Myth of the clean Wehrmacht
The myth of the clean Wehrmacht is the myth that the German military or Wehrmacht was not involved in The Holocaust or other war crimes during World War II. The myth denies the culpability of the German military command in the planning and preparation of war crimes and, even where the perpetration of war crimes and the waging of a war of extermination, particularly in the Soviet Union–where the Nazis viewed the population as "subhumans" ruled by "Jewish Bolshevik" conspirators–are acknowledged, they are ascribed to the "Party soldiers", the SS, and not the regular German military.
The myth began its formation at the International Military Tribunal held between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946 in Nuremberg. Franz Halder and other Wehrmacht leaders signed the "Generals' memorandum", entitled "The German Army from 1920 to 1945", which laid out its key elements. The memorandum was an attempt to exculpate the Wehrmacht from war crimes. The Western powers were becoming increasingly concerned with the growing Cold War and wanted West Germany to begin rearming to counter the Soviet threat. In 1950, West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer met with former officers to discuss West Germany's rearmament and the Himmerod memorandum was agreed. This memorandum laid out the conditions under which West Germany would rearm; their war criminals must be released; the defamation of the German soldier must cease; and foreign public opinion of the Wehrmacht must be transformed. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had previously described the Wehrmacht as Nazis, changed his mind to facilitate rearmament. The British became reluctant to pursue further trials and released already convicted criminals early.
Adenauer courted the votes of veterans and enacted amnesty laws because there was a great deal of German sympathy for their war criminals. The British High Commissioner felt compelled to remind the West German public that the criminals involved had been found guilty of participating in the murder of Allied citizens. Halder began working for the US Army Historical Division. His role was to assemble and supervise former Wehrmacht officers to write a multi-volume history of the Eastern Front. He oversaw the writings of 700 former German officers and disseminated the myth though his network. Wehrmacht officers and generals produced memoirs that followed the myth, and which proved enormously popular. Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein produced best selling memoirs. The trial of Manstein contributed to the myth, his defence attorney defended the shooting of civilians and other war crimes. After Manstein was convicted his attorney enlisted celebrities to secure his release on the basis that the needs of the Cold War should predominate.
The year 1995 proved to be a turning point in German public consciousness. The Hamburg Institute for Social Research initiated a touring exhibition called Wehrmachtsausstellung that exposed the war crimes of the Wehrmacht to a wider audience and created a long-running debate and reappraisal of the myth. The exhibition showed 1,380 graphic pictures of "ordinary" Wehrmacht troops complicit in war crimes. Hannes Heer wrote that the war crimes had been covered up by scholars and former soldiers. An outcry ensued with the breaking of an age-old taboo. The German military historian Wolfram Wette called the clean Wehrmacht thesis a "collective perjury". The wartime generation maintained the myth with vigour and determination. They suppressed information and manipulated government policy, with their passing there was insufficient pressure to maintain the deceit. The Wehrmacht was a full partner in the regimes industrialised mass murder, many of the War crimes of the Wehrmacht are documented.
- 1 Outline of the myth
- 2 Background
- 3 Start of the myth
- 4 Growth of the myth
- 5 End of the myth
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
- 9 Further reading
Outline of the myth
During World War II, the German military helped fulfill Nazism's racial, political, and territorial ambitions. Long after the war, a myth persisted claiming the German military (or Wehrmacht) was not involved in the Holocaust and other crimes associated with Nazi genocidal policy. This belief is untrue. The German military participated in many aspects of the Holocaust: in supporting Hitler, in the use of forced labor, and in the mass murder of Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis. The military’s complicity extended not only to the generals and upper leadership but also to the rank and file. In addition, the war and genocidal policy were inextricably linked. The German army (or Heer) was the most complicit as a result of being on the ground in Germany’s eastern campaigns, but all branches participated.
The term "clean Wehrmacht" means German soldiers, sailors and airmen had "clean hands" and did not have blood on their hands from murdered prisoners of war, Jews or civilians. The Wehrmacht was the combined armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It consisted of the Heer, Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe. It was created on March 16, 1935 with the passing of Adolf Hitler's Defense Law that introduced conscription into the armed forces. The Wehrmacht was made up of volunteers and conscripts; in total about 18 million men, approximately half of all German male citizens, performed military service. The myth asserts that Hitler and the Nazi Party alone designed the war of annihilation and that war crimes were only committed by the SS. In actuality the leaders of the Wehrmacht and the Nazi Party jointly determined the war of annihilation. The Wehrmacht was complicit in numerous war crimes on its own and routinely assisted the SS. In the aftermath of the war the West German government began a large-scale policy of cover-ups and denials in order to absolve former war criminals from responsibility. This allowed those individuals a greater role in German society.
War of extermination
During World War II the government of Nazi Germany, the Armed Forces High Command (OKW) and the Army High Command (OKH) jointly laid the foundations for genocide in the Soviet Union. From the outset, the war against the Soviet Union was designed as a war of annihilation. The racial policy of Nazi Germany viewed the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as populated by non-Aryan "sub-humans", ruled by "Jewish Bolshevik" conspirators. It was stated Nazi policy to murder, deport, or enslave the majority of Russian and other Slavic populations according to the General Plan for the East.
Before and during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, German troops were indoctrinated with anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic propaganda. Following the invasion, Wehrmacht officers told their soldiers to target people who were described as "Jewish Bolshevik subhumans", the "Mongol hordes", the "Asiatic flood" and the "Red beast". Many German troops viewed the war in Nazi racialist terms and regarded their Soviet enemies as sub-human. In a speech to 4th Panzer Group, General Erich Hoepner echoed the Nazi racial plans by claiming that the war against the Soviet Union was "an essential part of the German people's struggle for existence", and that, "the struggle must aim at the annihilation of today's Russia and must therefore be waged with unparalleled harshness."
The murder of Jews was common knowledge in the Wehrmacht. During the retreat from the Soviet Union, German officers destroyed incriminating documents. Wehrmacht soldiers actively worked together with the Einsatzgruppen, and participated in the mass killings with them such as at Babi Yar. Wehrmacht officers considered the relationship with the Einsatzgruppen to be very close and almost cordial.
Crimes in Poland, Serbia, Greece and the Soviet Union
The Wehrmacht carried out war crimes across the continent such as in Poland, Greece, Serbia and the Soviet Union. The first significant combat for the Wehrmacht was the Invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. In April 1939 Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Final Solution, had already arranged co-operation between the intelligence sections of the Wehrmacht and the paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany, the Einsatzgruppen. The army's behaviour in Poland was a prelude to the war of annihilation, the Wehrmacht had begun participation in the large scale killings of civilians and partisans.
Soviet Belarus has been described as "the deadliest place on earth between 1941 and 1944." One in three Belorussians died during World War II. The Holocaust was carried out near the towns in which the population lived. Very few of the victims died in extermination centres like Auschwitz. Most Soviet Jews lived in an area of Western Russia that was previously known as the Pale of Settlement. The Wehrmacht was initially tasked with assisting the Einsatzgruppen. In the case of the massacre at Krupki this involved the army marching the whole Jewish population, of approximately 1,000 people, one and half miles to meet their SS executioners. The frail and sick were taken in a truck and those that strayed were shot and killed. The German troops guarded the site and shot the Jews into a pit alongside the SS. Krupki was one of many atrocities of this kind, the Wehrmacht was a full partner in industrialised mass murder.
German military brothels were set up throughout much of occupied Europe. In many cases in Eastern Europe, women and teenage girls were kidnapped on the streets during German military and police round ups and used as sex slaves. The women were raped by up to 32 men per day at a nominal cost of 3 Reichsmarks. The Swiss Red Cross mission driver Franz Mawick wrote about what he saw in 1942: "Uniformed Germans...gaze fixedly at women and girls between the ages of 15 and 25. One of the soldiers pulls out a pocket flashlight and shines it on one of the women, straight into her eyes. The two women turn their pale faces to us, expressing weariness and resignation. The first one is about 30 years old. 'What is this old whore looking for around here?' – one of the three soldiers laughs. 'Bread, sir' – asks the woman...'A kick in the ass you get, not bread' – answers the soldier. The owner of the flashlight directs the light again on the faces and bodies of girls...The youngest is maybe 15 years old...They open her coat and start groping her. 'This one is ideal for bed' – he says.
Author Ursula Schele estimated that up to ten million women in the Soviet Union could have been raped by the Wehrmacht, and one in ten of those could have become pregnant from the mass rape.
Yugoslavia and Greece were jointly occupied by the Italians and the Germans. The Germans immediately began persecuting the Jews but the Italians refused to co-operate. Wehrmacht officers tried to exert pressure on their Italian counterparts to stop the exodus of Jews from German occupied areas, however, the Italians turned them down. General Alexander Löhr reacted with disgust describing the Italians as weak. Löhr wrote an angry communique to Hitler and said "implementation of the Croatian government’s laws concerning Jews is being so undermined by Italian officials that in the coastal zone—particularly in Mostar, Dubrovnik, and Crikvenika—numerous Jews are protected by the Italian military, and other Jews have been escorted across the border to Italian Dalmatia and Italy itself". The Wehrmacht murdered the Jews of Serbia from mid 1941, this extermination was begun independently, without the involvement of the SS.
Start of the myth
The Generals' memorandum
General Franz Halder, OKH chief of staff between 1938 and 1942, played a key role in creating the myth of the clean Wehrmacht. The genesis for the myth was the "Generals' Memorandum" created in November 1945 and submitted to the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. The memorandum was titled "The German Army from 1920 to 1945" and was co-authored by Halder and former field marshals Walter von Brauchitsch and Erich von Manstein, along with other senior military figures. It aimed to portray the German armed forces as apolitical and largely innocent of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. The strategy outlined in the memorandum was later adopted by Hans Laternser, the lead counsel for the defense at the High Command Trial of senior Wehrmacht commanders. The document was written at the suggestion of the American general William J. Donovan, who later founded the CIA, and viewed the Soviet Union as a global threat to world peace. Donovan served as a deputy prosecutor at the International Military Tribunal; he and some other US representatives did not believe that the trials should proceed. He believed America should do everything it could to secure Germany as a military ally against the Soviet Union in the growing Cold War.
The Western powers were now concerned with the possibility of war against the Soviet Union and the fight against communism. In 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, it became clear to the Americans that a German army would have to be revived against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Both American and West German politicians were faced with the prospect of rebuilding the armed forces of West Germany. The British were concerned with the growing Cold War and wanted to encourage the West German government to join the European Defence Community and NATO.
Konrad Adenauer, the West German chancellor, arranged secret meetings between his officials and former Wehrmacht officers to discuss the rearmament of West Germany. The meetings took place at Himmerod Abbey between 5 October 1950 and 9 October 1950 and included Hermann Foertsch, Adolf Heusinger and Hans Speidel. During the war, Foertsch had worked under Walter von Reichenau, an ardent Nazi that issued the Severity Order. Foertsch became one of Adenauer's defence advisors.
The Wehrmacht officers made a number of demands for West German rearmament to begin. The demands were laid out in the Himmerod memorandum and included;
- All German soldiers convicted as war criminals would be released;
- The "defamation" of the German soldier, including those of the Waffen-SS, would have to cease;
- That "measures to transform both domestic and foreign public opinion" of the German military would need to be taken.
The chairman of the meetings summarised the foreign policy changes demanded in the memorandum as follows; "Western nations must take public measures against the 'prejudicial characterization' of the former German soldiers and must distance the former regular armed forces from the 'war crimes issue.'" Adenauer accepted the memorandum and began a series of negotiations with the three Western powers to satisfy the demands.
To facilitate West German rearmament and respond to the memorandum, US general Dwight D. Eisenhower, soon to be appointed as Supreme Allied Commander Europe and future President of the United States, changed his public opinion on the Wehrmacht. He had previously described the Wehrmacht in very negative terms as Nazis, but in January 1951, he wrote that there was "a real difference between the German soldier and Hitler and his criminal group". Chancellor Adenauer made a similar statement in a Bundestag debate on the Article 131 of the Grundgesetz, West Germany's provisional constitution. He stated that the German soldier fought honorably, as long as he "had not been guilty of any offense". The declarations by Eisenhower and Adenauer reshaped the West's perception of the German war effort and laid the foundation for the myth of the clean Wehrmacht.
West German public opinion
In the immediate aftermath of World War II there was a great deal of German sympathy for their war criminals. The British High Commissioner in occupied Germany felt compelled to remind the German public that the criminals involved had been found guilty of participating in the murder or torture of Allied citizens. In the late 1940s and 1950s there was a flood of polemical books and essays demanding freedom for the "so-called 'war criminals'". The phrasing of which implied that those convicted of war crimes were in fact innocent. The German historian Norbert Frei wrote that the widespread demand for freedom for the war criminals was an indirect admission of the entire society's enmeshment in National Socialism. He added the war crimes trials were a painful reminder of the nature of the regime that many ordinary people had identified with. In this context, there was an overwhelming demand for the rehabilitation of the Wehrmacht. There were so many Germans who had served in the Wehrmacht, or who had family members who did so, that there was a widespread demand to have a version of the past that allowed them to honor the memory of their fallen comrades and to find meaning in the hardships and personal sacrifice of their own military service. Wette writes that the founding years of West Germany saw the wartime generation cement over its past and made outraged claims of innocence the norm.
Growth of the myth
The political parties in West Germany took up the cause of the war criminals in the early 1950s and entered a virtual competition for the votes of war time veterans. A wide political consensus existed which represented the view that it was "time to close the chapter". The West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, initiated policies that included an amnesty, the end to de-Nazification programs and an exemption from punishment law. Adenauer courted the votes of veterans by making a highly public visit to the jail of the remaining war criminals. This gesture helped him win the federal elections of 1953 with a two thirds majority. Adenauer successfully limited the responsibility for war crimes to Hitler and a small number of "major war criminals". In the 1950s criminal investigations into the Wehrmacht were halted and there were no convictions. The German ministers of justice had enacted a war crimes law which in practice was awkwardly defined. Adalbert Rückerl, the investigative chief, interpreted the law as meaning only the SS, the security police, concentration camp guards, ghettos and forced labour criminals could be investigated. The myth was firmly established in the public mind and German prosecutors were unwilling to challenge the prevailing mood and investigate suspected war criminals in the Wehrmacht. The new German army, the Bundeswehr, was established in 1955 with prominent members of the Wehrmacht in positions of authority. If large numbers of former Wehrmacht officers were indicted on war crimes the Bundeswehr would have been damaged and discredited both in Germany and abroad.
Following the return of the last war prisoners from Soviet captivity, on 7 October 1955, 600 former members of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS swore a public oath in the Friedland Barracks that received a strong media reaction. The oath said "we swear that we have neither committed murder, nor defiled, nor plundered. If we have brought suffering and misery on other people, it was done according to the Laws of War".
Memoirs and historical studies
Former German officers published memoirs and historical studies that contributed to the myth. The chief architect of this body of work was Franz Halder. He worked for the Operational History (German) Section of the U.S. Army Historical Division and had exclusive access to the captured German war archives stored in the United States. He supervised the work of other former German officers and wielded a great deal influence. Formally Halder's role was to assemble and supervise Wehrmacht officers to write a multi-volume history of the Eastern Front so that U.S. Army officers could obtain military intelligence about the Soviet Union. However he also formulated and disseminated the myth of the clean Wehrmacht. The German historian Wolfram Wette wrote that most Anglo-American military historians had a strong admiration for the "professionalism" of the Wehrmacht. This admiration did not extend to Nazi Germany itself, but the Anglo-Americans were prepared to largely accept the version of history set out in the writings of former Wehrmacht leaders. Wette described Halder as having a "decisive influence in West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s on the way the history of the Second World War was written".
After the war Wehrmacht officers and generals produced a slew of memoirs that followed the myth of the clean Wehrmacht. Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian produced best-selling memoirs. Guderian's memoirs contained numerous exaggerations, untruths and omissions. He wrote that Russian people greeted German soldiers as liberators and boasted about the personal care he'd taken to protect Russian culture and religion. Guderian endeavoured to get German officers released in return for German military support in the defence of Europe. He fought particularly hard for the release of Jochen Peiper, the Waffen SS commander found guilty of murdering US prisoners of war at the Malmedy massacre. Guderian said that General Heidelberg wanted to hang Peiper and that he would "cable President Truman and ask him if he is familiar with this idiocy".
Erwin Rommel and his memory were used to shape perceptions of the Wehrmacht. However, for most of his career Rommel was close to the Nazi regime and Hitler, giving rise to the Rommel myth. Friedrich von Mellenthin's memoirs, Panzer Battles, went through six printings between 1956 and 1976. Mellenthin's memoirs use racist language such as characterizing the Russian soldier as an "Asiatic dragged from the deepest recess of the Soviet Union"; a "primitive"; and "he lacks any true religious or moral balance, his moods alter between bestial cruelty and genuine kindness". Hans Ulrich Rudel's memoirs, Stuka Pilot, saw over a million copies sold. Unusually, he made no secret of his admiration for Hitler. Rudel's memoirs describe dashing adventures, heroic exploits, sentimental comradeship and narrow escapes. One American interrogator described him as a typical Nazi officer. After the war he went to Argentina and activated a rescue agency for Nazis called "Eichmann-Runde", that helped Josef Mengele among others.
Historians outside of Germany did not study the Holocaust in the 1960s and there were almost no studies of the Wehrmacht's involvement in the Final Solution. The Austrian-born American historian Raul Hilberg found that in the 1950s successive publishers rejected his later critically acclaimed book The Destruction of the European Jews. He was told that nobody in America was interested in the topic. Until the 1990s military historians writing the history of World War II focused on the campaigns and battles of the Wehrmacht and treated the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime in passing. Historians of the Holocaust and of the occupation policies of Nazi Germany often did not write about the Wehrmacht at all.
As the Cold war progressed, the military intelligence provided by the German section of US Army Historical Division became increasingly important to the Americans. Halder oversaw the German section of the research programme which became known as the "Halder Group". His group produced over 2,500 major historical manuscripts from over 700 distinct German authors detailing World War II. Halder used the group to reinvent war-time history using truth, half-truth, distortion and lies. He set up a "Control group" of trusted former Nazi officers who vetted all of the manuscripts and required the authors to change the content. Halder's deputy in the group was Adolf Heusinger who was also working for the Gehlen Organization, the United States military intelligence organisation in Germany. Halder expected to be called "General" by the writing teams and behaved as their commanding officer while dealing with their manuscripts. His aim was to exonerate German army personnel from the atrocities they had committed.
Halder laid down a version of history that all of the writers had to abide by. This version stated that the army was the victim of Hitler and they had opposed him at every opportunity. The writers had to emphasise the "decent" form of war conducted by the army and blame the SS for the criminal operations. Halder enjoyed a privileged position, as the few historians working on World War II history in the 1950s had to obtain historical information from him and his group. His influence extended to newspaper editors and authors. Halder's instructions were sent down the chain of command and were recorded by former Field Marshal Georg von Küchler. They said "It is German deeds, seen from the German standpoint, that are to be recorded; this will constitute a memorial to our troops", "no criticism of measures ordered by the leadership" is allowed and no one is to be "incriminated in any way," instead the achievements of the Wehrmacht were to be emphasised. The military historian Bernd Wegner, examining Halder's work, wrote: "The writing of German history on the Second World War, and in particular on the Russian front, was for over two decades, and in part up to the present day–and to a far greater extent than most people realize–the work of the defeated." Wolfram Wette wrote "In the work of the Historical Division the traces of the war of annihilation for which the Wehrmacht leadership was responsible were covered up".
In 1949 Halder wrote Hitler als Feldherr which was translated into English as Hitler as Commander and published in 1950. The work contained the central ideas behind the myth of the clean Wehrmacht that were subsequently reproduced in countless histories and memoirs. The book describes an idealised commander who is then compared to Hitler. The commander is noble, wise, against the war in the East and free of any guilt. Hitler alone is responsible for the evil committed; his complete immorality is contrasted with the moral behaviour of the commander who has done no wrong.
The Americans were aware that the manuscripts contained numerous apologia. However they also contained intelligence that the Americans viewed as important in the event of a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Halder had coached former Nazi officers on how to make incriminating evidence disappear. Many of the officers he coached such as Heinz Guderian went on to write best-selling biographies that broadened the appeal of the apologia. Halder succeeded in his aim of rehabilitating the German officer corps, first with the U.S. military, then widening circles of politics and finally millions of Americans. Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies writing in The Myth of the Eastern Front said "Franz Halder embodies better than any other high German officer the dramatic difference between myth and reality as it emerged after World War II".
Erich von Manstein
Erich von Manstein was a key figure in the creation of the Myth of the clean Wehrmacht. His influence was second only to that of Halder. After the war his declared lifetime task was burnishing the memory of the Wehrmacht and 'cleaning' it of war crimes. His military reputation as a capable army leader meant his memoirs were widely read, however, they followed the myth of the clean Wehrmacht faithfully. His memoirs do not discuss politics or offer a condemnation of Nazism. Manstein was involved in The Holocaust and he held the same antisemitic and racist views as Hitler. In his memoirs Manstein emphasised the supposedly good relations the German army had with Russian civilians. He wrote "Naturally, there was no question of our pillaging the area. That was something the German army did not tolerate". From the outset the German army had treated the populace with savagery. Manstein became overall commander of the Crimea while he was in control of the 11th Army. During this time his troops co-operated with the Einsatzgruppen and the peninsula became Judenfrei – 90,000 to 100,000 Jews were killed.
Manstein was sent to trial, convicted on nine charges of committing war crimes and sentenced to 18 years in jail. The charges he was convicted of included: not preventing murders in his command area, shooting Soviet war prisoners, carrying out the Commissar Order, and allowing subordinates to shoot Soviet civilians in reprisals. At the time of his trial the first major crisis of the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade, had just ended. The Allied powers wanted Germany to begin rearming to counter the Soviet threat. The West Germans indicated "not a single German soldier would don a uniform as long as any Wehrmacht officers remained in custody". Consequently a campaign started to secure the release of Manstein and the other West German war criminals still in jail.
Manstein's defence attorney during his trial was Reginald Paget. William Donovan, who had earlier helped Franz Halder, intervened and recruited his friend Paul Leverkuehn to assist the defence. Paget helped strengthen the Myth of the clean Wehrmacht, he defended the army's scorched earth policy on the basis that no army would fight by the rulebook. He defended the shooting of civilians who were armed but not engaged in any partisan action. Both during and after the trial Paget denied that Operation Barbarossa was a "war of annihilation". He down-played the racist aspects of Barbarossa and the campaign to exterminate Soviet Jews. Instead he argued that "the Wehrmacht displayed a large degree of restraint and discipline". Paget's closing statement echoed the core of the myth of the clean Wehrmacht; he said "Manstein is and will remain a hero amongst his people". He echoed the cold war politics with the words: "If Western Europe is to be defensible these decent soldiers must be our comrades".
After the war the West German Federal government bought the release of their war criminals. The British government, concerned with the growing Cold War, wanted to encourage the West German Federal government to join the European Defence Community and NATO. The British decided releasing a few 'iconic' war criminals was a price worth paying for the support of West Germany. Celebrities and historians joined the campaign to secure the release of Manstein. The left-wing philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in a 1949 essay that the enemy of the time was the Soviet Union, not Germany. Russell said Manstein was a hero to the German people and that it was necessary for the Western Allies to free him for the needs of the Cold War. Basil Liddell Hart an influential British military historian and Nazi apologist was heavily involved in the campaign to release Manstein between 1949 and 1953. Manstein's defence lawyer, Paget, waged a well-oiled and energetic public relations campaign for the amnesty of his client, enlisting numerous politicians and celebrities in the process.
End of the myth
The myth of the clean Wehrmacht did not come to an end with any single event, it ended with a series of events over many decades. The myth predominated in the public mind in 1975. German historians critical of the myth were denounced and they were told they had "fouled their own nest". In 1986 there was a "historians quarrel". The debate was supported with television programs, newspapers and publishers. The year 1995 proved to be a turning point in German public consciousness. The Hamburg Institute for Social Research initiated a touring exhibition called Wehrmachtsausstellung that exposed the War Crimes of the Wehrmacht to a wider audience and focused on the hostilities as a German war of extermination. The exhibition was designed by Hannes Heer. The tour lasted for 4 years and travelled to 33 German and Austrian cities. It created a long running debate and reappraisal of the myth. The exhibition showed graphic photographs of war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht and interviewed those who had been party to the war itself. The soldiers who had been in the war mostly acknowledged the crimes but denied personal involvement. Some former soldiers offered Nazi-like justifications. The impact of the exhibition was described as explosive. The German public had become accustomed to seeing "unspeakable deeds" with images of concentration camps and the SS. The exhibition showed 1,380 pictures of the Wehrmacht complicit in war crimes. The pictures had mostly been taken by the soldiers themselves, out in the countryside, far away from the concentration camps and the SS. Heer wrote: "The creators of these photographs are present in their images - laughing, triumphant, or businesslike" and "this place is, in my opinion, at the center of Hitler's Wehrmacht, standing inside the 'heart of darkness'". Heer argues that the war crimes had been covered up by scholars and former soldiers. An outcry ensued with the breaking of an age old taboo. The organisers did not quantify the number of soldiers who had carried out war crimes. Historian Horst Möller wrote that the number was "many tens of thousands".
In 2000, historian Truman Anderson identified a new scholarly consensus centering around the "recognition of the Wehrmacht's affinity for key features of the National Socialist world view, especially for its hatred of communism and its anti-semitism". Ben Shepherd writes that "Most historians now acknowledge the scale of Wehrmacht's involvement in the crimes of the Third Reich". In 2011, the German military historian Wolfram Wette called the clean Wehrmacht thesis a "collective perjury". The war-time generation maintained the myth with vigour and determination. They suppressed information and manipulated government policy, with their passing there was insufficient pressure to maintain the deceit.
Jennifer Foray, in her 2010 study of the Wehrmacht occupation of the Netherlands, asserts that "Scores of studies published in the last few decades have demonstrated that the Wehrmacht's purported disengagement with the political sphere was an image carefully cultivated by commanders and foot soldiers alike, who, during and after the war, sought to distance themselves from the ideologically driven murder campaigns of the National Socialists."
Alexander Pollak writing in Remembering the Wehrmacht's War of Annihilation gave his research into newspaper articles and the language they used, to identify 10 structural themes of the myth. The themes included focusing on a small group of the guilty; the construction of a symbolic victim event – the Battle of Stalingrad; minimising war crimes by comparing them to Allied misdeeds; denying responsibility for starting the war; using the personal accounts of individual soldiers to extrapolate behaviour to the whole Wehrmacht; writing heroic obituaries and books; claiming the naivety of the ordinary soldier; and claiming orders had to be carried out. Heer et al conclude that the newspapers conveyed only two types of events; a) those that would engender a feeling of empathy with Wehrmacht soldiers and to portray them as victims of Hitler, the OKH, or the enemy; and b) those that involved crimes by the Allies.
Pollak, examining the structural themes of the myth, said where blame could not be dismissed the printed media limited its scope by focusing the blame firstly on Hitler and secondly on the SS. By the 1960s a "Hitler craze" had been created and the SS were being described as his ruthless agents. The Wehrmacht had been detached from involvement in war crimes. The Battle of Stalingrad was invented as a victim event by the media. They described the Wehrmacht as having been betrayed by the leadership and left to die in the freezing cold. This narrative focuses on individual soldiers who struggle to survive, engendering sympathy for the privations and harsh conditions. The war of annihilation, Holocaust and racial genocide that the Wehrmacht was carrying out aren't discussed. The media minimised German war crimes by comparing them to the behaviour of the Allies. In the 1980s and 1990s the media became preoccupied with the Bombing of Dresden in order to argue the Allies and Wehrmacht were equally culpable. Newspaper articles routinely showed dramatic pictures of Allied crimes but rarely ones depicting the Wehrmacht.
Pollak notes that the honour of the Wehrmacht is affected by the question of who started the war. He remarks that the media blame Britain and France for the "disgraceful" Treaty of Versailles, that they see as triggering German militarism. They blame the Soviet Union for signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Germany that subsequently encouraged Hitler to invade Poland. Some commentators discussed the need for a preventative war which supposed that the Soviet Union intended to invade Germany. The print media retold personal soldier accounts, which while an "authentic" recounting of perceived events can be construed narrowly and placed in any wider context. The tragedies of "one soldier" are supposedly symptomatic of "tens of thousands of others", while the war of annihilation the soldier was part of is airbrushed out. A central theme of the myth is the description of soldiers as naive, apolitical and without the mental faculty to understand the reasons for the war or its criminal nature. Soldiers are often described as having been forced to carry out orders, often under the fear of severe punishment, in order to excuse their actions. However soldiers had a great deal of discretion and mostly chose their behaviour.
During the planning of Operation Barbarossa, a series of "criminal orders" were devised. The orders went beyond international law and established codes of conduct. The Commissar Order and the Barbarossa Decree allowed German soldiers to execute civilians without fear that they would later be tried for war crimes by the German state. German historian Felix Römer studied the implementation of the Commissar Order by the Wehrmacht, publishing his findings in 2008. It was the first complete account of the implementation of the order by the combat formations of the Wehrmacht. Römer's research showed that over 80% of German divisions on the Eastern Front filed reports detailing the murder of the Red Army's political commissars. Soviet statistics state 57,608 commissars were killed in action and 47,126 were reported missing, the majority of which were killed utilising the order.
Römer wrote that the records "prove that Hitler's generals had executed his murderous orders without scruples or hesitations". Historian Wolfram Wette, reviewing the book, notes that the sporadic objections to the order were not fundamental. They were driven by military necessity and that the cancellation of the order in 1942 was "not a return to morality, but an opportunistic course correction". Wette concludes: "The Commissar Order, which has always had a particularly strong influence on the image of the Wehrmacht because of its obviously criminal character, has finally been clarified. Once again the observation has confirmed itself: the deeper the research penetrates into the military history, the gloomier the picture becomes."
In 1941, the Wehrmacht took 3.3 million Soviet soldiers as prisoners of war. By February 1942, 2 million of these were dead. 600,000 were shot on the basis of the Commissar Order. Most of the rest died from criminal mistreatment. Once captured, Soviet POWs were marched into holding pens where they had no shelter, no medical treatment and they were given minuscule rations. Forced labour became a death sentence. German Quartermaster-General Eduard Wagner declared, "prisoners incapable of work in the prison camps are to starve". Friedrich Freiherr von Broich, while being secretly taped at Trent Park, recalled his memories of prisoners of war. He said the prisoners "at night howled like wild beasts" from starvation. Adding "we marched down the road and a column of 6,000 tottering figures went past, completely emaciated, helping each other along. . . . Soldiers of ours on bicycles rode alongside with pistols; everyone who collapsed was shot and thrown into the ditch." Wehrmacht troops shot civilians on the slightest pretext of partisan involvement, and massacred whole villages that were supposedly protecting them. Omer Bartov writes in The Eastern Front: 1941 – 1945 German Troops and the Barbarization of Warfare that numerous interrogations by Germans had determined that Soviet troops would rather die on the battlefield than be taken prisoner.
The racist ideology of the campaign combined with 'criminal orders', such as the Commissar Order, brought about a vicious circle of deepening violence and murder. The Wehrmacht endeavoured to "pacify" the population, but the civilians increased partisan activity. In August 1941 the II. Corps ordered that "partisans are to be publicly hanged and left to hang for some time". Public hangings became commonplace. Records of the reason for the murders included "feeding a Russian soldier"; "wandering about"; "trying to escape" and; "for being an assistant's assistant of the partisans". Bartov writes that the civilian population had been de-humanised resulting in the barbarization of warfare. The final phase of this barbarization was the "scorched earth" policy utilised by the Wehrmacht as they retreated.
Participation in the Holocaust
Walther von Reichenau issued the Severity Order in October 1941 that stated the essential aim of the campaign was the destruction of the Jewish-Bolshevik system. The order was described as a model by the Wehrmacht leadership and relayed to numerous commanders. Manstein relayed it to his troops as "The Jew is the middle man between the enemy at the rear […] The soldier must summon understanding for the necessity for the hard redress against the Jews". To functionally justify the murder of Jews they were equated to partisan resistance fighters. A wide-scale anti-Semitic consensus already existed amongst ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers.
Army Group Centre began massacring the Jewish population on day one. In Bialystok, Police Battalion 309 shot dead large numbers of Jews in the street, then corralled hundreds of Jews into a synagogue that they set on fire. The commander of rear military zone 553 recorded 20,000 Jews as being killed by Army Group South in his zone up to the summer of 1942. In Belorussia, over half the civilians and POWs murdered were killed by Wehrmacht units, many Jews were among them.
The American historian Waitman Wade Beorn writing in his book Marching into Darkness examined the Wehrmacht's role in The Holocaust in Belarus during 1941 and 1942. The book investigates how German soldiers progressed from tentative killings to sadistic "Jew games". He writes that "Jew hunting" became a pastime. Soldiers would break the monotony of duty in the countryside by rounding up Jews, taking them to the forests and releasing them so they could be shot as they ran away. Beorn writes that individual Wehrmacht units were rewarded for brutal behavior and explains how this created a culture of ever deeper involvement with the regimes genocidal aims. Beorn discusses the Wehrmacht's role in the Hunger Plan, Nazi Germany's starvation policy. He examines the Mogilev Conference in September 1941 which marked a dramatic escalation of violence against the civilian population. The book looks at several military formations and how they responded to orders to commit genocide and other crimes against humanity.
The Wehrmacht carried out mass shootings of Jews, near Kiev, on September 29 and 30 in 1941. At Babi Yar 33,371 Jews were marched to a ravine and shot into pits. Some of the victims died as a result of being buried alive in the pile of corpses. In 1942, mobile SS killing squads engaged in a swathe of massacres in conjunction with the Wehrmacht. Approximately 1.3 million Soviet Jews were murdered.
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