World War II Soviet Resistance: German Anti-Partisan Campaigns--Periods

Figure 1.-- Here a unit of a Whermacht Security Division execute an individual for an unknown offence somewhere in the Soviet Union. Presumably he was suspected of partisan activities, but a wide rabngec of infractions could bring death at the hands of the Germans. The snapshot is undated, but we would guess was taken about September-October 1941. The Germans liked to have audiences for these actions, in this case children, perhaps even his children. The photograph was taken by a German soldier for his photographic album to be shown to his famiky at home as evidence of his accomplishments. What struck us is the stoic way in which the children are watching ghe hanging. You would think that children this age would be terrified even frantic. One can only imagine that they had seen worst earlier. And what about the German soldier taking this photograph. Did he not understabnd how his family back hime woukld view this, or perhaos he did.

The Germans launched Operation Barbarossa, the massive invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941). German anti-parisan operations in the Soviet Union can be divided into three periods in which anti-partisan operations varied, as well as the area of operations. Major anti-partisan operations began after Barbarossa failed withe Russoan winr bd the Red army counterattck before Moscow (December 1941). The most severe anti-partisan operatins were conducted by Army Group Center. Army Group North operated in the Baltics where there was considerable support for the Germans. Army Group South operated in the Ukraine which was an active combat zone. The Ukranians also greeted them as librators until German intentions became all too clear. While anti-partisan actins were limited during Barbarossa, they became increasingly wide spread and brutal as the War continued. By the time the Red Army drove the Germans out of what was once estern Poland (modern Belarus), large areas of the countyside were essentially depopulated. The Germans killed large numbers of the civilin poplation as well as deported mny for slave labor in the Rech. Others would up in concentratin camps like Auschwitz. Many of the children found when Auschwitz was liberated were civilans rounded up during anti-partsan operations.

German 1941 Summer Offensive: Barbrossa (June-December 1941)

The First period of German anti-partisan operations was Barbarossa (June-December 1941). Stalin had not prepared for a partisan effort, believing that Hitler would not attack. Thus the first Soviet partisans were weak and poorly organized. In addition, the Germans were noy universally received as brutal invaders. In the north, (the Baltics only recently annexed by the Soviet Union) and subjected brutal represion by the NKVD, many received the Germans as liberators from the Soviet terror. Reception in the center (eastern Poland, also recently annexed), the reception was more mixed, perhps best described as ambilivent. Some were, hoever, pleased to see the Germans because of the barbarous depredations of the NKVD. And in the south (Ukraine in the Sviet grasp for two decades), the Germans were also received a liberatory with honey and flowers. Collaboration movement emerged in the Baltics, Belarus, and the Ukraine. Others tried to retreat further east into Soviet Union. This was not a environment in which the parsan movement could flourish. The Germans expecting a quick victory acted brutally without any consideration of the long-term impact of their actions. There were mass executions of entire villages, at first mostly Jews. The Germans at first allowed peasants to take cattle from the kolkhozes, but later they began seizing the cattle on trains for shipnebt to the Reich. Some Whermacht commanders saw these actins against the local population as unwise and countr pructive. They wanted to gain the support of the local poplatiom. But there was no support for this policy at OKW. Thus the initial opportunity to i over the local populationwas lost. The Germans would later make a limited effort at this, but very quickly the local population, except perhaps in the Baltics, came to understand German intentions. And thus partisan groups began to oganize, although this was at first very diffiult. Even so, reports suggest that some 12,000 partisan wee operating in Eastern Poland and condcting military actions aginst the Germans. Many of the first partisan groups were Red Army soldiers that escaped German pinzer movements and escaped captivity. High-ranking Whermacht commanders as well as occupation authorities knew about Generalplan Ost which set as a goal of Barbarossa, the destruction of much of the population. On paper the Einsatzgruppen which followed in the wake of the Whermacht was to destroy any insipient resistance and the Soviet infrastructure around which resistance could organize. In practice, the Einstazgruppen spend most of their time killing Jews and the enormity of this task asorbed most of their efforts. The Einsatzgruppen were attached to Whermacht, but in fact operated independently on SS orders. The Wehrmacht set up Security Divisions were set up as plans for Barbarossa were being finalized (early-1941). Their assignment was policing, security and anti-partisan duties in the rear of the main German field armies. Unlike the Einsatzgruppen, they were under the direction of the respective Kommandant rückwärtiges Armeegebiet (Commander Rear Army Area, Korück). Most were units organised from divisions initially raised during third wave of mobilisation. This inclkuded the Landwehr (militia) divisions made up mostly of second-line reservists. The Germans also behave brutally toward the civilian population. The brutality of the Germans only acted to turn civilians into partisans. Some fled into the forests. Many more were willing to aid the partisans. When Red Army units began liberating towns and villages west of Moscow, they began finding evidence of attrocities committed against civilians, leaving no doubt about the character of the enmeny they faced. The Germans hoped that the partisans could not withstand the rigors of the winter. Not only were they proved wrong, but the attrcities committed drove many into the partisan camp. And Stavka (Ставка) began to orhganize and supply the isolated partisa bands that were forming

German 1942 Summer Offensive

The Second period of anti-partisan operations were the 1942 campaigns. After the Soviet offensive before Moscow (December 1941), it became clear that the Eastern campaign would not be a short one or easy one. This did not change Hitler's mindset. It did, however, change the mindset of the German officer's who had to actually fight the war. Some Wehrmacht commanders began to ignore orders and attempted a degree of moderation to pacify their areas. [Shepherd] Some commanders even began recruiting Soviet citizens including Russians which infuruiated Hitler when he learned about it. Large number of healthy young adults were transported to the Reich for slave labor. Generalplan Ost envisioned enslaving killing much of the population or driving the people beyond the Urals where they would slowly perish. With the failure of the Whermacht to destroy the Red Army, rather than enslaving and killing the population in the East, they were being brought back to the Reich for slave labor to support the German war economy--esentially replacing the workers drafted for military service. The Brutality of the Germans had shifted the sentiments of the population in eastern Poland. The ambivilance had shifted to strngly anti-German. [VG Group] And in the more Russian areas to the east, the sentiment was even more strongly anti-German. It is in 1942 that a serious partisan movement begins to take shape, escepially in eastern Poland (Belarus) and western Russia, the area contested by Army Group Center. By the end of the year there were 448 partisan detachments and 64 diversion groups in easternPoland/western Russia. They comprised ome 58,000 partisan fighters. The situation further south in the Ukraine was far different because of the more prevalent anti-Soviet attitude. The Ukraine had four times the popultion in easternPoland/wstern Russia, but had only 68 partisan detachments with 9,000 fightrs. Smaliensk in Russia to the east of eastern Polnd (Belarus) had 120 partisan detachments and 9 diversion groups with 10,000 fighters. [VG group]

German 1943-44 Defensive Operations

The Third period of German anti-partisan operations in the East occurred during the retreat west following Stalingrad. The retreat in 1943 primarily occurred in the Ukraine. Retreating German units in the Ukraine often acted brutally, both killing large numbers of people, but destroying any thing that might be useful. At the same time, expanding Soviet partisan actions brought vicious reprisals. The front in the north was more stable. Army Group Center held and the Red Army concentrated on the Ukraine. Thus Bylorussia and Poland remained in German hands while the strength of the partisans grew. German anti-partisan operations were severe in 1943 and only increased in early-1944. There was unprecedented partisan activities, especially in eastern Poland (Blarus). The partisan movement was so strong in 1943 and early-44 that areas of eastern-Poland/Belarus wee actally librated before the arrival of the Red Army. There were fully functioning partisan kolkhozes that were both farming and growing cattle to feed the partisan bands. [VG Groups] The security uniys rganized operations would sweep areas designated as 'band infested'. They would descend on towns and villages, in some cases killing the entire population and burning the community to the ground. The standard practice of German security units was to kill the entire population of the village nearest to wear the partisans staged an attack. This policy of retaliationwas standard German practice and carried out without any evidence linking a village to the patisans--only distance. The Germans destroyed more than 600 villages like Khatyn. They burned the village including many of the villagers and shooting many others. Often the entire population was murdered. Depending on the German commander, the children and in some cases the women might be spared. The brutality was not a one sided affair. Many partisan commanders were also brutal. The commanders were often petty tyrants, there was heavy drinking when alcohol could be obtained. Anarchy and looting was common. Partisans seized food and clothing from vilagers when food was amatter of life and death. [VG Group] Rapes something the Germans did not commoly commit was reprted. The partisans did not murder whole villages, however, like the Germans. They did execute suspeted traitors with little or no evidece. Gradually the partisan moveent became better organized as Syavka exerted more control over the Partisan bands. Here the Communist totalitarian regime was a factor. Society was militrarized and there wasa discipline of fear. The imposition of 1,200 Communist Party cells in easern Poland (Belarus) and within partisan detachments improved discipline and conduct of the partians. The improving military situatin also meant that soesupplies were getting through to the partisans. Finally the Red Army Operation Bagration (June-August 1944) destroyed Army Group Center, brining an end to the anti-partisan effort. By gthis time the Germanhs had turned large areas of the countryside into virtual wastelands.


Shepherd, Ben. War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 368p.

VG Group (Belarusian scientists and professionals abroad). 'Partisan Resistance in Belarus during World War II,' Virtual Guide to Belarus.


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Created: 8:25 PM 7/7/2013
Last updated: 10:40 PM 8/14/2014