Saturday 21 January 2023

Germany's hunger plan to murder millions


Middle aged men stop reading serious novels and start reading military history.

I always intended to avoid this fate, one I associate with boys who enjoyed games at school, but I have succumbed. 

History is the subject that tells us most about the world, after psychology, and military history, in a sense, is the most essential part of history.

Grahame Greene said thrillers are more like real life than real life. Military history is also more like real life than real life. 

Skipping the war sections in War and Peace is a huge mistake.

Reading about the Second World War in the last few weeks, certain things stand out for me. 

One was the German need for food, caused by the Royal Navy's blockade. 

Another, closely linked, was that perhaps 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war died in German captivity, most from starvation which is a very cruel way to die. 

A third thing was Hitler's folly in provoking the French and British empires combined to declare war on Germany. He repeated the Kaiser's foolish mistake. He did defeat France and might easily have defeated the Soviet Union, but could not have defeated the British Empire. 

A fourth was the British and French decision to go to war without needing to, which I think was also folly. The French decision obviously was, at any rate.

An interview Christian Gerlach, a leading authority on the German invasion of the USSR, gave to a Marxist site is very informative on the question of food and hunger. 

He makes a convincing attack on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, a book I defended against a Marxist reviewer called Daniel Lazare writing in Jacobin

I'd guess Professor Gerlach is also very left-wing.

I quote from Professor Gerlach in the interview.

Because of the British naval blockade in World War II, Germany could no longer rely on shipments of food, edible oil and mineral oil from overseas. Its reserves were soon exhausted. From the perspective of the Nazi leadership and military leaders, such lack of resources might lead to military defeat and revolution, as it had in World War I. To avoid this, German politicians in charge of food and agriculture, military and economic strategists developed in the months prior to the German attack against the Soviet Union the plan to extract these resources by force from Soviet territories to be occupied. The idea was to starve to death tens of millions of Soviet citizens by cutting them off from food deliveries, namely the urban population in the Western Soviet Union and certain regions called “deficit areas” (Northern Russia, large parts of Central Russia and, to a degree, Belarus).

The food thus acquired was not primarily to be sent to Germany. Rather it was to be used to feed the German armies at the front attacking the USSR, whose rear supply lines (railways) from Germany would be feeble and which therefore needed to carry as many supplies in the form of troops, weapons and ammunition as possible, instead of food. The hunger policy seemed bitterly necessary to win the hard fight against the Soviets. This aspect led to much support for the hunger plan in the armed forces, down to the lower ranks. And targeting the cities also meant to strike two enemy groups that might lead any anti-German resistance—the communist movement and the Jews who were concentrated in urban areas. These arguments resonated with Nazis and military officers alike.

Relatively simple as it was, the hunger plan could not fully be implemented. With their weak rear forces, the Germans could not prevent urban dwellers from procuring some food and from escaping to the countryside. And the Germans needed some residual urban workforce in the occupied territory for military purposes. When the German military entered a crisis at the front in the fall of 1941, the wholesale hunger plan was dropped, and more specific policies of violence against certain groups were adopted who were under tight German control. This meant, simply put, starving the Soviet POWs and shooting the Jews, especially in regions under military administration.
The past is not dead and these next words are topical.
A civil war in Western Ukraine and the area of Lublin, Poland, in 1943 illustrates where these tensions could lead. Under German occupation, and hardly to the liking of the Germans, Ukrainian and Polish nationalist groups attacked villages of the other ethnicity, which resulted in at least 50,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly Poles (and, actually, including a number of Jews in hiding). The military wing of the Ukrainian OUN (Bandera) and the Polish Home Army fought each other. In the summer, pro-Soviet partisans also interfered. And many rural dwellers just wanted to be left in peace. The existence of several parties highlights the social fragmentation that was also typical of other civil wars during World War II (for example, in China, the Philippines, Burma, Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy). As for Western Ukraine, the infighting appears insane, but it addressed past grievances and was about different visions of the political and societal future: When the Germans would be gone, was the area [Volhynia, which in 1919-1939 was part of Poland] to become part of an independent, anti-communist Ukraine or of an anti-communist Poland or of the Soviet Union? Who would dominate society: Ukrainian peasants and intellectuals? Polish landlords and civil servants? Soviet cadres and workers? Or, as many then believed and feared, “Jews”? Such outlooks determined who was attacked. Locals had their own agency and were not only passive objects of Nazi (and Soviet) rule and violence.
Interviewer: You have done extensive research into the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany but also other genocides. Today, the term “genocide” is regularly used by politicians and the media but with little to no evidence provided and no serious discussion of what the term actually means. Can you explain to a lay audience what issues a historian needs to consider when it comes to the assessment of whether or not a given historical event constitutes a genocide?

Christian Gerlach: Genocide is an analytically worthless concept made for political purposes. I don’t use it. It serves for political condemnation and intervention, that is, as a pretext for war (whether with aerial attacks, ground forces or deadly “sanctions,” as economic warfare is warfare). It also serves for prosecution in show trials, as part of the two main remedies that bourgeois regimes offer: enforced regime change and a bit of re-education. But since the socioeconomic problems and conflicts underlying mass violence are not being addressed in that way, such interventions are as “successful” in stopping violence as they were in Iraq or Libya; often they aggravate it.

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