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WWII: Holocaust, Anti-Partisan Reprisals and the Siege of Leningrad Alone Killed over 4 Million Soviet Civilians

Jewish genocide, anti-partisan reprisals and the blockade of Leningrad were among the most lethal German policies enacted on the territory of the Soviet Union which aimed to cause massive civilian death.

Combined they killed some 4.1 million non-combatants of whom:

  • 2.55 million Soviet Jews were killed in the Holocaust,
  • 0.65 million non-Jewish civilians were killed in collective reprisals for partisan activity in the countryside,
  • 0.9 million civilians starved in besieged Leningrad.

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Note: With the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War just around the corner we are publishing more material related to that epic conflict that is so important to Russian collective memory.

Comprehending the massive human and material losses suffered by Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union is crucial to understanding why this is so.

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This article is the fifth chapter of a research paper from the pen of RI deputy editor and contributor Marko Marjanović. Other chapters are to follow in the coming days. Links to previous chapters:


The Holocaust

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Compared to the other categories of Soviet civilian losses of World War II there are now relatively precise and reliable calculations for the number of Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad calculates there were between 2,509,000 and 2,624,500 civilian Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust, which makes for a mid-point estimate of 2.55 million.[33]

This estimate includes only direct victims of the Holocaust, and leaves out Soviet Jewish deaths in unoccupied USSR, for example among Jewish refugees from western USSR and in the Siege of Leningrad. It leaves out 120,000 deaths of Jewish Red Army men killed in combat, Jewish civilians killed in the course of battles such as the Siege of Odessa, as well as of the 80,000 Jewish Red Army soldiers who were killed in German captivity as Soviet POWs.

Naturally the 2.55 million figure is given for the Soviet Union within its expanded borders. It covers all losses from all areas part of the Soviet Union in 1941 that were retained after 1945. Sometimes a far smaller figures of about 1 million Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust can be encountered, but this is because such estimates cover only the victims from territories part of the Soviet Union in its 1939 borders.

Anti-partisan Reprisals

In response to partisan activity in a given area the Germans in the occupied Soviet Union carried out what were essentially clearance operations targeting the civilian population of the area. Areas deemed to be infested by partisans or "bandits" were descended upon by security units and its population subject to mass killings and deportations. When the population of a given place was deemed to have been "infested" by partisan influence it was wiped out. It was the policy of eliminating civilian support for partisans by eliminating civilians.

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The number of Soviet civilians killed in anti-partisan reprisals is highly uncertain. The German historian Christian Hartmann estimates 500,000 deaths, whereas the British historian Richard Overy estimates these to be in excess of 1 million. American historian Timothy Snyder talks of 700,000 dead, but that is for Poland and the Soviet Union combined.[34]

Meanwhile the German historian Christian Gerlach estimates that German anti-partisan operations killed 345,000 people in rural Belarus alone, of whom barely ten percent were actual partisans. Gerlach also reports that in the 55 largest anti-partisans operations about ten percent of the 150,000 killed were Jews (who are properly counted as Holocaust victims). This may mean that about eighty percent, or 275,000, of the 345,000 victims of anti-partisan reprisals in the Belarusian countryside were non-Jewish civilians.[35]

Gerlach's estimates are based on the reports of German perpetrator units and are difficult to argue against. Since his figures cover only a part of occupied Soviet Union, however, the challenge is determining what proportion of overall civilian deaths in anti-partisan reprisals do these 275,000 deaths constitute.

Belarus with its pre-war population of 9 million represented only a small part of occupied USSR. By the end of 1941 the Germans occupied Soviet territory previously home to 80 million people and added even more in summer and spring of 1942. On the other hand, the liberation of Belarus in  the war came relatively late so that it had spent considerably more time under German occupation than most other Soviet regions that temporarily fell to the Axis. Furthermore, the Soviet partisan movement in Belarus was famously strong and active. In sum there is little doubt Belarus lost people to anti-partisan reprisals in greatly disproportionate numbers to the rest of the occupied USSR.

Gerlach estimates that between 6,000 and 7,000 German soldiers were killed in the partisan war in Belarus. Meanwhile the American historian Mathew Cooper estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 German soldiers were killed in the entire partisan war in the USSR. Provided both estimates are close to the truth the Germans might have sustained a portion of between 0.3 and 0.47 of all of their casualties to the partisans in the Belarusian SSR. Assuming that the German rear area security apparatus enacted collective reprisals through the Soviet Union roughly proportionally to the severity of personnel losses it sustained it would mean that overall it murdered between 600,000 (275,000/0.47) and 900,000 (275,000/0.3) non-Jewish non-combatants in the entire USSR. It is the case, however, that German reprisals became more lethal over time. Likely more Soviet civilians were murdered per German soldier killed in 1944 than in 1941. This means that the losses in Belarus, which was liberated a full six months after Ukraine, likely constitute an even greater portion of overall Soviet losses to anti-partisan reprisals than 0.3-0.47.

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Thus it is likely safer to assume there was a somewhat smaller number of between 500,000 and 800,000 non-Jewish non-combatants murdered in German anti-partisan reprisals in the occupied Soviet Union, giving the mid-point estimate of 650,000. This is without counting victims of anti-partisan actions in cities and towns. Also this is estimating the number of victims who were shot, burned alive or killed when herded into minefields. It does not include people who died of privation in the wake of anti-partisan reprisals due to the wholesale plunder and destruction that accompanied them.

Civilian Deaths in the Siege of Leningrad

Numerous civilians were caught in the blockade of Leningrad and perished as a result of the siege, mainly of hunger. These included residents of Leningrad itself that had not been evacuated or drafted into the army before the city was put under a blockade, residents of surrounding areas under siege and refugees from elsewhere who had earlier taken shelter in the city. For a long while the Soviet Union, in line with its tendency to downplay the extent of its WWII losses, insisted that some 650,000 civilians perished in besieged Leningrad. In fact the real number is certainly considerably higher.

Before the war Leningrad was a city of just over 3 million people. About half a million of these were successfully evacuated eastwards, or drafted into the Red Army before the city was cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union. Another 100,000 of its residents were conscripted into military units defending the city after the blockade had been established. Also just over 1 million civilian inhabitants of the city set out to evacuate the city once the siege was already in progress. This should have left the size of the city's civilian population when the siege was broken in January 1944 at minimally 1.4 million. Instead it counted merely 600,000 souls — a deficit of over 800,000 people. Additionally, of the 1 million who attempted to evacuate the city during the siege, easily one in ten perished in the attempt or else died in the aftermath of their escape as a result of deprivation sustained preceding the evacuation. In total the Siege of Leningrad killed more than 900,000 civilians.[36]

It should be noted that while civilians in Leningrad died in the course of a military operation the German leadership regarded their deaths as a positive good in itself. Indeed, going into the USSR in July 1941 the Germans anticipated and planned for the deaths of tens of millions of conquered Slavs, particularly the city-dwellers in the winter of 1941/42. The German forces advancing on Leningrad and Moscow in late 1941 received instructions not to accept the surrender of these cities and to keep them blockaded so as to starve their inhabitants to death even should resistance against German forces cease. Indeed in 1941/42 the Germans attempted something similar when they cordoned off the occupied cities of Minsk, Kharkov and Kiev to prevent food from being "wasted" on the inhabitants of these urban centers.

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Summary

The mass killings of Jews, the anti-partisan reprisals and the blockade of Leningrad were among the most lethal German policies enacted on the territory of the Soviet Union that aimed to cause massive civilian death. Together they killed some 4.1 million non-combatants of whom 2.55 million were Jews killed in the Holocaust, 0.65 million were non-Jewish civilians killed in collective reprisals for partisan activity in the countryside and 0.9 million were civilians starved in besieged Leningrad.

Other War-Related Violent Deaths

Civilian Deaths in the Ukrainian-Polish Conflict in Volhynia and East Galicia

In summer and spring of 1943 the Ukrainian Insurgent Army conducted a campaign of terror against the Polish population of Volhynia, massacring and eradicating their villages with a view to terrorize them into fleeing the region. The next year it attempted a similar campaign against the Poles in East Galicia. UPA massacres meant war with the Polish Home Army and triggered a smaller number of massacres by the latter against Ukrainian settlements.

The estimates of death toll of the Ukrainian-Polish conflict on civilians are plentiful but varied depending on the source. For Volhynia and East Galicia combined they range between 50,000 and 130,000 Polish victims and between a few thousand and as many as 20,000 or 30,000 Ukrainian victims. American historian Timothy Snyder estimates 40,000 killed in UPA massacres in Volhynia alog with 5,000-10,000 in East Galicia. Polish historian Ewa Siemaszko speaks of 88,700 "documented" deaths of Poles at the hand of the UPA, of whom she has been able to track down the names of 44,100, but estimes the total number of Poles murdered by the UPA to be 130,000.[37]

A fellow Polish historian Grzegorz Motyka warns any estimates at this point, whether of Ukrainians or Poles, are uncertain and should be treated as preliminary figures until more research is done and a firmer consensus is reached. He estimates 40,000-60,000 Polish victims in Volhynia and 30,000-40,000 in East Galicia along with 3,000-8,000 Ukrainian victims in these two regions.[38] For the purpose of this paper it will be estimated there were 90,000 civilian victims from the Polish and Ukrainian ethnic community combined.

Deaths due to Soviet Partisan Reprisals

The Soviet partisans routinely carried out reprisals against civilians whom they saw as collaborators with the occupiers, such as officials of the civil administration under the Germans. The number of people killed in reprisals carried out by the Soviet partisans may be estimated as being between 40,000 and 100,000, with 60,000 being the most likely estimate.

Soviet Partisan formations in Belarus reported killing 17,431 people as collaborators by January 1st 1944.[39] This was six months before Belarus would be liberated in mid-1944 and the partisan units in Belarus dissolved. Additionally the deaths of some victims of reprisals might have gone unreported, for example if they were killed for reasons other than perceived collaboration. All things considered the number of people killed in partisan reprisals in Belarus probably falls in the range of 20,000-30,000.

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Deaths connected to partisan warfare in Belarus might constitute anywhere between 0.3 to 0.55 of the total for the entire Soviet Union. This gives a wide range of possibilities for the total figure of people killed in partisan reprisals in USSR – from a low of 40,000 (200,000/0.55) to a high of 100,000 (300,000/0.3). Still the variant where Belarus amounts for just over 0.4 of the total violence connected to partisan warfare in the USSR has been deemed the most likely elsewhere in this article. This nets the estimate of 6,250 (25,000/0.4) people killed in Soviet partisan reprisals against perceived collaborators, class enemies and criminals.

Civilian Deaths in the German Strategic Bombing of Soviet Cities

The Germans conducted a limited strategic bombing campaign in the Soviet Union against cities and railway targets. The Soviet officials made considerable effort to count and record the casualties from such raids. According to the contemporary Soviet tally the German strategic bombing against Soviet population centers resulted in 51,526 deaths on the ground.[40]

The figure is not entirely accurate as it is partly based on preliminary or incomplete reports from cities such as Minsk or Stalingrad, which found themselves under attack and occupation soon after they were struck from the air making a definite count impossible. Nonetheless, considering the attention the Local Air Defense organization (MPVO) paid to assesing the damage and tallying the dead, the 50,000 figure must be considered to be a very well supported estimate.

Care, however, should be taken what the figure represents. The estimate encompasses deaths sustained from bombing well behind the front lines. It does not ecompass casualties sustained of tactical bombing in support of troops on the ground or of opportunistic strafing of civilan targets by the tactical aviation. The figure refers strictly to fatalities due to strategic bombing, which is only one component of losses inflicted from the air.

Victims of Other German Killing Policies, Repression and Forced Evacuations

During the Soviet-German War the Germans purposefully targeted Soviet prisoners of war, ethnic Jews, the inhabitants of Leningrad and the villagers and townsfolk of "bandit infested" regions for the murder in cold blood. This is by no means an exhaustive list, however. In addition it was German official policy to target the Roma, Communists, Soviet functionaries, those who helped the Jews, suspected activists and helpers for the urban underground, the members of the intelligentsia and mental patients. 

Furthermore, civilians from all backgrounds and walks of life could find themselves rounded up and executed as hostages in town and city-based anti-partisan reprisals. Finally, numerous civilians were shot or perished of exhaustion in forced marches and in places of German detention in forced evacuations that the Germans carried out as part of their scorched earth tactics that accompanied their retreat. 

Christian Gerlach estimates that about 100,000 civilians were executed or otherwise died under all of these various killing policies in the Belarusian SSR.[41] If Gerlach's estimate for Belarus is anywhere near the truth the total for the entire Soviet Union must be in the hundreds of thousands. For now the figure will be estimated as being between 200,000 and 400,000.

Obviously much more work should go toward painting a picture of these other killing policies and assigning the impact of each in terms of inflicting deaths against Soviet civilians. 

For now it may be said at least 40,000 Soviet citizens were murdered as part of the Nazi genocide against the Roma. There were an estimated 30,000-35,00 such deaths in the USSR within its 1939 borders, as well as between 2,500-4,500 victims in the Baltic countries. Additionally there would have been several thousand more in parts of western Belarus and Ukraine annexed from Poland.[42] This are really merely lower-bound estimates, however, since Nazi killings of the Roma were poorly documented and carried out under a number of different euphemisms. 

Civilian Deaths in Fighting between the Armies

In 1941-1944 the Soviet Union was a scene of gigantic land battles – the largest and the most intense the world has ever seen, before or since. Without a doubt numerous civilians were killed in the course of these military operations - mostly, but not exclusively, without being specifically targeted. Civilians could be pulverized by artillery fire in their homes, strafed from the air on the roads and trains, or blown up by land mines or unexploded bombs and shells in their fields. The number of Soviet civilians who died during the war in such or similar manners seemingly can only be guessed at, but it very likely exceeds 100,000. Most likely the real number is somewhere in the low hundreds of thousands, albeit given the scale of the battles even a figure as high as half a million might not be unthinkable. For now it will be conjectured as being between 200,000 and 400,000.

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Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union murdered in the Holocaust 2,550,000
Civilian deaths in the Siege of Leningrad 900,000
Non-Jewish Civilians killed in German anti-partisan reprisals in the countryside 650,000
Non-combatants killed in the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in Galicia and Volhynia 90,000
Killed in reprisals of the Soviet partisans 60,000
Civilian deaths in the German strategic bombing of Soviet cities 50,000
Civilians killed in all other German killing policies and repression 200,000-400,000
Civilian deaths due to battle munitions in, and in the aftermath of, battles 200,000-400,000


33. Yitzhak Arad, The Holocaust in the Soviet Union (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 525-526.
34. Christian Hartmann, Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg Front und militärisches Hinterland 1941/42 (Munich: Oldenburg, 2009), 789. Timothy Snyder Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 411. Richard J. Overy, Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow (Madison: TV Books, 1997), 151.
35. Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, 955.
36. David M. Glantz, The Siege of Leningrad: 900 Days of Terror (Staplehurst: Spellmount, 2001), 178-179. 
37. Timothy Snyder, "To Resolve the Ukrainian Question Once and For All": The Ethnic Cleansing of Ukrainians in Poland, 1943-1947, November 2001. Ewa Siemaszko, "Bilans Zbrodni", Biuletyn IPN no. 7-8 (2010), 77-94. 
38. Grzegorz Motyka, "Polska reakcja na działania UPA – skala i przebieg akcji odwetowych" in Antypolska akcja OUN-UPA 1943–1944. Fakty i interpretacje, ed. Grzegorz Motyka and Dariusz Libionka (Waszaw: Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej, 2002), 81-85. Grzegorz Motyka, Od rzezi wołyńskiej do akcji „Wisła”. Konflikt polsko-ukraiński 1943-1947 (Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2011),447-448.
39. Snyder, Bloodlands, 251 citing Bogdan Musial, Sowjetische Partisanen 1941– 1944: Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2009), 261.
40. Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (Penguin Books, 2013), Table 4.1.
41. Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, 1158.
42. Donald Niewyk, The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (Columbia University Press, 2000), 422.

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