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.