In the chain of command, there were orders given that were morally wrong. On June 6, 1941, Hitler gave the “notorious Commissar Order” when he launched his campaign against Russia on the eastern front.[1] This order “instructed the army to shoot and kill all captured Soviet military leaders.”[2] Warfare is always brutal, but there were codes that limited the brutality.

Hitler had allowed the army to avoid the most gruesome horrors in Poland. He knew that didn’t have the stomach for it, and the soulless SS Einsatzgruppen had done the foulest and most inhuman deeds. But now he ordered the army itself to carry out the butchery and sadism in contravention of all military codes going back for centuries. The generals took notice. Even the weakest-willed among them saw that they had been gaily riding along the back of a tiger.[3]

Major General Hennung von Tresckow reacted to the Commissar Order: “the German people will be burdened with a guilt the world will not forget in a hundred years.”[4] Metaxas writes that “as Germany’s armies moved toward Moscow, the barbarism of the SS had been given the freedom to express itself. It was as if the devil and his hordes had crawled out of hell and walked the earth.”[5] This “barbarism of the SS” brought out the very worst of human nature:

In Lithusnia, SS squads gathered defenseless Jews together and beat them to death with truncheons, afterward dancing to music on the dead bodies. The victims were cleared away, a second group was brought in, and the macabre exercise was repeated. As a result of such things, many more in the army leadership were driven to the conspiracy.

At one point officers came to Field Marshall Bock and begged him with tears in their eyes to stop “the orgy of executions” in Borisov. But even Bock was powerless. When demanded that the SS commander in charge of the massacres be brought to him, the civilian commissioner, Wilhelm Kube, laughed defiantly. Hitler had given the SS free rein, and even a field marshal could do nothing about it.[6]


[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy 381.

[2] Metaxas, 381.

[3] Metaxas, 381.

[4] Metaxas, 382.

[5] Metaxas, 387.

[6] Metaxas, 387.