Author: ‘Military Neccessity’ Part of German Army’s WWII Operations

Historian and author Dr. Jeff Rutherford of Wheeling thinks military necessity was the primary force driving the German Army’s actions on the Eastern Front in Russia during World War II.

Rutherford, an associate professor of history at Wheeling Jesuit University, spoke at the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books program Tuesday, March 10, and discussed his book, “Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front: The German Infantry’s War, 1941-1944.”

Noting that there are different ways of looking at World War II, he examined the totality of the German infantry’s operations, both in combat and how it dealt with the civilian population of the Soviet Union. He contended that military necessity, rather than ideology, “proved more essential in describing why the German Army did what it did” on the Eastern Front.

Rutherford concluded that the primacy of military necessity – doing what one has to do – outweighed the importance of ideology on that warfront. “To me, that was the big lesson: military necessity explains the army’s behavior,” he commented.

The German Army launched “a war of annihilation” to destroy the Soviet Union, eliminate the Communist system and decimate the Jewish population and Russian population, he said.

For his research, Rutherford looked at three German infantry divisions, all formed in 1940, with 75 percent of soldiers being conscripts and the rest taken from other divisions. “Most are ordinary Germans drafted into the army,” he said.

The 121st infantry was formed in East Prussia, a Protestant, agricultural and conservative state, he said. The 123rd infantry had men from Berlin, Germany’s largest city, and Brandenburg, which was similar to East Prussia. The 126th infantry hailed from Rhineland and Westphalia, a highly industrial, Catholic region.

Rutherford looked at the Army Group North’s drive toward Leningrad; he said it was an area of operations that “hasn’t received much attention.” In June 1941, in the German Army’s farthest push on the northern front, they discovered the swampy land was not suited to tank warfare. As a result, he said, it was “primarily an infantry war in this part of the Soviet Union.”

At the onset, all three divisions engaged in heavy fighting and sustained serious losses. The Germans lived off the land because they brought very few supplies. In late July, all three divisions were ordered to supply their needs from the immediate area, resulting in the most interaction between German soldiers and Russian civilians, he said.

When the 121st infantry occupied Pavlovsk, the soldiers and the German SS organization carried out mass executions, including all of the town’s Jews, he said. Troops also worked with the German government’s economic staff to plunder the Soviet Union and secure foodstuffs in Pavlovsk, leading to widespread starvation and cannibalism, he added.

During a winter crisis at the Volkhov River from December 1941 to April 1942, the 126th infantry was exhausted and weak when the Russians launched a successful counter-offensive that tore a six-mile gap in the German line and shattered the 126th infantry unit, Rutherford related.

The 123rd infantry could not hold its position at the Demiansk Pocket and the exhausted German soldiers were encircled by the Red Army, he said. “Russian civilians suffered horribly during this winter crisis,” with some executed and others forced to work for the Germans, he said.

During a period of conciliation from the spring of 1942 to spring 1943, the weakened 123rd unit tried “very interesting policies,” such as providing Germans medics for the Soviet population, cultivating crops to feed Soviet civilians as well as German soldiers and establishing communal kitchens, Rutherford said. The division started to relax punishment in an attempt to draw civilians into the German war effort.

However, two major issues arose. Popular resistance sprung up; the Germans used terror to try to wipe out the partisans, but that tactic created more partisans, he said. To combat the continuing German labor shortage, troops undertook forced labor actions, but that led to more Russian resistance and a spiral of violence, he said.

In a “scorched earth” effort from spring 1943 to spring 1944, the 123rd infantry devastated the Demiansk Pocket area in advance of the Red Army and evacuated the entire population. The 121st and 126th infantries also carried out mass evacuations during this period, he said. The forcibly evacuated Russian civilians were sent to various areas; some went to shale fields in the Baltic states and many were sent to Germany to work in mines and factories and on farms, Rutherford explained.

Rutherford said most of the material for his book came from German archives. He also read soldiers’ letters preserved in several locations.