Commissar Order

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The 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.[1]


The starting point was Hitler's address to his closest military advisers on March 3, 1941. Until that time, no discussion of the ideological exigencies in the war against the Soviet Union had taken place. Hitler explained 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 (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.'[2]

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. Hilter 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).[3]

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. Hitler stipulated the "annihilation of the Bolshevik commissars and the Communist intelligentsia" (thus laying the foundation for the Commissar Order), dismissed the idea of the court marshals for felonies committed by the German troops, and emphasized the different nature of the war in the East with the war in the West.[4]

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 erroneously claimed that the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 did not apply since the Soviets hadn't signed them.[5] In fact, Russia had signed both conventions. However, the Soviet Union, as a distinct entity from the Russian Empire, did not, in fact, sign the Geneva Convention of 1929.

While the Soviet Union did not sign the 1929 convention, 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 parties thereto."

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.[6] 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".[6]

The paragraph in which General Müller called for Army commanders to prevent "excesses" was removed on the request of the OKW.[7] 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.[7] The final draft of the order was issued by OKW on 6 June 1941 and was restricted only to the most senior commanders, who were instructed to inform their subordinates verbally.[7]

Nazi propaganda presented Barbarossa as an ideological-racial war between German 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.[8] The vast majority of the Wehrmacht officers and soldiers tended to regard the war in Nazi terms, seeing their Soviet opponents as sub-human.[9]

The enforcement of the Commissar Order led to thousands of executions.[10] 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.[10] Every German general enforced the Commissar Order. Erich von Manstein passed on the Commissar Order to his subordinates, who executed all the captured commissars, something that he was convicted of by a British court in 1949.[11] After the war, Manstein lied about disobeying the Commissar Order, saying he had been opposed to the order, and never enforced it.[11] On 23 September 1941, after several Wehrmacht commanders had asked for the order to be softened as a way of encouraging the Red Army to surrender, Hitler declined "any modification of the existing orders regarding the treatment of political commissars".[12]

When the Commissar Order became known among the Red Army, it boosted morale and delayed or prohibited surrender to the Wehrmacht.[13] 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.[14] 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.

See also


  1. Soviet Prisoners of War: Forgotten Nazi Victims of World War II
  2. Manfred Messerschmidt, Forward Defence (as included in War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II 1941-1945, edited by Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann (2000); page 388
  3. Messerschmidt; page 389
  4. Kay 2011, p. 72.
  5. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Touchstone Edition) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Jacobesn, Hans-Adolf "The Kommisssarbefehl and Mass Executions of Soviet Russian Prisoners of War" pages 505-536 from Anatomy of the SS State, Walter and Company: New York, 1968 pages 516-517
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Jacobesn, Hans-Adolf "The Kommisssarbefehl and Mass Executions of Soviet Russian Prisoners of War" pages 505-536 from Anatomy of the SS State, Walter and Company: New York, 1968 page 519.
  8. Förster 2005, p. 126.
  9. Förster 2005, p. 127.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Förster, Jürgen "The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination Against the Soviet Union" pages 494-520 from The Nazi Holocaust page 502
  11. 11.0 11.1 Smesler, Ronald & Davies, Edward The Myth of the Eastern Front, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 page 97
  12. Jacobesn, Hans-Adolf "The Kommisssarbefehl and Mass Executions of Soviet Russian Prisoners of War" pages 505-536 from Anatomy of the SS State, Walter and Company: New York, 1968 page 522.
  13. Holocaust Encyclopedia: Commisar Order
  14. Jacobesn, Hans-Adolf "The Kommisssarbefehl and Mass Executions of Soviet Russian Prisoners of War" pages 505-536 from Anatomy of the SS State, Walter and Company: New York, 1968 page 512.


  • 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 ISBN 0-88736-255-9.
  • Jürgen Förster: "Das Unternehmen 'Barbarossa' als Eroberungs- und Vernichtungskrieg." In: Germany and the Second World War. 1983. pp. 435–440. ISBN 3421060983.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Förster, Jürgen (2005). "The German Military's Image of Russia". In Erickson, Ljubica; Erickson, Mark (eds.). Russia War, Peace and Diplomacy. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, "The Kommisssarbefehl and Mass Executions of Soviet Russian Prisoners of War", pages 505-536 from Anatomy of the SS State, Walter and Company: New York, 1968, 1972 ISBN 0-586-08028-7; first published as "Kommissarbefehl und Massenexekutionen sowjetischer Kriegsgefangener", pages 163–283 by Hans–Adolf Jacobsen in: Anatomie des SS–Staates, by Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, and Helmut Krausnick, Vol. II, Freiburg 1965.
  • Kay, Alex J. (2011) [2006]. Exploitation, Resettlement, Mass Murder: Political And Economic Planning for German Occupation Policy in the Soviet Union, 1940-1941. New York: Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1845451868.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • 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, ISBN 978-3-506-76595-6.
  • Christian Streit: "Keine Kameraden. Die Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen 1941–1945." Dietz, Bonn 1991 [1979], ISBN 3-8012-5016-4.

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