… by Ian Greenhalgh
One of the key aspects of the revival of Russian society under Vladimir Putin has been the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church. Under the Soviet regime the Orthodox Church was attacked relentlessly; many churches and Cathedrals were destroyed, thousands of priests and monks tortured or killed.
The original Bolsheviks were almost all Jews, so many officials of the Communist party were Jews that some commentators have argued that in effect, Russia’s several million Jews enslaved 150 million Russians.
One of the forgotten aspects of the German invasion of Russia in 1941 is the way that the Germans, themselves Christians, not only allowed but actively encouraged and supported the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church, as shown in the video below:
On the left is a ww2-era Wehrmacht belt buckle; below is a ww1-era Prussian army buckle. The Nazi Adler (eagle) carrying a Swastika has replaced the crown but the motto ‘Gott Mit Uns’ (God is With Us) remained, unchanged.
Hitler himself may have had little time for religion, but the German character at the time remained steadfastly Christian in it’s beliefs and ethics.
Of course, when we think of the German conduct of the war against the Soviet Union we immediately think of cruelty, burning villages, murdered civilians, all the worst crimes against humanity you can imagine.
This is a tale that has been consistently been promoted by the media of both west and east ever since; as Mike Harris likes to point out – Hollywood has demonised two groups above all others – Nazis and Arabs.
Perhaps the most visceral and uncomfortable portrayal of the genocidal Germans on the Eastern Front narrative can be found in the 1985 Belorussian film Idi I Smotri (Come and See); a film that is truly disturbing and upsetting to watch.
I have studied the eastern front in depth for over 20 years and I have come to realise that the reality of events has been obscured by a large amount of propaganda and outright lies.
There is no doubt that the peoples of European Russia, the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine and Belorussia suffered immensely during the years 1941-45; that thousands of villages were burned; that millions of non-combatants died, many of them murdered.
However I don’t think the Germans carried out many of these attrocities – there is a lot of evidence that the Soviets dressed up in German uniforms then went round burning villages and slaughtering people in order to harden the hearts of the people against the German invader.
The Einsatzgruppen of which we have heard so much were not in the business of ethnic cleansing or genocide, they were small groups with specific tasks – to identify and eliminate the organs of the Bolshevik party; their killings were highly targeted – they picked out party leaders, political commissars, the functionaries who had run the Bolshevik regime.
The fact that the majority of these people were Jews has allowed the Stalinist propagandists such as Wassily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg to weave the Einstazgruppen into their Holocaust narrative. There is no doubt that the Germans on the Eastern Front did behave harshly on many occasions, that they did commit war crimes.
How do we reconcile this picture of the Germans with the very different one seen on the Western Front where the Germans fought the British, Americans and other allies according to the accepted rules of war? The fact that the Soviet Union was not a signatory to the various conventions governing the conduct of war was certainly significant.
The German harshness to Russian POWs is perhaps understandable given the way the Soviets treated German prisoners. Two days into the invasion the Germans found an abandoned field ambulance; in it were several dead German soldiers. The Soviets had tied them up with barbed wire then mutilated them with knives.
I think the key lesson to learn about the Eastern Front in WW2 is that the complexity of the situation; the ever-shifting patchwork of alliances of convenience between a number of groups is all far beyond the overly simplistic, propagandised ‘official’ version of events would have us believe.
We have learned from studying the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq that actual events on the ground are usually rather different to what is reported by the media; that there are multiple groups involved and often they put on the uniforms of other groups in order to hide the worst of their crimes.
I believe that a similarly complex situation existed on the Eastern Front in ww2 – that there were a large number of groups involved; not just the two warring regimes of Hitler and Stalin represented by the Wehrmacht, Waffen SS, Red Army and NKVD.
There were partisan groups of all flavours – Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian, Belorussian, Ukrainian and others. Some were nationalists, intent on creating their own nation such as the Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera who carried out large scale ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Poles of Galicia. As well as these idologically driven groups there were a lot of outright criminals ands of brigands who preyed on the local population.
In short, the situation on the Eastern Front in WW2 was every bit as complex as that found in Syria and Iraq today