Magazine article History Today

Nazi Posters in Wartime Russia

Magazine article History Today

Nazi Posters in Wartime Russia

Article excerpt

How did Hitler's armies try and persuade the occupied populations of the Soviet Union to live with their new regime? We publish here unique wartime posters - unearthed from the Russian archives (courtesy of our counterpart magazine Rodina) - with a commentary by the British military historian, John Erickson.

In launching Operation Barbarossa on June 22nd, 1941, the invasion of Russia and the greatest land campaign in history, Adolf Hitler embarked not only on military conquest but also on an ideological crusade and the realisation of plans for long-range colonisation. The Soviet-German war, the |Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union 1941-1945', proved to be far more than a series of battlefield encounters, gruelling and protracted though these were, emerging all too speedily as nothing less than a war of annihilation, (Vernicbtungskampf) coupled with yet another monstrous aspect, a war of racial extermination (Rassenkampf) directed against the |Jew-Bolshevik enemy' in particular and the Slav Untermensch, the sub-human, in general. The accepted rules of warfare were deliberately abandoned, the killer squads of the |Action commands' (Einsatzkommandos), were let loose on Jew, Bolshevik, prisoner and populace alike.

The German Army itself was increasingly entangled in this deliberate |barbarisation' and ended up drenched in criminality. The standards of soldierly conduct were swept aside in the dissolution of responsibility before the law, die Einscbrankung der Kriegsgerichtsbarkeit, which placed the German soldier outside the law, since according to General Reichenau the soldier faced |tasks that surpassed the traditional purely military attitude'. Hitler expressly ordered the German soldier to abandon all thought of traditional battlefield chivalry in the fighting against the Red Army. The Commissar Order of June, 1941, required that captured Red Army commissars |must be segregated and liquidated'. This was war to rid Russia of Bolshevism and the world of the |Jewish-Bolshevik infection', a titanic struggle which fused ideological warfare with unrestrained terror.

Much has been made of the gigantic Soviet propaganda effort during the war to stiffen morale, to boost war production, to defend the |Motherland' however high the cost or grim the sacrifice, to rally every man, woman and child to a patriotic cause in a just war, to warn against any collaboration with the enemy. Until very recently examples of German poster propaganda in occupied Russia had been locked away, out of sight and out of mind, if only to sustain the heroic myth that there was no collaboration with the enemy, no seething resentment among the Soviet peasantry over collectivisation, no desertion to the German side to take up arms against the Soviet regime.

Fifty years after the event these images have a potency all their own, testament to the massive social cataclysm visited upon the population of the Soviet Union, a garish kaleidoscope of underlying paradox, the attempts to persuade, beguile, recruit a population which was almost in its entirety the target of inhumanly repressive and fanatically murderous policies, coupled with rapacious economic exploitation. Consider those expansive posters (Figs. 1, 2, 3) declaring the Soviet peasant free of the hated collectivisation: |The end of the kolkhoz!' |The free peasant on his own land!', Rosenberg's own decree on peasant proprietorship. The lure was irresistible, the welcome enthusiastic, the reality disappointing, debilitating and finally disastrous.

The German dilemma was acute. Wholesale |decollectivisation' could only mean putting at risk grain supplies badly needed for the German army and the cities, yet maintaining collectivisation and requisitioning food supplies ran counter to what appeared to be on offer to the rural population. Goering demanded nothing less than the preservation of the kolkhoz, save only for a change in its name! State Secretary Backe went even further: if the Soviet regime had not set up collective farms, the Germans would have had to invent them. …

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