Hitler’s Military Operations against the Nemeses

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

When Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain, the Germans began planning for the invasion of England. They knew they had to achieve air superiority over the English Channel, and so, ensued an air battle between the German air force and the RAF, called the Battle of Britain. Who won in this battle? What was Hitler’s next move?

German air raid on London.
The Germans carried out systematic bombing of London during their military operations in the Second World War. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Germans were not able to establish the necessary air superiority, although the bombing of Britain continued. It moved over from establishing air superiority over the English Channel to a systematic bombing of London and then later of other major cities in Britain.

However, the war against England was not Hitler’s primary objective, and he quickly lost patience.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Operation Barbarossa

In the summer of 1940, Hitler instructed his military to begin thinking about the possibilities of an invasion of the Soviet Union. In December, the high command of the army began very serious preparations for an operation called Operation Barbarossa, named after the German emperor of the Middle Ages who had driven into the East to establish territory for the German empire.

Nazi ideology held the Soviet Union to be the center of global Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. Thus, war against the Soviet Union would not only have geopolitical objectives—the seizing of territory, providing the German nation with living space—but it was also a major ideological goal. This would be a crusade against Judeo-Bolshevism, to save Western civilization, as Hitler put it, from this great threat.

Learn more about the Bolsheviks in power.

Hitler’s Assumptions in the War

Hitler was also convinced of two things. One was that, although Germany had been unable to invade Great Britain, this really wouldn’t be a two-front war. Britain was eliminated as a power factor in Europe.

The English were holding on, but the only way they could possibly play a significant role henceforth would be if somehow the United States entered the war. Therefore, a turn to the East wouldn’t be committing the sin of a two-front war.

Finnish soldiers manning a machine gun.
The tiny Finnish army had fought a winter war by putting up tremendous struggle against the Red Army. (Image: Military Museum of Finland/Public domain)

He also believed, as did his military men, that the Red Army was weak. The Soviet Union had invaded Finland with almost disastrous results; the tiny Finnish army had fought a winter war, frustrating the Red Army. The Red Army did not look like a serious military force.

Hitler believed  that the Red Army—and the Soviet Union, more broadly—were rotten to the core. One only had to kick in the door, Hitler said, and the whole rotten structure would collapse within a matter of weeks.

The Rhetoric of the War

Hitler warned his generals that this was not going to be a war like the      war against France or against England—that this was a war to be fought with unusual rules beyond the traditional practices of warfare.

His top military commanders were issued an order, which came to be known as the ‘Commissar Order’. That order was followed by a series of other directives, which gave a very clear indication of how different this war in the east would be. Here is a passage from this Commissar Order:

In the struggle against Bolshevism, we must not assume that the enemy’s conduct will be based on principles of humanity or of international law.    The originators of barbaric Asiatic methods of warfare are the political  commissars of the Bolshevik Party. Accordingly, measures must be taken against them immediately and with full severity.

In case this message wasn’t clear, a set of guidelines was issued to the troops:

Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the National Socialist German people. Germany’s struggle is directed against this destructive ideology and its carriers. This struggle demands ruthless and energetic measures against Bolshevik agitators, guerrillas, saboteurs, Jews, and the complete elimination of every active or passive resistance.

The Obvious Targets of the War

It goes without saying that Bolshevik agitators, the saboteurs, and the guerrillas were not going to be very easy to round up. But the Jewish community of what had been Eastern Poland and Western Russia would become obvious targets.

An additional order made it quite clear to the commanders and to the troops in the field that there would be no legal repercussions for actions taken in this extraordinary theater of warfare. In addition, special SS commando units, the Einsatzgruppen, would accompany the troops into the Soviet Union and would be given ‘special tasks’.

Learn more about Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa.

The Special Tasks of the Einsatzgruppen

These Einsatzgruppen had been given similar special tasks during the invasion of Poland in September of 1939. In Poland, they moved in alongside the troops and rounded up members of the Jewish community—committed all sorts of atrocities, to the shock of the military commanders and to the German troops.

There were a lot of complaints during the Polish campaign, emanating from the German high command and from German troops in the ground, that these SS commando units were getting in the way of military operations.

But the army was told in no uncertain terms, before the invasion of the Soviet Union, that the Einsatzgruppen had been given their orders for special activities from the highest levels of the German government, meaning Hitler.

The SS had committed itself not to get in the way. They would not interfere with military operations, but the army also should make way for them and try not to interfere with their operations either. Hitler did not want to miss this opportunity.

Common Questions about Hitler’s Military Operations against the Nemeses

Q: What was significant about the name Operation Barbarossa named after?

Operation Barbarossa was named after the German emperor of the Middle Ages who had driven into the East to establish territory for the German empire.

Q: What did the Einsatzgruppen do during the invasion of Poland in 1939?

During the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Einsatzgruppen moved in alongside the German troops and committed all sorts of atrocities against the members of the Jewish community.

Q: What was the Commissar Order?

During the Second World War, Hitler‘s top military commanders were issued an order, which came to be known as the ‘Commissar Order’. That order was followed by a series of other directives, which gave a very clear indication of how different the war in the east, against the Soviet Union, would be.

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