Just about all historians severely underestimate the importance of the Kommissarbefehl and its impact on the course of the Second Great War (and thus on the fate of the Third Reich, the Nazi Party and of Adolf Hitler personally).
The key reason for this underestimation is the death toll generated by this very much criminal order (which was minuscule compared to other mass murders committed by the Nazis – with the exception of the Night of the Long Knives, of course).
If we take the reports of Army Group North at face value and assume that two other Army Groups – Center and South – murdered about the same number of Soviet political officers (IMHO, a realistic assumption), we will arrive at the total death toll of under 1,000. Even the Nazi human experimentations (that I will cover in one of the subsequent sections) killed far more human beings.
However, the influence of the Kommissarbefehl on the German blitzkrieg and thus on the whole course of war on the Eastern front and in general went far, far beyond these relatively infinitesimal numbers.
I would even argue that this immensely idiotic, moronic and genuinely insane order did far more damage than any other Hitler’s blunders (and possibly even delivered a fatal blow) to the blitzkrieg – and thus the whole Nazi war effort.
The reason for this bold (even brazen) statement is, actually, quite simple. In June of 1941, the Red Army had an immense numerical superiority to Wehrmacht (which included Waffen SS). 3:1 in troops, 4:1 in aircraft; 5:1 in artillery pieces, 6:1 in tanks (if you use dynamic, not static calculations).
There was only one way for the Wehrmacht to defeat that monster – make it lose the will to fight. In other word, completely destroy the morale of the opponent which would make the monster collapse even if it had superior organization, command skills, communications, etc. (the Red Army did not).
On the other hand, if the enemy has the will to fight (let alone fight to the death), “all of the above” does not matter (which have been proven beyond the reasonable doubt countless times in the history of warfare).
Destruction of enemy morale was one of the key tools in the “blitzkrieg toolbox”. The tool that had been use very successfully many times – most notably during the French campaign.
Enormous, miraculous successes of the Wehrmacht during first months of Operation Barbarossa (initially the most wildly successful campaign in the history of wars) were caused by many factors but the chief of the latter was the collapse of Soviet morale and all but complete loss of any will to fight.
Which explains astonishingly high – and totally unexpected – number of Soviet troops that surrendered to the victorious Wehrmacht and (to a far lesser extent). Waffen SS.
Soviet political officers were not immune to this collapse of morale and loss of the will to fight – so in reality they made no impact on the fighting capabilities of Soviet troops (contrary to what Nazis believed).
But that was before the Soviet military propaganda got hold of the Kommissarbefehl (the Soviet military intelligence was actually one of the best in the world at that time). And used it will all its enormous power (which put Dr. Goebbels and his Ministry to shame) – and with devastating results. Devastating for their adversary that is.
Now all Soviet “commissars” had no other choice but to use all their resources and all their power (and they, indeed, had some) to convince, inspire and motivate their troops tom fight to the death.
Kommissarbefehl did exactly what Wehrmacht generals feared the most – by creating sufficient incentive for political officers to become genuine leaders, it gradually (over several months) transformed a rudderless and leaderless mass of Soviet soldiers and officers into a swarm of fierce fighters.
Swarm that held long enough for the Soviet High Command to transform the chaotic, depressed and devastated “armed crowd” into a formidable fighting force. The force that in December of 1941 not only stopped the Wehrmacht cold, but delivered the first military defeat to previously always victorious German Armed Forces.
And ultimately won the war, destroyed the Third Reich (and most of German infrastructure), killed millions of Germans and forced Hitler himself (and many of his associates) to commit suicide.
Consequently, there is no doubt whatsoever that no German general had any desire to issue this order – or follow it. Only one man in German chain of military command had this desire (i.e. motive).
As well as the power to get the Kommissarbefehl written, issued and distributed (following the order and enforcing it were different matters entirely).