Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.

Enstad

The subject of Enstad’s book is how people living North West Russia (roughly speaking the area immediately east of Estonia and Latvia) reacted to German occupation from 1941 to 1943. The primary features of the area’s population were that the vast majority were Russian and most were peasants. In essence, therefore, this is a book which describes how the Russian peasantry responded to being conquered by the Germans.

Enstad lays out clearly the brutality of the occupying forces, describing the mass murder of Jews, Roma, and the mentally and physically disabled. The Nazis’ murderous policies had little psychological impact on the Russian peasantry, however, as they themselves were not directly targeted in this way. The winter of 1941-42 witnessed severe food shortages in areas directly behind the front lines, resulting in thousands of deaths. But further to the rear, the situation was rather better. For the mass of peasants, German occupation at first was not particularly bad.

In fact, says Enstand, many peasants welcomed the Germans’ arrival, or at least regarded it with some hope. The collectivization of peasant farms by the Communists in the early 1930s had been extraordinarily unpopular. The peasants took the opportunity provided by the German occupation to engage in spontaneous decollectivization. Whereas in other parts of the Soviet Union, the German authorities resisted this and insisted that the peasants remain in collective farms, in North West Russia they allowed the peasants to do as they wished. Consequently, by September 1943, the region had gone entirely over to private farming. The results, from the peasants’ point of view, were very positive. Production rose, while German food requisitions were relatively mild compared to that of the Soviet authorities. Peasant living standards improved.

Another factor which affected peasant attitudes to German occupation was the return of Orthodox priests to the region. Prior to the war, the Russian Orthodox Church had been almost entirely destroyed. Under German occupation, it gained a new lease of life. Churches reopened, religious education resumed, and numerous peasants, including young people, were baptised. Orthodox priests were generally supportive of the German occupation, preaching sermons of a definitely pro-German orientation, but they also generally refrained from informing on partisans, regarding their mission as being to serve all Russians. Enstad argues that the return of the Orthodox Church was very popular with the peasants, and contributed to a longer term revival in Russian, as opposed to Soviet, nationalism.

The consequence of these developments was that most peasants were not particularly opposed to the German occupiers, although those whose sons had been mobilized into the Soviet army tended to be an exception. As a result, peasants generally regarded partisans with some hostility, and many joined auxiliary police organizations to defend their villages against them.

This does not mean, however, that peasants were for the most part ‘collaborators’. On the whole, they were just looking after themselves. The prevailing attitude, says Enstad, was ‘calculated pragmatism’, a sort of balancing act in which ‘few supported this or that power wholeheartedly’, but instead practiced ‘evasionism’, trying to stay out of they way of both German and Soviet authorities and ‘being prepared to shift professed loyalties in accordance with expected changes in the balance of power, and having a foot in both camps’. It was only in late 1943 that the peasantry shifted its loyalty en masse towards the Soviets, and it was only then that the partisan movement began to acquire significant strength. But this was not because peasants had grown especially disenchanted with the Germans or had suddenly become pro-Soviet; it was simply because it had become clear that the Germans’ days were numbered.

I can see that Enstad’s analysis might antagonize some patriotic types who cherish the myth of a Russian people united in its resistance to Nazi invasion. But the analysis is grounded in very extensive research, from both Soviet and German archival sources, as well as memoirs and interviews and a long list of secondary literature. Enstad treats his sources with a critical eye, and avoids overt bias. In short, his description of events is well-founded. This is an excellent book, a model of historical research, clearly written, and interesting and provocative to boot. I strongly recommend it to anybody interested in the history of either the Soviet Union or the Second World War.

Enstad shows very clearly that the communist regime failed to win the loyalty of the Russian peasantry prior to 1941. Most peasants were glad to see Soviet power destroyed. This, of course, did not turn the Germans into liberators, and it was the peasants’ misfortune that their hopes for a better future were to be so cruelly disabused.

21 thoughts on “Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation”

  1. “It was only in late 1943 that the peasantry shifted its loyalty en masse towards the Soviets, and it was only then that the partisan movement began to acquire significant strength. But this was not because peasants had grown especially disenchanted with the Germans or had suddenly become pro-Soviet; it was simply because it had become clear that the Germans’ days were numbered.”

    He’s right that it had become clear that the Germans’ days were numbered in the fall of 1943, after the Kursk battle.

    I watched Come And See many years ago. I remember the text on the screen, at the end, saying that six hundred something villages were burned with all their inhabitants. And that’s only in Belarus.

    So, I now checked wikipedia, and sure enough it says 5295 towns/villages in Belarus were destroyed, 628 of them burned with all inhabitants. Compare to France, where, as far as I know, there was only one such incident, Oradour, 1944.

    It says, of those 5295, 3% were destroyed in 1941, 16% in 1942, 63% in 1943, and 18% in1944. The Khatyn incident happened in March 1943.

    Of course I have no idea how those people felt (on average?) about Germans and about Communists. I imagine most were just trying to survive the best they could. But all in all, it doesn’t sound like before late 1943 it was all that idyllic…

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    1. “Of course I have no idea how those people felt (on average?) about Germans and about Communists.”

      Given that from the very beginning of the war in these territories was a brutal guerrilla war against the Germans (as noted in the German documents), but there was no guerrilla war against the red army (both in 1941 and in 1944), the answer is quite obvious.

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      1. I believe the standard anti-communist response to this is that the initial guerrilla fighters (‘partizans’) were not locals, but Soviet loyalists planted by the central government. Their activity led to retaliations against the locals, causing them to join partizans in increasing numbers, leading to more retributions, and so on.

        I don’t think this is a credible theory in this case, because the locals could, theoretically, turn against the partizans en masse, and then it would’ve been finished quickly. That didn’t happen.

        But as I understand, something like that was actually a working strategy of the Brits. For example, the assassination of Heydrich in Prague. Also in Yugoslavia, as I hear. Send a few people to create a diversion or assassinate a high-ranking Nazi, and hope that the inevitable retribution will stir things up a bit.

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  2. Material this books causes very big doubts, given that in Pskov area is Sebezhsky District where in the years war had place the most fierce guerrilla war among all territories of the USSR.

    Or below is the diary of General Heinrici 1941 https://labas.livejournal.com/1094597.html .
    Of course Likhvin is not in Pskov area, but you think, that under Pskov was as the otherwise?

    “5.11.1941 (Likhvin) in local terrain full of the guerrillas. They are destroying stocks-in Lihvin they burned 8 million marks worth of leather. They are making raids, unfortunately, more and more successful. First of all, they attack the small requisitioning parties that are sent around to get food…. The interpreter over the past three days managed to catch and kill 15 (guerrillas), among them several women. The guerrillas are loyal to each other. They allow themselves to be shot, but they do not betray their comrades. They know they will be destroyed without sentiment, and yet they hold their tongues and claim to know nothing…

    From the diary from 6.11.1941 (Likhvin):
    Guerrilla activity under the Likhvin is growing significantly. … This war is taking on increasingly hideous forms. The strength of spirit of the guerrillas makes an impression on everyone. No one gives anything away, everyone is silent ” etc., etc.

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  3. The Soviet history of the partisan movement (with reference to German sources) gives the following data: https://harding1989.livejournal.com/103891.html
    “According to the Atlas of military operations of army group “North”, in 1942 224 railway echelons were destroyed (by partisans of North West Russia)”

    These events were analyzed by Due Enstad? If all this is Soviet propaganda and German trains in 1942 traveled unhindered through northwestern Russia, then his theses have a basis. If guerrillas indeed destroyed 224 echelon, then the that he writes simply self-deception.

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      1. “Enstad provides statistics of membership of partisan groups in NorthWest Russia, and shows that it was quite low till 1943”

        Low compared to what? Enstad makes a comparison with what cases of guerrilla warfare? Poland, Yugoslavia, other regions of the USSR?
        From your post, the reader should get the impression that the North-Western regions of Russia were (until 1943) a place of some idyll, unlike other territories occupied by the Germans.
        Russian authors investigating the partisan movement have the opposite opinion

        “This work is devoted to the guerrilla struggle in the North-West of our country . Guerrilla warfare is shown by the example of one vast forest region, in the Pskov region-Sebezhsky district. During the war, the modern territory of Sebezhsky district was divided into two districts-Sebezhsky and Idritsky-with an area of about 5 thousand square kilometers and a population of 92 thousand people in 1939. After the war there were only 20 thousand inhabitants…
        Our choice is not accidental. Sebezhskaya forest wilderness, the will of history for three years has acquired strategic importance and has become one of the most important centers of resistance to the invaders. In the German-occupied territory of the USSR, THERE WAS NO OTHER PLACE WHERE THE DENSITY OF GUERRILLA ATTACKS WAS SO GREAT as in the relatively small territory of the Idritsky and Sebezhsky districts.”
        Лесные солдаты. Партизанская война на Северо-Западе СССР. 1941-1944 Владимир Александрович Спириденков

        This Sebezhsky district by August 1942 was almost completely in the power of the partisans-the Germans controlled only large settlements and Railways. How does all this fit in with what Enstad writes?

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  4. It took you… some time… to finally review a book, which you’ve already mentioned there in your own blog, Professor (right after adding it author’s blog to your blogroll).

    I’ve tried to engage the author even earlier (year or so ago) with predictable results. So, in the hope that herr author will chance upon your review here, I’m reposting them here:

    ***

    1-2) If it is not a secret (surely, this won’t serve as the “spoiler” for the book), which Russian archive you had access to? That Russian language sources you mention – which of them came from the Russian archives/Russians? The link to the Bibliography section provided in the article is incomplete.

    3) The topic itself strange, given your own interests (civil rights in Russia). Are you at least aware of the existence of such organizations in the past?

    4) Yet in your own “teaser” published on [WarOnTheRocks] you say: “Focusing on the region of northwest Russia (see map), inhabited by some 1.3 million people, I do not purport to tell the full story of the Soviet experience of war and Nazi rule. Rather, I have aimed to increase and deepen our knowledge of that story by illuminating an important plot line.” (c). Yet the name of your book is much more catchier (and, ergo, misleading) “Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile Loyalties in World War II”. Whose idea was such title?

    5) What does your graduation diploma says? How your Uni’s “Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages” defines your scientific specialty?

    6) What’s your ties (and reasons for collaboration) with your country’s Ministry of Defense? Do you still… keep in touch… with them?

    7) Did you (for the most part) ignore the existing Russian historiography on the subject?

    8) Quote: “Those branded “kulaks” (somewhat more affluent peasants, or simply anyone who openly opposed collectivization) were dispossessed and deported in their millions; hundreds of thousands perished in the process”. Are you aware that what you wrote here is not true?

    ***

    “I can see that Enstad’s analysis might antagonize some patriotic types who cherish the myth of a Russian people united in its resistance to Nazi invasion.”

    No, it will antagonize even more those, who’d claim that all “victims of the repressions” were innocent. How can collaborators be innocent?

    “But the analysis is grounded in very extensive research, from both Soviet and German archival sources”

    Here’s the problem. The book is notoriously thin on the Soviet sources.

    “Enstad treats his sources with a critical eye, and avoids overt bias.”

    […]
    […]
    […]

    Really?

    “Enstad shows very clearly that the communist regime failed to win the loyalty of the Russian peasantry prior to 1941.”

    By extrapolating cherripicked sources about one region of the entire Soviet Union on the whole? Are you sure you are a real scientist, Professor? Or your anti-communism gets the “better” of your logical faculties?

    “This is an excellent book, a model of historical research, clearly written, and interesting and provocative to boot.”

    “A model of historical research” by a person without higher historical education, but with “exemplar” past and connections. Crimea river…

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    1. On German Nazi sources I basically I agree, I often wondered too about careless uncritical usage, more recently a more complex field with historians of all stripes. This young man may or may not be aware of the pitfalls. ….

      I suredly do understand, this is really very, very irritating about you.

      Johannes D. Enstad says:
      August 23, 2018 at 6:35 pm

      Here’s a hint. If you want to be taken seriously, try reframing your questions in a civil manner; drop the hostile insinuations and ad hominem arguments.

      This answer surprises me somewhat:
      I think 50-60% accompanied (or were forced along with) the retreating Wehrmacht. I haven’t made systematic comparisons with other occupied territories.

      war context? Refugees. Did they return. How did he arrive at this number?

      A model of historical research” by a person without higher historical education, but with “exemplar” past and connections. Crimea river…

      How do you know? For whatever its wort he seems to have started with reviews according to this Norwegian database, been there read the same at the time or slightly earlier. Wonder what he wrote on Goldhagen, Pappe, Finkelstein, Morris. … Is he aware of the late Raul Hilberg’s book on how to deal with sources of the Holocaust? He could be. On the other hand, he may rely on German sources there without archival work, as did Arendt vs Hilberg.

      It feels, I may know at least partly what book, books he may have used on the Wehrmacht. Were there Sondereinsatztruppen around? Who was in charge there?

      Publications in Cristin Norway:
      https://wo.cristin.no/as/WebObjects/cristin.woa/wa/fres?action=soketternavn=Enstad&fornavn=Johannes+Due&sort=ar&bs=50

      https://www.hf.uio.no/ilos/english/people/aca/johane/index.html

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    1. “At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy.”
      I do not know of any Russian (or any of her neighbours) who believe that Russians stood up as one against the invaders. I doubt that your statement — rhetoric aside — is intended to record a current ‘myth’ about the war. At the heart of the story lies great loss, great suffering, and great sorrow — inflicted mostly by invaders but not completely.
      Aside: Did the Brits (Royal family included) stand up as one against the Nazis and the various fascists?

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      1. “Aside: Did the Brits (Royal family included) stand up as one against the Nazis and the various fascists?”

        Weeeeelllll… Ah…

        Also – P.G. Wodehouse.

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      2. “On the other hand, there’s this in today’s Guardian”

        And on the gripping hand you had pro-Nazi Royals, some of whom (as kids) did this popular back then “from-heart-to-sun” hand gesture.

        Hey, Professor! If it was enough for you to extrapolate cherrypicked data in one book upon the whole of the Soviet Union, how about to do the same for your former Homeland? How about admitting that the same polite collaboration would had hadppened from, say, Walmington-on-Sea to London, should the Nazi’s manage to occupy the British proper? Don’t forget to add some invectives about how the capitalist liberal “democracy” of Britain failed to bring the people together.

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