Thursday, October 31, 2019


               That autumn I saw something of the German “desert” policy in a few of the villages recaptured by the Red Army. Thus, in the village of Pogoreloye Gorodishche, a large part of the population had died of hunger; many had been shot; others had been deported as slave labour, and the village had been almost completely destroyed. Now, in March 1943, fearing to be outflanked by the Russians from the south (and, eventually, of being trapped in that great “twixt-Moscow-and-Smolensk” encirclement which the Russians had failed to carry through in February 1942) the Germans simply pulled out of the “Moscow springboard,” though with some heavy rearguard actions, notably at Viazma, and destroying as much as time would permit them. The official Soviet report, published on April 7, 1943, on the effects of the “desert policy” the Germans had systematically carried out in the newly-liberated areas west of Moscow was a harrowing catalogue of mass shootings, murders and hangings, rape, the killing or starving to death of Russian war prisoners, and the deportation of thousands as slave labour to Germany. 

                 Kharkov was almost mild in comparison. The report noted that most of the shootings of civilians had been done by the German army, not by the Gestapo or the SD. The towns were almost totally obliterated—as I could indeed see for myself soon afterwards. At Viazma, out of 5,500 buildings, only fifty-one small houses had survived; at Gzhatsk, 300 out of 1,600; in the ancient city of Rzhev, 495 out of 5,443. All the famous churches had been destroyed. The population was being deliberately starved. 15,000 people had been deported from these three towns alone. The rural areas were not much better off: in the Sychevka area, 137 villages out of 248 had been burned down by the Germans.

                 The list of war criminals appended to the Report was headed by Col.-Gen. Model, commander of the German 9th Army and other army leaders who had “personally ordered all this.” The report noted that the destruction was “not accidental, but part of a deliberate extermination policy,” which was being carried out even more thoroughly in these purely-Russian areas than elsewhere. It is scarcely surprising that, as the Red Army moved farther and farther west, it became increasingly angry at the sight of all this bestiality and destruction.

Alexander Werth, Russia at War, 1941–1945: A History
Skyhorse Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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