Wehrmacht World War II Standing Orders


Figure 1.--After the War, many Wehrmacht commanders blamed the Holocaust on Hitler and the SS. In fact, the Wwhrmacht played an important role in the killing. Here Whermcht ifficers are personally murdering Jews in front of their men. The photograph was taken somewhere in the Soviet Union, probably in 1941. This is how these orders transferred to in flesh and blood. Image coutesy of Military History of the 20th Century History Blog.

The German Army in Belgium executed 6,000 civilians ahd was acquired aeputation for brutality that lasted the entire war. British propaganda intensified actual incidents. Hitler and the NAZIs not only lived up to their World War I image, but far exceeded it with hirific acts from the first day of the War. The Whermact and paramilitary formations killed about 100,000 civilians in Poland (1939). Operation Barbarossa was to be something even more terrible. It woukd 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.

World War I

The German Army in Belgium executed 6,000 civilians and was acquired a reputation for brutality that lasted the entire War. British propaganda intensified actual incidents. Hitler and the NAZIs not only lived up to their World War I image, but far exceeded it with hirific acts from the first day of the War. A major method of controlling hostile occupied people used by the Germans was to take civilian hostages. The Germans in both the East and West were severe with civilan population. The Ober Ost regime in the East caused many hardships, but the Germany Army was not genocidal. The introduction of poison gas and the use of long range artillery and aircraft to bomb civilans did not help their reputation. German brutality nd perceived acts beyond established military norms. This would eventually being America onto the War. Hitler ignored the impact of German brutality in World war I and decided to unleash a brutality and unrestricted violence on Europe exceeding the limits of what most people felt possible in the modrn era.

Whermacht Standing Orders

Hitler from the outset of preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union made it clear that Barbarissa would be different. He had OKW issue standing orders that spelled out just how the war in the East woukd be persued. And unlike World War I, it would not be just severe, this time it would be genocidal. The SS Einsatzgruppen would be tasked with killing all Jews they encounteed, but this task would not be limited to just the SS killing squads. The wehrmacht was expected to play its role in the killings. The Wehrmacht orders were not as clear as those given to the Einsatzgruppen commanders, but they were on paper and signed by OKW and were in fact clear enough. OKW issued a series of orders setting the perameters for the conduct of German troops in the Soviet Union. OKW issued a series of orders setting the perameters for the conduct of German troops in the Soviet Union. Each were in blatant violation of international law. They included the Barbarossa Order, the Commissar Order, and the Kommunisten Order. Note that these were not secret orders given to the SS, but commands issued by the Wehrmnacht high command in total violation of the rules of war and international law. There were also orders that affected the Western Allies, including the Commando Order and Night and Fog Decree.

Barbarossa Order (March 3, 1941)

General Major Alfred Jodl, who had been a strong supporter of Hitler and the NAZIs, Chief of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, briefed the ranking officers of the Wehrmacht on how Barbarossa would be conducted (March 3, 1941). He told them, 'This campaign is more than a struggle at arms, it will lead to a conflict of ideologies'. Barbarossa was to be a struggle of extermination. Jodl warned his fellow officers that it would be necessary to distance oneself from the standpoint of soldierly comradeship'. Jodl's role was notable. He was not a toddy like Keitel, but a capable Wehrmacht officer respected by many. Many Wehrmacht officers identified with Jodl's message and ideological effort. This is impossible to identify. This was not just NAZI orientation, but was essentially a continuation of the historic Drag noch Ost. While it is impossible to quantify, We do know that not one important German commander resigned his command. This can be construed as the Wehrmacht's attempt to curry favor with the Führer who after the victories in the West was now in an unassailable position. The Barbarossa Order which mandated the "upmost severity" with 'eneny civilians' which 'interfered' with military operations. This meant that German officers, even lower-level officers, were given the authority to shoot civilians. German officers could order reprisals reprisals against villages from which hostile fire came or close to such actions. Here it should be pointed out that American soldiers would routinely shell German villages rather than fight door to door if German soldiers or civilians fired from the village. The difference is that the American action was to supress actual hostile fire and unlike the Germans did not execute some or all of the villagers. Individual civilians who had fired on Allied troops, however, could be procecuted. The Barbarosa Order meant that German soldiers would not be tried for actions against Soviet civilans that would previously been military crimes. The Wehrmact was concerned that Hitler might actually abolish military courts altogether. The Whermacht thus suspended them in the Soviet Union. [Mazower, p. 142.]

Judicial Decree/Gerichtsbarkeitserlaß (May 13, 1941)

As the Wehrmacht soldiers prepared for the massive assault on the Soviet Union, special orders were issued by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht -- OKW). The second one was the Judicial Decree/Gerichtsbarkeitserlaß (May 13, 1941). It was issued by OKW and at the same time by the Oberkommando des Heeres (Supreme Command of the Army--OKH). Itv was only 5 weeks before the invasion of the Soviet Union. It instructed Wehrmacht coimmanbders and personnel, “For actions accomplished by soldiers under the jurisdiction of the Wehrmacht and their consequences for the civilian enemy populations, there does not exist any obligation of legal proceedings against them, even in cases when these acts would constitute a military crime or a criminal act.” In oither words the military could do what ever they wanted to with civilkans and there would bve no consequences no matter how brutally they acted.

Commissar Order (June 6, 1941)

The Commissar order issued a month after the Barbarossa order went much further. The Barbarossa Order was directed at civilians who resisted or were preceived as resisting. Civilians under international law were not susosed to fire on soldiers. The Commissar Order was very different. It was directed at soldiers who had surrenderd and were in German custody. This was muder pure and simple and a violation of international law. Hitler wanted Communist Party officials killed outright. Thus the Whermacht and SS and were ordered to execute captured Red Army Army commisars (political officers) (June 6). The Commissar Order was entitled, "Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars". It read, "In the battle against Bolshevism, the adherence of the enemy to the principles of humanity or international law is not to be counted on. In particular the treatment of those of us who are taken prisoner in a manner full of hatred, cruelty and inhumanity can be expected from the political commissars of every kind as the real pillars of opposition. The troops must be aware that: 1. In this battle mercy or considerations of international law with regard to these elements is false. They are a danger to our own safety and to the rapid pacification of the conquered territories. 2. The originators of barbaric, Asiatic methods of warfare are the political commissars. So immediate and unhesitatingly severe measures must be undertaken against them. They are therefore, when captured either in battle or offering resistance, as a matter of routine to be dispatched by firearms. The following provisions also apply: 2. ...Political commissars as agents of the enemy troops are recognizable from their special badge—a red star with a golden woven hammer and sickle on the sleeves.... They are to be separated from the prisoners of war immediately, i.e. already on the battlefield. This is necessary, in order to remove from them any possibility of influencing the captured soldiers. These commissars are not to be recognized as soldiers; the protection due to prisoners of war under international law does not apply to them. When they have been separated, they are to be finished off. 3. Political commissars who have not made themselves guilty of any enemy action nor are suspected of such should be left unmolested for the time being. It will only be possible after further penetration of the country to decide whether remaining functionaries may be left in place or are to be handed over to the Sonderkommandos. The aim should be for the latter to carry out the assessment. In judging the question "guilty or not guilty", the personal impression of the attitude and bearing of the commissar should as a matter of principle count for more than the facts of the case which it may not be possible to prove." A few Whermacht officers objected. The Whermach high command obsequiosly complied and issued the orders. [Shephard, p. 53.] The Germans soldiers went further than the actual instructions. Actual Wehrmacht procedures varied. One estemed Soviet author describes a common Wehrmacht practice. A Red Army soldier captured by the Germans described his experience. The Germans captured large numbers of Red Army soldiers. Then they did the following. They separated the officers and political officers from the enlisted soldiers. Then they went along the line of the POWs and separated from them all who looked like Jews. As a result, some Byelorussians who had black hair were separated as possible Jews. Then the Germans shot all those who had been separated (officers, Commissars, Jews, and soldiers that they thought looked like Jews). [Sholokhov] The author does not address just who was doing the selection, but it appears to be Wehrmacht officers, not SS men.

Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops in Russia (June 12, 1941)

The Wehrmacht on the eve of Barbarossa issued instructions to its personnel--'Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops in Russia' (June 12). The Wehrmacht High Command (OKW) cast the upcoming campaign in NAZI terms as a life-and-death struggle against Bolshevism. And Bolshevism was desribed as "the mortal enemy of the National Socialist German people". The campaign ordered that the German soldier be "ruthless and energetic measures against Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs and Jews and the total eradication of any active or passive resistance." Many field commanders issued orders to their men which used the same terminology. Even officers like General Hoepner who would take part in the Whermacht July bomb plot issued the order.

Night and Fog Decree (December 7, 1941)

Hitler believed that when he invaded the Soviet Union that the Soviet regime would collapse like a deck of cards within weeks. And at first it looked like he might be correct. The Red Sir Force was largely destroyed in days. The Panzers drove deepninto the country. Large numbers of people in the Baltics, former eastern Poland, and the Ukraine treated the advancing German troops as liberators. NAZI brutality soon changed this and by October the Wehrmacht found itself bogged down first in the mud and then the snow. Both substantially reduced the Wehrmacht's mobility, its greatest assett. Occupied people throughout Europe were first cheered by British resistance and now Soviet resistance meant that the NAZis had not won the War. And as the Germans shifted the Wehrmacht east, the occupation force in the west was substanbtially reduced. The NAZIs for good reasons were concerned that occupied people might begin to resist German occupation. "Nacht und Nebel" ("Night and Fog") was the name given to Hitler's decree aimed at streamline the treatment of those who dared resist (December 7, 1941). The order was issued by Hitler and signed by Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the German Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht--OKW). By this time, it was clear that the campaign in the Soviet Union would not be a short one without major casualties. The decree authorized German occupation authorities to transport persons in the occupied territories engaging in subversive activities to the Reich "by night and fog" for trial by special courts. The purpose was to circumvent military procedure and various conventions governing the treatment of prisoners. The name for the order came from Germany's most acclaimed poet and playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). He used the phrase to describe clandestine actions hidden by fog and the darkness of night. The effect was to take the responsibility for handling those arrested for resistance activities from the military authories to the Gestapo and associated security forces.

Commando Order (October 18, 1942)

Commandos were elite, highly trained units deployed for special operations. They often specialized in amphibious landings, parachuting, rappelling and other skills needed to hit high priority targets. The Wehrmacht used commando units both in Poland (September 1939) and the Low Countries during the Western offensive (May 1940). The Allies were impressed with the capabilities of such units and began similar operations. Primeminister Churchill in particular supported such operations, While Hitler was impressed with the Wehrmacht operations, he was outraged that such tactics should be used against Germany. The Commando Order was a secret order issued by Adolf Hitler (October 18, 1942). Hitler ordered that all Allied commandos encountered should be killed immediately, even if in uniform and even if they attempted to surrender. Individuals and groups not in uniform apprehended were to be handed over immediately to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). The decree read, " 1. For a long time now our opponents have been employing in their conduct of the war, methods which contravene the International Convention of Geneva. The members of the so-called Commandos behave in a particularly brutal and underhand manner; and it has been established that those units recruit criminals not only from their own country but even former convicts set free in enemy territories. From captured orders it emerges that they are instructed not only to tie up prisoners, but also to kill out-of-hand unarmed captives who they think might prove an encumbrance to them, or hinder them in successfully carrying out their aims. Orders have indeed been found in which the killing of prisoners has positively been demanded of them. 2. In this connection it has already been notified in an Appendix to Army Orders of 7.10.1942. that in future, Germany will adopt the same methods against these Sabotage units of the British and their Allies; i.e. that, whenever they appear, they shall be ruthlessly destroyed by the German troops. 3. I order, therefore: From now on all men operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids in Europe or in Africa, are to be annihilated to the last man. This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or saboteurs, with or without arms; and whether fighting or seeking to escape; and it is equally immaterial whether they come into action from Ships and Aircraft, or whether they land by parachute. Even if these individuals on discovery make obvious their intention of giving themselves up as prisoners, no pardon is on any account to be given. On this matter a report is to be made on each case to Headquarters for the information of Higher Command. 4. Should individual members of these Commandos, such as agents, saboteurs etc., fall into the hands of the Armed Forces through any means - as, for example, through the Police in one of the Occupied Territories - they are to be instantly handed over to the S.D. To hold them in military custody - for example in P.O.W. Camps, etc., - even if only as a temporary measure, is strictly forbidden. 5. This order does not apply to the treatment of those enemy soldiers who are taken prisoner or give themselves up in open battle, in the course of normal operations, large scale attacks; or in major assault landings or airborne operations. Neither does it apply to those who fall into our hands after a sea fight, nor to those enemy soldiers who, after air battle, seek to save their lives by parachute. 6. I will hold all Commanders and Officers responsible under Military Law for any omission to carry out this order, whether by failure in their duty to instruct their units accordingly, or if they themselves act contrary to it. A Hitler".

Terror and Sabotage Decree (July 30, 1944)

The Resistance in July 1944 reached deap into the Reich. And the group ascting against Hitler was none other than the Wehrmascht itself. The July Bomb Plot narriwly missed killing Hitler. His resonse eas a major search for the conspirators as well as the arrest of many individuals such as former Socialist politicans who had oppsed the NAZIs. Hitler issued the "Terror and Sabotage" decree that expanded and extended the provisions of the "Night and Fog" decree (July 30). German occupation authorities were authorized to treat all violent acts perpetrated by non-German citizens in the occupied territories as acts of terror. Actual offenders and those believed to be offenders who were not summarily shot were to be turned over to the Security Police and Security Service (Sicherheitspolizei and SD). Keitel quickly extended the decree to cover persons endangering German interests by any means, even non-violent asctions and even if the actions did not endanger troop security or war measures. The trouble for the Germans that the vast streaches of occupied territories had by this time shrunken and Allied armies were approaching the borders of the Reich.

Sources

Mazower, Mark. Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (Penguin Press: New York, 2008), 726p.

Shepherd, Ben. War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans (Cambridge, 2004).

Sholokhov, Mikhail. Fate of a Man.







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Created: 8:43 PM 6/19/2009
Last updated: 10:06 AM 4/28/2018