We command loyalty from good leaders

Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars [Commissar Order], June 6, 1941


On June 22nd, 1941, "Operation Barbarossa" began the "most monstrous war of conquest, enslavement and annihilation known to modern history" (Nolte). The German-Soviet war developed into the biggest, bloodiest and cruelest conflict in world history. The delimitation of warfare on the Eastern Front also resulted in the course of the fighting from the mutual radicalization of two totalitarian systems. The origin of the escalation, however, lay clearly in a conscious decision by the German leadership, which, even before the start of hostilities, had committed itself to waging the war against the Soviet Union as a "race-ideological war of annihilation" (Hillgruber) in disregard of international law. In the spring of 1941, in a series of meetings, Hitler had advised his generals that the coming war was to be conducted as a "ideological battle" and that the "use of the most brutal force" would be necessary.

There was no opposition to Hitler's plans either in the high commands of the Wehrmacht (OKW) and Army (OKH) or in the designated commanders-in-chief of the Eastern Army. The trust in the "Führer" after the triumphs of the previous campaigns went too far and the revulsion against the Bolshevik archenemy, the Slavic civilian population and the multi-ethnic Red Army was too deep even among the Wehrmacht generals. A few weeks after Hitler's verbal instructions had been issued, the General Staff and Wehrmacht lawyers in the OKW and OKH completed the final versions of those "Führer's decrees" that were to go down in history as "criminal orders" (Uhlig): the "Decree on the exercise of martial law in the Area 'Barbarossa' and on special measures of the troops "of May 13, 1941 as well as the" Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars "of June 6, 1941. Together with a number of additional leaflets, guidelines and regulations, these" Leader Decrees "formed a complex of illegal and inflammatory orders, which should serve to transform the upcoming war into that ideologized "extermination struggle" without which Hitler believed he could not lead his "crusade against Bolshevism".

The commissar's decree represented an ideologically motivated murder program which, under the sign of the desired "extermination of Bolshevism", primarily pursued a radical end in itself. At the same time, the targeted fight against the "bearers of resistance" in the Red Army also served the functional goal of accelerating the military collapse of the Soviet Union. Hitler himself articulated this objective as early as mid-March 1941 on one of the first occasions on which he brought his plans up to representatives of the OKH: "Philosophical ties do not hold the Russian people together tightly enough. It will tear apart with the removal of the functionaries. " The same idea was later found in the preamble of the command text, in which the extermination of the commissars was, among other things, a prerequisite for the "quick pacification of the conquered territories". Like the other "criminal orders", the commissioner's directives were part of Hitler's insane colonial plans to conquer "living space" and the associated racial ideological annihilation policy, but at the same time were also intended as catalysts of the blitzkrieg strategy committed to the military goal, the Soviet one To bring down "Colossus" faster.

The commissioner's guidelines were an additional order to the martial law decree, which created the conditions for the entire package of measures of "criminal orders" through the legalization of executions without proceedings and the creation of free spaces. The commissioner's guidelines prescribed the systematic murder of regular, uniformed prisoners of war for the German front-line troops. They were directed against those political officers appointed by the Communist Party who were integrated into the Red Army to monitor the troops. As a justification, the preamble of the order assumed the Soviet commissioners and functionaries a priori grossly illegal behavior and stigmatized them as "originators of barbaric Asian fighting methods" in order to construct a kind of preventive criminal liability. This argumentation was originally based on a suggestion made by the head of the Wehrmacht command staff, Alfred Jodl, who in an early draft made the unmasking recommendation that "the best thing to do is to do the whole thing in retaliation".

The text of the order itself differentiated on the one hand between military political officers and civilian functionaries, both of whom, however, were indiscriminately referred to as "political commissars", as well as between locations where the demarcation line was drawn between the army areas close to the front and the army areas further back. With regard to the military commissars, the central provision (item I.2) said that all political commissars who were captured by Germany at the front and who were identified by their badges, the "red star with a gold hammer and sickle woven into the sleeves" could "still on the battlefield" to be separated from the other prisoners of war and to be executed immediately by the front units: "These commissioners are not recognized as soldiers; the protection that applies to prisoners of war under international law does not apply to them . " For the non-military "commissioners", that is, the functionaries of the Soviet party and civil administration, the same fate was not necessarily envisaged (Section I.1. And Section I.3.). The first step was to check whether they were "guilty of a hostile act" or were "suspicious" of one. How the civil functionaries should be dealt with was ultimately left to the discretion of the troop officers, who were responsible for deciding the "question of whether 'guilty or not guilty'".

These regulations applied to the foremost area of ​​the operational area, the so-called combat area and the rear army areas. In the rear army areas behind it, all commissars and functionaries picked up were to be handed over to the SD Einsatzgruppen (Section II). In addition, the decree contained some provisions on procedural issues such as the prohibition against taking action against the political officers before the war and court courts (section III), or the stipulation that the troops should not carry out "search and clean-up operations" from their actual tasks can be held (Section I.5.). With the requirement to report all executions via the official channels of the IC departments, the originators of the commissioner's order inadvertently created the prerequisite for the course of the extermination policy to be reflected in the files at all and subsequently researched (Section I.4.). On June 6, 1941, the OKW, which had drawn up the final version of the order on the basis of its own proposals and the drafts of the OKH, sent the finalized decree to the Army General Staff. Only two days later, on June 8, 1941, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, added a few brief additions to the commissioner's guidelines, but these did not fundamentally change the command situation. On the same date, the commissioner's guidelines were sent to the high commands of the army groups, armies and tank groups that had already assembled in the deployment area on the eastern front.

In the two weeks remaining until operations began on June 22, 1941, it became clear how little opposition there was in the Eastern Army against the decree. The passing on of the "criminal orders" to the troop units in accordance with the orders, which was nothing more than the first step towards their implementation, has been proven for about 58% of all front staff; How the other command authorities reacted to the decree is not clear from the files from the time of the preparatory phase. If one takes into account the gaps in the tradition and the tendency of the staffs to omit such processes from the files, the percentage found turns out to be a high proportion, which in all likelihood represented the typical procedure in dealing with the commissioner's guidelines. The fact that most of the troop leaders accepted the decree so without contradiction was based not only on the absolutization of obedience to orders, loyalty to the "Führer" and opportunism, but was fed above all by the radical anti-Bolshevism, which was very firmly rooted in the generals of the Eastern Army. Hardly any of the deeply conservative generals doubted that the confrontation with Bolshevism was inevitable in the long term and would lead to a struggle for existence in which all "war necessities" and the infraction of international law were justified in the interests of the nation. The expectation of a brief "lightning campaign", which would have limited the "special measures" against the commissioners to an operational phase that was generally estimated to only last several weeks, dampened any concerns.

Only a minority of troop leaders intervened against the murder order of the "Führer". The criticism was, of course, largely exhausted in the pragmatic concern about the collapse of military discipline and a "wilderness" of the soldiers as well as the traditionalist reluctance to entrust the "fencing troops" with such tasks. The fact that the goal of a radical fight against the Soviet commissioners could in principle count on broad approval was shown by the direction and scope of the partial interventions, to which some critics of the order were able to force themselves. Even these unauthorized interventions in the command situation mostly did not go beyond limiting the authority to order executions or limiting the role of the combat troops to the selection and forwarding of the captured political officers. The murder program was only partially regulated and relocated, but not suspended. Nevertheless, by acting independently, these commanders demonstrated that there was considerable leeway on the Eastern Front, which could at least be used to at least gradually weaken the radical "Führer decrees". Most commanders, however, did not make use of this option, which is one of the most haunting testimonies of how closely the generals of the Eastern Army conformed to the principles of the Commissar's Guidelines.

Contrary to the later legend of the "clean Wehrmacht", most of the associations ultimately participated in the implementation of the commissioner's guidelines during the German-Soviet war. Executions of captured political officers have been recorded in all army groups, armies and tank groups, all army corps and over 80% of the divisions of the Eastern Army; If additional circumstantial cases are taken into account, the rate at the division level even increases to over 90%. The records are silent about the handling of the order in the remaining associations. The total number of shootings, which is clearly documented, amounts to approximately four thousand cases. Due to the considerable gaps in tradition, especially the large loss of files from the prison camps in the operating area, the actual number of victims is, however, to be estimated significantly higher. If the most densely documented areas of the front are taken as a basis, it can be assumed that the number of executions carried out by units of the Eastern Army in accordance with the commissioner's guidelines was a high four-digit number, which was probably not or only just under five-digit.

The fact that the number of victims remained limited was mainly due to the fact that the German troops of most of the commissioners simply could not get hold of them, so that after only a few weeks of the campaign, the policy of extermination was hardly feasible. If the unanimous German reports are to be believed, the majority of the political officers managed to escape the invaders' access in good time or to camouflage themselves by removing their rank badges and remaining undetected in captivity. In addition, the shootings quickly became known on the Soviet side, so that most of the commissioners fought to the end or even committed suicide in hopeless situations. Since the capture of political officers became increasingly rare, fewer and fewer German units came into the situation of having to use the commissioner's order. Herein lies the grain of truth in the assurances of many veterans that they never obeyed the commissioner's orders. The murder program failed in other ways as well. The executions reinforced the already fierce resistance of the Red Army and contributed to driving the German loss rates to record highs. In the spring of 1942, Hitler finally gave in to repeated urging by his generals to revoke the commissioner's order. However, this could no longer change the fact that the extermination policy against the Soviet commissioners had long since become a heavy burden. The planned radicalization of warfare by no means brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Hitler had calculated, but rather contributed to the cohesion of the Red Army and thus ultimately to the defeat of the Eastern Army.

Felix Römer