There was of course never any question that the war Hitler unleashed in June 1941 was being fought for German ends and that the benefits accruing to other nations, though significant, not least the final exorcism of the red peril, were essentially incidental. During the 1930s Hitler had never portrayed Germany’s mission in Europe as anything other than a defensive bulwark against Bolshevism. Now, with his armies swarming towards Leningrad and Moscow, he was hardly likely to share his prize, particularly with states that had at best reacted with lukewarm support for the original Anti-Comintern Pact. When in mid-July 1941 a Vichy French newspaper suggested that the assault on the USSR was ‘Europe’s war’, and thus ought ‘to be conducted for Europe as a whole’, Hitler was appalled by this latest manifestation of Gallic impudence. In the course of the conference at which this issue was discussed, the Führer clearly outlined his intentions and the tactics he would employ to implement them. ‘In principle we have now to face the task of cutting the giant cake according to our needs,’ he explained, the order of priorities being ‘first, to dominate it; second, to administer it; and third, to exploit it’. In pursuit of these goals Germany would disguise its real aims in the Soviet Union through the simple expedients of avoiding superfluous declarations, emphasizing that the Reich had been forced to a military decision, and posing as a liberating force; it made no sense to ‘make people into enemies prematurely and unnecessarily’. The Germans would thus ‘act as though we wanted to exercise a mandate only’, but it must be clear ‘to us … that we shall never withdraw from these areas’.
These predatory designs soon brought the Germans into conflict with those who genuinely hoped for liberation from Bolshevism. In the Ukraine, for example, the establishment in September 1941 of the civilian administration under Erich Koch, who, according to a postwar account based on the experiences of both Germans and Ukrainians, demonstrated no intention of enlisting the help of the Ukrainians in the fight against Bolshevism, effectively destroyed the friendly relationship that had been established between the Wehrmacht and the indigenous population. As an early victory was expected, it was felt that Ukrainian participation in the struggle would serve only to complicate German aims in the Ukraine, especially in so far as these concerned its economic exploitation, for which the ‘most stringent measures’ were envisaged. Already by October 1941 the information that was reaching London about the nature of the German occupation led the Foreign Office to comment on the ‘grave psychological mistakes’ the Germans had made in handling the conquered population, for ‘their methods can only serve to rally the Russian people round the [Soviet] regime’. The thoroughly inappropriate nature of German policy and propaganda in the occupied territories was similarly highlighted by two collaborating Soviet officers who complained that it was simply not enough to stress the deprivations Bolshevism had inflicted on the Russian people. By late 1942 this repetitive and uninspiring message was becoming increasingly ineffective, not least as Soviet prisoners of war and the inhabitants of the occupied territories generally held that rule by Germany, far from being a liberation, was altogether a ‘bad bargain’. In contrast to the sterile monotony of German propaganda, Stalin, who had reintroduced religious freedom and curtailed the activities of the political commissars, had ‘taken the trumps out of Germany’s hands’.
Those in control of the Reich’s propaganda campaign in the east would not necessarily have disagreed with this diagnosis. Goebbels realized that the organizational chaos of German policy in the occupied territories was having a most detrimental effect on the battle for people’s minds. In April 1943 he commented on the failure to exploit Vlassov’s separatist army more effectively, which he held to be symptomatic of a fundamental flaw in the whole approach to the Russian war. ‘One is shocked at the absolute lack of political instinct in our Central Berlin Administration,’ he noted in this connection. ‘If we were pursuing or had pursued a rather more skilful policy in the East, we would certainly be further on there than we are.’ The Reich propaganda minister was certainly no friend of the Russian people, but he was not above admitting that mistakes had been made in the German conduct of the war; nor was he blind to the fact that a wiser occupation policy might have yielded significant results. Commenting on Vidkun Quisling’s observations on the German campaign in the east, Goebbels clearly agreed that it would be both possible and desirable to mobilize large sections of the Russian population against Stalin if only ‘we knew how to wage war solely against Bolshevism, not against the Russian people. Therein lies the only chance of bringing the war in the East to a satisfactory end.’
Goebbels’s’ colleague, Eberhardt Taubert, placed the responsibility for the hopeless conditions in the east squarely on the shoulders of Alfred Rosenberg, who had been appointed minister for the occupied territories shortly after the launching of Barbarossa. Taubert pointed out that Rosenberg had not only blamed the Jews for Bolshevism, but also the Russian people for tolerating it. Due to impurities of blood, the Russian had, in Rosenberg’s view, a ‘natural affinity to the destructive ideologies of Bolshevism’. It might be, Taubert continued, that Rosenberg had not fully thought out the consequences of his actions, but that did not excuse his whole notion of the Russians as Untermenschen being the product of a false conception. Moreover, Rosenberg had possessed insufficient strength of character to rectify his mistake once the detrimental effects had become apparent. Although Taubert’s diatribe against Rosenberg is understandable, if only for the obstacles the incompetent Reichsleiter placed before the German propagandists in the east, it might yet be a little harsh on a man who in March 1942 was warning against any reference to the occupied territories as German ‘colonial territory’, as this greatly annoyed the local populations and played directly into the hands of the Soviet propagandists.