Small Wars Journal

Genocidal Counterinsurgency: The German Anti-Partisan War in Belarus

Sat, 07/09/2022 - 11:59am

By Kyle Sajoyan

           The Eastern Front of the Second World War represented one of the worst man-made catastrophes in human history. From 1941-1944, German and Soviet forces turned the region into a graveyard that became the final resting place for tens of millions of people. In the countries and territories that make up modern Eastern Europe, Belarus stands out for the extent of demographic destruction and violence that took place. The territory was at the epicenter of a brutal struggle between the Nazis and the peoples seeking to survive by any means necessary. In three years of occupation, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians would die. Their deaths were not the results of wartime accidents, but a deliberate act of extermination on behalf of the German authorities to destroy a people deemed unworthy of life. Under the leadership of men like Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the Nazis created a culture of systematic violence masked as a counterinsurgency operation. The decrees and directives issued by Hitler and the Wehrmacht manufactured an environment where brutality and destruction flourished at the cost of the civilians caught in the crosshairs. The campaign of annihilation was marked by a dramatic escalation of violence beginning with the German invasion in 1941, through the large-scale anti-guerilla sweeps, and culminated in the desertification policy of the dead zones operations of 1943. The brutality inflicted on the people of Belarus from 1941-1943 represented another dark epoch in human history as the Germans turned the region into a state of never-ending violence and misery.

            Adolf Hitler’s worldview regarding the Slavs in Eastern Europe provided an outline of how the Third Reich would treat the people of Belarus. In his unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf, Hitler viewed the East as an area where the German people could fulfill their Lebensraum, an empty “space necessary to the life” of the nation.[1] Hitler’s obsession with expansionism was justified by a virulent racism against Slavs who were seen as undeserving of the land they occupied. The future dictator of the Third Reich railed against the perceived inability of Slavs to create their own state while accusing the Soviet Union of being the biproduct of an unholy marriage between Judaism and Bolshevism.[2] Despite Hitler’s violent rhetoric towards the Slavs and Jews, his vile statements made in 1928 remained active ideas. However, it is rather fascinating that years before becoming Fuhrer of Nazi Germany, the conceptual idea of a rassenkampf (racial struggle) between the Teutons and Slavs were already coming into fruition. It took war with the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 to put his racial theories into practice, with horrific consequences.

            In preparation for the invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Hitler and his Nazi henchmen unleashed the Wehrmacht to carry out a war beyond the bounds of human decency and morality. On May 13, 1941, Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht High Command, acting on orders from Hitler, issued the “Decree Concerning the Implementation of Military Jurisdiction in the Barbarossa Zone and Concerning Special Measures for the Troops.”[3] In the order, Keitel and Hitler unshackle the armed forces from any responsibilities to adhere to international and military law. In the section regarding the prosecution of atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht, the Fuhrer ordered that “there shall be no compulsion to pursue acts committed by members of the armed forces or employees against enemy civilians even if the act is both a military crime and misdemeanor.”[4] The “military crime[s] and misdemeanor[s]” Hitler was referring to would be the German forces’ blank cheque to commit mass murder.[5] In the “handling of criminal offenses committed by enemy civilian persons,” the Germans were expected to “mercilessly put to death” suspected guerillas and any civilians guilty of “attacks” against soldiers.[6] These measures effectively bounded the Wehrmacht to wage a pitiless and indiscriminately violent war of extermination against the Slavs and Jews of the USSR. However, both the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the Wehrmacht would launch their campaign of annihilation together.

Two months before Hitler’s Barbarossa Decree, on March 13, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler was given the authority to organize “special tasks” for the SS inside the rear areas of the army groups.[7] The “Special Duties for the SS in Operation Barbarossa” Decree wedded Himmler’s murderous execution forces with the highest echelons of the Wehrmacht High Command.[8] The Nazis were not just fighting the armies of the Soviet Union but were destined to destroy the “opposing political systems” that Hitler believed were incompatible with National Socialism.[9] The war would be one without mercy or humanity as Belarus became the center of the whirlwind of death and destruction that befell Eastern Europe.

            The invasion of the Soviet Union instigated three years of unrelenting suffering on the people of Belarus. On June 22, 1941, Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that the day marked a “glorious, wonderful hour” in German history.[10] On that fateful day, more than three million Wehrmacht troops had crossed the border to attack the Soviet Union in the largest invasion force ever assembled in human history.[11] Contrary to Goebbels’ clamors of glory and triumph, June 22 marked one of the darkest days of the Second World War. As historian Timothy Snyder succinctly put it, “Operation Barbarossa was much more than a surprise attack, a shift of alliances, or a new stage in a war. It was the beginning of a calamity that defies description.”[12] Such a calamity immediately fell on Belarus, caught in the forefront of the assault. On the same day as Goebbels’ enthusiastic diary entry, the Belarusian city of Grodno fell to German forces of Army Group Center, one of three army groups invading the USSR.[13] Grodno became one of many Belarusian cities to fall to Barbarossa as the region was swiftly carved up into the new German empire. By September 1941, Belarus was integrated into the Reichskommissariat Ostland (RKO) as the “White Russian” area or Weissruthenien.[14] In an area of 87,000 square miles from Borisov to the General Government (occupied Poland), over 9.8 million people now lived under the jackboot of the Nazis.[15] The last six months of 1941 would become one of the bloodiest in European history as the war of conquest transformed into a campaign of annihilation.

            In less than six months, the Germans turned Belarus into an area of unrelenting misery and suffering. The transformation of the region into a state of perpetual violence resulted from the leadership of one man. Before Operation Barbarossa, SS-Gruppenfuhrer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was appointed Higher SS and Police Leader in central Russia (Russland-Mitte), acting as Himmler’s direct subordinate in Belarus.[16] In this capacity, Bach-Zelewski was responsible for joint-SS/Wehrmacht anti-partisan operations, collaborating closely with his army counterpart, chief of the rear area of Army Group Center Max von Schenckendorff.[17] As partisan warfare historian Henning Pieper noted, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was tasked with being “Himmler’s executioner as he was appointed to rid a major sector of European Russia of all possible enemies of the Reich.”[18] Bach-Zelewski’s task, in retrospect, was ironic and pointless considering the lack of a tangible threat posed by so-called “enemies of the Reich.”

            On July 2, 1941, Bach-Zelewski received orders from his superior, SS-Gruppenfuhrer and head of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) Reinhard Heydrich, to direct the Einsatzgruppen (death squads) to execute “saboteurs, propagandists, snipers, assassins, inciters” endangering the security of the Wehrmacht.[19] Heydrich’s order on the surface seemed to indicate that partisans were an endemic problem for the SS and armed forces. However, Heydrich’s decree only served to conflate Jews and non-Jewish civilians as saboteurs, blurring any distinction and giving the Germans the authority to exercise draconian rule over the region. In fact, the stereotypical image of partisan bands fighting in the wooded areas of Belarus were non-existent in 1941.

It was not until July 5, 1941, three days after Bach-Zelewski received the execution orders and fourteen days after Operation Barbarossa, that the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) sanctioned the formation of guerilla bands in Belarus.[20] While the guerillas were lauded in the NKVD’s memorandum as “brave and courageous workers [numbering] 1,162 people,” the partisans of 1941 posed little threat to the German war effort.[21] Leadership was decentralized, recruits lacked adequate training and equipment, and there was no cohesive strategy for the guerillas’ overall purpose.[22] These factors all disprove the notion that what began in Belarus in the summer of 1941 was an anti-partisan campaign. The war Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski and his cohorts initiated would be one of total destruction and extermination.

The commencement of Bach-Zelewski’s reign of terror represented a dramatic crescendo of violence that sustained itself throughout the war. On July 27, Hermann Fegelein and his SS Cavalry Brigade arrived in Belarus to meet with Bach-Zelewski about future operations in the region.[23] The SS Cavalry Brigade formed a third of the cadre of 25,000 men of the Kommandostab Reichsfuhrer-SS (Command Staff of the Reichsfuhrer-SS), a group formed by Himmler for supporting the Einsatzgruppen and the “pacification of the rear areas.”[24] Pacification, like security and combating saboteurs, acted as another euphemism for deliberate mass murder against Jews regardless of affiliation with the resistance. Acting on Bach-Zelewski’s orders to escalate anti-partisan operations, Fegelein directed his brigade to “handle all Jews as plunderers.”[25] In addition, the cavalrymen were expected to shoot Jews as partisans, deport women and children, and burn their villages to the ground.[26] Even though evidence of Jews passively or actively resisting the Germans was almost non-existent, Himmler and Bach-Zelewski gave Fegelein a blank cheque to indiscriminately kill every Jewish man, woman, and child in his path. The area where Fegelein’s horsemen of the apocalypse would be unleashed was the Belarusian marshes of Pripet.

The mass murder operations in Pripet represented the tragedy and horror of the German genocide in Belarus, disguised as a legitimate campaign to fight partisans. On July 29, the SS Cavalry Brigade initiated the killing of Jews in the marshes.[27] The slowness of the first days of the campaign resulted in Himmler bellicosely ordering Fegelein to accelerate their pace, issuing the edict that “all Jews must be shot. Drive the female Jews into the swamps.”[28] After Himmler’s August 1 decree, the speed of murder operations in the marshes reached frightening levels. The brigade divided into the First and Second Cavalry Regiments under Gustav Lombard and Franz Magill, respectively, combed the marshes looking for Jews.[29] The regiment commanders were deliberate in their rhetoric with Lombard somewhat cynically referring to the murder of Jewish men, women, and children as Entjudung (dejewification).[30] Meanwhile, Magill expressed regret that he was unable to fulfill Himmler’s wishes to “drive the female Jews” into the marshes because “the water was not more than three feet deep.”[31] Still, the mass shooting of Jews in Pripet went unabated.

In less than three weeks from July 29 to August 12, Fegelein’s horsemen murdered “14,178 looters, 1,001 partisans, 6,999 Red Army soldiers” according to his own final report.[32] What makes Fegelein’s report all the more startling, besides his nonchalant demeanor discussing these gruesome figures, is his choice of words. Instead of “Jew,” Fegelein deliberately referred to his victims as “partisans and looters.”[33] The conflation of Jews with partisans helped justify the criminal actions of the cavalrymen as necessary for the security of the rear areas. To the Nazis, Jews and partisans were one in the same and any violent action towards either group would suffice to secure the rear areas. Furthermore, the implications of the Pripet Marshes operation as a pacification campaign were evident as Fegelein crossed a new threshold into mass murder.

According to Snyder, before the butchery of the SS Cavalry Brigade in Belarus, “the killing of women and children was a psychological barrier” with even the Einsatzgruppen generally shooting adult male Jews.[34] However, during the Pripet Marshes campaign, the First and Second Regiments had actively participated in the murder of not just Jewish men but women and children on a systematic scale. Thus, Fegelein, and Bach-Zelewski as his superior, can claim the “honor” of being the first to shoot all Jews in their sphere of control regardless of age or sex, justifying it as an anti-partisan operation.[35] However, the SS formed one half of the partnership in the war of extermination in Belarus. While Fegelein’s horsemen were turning Pripet into the graveyard for thousands of innocent Jews, the Wehrmacht’s rear area divisions were conducting similar campaigns throughout all of Belarus.

During the occupation of Belarus, the German Army relied on several infantry divisions for security in the rear areas under their control. In the rear area of Army Group Center, three security divisions (Sicherungsdivisionen)—the 403rd in the north, 286th in the middle, and 221st in the south, all under General Schenckendorff—were charged with policing all of Belarus.[36] The divisions employed in the anti-partisan war in 1941 were a far cry from the prowess associated with the Wehrmacht. The 221st, for example, consisted of territorials and reservists deemed unfit for frontline duties.[37] In addition, the 145,000 square kilometers of land that encompassed Schenckendorff’s domain proved a daunting task with the 221st alone responsible for covering 35,000 square kilometers.[38] Despite the obstacles, the security divisions did their task frighteningly well in what Leonid Rein dubbed “the barbarization of the occupation politics [in Belarus].”[39]

The security divisions turned their sectors of Belarus into a scene of violence on the auspices of combatting guerillas. In the autumn of 1941, the rear area of Army Group Center reached a new level of violence in their war against the civilians under their control. The newly deployed 707th Security Division reportedly murdered at least 10,431 people, mostly Jewish, from October to November, all shot as “partisans.”[40] In the sectors of the 286th and 403rd Divisions, 715 and 1,093 noncombatants, respectively, were shot during the same period.[41] Rounding out the ghastly arithmetic was the 221st, surpassing the body counts of its sister divisions the 286th and 403rd by reporting the execution of 1,746 “partisans.”[42] The bloodshed inflicted by the security divisions in the fall of 1941 typifies the utter ruthlessness and pointlessness of the Wehrmacht’s anti-guerilla war in Belarus. The relatively light casualties sustained by the rear area divisions, with the 286th reporting only eighteen men killed during their 1941 operations, is a strong indication that the army was not actively fighting partisans as their reports deceitfully tell readers.[43] Instead, innocent civilians, many of them Jewish, were the ones who bore the brunt of this onslaught against humanity.

By the end of 1941, the Wehrmacht and the SS, in their unholy alliance of genocidal proportions, had turned Belarus into an inferno unprecedented in human history. From June to December, the forces of Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski and Max von Schenckendorff were responsible for the murders of at least 200,000 Jews in a period of mass killing unprecedented in human history.[44] The operations, disguised as a legitimate campaign to secure the rear areas, were little more than a thinly veiled ruse to exterminate a people deemed the harbingers of a “Judeo-Bolshevist” conspiracy. The lack of a defined partisan movement, the inclusion of women and children as viable targets, and the relative safety of operating behind the frontlines in 1941 are all incriminating pieces of evidence disproving the German claims of a guerilla war. Instead, the war in Belarus should be viewed through the lens of one security divisional commander who stated that Jews were “no longer humans in the European sense of the word [and thus] must be destroyed.”[45] While 1941 concluded with Bach-Zelewski being promoted to the rank of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer in November,[46] the killing in Belarus went unabated into 1942, this time with the Slavic populations being in the crosshairs alongside their Jewish compatriots.

The year 1942 marked a greater watershed moment in the Nazi anti-partisan war. Three months before the start of the new year in September 1941, representatives from the SS and Wehrmacht participated in a three-day conference in the Belarusian city of Mogilev.[47] In attendance were Bach-Zelewski and Schenckendorff, Fegelein and Lombard of the SS Cavalry Brigade, and several officers from the rear area security divisions totaling sixty participants.[48] All were veteran mass murderers whose experience in the “battle against partisans” was the centerpiece of the conference.[49] The Mogilev summit marked an initiative by the Germans to streamline and standardize their tactics in anti-partisan warfare for larger campaigns in the future. Much like any other pedagogical conference today, the Nazis were learning and perfecting their doctrine of genocide. Several presentations were given by anti-partisan specialists like Hermann Fegelein while Bach-Zelewski gave what could be described as a macabre keynote speech on “the Capture of Kommissars and Partisans in Scouring Actions.”[50]

The conference concluded with several “demonstrations” of the lessons learned during the summit. Three operations were conducted in which a village was cordoned off, its inhabitants interrogated, and suspected partisans were shot.[51] During one demonstration at the village of Knjaschitschi, the participants were told that the murder of Jews was one of the preset conditions for a successful raid.[52] All findings from the Mogilev summit were then compiled in a sixteen-page document that laid down the guidelines for the expansive anti-partisan war that unfolded in 1942 and 1943.[53] The doctrine of how the Germans would prosecute future operations in Belarus can be extracted from the following lines from the executive summary: “The enemy must be completely annihilated. The constant decision between life and death for partisans and suspicious persons is difficult even for the hardest soldier. It must be done. He acts correctly who fights ruthlessly and mercilessly with complete disregard for any personal surge of emotion.”[54] The ramifications of the genocidal rhetoric employed at the Mogilev Conference would not take long to be felt as the Eastern Front continued to be a scene of unimaginable misery.

As 1942 opened, a new, more horrific phase in the German anti-partisan war was about to begin. Due to the innate viciousness and brutality of Nazi rule in Belarus, evidenced by their genocidal murder campaigns throughout the region, support for the partisans had dramatically surged. By the summer of 1942, the ranks of the guerillas had risen to over 150,000 people from a paltry 30,000 in 1941, most operating from Belarus.[55] The main driving factor for the surge in partisan requirement was their hatred of the Germans who had mercilessly occupied their land and exterminated all they held dear. As Jewish partisan Rachel Margolis recalled, “We told them we wanted to go out on missions and avenge our destroyed families.”[56] As a result of the enlarged guerilla ranks, the Red Army High Command established the Central Partisan Headquarters, coordinating all operations and sabotage campaigns through a single state-controlled entity.[57] However, the Soviets and Belarusians were not the only ones reorganizing their commands and devoting resources to the war behind the frontlines. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski’s frightening magnum opus was about to begin.

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski continued to escalate his mass murder operations following the initial season of bloodshed in 1941. In response to the consolidation efforts of the partisan movement, Himmler appointed Bach-Zelewski as Plenipotentiary for Anti-Partisan Warfare (Beauftragter fur den Bandenkampf), effectively giving the Obergruppenfuhrer expansive powers in conducting the rear area operations as he saw fit.[58] Modeled off the Mogilev Conference, Bach-Zelewski initiated several Grossunternehmen (large operations) dedicated to exterminating so-called “bandit areas” with the utmost ruthlessness and violence.[59] The foundation of German operational tactics during the large operations of 1942 was simple, large regions controlled by partisans were encircled, blockading them from the outside world and allowing the SS and Wehrmacht forces to concentrically advance on the center, killing anyone in their path.[60] In addition, all villages in the surrounding areas were burned to the ground in order to annihilate the local population centers suspected of supporting the partisans.[61]

The decimation of Belarusian villages all seemed like clockwork to the veteran mass murderers of the SS and Wehrmacht. If 1941 had been the dry run for the Nazis to commence their war against humanity, 1942 was the complete disintegration of any restraint with their genocidal practices being fully institutionalized. Indicative of the hyper-brutalization of the anti-partisan war is how routine such horrifying atrocities were to the perpetrators. A German officer named Burchard depicted how a normal anti-partisan sweep was conducted in July 1942: “They [the villagers] were led to the edge of the village and driven into the mill, then the mill was set on fire. We shot those who attempted to flee on the spot. I saw SS men push or simply throw children and old people into the burning mill.”[62] Albert Rodenbusch of the 635th Training Regiment operating in December 1942 recalled an equally ghastly scene: “We found no partisans there, burned the village down nonetheless and shot fifty inhabitants, among them women and children.”[63] Rodenbusch’s startling admission of not actually finding any partisans in these villages further inculcates the German forces in being guilty of disguising deliberate acts of genocide as anti-partisan warfare.

During the large-operations campaign of 1942, the Germans were hardly successful in destroying actual partisan detachments in Belarus. This was due to the partisans’ own tactics for opposing the occupiers. Knowing that directly assaulting the main body of the Wehrmacht would be suicide, guerillas selectively used violence, targeting patrols and raiding isolated garrisons for supplies.[64] Aided by Belarus’ environment of vast swamps and forests, the partisans would disappear into the overgrowth before German forces could coalesce to respond.[65] The main contribution of the guerilla movement was not the killing of Nazi personnel, but the interdiction of their logistics and communication lines. Realizing the heavy German dependence on the railways, partisans wreaked havoc by detonating explosives on the tracks.[66] These indirect methods of resistance led historian Nechama Tec to conclude that “until 1943, in Western Belorussia, attacks on the Germans by Russian partisans were rare […] reflect[ing] the overall characteristics of guerilla warfare, particularly its avoidance of direct enemy confrontations.”[67] Thus, there is no remotely justifiable reason why the Nazis enacted such vile measures against the civilian population in Belarus. To truly understand why 1942 was so indiscriminately violent, the paradigm of a legitimate counterinsurgency must be disregarded.

Obergruppenfuhrer Bach-Zelewski certainly did not believe his operations would have eliminated the partisan threat. Himmler’s anti-insurgent specialist frankly admitted that the purpose of the anti-partisan campaign was the destruction of both the Jewish and Slavic populations of the East.[68] As Snyder notes, the “large operations were actually designed to kill Belarusian civilians as well as Belarusian Jews.”[69] The forceful annihilation of both “racial enemies” of the Third Reich was further ingratiated within the grander anti-partisan war in 1942 by Adolf Hitler himself. On August 18, Fuhrer Headquarters released Directive No. 46, the “Instructions For Intensified Action Against Banditry in the East.”[70] The order made the Fuhrer’s wishes regarding the people trapped in the rear areas explicitly clear, stating that “by the beginning of winter these bandit gangs must be substantially exterminated [...] The destruction of the bandits calls for active operations and the most rigorous measures against all members of gangs or those guilty of supporting them.”[71] The use of the word “bandit” was a deliberate rhetorical choice on behalf of Hitler to further dehumanize the victims and justify the actions of men like Bach-Zelewski who were carrying out a genocide under the auspices of fighting guerillas.

Terms like “bandits” and “banditry” were used heavily throughout Directive No. 46; the words “partisan” or “guerilla” never appeared once in Hitler’s order.[72] As historian Philip Blood notes, “The directive was the official confirmation that Nazi Germany outlawed the Soviet partisans as political ‘bandits.’ This equated combating partisans with combating gangsters or gangsterism.”[73] The purposeful lack of dignification of the partisan movement leads to the reductive dichotomy the Germans created for themselves to justify their atrocities. The anti-partisan war was now a Bandenbekampfung (bandit-fighting) operation with Bach-Zelewski serving as inspector of the bandit-fighting campaign in September 1942.[74] With the SS and Wehrmacht’s task of fighting banditry now established, Belarus witnessed even more heightened levels of bloodshed in the last months of 1942.

In Operation Swamp Fever in September, SS Special Commando Dirlewanger shot 8,350 Jews, 1,274 “suspected bandits,” and 389 “bandits” in and around the ghetto of Baranovichi.[75] Special Commando Dirlewanger’s presence in Belarus is even more horrifying considering the unit’s makeup. Led by the alcoholic and convicted rapist Oskar Dirlewanger, the unit consisted of former poachers and dangerous criminals, including murderers and the mentally ill who were all deployed to Belarus in 1942 to assist in anti-partisan operations there.[76] According to Timothy Snyder, as many as 30,000 Belarusians were murdered during Special Commando Dirlewanger’s “tour of duty.”[77] In Operation Hamburg, which concluded on December 21, German forces reported 1,674 “bandits,” 1,510 “suspected bandits,” and 2,958 Jews shot;[78] the SS commander enthusiastically reported that the area had been “reopened to the German administration after it had been ruled by bandits for months.”[79] During the Grossunternehmen of 1942, an average of thirty villages were burned during each bandit sweep, killing between 3,000-10,000 Belarusians.[80] The anti-partisan war had reached frightening levels of destruction in the period of 1941-1942. If the light of humanity managed to survive at barely a flicker, the year 1943 would see it extinguished as the Nazis embraced total war and destruction.

Throughout the course of the anti-partisan war in Belarus, each year brought a new level of escalation of violence and brutality at the cost of the civilians caught in the crossfire. In 1941, the Nazis were methodically destroying the Jewish communities in the occupied territories at a frightening pace under the auspices of combatting resistance fighters. In 1942, the large-scale operations conducted by the SS and Wehrmacht formations under Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski had outlined that the war against partisans was a war against banditry and the Belarusian people, further ingratiating the German forces into creating a state of perpetual violence in the region. Now, in 1943, the stakes reached an even greater level of terror and suffering for the people of Belarus. Following the defeat of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech at the Berlin Sportpalast on February 18 where he rhetorically asked a carefully curated crowd of Nazi loyalists, “Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?”[81] Goebbels cited a perceived threat of the “Bolshevization of the Reich” and the danger it posed to European hegemony as a justification for rallying the German people to pursue the ultimate strategy of resisting the Allies: total war.[82]

Despite Goebbels’ rhetoric, total war, the idea that all peoples are ultimately a part of a nation’s will and ability to wage conflict and thus are viable targets to destroy, had been a fact of life for the people of Belarus since the German invasion in June 1941. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Belarusians were already exterminated by the Nazis with their villages wiped off the face of the earth. However, the partisans continued to be omnipresent in the rear areas of the Wehrmacht with the army reporting that the number of guerillas in Belarus doubled from 57,000 in January 1943 to over 103,600 in September.[83] Over the same period, resistance fighters across the entire rear area of the Eastern Front had ballooned to a quarter of a million members.[84] With the number of partisans rising dramatically, the Germans adopted even more violent and radical means to destroy their racial enemies. If the rallying cry of the Third Reich in 1943 was total war, the Nazis were certain to deliver an even greater whirlwind of destruction upon the regions they still controlled.

On June 19, 1943, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the man Hitler deemed could “wade through a sea of blood,”[85] received another promotion from Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler.[86] The Obergruppenfuhrer was now the Chef der Bandenkampfverbande (Chief of Combating-Bandits Formations), effectively making him the master of anti-partisan counterinsurgency operations not just in Belarus and the Eastern Front rear areas, but all of Europe.[87] The growth of Bach-Zelewski’s power was met by an even greater intensification of the violence in Belarus. As the Third Reich’s bandit-fighting specialist, Bach-Zelewski initiated a new phase in the war of extermination in the East: the dead zones (tote zonen).

Due to the economic and military strains of anti-partisan warfare, the Germans established “dead zones” where large areas controlled by the guerillas were to be systematically destroyed, their populations evacuated, and useful war material plundered or burned.[88] A report by the 221st Security Division in January 1943 outlines the objectives of the dead zones policy in the rear areas: “After thorough examination of the situation the battalion therefore proposes the creation of a broad no-man’s-land [where] the area recommended for evacuation encompasses a total of 15 communities with 25,934 inhabitants.”[89] Six months later, the same division stated that “the evacuation of the designated area was accomplished without incident.”[90] At the heart of the dead zones campaign was the liquidation of all people trapped in this artificial no-man’s-land since, “every person found in these areas is to be considered a bandit.”[91]

All German operations for the rest of 1943 resembled those of the 221st Security Division in June. On April 17, Operation Zauberflote was launched in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.[92] Targeting the 130,000 homes that remained in the war-torn city, the SS cordoned off its district, searching for partisans and killing anyone on the pretense of being a part of the resistance.[93] After crushing the miniscule levels of tangible fighting, over 76,000 Belarusians were processed with 1,262 people being deported as slaves to Germany.[94] Zauberflote was one of the less bloody dead zone operations with only thirty-nine suspects arrested and two executed.[95] However, Minsk’s population was decimated with most being forced to evacuate their homes.

The campaigns following Zauberflote would not share the same bloodlessness. More than a month later, Operation Cottbus followed the same modus operandi of Zauberflote: exterminate the bandits, enslave the population, and plunder the countryside. From June 22 to July 3, the Germans reported the execution of 9,500 bandits and suspected bandits while 2,412 civilians were deported for slave labor.[96] Besides murder and abduction, Cottbus was met by a massive economic exploitation and destruction campaign outlined in the dead zones policy objectives. According to Haupsturmfuhrer Wilke, “663.03 tons of grain, 3,196 cows and calves, 2,182 sheep, and 760 horses” were “taken as booty,” leaving nothing behind.[97] The swarm of locusts that became the Germans in Belarus had yet to subside as they created another massive dead zone in Belarus.

Since the summer of 1942, the Bielski Otriad had coalesced into a massive partisan movement consisting of Jews who had survived the initial murder operations in 1941. Led by the Bielski brothers Asael, Tuvia, and Zus, the otriad had made its home in the forests of Nalibocka.[98] By July 1943, the Nazis were eyeing the Nalibocka Forest for destruction, going so far as to call the upcoming mission Operation Hermann after the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe.[99] The order to all SS formations before Operation Hermann read as follows: “Partisan groups are to be annihilated, their camps and bunkers to be destroyed, and their provisions to be seized.”[100] At this point in the anti-partisan war, all decrees, no matter how bellicose, followed the same arithmetic. Every perceived threat was to be ruthlessly and pitilessly exterminated while the lands under the jackboots of the invaders were to be literally scorched off the face of the earth. The Germans would live up to their reputation built off two years of genocidal fervor with terrifying results.

On July 15, 1943, the Nazi onslaught on the Bielski Otriad commenced.[101] Bach-Zelewski’s subordinate, SS General Curt von Gottberg, had assembled a massive force of veteran killers, including Dirlewanger’s infamous special commando from the 1942 large operations.[102] In line with the partisans’ avoidance of direct combat with the enemy, the remnants of the otriad retreated into the swampy areas around Krasnaya Gorka.[103] While some of the otriad had fought a series of ambushes on isolated German convoys, the Hermann campaign was mostly one-sided.[104] Gottberg’s forces had destroyed the villages around the perimeter of the forest before entering the woods proper.[105] Like in Cottbus a month before, any portable item of value was stolen while all villagers in the area were either enslaved or murdered.[106] By the time Operation Hermann concluded on August 11, the Germans had reaped a whirlwind of destruction upon the people of Nalibocka Forest.[107]

The murder tallies for all participating units in Hermann was staggering. Oskar Dirlewanger’s gang of marauders were responsible for the lion’s share of the deaths, killing 1,617 “partisans.” Special Commando Dirlewanger also provided the Reich with an additional 2,955 men, women, and children to serve as slaves.[108] Bach-Zelewski noted that the total number of “bandits” murdered during the operation reached 4,199 while 5,500 “laborers” were brought to Germany.[109] However, the bounty recovered by the SS during the month-long sweep rounded out the principal goals of the dead zones policy: extermination and exploitation. According to their own reports, 1,064 cows, 1,146 sheep, and 283 horses were captured during the offensive.[110] However, the startling discrepancy between weapons captured indicates a more sinister outcome in the rather triumphant reports of the SS. While Dirlewanger proudly claimed the execution of 1,617 partisans, his unit only captured 419 rifles and pistols as well as fifty-six machine guns.[111] Assuming each individual murdered possessed a weapon, that leaves 1,142 people who were not armed but were shot nonetheless. In addition, the large number of animals and civilians taken further demonstrates the deliberate destruction of the Belarusians on behalf of the Nazis since only the wholesale destruction of entire communities could deliver such loot.

In the end, Operation Hermann only exemplified both the totality of the German plans to annihilate the Jews and Slavs in a war on banditry and the futility of their strategy. Attacks on the German railways increased during the dead zones campaign with 21,300 rail incidents occurring mostly in Belarus in August 1943.[112] Furthermore, the burn and murder tactics the Wehrmacht and SS employed did little to change the Reich’s dire strategic predicament in 1943-1944. On June 22, 1944, exactly three years after Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets launched their massive summer offensive codenamed Bagration, destroying Army Group Center and liberating Belarus.[113] Unfortunately, the carnage and misery caused by more than two years of genocidal “anti-partisan” warfare had already been done.

By the end of the dead zones campaign of 1943, the Nazis had, for the most part, achieved their Verwustung (desertification) of Belarus.[114] Over 900,000 people in the rear areas of Army Group Center were deported to the Reich proper,[115] leaving behind a scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno on Earth. Belarus was now a wasteland not just deprived of its fields of grain and grazing livestock, but of its people. During the initial onslaught of 1941, the large operations of 1942, and the dead zones campaign of 1943, Belarus became a state of perpetual death and destruction caused by the Germans’ willingness to conflate their extermination policies with rear area security. An estimated 8,526 villages were systematically burned to the ground according to Yuri Zhukov.[116] Knowing that each village razed represented a community, a people no longer alive because of the genocidal hatred of one man’s regime of total annihilation, adds a further layer to the tragedy of the Second World War. As many as 550,000 Belarusian Jews and 400,000 civilians were slaughtered by the occupying forces of the Wehrmacht and SS, accounting for one third of the region’s pre-war population.[117] These startling statistics only serve to vindicate Timothy Snyder’s thesis that Belarus was “the deadliest place on earth between 1941 and 1944.”[118]

Crafting a state of violence required an army such as the Wehrmacht to completely unshackle themselves from upholding any sense of humanitarianism or morality. The criminality of the SS and Army’s marriage propelled the first wave of mass murders to take place in the last six months of 1941. Disguised as anti-partisan sweeps, the Nazis had effectively butchered large swathes of the Jewish population, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The brutality that exemplified German rule had ironically caused the partisan movement to gain both power and support, creating a vicious cycle that the Nazis were more than willing to fuel. Under Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the partisan war became a war against criminality and banditry with a significant amount of military power invested in the destruction of the guerillas and their base areas in 1942. However, due to their inability to find any resistance fighters, the reinvigorated effort to fight the partisans only resulted in more pain and misery as the Germans deliberately exterminated Jewish and non-Jewish communities. The culmination of these failed efforts led to the magnum opus of genocidal policy in Belarus: the desertification of the land through the creation of dead zones in 1943. Once again, wholesale slaughter, enslavement, exploitation, and ruination ensued, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and an indelible scar left on the land. Violence was the culture and life for those who lived in Belarus from 1941-1944. While the war ended in 1945, the cessation of hostilities did little to assuage the misery of those who survived, losing loved ones forever and living in a land scarred by the barbarism and savagery of man with the waiting arms of the Soviet Union ensuring the continuation of suffering for decades to come.



Primary Sources

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Goebbels, Joseph. The Goebbels Diaries, 1939-1941. Translated by Fred Taylor. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.

Heydrich, Reinhard. “Extract From Guidelines by Heydrich For Higher SS and Police Leaders in the Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union, July 2, 1941.” Essay. In Documents on the Holocaust, edited by Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981.

Hitler, Adolf. “Fuhrer Directive No. 46: Instructions For Intensified Action Against Banditry in the East.” Essay. In Hitler's Wartime Orders: The Complete Fuhrer Directives, 1939-1945, edited by Bob Carruthers. South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Military, 2018.

Hitler, Adolf. Hitler's Secret Book. Translated by Salvator Attanasio. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Keitel, Wilhelm. “Decree Concerning the Implementation of Military Jurisdiction in the Barbarossa Zone and Concerning Special Measures for the Troops, 13 May 1941.” Essay. In Barbarossa 1941: Reframing Hitler's Invasion of Stalin's Soviet Empire, edited by Frank Ellis. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015.

Keitel, Wilhelm. “Special Duties for the SS in Operation Barbarossa, March 13, 1941.” Essay. In Documents on the Holocaust, edited by Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981.

Margolis, Rachel. A Partisan From Vilna. Translated by F Jackson Piotrow. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2010.

NKGB of the BSSR. Memorandum No. 368: On the Organization of Partisan Detachments and Groups, 1941.

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Beorn, Waitman W. “A Calculus of Complicity: The ‘Wehrmacht," the Anti-Partisan War, and the Final Solution in White Russia, 1941-42.” Central European History 44, no. 2 (June 2011): 308–37.

Beorn, Waitman W. Marching Into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Birn, Ruth B. “Criminals as Manipulative Witnesses: A Case Study of SS General Von Dem Bach-Zelewski.” Journal of International Criminal Justice 9 (2011): 441–74.

Blood, Philip W. Hitler's Bandit Hunters: The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2008.

Buchler, Yehoshua. “Kommandostab Reichsfuhrer-SS: Himmler's Personal Murder Brigades in 1941.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 1, no. 1 (1986): 11–25.

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Epstein, Barbara. The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationlism. Berkeley: California Scholarship Online, 2008.

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Heuser, Beatrice, and Eitan Shamir, eds. Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: National Styles and Strategic Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Koerber, Jeffrey. Borderland Generation: Soviet and Polish Jews Under Hitler. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2020.

Pieper, Henning. “The German Approach to Counterinsurgency in the Second World War.” The International History Review 37, no. 3 (2015): 631–42.

Rein, Leonid. The Kings and the Pawns: Collaboration in Byelorussia During World War Two. New York: Berghahn Books, 2011.

Shepherd, Ben H. “Hawks, Doves and Tote Zonen: A Wehrmacht Security Division in Central Russia, 1943.” Journal of Contemporary History 37, no. 3 (2002): 349–69.

Shepherd, Ben H. “The Continuum of Brutality: Wehrmacht Security Divisions in Central Russia, 1942.” German History 21, no. 1 (2003): 49–81.

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[1] Adolf Hitler, Hitler's Secret Book, trans. Salvator Attanasio (New York: Grove Press, 1961), 45.

[2] Hitler, Hitler's Secret Book, trans. Attanasio, 135.

[3] Wilhelm Keitel, “Decree Concerning the Implementation of Military Jurisdiction in the Barbarossa Zone and Concerning Special Measures for the Troops, 13 May 1941,” in Barbarossa 1941: Reframing Hitler's Invasion of Stalin's Soviet Empire, ed. Frank Ellis (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015), 488.

[4] Ibid., 489.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Keitel, “Decree Concerning the Implementation of Military Jurisdiction in the Barbarossa Zone and Concerning Special Measures for the Troops,” 488.

[7] Wilhelm Keitel, “Special Duties for the SS in Operation Barbarossa, March 13, 1941,” in Documents on the Holocaust, ed. Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981), 375.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Joseph Goebbels, The Goebbels Diaries, 1939-1941, trans. Fred Taylor (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982), 424.

[11] Ben H. Shepherd, War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 58-59.

[12] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 155.

[13] Jeffrey Koerber, Borderland Generation: Soviet and Polish Jews Under Hitler (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2020), 151-152.

[14] Waitman W. Beorn, Marching Into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 59.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ruth B. Birn, “Criminals as Manipulative Witnesses: A Case Study of SS General Von Dem Bach-Zelewski,” Journal of International Criminal Justice 9 (2011): pp. 441-474, 442.

[17] Henning Pieper, “The German Approach to Counterinsurgency in the Second World War,” The International History Review 37, no. 3 (2015): pp. 631-642, 636.

[18] Beatrice Heuser and Eitan Shamir, eds., Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: National Styles and Strategic Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 155-156.

[19] Reinhard Heydrich, “Extract From Guidelines by Heydrich For Higher SS and Police Leaders in the Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union, July 2, 1941,” in Documents on the Holocaust, ed. Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981), 378.

[20] NKGB of the BSSR, “Memorandum No. 368: On the Organization of Partisan Detachments and Groups,” (1941).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Philip Cooke and Ben H. Shepherd, eds., European Resistance in the Second World War (South Yorkshire: Praetorian Press, 2013), 192.

[23] Beorn, Marching Into Darkness, 61.

[24] Yehoshua Buchler, “Kommandostab Reichsfuhrer-SS: Himmler's Personal Murder Brigades in 1941,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 1, no. 1 (1986): pp. 11-25, 14-15.

[25] Waitman W. Beorn, “A Calculus of Complicity: The ‘Wehrmacht," the Anti-Partisan War, and the Final Solution in White Russia, 1941-42,” Central European History 44, no. 2 (June 2011): pp. 308-337, 316.

[26] Heuser and Shamir, eds., Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, 156.

[27] Buchler, “Kommandostab Reichsfuhrer-SS,” 15.

[28] Heuser and Shamir, eds., Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, 157.

[29] Beorn, “A Calculus of Complicity,” 316, 321.

[30] Heuser and Shamir, eds., Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, 157.

[31] Beorn, Marching Into Darkness, 62.

[32] Buchler, “Kommandostab Reichsfuhrer-SS,” 15-16.

[33] Ibid., 15.

[34] Snyder, Bloodlands, 198.

[35] Ibid., 198.

[36] Leonid Rein, The Kings and the Pawns: Collaboration in Byelorussia During World War Two (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011), 99.

[37] Shepherd, War in the Wild East, 48.

[38] Shepherd, War in the Wild East, 51.

[39] Rein, The Kings and the Pawns, 99

[40] Shepherd, War in the Wild East, 84.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 85.

[43] Beorn, “A Calculus of Complicity,” 318.

[44] Rein, The Kings and the Pawns, 262.

[45] Snyder, Bloodlands, 206.

[46] Birn, “Criminals as Manipulative Witnesses,” 442-443.

[47] Heuser and Shamir, eds., Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, 157.

[48] Beorn, “A Calculus of Complicity,” 319-321.

[49] Ibid., 319.

[50] Beorn, Marching Into Darkness, 100.

[51] Ibid., 102.

[52] Ibid., 101.

[53] Beorn, “A Calculus of Complicity,” 324.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Hamburg Institute for Social Research, ed., The German Army and Genocide: Crimes Against Prisoners, Jews, and Other Civilians, 1939-1944 (New York: The New Press, 1999), 162.

[56] Rachel Margolis, A Partisan From Vilna, trans. F Jackson Piotrow (Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2010), 385.

[57] Cooke and Shepherd, eds., European Resistance in the Second World War, 198.

[58] Birn, “Criminals as Manipulative Witnesses,” 443.

[59] Ben H. Shepherd, “The Continuum of Brutality: Wehrmacht Security Divisions in Central Russia, 1942,” German History 21, no. 1 (2003): pp. 49-81, 53-54.

[60] Barbara Epstein, The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism (Berkeley: California Scholarship Online, 2008), 189.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Hamburg Institute for Social Research, ed., The German Army and Genocide, 166.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Yuri M. Zhukov, “External Resources and Indiscriminate Violence: Evidence From German-Occupied Belarus,” World Politics 69, no. 1 (January 2017): pp. 1-50, 17.

[65] Snyder, Bloodlands, 234.

[66] Zhukov, “External Resources and Indiscriminate Violence,” 17.

[67] Nechama Tec, Defiance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 113-114.

[68] Snyder, Bloodlands, 234.

[69] Ibid., 242.

[70] Adolf Hitler, “Fuhrer Directive No. 46: Instructions For Intensified Action Against Banditry in the East,” in Hitler's Wartime Orders: The Complete Fuhrer Directives, 1939-1945, ed. Bob Carruthers (South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Military, 2018), 109.

[71] Ibid., 110.

[72] Ibid., 109-112.

[73] Philip W. Blood, Hitler's Bandit Hunters: The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2008), 78.

[74] Ibid., 76.

[75] Snyder, Bloodlands, 242-243.

[76] Ibid., 242.

[77] Snyder, Bloodlands, 242.

[78] Hamburg Institute for Social Research, ed., The German Army and Genocide, 162.

[79] Blood, Hitler's Bandit Hunters, 88.

[80] Hamburg Institute for Social Research, ed., The German Army and Genocide, 162.

[81] Joseph Goebbels, “Berlin Sportpalast Speech”.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Shepherd, War in the Wild East, 168.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Snyder, Bloodlands, 206.

[86] Blood, Hitler's Bandit Hunters, 346.

[87] Ibid., 105-106.

[88] Ben H. Shepherd, “Hawks, Doves and Tote Zonen: A Wehrmacht Security Division in Central Russia, 1943,” Journal of Contemporary History 37, no. 3 (2002): pp. 349-369, 362.

[89] Hamburg Institute for Social Research, ed., The German Army and Genocide, 168.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Hamburg Institute for Social Research, ed., The German Army and Genocide, 168.

[92] Blood, Hitler's Bandit Hunters, 185.

[93] Ibid., 184-185.

[94] Ibid., 186.

[95] Blood, Hitler's Bandit Hunters, 186.

[96] Ibid., 202.

[97] Hamburg Institute for Social Research, ed., The German Army and Genocide, 168.

[98] Tec, Defiance, 58.

[99] Ibid., 159.

[100] Peter Duffy, The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 171.

[101] Ibid., 174.

[102] Ibid., 171-173.

[103] Tec, Defiance, 163.

[104] Ibid., 160.

[105] Duffy, The Bielski Brothers, 174-175.

[106] Snyder, Bloodlands, 246.

[107] Ibid.

[108] Blood, Hitler's Bandit Hunters, 199.

[109] Ibid., 201.

[110] Ibid., 199.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Blood, Hitler's Bandit Hunters, 101.

[113] Geyer and Fitzpatrick, eds., Beyond Totalitarianism, 381.

[114] Ibid.

[115] Ibid.

[116] Zhukov, “External Resources and Indiscriminate Violence,” 10.

[117] Beorn, Marching Into Darkness, 28-29.

[118] Ibid., 27.

About the Author(s)

Kyle Sajoyan is an undergraduate studying military history at Liberty University. His specialty lies in 20th century East Asian and Eastern European conflicts with a strong emphasis on Sino-Soviet military history. Mr. Sajoyan has presented at several academic conferences where he brought the niche field of military history to a wider audience. He also runs an Instagram @war_history_enthusiast where he writes in-depth posts about military history.  



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