Vernichtungskrieg: Wehrmacht Complicity in the Holocaust on the Eastern Frontby Stephen Vargas
(Stephen Vargas is a volunteer at the Holocaust History Project. He received his B.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2010 and is currently seeking an M.A. in History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. His next project is an essay exploring the foundation, organization, and functions of the Hitler Youth from Weimar to the Third Reich).
Figure 1 "We are partisans, and have shot at German soldiers." The brutal war against civilian "Partisans"” was a marked characteristic of war on the Eastern Front.
Contemporary curriculum on the Holocaust likely designates the passage of the Nuremburg Laws, concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau, and the SS and Einsatzgruppen as some of the more central points of study. Seldom do events like Babi Yar and the Partisan War in the East receive their due attention. The genocide of over 33,000 Jews in the span of two days at Babi Yar was, and has since been, unmatched with regards to its sheer scale. Moreover, the Partisan War resulted in unmitigated terror against civilian and military populations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, a crucial characteristic of the war in the east. These are but a few of many examples of a Holocaust that occurred not in concentration camps, but instead on the battlefront where there was no true designation between civilian and combatant, Slav and Jew, and Communist and anticommunist. It is here that Hitler’s Kulturkampf (cultural war) burgeoned into a Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation) to rid of these aforementioned enemies of the Volk – who had curiously become melded into one euphemistic term permitting their liquidation: Partisan.
Beginning with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Germany embarked on what would become arguably the most murderous, indiscriminate campaign in modern military history. Traditional historiography of German war efforts in World War II paints an image of unmitigated cruelty by such paramilitary forces as the Einsatzgruppen, the Waffen SS, the German Order Police, and radical auxiliary police units from the occupied territories. Indeed, the 1990 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust contains an entry on the Wehrmacht which makes no mention of crimes committed by the Wehrmacht, but instead complicit only through cognizance.1 However an emerging historiography has taken flight, especially after 1995 when an exhibition entitled "Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht, 1941-1944" began touring Germany and Austria. Translated to "War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht," the exhibit portrays essays accompanied by scores of photos that expose the Wehrmacht as yet another weapon of violent persecution in Hitler’s arsenal. While this emerging historiography had circulated among scholars for several years prior, its unbridled challenge of existing public thought proved to be quite controversial. Its authors, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, brought into light a subject that had heretofore been considered settled, debunking the myth that the German Wehrmacht was an independent military apparatus who fought valiantly while maintaining its distance from Holocaust-related crimes. Why it took such a candid exposé as long as it did to be revealed to the public is reserved for further studies; however it can be surmised that prior to Germany's unification in 1990, such discretion was necessary. Politically speaking, the consequences of publishing a historical account of the Wehrmacht's complicity in the Final Solution by German historians could be devastating, especially given that many of the German Democratic Republic's founders were former members of the Wehrmacht – a potential coup de grace in a tense Cold War.2
In light of the intensifying discourse on this matter, this essay seeks to explain the extent of the Wehrmacht's complicity in Holocaust-related crimes during World War II. Its geographical range covers, in a general temporal succession, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic states, Greece, and the Soviet Union. In terms of its victimized populace, although the Holocaust affected many types of minority populations, scholarly evidence elucidates the most persecuted individuals on the battlefront to be gypsies, Communists, Slavs, Jews, and Partisans – however as it was previously explained, by the early 1940s the distinction between these groups had become incredibly muddled under the guise of Partisanship. By the end of the war, the Wehrmacht had assisted, both actively or passively, in the murder of millions of minorities – resulting in one of the most murderous campaigns ever.
Although this essay aims to provide a comprehensive survey of an assemblage of various published scholarship on the topic – including justifications of actions, politicization of the army, indoctrination of the Wehrmacht, and region-specific manifestations of the Holocaust as perpetrated by the Wehrmacht – it is unrealistic to expect every individual argument within each subtopic to be explored. Instead, this is a broad overview of various scholars’ different, but fundamentally similar, interpretations of the Wehrmacht's role in the perpetration of the Holocaust during their Eastern campaign.
Figure 2 This image of two Wehrmacht officers observing the burial of executed victims in Šabac renders the Wehrmacht cognizant, at best, of criminal actions in the East.
Finally, it is worth noting that finding pertinent books in English for the composition of this essay was somewhat frustrating. Literature on the Wehrmacht in the Eastern front is ample; however, many scholars neglect the true nature of the war fought here, only focusing on the military history. Two particular books I came across were written by Werner Haupt, an officer in the northern sector of the Eastern front: Army Group South: The Wehrmacht in Russia, 1941-1945 and Army Group Center: The Wehrmacht in Russia, 1941-1945. Given their subject, I assumed that they would detail numerous occasions of Wehrmacht crimes in the Soviet Union; however Haupt conspicuously excluded any acknowledgement of the criminal nature of war there. Even if his intent was to provide a strictly military history, it is difficult to ignore that the Wehrmacht was engaged in, for example, a declared war against civilian Partisans – many of whom were certainly not Partisans. One can only assume that Haupt’s connection to that front dissuaded him from discussing the criminal nature of warfare there. Thus, Hannes Heer, whose scholarship on this topic is quite extensive, provided one of the best assumptions on the matter of writing such a history. Heer maintains that "To speak of crimes of the Wehrmacht thus means a decision to stop writing military history, and to start writing a social history of war."3 As such, a considerable amount of this essay is dedicated to discussing the social components of this topic – psychology of indoctrination, philosophy of duty, and life in the Third Reich as a civilian and soldier. The latter half of the essay, therefore, will focus on the military engagements which constituted a Holocaust on the Eastern front.
A fundamental question that necessitates explanation in this essay is why seemingly ordinary Germans were compelled to either engage in or passively comply with genocidal acts. Many prominent historians have grappled with this query, including Christopher Browning, Omer Bartov, Daniel Goldhagen, Ulrich Herbert, and Hannes Heer, to name a few. However the overarching theme that permeates their studies is a general understanding that no such universal or definitive explanation exists. Delving into the minds of soldiers to explain how Nazi ideology became almost imbued in the cultural fabric of the average German is a seemingly impossible task, especially given that many of those living soldiers have since suppressed any semblance of cognizance or complicity, lest they shame their hitherto valiant efforts on the Eastern front. Thus, historians are forced to rely on more pragmatic historical and often times philosophical explanations. The former explanations are somewhat more reliable given their empirical foundations; however they do carry over into the philosophical realm as officers and soldiers would ultimately justify genocidal actions utilizing philosophical principles of duty. Before exploring these, however, it is important that I provide a disclaimer: justifications for committing war crimes are to be presented at face value; that is, I am not seeking to provide a case for their validity, but only wish to offer some of the arguments that have been presented post hoc (both by historians and the participants alike). It is thus up to the individual reader to discern for themselves whether these arguments hold.
First to be examined, thus, are the historical roots of anti-Jewish/Bolshevism and radical National-Socialism among the average German [It is important to note here that the term "average" refers to those Germans that were conscripted into the Wehrmacht – this distinction is necessary because it differentiates them from members of the SS and SA, who were active members of the Nazi Party early on, as well as were fully aware of their task before entering the war.] preceding World War II. Aristotle Kallis, in his book Nazi Propaganda and the Second World War, argues that National-Socialism promoted an irredentist rebirth of the Volk. Accordingly, it was endorsed "in ethnic and territorial terms (union of all Germans – Gesamtdeutschland), geopolitical (putting an end to the crippling 'encirclement' of the Reich), racial (establishing a rigid hierarchy of value within German and in the rest of Europe), and 'missionary' (fulfilling its destiny vis-à-vis the Volk, Europe and the whole world)."4 Two key preexisting notions had to exist in order for National-Socialism to truly root itself in German society: anti-Semitism (of any kind), and a Weltanschauung (world view – although this is a fairly vague term) that was congruent with the Nazi understanding. Such sentiments were already in place, albeit on a smaller, more subconscious level. In order to understand the concept of Weltanschauung, the preexistence of anti-Semitism need be explained first, as it abetted in the formation of a formidable "other," with which the general population could ascribe its problems on and justify the need to save the Volksdeutsche (German people).
Anti-Semitism, in its most basic form, was historically rampant in Germany. Although radical anti-Semitism (manifested in the form of pogroms or other physical forms of violence against Jews) was not very prevalent, Ulrich Herbert deems "passive anti-Semitism" as having spread virulently during the years of the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic.5 This is because, as Daniel Goldhagen asserts, the Jews in German eyes' would always be a Fremdkörper, an alien body in Germany.6 Herbert believes that passive anti-Semitism, although lacking in its aggressive fanaticism, was more voyeuristic, simply alleging Jews of heinous crimes. In other words, "this brand of anti-Semitism was reactive rather than proactive."7 That being said, it was nevertheless prepared to accept radical programs, particularly when it came in the form of legal discrimination in 1933. Its legalization, thus, bred a sense of confirmation of these passively anti-Semitic views among its believers, since "no one who was so punished could possibly be completely innocent."8
Although these sentiments were historically characteristic of German society, the most direct and topical cause of their propagation was the results of World War I. World War I mired the German economy and the spirit of its defeated population. A decimated economy led to widespread poverty during the Weimar years, an obvious cesspool for popular dissent. Moreover, the stipulations set forth in the Treaty of Versailles bludgeoned Germany, essentially designating them as chiefly culpable for the war’s existence. Indeed, Part VIII, Section I, Article 231 stated:
"The Allied & Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied & Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies."9
Under this article, Germany assumed full responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Along with this burden, Germany was also charged with paying reparations (a sum of roughly $150 billion by today’s figures), ceding significant tracts of territory, and capping their military force at 100,000 men.10 All of these reprimands were seen by Germans as draconian and disproportionally harsh. The succeeding years of severe economic strife further augmented these contemptuous feelings as Germans endured some of their worst financial years in the wake of a humiliating military defeat. The economy was marred by high unemployment, hyperinflation, and corruption, issues which Hitler promised to alleviate. Predictably, Germans were taken by his rhetoric of change – a condition which is perhaps highlighted best by the words of Inge Aicher-Scholl, sister of Sophie and Hans Scholl [Sophie and Hans Scholl were among the founders of the White Rose, an anti-Nazi student-led organization that sought to bring to light the Nazi genocide occurring in the East, as well as promoted the overthrow of Hitler. Upon their dissemination of a leaflet at the University of Munich, they were arrested, interrogated, and beheaded for crimes of treason.] who were killed by the Nazi state:
"Hitler, or so we heard, wanted to bring greatness, fortune and prosperity to this Fatherland. He wanted to see that everyone had work and bread, that every German become a free, happy and independent person. We thought that was wonderful, and we wanted to do everything we could to contribute."11Aicher-Scholl’s statement highlights that even those who would later vehemently oppose Hitler’s leadership, ultimately suffering greatly for it, could not deny their optimism upon the advent of the Führer. Although certainly not universally felt in Germany, her sentiments are nonetheless quite telling.
Yet those circumstances alone do not explain the continued growth of anti-Semitism/Bolshevism in Germany that made Hitler’s war in the East possible. It took a concerted effort of escapism by the military command and a receptive German population following WWI, which was manifested in the "stab in the back" myth. In order to exonerate the military of any culpability for Germany’s defeat, a myth was created which suggested sabotage on the homefront: both by the general public in failing to fulfill their end of total war, and by Jews, Bolsheviks and other Communists who surreptitiously undercut the war – including those Jews who fought on the battlefield and came to be known as "cowards, deserters, and traitors."12 Not wanting to bear such a perfidious tag, Germans quickly shifted all the blame onto Jews and Communists. Henry Metelmann, who published his autobiographical account as a Wehrmacht soldier, recalled his time in Hitler Youth when "it was drummed into us" that "we had lost the war because the German workers, led, of course, by Communist agitators, had treacherously put the knife in his back by going on strike while [the soldier] held the front-line against the numerically superior enemies."13 [ It is important to note that Metelmann’s affiliation with the Wehrmacht may raise questions regarding his inclination towards perpetuating a self-exculpating myth; however there is a general historical consensus regarding the existence of this myth and the government’s purposeful diffusion of it to a generally responsive population. Thus, Metelmann’s account should be regarded in the sense that a myth existed and its targeted audience responded, for the most part, positively to its existence.] The creation of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy is of little surprise, as Goldhagen asserts that Jews came to be seen as responsible for "everything that was awry in society, from social organization, to political movements, to economic troubles…"14
Explicating the Soldier’s Mind
Figure 3 1919 cartoon depicting Jewish treachery on the homefront during WWI.
Unlike the civilian German, the German Soldat should be examined as a different species – particularly because of the Wehrmacht’s significant standing in Nazi Germany. By 1933, Hitler had placed an enormous emphasis on the Wehrmacht by declaring it the "second pillar" of the state, alongside the Nazi Party15 – the seeds for a political unification had been sewn almost immediately. This politicization of the military, which will be explored further in later paragraphs, enabled Hitler to exploit the soldier as his personal executioner. But why would a soldier submit to such a bastardization of warfare? German ambassador to Rome, Ulrich von Hassel poignantly noted in his diary in May 1941: "With this submission to Hitler’s orders, [OKH Commander-in-Chief Walther von] Brauchitsch has sacrificed the honor of the German Army."16
Indoctrination of ideology certainly played a seminal role in the Wehrmacht’s personal justifications; however the fundamental rationalization for their amoral engagements rested in their soldierly duty to serve the state. SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, a principal perpetrator of Holocaust crimes, alluded to Kant’s principle of the categorical imperative during his hearing at the Nuremburg Trials. Simply put, a categorical imperative is an absolute universal and moral obligation or duty. Kant identifies the lone categorical imperative to be: "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law."17 Eichmann’s understanding of Kant was fundamentally distorted and selective, however, and he asserted that he "could include in this principle the concept of obedience to authority. This I must do, for this authority was then responsible for what happened." He goes on to explain, "Since the formulation of the Kantian principle, there was never so destructive an order from the head of a state as there was from the Nazi Führer. And so there was no precedent." In other words, Eichmann maintains that he followed Hitler as the moral legislator under this Kantian principle because the principle itself had heretofore never been challenged by such a figure. This enabled him, thus, to conclude that "I was only a small man receiving orders, and could not bear responsibility."18 Eichmann’s moral justification for duty was clearly a flawed interpretation of Kant, with almost certain escapist intentions; however it is significant chiefly because it touches on a seemingly universal justification among many rank and file war criminals across time and space – that being a sense of entitlement and imperviousness to moral standards, attributed fundamentally to the ruling body’s established standards and orders. The complicit Wehrmacht should be included among this group.
Such vague understandings of duty are lucidly demonstrated in accounts by Wehrmacht soldiers both during and after the war. For instance, Lt. Hubert Becker explained, "We didn’t understand the Russian campaign from the beginning, nobody did. But it was an order, and orders must be followed to the best of my ability as a soldier. I am an instrument of the State and I must do my duty."19 Henry Metelmann reiterated this point in the opening sentence of his autobiography: "Born into a working-class family, the conviction not to trust my own intelligence but to leave everything important to my 'betters' was a part of my way of thinking since early childhood."20 Metelmann uses this statement to elucidate his belief that he never thought he could write a published book, but its undertones suggest much more: justification for military subservience to one of the most notorious figures in history. This was expressed in Wehrmacht leadership, as well. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who initially objected to exclusionary laws against Jews in the military, swore by his now famous mantra in light of the murders of Jews and Hitler’s catastrophic failures on the battlefields that "Prussian field marshals do not mutiny."21 Hannes Heer examined the moralization of crime, concluding that Paul Tillich’s term "transmoral conscience," suited these soldiers best. This is because, "in their minds misdeeds figure as good deeds, and criminal behavior becomes the enactment of the moral code." Their behavior is therefore possible under specific conditions: "by conquering one’s ‘weaker self’ in favor of demands externally dictated ‘by the state or philosophy (Weltanschauung),’ by setting aside the wishes formed in one’s ‘private and personal life’ in favor of ‘the greater entity,’ in other words of the Wehrmacht, Germany, or simply ‘der Führer.'"22 Thus, an errant, rigid sense of duty to the state seemingly interned members of the Wehrmacht – this, of course, does not relieve them of their actions. Perhaps the best conceptualization of their role under these pretenses of duty, however, is André Mineau’s term “Mitäufer.” Translated by Mineau to "fellow travelers," he argues that it encompasses those who engaged in Nazi ventures because they either shared some (magnitude or severity are irrelevant here) similar goals with the Nazi’s, because of some form of professional subservience, or both.23 Given its emphasis on shared ideology of any degree, Mitläufer is an appropriate description of the Wehrmacht soldier prior to their radicalization and execution of war crimes, as will be elucidated later.
Indoctrinating the Wehrmacht
Given the historical explanations and philosophical justifications of their complicity, the Wehrmacht could be, and indeed was, viewed as a highly malleable military apparatus. Propaganda, as a consequence, was ceaselessly used to transform the German male into an obsequious soldier through any possible means. As one Wehrmacht soldier facetiously put it, "Whenever I see a man in uniform now, I picture him lying on his face waiting for permission to take his nose out of the mud."24 Yet the Wehrmacht’s obedience is no laughing matter. Complying with orders of a terroristic nature required much more than the standard rote indoctrination, although this certainly was a contributing factor. Instead, Hitler’s method of indoctrination was all-encompassing, in terms of both temporality and modality.
Training: Hitler Youth to the Wehrmacht
Indoctrination began early on in Nazi Germany, primarily with the regimentation of young boys in Hitler Youth. Hitler Youth is typically associated with the indoctrination of more radical members of the Nazi Party, but Henry Metelmann’s autobiography serves as an excellent paradigm for those numerous amounts of members who were eventually conscripted into the Wehrmacht. These members were not taken solely by the radical ideological current, but rather more simplistic, practical appeals. Metelmann found himself considerably enticed by Hitler Youth after his Christian scout group was taken over by it, asserting that "I thought the uniform was smashing… Where before we seldom had a decent football to play with, the Hitler Youth now provided us with decent sports equipment, and previously out-of-bounds gymnasiums, swimming pools and even stadiums were now open to us." He continues, "Never in my life had I been on a real holiday… Now under Hitler, for very little money I could go to lovely camps in the mountains, by the rivers or near the sea."25 While promotion of change enabled Hitler to garner support from the elder population as he attempted to consolidate his power in 1933, the crux of his ideological exertions would shift to the younger population; and as Metelmann demonstrates, Hitler achieved this by opening up a wealth of avenues to young German boys who had hitherto lived in a dispiriting Germany hampered by economic destitution. Moreover, Hitler Youth members were taught about the necessity of Lebensraum in the East, and the glory of fighting and dying for Fatherland. Metelmann recalls a strong sense of importance when the police stopped traffic as he and fellow Hitler Youth members marched down streets. These marches, unbeknownst to Metelmann at the time, would run through working class quarters to display Hitler’s authority to a crucial population. 26
When Metelmann and other young Germans were finally absorbed into the Wehrmacht, they experienced similar tactics of rote regimentation and indoctrination. Metelmann recalls, "Our officers and Sergeants made no secret of their aim to mentally and physically break us, in order to remake us in their image in the Prussian tradition," noting that the similar training in the Hitler Youth "meant the Army was able to train us more speedily."27 Other soldiers support this claim, arguing that the persistent physical and mental harassment in training was meant "to break us, to make us lose our will so we’d follow orders without asking…"28 Subsequent military parades as the war neared further incited sentiments of pride and significance. As an aggregate, these subtle methods of "military training" were ultimately intended to fashion a soldier from his earliest years, perhaps preparation for the ‘unsoldierly’ duties he would fulfill when Hitler finally pushed Germany into war. But to achieve this, simple repetitive regimentation would not suffice. It took a comprehensive plan in which the political realm would be united with the military.
Uniting politics and the military
Carl von Clausewitz, in On War, wrote of the political object’s influence on the military object: "War is an instrument of policy; it must necessarily bear its character, it must measure with its scale: the conduct of War, in its great features, is therefore policy itself, which takes up the sword in place of the pen, but does not on that account cease to think according to its own laws."29 Clausewitz, as a Prussian officer, was highly influential on German military thought, and Hitler was no exception. Save the last bit on military’s accordance with its own law as opposed to those offered by the "pen," this quote, above all else, may exemplify exactly why. Of chief strategic importance for Hitler’s plans was the creation of a military that was, first and foremost, a political ideologue. Previously mentioned was Hitler’s politicization of the army when he proclaimed it to be the "second pillar," only behind the Nazi party itself. Hans Fried argues that militarism is a marked characteristic of National-Socialism, concluding that the National-Socialist ideology was embedded in the fabric of German militarism.
"This militarism is characterized as much by the establishment of tyranny at home as by its treatment of conquered territories or allied countries. No technical distinction between the tasks assigned to the professional Army on the one hand, and to the Party or the government on the other, can obscure the fact that they have been working together to perfect a special type of militarism. To name it National Socialist Militarism, is not to say that it is merely militarism of the German National Socialist Workers’ Party. Rather, it means a militarism in which National Socialist methods and doctrines permeate the actions of all the protagonists. Whether or not all of them have been members of the Party, or any similar irrelevancy, does not alter the facts."30Fried demonstrates that there is no true distinction between military and political ideology. National-Socialism’s invasive nature enabled the latter to infect the former. As a result, it was ostensibly inevitable that Hitler would ultimately dictate the strategic, logistical, and moral frameworks of the Wehrmacht. Much like his discriminatory policies of the 1930s, Hitler obtained compliance by the military through legal means.
In 1934, Hitler appointed himself the Wehrmacht’s Supreme Commander, which Syzmon Datner identifies as "a fact that was bound to have an effect on the generals’ [of the Wehrmacht] way of thinking and the indoctrination of the German soldier…"31 On February 4, 1938, Hitler assumed direct command over the Wehrmacht when the Ministry of War was abolished and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW, was created in its stead. The previously autonomous (at least in theory) Ministry of War lost its traditional function of war planning and military guidance as they became the purview of Hitler and his appointed OKW directors, then Generals Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl. [Keitel was later made Field-Marshal and Jodl became the Chief of Operations Staff. ]32 Soon after the creation of the OKW, Chief of Staff of the German General Staff Ludwig Beck, a more traditional Prussian General who resented Hitler’s encroachments on the Ministry of War, resigned from his post. Moreover, by December 1941, Gen. Walther von Brauchitsch was relieved and Hitler assumed the official post as Commander in Chief of the Army. Although Brauchitsch certainly did not provide any opposition to Hitler while commanding, his removal and Beck’s resignation "removed the last vestiges of the General Staff from the planning and military advisor process."33 The Wehrmacht was wholly Hitler’s army. Of considerable importance to this discussion is an assessment offered by Richard Carnicky on Hitler’s ability to efficiently ensnare the Wehrmacht as his war lackey: "Since the German General Staff placed greater importance on technical proficiency and removed the soldier from the political decision making process, the army’s leadership was inadequately prepared to counter Hitler’s radical views on war."34 Thus, they believed that foreign policy decisions would remain under their authority, as it traditionally had. Of course, Hitler would essentially blitz them when he took office, and recognizing that legal stratifications alone would not suffice, Hitler employed radical rhetoric to decisively capture the Wehrmacht.
Hitler’s emphatic oratory delineates him from most leaders, and it is unsurprising that he utilized rhetoric to its full capacity when attempting to achieve conformity. Michael Florinksy’s 1936 book, Fascism and National Socialism, is an excellent source for examining this. A scholar of Russian Bolshevism, Florinsky decided to dabble in the study of Fascism and National Socialism in 1936, assembling his knowledge through two visits to Nazi Germany in 1934 and 1935. Having conducted street interviews with German citizens, including both Nazi and non-Nazi party members, Florinsky’s book is significant for three reasons: its explication of German receptiveness to the Nazi party, a topical account of life in Nazi Germany during its crucial pre-war years, and a prognostic examination of the state’s direction in coming years. He uses Hitler’s assertion that "The individual is nothing – das Volk is everything!” to demonstrate the supremacy of the state.35 Under this assumption of the individual’s absolute subservience to the state, Florinsky believes that Fascism and National Socialism’s “glorification of the State and the Nation leads them along the path of extreme militarism."36 Moreover, "Their ideology… is the bread of… 64 million Germans, and it is being disseminated with an energy and persistency that no other government, except that of Soviet Russia, has ever displayed before…"37 Florinsky’s opinions presaged precisely how history would play out. He further attempted to explain this prospective future and the seeming inevitably of war by noting that Fascism and National Socialism view war as “the supreme test of the Nation but also the most sublime of experiences for the individual.” He continues, "National Socialist leaders have repeated over and over again that war is for the man what child-birth is for the woman."38 Such extreme rhetoric intricately bound party policies and aims with those of the now-established, subservient military. Thus, by the time the war began in 1939, Wehrmacht commanders “concurred ‘that in future greater importance should be attached to instruction on the National Socialist worldview and national policy goals.’”39 National-Socialist rhetoric, however, had already been disseminated en masse through comprehensive propaganda.
Exploiting preexisting societal values
Several scholars, including Bartov and Kallis, argue that Nazi Weltanschauung was most effectively implanted when it harped on existing and established emotions, aspirations or values.40 41 Hans Fried supports this hypothesis, arguing that "a nihilistic movement of such destructive power [like that of the Wehrmacht’s barbaric campaign in the East] cannot base itself on cynics" but instead on such things as "misguided idealism..."42 In other words, propaganda was so efficiently disseminated in Nazi Germany because many of the prejudices and values requisite for Nazi policies were already embedded, at least to some extent, in the minds of the recipient population. "Successful propaganda," Kallis argues, "does not always tell its audience what they most want to hear; it also seeks to maximize the appeal of an otherwise unpopular decision by linking it with established aspirations… of the public."43 In order to persuade Germans of their discriminate policies, the Nazis needed to establish and integrate ‘long-term emplotment,’ [Coined by Hayden White in his 1973 book, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination of Nineteenth-Century Europe, "emplotment" is the construction of a narrative with a plot using a series of historical events.] in which they coherently linked past, present and future events, and ‘short-term justification,’ in which they provided a temporary rationalization of their policies. When successfully integrated, these two categories work concurrently to legitimate a suspect short-term policy with its effectuation of a long-term goal that is not simply putative and unnecessary, but rather concretely rooted in a historical imperativeness.44
An example of this would be the consensus amongst German public opinion when it came to dismantling the Treaty of Versailles. The regime’s step by step rescission of the treaty’s restrictive clauses facilitated the ease of garnering support.45 Anti-Semitism, moreover, was long entrenched in German public opinion, especially given that the Nazi’s conceptual contribution to anti-Semitism was so rudimentary, focusing on a simplistic mono-causal interpretation of past debilitating circumstances (as mentioned prior): the Bolshevik revolution, German defeat in WWI, the "stab in the back" myth, the 1918 revolution in Germany, stipulations of the Versailles Treaty, the Weimar Republic, and the 1929 economic crisis – all of which emanated from the Jew’s Weltverschwörung (international conspiracy).46 Resultantly, civil service and military exclusionary laws in 1933/34 and the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 faced relatively unobstructed passage. Again, the Nazis achieved these policies because they could rely on preexistent notions of similar taste – thus, revolutionary tactics would not be needed.
Putting it all together: preparations for war
The story of the soldier differed. Paramount to understanding their motivation to wage a criminal campaign is their notion of the enemy as, indeed, an Untermensch, or subhuman. This transformation occurred because the Nazi Party was able to endorse a moral reification of the enemy. Discussed by André Mineau, he argues that soldiers understood and tolerated the denial of human dignity to its enemies because of a subconscious moral reification that had occurred within their individual moral frameworks. What this means is that a moral mental process existed in which certain beings were designated "below the level of ontological value required for reciprocal morality."47 Consequently, "higher beings" are permitted to dispose of them. Mineau believes that this notion of a morally reified enemy applied to any Slav, Jew or occupant of conquered Lebensraum – needless to say, it was quite comprehensive.48 Assisting the diffusion of this amoral "moral" permission, members of the Wehrmacht were able to rest on their a posteriori justifications.
In the East, the Wehrmacht was to fight on a geographically harsh front against an enemy they had historically perceived as backwards and brute. Nazi high command recognized this, and given this distinctive circumstance, Goebbels did not endeavor to provide strict literary propaganda for servicemen because "the soldier ‘lives’ the Weltanschauung at the front."49 Logically, the most efficacious mode of indoctrination would be on a plane in which the German soldier was out of his element, stacked against a mythicized enemy and its equally savage populace – thus, the conceptualization of the Untermenschen met its physical form. Many soldiers’ only knowledge of the East was the lingering memories of their hapless fathers who faced a nefarious enemy during the First World War.50
Consequently, a disdainful concept of the "East" as backward, uncivilized, and uncultured developed, with Jews assuming the role of aggregate enemy. Indeed, one Wehrmacht private, upon invasion of Poland, believed that "the time had arrived for the ‘National Socialist people’s army… to march against ‘Juda’ the world-enemy."51 Another conscript relayed to his parents prior to the invasion of Russia, "While eating dinner the subject of the Jews came up. To my astonishment everyone agreed that Jews must disappear from the earth."52 Examples of anti-Semitic thought are rampant – one private involved in the invasion of Poland claimed
"[In Poland] one can see these beasts [Jews] in human form. In their beards and caftans, with their devilish features, they make a dreadful impression on us. Anyone who was not a radical opponent of the Jews must become one here. In comparison to the Polish caftan-Jews, our own Jewish bloodsuckers [in Germany] are lambs. No wonder that after [only] twenty years the Polish State has become victim to these parasites…. We recognize here the need for a radical solution to the Jewish question."53Thus, the radicalization of previously passive anti-Semitism occurred as soldiers were exposed to foreign fronts. This would be augmented with the orders of unbridled warfare that would ensue, thereby hardening the soldier. Hannes Heer’s argument that it was the Reich leadership’s intent to radicalize the army through mass killings of Slavs and Jews in the East supports this assertion.54
The Nazi party’s avid promotion of the Untermenschen clearly permeated the Wehrmacht soldier’s mind. As Mitläufers, a term previously discussed, soldiers possessed precisely enough of a contemptuous conceptualization of their Eastern enemy that their experiences on the battlefield, coupled with their onus of duty, would suffice to enable Hitler’s Vernichtungskrieg to be carried out. As a pseudo-legal basis for their impending crimes, the Nazis stressed that because the Soviet Union was not present at the 1929 Geneva Convention this permitted a circumvention of international law, particularly with regards to the ethical treatment of POWs.55 Not surprisingly, this suspect legal justification became increasingly murky, permitting a wider array of crimes as the war waged on. Not to be discussed now, but certainly a set of orders which benefitted from this witting misinterpretation of international law, are the Barbarossa Orders, established from Operation Barbarossa’s inception until its disbandment.
Compliance was achieved because the High Command and officer corps’ minor ideological congruencies enabled the Nazis’ war to become a reality.56 Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch’s belief that no other institution or group was, or should be, more affirmative of Nazi ideology than the officer corps typifies the importance of an obedient military leadership.57 These well-educated officers (overtly exposed to the Nazi ideologies over the course of their studies) exercised a rigid regimentation of their less educated, but obedient rank and file. Thus, they constantly reminded their troops that the German soldier draws his psychological strength from the "ewigen soldatischen und ethischen Werten der Nation (eternal soldierly and ethical values of the nation."58 By establishing these moral guides, they prepared the Wehrmacht for a war that was not to be waged against another army, but against another people. They were cognizant of the fact that the untraditional type of war they would engage in would bear a heavy psychological effect on the soldiers, because as Jan Philipp Reemtsma asserts, "once war is construed not as a struggle between armies but between peoples, then the war is over only when the enemy people as a people has been annihilated or at least rendered defenseless."59 Thus, when the war on the eastern front finally broke out, the Wehrmacht was prepared to assume its prescribed role as "arms bearer" of the Nazi regime – a position that would come at an astounding cost to its enemy population.
Crimes Committed by the Wehrmacht
In November 1939, as a response to objections about the SS’s brutality, Hitler curtly retorted, "One can’t fight a war with Salvation Army methods."60 This facetious comment by the Führer exemplified Hitler’s perception of how the war should be conducted in the East – devoid of empathy and emphasizing deserved punitive measures against the invaded territory. Although Hitler’s agenda for war in the East was clearly calculated on ideological grounds prior to the invasions, the precise logistics of its conduction were not. Thus, as the coming sections will elucidate, the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht evolved over time as the leadership adapted methods for conducting their Vernichtungskrieg on a region-specific basis – both for efficiency and deniability, as a loss came to appear inevitable. The first case will be Poland, where extermination policies were tested; then I will examine Greece and the Balkan states of Yugoslavia where the aggressive tactics against Partisans became legitimized; and finally I will look at the Soviet Union, the location of perhaps the most heinous crimes committed during the war’s entirety.
As a brief note: the Wehrmacht is comprised by multiple forces, including the Heer (army), the Luftwaffe (air force), and the Kriegsmarine (navy). For the sake of brevity, only the Heer’s crimes will be examined; particularly since the Kriegsmarine was based away from the Eastern front, and the extent of the Luftwaffe’s crimes were advanced sorties that targeted pockets of so-called "Partisans." Thus, their removal from the field eliminated the personal nature of committing such crimes, obliging less indoctrination by command.
Poland: Assessing the Wehrmacht’s Receptiveness
On the very day that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, Hitler addressed his Wehrmacht generals at the Berghof on his expectations for the impending war in Poland, a segment of it which was documented in Helmuth Greiner’s diary:
"Politically there had been a remarkable achievement, now the Wehrmacht would have to prove itself and demonstrate its ability. The war would be waged with the greatest brutality and ruthlessness and until Poland was totally destroyed. The goal was not to occupy the land but to annihilate all forces. He would create the reason for the war. Later in history no one would ask about the reasons."61Thus, Hitler’s plan for Poland was deliberate, lacking only a public impetus for engagement. On the eve of the invasion of Poland, Hitler made that contrived impetus explicitly known during a radio address to Wehrmacht troops:
"The Polish State has rebuffed my attempts to negotiate peaceful, neighborly relations; it has instead resorted to arms. Germans in Poland are being persecuted with bloody terror and driven from home and farmstead… I have been left with no other choice than to use force against force… Always remain aware in every circumstance that you are representatives of Greater National Socialist Germany! Long live our people and our Reich!" 62This poignant appeal on the grounds of overt Polish provocation emboldened Wehrmacht soldiers who, as discussed earlier, were already predisposed to harp on anti-Semitic/Slavic prejudices when they conducted war and occupation. Consequently, in Poland we find the incipient cases of war crimes by the Wehrmacht. Following their invasion and swift victories, members of the Wehrmacht were exposed to the initial phases of Hitler’s Holocaust in an attempt to accustom them to the new expectations of how war should be waged in the East. Thus, the hope was that the Wehrmacht, who led the invasion of towns, would gradually adopt into their toolkit the racial acumen possessed by the SS groups, who followed closely behind them clearing the towns of Untermenschen. Although "official" policies stressed absolute separation of duties between these groups, its practical application, as we will see, was quite the opposite. What would come to characterize the Wehrmacht’s complicity in Poland was passive compliance through unopposing observation of public murders, war crimes against POWs, and in many instances, direct involvement in shootings of civilians or unarmed army personnel – however the uniting factor of all of these was a general sense of apathy towards the ethical treatment of the Polish population, obviously spurred on by racial and ethnic prejudices.
When the army invaded Poland, they came upon an army and people that had been mythologized in their minds as indeed subhuman. Examining the Erfahrungsberichte (field reports) of the invaders, Alexander Rossino notes that derogatory comments about the Polish landscape and people peppered these reports. POWs were described by one soldier as behaving "entirely un-European, even inhumanly"; another described the civilians as "Polish swine" and "damned civilian swine;" and some towns were viewed as "knuckle deep in squalor."63 Such commentaries were endemic in the field reports of Wehrmacht soldiers, elucidating their perception of the subhuman Pole and Jew. Accordingly, Mineau’s suggested reification of the enemy comes into play here, as soldiers wrongly justified mistreatment of the occupied populations because they were unworthy of ethical treatment. This would ultimately come to be partially remedied when command began taking disciplinary action against Wehrmacht crimes, however they did not curb them entirely.
Crimes Against Unarmed Civilians
The Wehrmacht’s treatment of unarmed civilian Poles ranged anywhere from plundering, to rapes, to outright murder. A report dated just 16 days after the invasion highlights an incident in which a Polish girl just 16 years old was forcibly raped by two soldiers in her parents’ bedroom.64 In another case, three soldiers broke into a house late at night and pistol-whipped members of the family in their beds. They then proceeded to rape the 20-year-old daughter at gunpoint in front of her family, eventually leaving with several of their material possessions.65 In the latter case, the soldiers were reported as having been arrested by field officers, but the unruliness of Wehrmacht soldiers in instances of rape was rampant in field reports.
Crimes extended beyond rape and looting, however, as there were numerous cases of soldiers murdering Poles and Jews with either no provocation, or as retaliatory measure against contrived enemies. An example of a case in which no provocation was compulsory for execution is the murder of about 900 Jews on September 15, 1939 after Przemysl was taken by the Wehrmacht. The bodies were tossed into mass graves, which were later exhumed and concealed in 1944. The reason for this crime was "Jewish origin."66 In this instance, outright anti-Semitism prompted this massacre.
Other cases arose from retaliatory efforts by members of the Wehrmacht. In one case, members of the 8th Air Reconnaissance Unit found four mutilated German soldiers in the town of Konskie. Enraged, they gathered an undetermined number of Jewish men and forced them to dig their own graves at the local graveyard, all the while kicking and beating them. The local commander, Major Schulz, confronted the soldiers after watching the scene for some time, and told them that although Jews were the "source of all misfortune in the world," the troops still had to demonstrate discipline. The soldiers agreed and began to disperse, however other soldiers who had gathered to watch the initial scene, then proceeded to beat the Jews again as they attempted to flee. One soldier fired a shot, prompting others to fire. The result: twenty-two Jews dead. The soldier who fired the initial shots was court martialed, but only received a one year sentence because the court ruled his actions partially rational given his discovery of the mutilated bodies.67 Another massacre of 200 unarmed civilians occurred when the 95th Infantry Regiment with an attached SS group entered the town of Zloczew on September 3, 1939. Germans stopped one Pole as they marched in, inquiring whether Polish forces or Jews were in the town. There were then reports of random firing by soldiers into houses, despite an absence of resistance. That night, as another Polish witness recalled, Wehrmacht personnel "ran amok" as they fired on refugees in the town. Victims included a ten-year-old girl disemboweled after being shot in the back and a one-and-a-half-year-old girl whose skull was crushed by the butt of a soldier’s rifle. Postwar investigations concluded that it was highly unlikely that the massacre of civilians in Zloczew was accidentally committed during the heat of battle, as the miniscule remnant forces left behind to defend the town were deemed by the invading company to be sporadic and uncoordinated. Nevertheless, the accused members of the Wehrmacht maintained that they did encounter pockets of civilian resistance prompting their response.68 Thus, such retributive measures often provided impetus for murdering unarmed civilians and Jews in Poland, regardless of the enemy’s existence.
Crimes Against “Guerillas”
These punitive actions eventually came to take on a more systematic nature, as an informal tit-for-tat policy took hold among companies. Deeming the civilian population to be "guerilla" or "Partisan" ensured that swift and decisive measures could be taken against perceived enemies of the Wehrmacht. In other words, they could simultaneously massacre civilians and avoid martial reprimand by simply deeming them "Partisans." What is important to note is that even when civilians were defending their towns, arguably a form of "Partisanship," the brutality exhibited by the Wehrmacht was especially harsh. One such example is the XIII Corps’ eastward advance through Poland in the first two weeks of the invasion. Passing through the town of Ostrówek one night after the company suffered seven casualties in a town eight miles to the west, troops of one division began randomly burning homes and machine-gunning civilians. One victim, Aniela Hes, recalled her 77-year-old father being shot as he attempted to flee, her brother-in-law being shot while looking out his window, and her sister being killed when she opened the door to see what has happening. The commanding General maintained that the company had been fired on by the civilians, and evidence does show that they did experience some sniper fire earlier in the day. Ultimately, however, the troops’ response was vengeful and disproportionate given the limited resistance they experienced.
Figure 4 Soldier posing next to executed Polish civilians in Ciepielów.
POWs were sometimes adorned with the undesirable tag of "Partisan" as well. A soldier of a motorized infantry regiment reported, for example, on the massacre of 300 Polish prisoners after 14 members of their regiment were killed. He reports, the commanding Colonel Wessel "asserts that these [responsible] snipers were Partisans, even though every one of the 300 Poles taken prisoner is wearing a uniform. They are forced to take off their jackets. There, now they look more like Partisans." The "Partisans" were then marched to a ditch where the soldier found them all shot. He then states, "I risk taking two photographs, then one of the armed motorcyclists who did the job on orders from Lieutenant Colonel Wessel posed proudly in front of my lens."69
The blatant malevolence exhibited by these soldiers for the Polish people was staggering. By labeling their enemy’s population "Partisan," they were able to (in their minds) circumvent international laws, all the while relieving themselves of any remorse – as seen in the soldier who proudly stood next to his prized kills. Acts of retribution against Partisans was no extant phenomenon, however. In Poland it was somewhat of an informal system that still received some criticism from military courts, but later in the war it would truly become a systematized mode of exterminating undesirable populations, popularly supported by the Wehrmacht’s leadership.
Crimes Against POWs
As evinced by the aforementioned incident, Polish POWs received horrific treatment once in the hands of the Wehrmacht. The question of the treatment of POWs in all areas occupied by Germany was deliberated at the Nuremburg trials from 1945-1946. Their finding was:
"Prisoners of war were ill-treated and tortured and murdered, not only in defiance of the well-established rules of international law, but in complete disregard of the elementary dictates of humanity"70This mistreatment began from the outset when Germany invaded Poland, and reports certainly support the trial’s assertion.
On September 12, 1939, prisoners were moved into a local elementary school building in Szczucin, among them wounded soldiers. After a Polish officer seized a Wehrmacht officer’s pistol and shot himself and the German, grenades were instantaneously thrown into the building and soldiers outside began to open fire. Members of the Wehrmacht battalion then set fire to the building, and according to the testimony of two Polish priests, "Some [Polish] soldiers tried to jump from the upper story and the roof of the building, but the Germans shot at them and killed them on the spot."71 Seven days later on September 18, 1939, soldiers from an unidentified Panzer unit entered the village of Sladów where they "shot and drowned over 300 people, including some 150 war prisoners…"72 Szymon Datner contends that further offenses were committed by the Wehrmacht during their September 1939 campaign, "including cases of maltreatment, or even murder, of wounded prisoners, and the murder of medical personnel, in disregard of the Red Cross emblem."73 This would set a precedent for the eventual treatment of prisoners when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Establishing the Wehrmacht’s Role
The result of the apparent apathy towards the ethical treatment of Poles and Jews during Wehrmacht’s invasion and occupation created a highly undesirable situation for Poland’s population. The ideological currents promoted by Hitler and the high command endorsed a racially driven war, yet astonishingly the Wehrmacht’s high command was somehow taken by surprise when its soldiers began engaging in discriminate killings of civilians and POWs. A marked trait of Poland, thus, was recalcitrance by the Wehrmacht rank and file resulting from technical and authoritative disorganization within the Wehrmacht. This is seen in complaints by senior officials in the Wehrmacht, whose reasons for lodging complaints against their soldiers’ exposure to war crimes (whether it was those they were directly involved in or those that the SS committed in front of them) ranged anywhere from moral repugnance to a loss of military discipline to a jealous defense of the Wehrmacht’s executive authority on the Front.74 Gen. Johannes Blaskowitz claimed that "the troops do not want to be identified with the atrocities committed by the Security Police, and refuse any cooperation with these Einsatzgruppen…,"75 while Gen. von Brauchitsch complained of a Police Battalion’s exclusion of Wehrmacht assistance in a "military" operation.76 Opinions of disapproval of SS operations on moral grounds like Blaskowitz’s did exist, however not in great numbers in terms of formal complaints. Conversely, many objections resembled those of Brauchitsch who felt the SS operations were encroaching on the Wehrmacht’s authority. The most complaints, however, came from officers that were concerned by the potential of soldiers becoming unruly and losing their military discipline. Thus, they would issue orders like Commanding General of the XVIIIth Army Corps Georg von Küchler did in July 1940:
"… I emphasize the necessity to see to it that all soldiers of the army, especially officers, refrain from any and all criticism of the battle with the population of the GG [General Government], for example the treatment of Polish minorities, of Jews, and of church affairs… Certain units of the party and of the state are entrusted with carrying out this völklische struggle in the East. Soldiers are to keep their distance from these affairs of others units."77As this order demonstrates, eventually the Wehrmacht leadership was able to organize their understandings of the necessary rapport between them and the SS groups – that being a strict demarcation between the Wehrmacht soldier’s duties and those of the SS. While this still did not do much to curb the frequency of Wehrmacht involvement in crimes, their role as an ideology-driven force was radically altered when Germany rescinded their non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. The complexity of this relationship changed as they began to work side-by-side, with racial eliminationist policies now emanating from the Wehrmacht high command’s orders, thereby suggesting them permissible by the average soldier’s ethical and soldierly code.
Greece and Yugoslavia: Anti-Partisan Wars and Reprisal Killings
In 1941, in preparation for Germany’s imminent invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler aimed to secure his southeastern flank by invading Greece and Yugoslavia. The offensive began on April 6 with the assistance of Italian forces, and Yugoslavia and Greece both capitulated on April 18 and April 21, respectively. While Greece would remain intact as a state, divided among its victors into multiple zones of occupation, Yugoslavia was completely dismantled with individual regions divvied out to the various Axis partners.78 Similarities did exist between these two states, beyond their swift capitulation to Germany’s overwhelming Blitzkrieg. Following their defeats, both countries contained considerable sums of Partisan and guerilla forces, which provided a twofold "approval package": first, both countries became rehearsal grounds for systematized Partisan/guerilla warfare that the Wehrmacht would experience later in the Soviet Union; second, their resistance provided impetus for a formal policy of massive reprisal killings, which almost always targeted racial categories like Jews. In the grander scheme, in conjunction with methods of abnormal warfare practiced elsewhere, the Wehrmacht was successfully desensitized for both their war against the Soviet Union and their participation in the systematic liquidation of Untermenschen.
Yugoslavia: the Case of Serbia
Yugoslavia’s populations were both highly receptive and staunchly resistant. Croatia, for example, was headed by a collaborationist government, while Serbia and Macedonia contained significant amounts of resistance forces called Partisans. While examining each of these areas would be illuminating, Serbia provides the best case study as the bulk of substantive literature has been written on it and the anti-Partisan war was particularly gruesome there. Postwar statistics confirm that Serbia was the location of one of the most efficiently applied efforts of liquidation: in April 1941, "approximately 17,000 Jews lived in Serbia under German military rule. One year later, Serbia was ‘free of Jews.'"79 This came at the behest of General Ludwig von Schröder, the Wehrmacht commander in Serbia, who ordered that all Gypsies and Jews be identified, registered, and subjected to forced labor.80 Thus, the standardized persecution of Jews in occupied areas began with the occupation of Serbia, all the while supervised and many times directly implemented by the Wehrmacht. If anything was to prophesy the nature of warfare in Serbia, it was the codename for the initiative bombing of Belgrade marking the invasion of Yugoslavia: "Unternehmen Strafgericht," or "Operation Punishment."
The case of Serbia in 1941, Christopher Browning argues, is somewhat unique relative to other areas of German occupation. This is because he considers it a "minor theater not at the center of Hitler’s 'war of destruction' and quest for Lebensraum" which diminished the role of the SS. As a result, "military commanders there had greater latitude to act according to their own inclinations, attitudes, and values." Traditional Wehrmacht historiography would assert that this relative autonomy would lead to a more orderly and principled occupation, however it is the contradictory nature of the Wehrmacht’s behavior here that typifies the coalescence of military and Nazi attitudes. Several factors contributed to the Wehrmacht’s irregular warfare in Serbia, including the "Nazi political culture exulting in unfettered power, violence, and racial superiority," the exhortation of troops to be "‘tough’ and to act like true Herrenmenschen," and the denigration of Slavic populations, which when combined resulted in a "predilection for violence and atrocity."81 Field Marshal Wilhelm List, German occupation commander of the Balkans in 1941 and a "deeply religious non-Nazi," described Serbs at the Nuremberg trials as "far more passionate, hot blooded, and more cruel."82 This description, although partially rooted in historical prejudices, arose from the irregular, Partisan warfare that was waged in Serbia. Still, while their numbers and presence were considerable, the Wehrmacht’s response was astoundingly disproportionate, targeting Jews, Gypsies, and Serb civilians as either "Partisans" or victims for reprisal killings. Communists were eventually added to this list after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, having previously been exempted by the pact between the two countries.
Figure 5 Execution squad of the Wehrmacht's Großdeutschland Regiment performs its task in Šabac.
To be fair, or at least as fair as one can be in such an examination, the Partisan situation in Serbia was rather muddled, contributing to the confusion of the Wehrmacht. For that reason, it must be noted. In August 1954, the U.S. Department of the Army published a pamphlet titled "German Antiguerilla Operations in the Balkans (1941-1944)." The crux of their study of Yugoslavia is that the Partisan movement there was disorganized to the extent that a mini civil war was actually occurring between resistance forces. Involved were the "Chetniks" headed by Col. Draja Mihailovitch, the formal commander of the resistance forces in Yugoslavia, and the Partisans, headed by Tito. The former generally engaged in "restricted to small-scale actions and sabotage," while the latter were Communist irregulars who engaged in guerilla warfare. Complicating matters further, there were bands of guerilla fighters who operated under their own authority.83 Thus, Partisanship was erratic and rampant, impelling the Germans to simply combine all under the tag of Partisan. Nevertheless, this does not absolve the Wehrmacht of their decision to resultantly target civilians and Jews, as an informal policy of discriminate decimation predated those actions.
The Partisans did find success in thwarting a smooth Wehrmacht occupation. However, their virtue was also their vice, as the guerilla tactics enabled the Germans to justify massive reprisals or "atonement" executions of civilians. Initially, Wehrmacht leadership explicitly ascribed the SD-Einsatzgruppe the role of suppressing Partisan resistance – hostage shootings were the immediate result, targeting Jews, Gypsies, civilian Serbs, and eventually Communists. The Wehrmacht was responsible for burning villages following Partisan attacks and arresting "suspicious persons" that would be handed over to the Security Police. In effect, the Wehrmacht provided the Einsatzgruppe with their "hostage reservoir."84 Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht did engage in the execution of civilians. On April 22, 1941 in Panevo, for instance, eighteen civilians, including one woman, were hanged in a cemetery while fourteen more were shot along the cemetery wall by a Wehrmacht execution squad. Leaving their bodies hanging for several days as a deterrent, it was a reprisal for the death of one soldier and another who was seriously wounded.85 The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SD units would soon change as the military apparatus saw an expansion of their role in the Partisan war, particularly when the Soviet Union was invaded on June 22, 1941.
With Operation Barbarossa came a marked shift in the manner in which occupation and offensives were implemented. In Yugoslavia, orders were given for the radicalization of warfare, and in some cases, Wehrmacht leadership adamantly pressed for this. When Gen. Heinrich Danckelmann demanded that the OKW approve the addition of further SD attachments to Wehrmacht units, they denied his request, informing him that: "Due to turmoil and an increase in acts of sabotage, the Führer expects [Wehrmacht] troops to be used to restore peace and order through quick and decisive action." Thus, the Wehrmacht took up the struggle against the Partisans, forming mobile strike forces that were supplemented by members of police battalions and the SD. The scope of these groups’ tactical clearances was unrestrained, and their coalescence marked the disbandment of overtly delineated functions to cooperative efforts between the Wehrmacht and SS units – members of the Wehrmacht now began to familiarize themselves with SS techniques of liquidation. 86 Still, formalized, direct involvement by the Wehrmacht in the killings did not officially begin until General Franz Böhme was appointed Plenipotentiary Commanding General of Serbia in September 1941.
Not surprisingly, on the same day as Böhme’s appointment came the issuance of Keitel’s order on "combatting Communist insurrection in the occupied regions," which anticipated the execution of anywhere from fifty to one hundred Communists as a "reprisal for the life of a German soldier."87 Böhme was a hardline General, and his appointment spelled the doom of the enemy population. He quickly declared the entire population to be the enemy, having all men arrested and interned in prisons and concentration camps, women and children driven from their homes, villages burned, and livestock confiscated – all done in an effort to send a message to the Partisans of Serbia.88 He also took Keitel’s order to heart, eventually issuing orders that systematized the ratio of executions to victims of Partisan attacks at 100 to 1. Böhme’s first reprisal order came when 21 soldiers were killed by Partisans. Adhering to the 100 to 1 ratio, he issued the following order: "The Chief of Military Administration is requested to select 2,100 prisoners (primarily Jews and Gypsies) in the concentration camps Šabac and Belgrade." This was the first time that the Wehrmacht was ordered to carry out the executions of “hostages,” with the 342nd Division and Corps Intelligence Section 449 responsible in this particular case.89 Eventually, on October 10, 1941, much to the satisfaction of the SS, Böhme issued his comprehensive extermination order, targeting "all Communists, people suspected of being Communists, all Jews, [and] a given number of nationalist and democratically minded inhabitants…" These individuals were to be "seized as hostages in swift operations” and told that “hostages will be shot if German soldiers or ethnic Germans are attacked."90 The results of this order were catastrophic.
Figure 6 "Hostage Execution" form for the execution of 385 hostages from the Šabac concentration camp.
Böhme appealed to historical reminiscences, informing all units that "You are to carry out your task in an area in which, in 1914, rivers of German blood flowed as the result of the duplicity of the Serbs, men and women. You are the avengers of these dead."91 Wehrmacht soldiers, for the most part, willingly responded to such justifications. In Oberleutnant Walther’s November 1 report, he noted that "Shooting Jews is simpler than shooting Gypsies. One has to admit that the Jews die stoically, standing quietly, while the Gypsies howl, scream…"92 Another Oberleutnant, Walter Liepe, casually recounts the executions of hundreds of Jews on different occasions in his field report, at one point stating that, "the units returned to their quarters well satisfied."93 In fact, the mass murder of these so-called "hostages" had become so commonplace by December that "Hostage Executions" forms were printed to hasten the process: to be written was the date, incident "atoned for," number executed, and unit who performed the execution.94
There are two notable massacres which demonstrate the magnitude of reprisal killings by the Wehrmacht in Serbia. First, the massacre in Kraljevo occurred on October 16, 1941. Partisan and Chetnik forces surrounded Wehrmacht units in the vital defensive point of Kraljevo, prompting them to round up hostages comprised of Communists, nationalists, democrats, and Jews on the 14th. On the 16th, members of the 749th and 737th Infantry Regiments and the 717th Infantry Division executed 1,736 men and 19 women. Gen. Böhme lauded these efforts in his October 20 order of the day, "I express my admiration to all officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men who were engaged in these successful operations. Onward to new deeds! Böhme."95 These new deeds came in the second massacre occurring in Kragujevac. Here, more than 2,300 Serbs of all ages were executed to atone for 10 dead and 26 wounded Wehrmacht soldiers in the area. The execution occurred on October 20 after the Wehrmacht had dragged men and boys, including entire school classes with their teachers, into holding barracks. These executions were similarly praised, particularly the "aggressive spirit" and "initiative of the troops" that did not "tend to passivity."96
In Serbia, thus, we see the initial phases of Wehrmacht complicity in systematic executions of contrived enemies. Wolfram Wette argues that "In the Serbian theater of war the Wehrmacht not only created the political and logistical conditions for murdering Jews – as became the rule in the Soviet Union – but also planned their extermination itself and then proceeded to carry it out."97 Yet their targeting of Jews also expanded beyond males here, as the Wehrmacht assisted in the collection, imprisonment and gassing of women and children. They of course held to the absurd justification that Jews and Gypsies were "clearly informants for the rebels," and knowingly led women and children into mobile gas vans that were being employed by March 1942.98 However, the complexity of Wehrmacht complicity may not have become as radicalized in Serbia had not the invasion of the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa occurred.
In Greece, the anti-Partisan war similarly dictated the treatment of civilians. It resembled Yugoslavia much in the same way in that, because they were under the military administration of the Wehrmacht’s Commander Southeast, civilians felt the effects of terroristic warfare. In the Hamburg Institute’s examination of the Wehrmacht’s crimes, they contend that their executions "fanned the flames of national resistance," leading them to respond with more selective reprisals, targeting Jews, Roma and Sinti.99 One common practice in direct contravention of international law was the use of hostages (mostly Jews from the concentration camp at Haidari) as “human shields.” On the Salonika-Athens railway-line, for example, the first two cars of troop and supply trains were open-platform cars loaded with hostages. This would in theory discourage Partisans from attacking railway lines.100
Figure 7 Officer in the 7th Parachute Division finishing off executed "Partisans" in Kondomari.
Reprisals further characterized the Wehrmacht’s invasion and occupation of Greece. When German paratroopers first invaded Crete in May 1941, the Cretan islanders assisted in the defense of the city. Crete was taken in late May, and a livid General Kurt Student, commander of the XI Air Corps, ordered "Revenge Operations" to be carried in response to their participation. His instructions were unambiguously distributed: "1) Shootings; 2) Forced Levies; 3) Burning down villages; 4) Extermination of the male population of the entire region."101 The following day on June 2, Greeks were executed in Kondomari, and the vengeance spread elsewhere, including Kandanos and Alikanos. Estimates place the total number of civilians shot in response to Crete at 2,000 (this number may be exaggerated however). Regardless, General Student and other Wehrmacht commanders in Greece dismissed their soldiers from the outset of all criminal culpability in the shootings of citizens as "reprisals."
By 1943, the complexity of the occupation of Greece had changed dramatically. Fearing an Allied invasion, coupled with an increase in Partisan attacks, the Wehrmacht’s treatment of civilians became increasingly brutal.102 In Kalavrita on December 10, 1943, the largest single massacre in Greece occurred in response to the capture and execution of a German company of about eighty in October. This reprisal resulted in the torching of 24 towns and villages, three monasteries, and 696 civilians shot. The request emanated from Generalmajor Karl von Le Suire of the 117th Jägerdivision, who ordered his men to "level" the villages which had supported the Partisans.103
On August 16, for instance, 317 Greeks from of all ages and both sexes were murdered in the town of Komeno. Committed by the 12th Company of the 98th Regiment of the elite First Mountain Division shortly before dawn, the massacre was carefully orchestrated, as the company of about 100 men encircled the town, firing a flare to alert assault squads to storm the houses. One of the ancillary troops later recalled, "So far as I could see from the tangled mass of humanity there were more women and children than men there."104 What is significant about this event is not only the scale of its inhumaneness, but the participants’ justifications several years later. All of the soldiers agreed that it was done as a reprisal, but glaring discrepancies existed as to who it revenged.105 The Komeno massacre is significant in this respect: for many Wehrmacht soldiers, reprisals killings did not harp on deep-seeded despondency for the loss of fellow combatants, but rather blind and impulsive hatred, likely rooted in xenophobic sentiments; crimes committed in the Soviet Union certainly support this. In other words, these soldiers could not recall who they avenged, but merely followed orders out of some sort of impulsive rage. In effect, this strips reprisals of any tactical credibility (which they arguably lack nonetheless), but instead makes them strictly criminal actions. Unfortunately, impulsive hatred became the catalyst for so many so-called Untermenschen losing their lives during measures of atonement, especially in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union: Terror Unleashed
Figure 8 Operation Barbarossa was intended to overwhelm with swift, decisive, and relentlessly brutal tactics.
That it was long Hitler’s intent to wage a war with the Soviet Union is of little question; such an assumption is only further supported by evidence dated December 18, 1940. Titled "Directives for Special Areas to Order #21" (Barbarossa), it specifically laid out the various areas of operation, the governing authorities, and Hitler’s incontrovertible primacy over the Wehrmacht. Occupied territory was divided between the North (Baltic countries), Center (Byelorussia), and the South (Ukraine). One particular paragraph ordered that the commanding officer in each of their territories was "the supreme representative of the Armed Forces in the respective areas and the bearer of the military sovereign rights. He has the tasks of a Territorial Commander and the rights of a supreme Army Commander or a Commanding General." Thus, they were given the following responsibilities:
"Close cooperation with the Commissioner of the Reich in order to support him in his political task… Exploitation of the country and scouring its economic values for use by German industry... Exploitation of the country for the supply of the troops according to the needs of the OKH… [and] Billeting for armed forces, police and organizations, and for IW’s inasmuch as they remain in the administrative areas."One last stipulation held that the commanding officer’s orders superseded all others, including civilian agencies and commissioners of the Reich.106 These orders are significant because they provided Wehrmacht commanders with orders that spelled the crimes to be committed by them. As it will later be evidenced, the Wehrmacht supported and engaged in numerous crimes against the Soviet population and POWs in accordance with their authority prescribed here. Thus, authority within these occupied territories rested predominately in the hands of the Wehrmacht high command, imputing them full accountability.
When previously discussing the justifications for the Vernichtungskrieg that occurred on the Eastern front, an overarching theme was the collective desire to punish a reified Communist enemy who was truly believed to be Untermenschen. The Soviet Union embodied this deplorable enemy for most Wehrmacht soldiers. Years of propaganda harping on historical circumstances and xenophobic sentiments avidly promoted such notions prior to invasion on June 22, 1941. According to the testaments of Wehrmacht commanders (including Brauchitsch, Manstein, Halder, Warlimont, and Westphal) who represented the Wehrmacht during the Nuremburg trials, Hitler explicitly defined the nature in which the war in the Soviet Union would be fought from the outset. He informed them that "the war with Russia could not be fought with chivalry. It might be a fight of metaphysical and racial contrasts, to be fought with unrelenting hardness. The officers would have to free themselves of traditional views."107 Given the harsh nature of combat on the Eastern front, it appears that they most definitely shed themselves of traditional soldierly codes.
What André Mineau terms the Barbarossa Orders further legitimized the systematic implementation of the liquidation of the Soviet populace. Released at various times throughout the year of 1941, these were a series of preparatory orders that established a precedent for the conduct of war in the East. They would be amended by individual commanders over the course of the war, especially when the Partisan war against the Soviet Union became a viable threat. Although it was specifically directed at the Soviet Union, the methods discussed had been informally applied elsewhere, and therefore served only as pseudo-legal validations.
Barbarossa OrdersThe precedent for a series of discriminate military policies was overtly established with the presence of top Wehrmacht officials. Szymon Datner argues that the first intimation of Hitler’s plan for a Vernichtungskrieg against the Soviet Union was given at a conference in the Reich Chancellery on March 30, 1941. Here, leading Wehrmacht leaders like Keitel, Halder, Leeb, Manstein, Höppner, and Brauchitsch were present as Hitler disclosed his decision to invade the Soviet Union and precisely how it would be waged. Here he pressed for the extermination of "Asiatic barbaric Bolshevism" and a "preventative," unchivalrous war that was legitimated because Russia had not signed the Geneva Convention. Moreover, the Soviet intelligentsia, including the commissars, were a grievous threat to National Socialism. As such, they were not to be treated as regular soldiers, but instead shot so as to avoid any war decades later. The war in the east, he stressed, was to be a war of extermination to curb any such possibility.108 Mineau believes these sentiments to have been so lucidly conveyed that the “criminal orders” would result from the meeting. Moreover, the Wehrmacht command’s presence alone is enough to effectuate criminal liability through cognizance.109 Yet the extent of their complicity clearly extends beyond that, as they readily enacted the criminal orders on the battlefield.
OKH-Sipo-SD Agreement[The Sicherheitspolizei, or Security Police, were comprised by the Gestapo and Kripo. The Sipo and SD merged on September 27, 1939 and were headed by Reinhard Heydrich.]
Signed on April 28, 1941, this agreement established the terms of cooperation between the Wehrmacht and SS groups. Signed by Nazi General Reinhard Heydrich, it designated "the arrest of leading emigrants, saboteurs, terrorists, and so on, coupled with the struggle against endeavors hostile to state and Reich" under the necessary purview of Sipo-SD tasks. Mineau argues that "and so on" enabled Heydrich to extend the list as he saw fit. Furthermore, these tasks were to be done in conjunction with the Wehrmacht who would provide assistance where needed. In effect, this agreement was a formal mandate to liquidate civilians – something the Wehrmacht knowingly singed on to when Brauchitsch signed it.110
Military Jurisdiction Decree
The Military Jurisdiction Decree was dispersed to the OKW on May 13, 1941, and served primarily as a reference order for the Wehrmacht’s conduction of war in the Soviet Union. Signed by Keitel but descending from Hitler, this decree permitted the execution of "enemy" civilians without trial as well as collective reprisals against entire populations. As long as they could conceivably be deemed insurgents or Partisans, Wehrmacht troops were permitted to consult an officer on whether they can be executed.111 As a result, "decisions regarding life and death lay in the hands of the officer nearest at hand."112 What this decree effectively accomplished was the establishment of defined limitations on reprisals and executions of civilians; however practically speaking it merely enabled individual soldiers and officers to arbitrarily condemn civilians (usually Jews and Communists) to death without trial.
The Commissar Order
Szymon Datner considers the Commissar Order to be "one of the most iniquitous directives ever known in the history of modern warfare."113 Issued by the OKW on June 6, 1941, the "Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars" called for the comprehensive liquidation of all Soviet commissars. This is because they were deemed the "real bearers of resistance" who would employ "barbaric, Asiatic methods" of warfare and would treat German POWs cruelly and inhumanely. Accordingly, commissars were, "as a matter of principle," to be separated and shot immediately, if not handed over to the SD.114 This order was disseminated along with the "Guidelines for the Behavior of Troops in Russia" and resulted in the discriminate killing of countless Soviet POWs. It had the reverse effect, however, of invigorating Soviet forces when they eventually discovered the order.
The "Guidelines for the Behavior of Troops in Russia"
On June 12, 1941, the OKW issued the "Guidelines for the Behavior of Troops in Russia". This order extended the enemy to be eliminated to "Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs, [and] Jews…" Moreover, it called for the "complete elimination of any active or passive resistance," which Bernd Boll and Hans Safrian argue was a "proviso designed to justify extending the definition of the enemy at any time."115 This resulted in an unmitigated display of cruelty to the Soviet population that would only intensify with later orders.
Command Directive of the AOK 6 (High Command of the 6th Army)
Figure 9 Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau’s orders signed the death warrants of thousands of Russians
This particular order issued on July 10, 1941, did little in terms of the extension of the scope of enemy inclusion. Rather, it provided the formal criteria for on-the-spot executions and immediate arrests under a pretext of "security." For instance, soldiers in civilian dress were to be executed immediately once discovered (except deserters), civilians deemed "hostile in posture or action" were to be executed as "irregulars," and "unreliable elements, for example Soviet civil functionaries in localities… are to be arrested." Appended to that on July 19 was the approval of "collective measures" (of execution and their houses burned) to be taken against Jews or Russians when acts of sabotage occurred and the saboteur could not be ascertained. These orders resulted in troop commanders’ discretionary murder of Red Army soldiers as "Partisans" whenever they saw fit. 116
Mineau argues that several ensuing directives constituted "complementary orders" of the "Barbarossa Orders." One significant order he does not mention however is the "Reichenau Order." Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau was the Commander-in-Chief of the 6th Army during their murderous march through Russia and issued an order on October 10, 1941 that would be highly lauded by Hitler and promptly distributed to the entire Wehrmacht. His order was essentially to serve as an addendum to the existing orders on the "conduct of the troops in the East." He noted that confusion still existed among troops on how to regard the Bolshevist system, and stressed that "the primary goal of the campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevist system is the absolute destruction of the means of power and the eradication of Asian influence in the European cultural sphere." He then contends that the German soldier is fighting for the entire Volk and avenging any atrocities heretofore committed against them. The culprit of such atrocities, he argues, are the "Jewish subhumanity" who "always instigate[s]" uprisings in the rear. His resolve: "the soldier has two tasks to fulfill… the utter destruction of Bolshevik heresy, of the Soviet state and its war machine" and "the merciless extermination of foreign cunning and cruelty" as a means to liberate "the German people once and for all from the Asiatic-Jewish peril."117 The result was an explicit call for the discriminate persecution of Jewish individuals. As it will later be evinced, Reichenau’s order was by no means novel to the 6th Army, as such overt discrimination was already a standard mode of operation.
The Barbarossa Orders had the desired effect of truly dictating the conduct of war in the Soviet Union. When Germany’s blitzkrieg offensive faltered early on, Germany was left scrambling for any strategic advantage they could acquire. Fortunate for Hitler, he could exploit the staunchness of Soviet resistance, justifying his long-enacted Vernichtungskrieg. Perhaps the ease of previous campaigns in Eastern Europe effectuated the brutality in the Soviet Union. Facing their fiercest competitor, the Wehrmacht may have become disillusioned to any moral codes of war as they readily accepted Hitler’s political war of extermination. Instances of internal opposition, both from the top and bottom, did in fact exist; however the large majority of the Wehrmacht engaged in Hitler’s war, seemingly throwing their consciences to the wind. The case of the Soviet Union is quite unique: by now, troops were well aware of the SD’s missions, having either seen or participated in them. When the war in the Soviet Union began, this relationship was maintained, with more of an initial focus (at least in theory) on preserving a façade of Wehrmacht integrity through passive assistance – of course exceptions existed. As the blitzkrieg failed, the Wehrmacht involved itself more directly in the liquidation of the designated "enemies." When the campaign’s failure appeared inevitable, they assumed the passive role again as they began practicing deniability. The cases to be examined are Belorussia, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia. Although the succeeding examination will highlight certain aspects of Wehrmacht crimes in particular locations, that does not negate the fact that throughout the Soviet Union, POW executions, death marches, rampant starvation, and Partisan executions were ubiquitous. For the sake of clarity, thus, the format was segmented for the most part by locality, rather than category of crime.
The Partisan War in the Soviet Union
Some attention should be given to the Partisan War in the Soviet Union before proceeding further. This is because much of the Wehrmacht’s crimes against the Soviet populace were, like in Yugoslavia and Greece, legitimated as an anti-Partisan war. In fact, Stalin had issued an order for the Partisan War to be unleashed on July 3, 1941, mere weeks after Barbarossa began.118 Yet prior to the invasion itself, Stalin rejected any warnings that Germany would, should they attack, occupy Soviet territory. As a result, no preparations were made, and the Soviet leadership was left scrambling to assemble what Thomas Anderson argues was "an uncoordinated patchwork of very diverse Partisan groups that had little impact on the Wehrmacht’s progress."119 As it would turn out, the Partisan movement never materialized as a viable threat until 1943.120 Still, to the Nazi leadership, Stalin’s initial order had provided an impetus for unbridled warfare against Partisans. Recovered following the war, documents written by Heinrich Himmler evince this attitude: "Now, the Russians have issued an order to initiate Partisan warfare behind our lines. This Partisan warfare has its advantages for us. It gives us the possibility to exterminate anybody who opposes us."121
Operation Barbarossa: Lithuania
Figure 10 Wehrmacht soldiers idly watch, while some photograph a pogrom perpetrated by Lithuanians in Kaunas upon their arrival.
Almost immediately succeeding the commencement of Barbarossa on June 22, Wolfram Wette argues that a precedent was set by the Wehrmacht regarding the nature of their occupation. Contravening the military standards of occupation, the Wehrmacht would remain, at best, in tacit compliance with the SS’s incitement and involvement in the mistreatment and murder of Jews.122 Wette examines Kaunas during the Germans invasion from June 25. During the following two nights, members of the SS Einsatzgruppe A insidiously encouraged Lithuanians to carry out a pogrom against Jews. By the 26th, more than 1,500 Jews were eliminated according to the Einsatzgruppe’s Brigadeführer Franz Stahlecker.123 Moreover, synagogues and Jewish houses were burned, and Jews were herded and beaten in broad daylight. This was all done under the Wehrmacht’s supervision, and the extent of their involvement was joining the crowds to view the spectacle and in some cases take photographs. Thus, no effort to intervene was made as the Wehrmacht crudely proclaimed that they would have no part in the assistance of marginalized and threatened Jewish populations. Instead, they would eventually become willful participants in the crimes themselves. The Wehrmacht would become more and more involved in the terrorization of the civilian population as the war protracted, including in Lithuania, but the bulk of such historical evidence illuminates crimes committed elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Operation Barbarossa: Latvia
In Latvia, Wehrmacht forces were met with staunch resistance. In particular, Margers Vertermanis examined the siege of Liepaja during the early weeks of Barbarossa. Led by Generalleutnant Herzog, Vertermanis discusses the two months of German occupation during the summer of 1941. During this time, the Wehrmacht took it upon themselves to engage in the radical “pacification” of the town once it was under their control. Accounts from witnesses in Liepaja describe the extent of this pacification: one survivor named David Swizon recalled Germans seizing seven Jews and twenty-two Latvians and shooting them next to a bomb crater. He could only describe the Germans as having worn field gray uniforms, which suggests the potential culprits were Wehrmacht, likely the 505th Grenadier Regiment which occupied that area of town.124 Eventually Police Battalion units assumed the role of executioners as mass shootings were systematized, and the Wehrmacht commanders began ordering the public identification of Jews. This, as elsewhere, was done "in the guise of hostage justice," which Vestermanis qualifies as "a typical example of the crimes of the Wehrmacht." Moreover, witnesses recall soldiers "gawking" at the spectacle of public executions, noting an apparent "indifference" and "satisfaction" written on their faces.125
Andrew Ezergailis would support this claim: in the introduction to his book The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944, he argues that although evidence of physical participation in executions is scant, "it is equally true that the Wehrmacht created the conditions in which the killings could take place." This is because martial law prevailed in Latvia, and therefore there is "no question that the Wehrmacht could have stopped the killings had it been determined to do so."126 Moreover, on June 30th, the military commander of the 291st Infantry Division ordered the creation of self-defense (or Selbstschutz) forces that were to be comprised by sympathetic Latvians. It was explicitly stated that their only duty was to assist groups like the SS and SD in "pacifying the land and cleansing it of Bolshevik terror and scattered Russian stragglers."127 Thus, the Wehrmacht called for the establishment of proxy death groups that did, indeed, systematically and discriminately execute undesirable Latvians. Given the semantics of Nazi ideology, when the Wehrmacht commander ordered the cleansing of the "Bolshevik terror," this came to include primarily Jews, who were believed to be the standard ideologues of Bolshevism. A report by Wehrmacht Security Battalion 868 confirms this:
"Two hundred Communists and Jews from the district of Rezekne were shot in the morning hours by the Latvian Self-Defense. This measure produced some indignation. This is partly understandable because no German can imagine the suffering which the population had to bear when the Jews were standard-bearers of Bolshevism."128Ezergailis attributes the rhetoric of this statement to the Wehrmacht author’s absorption of Nazi propaganda about the Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy. This thereby enables him to justify the killings.129
Although the Wehrmacht’s role as an active participant in Latvia is a bit more obscure, it is nevertheless significant because scholarship on this Soviet state lucidly demonstrates Wehrmacht complicity through association. Because they were fully aware and accepting of the mistreatment of specific populations, their guilt is certain – this, of course, does not even take into account their promotion of Latvian death squads. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, active participation was far more evident.
Operation Barbarossa: Byelorussia
Byelorussia, or White Russia, was home to a sizable number of Jews – estimated to be over one million following their absorption of surrounding areas. By the war’s end, the large majority were killed with over 2.2 million Byelorussians dead.130 Here, the Wehrmacht was involved in the establishment of ghettos and eventual liquidation of its occupants, the cleansing of Jews from the countryside, and the unmitigated war against "Partisans" (which was unambiguously a euphemism for Jews). Byelorussians were for the most part ignorant of the terror that would be unleashed on them. The area was historically mistreated by its occupying rule – whether that be Poland or Russia. As a result, they greeted the German army with gifts and approval, earnestly believing the terror of Stalin to be over as they recalled the Germans’ proper treatment of them during WWI. 131 As the German invasion penetrated further, that would all change.
During the initial months, the SS and police units were the primary agents of execution; as was the norm, this did not negate the fact that many members of the Wehrmacht would engage in crimes on their own. For instance, in Mogilev in December 1941, one German soldier haphazardly shot a native in passing, prompting his friends to attack the Germans. The Germans then killed all but one member of the group on the spot. The following day, seven men between the ages of twelve and sixty were randomly selected from the village and shot.132 It is difficult to explain why this incident occurred beyond speculating that the soldier was merely exercising his perceived superiority over a Byelorussian. More organized executions existed, however.
Mass killings were made more efficient with the construction of ghettos for Jews – this was particularly true in Minsk. Byelorussia’s capital of 250,000 was captured by around June 28, and a system was established for the registration, resettlement, and eventual annihilation of Jews. The Economic Inspection of the occupying Wehrmacht forces reported by July 22: "Jews suspected of agitation have been shot in large numbers amounting to several thousand persons. As a result, the Jewish population is intimidated and eager to work."133 Hannes Heer argues that this demonstrated awareness by the Wehrmacht of the fate of the Jews "struck eastern European Jewry [its] ‘first blow.’ It depersonalized and degraded the individual Jew and thus transformed hundreds of thousands into ‘garbage’ to be cleared away systematically by the Einsatzgruppen, police, and Waffen-SS."134 The case of Minsk is significant, therefore, because it elucidates the complicity and full awareness of Wehrmacht occupying forces in the ghettoization and liquidation of Untermenschen.
Cognizance certainly does not relieve the Wehrmacht of their guilt, yet any such debate is rendered moot given their substantial involvement in the liquidation of Jews throughout Byelorussia by October of 1941. Heer designates this the point in which the "troops go 'Jew-hunting,'" which a litany of documented crimes evidence. For instance, in the village of Krupka on October 5, Corporal Richard Heidenreich of the 354th Infantry Regiment reported in his diary the battalion’s execution of over 1,000 Jews. According to his account, fifteen men with "strong nerves" were selected and told that 1,000 Jews lived in the village, all of which "needed to be shot today." After being taken to a nearby swamp, the executions began: "Ten shots sounded, ten Jews were blown away. This went on until all were taken care of… The children clung to their mothers, women to their men… A couple of days later a similarly large number was shot in Kholoponichi. I was involved here too."135 These incidents were not isolated and their unequivocal purpose was to liquidate Jews: following other executions, when the overseeing commander returned, "he then informed the 1st Secretary S. that several Partisans had been shot in action. In reality, it was generally known in the company that this meant Jews who were in no way Partisans."136 Orders emanated from the top, as Major General von Bechtolsheim issued guidelines on September 29 specifying that "Jews must disappear from the countryside." He later clarified (as if it truly needed to be) that to make them disappear, his regiment would need to remove Jews "entirely" from villages because "In case after case, it is clear that these are the sole support the Partisans find in order to survive both now and through the winter. Their annihilation is therefore to be carried out in whatever manner."137 By December, around 20,000 Jews had been resultantly executed by the Wehrmacht.
During this same period, Wehrmacht engagements against Jews extended into the systematic liquidations in ghettos. With the influx of Jews from various areas of Europe, Heer argues that Lt. Gen. Walter Braemer, who was to oversee the military’s security in Ostland, became concerned by the potential of Partisan infection by Jews in ghettos. Moreover, he was wary of the effectiveness of the unproved SIPO and SD in preventing this in Minsk. Thus, with Bechtolsheim urging him to take radical action, Braemer lifted the ban that forbade the Wehrmacht from involving themselves in ghetto actions.138 Their engagements seem innumerable: assistance of 7,000 in Borisov on October 20; the 8th Company’s 4,500 Jews in Nesvizh on October 30; in November, 5,000 in Bobruysk; 1,800 in Mir on November 9 to commemorate a holiday; and eventually around 10,000 in 1942.139 The last cleansing in particular was noted by Wilhelm Kube, an SS-man and General-Kommissar of occupied Byelorussia, who criticized the Wehrmacht in a July 31, 1942 letter:
Figure 11 But one mass shooting conducted by the Wehrmacht
"Through an… already reported encroachment on the Rear Area, Army Group Center, our preparations for liquidating the Jews in the area around Glubokie have been interrupted. The Rear Area, Army Group Center, has, without consulting me, liquidated 10,000 Jews whose systematic extermination we had… already planned."140 Clearly the Wehrmacht’s role had expanded into the realm of complicit executioners by this point. The numbers were astounding by 1942, and would only grow: at least 20,000 in Byelorussia within the first half of 1942.141 The emergence of an existing and formidable Partisan enemy only worsened matters for the Jews and other "Untermenschen."
By the summer of 1942, Partisan numbers swelled from 30,000 to 150,000, with most of them operating in Byelorussia.142 The Wehrmacht’s murderous rampage during the winter of 1941 had essentially provoked a Partisan movement. Shortly before in the Spring, Bechtolsheim responded to the emerging threat by launching "Operation Bamberg," which aimed at combatting the Partisans in southern Byelorussia. By the end of the week-long operation, about 3,500 "Partisans and accomplices" were shot to the Germans’ sixteen casualties (only six dead).143 The disproportionately is glaring, but predictable. Only two exchanges of fire were reported, meaning the primary target of the operation was civilians.144 The mass killings were never precipitated by Partisan activity, nor did the manner in which they were carried out reflect any sort of tactical engagement: "they were taken to the edge of the village and driven into the mill. The mill was then set on fire. Those attempting to flee were shot on the spot."145 By the middle of 1942, the nefarious Heinrich Himmler was placed in charge of combatting the Partisans, whom he now referred to as "bandits." In December, all legal repercussions were rescinded when the OKW issued orders on the war against the "bandits." Women and children were expressly named as potential enemies, and "no German involved in the war against these bandits may be subject to disciplinary action or to a court-martial for his behavior…"146 Moreover, in 1943 the OKW categorized the war against the “bandits” as normal warfare, and joint operations between the Wehrmacht and the SS, SD and police commenced.147 This would be the standard mode of operation until the end of the war. One example is “Operation Cottbus” in which 6,087 “bandits” were killed in battle and 3,709 after. This was contrasted against the Wehrmacht’s 88. Even during this stage, the militancy of its enemy was nonexistent: "We then proceeded to the third village. We didn’t come across any Partisans there. But we still burnt down the village and shot around 50 people. Even women and children."148
When the invasion began, Byelorussians warmly greeted the Wehrmacht; to their dismay, they would serve as the quarry for the definitive radicalization of the Wehrmacht. This level of violence was exhibited elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but perhaps nowhere else was it so comprehensive.
Operation Barbarossa: Ukraine
Ukraine, situated on the Soviet Union’s border with Europe, was an invasion point for Operation Barbarossa on June 22. By the war’s end, the Soviet state’s losses were devastating: home to more than 2.4 million Jews on the eve of invasion, all but about 850,000 (most of whom fled) were killed.149 Initial resistance was scant, as one soldier reported, "Only a few small special detachments fought stubbornly. The great majority of Red soldiers was not influenced at all by a spirit of resistance."150 This was largely a consequence of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s which decimated both the will and numbers in Ukraine; the result was about 3.6 million POWs taken by November, with about 1.3 million of those Ukrainian. 151 As it can be inferred, Ukraine met German advances mostly with surprise and conviviality. Such illusions proved to be fleeting, however, and Nazi racial policies were quickly implemented in the area.
Almost from the outset, Einsatzgruppen were the arbiters of death in Ukraine. Per the standard operational procedures, members of the SD were ascribed with carrying out executions in the rear of army groups as acts of "retribution." The Wehrmacht identified and sequestered these "criminals," who were eventually plainly identified as Jews. Nevertheless, Wehrmacht complicity during the early stages can at best be categorized as cognizant arrestors, since often times its members assisted in the shootings themselves. In a field letter from a Major in Luts’k, for instance, he describes how on July 11, "1,000 Jews are shot in the old citadel on this day. This is an act of retribution for the 2,800 Ukrainians executed during the Bolshevist period. In return, 5,800 Russians lose their lives." During this occasion, an official post called for all "able-bodied Jews" to gather at a specified location for excavation work – 1,000 would come. Waiting for them was an execution squad comprised by members of the SS, Order Police, and Wehrmacht.152 As it may be surmised, Ukrainians welcomed these actions, viewing Jews as tenable scapegoats for past injustices committed by the Soviet Union. Yet to chalk up their treachery to strict anti-Semitism would be presumptuous. Truman Anderson believes that in Ukraine, and arguably elsewhere, the civil populace’s attitude can best be described as "docile and malleable" because "with the exception of the Partisans themselves and small numbers of pro-Soviet and pro-German activists who were willing to risk death in order to serve their respective causes, most people seem to have been willing to obey whichever antagonist appeared most credible at a given time."153 Anti-Semitism merely provided an avenue for infidelity.
Indeed, cooperation appeared to have been the most efficacious option at the time given the numerous accounts of pogroms committed by Ukrainians. These pogroms, however, were insidiously promoted by SD and in some cases, the Wehrmacht assisted. For example, in Zhytomyr on August 7, 1941, a vehicle belonging to the 6th Army Propaganda Company drove through the town announcing that a public execution of two Soviet regional court officials was to take place in the marketplace. Four hundred Jewish men who had been arrested were gathered by the gallows and the opportunity to "settle" any business with them was offered; they were promptly beaten and kicked, mostly by Ukrainians, and eventually the two officials were hanged. All the while, "the soldiers who were watching shouted ‘slowly, slowly,’ so they could take better photographs."154 The 400 Jews were then taken out of the town by the SD and shot in the presence of the 6th Army’s General Staff. In the August 20 Operational Situation Report describing those events, it was reported: "the relationship with the Wehrmacht remains untroubled; above all, there is a constantly growing interest in Wehrmacht circles in the tasks and concerns of security police work… the Wehrmacht is itself engaged in promoting the accomplishment of security police tasks."155
Fearing that unruliness among the rank and file would result from the Wehrmacht’s participation, however, Reichenau ordered for rigid divisions of labor to be upheld: the army would cordon off areas, the Secret Police and Military Police would arrest and guard Jewish civilians, and the SD would liquidate the "saboteurs."156 This specification of duties was for the most part upheld in preceding weeks. While this removed soldiers from physical engagement in executions, it still left them exposed to the mass murders. This is significant not only because it removes plausible deniability, but it also conforms to Hannes Heer’s hypothesis that the Reich leadership planned to radicalize the army through mass killings of Soviet civilians (Slavs as well as Jews).157 Much like in Serbia, exposure served as a means to desensitize. Thus, Reichenau and the OKW may have believed that they could simultaneously maintain an orderly and hardened rank and file with congruent war aims. Reichenau’s rescission of delineated Wehrmacht and SS functions with his "Reichenau Order" supports this claim.
During this transient period of a more detached Wehrmacht, the army was involved in two of the more barbaric events that typified the Holocaust in the Eastern Front. The first was the murder of 90 Jewish children in Belaya Tserkov’. In this town, members of the Wehrmacht were involved in ordering the registration of Jews that would be executed by SS groups. Many of the parents, unaware of their fate, had brought along their children to the registration; in total, 90 children were left behind in a school-like building. Hearing the whimpers of the children one night, one non-commissioned officer approached two military chaplains, Ernst Tewes and Gerhard Wilczek. The chaplains then informed the divisional chaplains of the 295th Infantry Division, Dr Reuss and Kornmann, who subsequently visited the scene. Dr Reuss’s report to their division Lt. Col. Groscurth details the scene as follows:
"The children [aged from a few months old to five or six years] lay or sat on the floor which was covered in their feces. There were flies on the legs and abdomens of most of the children, some of whom were only half dressed. Some of the bigger children (two, three, four years old) were scratching the mortar from the wall and eating it… The lorry-driver had told [nearby military policemen] that these were children of Jews and Jewesses who had already been shot and the children were now going to be taken to be executed… I consider it necessary to report this matter to my HQ [because]… there is no German watch or supervision… and… German soldiers are able to enter it at any time… provoke[ing] a reaction of indignation and criticism."158
Figure 12 Babi Yar, location of one the largest mass executions committed on the Eastern Front.
Clearly the scene repulsed troops who happened upon it, but this letter demonstrates the awareness of members of the Wehrmacht. In subsequent hours, discussions were held between the Wehrmacht and SS about whether the children should be executed. Lt. Col. Groscurth in particular argued that consent from a higher authority within the army was necessary. Appeals eventually reached Reichenau, who concluded that "on principle… the operation that had begun should be properly carried through."159 On August 21, the children were carried by tractor to nearby woods. Awaiting them were Ukrainian militiamen (the Wehrmacht and SS both rejected carrying out the executions themselves) and a fresh grave dug by the Wehrmacht.160 The massacre at Belaya Tserkov’ was discussed by the Wehrmacht before and after it occurred, with Reichenau issuing the final approval. Boll and Safrian argue that this decision meant that "the 6th Army was no longer fighting merely against Jewish ‘commissars,’ ‘snipers,’ ‘saboteurs,’" but instead "making itself a willing accomplice to genocide" without a special order from Hitler.161
Another poignant example of Wehrmacht complicity via passive acceptance and participation was the massacre at Babi Yar. Babi Yar, a ravine outside of Kiev, served as the location for the execution of 33,771 Jews on September 29 and 30. Joshua Rubenstein designated this massacre as “an emblematic atrocity.”162 When measured in terms of sheer magnitude, such an assertion is certainly warranted. Although the Wehrmacht was not involved in the physical executions the Jews, they were complicit in that commanders offered their support prior to, Propaganda Company 637 printed the posters ordering assembly, individual units assisted in corralling the Jews in town, and army engineers dynamited the edges of the ravine to hide the mass grave. The executions were a response to recent bombings in Kiev, and on September 27, a meeting was held "regarding counterintelligence measures in Kiev" – present were officers of the Wehrmacht, SD and SS. In a statement by an officer of the Army Corps XXIX, "evacuation” plans were arranged for the Jews; however all present knew evacuation was a euphemism for execution.163 Clearly the SS believed they had the Wehrmacht’s support following the meeting: in a situational report by Sonderkommando 4a, they stated, "The Wehrmacht welcomes measures and requests radical action."164 Thus, Propaganda Company 637 printed posters ordering Jews to assemble with their "papers, money, valuables, and warm clothing…" All who failed to do so would be shot.165 While only 5,000 to 6,000 were expected, over 30,000 Jews of all ages showed up genuinely expecting to be relocated. On September 30, after the task was completed, the army engineers blew up the edges of the ravine. Many have argued that the majority of the Wehrmacht was unaware of what occurred at Babi Yar, however an officer from the 454th Security Division named Froreich had the following entry in his diary: "The Jews of the city had been ordered to assemble… to be relocated… Approximately 34,000 of them appeared, including women and children. All of them were killed…"166 The accuracy of this uninvolved soldier’s report demonstrates the relative indiscretion of the event among the Wehrmacht.
The city of Kharkov was taken by the Wehrmacht in October 1941. However a retreating Red Army left explosive charges in multiple buildings, resulting in the deaths of seven Germans. The occupying Command’s response: hundreds of civilians, many Jews and Communists, were hanged in public places as retribution. The war journal of one officer in Kharkov reveals the anti-Semitic nature of the Wehrmacht’s subsequent suspicion of civilians that ensued: "The Jews, in particular, who are often left behind as contacts or communications agents, are suspected."167 The most pressing problem here, however, was malnutrition – which was certainly an issue throughout the Soviet Union.
Starvation quickly became a pandemic concern as Barbarossa skidded to a violent halt. Strategists forecasted that the Soviet Union would be taken in a matter of weeks, so only twenty days of rations were supplied. Any foodstuffs thereafter would be procured from the occupied territories – namely Ukraine where their grain surplus was estimated to be 8.7 million tons. This grain would also supply Germany in the event of domestic food shortages. The continuation of the war well beyond a few weeks thwarted this plan. Regardless of their gaffe regarding the timetable of the war, however, Germany had at any rate planned to starve its enemy’s population when it anticipated obtaining its rations only from Southern Ukraine.168 Thus, the prolongation of the war several years beyond meant the Soviet Union would be looted en masse and forced into an extreme famine.
In Kharkov, for example, "feeding the population" was designated in a report by the Commander of the Army Group South Rear Area as being "the most pressing problem." One Wehrmacht officer recommended evacuating the entire population, while another suggested a mass murder program that would select all Jews, commissars, politically "suspicious," and those who were not local residents to be executed. This of course would be performed by the SD. They instead opted to place food procurement in the hands of the civilian authorities, offering voluntary emigration out of Kharkov. The result, however, was the deaths of many Ukrainians a day by the end of 1941.169
The Wehrmacht of course attempted to divert liability for their inability to feed prisoners and occupied populations. On November 10th, the Wehrmacht Propaganda Office issued statements that Moscow’s scorched-earth campaign was responsible for the famine. To expect the Wehrmacht to transport food for prisoners was, by their logic, outlandish given that they were engaged in a war. However, this argument "lacked any validity under international law," and the deaths had little to do with the Soviet’s scorched-earth campaign, according to Geoffrey Megargee.170
Operation Barbarossa: Soviet POWs & Russia
Russia experienced many of the same terrors that other Soviet states did, however conventional warfare (that is, tactical engagements with the regular Red Army) concerned the Wehrmacht most here. The resiliency of the Red Army when it was backed into a corner in cities like Moscow and Stalingrad helped turn the tide of the war; also significant, they helped deny further penetration by the Wehrmacht into Russia. Since these fronts were never truly exposed to the rear areas of the Wehrmacht (where as we know now was the location for the most heinous crimes), most of its citizens were spared at least death by execution. Still, murders of Russian civilians and Jews did occur on a smaller scale in these areas, especially when the Wehrmacht began its retreat. Furthermore, huge numbers perished as they became collateral damage; these included those who died from starvation because of Wehrmacht blockades, from bombings, or from the recklessness of their Soviet protectors. Because of the unique nature the war in Russia, rather than delve into particular crimes committed there, attention will be turned towards the pervasive mistreatment of Soviet POWs.
Figure 13 Army Group Center's commander, Fedor von Bock.
Given the issuance of the Commissar Order on June 6, 1941, the murder of Soviet commissars was the most overt contravention of international law regarding the treatment of POWs. As previously mentioned, it called for the execution of all Soviet commissars under the pretense that they would rouse dissent among POWs. Determining whether the commissar possessed such intentions was left to the discretion of officers. In effect, the Wehrmacht served as judge, jury and executioner – one of the more formal aspects of their war crimes during WWII. Disseminated in writing only to the commanders of armies and the heads of air commands,171 its diffusion by word of mouth to the lower ranks of the officer corps generated two vital consequences: first, it permitted various interpretations of who it should target and, in some cases, whether it would be enforced at all; and second, it diminished the amount of written evidence should the crime ever be brought to trial.
Evidence exists that reveals some Wehrmacht commanders’ protestation of the order. Commanders like Kluge, Weichs, Guderian and Leeb opted to ignore the order, for example. Tresckow appealed to Army Group Center’s commander, Bock, who did submit a formal protest to the OKH. Historian Robert Kane notes that when Bock was confronted by Tresckow, he expressed "feigned" surprise over the stipulations of the order; Kane clarifies that he used the word "feign" because Bock was present during a March 30, 1941 meeting in which Hitler explicitly outlined his intent for the ideological war in the Soviet Union. Kane then claims that when appeals were subsequently denied, Bock "self-righteously lauded himself for his protest – 'Let it be noted, gentlemen, that Field Marshal Bock protested' – but he protested no further!"172 In May 1942, the order was temporarily suspended by Hitler after Kluge made a personal appeal to him. It is important to recognize, however, that with the exception of a few, nearly all appeals to rescind the order were made because of the effect it could have on troop discipline. Kluge, for instance, was concerned about the order’s impact on the "good order and morale of German soldiers".173 On the other hand, other commanders eagerly embraced the criminal order, expecting their troops to do the same: head of the Army General Staff, Franz Halder, for instance, commented that "troops must do their share in the ideological struggle of the eastern campaign."174 And that they did. The Third Panzer Group of Army Group Center reported that on July 31, 1941, in a matter of weeks, it had executed "about 170” commissars".175 In a report by the 6th Army dated October 4, 1941, they noted no enemy contact, but that 122 commissars were liquidated.176 Similar reports were rampant, yet no definitive number can be given on just how many Soviet commissars were killed during World War II. The fact remains, however, that the Wehrmacht was actively involved and the commissars’ deaths were part and parcel of a much larger deliberate extermination of Soviet POWs. Christian Streit places the number at 3.3 million prisoners out of a total of about 5.7 million.177
Figure 14 Blatantly disregarding international law, POWs were marched long distances in treacherous conditions, often times dropping dead.
While Soviet POWs’ deaths should be designated "deliberate," the Wehrmacht’s high command maintained that that was not the case during the ensuing Nuremberg Trials. Much like the starvation of the occupied populations, the Wehrmacht attributed the mistreatment of POWs to logistical inevitabilities that were unforeseen. Given the sheer size of the Red Army, expecting the Wehrmacht to provide adequate quarter and nourishment, by their logic, was near impossible. This argument suggests an extraordinarily naïve Wehrmacht high command, who evidently did not anticipate a victory in the Soviet Union. Success was most definitely contingent upon the capture of large amounts of Red Army soldiers during the campaigns initial stages. Still, the formal plans for the treatment of Soviet POWs were not as brutal, at least on paper. POWs were to be put to work, and those who were not would be moved to larger collection points in rear areas, then to transit camps there, eventually to the USSR’s Western borders, and finally to camps in Germany. The Wehrmacht’s inability to achieve this, Geoffrey Megargee argues, "had more to do with Wehrmacht negligence than fate."178 When the swift capture of hundreds of thousands of Soviets occurred in 1941, however, the Wehrmacht’s implementation of these plans differed. Their ultimate resolve was to order death marches, purposefully induce famines and malnourishment, and perform outright executions. Indeed, the Commissar Order served another critical purpose, regardless if it was ever stated: it provided a tactical guise to lessen POW numbers.
The transport of prisoners took on a truly cruel nature in the Soviet Union, and can be credited with the deaths of thousands of POWs. Orders emanating from General Wagner on July 31, 1941, stipulated that prisoners be transported by foot, or empty trains on platform cars. According to Szymon Datner, this order did not specify under what conditions or distances such modes of transportation could be carried out.179 Thus, the Wehrmacht transported its POWs in the most deplorable conditions. The train cars, for example, were tightly packed and locked on both sweltering and frigid days. Compounded by their extreme hunger, numerous prisoners arrived at camps dead. Marches were equally gruesome. Prisoners were given below the minimum amount of food and water for survival and forced to walk in all sorts of weather for hundreds of kilometers. Any individual who broke away from the column to drink from a puddle or snatch something to eat from a field was shot on the spot. Moreover, any individual who appeared too exhausted or wounded to continue was shot. Nearly two million prisoners perished during 1941, and the brutal procedures contracted only after commanders protested that their work force was weakening and the deaths were giving the Wehrmacht a bad reputation among the civilians (ironically this was a concern). In Col. Erwin Lahousen’s "Observations and findings while traveling in the East," he recognizes the "physical exertion of the marches" and the "meager diet" that results in POWs breaking down and commonly dying. He writes, "The 6th Army has given orders that all prisoners of war who break down are to be executed. Unfortunately, this is done on the road, even in towns…"180 Written in October 1941, his report reveals, first, the 6th Army’s resolve for weakened POWs; second, the conditions of travel; and third, the uneasiness of some commanders that these acts are done publicly. By the end of October, the Wehrmacht leadership resolved to temporarily suspend such treatment because of the failure of blitzkrieg and consequent need for manual labor.181 This did little to curb crimes and it only truly began to be followed by about mid-1942 (individual crimes still occurred, however).
POW camps, for the most part, can hardly be considered “camps.” Datner describes them as follows:
"… a dozen or so acres of vacant land were surrounded with barbed wire, shelters and sentry boxes for camp guards were erected… and the camp was ready. No barracks, no tents, no stores, no water for washing and often not even for drinking, no food during the first days, etc."182
Figure 15 Camp conditions were deplorable, yet Soviet POWs were nevertheless packed in.
Thus, the meager food rations led to widespread starvation, the insufficient hygienic facilities led to endemic diseases, and the poor conditions of camp hospitals essentially condemned its occupants to death. In some cases, prisoners would resort to cannibalism – they were of course promptly shot. As the war dragged on and more and more prisoners flooded camps, massive exterminations were implemented to make room. In Dulag 131, a POW transit camp in Bobruysk, roughly 4,000 Soviet POWs were executed in early November 1941. Then a camp commandant, Carl Languth, recounted before a military tribunal in December 1945 a discussion held with Lt. Col. Freiherr von Roeder, the commandant of Dulag 131. Roeder mentioned to Languth the overcrowded conditions and lack of railway transport for prisoners. Roeder then described: "Colonel Sturm (the staff officer for prisoners of war) has received orders from OKW Berlin which provide for the annihilation of prisoners of war in such cases." Thus, the Wehrmacht high command explicitly provided orders for the extermination of what appears to be "extraneous" prisoners. Roeder continued: "Camp IV, the barracks, will go up in flames. Prisoners of war will die in a blaze… Arson by the prisoners of war and an attempt to escape will be simulated. A special detachment chosen by Colonel Sturm will set the fire." According to the Hamburg Institute, the fire commenced as described, and fleeing POWs were shot by four machine guns.183 Clearly Soviet POWs in camps did not die only from malnourishment and diseases, but from the bullets (either by order or direct involvement) of the Wehrmacht as well.
Of particular importance is the discriminate mistreatment of Jewish POWs. While other prisoners were to be transported to the back lines or to Germany, Jews were singled out. Per a special order by General Wagner, all POWs of Jewish origin were to be removed with other "intolerables" (presumably other categories of Untermenschen and commissars) and summarily executed. This practice was confirmed in the testimony of an army doctor from Dulag 160 in Khorol: "Each load of Soviet POWs was screened by the Wehrmacht in search of commissars… The Jews were being selected and handed over to special camps, to be shot by the SD." Moreover, "at that time each officer and soldier found it natural that each Jew was shot dead."184 Unsympathetic to the treatment of POWs, particularly those of Jewish descent, the Wehrmacht was complicit by consent.
The nature of war that Hitler sought to wage in the East was unparalleled, necessitating, as Daniel Goldhagen described them, "willing executioners." [ This is an extension of Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis that ordinary Germans comprised the SS and Police Battalions; these "willing executioners" should be extended to include members of the Wehrmacht as well.] To relieve the Wehrmacht of any responsibility would be felonious, as they, at the very least, tacitly permitted the murder of millions of individuals simply because they were designated Untermenschen. At a certain point, justifications of duty no longer hold their merit. Prominent scholars have contributed to the untarnished perception of the Wehrmacht as they knowingly dismissed their crimes, instead opting to focus on those of the SS and SD. Simon Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to prosecuting and exposing Nazi war criminals, is one such individual – "'it would never occur to me to prosecute a soldier who in the face of an enemy defended his life with his weapon'… He asserted that he was more interested in those who had not dared to reach the front lines, but had instead abused the inmates of concentration camps." Wiesenthal, according to his biographer Tom Segev, adhered to an "innocent until proven guilty" mentality when it came to the Wehrmacht’s complicity; moreover, he like many historians of his time, purposely afforded a great deal more focus on the SS than the Wehrmacht.185 While I intend in no way to berate Mr. Wiesenthal and his noble life’s work, he represents the traditional currents of Holocaust historians that neglected the role of the Wehrmacht in their historical inquiry. Desensitization to heinous crimes should not dictate due justice, however. The crimes of the Wehrmacht may have as a whole paled in comparison to what occurred in the concentration camps, but relativity does not preclude complicity. One need only examine two poignant postwar accounts by Wehrmacht soldiers:
"We had just shot the four men when I saw two women and three children running away. My rifle still contained five bullets and I took one shot at each of them. All five fell over, and by the time I got to them they were already dead. I had hit four in the back and one child was shot through the neck."186This account was given by a lance-corporal on trial for an operation conducted by his company that required the liquidation of a small "Partisan" town. Another quote details the saturation of anti-Semitism within the Wehrmacht:
"Our returning comrades-in-arms tell us that they had to shoot several Jewish families… from smaller villages located in the area around the convent… One of the company… said, in his exact words, ‘Jew brain, that tastes good.' He said they had just shot Jews, and their brains had sprayed him right in the face… I can still remember how I saw a child grabbed by the head and then shot. The child was then thrown into a hole… H. also told how children had run away during the execution, and that these children were skewered onto a bayonet and then thrown into a hole."Not only does this reveal the grisly nature of the crimes, but it exhibits the sadistic, anti-Semitic thought of its perpetrators. Each of these accounts was described by individuals whose accountability was eventually questioned. But as this essay has demonstrated, similar operations were commonplace among the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Yet how many soldiers actually stood trial? At this point, all it seems we can do is recognize that the crimes of Nazi Germany extended well beyond those committed by members of the Party. Moreover, the scope of what is considered “criminal,” should also be extended to include inactive permission. The Wehrmacht, as such, was wholly complicit in the realization of the Holocaust in the East, with their crimes ranging anywhere from passive compliance to active participation.