. Hitler confirms this attitude when questioned about the possibility of resistance from the current occupiers of the land he has earmarked; “Then the law of self-preservation goes into effect and what is refused to amicable methods, it is up to the fist to take.”16 Hitler eventually mobilized over seven million fists for the task.
The Nazis, from their inception, held deep rooted hatred for communists. The racial minded Nazis tended to see Marxism as a Jewish manifestation. This simple-minded approach correlated with the Nazi trend of glossing-over complicated phenomena. Hitler and his leadership believed that Bolshevism and Jewry were one in the same. The brutality Stalin used to subjugate his people was seen as the actions of the evil “blood Jew.” This led to the conclusion that it was Germany’s destiny to rid the world of Jewish Bolshevism, thus serving the complementary purpose of providing the German people with the aforementioned lebensraum.17 Germany was to play the role of the superman hero. This was to be the true test and final proof that the Aryan race was destined to rule the world.
Among the most salient oddities during the clash between Germany and the Soviet Union is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Armed with hindsight we can readily conclude that this was shrewd political maneuvering that was a work of genius as it effectively opened the window to opportunistic expansionism for Germany. On 23 August, 1939, the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia was announced to the shock of the world. The Soviet Union and Germany had been at intense odds for the previous several years. At the time of the pact, much of Hitler’s vitriolic anti-Soviet rhetoric was well-known to Soviet government ministers and the same was true for Soviet, anti-Nazi propaganda to Nazi leaders.18 However, it is important to remember that the Soviet Union had a deep- rooted distrust for the capitalist western powers, France and the United Kingdom. The German strong-arming of other Central European states made the Soviets nervous. The Soviets, with no trusted allies, were forced to find security in an alliance or treaty that would decrease its own vulnerability.19 The United Kingdom, who had no interest in being entrapped in a war with Germany for the aid of Communists, only put forth half-hearted efforts to reach an arrangement with the Soviets. The Soviets were annoyed by this, catapulting them further in to a desperate position which required them to seek some diplomatic assurance in order to alleviate part of their perceived vulnerability. The Soviet perception that its own position was desperate made them more susceptible to Germany’s nefarious diplomacy.
The vulnerability of the lone, Communist Soviet Union opened the door to one of the greatest military misperceptions of all time. Little did the Soviets know that before, during, and after the existence of the Non-Aggression Pact Germany was planning on the complete destruction of the former. Germany was using the facade the pact presented for the dual purpose of luring the U.S.S.R. into a state of complacency and keeping the western powers from interfering with Germany’s plans to invade Poland (which took place less than ten days after the pact with the Soviets.) A notable element of the pact was the carving up of Poland between Germany and the U.S.S.R. However, this element of the pact exposes a misperception committed by Hitler. The failure of France and the United Kingdom to intervene in earlier political crises led Hitler to conclude that his opposition being forced to declare war on Russia along with Germany would make it logically impossible for an expanded war to break out. Hitler was convinced that the previously observed pacifism could only continue, given the additional involvement of the Soviet Union in the partition of Poland.20 Hitler never imagined the western powers would conveniently ignore the Soviet role in the partition of Eastern Europe and single out Germany, which they did. France and the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum backed by the threat of a declaration of war. When Germany ignored, a state of war existed between them.
Hitler’s misperception, while significant, pales in comparison with the blunder committed by his rival despot. Stalin was so pleased with the Nazi-Soviet Pact that he actually developed a trust for Hitler. Stalin fell victim to cognitive filtering as he believed only what he wanted, and refused to discard the emotional joy that the unlikely pact brought him. A trusting Stalin, especially with Hitler as the object, is incomprehensible as the Soviet dictator is perhaps the least trusting personality in all of history. When combined, Stalin’s notorious paranoia and Hitler’s reputation of being extremely untrustworthy creates a mind-boggling paradox. For whatever reason, Stalin trusted Hitler’s word over that of his own spies, which actually supplied him with the exact date of the planned German attack.21 Stalin repeatedly ignored the pleas from his advisors, generals, spies, diplomats, and virtually everyone who had access to him, doing virtually nothing to prepare the Soviet Union for the imminent war. This misperception had grave consequences for the Soviet Union as a massive portion of its army and air force was destroyed in the early stages of the war.22
Relative to Hitler, most of his generals were pessimistic. However, when compared to other contemporary generals, Hitler’s generals were optimistic. This illustrates how incautiously optimistic Hitler was as a strategist. Hitler’s military leaders soon fell victim to the infectious optimism, and understandably so, as the German army had been more successful in terms of efficiency that any other army in history. This served to augment Germany’s misperceptions regarding the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Russia, historically, was a dangerous land to invade. Napoleon, who ironically used one of the same roads as Army Group Center during their drive to Moscow, was handed one of his worst defeats while attempting to subdue Tsar Alexander’s Russia. However, Napoleon was not defeated by the Russian army. Napoleon was defeated by Russia’s vastness and the Russian winter. These two natural elements combined to wear down and break Napoleon’s forces. Hitler still, with the benefit of hindsight, fell victim to misperception. He concluded, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”23 German intelligence put the timetable for victory at three months at the most. The war lasted four years.
Not only did the war last four years, it was the largest, most expensive, and most gruesome the world has ever seen. The result of the war was the complete destruction of the German state. After total defeat at the hands of Stalin’s Soviet Union Germany was not re-unified until 1990. Over three million German troops died and their cities were laid to waste.24 Germany was totally destroyed, which was quite a deviation from the three-month victory predicted before the war. A more costly misperception would be difficult to imagine.
The war between Germany and the Soviet Union had many elements that make it stand out in history. German plans for a “New Order” led them down a path of ideology- driven foreign policy. While Nazi extremist ideology likely led to much of their once unimaginable success, the intrinsic nature of extremism tends to turn the terror back on the instigator. As is seen with the example of Germany’s policy during World War Two, extremist ideology leads to misperception which corrupts rationality. German overconfidence in their capabilities, wrapped in a belief of racial superiority and an ideology that will triumphs over all, led to a war that should have never happened.
Evans, Richard. The Coming of The Third Reich. New York: Penguin Press, 2004
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999
Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort. New York: Penguin Books, 1997
Rich, Norman. Hitler’s War Aims: The Establishment of the New Order. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1974.
Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Greenwich, Conn. Crest Publishing, 1962
Stackelberg, Roderick. Hitler’s Germany. London and New York: Rutledge, 1999
Toland, John. Adolf Hitler. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976
Weinberg, Gerhard. The Foreign Policy of Hilter’s Germany 1937-1937. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Ziemke, Earl. Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East. United States of America: Barnes & Noble Books, 1968
1 Toland, John. Adolf Hitler. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976 pp. 671
2 Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort. New York: Penguin Books, 1997
3 Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Greenwich, Conn. Crest Publishing, 1962 pp. 56
4 Evans, Richard. The Coming of The Third Reich. New York: Penguin Press, 2004. pp 37
5 Stackelberg, Roderick. Hitler’s Germany. London and New York: Rutledge, 1999 pp. 88
7 Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999 pp. 243
8 Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Greenwich, Conn. Crest Publishing, 1962 pp. 123
9 Ibid. pp. 123
10 Ibid. pp. 1101
11 Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort.
12 Rich, Norman. Hitler’s War Aims: The Establishment of the New Order. pp. 329
13 Ibid. pp. 329
14 Ibid. pp. 329
15 Stackelberg, Roderick. Hitler’s Germany. London and New York: Rutledge, 1999 pp. 45
16 Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Greenwich, Conn. Crest Publishing, 1962 pp. 123
17 Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999 pp. 243
18 Stackelberg, Roderick. Hitler’s Germany. London and New York: Rutledge, 1999 pp. 176-77
19 Ibid. pp. 176-77
20 Weinberg, Gerhard. The Foreign Policy of Hilter’s Germany 1937-1937. The University of Chicago Press.
21 Overy, Richard. Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort. New York: Penguin Books, 1997
22 Ziemke, Earl. Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East Barnes & Noble Books, 1968
23 Toland, John. Adolf Hitler. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976 pp. 671
24 Ziemke, Earl. Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1968 pp. 500