Debunking a Persistent Myth of WWII: The German Army’s Hands Were Not Clean
With regard to offenses committed against enemy civilians by members of the Wehrmacht or its auxiliaries, prosecution is not obligatory, even where the deed is at the same time a military crime or misdemeanour. — Wehrmacht orders, May 13 1941
Following World War II, the leaders of the German military worked hard to build a mythology around their conduct of the war, especially in the east. They laid the blame for the Holocaust and other atrocities on the paramilitary SS and police units. While the bulk of the killing of civilians can be attributed to those groups, the regular military aided and abetted them, as well as committing their own crimes, including shooting Jews and killing millions of Soviet POWs through neglect as well as violence.
Below is a complete transcript of the video, written and presented by Geoffrey P. Megargee, applied research scholar at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies:
Adolf Hitler played a central role in the Holocaust. That’s obvious. But he couldn’t do it alone or just with the help of other fanatical Nazis. Institutions across Germany also took part, and these included the largest and most inclusive: the Army.
The Army supported Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, and through its conquests in World War II, it gave the Nazis access to millions of Jews who would be murdered in the Holocaust. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Army involvement. After the war, senior German generals tried to deny their role. They tried to pin all the blame on Hitler and on the Nazi Party’s brutal paramilitary wing, the SS. But if we want to understand the Holocaust, we have to understand the Army’s role in it. Doing so also opens the door to understanding other militaries in other genocides, and also in genocide prevention.
Now, to begin with, we have to recognize that the German army was not a monolithic institution. Somewhere between 12 and 13-and-a-half million Germans served in the army between 1933 and 1945. They didn’t all come in with the same attitudes, and being in the army together certainly didn’t turn them all into murderers. And yet, as an institution, the army supported Nazi goals and committed horrible crimes. How do we explain this?
It’s not that all the soldiers were Nazis, we just established that. We have to look at the senior commanders.
The senior generals tended to be politically conservative, ambitious, obedient, ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic and racist. This was a remarkably homogeneous group. They didn’t see themselves as Nazis — they tended to look down their noses at the Nazis — but they did support Nazi goals, and they were willing to carry out Nazi policies. Many of the generals shared attitudes that set them up for cooperation with Adolf Hitler.
First, like many Germans, they believed that Germany had not really lost the First World War, at least not on the battlefield. Instead, they claimed that the German Army had been stabbed in the back by leftist Jews on the home front, who forced Germany into a treasonous peace. Building on that idea, they believed that Germany would have to fight another war to regain honor, economic prosperity and its position as a world power. This next war, they believed, was going to be a ’total war.’ It would call upon all of Germany’s resources, human and material, and therefore Germany would need an authoritarian government, in order to unify the country, eliminate weakness and stamp out any opposition.
The generals had no intention of simply fighting against enemy soldiers on the front lines. They were going to target enemy civilians behind the lines as well, since those civilians would be supporting their nations’ war efforts. The generals were also very concerned about the potential for partisan war, that is, war behind the lines in the territories they were going to conquer. They believed that the best way to fight partisans was to be extremely brutal with the civilian population to terrorize civilians into dropping any support for the partisans.
This was a strict violation of international law, but the generals didn’t care about that. They believed that military necessity was far more important. Put all these ideas together and it’s easy to see why the generals supported Adolf Hitler, who promised them everything they needed to fight this war. This is why the generals were willing to commit horrible crimes in pursuit of Nazi aims, even though they didn’t see themselves as Nazis. And for a variety of reasons, including military discipline, long-standing prejudice, peer pressure and Nazi indoctrination, the mass of the troops were willing to go along with the generals.
The Army committed its first atrocities in Poland, in 1939, when they shot thousands of prisoners of war, suspected partisans and civilian hostages. There were fewer crimes in the Western campaign in 1940 because the Germans were fighting French and British, whom they did not see as the kind of racial enemies that they considered the Poles to be. There were more crimes in Greece and Yugoslavia the following spring, but the greatest massive atrocities took place during the war with the Soviet Union, which started in June of 1941. This was to be, from the very start, a ‘war of annihilation.’ That was the phrase that Adolf Hitler used.
Senior German commanders encouraged their troops to act with maximum brutality towards Soviet civilians. The army confiscated masses of food from the Soviet Union, using it to feed itself and the German home front. It used millions of Soviet civilians for forced labor, either at the front or back in Germany. It burned villages and towns, and executed civilians in reprisal for supposed acts of resistance. It killed millions of Soviet prisoners of war, either by direct shooting in cooperation with the SS or through a combination of overwork, starvation and exposure. And it participated in the genocide against the Jews. The military commanders thought that Jews were the driving force behind Communism and, therefore, if they eliminated the Jews, they would take the fight out of the Red Army and the partisans. And so the German army helped to round up Jews, it formed ghettos, it encouraged pogroms, it supported the SS murder squads, and it carried out shootings all on its own.
Now, why study all this? Well, there are two important reasons, really. First of all, if we’re going to learn from history, we have to make sure that that history is complete and accurate. We have to destroy the myths that the German generals created. That’s the only way we’re going to know how the Holocaust really happened. Second, there are broader lessons here about any military’s professional responsibilities and institutional norms in wartime.
We have to look carefully at this time in history when commanders encouraged their troops to commit atrocities in the name of military necessity and ideology. We have to look at military commanders who failed to examine their own prejudices and moral weaknesses, if we’re going to understand how our military can deal with the difficult moral problems that modern warfare presents.