New Book: Hitler Didn’t Want to Take Leningrad
Published: August 30, 2005 (Issue # 1100)
Hitler did not want to capture besieged Leningrad during World War II, but intended to starve its citizens to death, a new book by a German historian says.
St. Petersburg was known as Leningrad during the war.
Released in Germany this summer, the book “Das Belagerte Leningrad” by JÚrg Ganzenmßller challenges the Soviet view of the Siege of Leningrad that the city was not taken because of heroic resistance by citizens and the Red Army. That view still dominates in Russia today.
Ganzenmßller set out to provide an unbiased and balanced picture of the genocide committed against the people of Leningrad, saying that German silence over the horrors committed in its name and Soviet propaganda have distorted the reality about the siege.
On Sept. 8, 1941, Leningrad seemed about to fall. German troops captured Schlßsselburg and closed their ring around Leningrad.
The city was cut off from all land access. German armies had advanced toward Leningrad from the south while their Finnish allies approached from the north. In the east and west Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland formed natural obstacles.
Yet, at that point Hitler issued the command to stop short. What followed was one of the cruelest chapters in the history of the World War II: German troops laid siege to Leningrad, at that time with 3.2 million inhabitants the second-largest city of the Soviet Union. Almost 900 days, from Sept. 8 1941 to Jan. 27, 1944, Leningrad was in the grip of Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands of citizens — some say 1 million people — fell victim to starvation, disease exposure and enemy action.
Why did Hitler hold the German troops back to take Leningrad? Why did Hitler turn down the military and political triumph of conquering the city of the October revolution?
Ganzenmßller looked into these and other questions.
As early as in April 1941, two months before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Third Reich’s Food Ministry reported that “the problem of supplying Leningrad with an appropriate amount of food cannot be solved, should it fall into our hands.”
Two months later, Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels wrote in his war diary: “It is impossible to say what will happen to these people in the near future. I am anticipating a catastrophe the dimensions of which are entirely unpredictable”.
Ganzenmßller makes the case that Hitler and his generals were not interested in capturing Leningrad. The Nazi policy of expansion was directed toward capturing territory, but made no considerations about the people living there.
The Nazis’ Generalplan Ost of 1942 envisaged the massive relocation and extermination of peoples west of the Urals and the Germanization of these territories with “Aryan” settlers. It was assumed that Leningrad, or Ingermanland as it was then be called, would be the residence for 200,000 German settlers in 1942. It made no mention of the fate of the 3 million Leningraders.
However, Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Russia did not go according to plan. In the fall of 1941, Operation Barbarossa — the code name for Nazi German’s invasion of Russia — had stalled and the food supply for the German troops was getting short as winter approached. For Nazi Germany, Leningrad’s civilian population presented a concrete problem that needed to be solved.
On Sept. 29, 1941, Hitler announced his solution: “Requests from the city to surrender will be rejected because the problem of the remaining presence and nourishment of the population cannot and should not be solved by us. We have no interest in caring for even part of the population in this struggle for existence.” He later added that “a capitulation of Leningrad or later Moscow is not to be accepted, even if offered by the opposite side. ... No German soldier should enter these cities.”
ARMY WAS MORE IMPORTANT
Stalin was determined to hold the city at all costs. Though he first had inwardly written off the city, he regained hope after the Soviet front stabilized. Leningrad had too great a strategic significance to be sacrificed easily.
“[Stalin] regarded the situation as disastrous,” leading Soviet military strategist Georgy Zhukov said after a meeting with the dictator in September 1941. “He said that Leningrad would obviously fall within the next days. If Leningrad fell, however, the Germans would unite with the Finns and there would emerge a highly dangerous arrangement, creating a menace even to Moscow.”
Zhukov, who would in 1945 deliver the deathblow to the Nazi beast in its lair in Berlin, was dispatched to galvanize Leningrad’s demoralized defenders. The Red Army made several unsuccessful counterattacks.
The Soviet leadership assumed that the German troops would attempt to storm Leningrad as soon as possible. Therefore, when the ring closed around the city, the Soviets continued evacuating industrial plants and factories.
The priorities during the evacuation reflected clearly the maxim of Soviet valuation: machinery and raw materials were more important than human beings.
In order to avert the impending humanitarian catastrophe, the Soviets changed their strategy.
On Jan. 17, 1942, the decision was made to start evacuating large numbers of people quickly. This meant that skilled workers and their families were taken out of the besieged city first; refugees and wounded soldiers were the last to be evacuated.
Contrary to the heroic descriptions of Soviet propaganda, the evacuation went off in a highly chaotic and disorganized way.
As the Soviet leadership had failed to work out a strategy for evacuating the population of Leningrad, improvisations led to fatal mistakes that Soviet historians were eager to cover up after the war.
The first children moved out of Leningrad were sent in the wrong direction, toward the advancing German troops.
Ganzenmßller estimates that between 1.3 million and 1.75 million people were evacuated during the siege. Those remaining in the besieged city had to endure the nightmare conditions of a daily fight against famine and death.
Trapped in Leningrad
After the German troops had closed their ring around Leningrad, the only access to the city was across the Lake Ladoga, later dubbed the Road of Life. Yet in the early stages of the siege the Red Army had neither sufficient transport capacities nor logistic know-how to supply enough food to the starving inhabitants of Leningrad. What is more, the winter of 1941-42 was the harshest in decades. People were dying in appalling numbers.
“Whenever we walked somewhere we just stepped over corpses on our way and by this time we were numb to this,” Ganzenmßller quotes Nina Volodina, who was 10 years old in 1941, as saying.
The distribution of food rations was based on the same system as in the Soviet urban centers in the 1930s. In other words, workers got higher portions than white-collar staff and workers of significant factories more than workers of less significant ones. In addition, workers had access to canteens and special shops and often received additional food cards.
The food rations provided by the city were barely enough for survival, especially for people not employed at a local factory. Thus, individual strategies for survival were developed, often with fatal consequences. “They boiled leather belts, made soup from joiner’s glue or scratched glue from wallpapers ... . Pancakes made of mustard seeds were so extremely hot that they ate away your bowels,” Ganzenmßller writes.
People also used semi-illegal and illegal methods to obtain something edible. During the first war winter, 818 people were arrested for theft, 586 of whom were soldiers. Some factories registered “dead souls” to get more food. At the Stalin Factories, for example, 729 workers were registered — but 124 of these were dead, another 107 had been evacuated from Leningrad, 70 served in the army and 21 were in police custody.
The loss or theft of the daily bread ration was a tragedy because the city council would not make good the losses.
“At 6 a.m. we were all running for bread. I arrived at the bakery and what should I see? — a fight. ... . They were kicking a boy who had snatched away someone’s bread. And I started kicking him, too — ‘how could you?’ we had not had bread for three days! And guess what, I do not know how but I got hold of his bread, I put it into my mouth and — it is beyond comprehension — I kept kicking him,” one boy recalled.
Unbearable hunger drove some people to eat cats, dogs and even human beings. During the 900-day siege, 1,500 people were convicted of cannibalism — a fact often covered up by Soviet propaganda.
The then 16-year-old Yura Ryabinkin remembered the days of the great famine in Leningrad in his diary. “I ate a cat, stole food out of Anfisa Nikolayevna’s pots, stole every spare bread crumb from Mom and Irina — I cheated both of them — cursed and fought at the entrances to shops to get in and buy 100 grams of butter.”
EVERYTHING FOR THE FRONT
After the war, Soviet propaganda never tired of depicting the heroic defensive battle of the besieged city in the brightest colors. According to Soviet historiography, the people of Leningrad did everything possible to support the front and arms production never ceased. Yet the reality diverged to a great extent from the myth created by the Soviet leadership.
In the winter of 1941/42, there was no electricity and the productivity of the city fell almost to zero. “We wanted to work but there was no electricity. Our boss said: ‘Sit down and wait.’ At first, we sat there for several hours [each day], but the electricity was not on ... . We went more and more rarely to work; we were working only intermittently,” Ganzenmßller quotes one worker as saying.
Due to the constant shortage of food many people were too weak to show up at their work places. “Nobody was running, everyone was walking slowly and could barely lift their legs. Someone with a healthy and young body can hardly imagine such debility,” a young man wrote in his diary.
Another diary entry by a worker at the Izhora factories said: “21.1.42. We are sitting here and are starving. 22.1.42. the same ... . 1.2.42. I have recovered some strength and started working though I am only able to walk slowly and with a stick.”
As men had to serve in the army and skilled workers had been evacuated, factories soon faced a labor shortage. Most workers were adolescents and women. The lack of qualified and trained workers led to great losses and the army’s needs were barely fulfilled.
Lifting the siege
After the disastrous winter of 1941/42 Hitler and his supporters planned to draw the ring tighter around the besieged city, which would have killed many more civilians. But they failed and the Red Army forced the German troops more and more onto the defensive.
Finally, in January 1943, the Red Army forced open a small corridor at Schluesselburg. From then on, the inhabitants could be supplied with food and everyday goods. Soon, food rations were raised to above survival level and life in the city normalized.
The siege would drag on for another year until on Jan. 27, 1944, when Leningrad celebrated the lifting with artillery salutes.
Ganzenmßller writes that while in Germany the 900-day siege remained a chapter hardly ever opened by historians and politicians, the Soviet Union transformed the siege into a glorified myth of heroism and patriotism.
While survivors remember the siege as a time of famine, plight and struggle for survival, the Soviet leadership depicted it as a heroic epic. Under Brezhnev, the siege was promoted as a cult and monumental memorials to the heroes of the siege were erected all over the country.
In post-communist Russia, little has changed. In historical interpretations the Soviet version of a Red Army forcing the German troops to a halt in front of the city and their heroic defense battles prevail.
These interpretations, however, are blind to the fact that Hitler and his generals were not eager to capture Leningrad but intended to starve the city.
A glorified myth on the one side and an ignored chapter on the other side: in neither version is the 900-day Siege of Leningrad depicted as what it actually was: a cruel genocide against hundreds of thousands of people, Ganzenmßller concludes.