How the Nazis captured Mariupol and how the Russians did it

  • Oleg Chernysh
  • BBC News Ukraine


Photo by Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

The Nazis entered Mariupol on October 8, 1941. They did not meet significant resistance from Soviet troops

“Worse than the Nazis.” This description of the aggressive actions of Russian troops was publicly given by the mayor of Mariupol Vadym Boychenko. But what is the difference between the occupation of Mariupol in 1941 and in 2022?

A couple of decades before the Second World War, the Soviet government began to develop Mariupol as an industrial center of the Azov region. Large metallurgical plants were built here, and the port was used to export Donbass coal.

Until the 1770s there was a Cossack fortress Kalmius, which later became the city of Pavlovsk. However, under this name it lasted less than two years. After moving to the local Greek diaspora from the Crimea in 1779, the town was renamed Mariupol (“City of Mary”). Under Soviet rule, it was named Zhdanov (from 1948 to 1989) in honor of a local native and one of the party leaders of the USSR.

As a powerful center of heavy industry, Mariupol began to develop in the late 19th century, after the construction of the first metallurgical plants. In the 1930s, the largest plants in Europe were launched here – Azovstal and the Ilyich plant.

Not surprisingly, such a powerful industrial center and at the same time a developed seaport has become one of the most desirable targets in all the wars that took place in modern Ukraine.

How the Germans captured the city

As you know, the period of World War II, which in Soviet historiography is called the Great Patriotic War, began on June 22, 1941. Then Hitler’s Germany attacked the western borders of the USSR and, in particular, began bombing Kiev.

In three months, in September 1941, German troops managed to reach the Ukrainian capital and capture it.

A couple of weeks later, Mariupol fell. However, the Soviet authorities managed to dismantle and evacuate the main capacities of local factories all the way to the Urals.

In early October 1941, German troops rapidly advanced from the Zaporozhye region to Mariupol. They managed to surround and defeat the main forces of the Red Army a few kilometers from the city near Berdyansk and Chernihiv in Zaporozhye.

Already on October 8, the Nazis entered Mariupol. This is stated in the operational report of the headquarters of the Southern Front of the Red Army.

“The opponent of Kleist’s armored group (General Ewald von Kleist commanded the German tank troops, was convicted in the USSR after the war and died in prison – Ed.) Continues the offensive in the southeast, captured Mariupol at the end of the day 8.10,” it said. Instead, the Soviet command ordered the troops to restrain the further advance of the enemy and, most importantly, to block the road from the south to Donetsk (then Stalin).

The loss of the Azov city was publicly acknowledged by the Soviet authorities only on October 17, when a small article about the events appeared in the main Soviet newspaper, Pravda.

Caption to the photo,

The newspaper “Pravda” in the issue of October 17, 1941 reports on the capture of Mariupol by the Nazis

A military correspondent describes that the Nazis concentrated “very significant forces”, including Romanian and Italian divisions, to break through the front and surround Donbas. It was possible to do this in the south near the Sea of Azov, but, as the Soviet journalist points out, only at the expense of “numerical advantage and at the cost of huge losses.”

A German tank column and motorized infantry broke into Mariupol and captured it after a short battle. According to Pravda, the Soviet navy in Azov only managed to remove factory equipment and significant oil reserves from the city to a safe place.

In a propagandistic spirit, the Soviet newspaper notes the “stubbornness and courage” of factory workers who opposed the enemy. They allegedly remained in production until the last minute, and with the arrival of the Nazis, they “got stuck”, ie cooled blast furnaces and blew up power substations. They left a message in chalk on the wall to the Nazis: “We will be back soon. Hitler will not escape popular revenge!”.

Life under occupation

The occupation of Mariupol lasted for almost two years. During this time, the city was personally visited by Adolf Hitler. In December 1941, just two months after the capture of Mariupol, he arrived at the headquarters of the southern Nazi group.

During the German rule in the city there were several underground groups. In addition to the Soviet partisans, the Mariupol branch of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) also fought against the Nazis.

The liberation of the city was announced on September 10, 1943 by the Soviet Information Bureau. On that day, Red Army troops “broke the fierce resistance of the Germans” and after “fierce fighting” entered the city. The Azov flotilla helped in this ship.

Photo by Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

Mariupol was under Nazi occupation for almost 2 years. For a long time there was the headquarters of the southern group of troops

Information from the Soviet archives, however, refutes propaganda claims of “brutal fighting” for the city. For example, the Smersh counterintelligence report states that the Nazis themselves left Mariupol in advance, leaving only part of their agents here to gather information about Soviet troops.

During the years of occupation, a branch of German naval intelligence was located in the city of Azov. This structure trained spies from among Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war, whom it later threw into the rear of Soviet troops.

How did the invaders act in Mariupol? The public letter “Act on atrocities in Mariupol”, drawn up on behalf of “representatives of public organizations and military units”, published on September 15, 1943, can give some insight into the years of Nazi occupation.

Caption to the photo,

Evidence of Nazi crimes during the occupation of Mariupol

“During the two years of fascist occupation, the Nazis turned a large center of the metallurgical industry of the south – the city and port of Mariupol – into ruins,” the letter begins.

It goes on to say that the Nazis in every way degraded the dignity of the locals, in particular, the names of the streets were replaced by German ones, and in the cinemas Soviet citizens were allowed only for daytime screenings. But even here they had to give way to the Germans. On many benches in the city garden were inscriptions: “Only for Germans.”

Although the Germans put into operation the partially destroyed Azovstal and Ilyich plants, they set up their leadership there and beat workers who did not understand German. At Azovstal, the Germans allegedly set up a prison in one of the open-hearth furnaces. Workers who were late for work were thrown there. Employees of the factories were given 300 grams of bread a day, other Mariupol residents were deprived of this as well.

During the occupation, about 60,000 young Mariupol residents were forcibly deported to Germany for forced labor. To avoid deportation, young people mutilated themselves in various ways, such as pouring acid on themselves and cutting off their fingers.

The goods, cattle and food looted by the occupiers in Mariupol were loaded into German echelons and written on the carriages: “A gift from the Ukrainian people to the German people.” Leaving the city, the Nazis blew up metallurgical plants and part of residential buildings.

Another letter from a Mariupol resident about the “atrocities” of the Nazis was published in January 1942 by the aforementioned Pravda newspaper.

Caption to the photo,

Letter from a resident of Mariupol to the newspaper “Pravda”. He talks about the crimes of the Nazis.

In it, a correspondent named Litvinov tells how the Germans robbed locals and mocked Jews. According to him, many of them were shot.

“The Gestapo went to apartments, beat children, elderly people, women, and shot many people,” the Mariupol resident wrote.

During the occupation, German invaders killed about 10,000 civilians in Mariupol.

How Russia captures Mariupol

“In two months, the Russian army killed twice as many people as the Nazis in the two years of occupation of Mariupol during World War II,” said Mayor Vadym Boychenko.

According to Ukrainian authorities, about 20-22 thousand Mariupol residents have died since the beginning of the large-scale Russian invasion. The Azov National Guard Regiment, which is defending the city, says an even higher death toll is about 25,000.

The representative of the occupying power Konstantin Ivashchenko, who was appointed “head of the city administration” by the DNR, believes that about 5,000 citizens died.

Photo by SOPA Images

Caption to the photo,

Russian troops surrounded Mariupol on 4 sides

It is currently impossible to estimate the actual number of dead. The only fact that remains is that many new mass graves have appeared around Mariupol. These burials are so large that they can be seen in satellite images.

The high number of dead may be due to tactics used by Russian troops in capturing the city.

If in October 1941 the Nazis attacked only from the west, which gave the Soviet government time to evacuate factories and civilians to the east, in February 2022 the Russians launched an offensive from all sides.

Already in the morning of February 24, they began firing missiles at the outskirts of Mariupol. A few days later, capturing Berdyansk, Russian troops moved to the city from the west, at this time from the east came the forces of the so-called “DNR”. The Sea of Azov, meanwhile, was blocked by Russian warships.

After two weeks of war, the Russians were able to capture Volnovakha, 40 km north of Mariupol. The port city was completely surrounded.

The Ukrainian military garrison, in particular, soldiers of the Azov Regiment, a Marine brigade, border guards and police did not leave the city, but began fighting the invader inside the village.


Caption to the photo,

Mariupol is almost 90% destroyed. In the background, the smoke from the bombing of the Azovstal plant

Russia has decided to establish control over the city dramatically. Air, tank, artillery and missile strikes on residential areas, maternity hospitals and hospitals have resulted in numerous civilian casualties. According to Ukrainian authorities, almost 90% of Mariupol’s infrastructure has been destroyed.

On April 21, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin on the “liberation” of Mariupol. This is not entirely true, as the Ukrainian military is still on the territory of the Azovstal plant, which covers almost 10 percent of the city. Kyiv is currently negotiating the application of the “extraction” procedure to these fighters, ie their removal from the blocked plant to a third country.

Filtration camps

Surrounding the city of half a million on all sides, Russia has established strict filtering procedures for citizens who want to leave it. And it turned out to be quite a lot, because in addition to daily shelling, Mariupol residents are forced to exist in the absence of gas and water supply, electricity, as well as with minimal food supplies.

Ukrainian authorities say more than half of the city’s residents have left. Now there are 150-170 thousand. Most of them are retired.

Photo by Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

Mariupol survives in difficult conditions in the ruined city

Mariupol Mayor Boychenko is confident that by the end of the year at least 10,000 of them will die from unsanitary conditions and diseases.

“The occupiers have turned Mariupol into a medieval ghetto. So the death rate will be appropriate. Without medicine and medical care, restoration of water supply and proper sewerage in the city, epidemics will break out,” he said, calling for a complete evacuation of the Azov city.

The departure of Mariupol residents is currently possible only after meticulous checks at checkpoints by the Russians. Ukrainians are being interrogated, fingerprinted, phones checked, undressed and shown tattoos.

Those who did not pass such “filtration” are sent to special camps in the occupied territory of Donetsk region. Usually there are young men whom the Russians suspected of belonging to the Ukrainian security forces.

Photo by Reuters

Caption to the photo,

Filtration camp for residents of Mariupol. It is guarded by Russian soldiers

But there are exceptions. For example, on May 8, Russians took the mother of 4-year-old Alice, who had been evacuated from the Azovstal bomb shelter, during filtering operations. The reason for the detention could be that the girl’s mother is a military doctor.

Many Mariupol residents are forcibly deported to Russia. Ukrainian ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova says it is almost half of the city.

“More than 200,000 Mariupol residents have been forcibly deported from Ukraine to Russia. Before that, they are undergoing filtration camps. The fate of people who did not pass these camps is unknown,” she told the Polish newspaper Onet.

Ukrainian authorities point out that Russia is depriving deported citizens of their passports, making it difficult for them to return home.

President Vladimir Zelensky believes that Russia is deliberately mocking Mariupol. In his opinion, this is a deliberate step, a manifestation of “hatred and terrorism.”

Russia denies all allegations of war crimes in Mariupol, and calls the deportation of citizens to Russian regions voluntary. On May 4, Defense Minister Serhiy Shoigu said that “peaceful life is being established” in the city.

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