Civil Wars on the Eastern Front, 1940s

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 455-457:

Collaborators could be found not only in countries that allied themselves with Germany – Italy, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria – but also in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and the Soviet Union, countries the Germans invaded and occupied. Some were undoubtedly motivated by a hatred of the Jews as violent as that felt by the Nazi leadership. Others were actuated by envy or base greed, seizing the opportunity afforded by German rule to steal their neighbours’ property. Self-preservation also played its part. There were even Jewish collaborators, like the uniformed men of the Office to Combat Usury and Profiteering who policed the Warsaw ghetto, or the leaders of the various Jews’ Councils who helped organize the liquidation of the ghettos, or the concentration camp prisoners who accepted a measure of delegated authority in the (usually vain) hope of saving themselves.

The experience of Jedwabne typifies the way German rule also fomented civil war. It was as if even the approach of German troops encouraged conflict to erupt in multi-ethnic communities. Poles were not the only killers, Jews not the only victims. Germans themselves could fall victim to this kind of violence. Between four and five thousand ethnic Germans were murdered in Poland in September 1939 as Poles took revenge for their country’s invasion. They then retaliated by forming ‘self-protection’ groups, which were ultimately subordinated to SS leadership. By the time that had happened, however, these groups had already massacred more than four thousand Poles. As a philologist, Victor Klemperer was struck by the way the Nazis delighted in euphemistic neologisms like Volkstumskampf (ethnic conflict) and Flurbereinigung (fundamental cleansing). This daily subversion of the German language, he believed, was far more effective than the more overt kinds of propaganda. Sanitized language also made the cycle of ethnic violence easier to live with.

The Ukraine was perhaps the most blood-soaked place of all. In Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), egged on by the Germans, massacred between 60,000 and 80,000 Poles. Whole villages were wiped out, men beaten to death, women raped and mutilated, babies bayoneted….

Waldemar Lotnik, a Polish teenager who escaped from a German labour camp and joined a Polish ‘Peasant Battalion’, was just about to rape a girl when he realized he knew her family and remembered her as a child. As another Pole recalled, ‘Stories abounded of Polish mothers being held by the Ukrainian Nationalists and forced to watch as their families were dismembered piece by piece; of pregnant women being eviscerated; of vivisected pregnant women having cats sewn into their bleeding abdomens; of Ukrainian husbands murdering their own Polish wives; of Ukrainian wives murdering their own Polish husbands; of Ukrainian fathers murdering their own sons in order to prevent them from murdering their own Polish mothers; of sons of Polish-Ukrainian heritage being sawn in half because, the Nationalists said, they were half Polish; of children being strung up on household fences; of helpless infants being dashed against buildings or hurled into burning houses.’ Here was ethnic conflict not merely between neighbours, but within families. The internecine war in the Ukraine only grew more ferocious as the war progressed, with some Ukrainians fighting for the Axis, some for the Allies and others for an independent Ukraine.

In the Balkans, too, there were multiple civil wars along ethnic, religious and ideological lines. Yugoslavia had fallen apart in the wake of the German invasion of April 1941. Seizing the moment, the Croatian leader Ante Pavelic had pledged to side with Hitler. In the ensuing chaos, his Ustašas waged a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against their Serbian neighbours in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of them. The populations of entire villages were packed into their churches and burned to death, or were transported to be murdered at camps like Jasenovac.

Serbian Četniks and Partisans repaid these crimes in kind. Of the million or so people who died in Yugoslavia during the war, most were killed by other Yugoslavs. This included nearly all of Bosnia’s 14,000 Jews. In Greece the German occupation was the cue for bitter conflict. There, as in Yugoslavia, a three-cornered war raged – between the foreign invaders and nationalists, but also between nationalists and indigenous Communists. When Bulgaria annexed southern Dobruja from Romania, tens of thousands of people were expelled from their homes on either side of the new border.

Most empires purport to bring peace and order. They may divide in order to rule, but they generally rule in pursuit of stability. The Nazi empire divided the peoples of Europe as it ruled them – though, ironically, the divisions that opened up in Central and Eastern Europe generally had as much to do with religion as with race (most obviously in the conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians or between Croats and Serbs). But the ‘skilful utilization of inter-ethnic rivalry’ the Germans consciously practised did not lead (in the words of one German officer) to the ‘total political and economic pacification’ of occupied territory. On the contrary, in many places their rule soon degenerated into little more than the sponsorship of local feuds; the institutionalization of civil war as a mode of governance.

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Filed under Eastern Europe, Germany, nationalism, religion, war

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