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War With “Unprecedented, Unmerciful, and Unrelenting Harshness:” Hitler, Operation Barbarossa, and the Commissar Order


The polished cars of the German military began arriving early at the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin on March 30, 1941. As each chauffeured vehicle pulled to a stop before the building’s main entrance, guards stepped forward, pulled open the passenger doors, and saluted the uniformed occupants as they emerged. Two hundred and fifty officers – the most senior commanders of Operation Barbarossa and their staffs – smartly strode up the stone steps and entered the building for a special conference with their Führer, Adolf Hitler. They knew that Hitler planned to announce the new date for the invasion of the Soviet Union. What they did not know was that Hitler was also going to deliver a notorious order that would make them accessories to war crimes.

The officers entered a cabinet chamber and took their seats according to rank and seniority, with the lowermost located furthest from the lectern. At 11:00 a.m., Adolf Hitler entered the room from the rear and, as the soldiers rose to attention, strode to the rostrum. After the officers had returned to their seats, Hitler began.

Hitler and generals in October 1941

Adolf Hitler in conference with his generals in Russia, October 1941. From right: Wilhelm Keitel, Adolf Hitler, Walther von Brauchitsch. At far left is Friedrich Paulus, who would later surrender at Stalingrad. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchive

He asserted that, despite Great Britain’s holdout, the war had been won in the West. But time was of the essence. Predicting that in four years America would be ascendant as a military power and threat, Hitler said Germany had to complete its conquest of Europe as quickly as possible. The invasion of the Soviet Union would commence on June 22.

Then, he dropped his bombshell. Army Chief of the General Staff Gen. Franz Halder, who took notes during Hitler’s lecture, wrote what Hitler next said:

“The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion. This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting harshness. All officers will have to rid themselves of obsolete ideologies. I know that the necessity for such means of waging war is beyond the comprehension of you generals but . . . I insist absolutely that my orders be executed without contradiction. The commissars are the bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism. Therefore the commissars will be liquidated. German soldiers guilty of breaking international law . . . will be excused. Russia has not participated in the Hague Convention and therefore has no rights under it.”

“The commissars are the bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism. Therefore the commissars will be liquidated.” – Adolf Hitler

The Wehrmacht senior officers received the full text of Hitler’s Kommissarbefehl, or Commissar Order, the next day and began wrestling with the consequences of the Faustian remilitarization bargain they had made with the Nazis. Captured civilians such as the commissars were to be denied protection under the Geneva Convention and, if possible, executed on the spot.

On May 13, 1941, a codicil, known as the directive of May 13, was added expanding the executions to include civilians “suspected of criminal action” and leaving it up to officers in the field, regardless of rank, to “decide whether they are to be shot.” Needless to say, Jews were also targeted in these orders.

When confronted in the post-war Nuremberg war crimes trials, field marshals and generals who fought on the Eastern Front tried to distance themselves from the notorious orders. Halder claimed they all were outraged and tried to fight them. Typical were comments made by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who said, “I told the commander of the Army Group under which I served at that time . . . that I could not carry out such an order, which was against the honor of a soldier.”

The truth was the commanders swallowed their qualms and carried out the orders. In von Manstein’s case, prosecutors revealed that his 11th Army war diary entry relating to the subject had been pasted over. The original text read: “The new Commander in Chief [von Manstein] does not wish officers to be present at shooting of Jews. This is unworthy of a German officer.” Prosecutors also revealed he advocated “the Jewish Bolshevik system be wiped out once and for all.” In 1950, Von Manstein received a prison sentence of 18 years. In 1952 he was put on medical parole.

The order proved a costly blunder for Hitler. Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin’s brutal rule had killed millions of the country’s citizens. The Ukraine was particularly hard hit. Thus, when the German armies invaded, local populations initially greeted them as liberators. That changed as soon as the Commissar Order was enforced. Soon generals discovered they had two wars on their hands, one on the front lines against the Soviet Army, and one in their rear against partisans. Had Hitler not issued that order, he would have had an indigenous population united for him. Instead, they united against him and contributed to his eventual defeat in the east.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...