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15 - Witnessing and Fighting Nazi Violence during World War II

from Part III - Warfare, Colonialism and Empire in the Modern World

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 March 2020

Louise Edwards
Affiliation:
University of New South Wales, Sydney
Nigel Penn
Affiliation:
University of Cape Town
Jay Winter
Affiliation:
Yale University, Connecticut
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Summary

World War II differed from preceding wars on account of the fact that the mass killing of civilians was a strategic objective of the war. Nowhere did Axis forces kill more enemy civilians than in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. This chapter gauges the nature of Nazi violence by illuminating the impact that German killings of Soviet civilians had on the Soviet war effort. Germany’s war against the Soviet Union rested on a transgression of the moral norms of humanism, which Nazi leaders purposely disavowed to justify the promotion of a particularist racial ethic and the mass annihilation of racial foes. Both the moral provocation that defined the Nazi project and its cruel effects for people who were defined as antithetical to the “Aryan race” registered profoundly with Soviet observers. They seized on the nature of German violence to build a moral case about their own war effort, expressed in the antithesis between “Soviet humanity” and “fascist barbarism.” This narrative, replete with detailed information about German atrocities, was paramount in mobilizing Soviet people to fight Nazi Germany. While Stalin disavowed universal ideals after the war, this did not diminish their wartime vitality and reach, or the Soviet Union’s decisive contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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