The Wehrmact became a criminal organization which played a major role in some of the greatest crimes in history. The Imperial German Army in World war I was brutal. The Wehrmacht made a huge leap under the NAZIs to horific criminality. After the War and Germany's disateous defeat, German officers claimed that they were either just following orders or they did not know about the NAZI crimes. They tried to portray themselves as patriotic, honest Germans forced to work for a crininal regime. And that the crimes were the work of the SS, the SA, and other NAZI Party organizations. The truth is very different. There were many fervent NAZIs within the Wehrmacht, the actual number is not understood with any certainty. And of course this changed with the swings in German military success. What is fully substantiated by the historical record is the level of criminality of the Wehrmacht. It was the Wehrmascht before most of the killing, turned the German state over to Hitler and the NAZIs as part of the Night of the Long Knives deal. With the outbreak of the War, we do not say that all German soldiers were criminals. They were not. Many were honorably serving their country. Many were also involved in crimes. This breakdown is difficult to assess. What is not difficult to assess is the degree to which the leadership and much of the officer corps committed the organization to criminal activity. This includes both commission of terrible crimes as well as an all important support role facilitating the terrible crimes of NAZI Party and its organizations. And these include the basic standing orders issued by OKW as well as the most horific of the NAZI crimes, like Generalplan Ost, the Hunger Plan, the Holocaust, and occupation atrocities. There were also military war crimes such as terror bombing, murder of POWs, murder of civilian hostages, and retaliation against civilians.
After Hitler and the NAZIs seized power and established a police srate, there was only on organization capable of resisting a NAZI dictatorsgip--the Reichwehr. The Reichwehr haf the orhanization and more imprtantly the weaponry to resist the NAZUs, even the SA with itseveral million memnbers. The Reichwehr was, however, afraid of the SA, not only its radical orientation, but its desire to replace the Reichwehr as the German military. Hitler knew this. JHe also felt the SA and its volitile leader Ernst Röhm was a threat to his leadership. SS commanders Himmler and Heyfrish thought that that Röhm was ahreat to them. This Hitler made a deal with the Reichweht. They would consent to Hitler's political control and police state if Hitler would confirm the Reichwehr as the exclusive military force in NAZI Germany and curtail and limit the SA. The result was the Night of the Long Knives (1934). In effect the Reichwhr turned Germany over to Hitler and his criminal program. And to seal the deal, the Reichwhr officers and men swore a personal oath to Hitler. At this point in became the Reichwehr became the Wehrmacht.
Wars or terrible actions. Terrible things occur in the best of circumstances. Europe over centuries of warfare had begun to regularize warfare. And agreement was reached on rules of War. The Geneva Convention regularized many aspects of war such as the treatment of POWs. Germany. Italy, and the Allies (but not Japan and the Soviets) were signatories. Germany violated many of the provisions of the Geneva Convention from the very beginning of the War. hey also commotted terrible cts tht wre blantant murder although not always covered by the Convention.
The German Army in Belgium executed 6,000 civilians ahd was acquired aeputation for brutality that lasted the entire war. The Whermact and paramilitary formations killed about 100,000 civilians in Poland (1939). Operation Barbarossa was to be something even more terrible. It would be unlike any other campaign in modern history. Hitler made it very clear that the campaign in the East would be conducted differently than any other modern campaign--it was to be a war of extermination. Mass executions of Jewish men, women, and children as well as Communists were carried out. Four SS Einsatzgruppen were responsible for most of the killings, together with local collaborators, but the numbers of Jews encountered was so large that regular Wehrmacht units also participate in the killing. It was not just the Jews that were killed, but also Communist Commisars in the army army and Communist officials. Eventually large numbers of Slavs were to be killed to clear land for German colonization. In the end this war of extinction may have doomed Operation Barbarossa because it precluded the effective utilization of anti-Communist Russians and Ukranians to fight the Red Army.
The Germans were the first country to acquire large numbers of POWs. German policy varied as to the nationality of the POWs. Here a primary factor in the German mind was race. The Germans treated French, British, and later American POWs relatively correctly. The internment of the French and some British POWs was for almost the entire war as they took large numbers of POWs in 1940. I note some reports from American soldiers that they tried separate Jewish POWs from the general POW population and subjected the Jewish POWs to brutal slave labor. I am unsure if they did this to the British and French as well. POWs were also used to some extent as forced labor. The German treatment of Polish and Soviet POWs, however, was barbaric and many died from starvation, exposure, and mistreatment. The German policy was in part a planned method of elimination and in part their inablity to deal with the massive numbers involved. German tretment improved somewhat as they began to use Soviet POWs for forced labor, but it was still brutal. At some camps the Soviet POWs were not even provided barracks and other structures and were exposed to the elements. While in terms of fatalities, the worst time for POWs was in 1941 when the German took huge numbers of POWs. Conditions began deteriirated seriously for all POWs in late 1944. There were in German hands in late 1944 a very large number POWs. Most were Soviet and French. There were also anout 0.3 million American and British POWs. Part of the reason that conditions deterirated in late 1944 was the bitter Winter. Other factors were the Allied air campaign and German policies. Conditions became caotic in 1945. Allied planes were destroying the Reich's transportation network. Compounding the problem was civilian refugees fleeling east from the advancing Red Army and the retreating Wehrmacht. There were also SS columns of starving inmates from the death camps. The Germans were also emptying the POW camps in the east. The Germans in late 1944 also evacuated POW camps in the East about to be liberated. The POWs, many weakened by mistreatment and poor diets, were forced to make long marches in sometimes bitter weather. For the weakened and often emaciated men, these were often death marches. Straglers were shot. [Nichol and Rennell]
The Germans invented aerial bombardment of cities in World War I. It was conceived as a way of striking at military and industrial targets in Britain. Because of the limits of World War I technology, it quickly became pure terror bombing. The War ended before a planned Allied response, a strategic bombing campaign was unleased on Germany. Germany's new Luftwaffe gave provided far greater air capabilities than the Germans had in World War I. And Hitler used them even before launching his war, first in Spain and then in Czechoslovakia. Hitler forced Czech President Hacha to surrender by tghreatening to destroy Prague. And upon launching the War, he used the Luftwaffe to attack undefended Polish cities, especially Warsaw. Terror attacks on Rotterdam, Lomon, Coventry, Belgrade, abd Soviet cities followed. It is true that the allies followed suit at first declined on attacking German cities and only began doing so after the Germans had made attacks on cities a part of their efort. Luftwaffe terror bombings ended as the allies gained air sperority (1943), but began again with the V-1 and V-2 weapons (1944).
The Wehrmacht over the course of the War saw itself involved in the occupation of most of Western Europe. Security services played key roles in the occupation, but it was the Wehrmact with its large force was the primary occupation force. It was the Wehrmact that manned control points and could muster the force needed to deal with any substantial show of resistance. The primary purpose of the occupation was to extract resources from the occupied countries so as to support the German war effort. The second important goal of the occupation was to persue NAZI racist policies against the Jews, Slavs and other peoples. The policies supported by the Wehrmacht differed significantly in the East and West. Except for the Holocaust, the Wehrmcht was generally expected to behave correctly toward civilians in the West. The standards were very different in the East. This varied from country to country. The NAZIs had allies in the East (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia). Finland was a cobeligerant, but the Wehrmacht was no heavily committed there. Other countries were occupied by conquest (Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, areas of the the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia). The peopl in some of these countries were favorably disposed toward the Germans, especially the Baltics and western Ukraine. Even in the Axis allies, the NAZI occupation policies extracted resources with little or no payment to the host country. In addition to formal occupation policies there were also numerous interactions between the soldiers and the people in the occupied countries. Most were fleeting. Others such as liasons between the soldiers and local women could be more involved. Again there were differences between East and West.
There still people who claim that the Wehrmacht was aprofessional fighting force who hanfs were clean. They claim it was Hitler and the SS who were responsible for the Holocaust and other attrocities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Professional it was in military expertise. But it was also the key institution that made the Holocaus possible. It was the Wehrmact which established NAZI control over conquered countries and then carried out the occupation. It was the German occupation in most countries which established the conditions needed to carry out the Holocaust. Some countries like Slovakia were eager participants even without formal occupation. The whole process of the Holcaust was to evntually be continued with the Slavs in the East. It is true that the Holcaust killing itself was conducted primarily by the SS and there were Wehrmacht officers who were horrified at NAZI atrocities. It is also true that the Wehrmacht was deeply implicated in the Holocaust. And as the NAZI regime grew in strength, so did support for the NAZIs grow within the Wehrmacht. There is no doubt that what the NAZIs were perpetrating was well known within the command structure of the Wehrmacht.
The German war effort was adversly affected in World War I by food shortages. As a result in preparing for World War II NAZI technocrats in the Agriculture Minidstry like Herbert Backe designed a program to ensure that the German people come what may would not starve. It involved establishing a system for redirecting food from the occupied countries to the Reich Germans. And as part of the process certain segments of the occupied countries were slated for starvation. The most obvious segment were the Jews, but other ethnic groups were slated for death or reduction, most notably the Slavs. To redirect the food supply a range of mechamismswere adopted. In the West, the exchange rate was a valuable tool. In the East, food was often simply seized. And here it was the Wehrmacht that carries out much of the actions needed to seize and divert the food supply.
The NAZIs were planning perhaps the greatest crime in all of history--Generalplan Ost. It was ethnic cleansing on a vast scale. The population of Eastern Europe was to be either killed or converted to Helot slaves. The Jews and certain other people were to be entirely eradicated. Eastern Europe was to be turned into a vast agricultural collony for German settlers. The Germans were only beginning to implement this policy when military failure in the East prevented then from aide spread adoption. There was no similar program developed for the West, but SS think tanls were working on it. And the only organization capable of implementing such a huge projdect on the vast scale envisioned was the Wehrmacht. And it had begun doing so in the East.
Writing after the War can be self serving. We have, however, ample evidence of what German generals actually knew and felt because the British taped the private conversations of Wehrmacht generals taken prisoner. [Neitzel] The British were interested in specific issues, such as the status of nuclear research, but the transcripts is atreasure of information about what the German General Staff actualy felt. The Wehrmacht generals knew a great deal about the Holicaust, including actions like Babi Yar. And the large scale actions like Babi-Yar commonly used Wehrmacht troops to concentrate the Jews and drive them to their deaths. They had an accurate estimate of the number of Jews killed. Some were apauled. Others felt that that they had not been brutal enough.
Here in the transcripts the German officers spoke freely. You get comments like if we were going to kill the Jews, it should have been done in secret. (The killing in the Soviet Union was done openly, often in front of audiences.) Or it was necessary to kill the children along with the results, other wise they would want revenge when they grew up. These were not SS men speaking, but the leadership of the Wehrmacht. And the transcripts provide an irrefutable record of the thinking of the Wehrmacht which executed the terrible crimes described above.
And while the SS was primarily involved in the killing. The Wehrmacht was not only involved in the killing, but played a major role in hunting down and coincentrating Jews so they could be killed by the SS. The killing could be done by small numbers of people, hunting down and concentrating required a much larger force--the Wehrmacht.
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