Was butter the real reason Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa to conquer the Soviet Union?

Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly once said “An army marches on its’ stomach”, but to paraphrase him there is a strong case to say that the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 were “an Army marching for its stomach.”

Ever since the Nazis launched the largest invasion in human history on 22 June 1941, the reasons they did it have been hotly debated. Yes, ideology was crucial; Communism was the Nazis nemesis, and yes, conquering the country would provide the Germans with the lebensraum (living space) that the Nazis craved - but space for what? The answer was simple – space to grow crops and raise livestock, in other words what the Nazis really wanted was food, and lots of it.

Adolf Hitler delivers a speech to a hand-picked audience in Berlin’s Sportpalast arena minutes after signing the Barbarossa invasion order. The Luftwaffe fighter pilot Heinz Knoke (arrow points to him) sits enraptured among the crowd. (Author’s collection, Barbarossa Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

Back in 1918, Imperial Germany was starving. An Anglo-French blockade of German ports had cut-off the country from world markets, in particular the grain and meat of the Americas. Its own fields and farms couldn’t produce nearly enough to feed both the civilian population and the Army, and the result was rationing and widespread malnutrition. In the end, food riots at home were just as important in Germany’s collapse as defeat on the battlefield.

This reality haunted Hitler. On coming to power in 1933 he knew that the war he planned to wage would put Nazi Germany in the same position as the Kaiser had put Imperial Germany more than 20 years before. Even before the Wehrmacht invaded Poland in 1939 the Nazis had been forced to introduce rationing and one bemused British holidaymaker said there was:

“…no comfort to be found in the hotel dining room. The coffee is very weak, and the bread is no longer crisp as it’s made from poor quality flour.”

Unsurprising, given the traveller’s coffee was more than likely made from chicory, or burnt wheat grains, and was officially called Muckefuck – although most Germans just called it Ersatzkaffee (substitute coffee). As for the bread, an official Department of Food & Agriculture document recommended a typical loaf of bread contained:

50 percent bruised rye grain, 20 percent sliced sugar beets, 20 percent ‘tree flour’ (i.e. sawdust), and 10 percent shredded leaves and straw.”

So, how to win a war and become a global superpower without the material resources – specifically food – needed to achieve that goal?

Herbert Backe – the author of the genocidal Hunger Plan, and the epitome of the mass-murdering bureaucrat. (Courtesy of Bundesarchiv Bild 183-J02034, Barbarossa Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

Enter stage right, a bespectacled 45-year-old bureaucrat and agronomist, Herbert Backe. A German born in Tsarist Russia, Backe saw the answer to the Nazis problem in the vast fields of his former homeland; “…the occupation of Ukraine would liberate us from every economic worry.” Backe saw the so-called black earth soils of Ukraine and southern Russia as the breadbasket that would feed Germany and her armed forces and render any Allied blockade of German ports irrelevant. Backe wasn’t alone either, across Germany there was a growing belief that the route to a full stomach lay to the east, as Gerhard Kunde, a 27-year-old soldier from Berlin, wrote in a letter home; “…Germany must have colonial territory in the east to be able to live...Today, when we are practically cut off from overseas imports, not only does Germany need Ukraine, but also northern, central and western Europe, if it doesn’t want to starve to death.”   

However, there was a problem, well two to be exact. The first was that the food so greedily eyed by Backe, Kunde et al, wasn’t simply lying around in Soviet grain stores, but on harvesting was shipped to hungry mouths in the Soviet Unions’ cities, where the workers who ate it toiled away in factories, offices and workshops. Backe’s answer was one of the most monstrous documents in history; Der Hungerplan (the Hunger Plan).

A Wehrmacht infantry section, their NCO on the left, present the very image of the purposeful German fighting man. (Author’s collection, Barbarossa Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

What the plan said was that as the Nazi invaders captured Soviet cities, those cities would be denied the food they would normally be sent, as it was redirected to the Wehrmacht and to the Reich. As millions of Soviet city-dwellers then starved, they would have no choice but to abandon their homes and head out into the countryside to try and find food. This would lead to Soviet society and civilisation more or less breaking down, and the whole country would then revert to a sort of medieval, peasant state, where the Germans would find it relatively easy to establish and maintain control. As the cities became ghost towns, Hitler foresaw Leningrad bulldozed back into the marshland from whence it sprang, and as for Moscow; “…I’ll raze it to the ground and build a reservoir there. The name Moscow must be expunged.” Backe’s plan was accepted as State policy and at a weekend house party just before Barbarossa was launched, the head of the SS; the bespectacled pedant Heinrich Himmler, breezily told his companions that “…the purpose of any future Russian campaign will be to decimate the Slavic population by thirty millions.” Himmler wasn’t exaggerating – he rarely did when it came to mass murder.

German troops pass a border marker on invasion day – the die is cast. (Author’s collection, Barbarossa Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

The second problem the Nazis faced was that to implement der Hungerplan they would have to defeat the Soviet Union and the Red Army, an army that had more tanks and aircraft than the rest of the world combined, a manpower pool unlike any country in the world save perhaps the United States, Nationalist China and the British Raj, almost unlimited space in which to fight, a totalitarian system of government every bit as ruthless as its own, and a people with a deep attachment to their homeland who would resist an invader with an almost fanatical tenacity.

The stage was set for the defining campaign of the Second World War – Operation Barbarossa.

Jonathan Trigg's new book Barbarossa Through German Eyes is available for purchase now.