Extreme Violence in the Nazi-Soviet War

In “States of Exception: the Nazi-Soviet War as a System of Violence, 1939-1945” Mark Edele and Michael Geyer analyze the mindset of war and the onset of extreme violence in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The authors posit that the devastation and violence that accompanied the war was a result of the mutual hostility between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Additionally they argue that this war was fought “as a war on an interior and an exterior front” and that the escalation and radicalization of the war had a tremendous psychological impact on soldiers which further contributed to the prevalence of violence. ((Edele, Mark and Michael Geyer. “States of Exception.” In Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009: 348-350.)).

Several particularly interesting aspects discussed throughout this article were the ideas of an interior/exterior war and the thoughts and actions of soldiers in context to the “win and live or lose and die” mindset ((Edele and Geyer. “States of Exception.” 359.)). Both countries waged war internally against those they saw as inferior or detrimental to the cause. For the Soviet Union, it threatened extermination to individuals that did not adhere to their ideology. Similarly, Germany practiced such extermination policies on the Jewish population. Edele and Geyer cite that the Holocaust was the “pivotal aspect of this civil war of all-out extermination”. ((Edele and Geyer. “States of Exception.” 349)).

On the exterior front, soldiers engaged in incredibly violent acts. Beyond coercion and fear the Germany army created tactical policies based on the idea that people are more inclined to kill when “motivated by a concrete social unit” ((Edele and Geyer. “States of Exception.” 387-388)). The Soviet Union also used similar techniques to promote emotional ties among soldiers. Because of the high mortality rates, both armies used emotional bonds between soldiers to promote ideas of hatred, revenge and violence on the enemy who killed their comrade. These feelings dehumanized the enemy and many soldiers saw the enemy not as individuals but as “foul beasts, drunk with blood” ((Edele and Geyer. “States of Exception.” 390)). Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union used the powerful combination of a dehumanized enemy and strong emotional ties between soldiers to further perpetuate such atrocities.

In a previous class when we discussed the Great Purges in Sheila Fitzpatrick’s article “A Time of Troubles”. At the end of the class we came to the conclusion that this type of state violence was a result of the Soviet state being hyper-rational. Can the type of extreme violence seen during the Nazi-Soviet War be explained rationally or logically? Why or why not? On a second note, what would you argue to be the main catalyst(s) for the escalation of violence during this period?


Violence in Warfare.  Mark Edele and Michael Geyers chapter focused on the type of warfare that occurred on the Eastern front in World War II.  They discussed how both of these sides introduced a type of warfare that did not involve “virtue and honor” but rather it involved such ideas as radicalization and barbarization. ((Edele, Mark and Michael Geyer. “States of Exception” in Beyond Totalitarianism. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2009.  345))   These two authors look at how this front evolved from a simple war into an all out struggle for domination.

Radicalization and Barbarization are two terms that really struck me in this chapter.  Radicalization, to these authors meant that the two countries amped up the war by getting either the government or the people more involved in the conflict.  For the Nazis, it was promote the fundamental idea that the opposing side presented a threat to their country and had to be stopped through warfare.   For the Soviet Union, it was to mobilize its population to oppose the threat presented by the Nazis.  This radicalization, as stated by the two authors was the escalation of the war through “hate propaganda, word of mouth, and experience.” ((Edele, Mark and Michael Geyer. “States of Exception” in Beyond Totalitarianism. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2009.  350)) The state would use tools to mobilize its own population to fight more aggressively against the other side.  The authors would argue that as a result of these tools used on the population, the radicalization, or amping up of war would result in Barbarization.   Edele and Geyer believed that Barbarization meant that the opposing side had to be destroyed completely.  In other words, “each side fights until one side is utterly and completely subjugated, incapable of renewing itself on its own devices.”  ((Edele, Mark and Michael Geyer. “States of Exception” in Beyond Totalitarianism. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2009.  350))

The fundamental ideas of radicalization and barbarization to describe the Eastern front made sense to me because of how the Nazis and Hitler had justified invading the Soviet Union and likewise with the Soviet Union mobilizing to defend the homeland.   In the nature of warfare, if one side escalates a conflict, the other side would be in its nature to respond to that escalation.   In the Nazis and Soviet cases, each side believed that they were fighting for something, which in turn would have created more motivation .  For the Nazis, they felt that the Soviet Union was valuable and easily conquerable. They wanted “control of the Russian space and its resources” which they felt would have  “made Germany invulnerable.” ((Edele, Mark and Michael Geyer. “States of Exception” in Beyond Totalitarianism. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2009. 352))  For Germany, this was the radicalization of the war.  On the Soviet side, the radicalization of the war was to defend their homeland from a threat who wanted to stop at nothing to crush the socialist society and capture their resources.   In a sense, the radicalization of two polarizing countries led to a barbarization of a war, a war in which two countries used all means necessary to try and conquer the other.

Do you agree with the authors use of Radicalization and Barbarization?  Do you think there is a relationship between the two based off the interpretations of the authors?  Finally, although I am no fan of the term “inevitability”, do you think the scale of violence used on the eastern front was inevitable considering the polarizing differences between the two sides?

Habitual Violence

In the article “States of Exception”, the authors Mark Edele and Michael Geyer examine the extraordinary and unique violence that occurred on the Eastern front, the conflict between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The authors assert that the relationship between the two states produced the violence, and it’s escalation. They argue that “the devastating nature of this war, [they] suggest, is the consequence of the inimical interrelationship of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” ((Edele, Mark, and Michael Geyer. “States of Exception.” In Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, edited by Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick, 345-395. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)). No one event, action, or side assumes complete responsibility for the barbarism that defined the Eastern front.

The authors highlight numerous historical events, trends, and statements that reinforce the cyclical nature of the escalation. The authors identify that the escalation grew from the bottom up ((Edele and Geyer, “States of Exception,” 358)). Additionally, the authors write that this escalation of violence resulted in and corresponded with the extermination/persecution of various religious, ethnic, and social groups within both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This specific movement of growth developed out of Nazi Germany’s deliberate loosening of its control over the actions of lower leaders ((Edele and Geyer, “States of Exception,” 351)). This notion seems to support the structuralist view of Hitler’s role in regards to the Holocaust and also the overall decentralized structure of the Nazi state as outlined in Nicholas Stargardt’s article, “The Holocaust” and Ian Kershaw’s article, “Hitler and the Holocaust.” However, the state’s role in inducing a bottom up escalation of the violence seemingly contradicts the very nature of a free and self perpetuating violence. Furthermore, the entire notion of reciprocity, that the violence of the Soviet Union encouraged the escalation of violence by Nazi Germany and visa versa, undermines the authors’ arguments that the violence truly originated from the bottom.

Both Stalin and Hitler reacted to and encouraged shifts in their respective army’s display and direction of violence ((Edele and Geyer, “States of Exception,” 369, 353 )). Do you think that the violence and its unique development actually developed from the bottom? Also, the authors argue that the radicalization of violence actually developed out of a sense of pragmatism. Do you think this pragmatism reinforces or undermines the uniqueness and bottom up movement of the violence?

Thoughts on the Nazi-Soviet War as a System of Violence

In the chapter “States of Exception” from Beyond Totalitarianism, by Mark Edele and Michael Geyer, the question of the Eastern Front of World War II is tackled. The most particularly fascinating thing about this study is the unprecedented ruthlessness of the respective campaigns and how they escalated drastically in their unrestrained violence. The separation drawn between the projected measures to be used in accordance with the military planning of the German invasion into the Soviet Union and the actualities of the war (excessive violence with no regard for the humanity of the opposing side) is notable throughout the chapter as a major theme, as it reveals quite a bit about the methods of warfare each country resorted to in the conflict.

One major point of interest here is Hitler’s interest in wiping out the Jews and Bolsheviks as a primary influencing factor in the strategic planning of German forces. This contributed to what amounted to nothing short of “targeted murder” of a vast population of Soviet citizens. ((Edele, Mark and Geyer, Michael. “States of Exception” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 357. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.)) Such an assault inspired resolve within the Soviets to fight until the last, which sparked a brutal conflict that took an incredible number of lives. The Nazi policy of all-out warfare in pursuit of a swift and total victory was applied towards this end, and though it had proven effective in France the circumstances which surrounded the Eastern Front were not conducive to the success of such a strategy.

Furthermore, the atrocities committed by the Soviets in warfare were responded to by similar acts of cruelty from the German side. The chapter rationalizes the German response by posing such circumstances as Soviet scorched-earth tactics and the mutilation of prisoners of war. It seems from the reading that failing to recognize the humanity of the other side directly inflates the level and intensity of violence in warfare.

German and Soviet Mass Violence

Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth’s essay, “”State Violence-Violet Societies” discusses the use of mass violence in camp systems. Gerlach and Werth analyzed the methods of violence, the intensity of the violence, the role of the State in the violence, and the ideology behind the violence.1 Gerlach and Werth argued that in Germany the eradication policies were multicausal and that the archival revolution in Russia allowed historians to grasp the foundation of Soviet violence.2

The part of this article that caught my attention was the section on prisoners of war. In this section, the authors discussed “unfit” Soviet workers left to die from starvation.3 Upon hearing the phrase mass violence, my thoughts involve images of large scale killings such as gas chambers and weapons. However, this was hardly the case for Soviet POWs. Although many Soviet citizens lost their lives each day, a minority were killed together all at once. Malnutrition was the leading cause of death.4  However, regardless of whether killed by weapons or lack of food, the Soviet officials did the doing.

Naked Soviet POWs

Naked Soviet POWs

This section on Soviet POWs changed my prospective of mass violence. Gerlach and Werth shed light on the key aspect of isolation in Soviet Union concentration camps in harsh conditions, leading to malnutrition. Nazi concentration camps are so commonly portrayed in media that this had shaped my perception of violence within dictatorships. As I read about Soviet concentration camps, I learned a new perspective to mold into my view of mass violence. Did this essay change your view of mass violence? Besides “unfit workers”, what were some other groups the Soviet Union targeted as POWs? How does the Soviet Union differ from Nazi Germany with their management of POWs?


1. Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 133.

2. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 135. 

3. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 162. 

4. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 163. 


Genes vs. Ideas: The quest for the modern population


What is more important in a child’s value to the state, their genes or their ideas?  During the interwar period Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would have answered that question in contradictory ways even though both countries were attempting a massive increase in reproduction.  Hoffman and Timmin in “Utopian Biopolitics” from Beyond Totalitarianism  argued that the summation of a child’s value to the state depended on the ideology propounded by the governing party. ((David L. Hoffmann and Annette F. Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics: Reproductive Policies, Gender Roles, and Sexuality in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 87))  In Germany under the National Socialst party racial hygiene was the most important aspect of the population increase.  The Soviet Union desired a larger population built upon the ideology of the socialist party.  Both states desired an increased population tailored to their idea of the ideal modern state.

Nazi Germany officially and unofficially influenced the German population to reproduce in order to create “Aryan” children.  The repurposing of health centers into eugenics centers counts as only one example of many state sponsored attempts to ensure racial purity among newborns. ((99))  The logical rhetoric that emerged from such gene centric ideas eliminated other social values.  The regime, and Himmler specifically, linked masculinity and prowess in battle to virility.  Therefore, men were encouraged to engage in intra- and extra-marital intercourse; the only caveat being the child produced must be Aryan. ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism,106))  Thus the genetic “health” of the child overpowered the traditional, middle class nuclear family structure in Nazi politics.  The Soviet Union did the exact opposite in its attempt to raise the next generation of socialists.

The Soviet Union reinforced the nuclear family structure in an attempt to increase the quantity and quality of children produced by socialist couples.  Throughout the 1930s the government passed several laws outlawing abortion, establishing strict child support protocol, and, making birth registration necessary with both parents listed. ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 110))   Moreover, the government sponsored studies analyzing the best ways to ensure women’s reproductive health.  In the 1920s one soviet doctor concluded that “women would optimize their productivity by having three children, all four years apart.” ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 111))  These factors, combined with the increase of pro-paternity propaganda in theory ought to have increased family size and perpetuated solid, stalinist ideas.

The manner in which modern states attempted to increase population during the interwar period in “Utopian Biopolitics” brings up several interesting questions.  Why did neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union experience a drastic increase in birth rates?  How much of an effect does state policy truly have on the reproductive choices of its citizens?

Think of the Children

In Beyond Totalitarianism, chapter 3 focuses on the reproductive policies of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Both countries, along with Italy and all of Western Europe, placed importance on increasing the birth rate and population numbers in their respective countries. WWI had devastated a generation and decreased birth rates dramatically. The countries related population numbers to military strength, the more people you had, the more men you could use to fight the enemy.

The Nazis, Fascists and Soviets implemented policies and incentives to encourage increased birth rates. Medals were given to Nazi mothers who had more than 7/8 children, and stipends were given to Soviet women who produced more than four children. In the Soviet Union these were mostly rural peasant mothers, where large families were needed to work the farm. Also, many of these large families existed before the government introduced the compensation.

Yet, with the push for an immediate population increase, did no one think of the future? The Earth has a maximum capacity for life. It can only support so many. As twisted as it is, wars throughout history, along with epidemics have kept the population in check. Imagine how overpopulated the world would be if the Black Plague had not struck Europe. Currently the world is facing a problem of overpopulation, if the European nations had not pushed so much for increased births would it have delayed this problem? Or since the birth rates in Germany and the Soviet Union were not dramatically increased with the incentives and laws, did this have little effect on the world problem we currently face?

New Man the Hero?

The composition and fate of the hero has been the subject of culture and literature since antiquity.  The idea of one individual, surpassing common constraints and achieving greatness has long held an important place in the human psyche.  The creation of the New Man, by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, transformed the concept of a new , modern human being into their own unique ideal.  Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck argued in Beyond Totalitarianism that the Nazi hero exemplified the optimal Aryan purity and perfection, while Soviet Russia allowed every individual to achieve greatness through self-reformation into the proletarian socialist.

The relationship between the physical body and this transcendent state of being occurred in both ideologies.  Soviet Russia concentrated its efforts in creating the ideal proletarian New Man by changing the human body through modernization and mechanization.  One example, Bogdanov underwent blood transfusions in order “to create a communal proletarian body.” ((Peter Fritzche and Jochen Hellbeck, “The New Man in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany,” in Beyond Totalitarianism, ed. Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 316))  In this case the individual attempted to change their blood, the very essence of their being, in order to create a New proletarian Man.  Although the physical transformation of the body into the New Man faded from mainstream Soviet ideology, the body (this time young, healthy, and robust) remained a secondary indicator of the ideal Soviet New Man. ((Fritzche and Hellbeck, “The New Man” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 320))

Similarly, Nazi Germany utilized the physical as a representation for the important ideas meant to create the New Man.  The racial purity espoused by the Nazi Party was meant to guarantee a superior race of human beings capable of world domination; by perfecting the body through race the German people could once more achieve greatness. ((Fritzche and Hellbeck, “The New Man” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 328))  The body must therefore be continuously transformed through generations of racially pure matches in order to create the ideal New Man.  Moreover, the idealized Aryan eclipsed racial purity and applied to clothing, exercise, and, diet. ((Fritzche and Hellbeck, “The New Man” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 329))  The New Man relied on physical and aesthetic, not just mental enlightenment; similar to the concept of the New Man in Stalinist Russia.

In both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, the regimes attempted to create a New Man by manipulation not only of the mind, but also the body.  How does this physical manipulation relate to the construction of the modern state?

Social Engineering and Bonds in the USSR and Nazi Germany

In Beyond Totalitarianism, edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Michael Geyer, two chapters discuss the framework and implementation of social engineering, and then the creation and destruction of bonds in both the USSR and Nazi Germany. Specifically, in chapter six, “Frameworks for Social Engineering,” authors Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H Siegelbaum focused on the trajectories of dictated social identities within both political systems. No attempt was made to homogenize the two systems; rather, differences regarding the criterion ascribed, the methodology of implementation, as well as what portion of each population was affected were all noted. Continuing on in chapter seven, “Energizing the Everyday,” authors Sheila Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke discussed various practices and relationships within both Nazi Germany and the USSR, and how these were demonstrative that bonds were created or transformed, connecting people in a myriad of ways. Several types of bonds and relationships were discussed in order to challenge the Arendtian notion that new and new types of bonds could not be generated in “totalitarian” societies.

In Yuri Slezkine’s article “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism,” the author demonstrated the rationale behind the Party’s emphasis on nationality and the creation of national identities for the smaller minorities and nations under its control. Slezkine argued that with the eradication of class after the Russian Revolution, the resulting development of national cultures and subsequent administration system served as a way to organize society without the use of class, making nationality essential in a Soviet citizen’s identity. Browning and Siegelbaum address this topic in chapter six, but take it one step further. They argue that while the state certainly used nationality as a way to define and categorize the general population, Soviet citizens could exercises considerable latitude (or artifice) in constructing desirable social identities. ((Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “Frameworks for Social Engineering,” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 235.)) I found it surprising that regulations regarding nationality were not as resolute as Slezkine’s article depicted. In reality, the policing of social identities was far from simple. Browning and Siegelbaum noted how for example, parents of nationally or socially mixed offspring would choose to emphasize the identity of the parent that would be more advantageous ((Ibid, 235.)) or children could publicly “disown” their parents in favor of a Soviet self. 

Reading this article in dialogue with Slezkine’s article, I realize that I should not be so surprised by the flexibility and subterfuge executed by the Soviet citizenry. In a practical sense, though Slezkine described the extensive work of ethnographers in categorizing and modernizing each nationality, there were simply too many nationalities to differentiate that regulation proved futile. I wonder how much Soviet officials knew of the subterfuge going on, and if they did know, did they ignore it? Why would they?

Breaking and Mending of Social Bonds

In Chapter 7 of Beyond Totalitarianism ((Shelia Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke, “Energizing the Everyday: On the Breaking and Making of Social Bonds in Nazism and Stalinism,” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).)) Shelia Fiztpatrick and Alf Lüdtke discuss the breaking and mending of social bonds present in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Russia.  There a several types of bonds including inclusion, exclusion, and creation and renewal bonds.  Within exclusion bonds, Fitzpatrick and Lüdtke examine family bonds.  On page 286 it states:

It should be noted that implicit in this whole inquiry is the assumption that family bonds are the sources of support and that any weakening of them makes individuals mentally vulnerable and prone to loneliness.  Yet, families are not necessarily harmonious but often the source of pain, distress, and hardship; they may be rent with anger to the point that the family is incapable of offering support to its members and escape may seem highly desirable.  Such stifling family situations have often been discussed in societies facing both commodification and individualization of social and cultural relationships.

One bond that is constantly broken and then mended is that of family.  While family bonds are supposed to be strong, they typically dissolved within Germany and Soviet Russia at the time due to stronger ties and bonds to the state.  Often times children would rat out parents and other family members to state officials for offenses being done.  This intrigued me because it simply shows the great power of manipulation the state had over the individuals.  If family members were able to go against their own family to protect the state, how could individuals trust anyone?