How much of “Russia” was actually occupied by the Germans in World War II?

How much of “Russia” was actually occupied by the Germans in World War II?

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I am well aware that the German invasion of the Soviet Union, as depicted on maps like these, showed large German gains in 1941, and subsequently on the road to Stalingrad in 1942.

My understanding, however, was that these gains were mainly in the Baltic States, Belorussia, and the Ukraine, and that only a little of "Russia" proper (as we might define it today) was occupied by the Germans, except for the seesaw fighting on the road to Moscow from October 1941 to say, March 1942, during which almost 100,000 square miles of the country was captured and liberated. A similar "exception" can be made for land between the Don and Volga Rivers in late 1942 that the Germans occupied for a few months before losing the battle of Stalingrad. If anything, Russia gained troops, civilians, and factories that were withdrawn from the non-Russian part of the Soviet Union in anticipation of German occupation to compensate for lost territory.

How much of "Russia" (of 1941) was occupied by the Germans at 1) its maximum extent in December, 1941 and/or 1942? and 2) after the successful conclusion of the Russian winter counteroffensives? (Please use Germany's March 1943 recapture of Kharkov as the end of the Russian 1943 counteroffensive.)

My problem is that I am not sure how to define "Russia." I want the 1941 "predecessor" to today's Russia (post war changes probably mean that they are not exactly the same)." My best guess is that the best proxy for "Russia" is the Russian Federalist Soviet Republic, assuming it is in fact the best "predecessor."

Put another way, the question is how much of German-occupied territory was "Russia" (however defined) as opposed to the rest of the Soviet Union?

Let me start from your next to the last question:

… the best proxy for "Russia" is the Russian Federalist Soviet Republic. Is it comparable to today's Russia?

Yes, it is compatible to the Russian Federation of today. There are a couple of exceptions.

In 1941 Russia had not:

  • the Kaliningrad region (the northern part of East Prussia, which was incorporated in 1945);
  • Tuva (which joined voluntarily in 1944);
  • the Pechengsky (Petsamo) region (which has rather complicated history of Finland/USSR affiliation, but it seems that the last time when some of its lands were transferred is 1947).
  • the Karelo-Finish SSR, which was a standalone republic of the USSR, that is not a part of the RSFSR, but today it is a part of the Russian Federation.

Also depending on one's attitude to the Crimean referendum and the subsequent events one can say that today Russia has not the Crimea as its part, but anyway Russia had it in 1941.

Also one should take into consideration that the borders of Russia with Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia and it might be Latvia are not demarcated, so there is no "inch precision" on the land.


Or is there a better definition of Russia (perhaps with the benefit of hindsight) for the purpose of this question

There are innumerable definitions of Russia, and which is the best is greatly dependent on one's political views. Even a definition with some ethnic approach is very unreliable and slippery, if you want to follow this way, good luck, if you find any sources which you will consider trustworthy.

So let me stick to the definition of Russia as the Russian Federation of today (including the Crimea), except those parts, which were not parts of the USSR in 1941, that is the Pechengsky region and Kaliningrad one, because you asked about "Russia" of 1941.

How much of "Russia" (of 1941) was occupied by the Germans at

… its maximum extent in December, 1941 and/or 1942?

This is what was occupied in 1941 (the red hand-drawn line) and liberated during the counter-offensive in December 1941 - April 1942 (the green hand-drawn line). The lines were drawn according to the map itself, which is not 100% accurate (at least, I have spotted the absence of the Izyum salient and the Kerch peninsula in the Crimea is not marked as liberated, though it was in the late 1941). The orange hand-drawn line is the current borders of Russia including the Crimea and excluding the Pechengsky region and Kaliningrad one. As a sidenote to that map, the other dark blue part of the map to the east of the red line is what the Germans captured in 1942 (including Sevastopol and the Kerch peninsula in the Crimea).

How much of "Russia" (of 1941) was occupied by the Germans at

… after the successful conclusion of the Russian winter counteroffensives? (Please use Germany's March 1943 recapture of Kharkov as the end of the Russian 1943 counteroffensive.)

This map shows (besides other things) the 1942 German advance (the red hand-drawn line) and subsequent Russian counter-offensive until the German recapture of Kharkov in March 1943 (the green hand-drawn line). The orange hand-drawn line is the current borders of Russia including the Crimea and excluding the Pechengsky region and Kaliningrad one.

Is it true that occupied Russia was "small" compared to the rest of the occupied Soviet Union?

If you mean "small" in the meaning of the area, you can compare these using the maps, sorry I failed to find any reliable source with numbers. The large part of the RSFSR was occupied in 1942, but it was a much shorter period under occupation (7-8 month), than Belarus, for instance, had (three years), so I suppose Germany was not able to exploit these lands to such extend, as it did in the western parts of the USSR.

If you mean "small" in the meaning that Russia suffered less in the war, than other parts of the USSR, I'm afraid it is hard to give an answer without political bias etc. Despite that (in my subjective impression) in our historiography the harshest occupational regime is considered to be installed in Belarus, some parts of today's Russia suffered a lot, like Stalingrad or besieged Leningrad. Also other parts of the USSR which were not occupied (like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenia, Tajikistan) provided their own effort and suffering for the victory.

Hope, that has answered your questions, the next are original maps without my hand-drawn lines:

maximum extent in December, 1941

It wasn't really the "maximum" extent. The territory, which the USSR fought back in winter 1941 - spring 1942, was much less than the area occupied by the German army while advancing to Stalingrad. The following map clearly demonstrates this.

The "yellow" area is what the USSR gained. Germany's gain is on the south between the two front-lines: Voroshilovgrad (now Lugansk, Ukraine), Rostov-na-Donu, Krasnodar, Stavropol, Elista, etc. - all belong to the RSFSR (and modern Russia).

Also the losses of 1941 included more than just "the road to Moscow". These were large cities (of the RSFSR) such as Smolensk, Belgorod, Bryansk, Kursk, Orel, Pskov etc.

Is it true that occupied Russia was "small" compared to the rest of the occupied Soviet Union?

The administrative borders are seen on the map. These areas are more or less comparable. Though the loss of the RSFSR is mostly "thin" and "stretched" from north to south.

Also it's worth noting that although the total occupied area was only about 7% of USSR, yet the total number of the pre-war population of these territories reached about 40% of the whole USSR (Roughly speaking, the pre-war population of Ukraine+Belorussia+Baltics was about 40-45 mln.; the pre-war population of the occupied parts of the RSFSR 30-35 mln.).

Russia gained troops, civilians, and factories that were withdrawn from the non-Russian part of the Soviet Union in anticipation of German occupation to compensate for lost territory

The Western front's troops were utterly defeated in 1941. Actually many armies were created anew (i.e. regular divisions were disbanded, and newly formed volunteer divisions got their ids).

Factories of Ukraine and Belorussia (mostly) could not be evacuated due to fast enemy advance. What the SU evacuated successfully were factories of the European part of the RSFSR (including the Moscow industrial region). They went as far as Ural, which was a big time loss for the SU. And factories still remaining relatively close to the front were constantly under Luftwaffe's attacks.

The map given in Matt's answer shows what the Germans really occupied. The remaining question is what it really means Russia or "Russian territories". I think Tom Au had to specify this exactly when he was asking this question. But I can comment on this.

Double click on the map and you will see the administrative boundaries within Soviet Union. They are shown like this ----- and these are the boundaries between the "Soviet republics" as of 1939.

So if the question is how much of the Russian Federation (in the boundaries of 1939) the Germans occupied, the answer is also clear from the map.

Since then the boundaries of the Russian Federation changed. So modern Russia does not coincide with 1939 Russian Federation. The largest changes are Kaliningrad region (former East Prussia, historically German territory, shown in brown) which was annexed from Germany, and Crimea which was transferred to Ukraine, and then invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014.

But the question is more complicated/ambiguous than that, because Russia itself contains the so-called "autonomous republics" and "autonomous regions" where a great part of population, sometimes majority, is not ethnically Russian. The boundaries of these regions are not shown on this map. This mostly concerns North Caucasus, the place where the Germans penetrated furthest to the East.

The "Russian" cities shown on the map are the following: (NW to SE) Petrozavodsk (Karelia autonomous republic), Pskov, Demiansk, Novgorod (on the boundary of the occupied zone), Rzhev, Vyazma, Smolensk (disputed between Russians and Belorussians, Poles and Lithuanians for centuries) Bryansk, Orel, Kursk, Belgorod (on the very boundary of Ukraine), Voronezh (on the boundary of the occupied zone).

Then go (SE of Ukraine) Rostov, Krasnodar, Kerch (the region where Don Cossaks live, once all this was Ukraine) and Crimea peninsula (populated by Tatars, Ukrainians and Russians, currently occupied and annexed by Russia from Ukraine), Elista (autonomous Republic of Kalmykia, now part of Russia, in 1939 part of Russian republic), Stavropol (North-Caucasus Krai, with very mixed population. The large occupied region around Stavropol consists of 6 autonomous republics: Kalmykia, Dagestan, Chechen Republic, North Ossetia-Alania, Kabardino-Balkar Republic and Karachay-Cherkess Republic).

All other cities in the occupied territory shown in this map are in Baltic republics, Belorussia, Ukraine, and Moldowa.

Visually the pink part which is in the Russian republic of 1939 is about 1/4 to 1/3 of the whole pink part. But the regions occupied by the ethnic Russians is probably 1/5 of the pink area.

On This Day June 2, 1941: Brutal Nazi Massacre of Cretan Village

On June 2, 1941 a brutal massacre took place in the village of Kondomari, just west of the city of Hania.

The Battle of Crete had just completed and the Allied forces surrendered the island to the invading Nazis. Despite the outcome, the battle changed the course of World War II history and was epic on so many levels, including the fierce resistance that the Nazis encountered from the local Cretan population.

The Nazis were dumbfounded by the resistance, never having experienced such ferocious fighting from civilians anywhere else in Europe.

As retribution for so many German losses, General Kurt Student ordered a long series of mass reprisals against the people of Crete.

The massacre at Kondomari was the first, starting what would be a brutal campaign of terror, attempting to instill fear in the local population.

The massacre was photographed by a German army war correspondent named Franz-Peter Weixler whose negatives were discovered several decades later in the federal German archives.

Weixler’s photographs show a macabre and detailed chronology of what transpired on that fateful day in the tiny Greek village that lost most of its male population.

The Nazi firing squad assassinated almost 70 men.

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Ενας σώθηκε σε μία εκτέλεση. Ηρθε ο πατέρας του οικιοθελώς, να τον αντικαταστήσει, και άρχισαν τον καυγά, διότι ήθελε να πεθάνει αυτός και όχι ο πατέρας του. Μετά από αυτό οι γερμανοί δεν το εκτέλεσαν.

Nazi revisionists attempt to let the Wehrmacht off the hook by claiming that it was the SS who committed all the atrocities, when, in fact, the doctrine of cold blooded race superiority suffused the entire German culture. We can’t understand this sort of barbarity from the land of Beethoven and Schiller until we understand the power of certain irrational doctrines that took hold of the early Nazi movement and formed its creed of race superiority. The roots of Nazism can be found before WWI in the demented writings of the influential occultist, Lans Von Liebenfels (Google him) who published “Ostara” magazine in large numbers, a magazine that was avidly read by Hitler and his early cohorts.

A nation that forgets his history will just live it again

Never forget human suffer.Anywhere !

Not only did these monsters commit this attrocity, they went as far as to document it photographically. Disgusting. Did they think that future generations would marvel at their glory…of mowing down unarmed civilians? And, today, their progeny rule Europe? How far we've regressed…

The photos were taken against orders by a German propaganda agent who was trying to expose Germans to the atrocities they had committed. He took these negatives and had them processed, but then was found with them and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for crimes against the state. During the trial they also found him guilty of helping several Cretans to escape the island, which almost tripled his sentence from 15 to 40 years. The somewhat infamous negatives were confiscated off him but were found after the war (and after the photographers death).

I'm glad you posted these disturbing photographs. People have know the truth.

this village was not far from were I used to live and where I have friends. This is horrible all those atrocities that were done and no restitution to the Greek people, I say Angela Merkel start coughing up the monies due to Greece and an apology to the Greek Peaple that were the survivors of this atrocity

Very disturbing pictures. We must never forget the atrocities of war, war is real and it is disturbing. How many in Greece now can hold a Nazi flag and call themselves a political party is just as disturbing

Fuck the Nazis,and what ever political party,or individual supports them.

And even after all that some people support neo-Nazi groups like The Golden Dawn in Greece. Shameful.

War crimes killing innocent people and documenting it it is disgusting. The people of Crete and Greece in general have suffered by the hands of the Germans it is now time for the Germans to pay for those crimes of war. This is just one of many atrocities that occurred during the invasion of Greece. In my book if they are made to pay for the war crimes Greece should not have to pay back anything on the current loan and the Germans need to suck it up. Fuck the EU Greece doesn’t need them they need us. My husband was born in Crete may 1941 in the village of Males he and his family were lucky enough to survive . Proud to be Greek not German.

The photographer, a German, defied orders to take the pictures because he opposed the murder of the villagers. He tried to persuade the officer in charge not to kill anyone and saved two or three of the Cretans from being shot. He was a good man. The military didn’t want the slaughter recorded, but he wanted to expose the atrocity. He was punished for his actions, as I’m sure he knew he would be.

I am happy that you posted the pictures. We all learn from our history. I did know that my Daddy was a guerilla in WWI and was affiliated with such a group to fight the Germans. I am proud and happy that he did. If it was me that day, I too will fight. It is like Spartacus says, I want to be a free man, and not a slave. I believe in that principle! We all must unite and fight back. It is a long, long, long time ago and I don’t know what happened in the years since but Germany needs to pay back in monetary form those that they killed. They did it to the Jews. They need to do to the people of Crete. If they have not paid, it is time that they pay up! In turn, our government in Greece must represent the people rather than those that have taken the money out of the country. Greece must survive. Must grow. Must prosper. Finally, must remember the past. The past is the indicator to the future!

Art. 43 HLKO
In order to establish order in an occupied country/ in war, international law allows to shoot partisans. This includes whole villages, if they provide shelter to partisans. This was and is a common way to fight partisans, e.g. today in 2015 Ucraine Western army bombs whole cities and villages in the Eastern Ucraine, for the suspician that pro-russian soldiers are among the civilians. We are talking of douzens of thousands of dead civilians here.

You are incorrect. If you kill entire villages of people it is a war crime. The Germans at Kondomari killed old men as well as young men. It’s possible there may have been some andartes among them but the Germans didn’t care whether they were innocent or not, they just wanted to wipe out every man in the village, nearly 70 of them. As I said, that’s a war crime. Student and the officer in charge of these killings should have been hanged. What were the andartes doing, anyway? Simply defending their land against the invaders. When the Germans bombed Heraklion at the start of the invasion, the Luftwaffe machine-gunned civilians fleeing from the city. These people weren’t fighting the Germans, they were just trying to escape the bombs. Did the Germans really believe, as has been reported, that the people of Crete would welcome them with open arms when innocent men, women and children had been blown to pieces? The Cretan people have always resisted the invader. And guess what? All the invaders are gone and the Cretans are still there. Don’t excuse barbaric wartime acts as being within international law because trying to be an apologist for the inexcusable is absurd. This massacre was an evil, disgusting crime and if I was a German, even after all this time I would feel the deepest shame for Kondomari.

General Kurt Student who was ultimately responsible for this and other war crimes in Crete was put on trial in 1947. He was sentenced to just five years jail but was released in 1948 apparently for medical reasons and lived a further 30 years. So much for justice.

I’m glad you posted the pictures and the story. History cannot be forgotten. We have, obviously, to be remembered again and again that war is hell and turns people, all over the world, no matter what nationality or ethnicity, into monsters. I’m German, and I’m ashamed looking at these pictures. In German schools we are reminded from year 7 on about the terrible German history – and learn that this must never ever happen again.

These photos should be published again and again for the world to see the atrocities of this war. Shooting unarmed civilians also occurred at the village of my parents, Skine, Crete. Retribution for the kidnapping of a German general also occasioned the burning of the entire village. This meant the villagers scattered to live in caves, as did my mother, or under the trees with flimsy sheets for protection from the elements. Some of the more fortunate villagers had relatives in other villages with which to stay. Rebuilding poor impoverished homes went on for decades and many people still live in those homes. The small payments of German retribution have never been enough to compensate for the misery and destruction.

They are back with banks than tanks… how quickly Europe has already forgotten.

It’s about time Greece was repaid ALL the monies due from the thieving Germans. this includes ALL the gold and ALL the currency. They stole everything and most would have gone into the vaults of the Swiss banks at the end of the war. Every EU nation and the USA needs to demand recompense from Merkel and her government. the last “loan” to Greece went directly into the German banks to pay interest. That is a fact!!

First, let me state that, what is, is….

And here you sit and whine, comment and don’t understand why the paratroopers were pissed off ?! I know the stories about paratroopers shot in the back, defenseless.. but just lets quote the text from the first image in the slideshow.

” Resistance by the Cretan population was the fiercest the Nazis had faced in the war up to that point. Many parachutists who were stuck in trees never made it t the ground alive as locals attacked with kitchen utensils, rocks and canes… ”

Then, to differ between civilians and partizans… it kind of coward as a partizan to hide among the civilian population..

IT’S TIME THE GREEK GOVERNMENT DEMANDED THE GERMAN REPARATION FROM WW2 in a short period of German occupation, 1941-1944, the violence of the German-led armies of conquest, turned Greece from a modestly well-to-do country to a country on the brink of death.
The following math of mass starvation and murder tell the story. The numbers come from “The Sacrifices of Greece in the Second World War,” a 1946 report prepared for the Greek government by the architect K. A. Doxiadis.
The story of WWII Greece starts with food, the weapon of starvation for the occupiers. During 1941-1944, there was a dramatic decline in Greek food production: wheat and barley, life and death crops for the Greeks, dropped by 40 percent beans, 36 percent tobacco, 89 percent cotton, 75 percent olive oil, 16 percent grapes and raisins, 66 percent wine, 50 percent fruits, 20 percent.

Did the people of Czechoslovakia trick the Germans in World War 2?

I was on a free walking tour of Prague a few years ago and the tour guy told us of a story about how the Germans couldn't find Prague. He said the people of czechoslovakia in World War 2 (maybe one actually..) had replaced all the roadsigns to a non existent place making the Germans circle for weeks. It was a funny story and i believed it.. now a few years later I have that 'Hang on!' feeling about it and quick google doesnt bring it up. Hoping someone can shine some light on this story or if i am gullible.

Since the territories that became Czechslovakia were part of Austria-Hungary and therefore allied to Germany, it's unlikely to have been in WW!.

Germany occupied the Sudetenland (west and north Czechoslovakia) in October 1938 and incorporated it into the Reich. They occupied Bohemia and Moravia (including Prague) in March 1939, well before the outbreak of WW2. These 3 areas are roughly the territory of the modern Czech Republic. The remainder of the country became the puppet Slovak Republic (roughly modern Slovakia minus some bits Hungary grabbed).

There was little fighting during the occupation, mainly because Hitler invited the Czech president to Berlin and "persuaded" him to instruct his people not to resist, which probably wasn't difficult as he had a heart attack during the meeting. The Germans simply drive to Prague, the whole occupation only took a few hours.

The Czech resistance may have messed with roadsigns during the war, and some Germans may have got lost as a result (the British managed to confuse themselves when they removed roadsigns on the south coast in 1940) but it can't have been anything more than a minor irritation.

How much of &ldquoRussia&rdquo was actually occupied by the Germans in World War II? - History

Hektor Valuable asset
Posts: 3778 Joined: Sun Jun 25, 2006 7:59 am

Polish Atrocities against Germans before 1. September 1939

Post by Hektor » 8 years 5 months ago (Wed Jan 02, 2013 5:48 am)

Re: Polish Atrocities against Germans before 1. September 19

Post by Balsamo » 8 years 5 months ago (Wed Jan 02, 2013 10:35 am)

As usual :
- photographs made by the Germans
- An official investigation by the Wehrmacht
- confession by captured Poles (soldiers and civilians)
- Germans eye-witness

As usual as well
debate on the number of deaths : that goes from 100 (polish historians) to 415 (german historians) to 5500 (think that was the official german number in 1939) and even 60.000 according to some nuts like GermanicPower on Youtube.

Hektor Valuable asset
Posts: 3778 Joined: Sun Jun 25, 2006 7:59 am

Re: Polish Atrocities against Germans before 1. September 19

Post by Hektor » 8 years 5 months ago (Wed Jan 02, 2013 1:58 pm)

It seems figures from before 1.September 1939 and after this date are sometimes confused. Some of the literature deals with both jointly: . usamkeiten

Since the end of WW1 there was frequent violence against Germans in areas controlled by Poland. That someone has really taken up the effort to count incidents and evaluate the evidence, I have not seen yet. There was violence against other minorities as well like i.e. the Ukrainians.

Perhaps one should also look into the figure of German refugees from Poland, too.

Hannover Valuable asset
Posts: 10362 Joined: Sun Nov 24, 2002 7:53 pm

Re: Polish Atrocities against Germans before 1. September 19

Post by Hannover » 8 years 5 months ago (Wed Jan 02, 2013 5:53 pm)

See here:
Mostly shortly after 9/1/39, but has some pre-war info. and text of Hitler speech (Danzig, Sept. 19, 1939) elaborating on the pre-war terror against the German minority.
I also believe there were numerous, non-German newspapers which had information about the atrocities.

And there is nothing in these claims against the Poles which are scientifically impossible, as are the claims within the 'holocaust' canon.

Hektor Valuable asset
Posts: 3778 Joined: Sun Jun 25, 2006 7:59 am

Re: Polish Atrocities against Germans before 1. September 19

Post by Hektor » 8 years 5 months ago (Thu Jan 03, 2013 7:07 am)

Hannover Valuable asset
Posts: 10362 Joined: Sun Nov 24, 2002 7:53 pm

Re: Polish Atrocities against Germans before 1. September 19

Post by Hannover » 8 years 5 months ago (Thu Jan 03, 2013 2:31 pm)

.”under Polish pressure the Germans in the southern and eastern districts were subjected to oppressive treatment. On Aug. 19 1920 the Poles felt strong enough, indeed, to make an attempt to seize the country by force. On all sides bands of Poles, chiefly recruited from Congress Poland, usurped authority. A number of Germans were forcibly carried across the frontier into Poland, and many were killed. Several weeks elapsed before it was possible to quell this rising and restore order…It had been suggested by the Entente that non-resident Upper Silesians of the German Reich should vote outside Silesia, at Cologne. Germany protested against this, and her protest was recognized as valid by the Entente. In January 1921 the date of the plebiscite was fixed for March 20 1921.
An immediate revival took place in the use of terrorism by the Poles, especially in the districts of Rybnik, Pless, Kattowitz, and Beuthen. It reached its climax in the days preceding the plebiscite. Voters from other parts of the German Reich were frequently refused admission to the polls sometimes they were maltreated and even in some instances murdered and houses where outvoters were staying were set on fire… The day after the plebiscite the Polish excesses recommenced, and from that date onwards continued without interruption… Practically all the towns voted for Germany… the first days of May witnessed a new Polish insurrection which assumed far greater proportions than the former one. Korfanty had secretly raised a well-organized Polish force which was provided with arms and munition from across the border, and was reinforced by large bodies of men from Poland…
By June 20 the British troops had again occupied the larger towns, while the Poles had the upper hand in the rural districts. As a result of the difficulties in paying his men and providing them with food Korfanty now lost control over his followers. Independent bands were formed which plundered the villages, ill-treated the Germans, and murdered many of them.”

- 1922 Encyclopaedia Britannica, “SILESIA, UPPER”

This article appeared in the Polish newspaper Die Liga der Grossmacht in October, 1930:

“Tannenberg” refers to the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410 when a Polish army defeated the German Teutonic Knights. The article is full of many more anti-German remarks.

Also, Von Ribbentrop defended the attack of Poland by stating that between 1919-1939, one million Germans had been expelled from Polish territory accompanied by numerous atrocities, and that complaints to the World Court in The Hague and the League of Nations in Geneva had been ignored.

further reading:
the book: "Dokumente polnischer Grausamkeiten. Verbrechen an Deutschen 1919-1939 nach amtlichen Quellen" (Documentations of Polish Cruelties. Crimes Against Germans 1919-1939 According to Official Sources).

World War II’s Strangest Battle: When Americans and Germans Fought Together

For one time only, Germans and Allies fought together in WWII. Andrew Roberts on a story so wild that it has to be made into a movie.

Andrew Roberts

The most extraordinary things about Stephen Harding's The Last Battle, a truly incredible tale of World War II, are that it hasn’t been told before in English, and that it hasn’t already been made into a blockbuster Hollywood movie.

Here are the basic facts: on 5 May 1945—five days after Hitler’s suicide—three Sherman tanks from the 23rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. 12th Armored Division under the command of Capt. John C. ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., liberated an Austrian castle called Schloss Itter in the Tyrol, a special prison that housed various French VIPs, including the ex-prime ministers Paul Reynaud and Eduard Daladier and former commanders-in-chief Generals Maxime Weygand and Paul Gamelin, amongst several others.

Yet when the units of the veteran 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division arrived to recapture the castle and execute the prisoners, Lee’s beleaguered and outnumbered men were joined by anti-Nazi German soldiers of the Wehrmacht, as well as some of the extremely feisty wives and girlfriends of the (needless-to-say hitherto bickering) French VIPs, and together they fought off some of the best crack troops of the Third Reich. Steven Spielberg, how did you miss this story?

Five Badass Female Spies Who Deserve Their Own World War II Movie

Left, from Rex/Shutterstock From Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Courtesy of The Smithsonian/Lorna Catling.

Writer Steven Knight has said that his new film, Allied, is based on a story about World War II spies that he heard third-hand from an old girlfriend. It could well have been more than an urban legend, though: dozens of remarkable women played a key role in “the Resistance,” much as Marion Cotillard’s character does in the film.

These women were especially prevalent in the Special Operations Executive, a cobbled-together network of spies and amateurs that wrought havoc on German-occupied Europe President Eisenhower later credited the organization with reversing the fortunes of the Allies against Hitler.

Scores of female operatives worked for the S.O.E. These women were trained to handle guns and explosives, memorize complex codes, organize munitions and supplies drops, endure harsh interrogation, and, in some cases, were in charge of thousands of men. To follow their stories is to follow the trajectory of the war.

It also made for tales that read like spy thrillers, the kind that should look like gold to any screenwriter. This winter, Jessica Chastain will star in The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the true story of a Polish woman undermining the Nazi occupation 2001’s Charlotte Gray, another story of a female resistance fighter, is said to be based on a composite of real-life women. But for every Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, there’s an equally dramatic tale about a wartime heroine waiting to be told. Here are five real women whose stories would make compelling cinematic thrillers.

Vera Atkins was a young Romanian working in Bucharest when she met the dashing Canadian William Stephenson, according to William Stevenson’s Spymistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II. Later, he would be known as agent “Intrepid,” the supposed inspiration for James Bond—but for now, he supplying pre-war intelligence to Britain.

Charmed by Vera, he introduced her the German ambassador to Romania (who, it’s said, loved beautiful women) in order to get information from him, Stevenson writes in Spymistress. The ploy worked. Soon, Vera began gathering intelligence for the British while outwardly working as a translator for Stephenson’s steel business.

Vera Atkins was Jewish (her real name was Rosenberg), a fact she didn't readily disclose to the high-ranking anti-Nazi bureaucrats she worked with. In the years leading up to the war, she smuggled information to Churchill as he railed against Hitler’s regime in political exile—while the nervous English government tried to quiet him, believing Hitler’s promise not to invade.

When Churchill was brought back to power to steel England against imminent German invasion, Vera was assigned to a high-ranking position in the Special Operations Executive, also known as “Churchill’s secret army.” In spite of the S.O.E.’s success, England still needed American support. Churchill had secretly been in contact with Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it was well known the Americans were deeply against entering another world war—especially with Britain’s gloomy prospects. Roosevelt sent his head of intelligence, William Donovan—the future creator of the C.I.A.—to scout the situation on the ground in Europe. Churchill made sure Donovan spent substantial time with Vera, according to Spymistress.

Vera was a firm believer in the power of ordinary citizens to wreak havoc. Stevenson writes in Spymistress that she liked invented weapons that could be assembled on the fly, like rats stuffed with explosives. Instead of trying to impress Donovan with fancy dinners, Vera deliberately took him to the heart of the S.O.E., where “underpaid amateurs . . . fiddled with bits of metal bicycle tubing for guns” and “faked horse manure to conceal explosives,” according to Spymistress. University students worked furiously to translate codes. In the end, Donovan was so impressed with the underdog S.O.E.’s effect on its formidable German enemy that he outlined the S.O.E.’s activities for Roosevelt, who in turn permitted Donovan to return to monitor the S.O.E.’s progress.

Krystyna Skarbek was the daughter of Polish aristocracy. Her doting father taught her horsemanship and shooting for the rest of her life she excelled in charming men. And as she roamed Europe on secret missions, she left many of them heartbroken. In 1939, the Germans invaded, quickly followed by the Russians. Krystyna was overseas, and her attempts to enlist were frustrated by the fact she was a woman. In London, according to Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved, she presented the British secret service with a plan: she would ski into Nazi-occupied Poland and deliver British propaganda. Positive news about the fight against Hitler was vital to fuel the resistance, especially now that the Polish government had fled the country.

She convinced the Olympic skier Jan Marusarz to escort her over the Tatras mountains from Hungary. It was the coldest winter in memory—German patrols found so many bodies in the following spring thaw that they doubled their patrols the following winter.

Krystyna craved danger, even as her very existence was perilous: her mother was a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking heir. Though her Jewish blood meant that she would never fully be accepted by the Polish aristocracy, Krystyna’s love for Poland never wavered.

Krystyna became a vital part of the resistance, smuggling intelligence out of Poland to the allies, using her wits to evade capture and execution over and over again—including the time she bit her own tongue bloody to fake tuberculosis. She once saved the life of one of her lovers, Francis Cammaerts, by skulking around the prison where he was being held and singing one of their favorite tunes, until she heard him sing it back. Now that she knew where he was located, she entered the prison and told the guards that she was related to a senior British diplomat. The Allies had just landed over the course of three hours, she convinced the guards that the only way they might receive mercy would be to release the prisoners. They agreed.

After the war, Krystyna led a somewhat aimless existence, and was eventually stabbed to death by another obsessed admirer.

Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah was pitched to play Krystyna in a movie about her life. When asked why, according to The Spy Who Loved, she said that Krystyna was “my father’s favorite spy.”

Born in New Zealand in 1912 and raised in Australia, Nancy Wake’s life couldn’t have been sweeter. She married a wealthy man in Marseille, and was accustomed to breakfasting in a large bath with champagne and caviar on toast.

However, when war came, Wake didn’t shy away. She told her devoted husband, Henri, that she would become an ambulance driver. Since France had almost no ambulances, she made him buy her one, according to Russell Braddon’s Nancy Wake: SEO’s Greatest Heroine. She was a horrendous driver, but very determined .

Wake spread her husband’s wealth as far as she could, and inadvertently started running a sort of underground railway from her flat in Marseille. The Gestapo was soon buzzing about “the White Mouse,” a woman who was helping hundreds of downed Allied servicemen and would-be political prisoners escape to England via Spain and the Pyrenees (which Wake claimed to have walked 17 times). She was their No. 1 most-wanted fugitive, with a price of 5 million francs on her head.

After being arrested and then escaping to Britain, Wake joined the S.O.E. Then she parachuted straight back in to France. She became ensconced with the Maquis, the guerrilla resistance army pocketed through some of Southern France’s more rugged terrain. She won over local clan leaders with her know-how and became the administrative head of around 7,000 fighters, coordinating secret nighttime airdrops of weapons, explosives, and supplies. She participated in raids and killed Germans with her bare hands. According to Braddon’s Nancy Wake, one of the Maquis called her “the most feminine woman I know—until the fighting starts. And then she is like five men.”

After the war, she returned to her flat in Marseille, which had been commandeered by female Gestapo, who had also stolen all her furniture, writes Braddon in Nancy Wake. Wake’s husband, who was also captured in their arrest, had been tortured to death by the Gestapo searching for her. She retired to London, where she lived until she died, aged 98. Her final wish was to have her ashes sprinkled over the mountains where she had fought her hardest battles.

Early modern Germany

Flag of the Holy Roman Empire 15th to 19th century.

The Holy Roman Empire, 1512


In the early 16th century there was much discontent occasioned by abuses such as indulgences in the Catholic Church, and a general desire for reform.

In 1517 the Reformation began with the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses he had posted them in the town square, and gave copies of them to German nobles, but it is debated whether he nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg as is commonly said. The list detailed 95 assertions Luther believed to show corruption and misguidance within the Catholic Church. One often cited example, though perhaps not Luther's chief concern, is a condemnation of the selling of indulgences another prominent point within the 95 Theses is Luther's disagreement both with the way in which the higher clergy, especially the pope, used and abused power, and with the very idea of the pope.

In 1521 Luther was outlawed at the Diet of Worms. But the Reformation spread rapidly, helped by the Emperor Charles V's wars with France and the Turks. Hiding in the Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the Bible from Latin to German, establishing the basis of the German language. A curious fact is that Luther spoke a dialect which had minor importance in the German language of that time. After the publication of his Bible, his dialect suppressed the others and evolved into what is now the modern German.

In 1524 the German Peasants' War broke out in Swabia, Franconia and Thuringia against ruling princes and lords, following the preachings of Reformist priests. But the revolts, which were assisted by war-experienced noblemen like Götz von Berlichingen and Florian Geyer (in Franconia), and by the theologian Thomas Münzer (in Thuringia), were soon repressed by the territorial princes. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 German peasants were massacred during the revolt, usually after the battles had ended. With the protestation of the Lutheran princes at the Reichstag of Speyer (1529) and rejection of the Lutheran "Augsburg Confession" at Augsburg (1530), a separate Lutheran church emerged.

From 1545 the Counter-Reformation began in Germany. The main force was provided by the Jesuit order, founded by the Spaniard Ignatius of Loyola. Central and northeastern Germany were by this time almost wholly Protestant, whereas western and southern Germany remained predominantly Catholic. In 1547, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V defeated the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Protestant rulers.

The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 brought recognition of the Lutheran faith. But the treaty also stipulated that the religion of a state was to be that of its ruler (Cuius regio, eius religio).

In 1556 Charles V abdicated. The Habsburg Empire was divided, as Spain was separated from the Imperial possessions.

In 1608/1609 the Protestant Union and the Catholic League were formed.


Bible translated into Modern High German by Luther, 1534

The Reformation was a triumph of literacy and the new printing press. Luther's translation of the Bible into German was a decisive moment in the spread of literacy, and stimulated as well the printing and distribution of religious books and pamphlets. From 1517 onward religious pamphlets flooded Germany and much of Europe. By 1530 over 10,000 publications are known, with a total of ten million copies. The Reformation was thus a media revolution. Luther strengthened his attacks on Rome by depicting a "good" against "bad" church. From there, it became clear that print could be used for propaganda in the Reformation for particular agendas. Reform writers used pre-Reformation styles, clichés, and stereotypes and changed items as needed for their own purposes. Especially effective were Luther's Small Catechism, for use of parents teaching their children, and Larger Catechism, for pastors. Using the German vernacular they expressed the Apostles' Creed in simpler, more personal, Trinitarian language. Illustrations in the newly translated Bible and in many tracts popularized Luther's ideas. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), the great painter patronized by the electors of Wittenberg, was a close friend of Luther, and illustrated Luther's theology for a popular audience. He dramatized Luther's views on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, while remaining mindful of Luther's careful distinctions about proper and improper uses of visual imagery.

Thirty Years War

Reduction of the population of the Holy Roman Empire as a consequence of the Thirty Years War

From 1618 to 1648 the Thirty Years' War ravaged in the Holy Roman Empire. The causes were the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, the efforts by the various states within the Empire to increase their power and the Catholic Emperor's attempt to achieve the religious and political unity of the Empire. The immediate occasion for the war was the uprising of the Protestant nobility of Bohemia against the emperor, but the conflict was widened into a European War by the intervention of King Christian IV of Denmark (1625–29), Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1630–48) and France under Cardinal Richelieu. Germany became the main theatre of war and the scene of the final conflict between France and the Habsburgs for predominance in Europe.

The fighting often was out of control, with marauding bands of hundreds or thousands of starving soldiers spreading plague, plunder, and murder. The armies that were under control moved back and forth across the countryside year after year, levying heavy taxes on cities, and seizing the animals and food stocks of the peasants without payment. The enormous social disruption over three decades caused a dramatic decline in population because of killings, disease, crop failures, declining birth rates and random destruction, and the out-migration of terrified people. One estimate shows a 38% drop from 16 million people in 1618 to 10 million by 1650, while another shows "only" a 20% drop from 20 million to 16 million. The Altmark and Württemberg regions especially hard hit. It took generations for Germany to fully recover. The war ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. Imperial territory was lost to France and Sweden and the Netherlands officially left the Empire. The imperial power declined further as the states' rights were increased.


Decisive scientific developments took place during the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and physics. In 1543, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus from Toruń (Thorn) published his work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and became the first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. Almost 70 years after Copernicus' death and building on his theories, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler from Stuttgart would be a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution. He is best known for his eponymous laws of planetary motion, codified by later astronomers, based on his works Astronomia nova and Harmonices Mundi. These works also influenced contemporary scientist Galileo Galilei and provided one of the foundations for Isaac Newton's theory of universal gravitation.


Presenting what happened after liberation is easy to show. Explaining it, and trying to pinpoint how far justice was served and how far short it actually came is not. In any event, justice was swift – perhaps too swift.

Belgian women who had collaborated with the Germans are shaved, tarred and feathered and forced to give a Nazi salute.

However, the Allies returned, and their German beaus left in a hurry, often not surviving the journey home and perhaps having left somebody behind there if they made it. Usually, the photos of collaborator girls are identified nowadays as “found on a dead German soldier.” Naturally, we almost certainly would not have many of these photos at all if the soldier had survived and put them in safe-keeping. There are likely countless others sitting long-forgotten in attics and basements across Europe.

A Nazi “collaborator” – a French woman having her head shaved following liberation, as punishment for an on-going sexual relationship with a Nazi soldier during the occupation of France. There appears to be another one waiting her turn. Even voluntary relationships were not always what they seemed. This woman, for instance was singled out for shameful retribution following the liberation of France. She is believed to have been a prostitute who serviced German occupiers. Even though that was her business, it did not lessen her punishment. She is having her head shaved by French civilians to publicly mark her. This picture was taken in Montelimar, France, August 29, 1944.

Even if neither situation applied, and the German soldier made it back to Germany alive, it is difficult to do much when you are sitting in a prison camp awaiting processing, or when you are jobless due to the post-war labor laws and destitute.

World War II. Collaboration. Shaving and tarring [pitch] of [‘Kraut whores’] after the liberation of Holland. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, May, 1945.

The bottom line is that the collaborator girls were left without any protectors, and all their friends noticed what they had been doing. Scenes of tarring and feathering and hair-cutting and all sorts of retribution went on all over Europe.

French Militiaman is Fastened to Stake Before his Execution, France, 1944 – HU031043 – Rights Managed – Stock Photo – Corbis. One of the six French militiamen found guilty of treason by collaborating with the Germans is fastened to a stake by a guard before his execution. September 13, 1944

It is easy to apply modern standards to this process and claim it is hateful to women and so forth and so on. The guys were usually just shot or knifed, or maybe beaten until they were bloody and mangled, all done out in the woods or in a back alley.

But, when done more formally, they were tried in an afternoon, then simply lined up without too much fuss and gunned down.

A sketch drawn for the US Army ‘Stars and Stripes’ newspaper shows French Partisans executing male French collaborators in 1944 in Grenoble, France. Would you rather be shot – or shamed and forced to leave town forever? Not always an easy answer.

Lest you think that the French were, oh, over-reacting or something about collaborators, well, they had some good teachers. The Germans ritualistically tied partisans to posts and shot them as spies without any fuss at all. They routinely hung female partisans, too.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion as to what is appropriate, here we just present what happened. If you look at the pictures, you will see that some of the people taking the greatest delight in this public shaming of women, laughing gleefully, and even performing some of the haircuts, also are women.

In the streets of Brignoles, angry French citizens publicly rebuke a woman who is suspected of having collaborated with the Germans.

Women really let their feelings show once the Nazis were gone. For instance, women were just as angered by male collaborators and German POWs as anyone else – and let them know it.

So, as a historical record, these photographs are important for any number of reasons: they show offenses, they show punishment, and they show universal condemnation. People are people, whether they be men or women, and when it came to collaboration, it made little difference what you were other than a foul traitor. Barbarity has no gender.

Members of the French resistance in Cherbourg shear the hair of women who collaborated with the Germans during the occupation.

To sum it up, when a woman who had engaged in collaboration horizontale — collaboration with, and by that we mean having sex with, occupying troops — her head was forcibly shaved. Tens of thousands of women, many of whom were merely accused of collaboration, suffered similar fates after liberation: some were killed a good number were beaten almost all were humiliated.

Female French Collaborator Having Her Head Shaved During Liberation of Marseilles

One further aspect of this should be noted: there was an awful lot of collaboration in France. That’s just a fact, it extended throughout the government and extensively among ordinary people. Many partisans themselves had, shall we say, less-than-impeccable bona fides and perhaps even a bit of guilt about things that nobody else knew about. The partisans did not really become very populous until liberation was assured – but then, everyone who could ( i.e. , was not a known collaborator) jumped on the bandwagon. There is an awful lot of posturing in the photos by partisans crowded around shamed collaborators, perhaps just a tad too much here and there everyone was anxious to prove that they were on the right ( i.e., the winning) side.

Women who consorted with the Germans during the occupation are driven through the streets of Cherbourg by members of the French resistance. Their head were shaved in order to humiliate them. The perks of sleeping with SS men were extra rations or quality food, access to forbidden luxury goods and freedom from certain restrictions. The downside was complicity in – or, at the very least, likely knowledge of – the hell and slaughter of the concentration camps.

Posing in a picture with a shorn or shot collaborator while holding a gun on them was a pretty definitive way of establishing where you stood once and for all – at least at that precise moment. This has remained a murky subject in France ever since, and from time to time the “secret files” of who really collaborated and how are threatened to be released. Everyone knows there are some “partisans” who are glad their secrets remain unknown.

Let’s also go in a different direction with this as well. Some French women befriended (and more) the Nazis because they were coerced or forced. This angered their neighbors, who were not about to draw any fine lines or distinctions. That’s what courts are for – and the partisans were not waiting for any lengthy judicial proceedings to take place. If a prostitute happened to entertain Germans who had all the money in order to survive, well, that wasn’t about to be a point in their favor with angered partisans.

Women accused of having collaborated with Nazi personnel are humiliated in public. This may seem like a bit much to today’s audience, but during a time when people were overjoyed at seeing the Nazis leave, this image would have evoked feelings of victory. Some probably wanted them shot out of hand.
Accused collaborators photographed after being punished by the French resistance. Funnily enough, the resistance punished collaborators in the same manner that only years early the Nazi party had used on perpetrators who had been perpetrators of “race crimes” ( i.e. , having sex with the wrong people) in Germany and Austria.
Members of the French resistance lead two women accused of being German sympathizers to the local prison, where their heads will be shaved as punishment for collaboration. Notice how they are touching their soon-to-be-shorn locks. August 29, 1944. National Archives via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A French woman collaborator and her baby, whose father is German, returns to her home followed by a throng of taunting townspeople after having her head shaven following the capture of Chartres by the Allies, August 1944. It appears that she is passing some women who suffered a similar fate. Photo by Robert Capa.
In the Normandy village of Liesville, angry French patriots take hold of Juliette Audieve, thought to have been a collaborator with the Germans. It appears the two ladies standing casually by are also partisans.

French women who befriended the Nazis, through coerced, forced, or voluntary relationships, were singled out for shameful retribution following the liberation of France. The woman here, believed to have been a prostitute who serviced German occupiers, is having her head shaved by French civilians to publicly mark her. This picture was taken in Montelimar, France, August 29, 1944.

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