Commissar Order (German: Kommissarbefehl) was an order issued by
the German High Command (OKW) on 6 June 1941 before Operation
Barbarossa. Its official name was Guidelines for the Treatment of
Political Commissars (Richtlinien für die Behandlung politischer
Kommissare). It instructed the
Wehrmacht that any Soviet political
commissar identified among captured troops be summarily executed as an
enforcer of the
Judeo-Bolshevism ideology in military forces.
According to the order, all those prisoners who could be identified as
"thoroughly bolshevized or as active representatives of the Bolshevist
ideology" should also be killed.
3 See also
6 External links
Operation Barbarossa began in June 1940. In December 1940
Hitler began sending out vague preliminary directives to senior
generals on how the war was to be conducted, giving him the
opportunity to gauge their reaction to such matters as collaboration
with the SS in the "rendering harmless" of Bolsheviks. The Wehrmacht
was already to some extent politicised, having participated in the
extra-legal killings of
Ernst Rohm and his associates in 1934,
communists in the
Sudetenland in 1938, and Czech and German political
exiles in France in 1940. On March 3, 1941
Hitler explained to his
closest military advisers how the war of annihilation was to be waged.
On that same day, instructions incorporating Hitler's demands went to
Section L of the
Oberkommando der Wehrmacht
Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) (under Deputy Chief
Walter Warlimont); these provided the basis for the "Guidelines in
Special Areas to Instructions No. 21 (Case Barbarossa)" discussing,
among other matters, the interaction of the army and SS in the theater
of operations, deriving from the 'need to neutralize at once leading
bolsheviks and commissars.'
Discussions proceeded on March 17 during a situation conference, where
Chief of the OKH General Staff Franz Halder, Quartermaster-General
Eduard Wagner and Chief of Operational Department of the OKH Adolf
Heusinger were present.
Hitler declared: "The intelligentsia
established by Stalin must be exterminated. The most brutal violence
is to be used in the Great Russian Empire" (quoted from Halder's War
Diary entry of March 17).
On March 30,
Hitler addressed over 200 senior officers in the Reich
Chancellery. Among those present was Halder, who recorded the key
points of the speech. He argued that the war against the Soviet Union
"cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion" because it was a war of
"ideologies and racial differences." He further declared that the
commissars had to be "liquidated" without mercy because they were the
"bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism."
Hitler stipulated the "annihilation of the
Bolshevik commissars and
the Communist intelligentsia" (thus laying the foundation for the
Commissar Order), dismissed the idea of courts martial for felonies
committed by the German troops, and emphasized the different nature of
the war in the East with the war in the West.
Hitler was well aware that this order was illegal, but personally
absolved in advance any soldiers who violated international law in
enforcing this order. He claimed that the Hague Conventions of 1899
and 1907 did not apply since the Soviets hadn't signed them. The
Soviet Union, as a distinct entity from the Russian Empire, did not,
in fact, sign the Geneva Convention of 1929, However, Germany did and
was bound by article 82, stating "In case, in time of war, one of the
belligerents is not a party to the Convention, its provisions shall
nevertheless remain in force as between the belligerents who are
The order was as follows:
Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars
In the battle against Bolshevism, the adherence of the enemy to the
principles of humanity or international law is not to be counted upon.
In particular it can be expected that those of us who are taken
prisoner will be treated with hatred, cruelty and inhumanity by
political commissars of every kind.
The troops must be aware that:
1. In this battle mercy or considerations of international law is
false. They are a danger to our own safety and to the rapid
pacification of the conquered territories.
2. The originators of barbaric, Asiatic methods of warfare are the
political commissars. So immediate and unhesitatingly severe measures
must be undertaken against them. They are therefore, when captured in
battle, as a matter of routine to be dispatched by firearms.
The following provisions also apply:
3. ...Political commissars as agents of the enemy troops are
recognizable from their special badge—a red star with a golden woven
hammer and sickle on the sleeves.... They are to be separated from the
prisoners of war immediately, i.e. already on the battlefield. This is
necessary, in order to remove from them any possibility of influencing
the captured soldiers. These commissars are not to be recognized as
soldiers; the protection due to prisoners of war under international
law does not apply to them. When they have been separated, they are to
be finished off.
4. Political commissars who have not made themselves guilty of any
enemy action nor are suspected of such should be left unmolested for
the time being. It will only be possible after further penetration of
the country to decide whether remaining functionaries may be left in
place or are to be handed over to the Sonderkommandos. The aim should
be for the latter to carry out the assessment.
In judging the question "guilty or not guilty", the personal
impression of the attitude and bearing of the commissar should as a
matter of principle count for more than the facts of the case which it
may not be possible to prove.
The first draft of the
Commissar Order was issued by General Eugen
Müller on 6 May 1941 and called for the shooting of all commissars in
order to avoid letting any captured commissar reach a
POW camp in
Germany. The German historian Hans-Adolf Jacobsen wrote:
There was never any doubt in the minds of German Army commanders that
the order deliberately flouted international law; that is borne out by
the unusually small number of written copies of the Kommissarbefehl
which were distributed.
The paragraph in which General Müller called for Army commanders to
prevent "excesses" was removed on the request of the OKW.
Brauchitsch amended the order on 24 May 1941 by attaching Müller's
paragraph and calling on the Army to maintain discipline in the
enforcement of the order. The final draft of the order was issued
OKW on 6 June 1941 and was restricted only to the most senior
commanders, who were instructed to inform their subordinates
Nazi propaganda presented Barbarossa as an ideological-racial war
National Socialism and "Judeo-Bolshevism", dehumanising
the Soviet enemy as a force of Slavic
Untermensch (sub-humans) and
"Asiatic" savages engaging in "barbaric Asiatic fighting methods"
commanded by evil Jewish commissars whom German troops were to grant
no mercy. The vast majority of the
Wehrmacht officers and soldiers
tended to regard the war in Nazi terms, seeing their Soviet opponents
The enforcement of the
Commissar Order led to thousands of
executions. The German historian
Jürgen Förster wrote in 1989
that it was simply not true that the
Commissar Order was not enforced,
as most German Army commanders claimed in their memoirs and some
German historians like
Ernst Nolte were still claiming. Every
German general enforced the Commissar Order.
Erich von Manstein
Erich von Manstein passed
Commissar Order to his subordinates, who executed all the
captured commissars, something that he was convicted of by a British
court in 1949. After the war, Manstein lied about disobeying the
Commissar Order, saying he had been opposed to the order, and never
enforced it. On 23 September 1941, after several Wehrmacht
commanders had asked for the order to be softened as a way of
Red Army to surrender,
Hitler declined "any
modification of the existing orders regarding the treatment of
Commissar Order became known among the Red Army, it delayed
or prohibited surrender to the Wehrmacht. This unwanted effect was
cited in German appeals to
Hitler (e.g. by Claus von Stauffenberg),
who finally cancelled the
Commissar Order after one year, on 6 May
1942. The order was used as evidence at the
Nuremberg Trials and
as part of the broader issue of whether the German generals were
obligated to follow orders from
Hitler even when they knew those
orders were illegal.
Nazi crimes against Soviet POWs
German High Command orders for Treatment of Soviet Prisoners of War
^ Soviet Prisoners of War: Forgotten Nazi Victims of World War II
Archived March 30, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
^ Burleigh 1997, p. 65
^ Manfred Messerschmidt, Forward Defence (as included in War of
Extermination: The German Military in World War II 1941-1945, edited
Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann (2000); page 388
^ Messerschmidt; page 389
^ a b Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Touchstone
Edition) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
^ Kay 2011, p. 72.
^ Jacobsen 1968, pp. 516–517.
^ Jacobsen 1968, p. 517.
^ Jacobsen 1968, pp. 518–519.
^ a b Jacobsen 1968, p. 519.
^ Förster 2005, p. 126.
^ Förster 2005, p. 127.
^ a b Förster, Jürgen "The
Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination
Against the Soviet Union" pages 494-520 from The Nazi Holocaust page
^ a b Smesler, Ronald & Davies, Edward The Myth of the Eastern
Front, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 page 97
^ Jacobsen 1968, p. 522.
^ Holocaust Encyclopedia: Commisar Order
^ Hartmann 2013, p. 91.
Burleigh, Michael. Ethics and Extermination. 1st ed. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997. Cambridge Books Online. Web. 5 May
Jürgen Förster: "The
Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination Against
the Soviet Union" pages 494-520 from The Nazi Holocaust Part 3 The
"Final Solution": The Implementation of Mass Murder Volume 2 edited by
Michael Marrus, Westpoint: Meckler Press, 1989
Jürgen Förster: "Das Unternehmen 'Barbarossa' als Eroberungs- und
Vernichtungskrieg." In: Germany and the Second World War. 1983.
pp. 435–440. ISBN 3421060983.
Förster, Jürgen (2005). "The German Military's Image of Russia". In
Erickson, Ljubica; Erickson, Mark. Russia War, Peace and Diplomacy.
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Hartmann, Christian (2013). Operation Barbarossa: Germany’s War in
the East, 1941–1945. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Jacobsen, Hans-Adolf (1968). "The Kommissarbefehl and Mass Executions
of Soviet Russian Prisoners of War". In Krausnick, Helmut; Buchheim,
Hans; Broszat, Martin; Jacobsen, Hans-Adolf. Anatomy of the SS State.
New York: Walker and Company. ISBN 978-0-00211-026-6.
Kay, Alex J. (2011) . Exploitation, Resettlement, Mass Murder:
Political And Economic Planning for German Occupation Policy in the
Soviet Union, 1940-1941. New York: Berghahn Books.
Helmut Krausnick: "Kommissarbefehl und 'Gerichtsbarkeitserlass
Barbarossa' in neuer Sicht," In: Vierteljahrshefte für
Zeitgeschichte. 25, 1977, pp. 682–738.
Reinhard Otto: "Wehrmacht, Gestapo und sowjetische Kriegsgefangene im
deutschen Reichsgebiet 1941/42." Munich 1998, ISBN 3-486-64577-3.
Felix Römer: "Der Kommissarbefehl.
Wehrmacht und NS-Verbrechen an der
Ostfront 1941/42." Schöningh, Paderborn 2008,
Christian Streit: "Keine Kameraden. Die
Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen
Kriegsgefangenen 1941–1945." Dietz, Bonn 1991 ,
Der Kommissarbefehl 6.6.1941 Hitler
Commissar order: English translation
"Fuhrer-Erlasse" 1939-1945 (über die Ausübung der
Kriegsgerichtsbarkeit im Gebiet "Barbarossa") 13.5.1941 Keitel
Einsatzgruppen and Einsatzkommandos
Franz Walter Stahlecker
Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski
Gustav Adolf Nosske
Karl Eberhard Schöngarth
Udo von Woyrsch
8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer
Schutzmannschaft (Belarusian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian,
Lithuanian Security Police
Burning of the Riga synagogues
Kaunas June 1941
Kaunas 29 October 1941
Ninth Fort November 1941
Gully of Petrushino
The Black Book
Special Prosecution Book-Poland (Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen)