25 April 2014

The Holocaust, Anti-Partisan Reprisals and the Siege of Leningrad


The Holocaust

Compared to the other categories of Soviet civilian losses of World War II there are now relatively precise and reliable calculations for the number of Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad calculates there were between 2,509,000 and 2,624,500 civilian Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust, which makes for a mid-point estimate of 2.55 million.[29]

This estimate includes only direct victims of the Holocaust, and leaves out Soviet Jewish deaths in unoccupied USSR, for example among Jewish refugees from western USSR and in the Siege of Leningrad. It leaves out 120,000 deaths of Jewish Red Army men killed in combat, Jewish civilians killed in the course of battles such as the Siege of Odessa, as well as of the 80,000 Jewish Red Army soldiers who were killed in German captivity as Soviet POWs.

Naturally the 2.55 million figure is given for the Soviet Union within its expanded borders. It covers all losses from all areas part of the Soviet Union in 1941 that were retained after 1945. Sometimes far smaller figures of about 1 million Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust may be encountered, but this is because such estimates cover only the victims from territories part of the Soviet Union in its 1939 borders.

Anti-partisan Reprisals

In response to partisan activity in a given area in their rear the Germans in the Soviet Union carried out what were essentially clearance operations targeting primarily the civilian population of the area rather than any local partisan formations. Areas deemed to be infested by partisans or „bandits“ were descended upon by security units and its population subject to mass killings and deportations. When the population of a given place was deemed to have been "infested" by partisan influence it was wiped out. It was the policy of eliminating civilian support for partisans by eliminating civilians.

The number of Soviet civilians killed in anti-partisan reprisals is highly uncertain. The German historian Christian Hartmann mentions a figure of 500 thousand, whereas the British historian Richard Overy mentions the figure in excess of 1 million victims. American historian Timothy Snyder talks of 700 thousand dead but that is for Poland and the Soviet Union combined.[30]

Meanwhile the German historian Christian Gerlach estimates that German anti-partisan operations killed 345,000 people in rural Belarus alone, of whom barely ten percent were actual partisans. Gerlach also reports that in the 55 largest anti-partisans operations about 10% of the 150,000 killed were Jews (who are properly counted as Holocaust victims). This may mean about 80%, or 275,000, of the 345,000 victims of anti-partisan reprisals in the countryside were non-Jewish civilians.[31]

Gerlach's estimates are based on the reports of German perpetrator units and are difficult to argue against. Since his figures cover only a part of occupied Soviet Union, however, the challenge is determining what proportion of overall civilian deaths in anti-partisan reprisals do these 275,000 deaths constitute.

Belarus with its pre-war population of 9 million represented only a small part of occupied USSR. The Germans by the end of 1941 occupied Soviet territory previously home to 80 million people and added even more in summer and spring of 1942. On the other hand, the liberation of Belarus in the war came relatively late so that it had spent considerably more time under German occupation than most other Soviet regions that temporarily fell to the Axis. Furthermore the Soviet partisan movement in Belarus was famously strong and active. This means there is little doubt Belarus lost people to anti-partisan reprisals in greatly disproportionate numbers to the rest of the occupied USSR.

Gerlach estimates that between six and seven thousand German soldiers were killed in the partisan war in Belarus. Meanwhile the American historian Mathew Cooper estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 German soldiers were killed in the entire partisan war in the USSR. Provided both estimates are close to the truth the Germans may have sustained a portion of between 0.3 and 0.47 of all of their casulties to the partisans in the Belarusian SSR. Assuming that the German rear area security apparatus enacted collective reprisals through the Soviet Union roughly proportionally to the severity of personnel losses it sustained it would mean that overall it murdered between 600,000 (275,000/0.47) and 900,000 (275,000/0.3) non-Jewish non-combatants in the entire USSR.

It is the case, however, that German reprisals became more lethal over time. More Soviet civilians were murdered per a German soldier killed in 1944 than in 1941. This mean the losses in Belarus, which was liberated a full six months after Ukraine, likely constitute an even greater portion of overall Soviet losses to anti-partisan reprisals. 650,000, as the mid-point of the range between 500,000 and 800,000 is a good, conservative estimate of the number of non-Jewish non-combatants murdered in German anti-partisan reprisals in the occupied Soviet Union. This is without counting victims of anti-partisan actions in cities and towns. Also this is estimating the number of victims who were shot, burned alive or killed when forced to walk over minefields. It does not include people who died of privation in the wake of anti-partisan reprisals due to the wholesale plunder and destruction that accompanied them.

Civilian Deaths in the Siege of Leningrad

Numerous civilians were caught in the blockade of Leningrad and perished as a result of the siege, mainly of hunger. These included residents of Leningrad itself that had not been evacuated or drafted into the army before the city was put under a blockade, residents of surrounding areas under siege and refugees from elsewhere who had earlier taken shelter in the city. For a long while the Soviet Union, in line with its tendency to downplay the extent of its WWII losses, insisted that some 650 thousand civilians perished in besieged Leningrad. In fact the real number is certainly considerably higher.

Before the war Leningrad was a city of just over 3 million people. About half a million of these were successfully evacuated eastwards, or drafted into the Red Army before the city was cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union. Another 100,000 of its residents were conscripted into military units defending the city after the blockade had been established. Also just over 1 million civilian inhabitants of the city attempted to evacuate the city once the siege was already in progress.

This should have left the size of the city's civilian population when the siege was broken in January 1944 at minimally 1.4 million. Instead it counted merely 600 thousand souls —  a deficit of over 800 thousand people. Additionally of the 1 million who attempted to evacuate the city during the siege, easily one in ten perished in the attempt, or else died in the aftermath of their escape as a result of deprivation sustained preceding the evacuation. In total the Siege of Leningrad killed more than 900 thousand civilians.[32]

It should be noted that while civilians in Leningrad died in the course of a military operation the German leadership regarded their deaths as a positive good in itself. Indeed, going into the USSR in July 1941 the Germans anticipated and planned for the deaths of tens of millions of conquered Slavs, particularly the city-dwellers in the winter of 1941/42. The German forces advancing on Leningrad and Moscow in late 1941 received instructions not to accept the surrender of these cities and to keep them blockaded so as to starve its inhabitants to death even should resistance against German forces seize. Indeed in 1941/42 the Germans had tried to set up starvation blockades of the occupied cities of Kharkov and Kiev in Ukraine for similar reasons.

Civilians Deliberately Destroyed

The mass killings of Jews, the anti-partisan reprisals and the blockade of Leningrad were among the most lethal German policies enacted on the territory of the Soviet Union that aimed to cause massive civilian death. Together they killed some 4.1 million non-combatants of whom 2.55 million were Jews killed in the Holocaust, 0.65 million were non-Jewish civilians killed in collective reprisals for partisan activity in the countryside and 0.9 million were civilians starved in besieged Leningrad.

Table of Contents


29. Yitzhak Arad, The Holocaust in the Soviet Union (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009) 525-526.

30. Christian Hartmann, Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg Front und militärisches Hinterland 1941/42 (Munich: Oldenburg, 2009) 789. Timothy Snyder Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2009) 411. Richard J. Overy, Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow (Madison: TV Books, 1997) 151.

31. Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde: Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Weißrussland 1941 bis 1944 (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1999) 955.

32. David M. Glantz, The Siege of Leningrad: 900 Days of Terror (UK: Spellmount, 2001) 178-179.

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