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Wehrmacht About this soundlisten  was the name of the armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945. It replaced the old Reichswehr and was succeeded by the current Bundeswehr. The Wehrmacht of World War II was comprised of the army (das Heer), the navy (die Kriegsmarine), the air force (die Luftwaffe); also Waffen-SS units were occasionally subordinated to the Wehrmacht.

The German word Wehrmacht (literally defence force) predates the 1930s and originally meant the entirety of the armed forces of a given country (or another entity). For instance, Article 47 of the Weimar Constitution of 1919 declared the Reichspräsident commander-in-chief of "all Wehrmacht of the Reich", and, "Englische Wehrmacht" meant all English forces. Since World War II, the term is almost as closely associated with the armed forces of the Third Reich in German as it is in English.


After World War I ended with the capitulation of the German empire the treaty of Versailles imposed severe restrictions on Germany's military strength. The army was limited to one hundred thousand men with an additional fifteen thousand in the navy. The fleet was to consist of at most six battleships, six cruisers, and twelve destroyers. Tanks and heavy artillery were forbidden and the air force was dissolved. A new post-war military (the Reichswehr) was established on 23 March 1921. General conscription was abolished under another mandate of the Versailles treaty.

Germany immediately began circumventing these conditions. A secret collaboration with the Soviet Union began after the treaty of Rapallo. Major General Otto Hasse traveled to Moscow in 1923 to further negotiate the terms. Germany helped Soviet Russia with industrialisation and Russian officers were to be trained in Germany. German tank and air force specialists would be trained in Russia and German chemical weapons research and manufacture would be carried out there along with other projects. Around three hundred German pilots received training at Lipetsk, some tank training took place near Kazan and toxic gas was developed at Saratov.

After the death of president Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August 1934 all soldiers were ordered to take a personal oath to Adolf Hitler. This process went smoothly for the most part, since National Socialist ideology was popular among German citizens and the military. Germany began openly ignoring the Versailles provisions. Conscription was reintroduced on 16 March 1935 and while the size of the standing army was to remain at about one hundred thousand, another one hundred thousand would receive training each year. The conscription law introduced the name Wehrmacht, so not only can this be regarded as its founding date, but the organisation and authority of the Wehrmacht can be viewed as Nazi creations regardless of the political affiliations of its high command (who nevertheless all signed personal loyalty oaths to Hitler). The insignia was a stylised version of the Iron Cross (the so-called Balkenkreuz, or beamed cross) that had first appeared as an aircraft and tank marking in late World War I.

The number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht during its existence from 1934 until 1945 is believed to approach 18.2 million (a number put forward by historian Rüdiger Overmans), but these were not simultaneous enlistments. About 5.3 million died on battlefields and approximately 11 million were captured by enemy forces (it is not known how many died in captivity).

Command structure

Legally, the Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht was Adolf Hitler in his capacity as Germany's head of state, a position he gained after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in August 1934 and held until his suicide in late April 1945. Administration and military authority initially lay with the war ministry under Werner von Blomberg. After von Blomberg resigned in the course of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair (1938) the ministry was dissolved and the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) under Wilhelm Keitel was put in its place.

The OKW coordinated all military activities but Keitel's sway over the three branches of service (army, air force, and navy) was rather limited. Each had its own High Command, known as Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, army), Oberkommando der Marine (OKM, navy), and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL, air force). Each of these high commands had its own general staff.

  • OKW — Armed Forces High Command
Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces - Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel
Chief of the Operations Staff - Colonel General Alfred Jodl
  • OKH — Army High Command
Army Commanders-in-Chief
Colonel General Werner von Fritsch (1935 to 1938)
Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch (1938 to 1941)
Führer and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1941 to 1945)
Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner (1945)
  • OKM — Navy High Command
Navy Commanders-in-Chief
Grand Admiral Erich Raeder (1928-1943)
Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz (1943-1945)
General Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg (1945)
  • OKL — Airforce High Command
Air Force Commanders-in-Chief
Reich Marshal Hermann Göring (to 1945)
Field Marshal Robert Ritter von Greim (1945)

War years

File:Rommel Africa color 210.jpg
Erwin Rommel, one of the most famous field marshals of the Wehrmacht

Powerful tank and air forces enabled quick successes during early stages of the war when nation after nation was overrun and occupied within weeks (Blitzkrieg). This convinced military leaders that a new concept of broad armament (rather than deep armament) made sense. However, when their powerful adversaries (the United Kingdom, Soviet Union and United States) began offering tenacious resistance the Blitzkrieg tactics could not be applied and the relatively low state of armament became a problem for the Wehrmacht.

The Wehrmacht's military strength was managed through assignment-based tactics (rather than order-based tactics) and an almost proverbial discipline. Today the Wehrmacht is sometimes seen as a high-tech army since new technologies were introduced during World War II including the reprisal weapons, the Me 262 jet fighter and the submarine force, but overall armament levels were low. For example only forty percent of all units were motorised, baggage trains often relied on horses and many soldiers went by foot or (sometimes) used bicycles.

Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Wehrmacht during World War II were ethnic Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians along with people from the Baltic states and the Balkans. Russians fought in the Russian Liberation Army and non-Russians from the Soviet Union formed the Ostlegionen. These units were all commanded by General Ernst August Köstring and represented about five percent of the Wehrmacht.


The military evaded political meddling during most of the Third Reich's history. Most of its leadership was politically conservative, nationalistic and hoped to reconquer territories that had broken away from Imperial Germany. Hitler had promised to rebuild Germany's military strength and officers were mostly sympathetic towards the National Socialist movement. Political influence in the military command began to increase later in the war when Hitler's flawed strategic decisions began showing up as serious defeats for the German army and tensions mounted between the military and the government. These culminated in the July 20 plot (1944), when a group of Wehrmacht officers led by Claus von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler and overthrow his government. Following the attempt, Hitler distrusted the Wehrmacht and many officers were killed.

War crimes

It was long popularly believed in West Germany that war crimes were for the most part committed by the Nazi party's paramilitary SS organisation. However, during the 1990s, a Wehrmachtausstellung (Wehrmacht exhibition), mostly based on photographs, toured through Germany claiming the Wehrmacht had participated heavily in the war crimes. In the book Keine Kameraden (No Companions), Christian Streit asserted that while the Wehrmacht indeed fought the western allies mostly according to the rules of war, it regularly committed atrocities in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. OKW head Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, was convicted at Nuremburg for war crimes in 1946, and hanged.

Examples include:

  • September Campaign in Poland Wehrmacht units killed at least 16,376 (confirmed Polish civilian losses) Poles during the September Campaign through executions, field incidents, terror bombing of open cities or murder. After the end of hostilities, during the Wehrmacht's administration of Poland, which went on until October 25 1939, 531 towns and villages were burned, the Wehrmacht carried out 714 mass executions and a number of other crimes. Altogether, it is estimated that 50,000 civilians had perished including 7000 Jews[1].
  • Wehrmacht POW-camps Beginning in September 1939 prisoners from Poland and later the USSR suffered immensely in these due to lack of food, clean water, medicine and brutality by Wehrmacht guards.
  • The Kommissarbefehl The commissioner-order provided for the immediate execution of political commissars of the Red Army. The order was formulated on Hitler's behalf by the Wehrmacht command and distributed to units among usual command channels.
  • The Barbarossa-Erlass, or "Barbarossa Jurisdiction Decree", issued by Wilhelm Keitel a few weeks before Operation Barbarossa, exempted soldiers of the Wehrmacht from prosecution in the event that they committed crimes against Russian civilians.
  • Nacht-und-Nebel Erlass, The "Night and Fog Decree", also issued by Keitel, reinforced the Kommissarbefehl, sanctioning death for "communist elements and other circles hostile to Germany".
  • Destruction of Warsaw Up to 250,000 civilians were killed. Human shields were used by German forces during the fighting. During the Wola Massacre 50,000 civilians were murdered to intimidate the Poles into surrender.
  • Eastern Front During the campaign in the East the Wehrmacht regularly murdered civilians in anti-partisan operations.
  • Italy Italian soldiers were massacred by German forces on the Greek island of Cephalonia. Italian villages ware razed and their inhabitants murdered during anti-partisan operations.
  • Greece During anti-partisan operations the Wehrmacht pursued a policy of taking hostages and executing whole male population in given territory or selected hostages.

It should be noted that the regular armed forces of the allies have also been accused of war crimes during WWII, such as the Dachau Massacre. However critics of this comparison point out that those and similar abuses, while perhaps tolerated by the Allied command, were not official policy endorsed by the leadership and were isolated incidents in contrast to deliberate and massive war crimes commited by Wehrmacht soldiers and endorsed by many of their commanders.

Prominent members

Prominent German officers from the Wehrmacht era include:

After World War II

Following the unconditional German surrender on 8 May 1945 Germany was forbidden an independent modern army. It was over ten years before the tensions of the Cold War led to the creation of separate military forces in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. The West German military, officially created on 5 May 1955, took the name Bundeswehr, meaning Federal Defence Forces, which pointed back to the old Reichswehr. Its East German counterpart, created on 1 March 1956, took the name National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee). Neither side could do without experienced soldiers so each army initially had substantial numbers of officers who were former Wehrmacht members.


  • Wheeler-Bennett, Sir John The Nemesis of Power: German Army in Politics, 1918-1945 New York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishing Company, 2005.

See also

Further reading

  • Fritz, Stephen G. Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997. ISBN 0813109434
  • Alexander B. Rossino Hitler Strikes Poland Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity,Modern War Studies, 2005. ISBN 0-7006-1392-7
  • Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann, eds. Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944(War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht).Hamburg: Hamburger Edition HIS Verlag, 1995.ISBN 3-930908-04-2
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External links