- Exploitation, Resettlement, Mass Murder: Political and Economic Planning for German Occupation Policy in the Soviet Union, 1940–1941
Nazi policies in the Soviet Union were of exceptional brutality. In their murderous intent and implementation, they not only stand apart from the relatively mild occupation regimes in Western Europe, but exceed in scope even the deportations and mass murders in Poland in 1939–1941. The singular Nazi crime, the extermination of the Jews, began in the Soviet Union in 1941, then spread to Poland and the rest of Europe in 1942. It remains a matter of dispute, however, just why Hitler chose to invade the Soviet Union in the first place, and why occupation policies were formulated and executed as they were.
Alex J. Kay addresses these questions in his conscientious and important study of German planning for the invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union. His study focuses on the six months before and after Adolf Hitler’s order to the German high command, in December 1940, to prepare for an invasion of the USSR without having achieved victory over Great Britain. Kay argues that the motivation for the invasion of the Soviet Union was primarily economic. Hitler and others were convinced that the Soviet Union could provide Germany with the resources it needed to defeat Britain, in the medium term, and to win a world war, in the long term. In this reasoning, the alternative to a quick victory over the Soviet Union was inevitable defeat.
As Kay demonstrates, this reasoning reflected the experience of the First World War. As Christian Gerlach and others have noted, Hitler and indeed much of the German officer corps believed that the Great War had been lost on the home front, where hunger had deprived the German nation of its will to fight. As Great Britain once again blockaded Germany, Hitler and the German leadership were not wrong, as Adam Tooze and Mark Mazower have recently contended, to attend to the problem of food supplies for Germans. It is less often recalled (although Frank Grelka has done so) that the First World War also seemed to provide the solution to these food problems: Ukraine. In 1918 Germany had occupied Ukraine in the hope of securing foodstuffs. More than twenty years on, Hitler said: “I need the Ukraine, in order that no one is able to starve us, like in the last war.”
The central part of Kay’s study considers the Hunger Plan, the aim of which was to divert food from the USSR to Germany. The presupposition was that “the occupation of Ukraine would liberate us from every economic worry,” and the emphasis was on economics rather than politics. A test issue was the preservation of the collective farm. German political planners wanted to dissolve the collective farms in order to win the support of the population, while economic planners, who prevailed, wanted to keep them so as to control the food supply and the population. By May 1941, as Kay demonstrates, the Hunger Plan had been approved by all relevant sectors of the German leadership.
The Hunger Plan was simple in its conception. Ukraine and surrounding lands [End Page 166] to the east and south were to be treated as “surplus areas” of food production, Belarus and most of Russia as “deficit areas.” The Germans aimed to ensure that food from Ukraine traveled west rather than east and north. The result of total German control over the countryside was expected to be, indeed was meant to be, the mass starvation of the Soviet population. Kay quotes the guidelines of Economic Staff East, completed a month before the invasion on 23 May 1941: “Many tens of millions of people in this territory will become superfluous and will die or must emigrate to Siberia.”
The Hunger Plan required a decisive German victory. In Kay’s reconstruction, it was one of three main lines of planning designed to subdue the population and guarantee the availability of grain and other resources. As the...