Organising Hell in the East

While the German armies had been desperately trying to carve out this new empire in the East, the tentacles of the SS and its various subsidiary organizations had been assiduous in their allotted task of securing the civilian population. In Russia their first move was to deprive the people of their local party officials. Hitler ordered that all political commissars were to be liquidated, and instructions went out to the ‘special units’, who acted independently of the army, that some were to be decapitated and their heads brought back to Berlin for further study. The SS were obviously intrigued with the cranial characteristics of those who were classed as untermenschen, a species of Slavic sub-humanity. But this was only the preliminary stage – a mere curtain-raiser to what was to come. This barbaric treatment of prisoners of war became a byword even among some Germans themselves. The Wehrmacht was sometimes involved, but almost invariably these tasks were left to the not so tender mercies of the special units. A report of the Soviet Chief-of-Staff at Sebastopol in December 1941 gives us some idea of the situation: he states

as a rule troop formations exterminate prisoners without interrogation…the shooting of prisoners at the place of capture or at the front line, which is practised most extensively, acts as a deterrent to soldiers of the enemy wanting to desert to us. (Hohne 1969:432)

The special units usually comprised Security Service (SD) personnel plus contingents of the Armed (Waffen) SS who were normally engaged on straightforward military duties, assisted by local militia. Some idea of the more general involvement of the military SS can be seen from a few random instances. Only two weeks after the opening of the Russian campaign, the ‘Viking’ Division shot 600 Jews in Galicia as a reprisal for ‘Soviet crimes’. On some occasions entire villages were destroyed as a form of reprisal, and this kind of ‘action’ was by no means confined to the East. Lidice in Czechoslovakia was destroyed in 1942 in retaliation for the assassination of the Reich-Protector Heydrich. The ‘Prinz Eugen’ Division liquidated the inhabitants of Kosutica in 1943; and in 1944 came the destruction of Klissura in northern Greece. The year 1944 also witnessed the notorious murder of the inhabitants of Oradour-sur- Glane in France by the ‘Das Reich’ Division, and the killing of Canadian and British prisoners of war by members of the ‘Hitlerjugend’ Panzer Division during the battles in Normandy.

The worst of the atrocities were carried out by the re-formed Einsatzgruppen. There were four such units each comprising about 1,000 men, including support personnel such as wireless operators, drivers etc., and detachments from the Waffen SS and the police. Their instructions were couched – quite deliberately – in extremely vague terms. They were to act on their own responsibility to take ‘executive measures against the civilian population’ (quoted in Krausnick and Broszat 1970:78). The implicit intention of shooting Jews is not stated overtly, and it is not clear to what extent the army itself was always aware of these plans, although the chiefs may well have guessed what was going to happen. According to the evidence of Otto Ohlendorf, the commander of one such Einsatzgruppe, when the groups were being formed in May 1941 in preparation for the invasion of Russia, they were told of the secret decree of ‘putting to death all racially and politically undesirable elements where these might be thought to represent a threat to security’ (Krausnick and Broszat 1970:79). During the Nuremberg trials after the war, it transpired that at the time this was understood to include communist officials, second-class Asiatics, gypsies and Jews. Despite the care taken in disguising their intentions, members of the Nazi hierarchy were sometimes quite explicit in their planning on occupation policy. At one conference held in July 1941, the officials were told ‘we are taking all necessary measures — shootings, deportations and so on…[the area] must be pacified as soon as possible, and the best way to do that is to shoot anyone who so much as looks like giving trouble’ (Krausnick and Broszat 1970:82). It does not take much imagination to realize that almost any measures, no matter how ruthless and bestial, could be justified in the name of security even where the victims – especially women and children – could be shown to pose no real threat to security at all.

There is very little evidence as to what actually took place during one of these ‘actions’. For example there is no documentary material for the events leading up to the destruction of the small town of Tuczyn in eastern Poland, although a vivid picture has been ‘recreated’ by eight of the survivors – who gave their testimonies at different times in different places. There were only fifteen survivors in all out of a population of 3,500, and the stories that were told apparently have an amazing degree of consistency. For economic reasons Tuczyn was not destroyed at the same time as many of the surrounding Jewish settlements, so when the time came – as the inhabitants knew it must – they were ‘prepared’. The head of the Jewish Council organized the people for resistance, but they had no weapons, only petrol, matches and bars. When the Germans came in the summer of 1942, the Jews set light to their own wooden houses, and the old and sick – led by the rabbi – jumped into the fire. Others tried to break out of the trap, and a thousand or so fled into the nearby Ukrainian forest. Only fifteen survived because of the actions of Ukrainian peasants who either killed them or handed them over to the Germans. Those who were saved were helped by the Baptist minority among the Ukrainians (Bauer 1976).

The actual executions were carried out on a massive scale by the members of the Einsatzgruppen, often with the active co-operation of local ‘partisans’ as, for example in Lithuania and the Ukraine. Thanks to the meticulous records kept by some of those involved, we often have complete breakdowns and statistics of their programme of mass murder. By 25 November 1941, Einsatzgruppe A had already executed 229,052 Jews; Einsatzgruppe B had killed 45,467 by 14 November 1941; Einsatzgruppe C 95,000 by the beginning of December of that year; and Einsatzgruppe D 92,000 by 8 April 1942. The speed at which these executions took place was frightening. For instance, in Kiev alone in two days in September 1941, reports showed that 33,771 persons were executed, mainly Jews. In fact, it is probable that by the end of 1942, as many as a million Jews had been killed. And this was just the beginning. The whole grisly process was about to be rationalized with the introduction of the gas chambers. Five extermination camps were set up for this specific purpose, as distinct from the other concentration camps which often functioned as labour industries for some eminent German firms.



Clay frying-pan vessel with incised decoration of a ship. Found at Chalandriani on Syros island. Early cycladic II period (Keros-Syros culture, 2800-2300 BC)

The Cyclades, because of their central location to trade in the eastern Mediterranean, have a rich and long history. They are a part of the vast number of islands that constitute the Greek archipelago in the Aegean Sea. The name was originally used to indicate islands that formed a rough circle around the sacred island of Delos.

The Cyclades are comprised of around 220 islands, with the major ones being Amorgos, Anafi, Ándros, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kéa, Kimolos, Kynthos, Mílos, Mykonos, Náxos, Páros, Pholegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Síros, Tínos, and Santorini (Thíra). While ancient maritime trade made the region important strategically and geographically, a reliable agricultural base made life on the Cyclades archipelago possible. The Cyclades may have been one of the earliest sites of the worship of the Mother Goddess cult, which became widespread throughout the eastern and western Mediterranean.

All Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures including ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and later on, Greece, would feature prominent goddesses. When the Minoan culture flourished in the islands from about 3000 to 1450 b.c.e., frescoes on the walls of the palace, excavated by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, featured a bare-breasted goddess with snakes. Snakes figured in many of the Mother Goddess cults in antiquity and had its parallel in the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Settlement of the Cyclades was sporadic. The Phoenicians were most likely the first settlers, while around 1000 b.c.e. the island was inhabited by the Ionians. In the case of Síros, ancient ruins, statuettes, and skeletons indicate the island had been settled by the Bronze Age.

The very dispersion of the islands made seafaring a necessary part of survival, as islanders learned that they could gain by trading with—or raiding—other islands in the archipelago. It is in these early boats that one can find the beginnings of the oared galleys that would be a feature of Mediterranean warfare until the 18th century at least, when the Knights of Malta used huge galleys in their wars against the Barbary pirates. Cycladic ships were the prototypes with which ancient Greece would plant its colonies, beginning around the sixth century b.c.e., and with which Rome would become the mistress of the Mediterranean.

The Cycladic culture peaked during the Minoan period, which was brought to life by the work of Arthur Evans with his reconstruction of the royal palace at Knossos. The story of European civilization begins on the island of Crete with a civilization that probably thought of itself as Asian (in fact, Crete is closer to Asia than it is to Europe). Thus, the Cyclades and Cretan Minoan civilization provided the first known fusion of Western and Asiatic culture. With the rise of Alexander the Great around 320 b.c.e., this would become the great Hellenistic civilization, which Alexander’s armies would carry to the very frontiers of India.

Further reading: Bent, J. Theodore, ed. The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2002; “Tinos.” Available online. URL: (November 2005); Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Mongol Fleets in Southern China

China’s enemies also came overland during this period. However, as the Mongols pressed southward across the Yangzi (Yangtze) River and encountered Chinese resistance along the coastal waterways, they, too, ordered their Chinese prisoners to construct a fleet. The last Song (Sung) emperor drowned at sea after suffering final defeat at the hands of the Mongol navy. In 1274 and 1281, Mongol ruler Kubilai Khan launched two invasions of Japan with a huge armada of Korean and Chinese built ships that carried 140,000 soldiers during the second expedition. The ships were no match against typhoons, and both invasions failed.

Chinese ships, navigated by the compass (first used by Chinese navigators around 1100), with capacity between 200 and 600 tons, dominated the seas, carrying Chinese ceramics and other goods to Japan, Southeast Asia, and southern Asia. Taxes on trade produced the revenues needed to pay the annual tribute to Jin and to pay for the army.

Around 1200 the situation in northern China was dramatically changed by the rise of Mongols under Genghis Khan. After uniting the Mongol tribes under him, Genghis began attacking Jin in 1210. His forces took and destroyed Jin Central Capital (modern Beijing) in 1215 and many other cities in northern China. Genghis left the Jin campaign unfinished to turn westward, destroying Xixia in 1227. In 1232 Song repeated the mistake that Huizong had made in 1118 when he made a treaty with Jin against Liao—it made an alliance with the Mongols against Jin, which was destroyed in 1234. However instead of regaining parts of northern China, Song was faced with the formidable Mongols in 1245. Song forces resisted desperately, both sides using gunpowder and firearms.

Mongol forces were initially stymied by the strongly fortified Song cities and had problems fighting in the river- and canal-intersected terrain of southern China. The great Song fortress Xiangyang (Hsiang-yang) in modern Hubei (Hupei) province north of the central Yangzi valley held up for four years in 1273. Finally Persian siege engineers and starvation forced Xiangyang’s surrender, which opened up the route to conquer the south. The Mongols also built a navy. The last adult Song emperor died in 1274; two years later Hangzhou surrendered without a fight. Three infant emperors succeeded one another until 1279 when the last one drowned near Guangzhou (Canton) in 1279 as his remnant navy was overwhelmed by the Mongol fleet.

Further Reading Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276.


The unrest in Hungary in 1848 and 1849 was largely an expression of Magyar nationalism, and as such was opposed by those from minority ethnic groups, in particular the Croats. In 1849, with Louis Kossuth appointed president of an independent republic of Hungary, the Austrians accepted Russian assistance, offered in the spirit of the Holy Alliance, and the rebels were eventually crushed at the Battle of Timisoara.

Austria was by this time largely under the control of Foreign Minister Metternich, who used his influence to persuade the other major European powers to assist Austria in crushing revolts in Spain, Naples and Piedmont. His own methods involved the limited use of secret police and the partial censorship of universities and freemasons. The years 1848 and 1849 saw a succession of largely unsuccessful uprisings against the absolutist rule of the Habsburg monarchy. Although reforms of the legal and administrative systems (known as the “April Laws”) were set to take effect in Hungary later that year, they did not apply to the rest of the Habsburg territories. The unrest started in Vienna in March 1848 (as a result of which Metternich was dismissed) and spread to Prague, Venice and Milan. A Constituent Assembly was summoned to revise the constitution, but its only lasting action was to abolish serfdom. By the autumn the unrest had reached Hungary as a number of ethnic groups within the empire made bids for greater national rights and freedoms. In December the ineffectual Ferdinand I abdicated in favour of his nephew, Francis Joseph. Not feeling bound by the April Laws, Francis Joseph annulled the Hungarian constitution, causing the Hungarian leader Louis Kossuth to declare a republic. With the help of the Russians (who feared the spread of revolutionary fervour), and the Serbs, Croats and Romanians (who all feared Hungarian domination), the Austrian army succeeded in crushing the revolt in 1849.

From 1849 onwards an even more strongly centralized system of government was established. Trade and commerce were encouraged by fiscal reforms, and the railway network expanded. Coupled with peasant emancipation – for which landowners had been partially compensated by the government – these measures led to a trebling of the national debt over ten years. Higher taxes and a national loan raised from wealthier citizens led to discontent among the Hungarian nobles, who wished to see the restoration of the April Laws. In 1859 war in the Italian provinces forced the Austrians to cede Lombardy.


Hitler said on many occasions that his dreams of race and space inevitably would involve war with the USSR. Operation Barbarossa, the attack on the Soviet Union, was set for mid-1941. Even before it began Hitler insisted it was to be a Vernichtungskrieg, or war of annihilation unlike any other in history. Planning began in earnest in July 1940 when Hitler stated again that it would not be enough just to win the war but that the Soviet state had to be “utterly destroyed.” After the “inferior race” was conquered, the Soviet peoples, like the Poles, were to become “a people of leaderless slave laborers.”

He was not alone in repeatedly insisting on “the utmost brute force” and said this war was going to be unlike anything seen before. When the invasion began it was by far the largest in world history. Himmler’s attitude on the eve of the attack was that he had “no interest in the fate” of such people. “Whether they thrive or starve to death concerns me only from the point of view of them as slave labor . . . in all other respects I am totally indifferent.”

In the beginning Operation Barbarossa was unstoppable, and the Germans took vast numbers of prisoners, so many in fact that it was possible to murder the Jews without giving much thought to concerns about their lost labor power. Numerous Soviet prisoners were shot out of hand, but many thousands were confined in camps, including some inside Germany, where it was well known locally that the men were starving to death and were otherwise in desperate shape. The mayor of at least one town wanted to have the road to the camp opened so that ordinary Germans could go to see for themselves “these animals in human form” and imagine what would have happened if “these beasts” had conquered Germany.

To illustrate the net effect of how Soviet prisoners were treated, we need only look at one German report from May 1, 1944. It states that by then the Germans had taken a total of 5,165,381 prisoners. The report speaks about a “wastage” of 2 million (i.e ., they died). Another 1,030,157 were supposedly “shot while trying to escape,” while 280,000 perished in transit camps, bringing the total to 3.3 million. By 1945, out of a grand total of 5.7 million prisoners of war, no less than 3.3 million of them died in captivity. We have to recall, however, that the Germans often made sure there were no prisoners to take and had largely stopped taking any by the time of this survey.

The civil population in one place after another across the occupied areas of the Soviet Union was simply allowed to starve to death, deported to work as slaves in Germany, or exploited on the spot. Mass starvation, however, almost inevitably accompanied the German invasion, because the troops were expected to live off the land, which in many cases had already been combed through for provisions by the retreating Soviet forces. Deliberate starvation was part of the great sieges such as the one at Stalingrad and the other at Leningrad, but we can see the effect of the occupation in many less well known areas like Charkov, a city with a population of nearly 1 million before nearly half of them left with the Soviet evacuation. Located on the road to Stalingrad in the southeast of the country, Charkov was already in terrible shape when the Wehrmacht arrived. Nevertheless, the German Armed Forces were told to live off the land, which meant seizing provisions where they could be found and that left very little for the native population. During each month of the German occupation, hundreds starved to death.

Starvation was magnified many times in cities like Leningrad where major battles took place. The siege of the city lasted from September 8, 1941, to January 18, 1943. Hitler and other leaders repeatedly said they did not even want it to surrender, nor did they wish any of the civilian population to escape. In this battle alone, according to official Soviet figures, civilian losses were put at 632,253, the vast majority of them dying from starvation, but the losses in fact were higher. Hitler told Goebbels that Leningrad should disappear, for it would be impossible to feed its 5 million inhabitants after the battle was won. Even on the ground by the winter of 1942 the death rate just for this city was estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000 per day before the registration system broke down.

The Slavic peoples suffered enormous losses. A reliable and conservative estimate puts the losses of the Soviet Union alone at around 25 million, of whom two-thirds or so were civilians. Some Soviet historians have only recently suggested the number of dead may have been twice as large in total, ranging close to 50 million. Although we have to be very careful with these kinds of statistics, there is no disputing the fact that the Soviets suffered by far the greatest casualties in the war. There should be no question in anyone’s mind that if the Nazis had won that war against Stalin, the results for the peoples of the Soviet Union would have been even more catastrophic.