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Hitler's Commissar Order and Its Acceptance by the General Staff Is a Dark Mark on the Professionalism of the Wehrmacht

Updated on December 25, 2019
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MG is a military specialist having spent quality time in the Indian Air Force. He is also an alumnus of the Defence Services Staff College.


Commissars were card-carrying members of the communist party of Russia, who were detailed to be alongside front line troops during the Second World War. They served a two-fold purpose. Firstly, they had a direct link with the communist party HQs in Moscow and secondly, they kept tabs on the men in uniform and ensured that they did not deviate from the slated political and social goals of communism.

The commissars are peculiar to the communist regimes and even now a similar type of commissars exist in the Chinese army. The commissars were not soldiers, but they were in the front line and carried out all duties associated with soldiers. It is a moot point whether commissars be treated as soldiers or civilians. Many do not consider them as soldiers but political agents.

The German army knew about the commissars and information about them had been given to Hitler. In his convoluted thinking, Hitler thought it a good idea to break the back of the communist movement in Russia by eliminating all commissars captured along with Russian troops.

Hitler and his generals 1939
Hitler and his generals 1939

The Genesis of the Commissar order

Hitler had decided on a war with Russia and for this reason, he postponed "Operation Sea Lion," the invasion of England. Militarily it was a blunder but in line with Hitler's philosophy as outlined in his autobiography "Mien Kampf." Hitler wanted a swift campaign in Russia and the occupation of European Russia and Moscow. He also once and for all wanted to destroy the communist party, which he thought was a creation of the Jews. He was of the view that if the communist party was destroyed, Russia under Stalin would collapse.

Hitler thus issued what is known as the Commissar order under his direction to the OKW (German General Staff) on 6th June 1941, The commissar order was explicit and ordered that all captured commissars were to summarily shot dead by German troops on capture. They were not to be treated as POWs and as such were not entitled to the Geneva Convention on POWs.

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Possible Reason for Commissar Order

The commissar order has been much discussed by historians and academicians. The Russians, in particular, were opposed to it, but Hitler thought it as a justified step in breaking the hold of the Jews and the communist party.

Communism was considered as the greatest enemy by Hitler and he wished to destroy it completely. Hitler also considered the Slav races as inferior and felt that the vast areas in the East were really for use of the German race. Hitler thus mixed race and politics together and this greatly affected his line of thought and one result of this was the commissar order. This order was issued just before the commencement of the Russian campaign.

Hitler and Molotov-deception at its worst
Hitler and Molotov-deception at its worst

Issue of the Order

The German general staff was aware of Hitler's convoluted line of thought. To deny it now would be an act of sacrilege. It has been seen that any order however repugnant it may be, was never opposed by it.

In a conference just before the launch of the invasion of Russia, Hitler made known his views on the execution of captured commissars by the German army. He announced to the assembled generals that all commissars once captured were to be summarily shot and no questions asked.

The generals listened and nobody asked a question. On that day the German army sold its professionalism to a low bidder like Hitler.

Response of the Generals

Hitler left after the conference. After he had departed, some of the senior generals approached the C-in- C of the German army and voiced their difference of opinion. This really had no meaning as the man who had announced this momentous decision was tens of miles away. The generals knew that the army chief had no power to contradict Hitler, so this was perhaps a face-saving attempt.

Obviously nothing happened and after a number of revisions, the order was issued on 6 June 1941.

Architects of annihilation Hitler and Himmler
Architects of annihilation Hitler and Himmler

Execution of the order

On 22nd June 1941, the German army invaded Russia. The operation was swift and large numbers of Russian soldiers were taken as POWs. Hundreds of commissars were also captured and records bring forth the fact that 99% of them were summarily shot dead. This will remain a black mark on the German general staff for all time to come.

The order remained in force for about a year before it was allowed to lapse sometime in mid 42 when Hitler assumed he had won the war.

The End

The end of the war saw the setting up of the Nurenburg Tribunal to try Nazi war criminals. Some of the German generals were also tried for executing the commissar order and given stiff jail terms. The commissar order was added to the list of war crimes. The defense of the generals that they had obeyed the order as it was issued by Hitler, did not cut ice with the judges. Many generals like Manstein and others were given 20 years of jail. The two top advisors Field Marshall Keitel and Jodl were hanged to death.

Nuremberg trial
Nuremberg trial

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