The siege of Leningrad: Genocide by starvation

The Great Patriotic War. Blokade of Leningrad.

The Nazi siege of Leningrad—the historic capital of tsarist Russia, Saint Petersburg–lasted for several years: It begun on September 8, 1941 and was lifted on January 27, 1944. For Lenigraders, this encirclement constituted 872 days of sheer torture; of hovering on the brink between life and death. Hundreds of thousands didn’t make it. The blockade might as well have been called genocide through starvation because it caused the deaths of an estimated one million Russians. Marshal Zhukov, sent by Stalin to save the city, followed the dictator’s orders not to retreat. But, to the Russian’s surprise, the Germans didn’t advance much either. Hitler decided to kill the inhabitants of Leningrad in a slow, tortuous way by strangling all of their supply routes and starving a population of 2.5 million. He planned to wipe out the inhabitants, then raze Leningrad to the ground and hand over the area to his Finnish allies.

This genocide by starvation was therefore a premeditated decision–a crime against humanity–not an indirect or incidental result of a siege during war. According to historian Max Hastings, Hitler consulted Professor Ernst Zigelemeyer, in charge of the Munich Institute of Nutrition—to find out how much food (and calories) the average person requires to live. Zigelemeyer informed him that the Soviet government would not be able to provide Lenigraders with more than 8.8 grams of bread daily, which wouldn’t be sufficient for the majority to survive the siege. Hitler thus concluded: “It’s not worth risking the lives of our troops. The Leningraders will die anyway. It is essential not to let a single person through our front line. The more of them that stay there, the sooner they will die, and then we will enter the city without trouble, without losing a single German soldier” (Inferno, Vintage Books, 2012). His demonic plan almost worked.

Within months, tens of thousands of people perished from hunger and cold. Within a few weeks of the siege, the city was left without its coal and oil supplies, and thus without heat. Within a few months, the water supplies froze, resulting in much quicker deaths from thirst. The desperate population began hunting and eating birds and rats. Household pets weren’t safe either as many ate cats and dogs. Some even resorted to eating wallpaper paste, sawdust, grass cakes and even the dead. Corpses accumulated in the streets as the ground was frozen solid and people had little energy left to bury the bodies. Hastings cites Elena Skryabina, who captures with eloquence the pangs of hunger of Lenigraders in her diary: “We are approaching the greatest horror… Everyone is preoccupied with only one thought: where to get something edible so as not to starve to death. We have returned to prehistoric times. Life has been reduced to one thing—the hunt for food” (Inferno, 167).

The Soviets made some attempts at saving women and children and workers, but millions were left behind. Only the privileged few could count on escaping the horror. Once he realized that Hitler wasn’t planning a full-scale attack of the city, Stalin recalled Zhukov to Moscow. The composer Dimitri Shostakovich, who created a symphony about the plight of his native city–the Seventh Leningrad Symphony–finished the piece elsewhere.

If the Soviet army and bands of partisans hadn’t been resourceful enough to open up a small corridor to the city in mid-January 1943—which subsequently enabled them to send barges of goods during the summer and sleds on improvised ice paths during the winter—and channel some life-saving supplies to Leningrad, Hitler would no doubt have achieved his objective of starving to death the city’s entire population.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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