A German soldier shares his rations with a Russian mother

A German soldier shares his rations with a Russian mother, 1941

Germany deliberately starved occupied Soviet territories by plundering their food for German use. This was the ‘Hunger Plan’, which starved to death millions of people. It was in part a practical decision to have German forces live off the land, but it also fit nicely into German plans to exterminate the population of the Soviet Union. And this makes this photo particularly poignant. This is a good man who has no idea that his role will ultimately make his gesture futile and starve them to death anyway. This photo was taken in 1941 by the photographer of the 291st Division of the Wehrmacht George Gundlach. One of the many, out of the photo album “Volkhov’s battle. Documents of horror 1941-1942″.

The tents were made from shelter quarters, which each man carried, with an aluminium central pole that fitted through rings in the corner.The tent wasn’t so waterproof, and that’s why the helmet is resting on the pole, to prevent the rain going inside.

The soldier was part of 291st Division of the Wehrmacht. The Wehrmacht engaged in plenty of deliberate mass killings, especially on the Eastern Front. Hitler literally declared the war with the Soviets a war of extermination, and gave every Wehrmacht officer the power to execute without trial. The Wehrmacht also often closely cooperated with the SS in the rounding up and execution of Jews under the guise of anti-partisan actions. The Wehrmacht were absolutely not just “a mix of good and bad people” who sometimes were forced to do awful things; they were a highly indoctrinated, ideologically inspired force which enthusiastically massacred people. The “Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops in Russia” issued by the OKW on May 19, 1941 declared “Judeo-Bolshevism” to be the most deadly enemy of the German nation, and that “It is against this destructive ideology and its adherents that Germany is waging war”. The guidelines went on to demand “ruthless and vigorous measures against Bolshevik inciters, guerrillas, saboteurs, Jews, and the complete elimination of all active and passive resistance.” For example, the Wehrmacht would mass execute civilians if one soldier was killed by a partisan (civilian fighting guerrilla warfare). Often they would just march into a town, burn all the buildings with flamethrowers, and shoot all the civilians.

…no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment. The punishment or censure that occasionally did result from such disobedience was never commensurate with the gravity of the crimes the men had been asked to commit.

That’s from “Ordinary Men” a famous book by Christopher Browning that studied a conscript police unit of 500 men that massacred perhaps 50,000 Jews. They were told at the outset that they could refuse to take part if they wanted to, without consequences; very few of them did.

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