War crimes of the Wehrmacht

A woman weeps during the deportation of Jews from Ioannina in Greece on March 25, 1944. The deportation was enforced by the German Army. Almost all of the people deported were murdered on or shortly after April 11, 1944, when the train carrying them reached Auschwitz-Birkenau.[1][2]
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Deportation of Jews of Ioannina March 1944.

War crimes of the Wehrmacht were those carried out by the German armed forces during World War II. While the Schutzstaffel (SS) (in particular the SS-Totenkopfverbände, Einsatzgruppen and Waffen-SS) of Nazi Germany was the organization most responsible for the genocidal killing of the Holocaust, the regular armed forces represented by the Wehrmacht committed war crimes of their own, particularly on the Eastern Front in the war against the Soviet Union.[3][4][5]

The Nuremberg Trials at the end of World War II initially considered whether the Wehrmacht high command structure should be tried, however the OKW was judged not to be a criminal organization under the very technical legal grounds that because of very poor co-ordination between the German Army, Navy and Air Force high commands, which operated as more or less separate fiefdoms during the war, therefore the OKW did not constitute an "organization" as defined by Article 9 of the constitution of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) which conducted the Nuremberg trials.[6] Had it not been for these very narrow legalistic reasons, the OKW would have been judged a "criminal organization" by the IMT.[6] This has often been misconstrued, not the least by German World War Two veterans that the IMT ruled that the OKW was not a "criminal organization" because the Wehrmacht committed no war crimes.[7]

Most Wehrmacht war crimes were committed against Jews, Romani, and Slavs.

Before the war

When the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power, it was welcomed by almost the entire officer corps of the Reichswehr as a way of creating the Wiederwehrhaftmachung of Germany, namely the total militarization of German society in order to ensure that Germany did not lose the next war.[8] As such, what both the Nazis and the German Army wanted to see was a totally militarized Volksgemeinschaft that would be purged of those perceived internal enemies like the Jews who it was believed had "stabbed Germany in the back" in 1918.[9]

As such, many officers willingly embraced National Socialist ideology in the 1930s. Acting on his own initiative, the Defence Minister Werner von Blomberg had purged the Army of all its Jewish personnel in February 1934.[9] On December 8, 1938, the Army leadership had instructed all officers to be thoroughly well versed in National Socialism and to apply its values in all situations. Starting in February 1939, pamphlets were issued that were made required reading in the Army.[10] The content can be gauged by the titles: "The Officer and Politics", "Hitler's World Historical Mission", "The Army in the Third Reich", "The Battle for German Living Space", "Hands off Danzig!", and "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question in the Third Reich". In the last essay, the author, C.A. Holberg wrote:

The defensive battle against Jewry will continue, even if the last Jew has left Germany. Two big and important tasks remain: 1) the eradication of all Jewish influence, above all in the economy and in culture; 2) the battle against World Jewry, which tries to incite all people in the world against Germany.[10]

Attitudes like the ones expressed above coloured all the instructions that came to Wehrmacht troops in the summer of 1939 as a way of preparing for the attack on Poland.[10]

War crimes

See also: Clean Wehrmacht

Some examples of the war crimes the Wehrmacht committed include:

Invasion of Poland


A picture taken secretly by the Polish Underground of Nazi Security Police rounding up Polish intelligentsia at Palmiry near Warsaw in 1940.
Location Palmiry Forest and other locations in Occupied Poland.
Date Spring – summer 1940
Target Polish intellectuals and the upper classes.
Attack type
Weapons Automatic weapons
Deaths 7,000
Perpetrators Nazi Germany Nazi Germany

Wehrmacht attitudes towards Poles were a combination of contempt, fear, and a belief that violence was the best way to deal with them.[11]

Mass murder of Polish civilians

Wehrmacht units killed thousands of Polish civilians during the September 1939 campaign through executions and the terror bombing of cities. Any act of defiance was met with the most ruthless violence, although the Army leadership did seek to discourage so-called "wild" shootings where Wehrmacht troops would indiscriminately shoot all Poles on their own initiative.[11] Court martial proceedings were begun against some of the junior officers who had led these shootings, but this was nullified on October 4, 1939, when Hitler pardoned all military personnel who had been involved in war crimes in Poland.[11] After the end of hostilities, during the Wehrmacht's administration of Poland, which went on until October 25, 1939, 531 towns and villages were burned; the Wehrmacht carried out 714 mass executions, alongside many incidents of plunder, banditry and murder. Altogether, it is estimated that 16,376 Poles fell victim to these atrocities. Approximately 60% of these crimes were committed by the Wehrmacht.[12] Wehrmacht soldiers frequently engaged in the massacre of Jews on their own, rather than just assisting in rounding them up for the SS.[13]

In the summer of 1940, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Main Security Office (including the Gestapo), noted that: "...compared to the crimes, robberies and excesses committed by the army [part of the Wehrmacht], the SS and the police don't look all that bad".[14] Even when the German Army was not involved in war crimes, all of the top military leaders were aware of what was happening in Poland.[11] None made any objection on moral principles; the few who did object did so because of concerns about discipline.[11] Moreover, the general who objected the loudest to war crimes in Poland, General Johannes von Blaskowitz, was opposed to the Army committing war crimes with the SS, not the idea of atrocities against Poland.[15] The Israeli historian Omer Bartov wrote that Blaskowitiz was actually "legitimizing murder" by expressing approval of SS massacres while demanding that the Army be kept out of the massacres as damaging to discipline.[16] Bartov wrote that once officers and troops saw that murder was "legitimate" in Poland, the effect was that the Army tended to copy the SS.[16]

Deliberate bombing of civilians

In one of the Germany military's first acts of World War II the Germany air force bombed the Polish town of Wieluń and later went on to bombing cities across the country, including Warsaw, Frampol and various other cities. Collectively the bombings killed tens of thousands of Polish civilians. However, no positive or specific customary international humanitarian law with respect to aerial warfare existed prior to and during World War II[17] which means that at the time, strategic bombings were not officially war crimes. Because of this, no German officers were prosecuted at the post-World War II Allied war crime trials for aerial raids.[18]

Massacres of Polish POWs

Numerous examples exist in which Polish soldiers were killed after capture; for instance, at Śladów, where 252 prisoners of war (POW)s were shot or drowned, at Ciepielów, where some 300 POWs were killed, and at Zambrów, where a further 300 were killed. Polish POWs of Jewish origin were routinely selected and shot on the spot.[19] The prisoners of the POW camp in Żyrardów, captured after the Battle of the Bzura, were denied any food and starved for ten days.[20] In many cases Polish POWs were burned alive.[13][21] Units of the Polish 7th Infantry Division were massacred after being captured in several individual acts of revenge for their resistance in combat. On September 11, Wehrmacht soldiers threw hand grenades into a school building where they kept Polish POWs.[13] According to German historian Jochen Böhler, the Wehrmacht mass murdered at least 3,000 Polish POWs during the campaign.[22]


There were rapes committed by soldiers of the Wehrmacht forces against Jewish women and girls during the Invasion of Poland.[23] Rapes were also committed against Polish women and girls during mass executions carried out primarily by the Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz, which were accompanied by Wehrmacht soldiers and on territory under the administration of the German military, the rapes were carried out before shooting the female captives.[24]

Only one case of rape was prosecuted by a German court during the military campaign in Poland, the case of gang rape committed by three soldiers against women of the Jewish Kaufmann family in Busko-Zdrój; however, the German judge sentenced the guilty for Rassenschande – shame against the [German] race as defined by the racial policy of Nazi Germany – and not rape.[25]

Widespread plunder and theft

Throughout the campaign Wehrmacht engaged in widespread theft and plunder of Polish citizens' property.[26] Until November 3, 1939 the Wehrmacht sent to the Nazi Germany 10,000 train wagons with stolen property including agricultural machinery, furniture and food.[27][28]

Invasion of Belgium

Vinkt massacre

Main article: Vinkt massacre

Between May 25 and 28, 1940, the Wehrmacht committed several war crimes in and near the small Belgian village of Vinkt. Hostages were taken and used as human shields. As the Belgian army continued to resist, farms were searched and looted, and more hostages were taken. In all, 86 civilians are known to have been executed.[29] Besides Vinkt, other massacres and shootings happened with estimates of 600 victims.[30]

Invasion of the Soviet Union

Some German officers had considered Communism in the Soviet Union to be a Jewish plot even before the Third Reich. In 1918, Karl von Bothmer, the German Army's plenipotentiary in Moscow called the Bolsheviks "a gang of Jews" and expressed the desire "to see a few hundred of these louts hanging on the Kremlin wall".[31] Evaluations of the Red Army by the visiting Reichswehr officers during the period of German-Soviet co-operation in the 1920s often show anti-Semitism with comments about the "Jewish slyness" of General Lev Snitman or the "Jewish blood" of General Leonid Vajner being very typical.[31] In 1932, Ewald Banse, a leading German professor and a member of the National Association for the Military Sciences (a group secretly financed by the Reichswehr) wrote in a pamphlet calling for "intellectual world domination" by Germany wrote that the Soviet leadership was mostly Jewish who dominated an apathetic and mindless Russian masses.[32]

In 1935, Colonel Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel in a report about the military capacity of the Red Army wrote that the commissars were "mostly of the Jewish race".[33]

Commissar Order

Main article: Commissar Order

The order cast the war against the Soviet Union as one of ideological and racial differences, and it provided for the immediate liquidation of political commissars in the Red Army.[34] The order was formulated on Hitler's behalf in 1941 by the Wehrmacht command and distributed to field commanders.[35] General Franz Halder, contrary to what he was to claim after the war, did not oppose the Commissar Order, and instead welcomed it writing that "Troops must participate in the ideological battle in the Eastern campaign to the end".[35] The enforcement of the Commissar Order led to thousands of executions.[35] The German historian Jürgen Förster was to write in 1989 that it was simply not true as most German Army commanders claimed in their memoirs and some German historians like Ernst Nolte were still claiming that the Commissar Order was not enforced.[35]

On July 17, 1941 the OKW declared that the Wehrmacht was to:

free itself from all elements among the prisoners of war considered Bolshevik driving forces. The special situation of the Eastern Campaign therefore demands special measures [an euphemism for killing] which are to be carried out free from bureaucratic and administrative influence and with a willingness to accept responsibility. While so far the regulations and orders concerning prisoners of war were based solely on military considerations, now the political objective must be attained, which is to protect the German nation from Bolshevik inciters and forthwith take the occupied territory strictly in hand.[36]

As such, all Soviet POWs considered to be commissars together with all Jewish POWs were to handed over to the Einsatzgruppen to be shot.[36] The OKW attached great importance to the killings of POWs believed to be commissars as it was believed that if the captured commissars reached POW camps in Germany that they would stage another Dolchstoß like that believed to have caused Germany's defeat in World War I.[36] Between July–October 1941, between 580 000–600 000 POWs in Wehrmacht custody were turned over to the SS to be killed.[36] In September 1941, both Helmuth James von Moltke and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris wrote memos pointing out to the OKW that the order of July 17, 1941 was illegal under international law.[37] In particular, both Moltke and Admiral Canaris noted that the German claim that Soviet POWs had no rights because the Soviet Union had not ratified the Geneva Convention was invalid as Germany had ratified the Geneva Convention and thus under international law was obliged to provide humane treatment for the POWs in its care.[37] In response, Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel wrote: "These scruples accord with the soldierly concepts of a chivalrous war! Here we are concerned with the extermination of an ideology. That is why I approve and defend this measure".[37]

In the summer of 1942, there was an illusory liberalization of the treatment of captured political officers. On June 10, the Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller issued an order on the segregation of prisoners and ordered that commissars be isolated from the rest of the prisoners and sent to Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. However, this did not change the plight of commissars much, as Mauthausen was one of the worst Nazi concentration camps where they usually waited for a slow death. On October 20, 1942, Müller again ordered commissars captured in battle to be shot on the spot. Only those commissars who were identified as deserters were sent to Mauthausen.[38]

In the following months reports continued to be filed regarding the executions of Soviet commissars.[38] The last known account of the liquidation of a political officer came from units of Army Group South in July 1943.[38]

Barbarossa Decree

The background behind the Barbarossa Decree was laid out by Hitler during a high level meeting with military officials on March 30, 1941,[38] where he declared that war against Soviet Russia would be a war of extermination, in which both the political and intellectual elites of Russia would be eradicated by German forces, in order to ensure a long-lasting German victory.[38] Hitler underlined that executions would not be a matter for military courts, but for the organised action of the military.[38] The decree, issued by Field Marshal Keitel a few weeks before Operation Barbarossa, exempted punishable offenses committed by enemy civilians (in Russia) from the jurisdiction of military justice. Suspects were to be brought before an officer who would decide if they were to be shot. Prosecution of offenses against civilians by members of the Wehrmacht was decreed to be "not required" unless necessary for the maintenance of discipline.

The order specified:

The "Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops in Russia" issued by the OKW on May 19, 1941 declared "Judeo-Bolshevism" to be the most deadly enemy of the German nation, and that "It is against this destructive ideology and its adherents that Germany is waging war".[40] The guidelines went on to demand "ruthless and vigorous measures against Bolshevik inciters, guerrillas, saboteurs, Jews, and the complete elimination of all active and passive resistance."[40] Influenced by the guidelines, in a directive sent out to the troops under his command, General Erich Hoepner of the Panzer Group 4 stated:

The war against Russia is an important chapter in the German nation's struggle for existence. It is the old battle of the Germanic against the Slavic people, of the defence of European culture against Muscovite-Asiatic inundation and of the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. The objective of this battle must be the demolition of present-day Russia and must therefore be conducted with unprecedented severity. Every military action must be guided in planning and execution by an iron resolution to exterminate the enemy remorselessly and totally. In particular, no adherents of the contemporary Russian Bolshevik system are to be spared.[41]

In the same spirit, General Müller, who was the Wehrmacht's senior liaison officer for legal matters, in a lecture to military judges on June 11, 1941 advised the judges present that "...in the operation to come, feelings of justice must in certain situations give way to military exigencies and then revert to old habits of warfare ... One of the two adversaries must be finished off. Adherents of the hostile attitude are not be conserved, but liquidated".[42] General Müller declared that, in the war against the Soviet Union, any Soviet civilian who was felt to be hindering the German war effort was to be regarded as a "guerrilla" and shot on the spot.[42] The Army's Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder, declared in a directive that in the event of guerrilla attacks, German troops were to impose "collective measures of force" by massacring villages.[42]

In November 1935, the psychological war laboratory of the Reich War Ministry submitted a study about how best to undermine Red Army morale should a German-Soviet war break out.[43] Working closely with the émigré Russian Fascist Party based in Harbin, the German psychological warfare unit created a series of pamphlets written in Russian for distribution in the Soviet Union.[44] Much of it was designed to play on Russian anti-Semitism, with one pamphlet calling the "Gentlemen commissars and party functionaries" a group of "mostly filthy Jews".[44] The pamphlet ended with the call for "brother soldiers" of the Red Army to rise up and kill all of the "Jewish commissars".[44] Though this material was not used at the time, later in 1941 the material the psychological war laboratory had developed in 1935 was dusted off, and served as the basis not only for propaganda in the Soviet Union but also for propaganda within the German Army.[45] Before Barbarossa, German troops were exposed to violent anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic indoctrination via movies, radio, lectures, books and leaflets.[46] The lectures were delivered by "National Socialist Leadership Officers", who were created for that purpose, and by their junior officers.[46] German Army propaganda portrayed the Soviet enemy in the most dehumanized terms, depicting the Red Army as a force of Slavic Untermenschen (sub-humans) and "Asiatic" savages engaging in "barbaric Asiatic fighting methods" commanded by evil Jewish commissars to whom German troops were to grant no mercy.[47] Typical of the German Army propaganda was the following passage from a pamphlet issued in June 1941:

Anyone who has ever looked into the face of a Red commissar knows what the Bolsheviks are. There is no need here for theoretical reflections. It would be an insult to animals if one were to call the features of these, largely Jewish, tormentors of people beasts. They are the embodiment of the infernal, of the personified insane hatred of everything that is noble in humanity. In the shape of these commissars we witness the revolt of the subhuman against noble blood. The masses whom they are driving to their deaths with every means of icy terror and lunatic incitement would have brought about an end of all meaningful life, had the incursion not been prevented at the last moment;" [the last statement is a reference to the "preventive war" that Barbarossa was alleged to be].[45]

German Army propaganda often gave extracts in newsletters concerning the missions for German troops in the East:

It is necessary to eliminate the red sub-humans, along with their Kremlin dictators. German people will have a great task to perform the most in its history, and the world will hear more about that this task will be completed till the end.[48]

As a result of this sort of propaganda, the majority of the Wehrmacht Heer officers and soldiers tended to regard the war in Nazi terms, seeing their Soviet opponents as so much sub-human trash deserving to be trampled upon.[45] One German soldier wrote home to his father on August 4, 1941 that:

The pitiful hordes on the other side are nothing but felons who are driven by alcohol and the [commissars'] threat of pistols at their heads ... They are nothing but a bunch of assholes! ... Having encountered these Bolshevik hordes and having seen how they live has made a lasting impression on me. Everyone, even the last doubter, knows today that the battle against these sub-humans, who've been whipped into a frenzy by the Jews, was not only necessary but came in the nick of time. Our Führer has saved Europe from certain chaos.[45]

As a result of these views, the majority of the German Army worked enthusiastically with the SS in murdering Jews in the Soviet Union. The British historian Richard J. Evans wrote that junior officers tended to be especially zealous National Socialists with a third of them being Nazi Party members in 1941.[46] The Wehrmacht did not just obey Hitler's criminal orders for Barbarossa because of obedience, but rather because they shared Hitler's belief that the Soviet Union was run by Jews, and that it was necessary for Germany to completely destroy "Judeo-Bolshevism".[34] Jürgen Förster wrote that the majority of Wehrmacht officers sincerely believed that most Red Army commissars were Jews, and that the best way to defeat the Soviet Union was to kill all of the commissars so as to deprive the Russian soldiers of their Jewish leaders.[49]

The order was in line with the interests of the Wehrmacht command, which was eager to secure logistical facilities and routes behind the front line for the divisions on the Eastern Front.[39] On May 24, 1941, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the head of the German Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres – OKH), slightly modified the assumptions of the "Barbarossa Jurisdiction." His orders were to use the jurisdiction only in cases where the discipline of the army would not suffer. Contrary to what was claimed after the war, the Wehrmacht generals such as Heinz Guderian, did not intend to mitigate the records of the jurisdiction of an order, or in any way violate Hitler's intentions.[39] His command was intended solely to prevent individual excesses which could damage discipline within army ranks, without changing the extermination intentions of the order.[38]

As part of the policy of harshness towards Slavic "sub-humans" and to prevent any tendency towards seeing the enemy as human, German troops were ordered to go out of their way to mistreat women and children in Russia.[50] In October 1941, the commander of the 12th Infantry Division sent out a directive saying "the carrying of information is mostly done by youngsters in the ages of 11–14" and that "as the Russian is more afraid of the truncheon than of weapons, flogging is the most advisable measure for interrogation".[51] The Nazis at the beginning of the war banned sexual relations between Germans and foreign slave workers.[52] In accordance to these new racial laws issued by the Nazis; in November 1941, the commander of the 18th Panzer Division warned his soldiers not to have sex with "sub-human" Russian women, and ordered that any Russian women found having sex with a German soldier was to be handed over to the SS to be executed at once.[53] A decree ordered on 20 February 1942 declared that sexual intercourse between a German woman and a Russian worker or prisoner of war would result in the latter being punished by the death penalty.[54] During the war, hundreds of Polish and Russian men were found guilty of "race defilement" for their relations with German women and were executed.[55][56] It should be noted that these directives applied only to consensual sex; the Wehrmacht's view towards rape was much more tolerant.

Anti-Partisan and anti-Jewish actions

Under the guise of anti-partisan operations, the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union massacred Jews. Co-operation with the SS in anti-partisan and anti-Jewish operations was close and intensive.[57] In the spring of 1941, Reinhard Heydrich and the First quartermaster of the German Army, General Eduard Wagner successfully completed negotiations for co-operation between the Einsatzgruppen and the German Army to allow the implementation of "special tasks".[58] Following the Heydrich-Wagner agreement on April 28, 1941, Feldmarshal Walther von Brauchitsch ordered when Operation Barbarossa began that all German Army commanders were to identify and register all Jews in the occupied areas in the Soviet Union at once and to co-operate fully with the Einsatzgruppen".[59] Each Einsatzgruppe, in its area of operations, was under the control of the Higher SS-Police Chiefs.[59] In a further agreement between the Army and the SS concluded in May 1941 by General Wagner and Walter Schellenberg, it was agreed that the Einsatzgruppen in front-line areas were to operate under Army command while the Army would provide the Einsatzgruppen with all necessary logistical support.[60]

In August 1941, following the protests by two Lutheran chaplains about the massacre of a group of Jewish women and children at Byelaya Tserkov, General von Reichenau wrote:

The conclusion of the report in question contains the following sentence, "In the case in question, measures against women and children were undertaken which in no way differ from atrocities carried out by the enemy about which the troops are continually being informed".

I have to describe this assessment as incorrect, inappropriate and impertinent in the extreme. Moreover this comment was written in an open communication which passes through many hands.

It would have been far better if the report had not been written at all.[61]

One SS man who saw the killings at Byelaya Tserkov described them as follows:

I went to the woods alone. The Wehrmacht had already dug a grave. The children were brought along in a tractor. I had nothing to do with this technical procedure. The Ukrainians were standing around trembling. The children were taken down from the tractor. They were lined up along the top of the grave and shot so that they fell into it. The Ukrainians did not aim at any particular part of the body. They fell into the grave. The wailing was indescribable. I shall never forget the scene throughout my life. I find it very hard to bear. I particularly remember a small fair-haired girl who took me by the hand. She too was shot later ... The grave was near some woods. It was not near the rifle-range. The execution must had taken place in the afternoon at about 3.30 or 4.00. It took place the day after the discussions at the Feldkommandanten...Many children were hit four or five times before they died.[62]

In the summer of 1941, the SS Cavalry Brigade commanded by Hermann Fegelein during the course of "anti-partisan" operations in the Pripyat Marshes killed 699 Red Army soldiers, 1,100 partisans and 14,178 Jews.[57] Before the operation, Fegelein had been ordered to shoot all adult Jews while driving the women and children into the marshes. After the operation, General Max von Schenckendorff, who commanded the rear areas of Army Group Centre ordered on August 10, 1941 that all Wehrmacht security divisions when on anti-partisan duty were to emulate Fegelein's example and organized between September 24 and 26, 1941 in Mogilev, a joint SS-Wehrmacht seminar on how best to murder Jews.[57] The seminar ended with the 7th Company of Police Battalion 322 shooting 32 Jews at a village called Knjashizy before the assembled officers as an example of how to "screen" the population for partisans.[63] As the war diary of the Battalion 322 read:

The action, first scheduled as a training exercise was carried out under real-life conditions (ernstfallmässig) in the village itself. Strangers, especially partisans could not be found. The screening of the population, however resulted in 13 Jews, 27 Jewish women and 11 Jewish children, of which 13 Jews and 19 Jewish women were shot in co-operation with the Security Service.[63]

Based on what they had learned during the Mogilev seminar, one Wehrmacht officer told his men "Where the partisan is, there is the Jew and where the Jew is, there is the partisan".[63]

The 707th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht put this principle into practice during an "anti-partisan" sweep that saw the division shoot 10,431 people out of the 19,940 it had detained during the sweep while suffering only two dead and five wounded in the process.[64] In Order No. 24 dated November 24, 1941, the commander of the 707th Division declared:

5. Jews and Gypsies: ... As already has been ordered, the Jews have to vanish from the flat country and the Gypsies have to be annihilated too. The carrying out of larger Jewish actions is not the task of the divisional units. They are carried out by civilian or police authorities, if necessary ordered by the commandant of White Ruthenia, if he has special units at his disposal, or for security reasons and in the case of collective punishments. When smaller or larger groups of Jews are met in the flat country, they can be liquidated by divisional units or be massed in the ghettos near bigger villages designated for that purpose, where they can be handed over to the civilian authority or the SD.[64]

At Mirgorod, the 62nd Infantry Division executed "the entire Jewish population (168 people) for associating with partisans".[65] At Novomoskovsk, the 444th Security Division reported that they had killed "305 bandits, 6 women with rifles (Flintenweiber), 39 prisoners-of-war and 136 Jews".[65] In revenge for a partisan attack that had killed one German soldier, the Ersatz-Brigade 202 "as an act of retaliation shot 20 Jews from the villages of Bobosjanka and Gornostajewka and burnt down 5 Jew-houses".[66] Even more extreme was the case in Serbia, where the majority of the Jews there were murdered by the Wehrmacht, not the SS.[67] At Šabac, "Central European Jewish refugees, mostly Austrians, were shot by troops of predominantly Austrian origin in retaliation for casualties inflicted by Serbian partisans on the German Army".[65] The orders issued by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel in September 1941 called for the German Army to shoot 100 Serbs for every German soldier killed by the Serb guerrillas and did not call for Jews to be singled out.[68] But because of rampant anti-Semitism in the German officer corps, it was more or less automatically assumed that the Serbian Jewish community were behind all of the partisan attacks, hence the targeting of Jews in the mass shootings carried out in retaliation for guerilla attacks.[68] The German historian Jürgen Förster, a leading expert on the subject of Wehrmacht war crimes, argued that the Wehrmacht played a key role in the Holocaust and it is wrong to ascribe the Shoah as solely the work of the SS while the Wehrmacht were a more or less passive and disapproving bystander.[67]

Killing of Jews at Ivangorod, Ukraine, 1942. A woman is attempting to protect a child with her own body just before they are fired on with rifles at close range

Besides its own war crimes, the Wehrmacht worked very closely with the Einsatzgruppen in murdering members of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. On October 10, 1941 General Walther von Reichenau drafted an order to be read to the troops under his command stating that: "the soldier must achieve full understanding of the necessity for a harsh but just vengeance against Jewish subhumanity."[69] Upon hearing of Reichenau's Severity Order, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group South announced his "complete agreement" with it, and sent out a circular to all of the Army generals under his command urging them to send out their own versions of the Severity Order, which would impress upon the troops the need to exterminate Jews.[70] General Erich von Manstein, in an order to his troops on November 20, 1941 stated:

Jewry is the middleman between the enemy at our rear and the still fighting remnants of the Red Army and the Red leadership; more than in Europe, it [Jewry] occupies all key posts of the political leadership and administration, of trade and crafts and forms the nucleus for all disquiet and possible revolts. The Jewish-Bolshevist system must be exterminated once and for all.[69]

On July 6, 1941 Einsatzkommando 4b of Einsatzgruppe C – which was operating in Tarnopol at the time – sent a report which noted "Armed forces surprisingly welcome hostility against the Jews".[71] On September 8, 1941 Einsatzgruppe D reported that relations with the German Army were "excellent".[71] Franz Walter Stahlecker of Einsatzgruppe A wrote in September 1941 that Army Group North had been exemplary in co-operating with his men in murdering Jews and that relations with the Fourth Panzer Army commanded by General Erich Hoepner were "very close, almost cordial".[71]


Rapes were allowed in practice by the German military in eastern and southeastern Europe, while northern and western countries were relatively spared.[72][73] In Occupied Denmark, which initially agreed to collaborate with Nazi Germany, rapes were not widespread, and German officials promised to punish them.[72] By contrast thousands of Soviet female nurses, doctors and field medics fell victim to rape when captured, and were often murdered afterwards.[38] German soldiers used to brand the bodies of captured partisan women – and other women as well – with the words "Whore for Hitler's troops" and rape them.[74] Following their capture some German soldiers vividly bragged about committing rape and rape-homicide.[75] In the Soviet Union alone an estimates regarding the rape of Soviet women by the Wehrmacht range up to 10,000,000 incidents, with between 750,000 and 1,000,000 children being born as a result.[76][77][78][79]

Birgit Beck in her work Rape: The Military Trials of Sexual Crimes Committed by Soldiers in the Wehrmacht, 1939–1944 describes the leniency in punishing sex crimes by German authorities in the East, at the same time pointing out heavy punishments applied in the West.[80] If a soldier who committed a rape was subsequently convicted by a court-martial, he would usually be sentenced to four years in prison[81] The German penal code was also valid for soldiers in war.[82] but rapes were rarely prosecuted in practice and rapes by Germans of non-German women were not taken seriously, nor was it punishable by death, especially in the eastern European territories.[76]

In Soviet Russia rapes were only a concern if they undermined military discipline.[80] The German military command viewed them as another method of crushing Soviet resistance.[76] Since 1941, rape was theoretically punishable with the death sentence; however, this only concerned the rape of German women and was intended to protect German communities.[76]

In October 1940 the laws on rape were changed, making it a "petitioned crime" – that is a crime for which punishment had to be requested. Historian Christa Paul writes that this resulted in "a nearly complete absence of prosecution and punishment for rape".[76] There were rape cases in the east where the perpetrators were sentenced if the rape was highly visible, damaging to the image of the German Army and the courts were willing to pass a condemning verdict against the accused.[76]

According to the historian Regina Mühlhäuser, the Wehrmacht also used sexual torture and undressing in numerous cases of interrogations.[83] In one of her publications, she mentions that until 1944 5.349 soldiers of the Wehrmacht on all fronts were sentenced because of rape or sodomy.[84] She also states that the amount of illegitimate children born in the occupied regions did not exceed the prewar time. She comes to the conclusion that rapes on the Eastern front were not singular cases but has to admit that the state of source material is very poor.[85]

Wehrmacht brothel system

A military brothel (Soldatenbordell) in Brest, France

Under the German occupation, a widespread system of sexual slavery (forced prostitution) was instituted.[76] The Wehrmacht also ran brothels where women were forced to work.[74][86] The reason for establishing these brothels was the German officials' fear of venereal disease and onanism (masturbation). The Oberfeldarzt der Wehrmacht (Chief Field Doctor of the Wehrmacht) drew attention to "the danger of [the] spread of homosexualism".[25][87]

On May 3, 1941 the Foreign Ministry of the Polish Government in Exile issued a document describing the mass raids carried out in Polish cities with the aim of capturing young women, who were later forced to work in brothels attended by German officers and soldiers.[25]

In the Soviet Union women were kidnapped by German forces for prostitution; one report by the International Military Tribunal stated that "in the city of Smolensk the German Command opened a brothel for officers in one of the hotels into which hundreds of women and girls were driven; they were mercilessly dragged down the street by their arms and hair."[88]

The Nuremberg trials did not prosecute anyone for rape or other sexual violence; rape was defined as a crime against humanity, but prosecution was not included because such crimes had "no nexus to war".[76]

POW maltreatment

POW Camps

The Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War had been signed by Germany and most other countries[89] in 1929, while the USSR and Japan did not sign until after the war (the final version of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949). This meant that Germany was legally obliged to treat all POWs according to it, while in turn, Germans captured by the Red Army could not expect to be treated in such a manner. The Soviet Union and Japan did not treat prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

While the Wehrmacht's prisoner-of-war camps for inmates from the west generally satisfied the humanitarian requirement prescribed by international law, prisoners from Poland (which never capitulated) and the USSR were incarcerated under significantly worse conditions.

By December 1941, more than 2.4 million Soviet Red Army troops had been taken prisoner. These men suffered from malnutrition and diseases such as typhus that resulted from the Wehrmacht's failure to provide sufficient food, shelter, proper sanitation and medical care. Prisoners were regularly subject to torture, beatings and humiliation. All Jews, commissars, "intellectuals" and Muslims serving in the Red Army were either executed by the Wehrmacht or handed over to the SS to be shot.[90] The Muslim POWs were shot because they were circumcised, and therefore might be Jewish; it was felt to be safer to simply shoot all circumcised POWs rather run the risk that a Jewish POW might escape execution by claiming to be a Muslim.[90] Reflecting the close co-operation between the Wehrmacht and the SS was an Einsatzgruppen report, which read:

In Borispol, following a demand by the Commandant of the local P/W camp, a platoon of Sonderkommando 4 shot 752 Jewish prisoners of war on 14 October and 356 on 16 October 1941 including several commissars and 78 wounded Jews handed over by the camp medical officer.[91]

According to a RHSA report of December 5, 1941, the Wehrmacht had since June 22 handed over to the Einsatzgruppen 16, 000 Soviet POWs to be "liquidated".[91] A Typical of the Wehrmacht's treatment of Soviet POWs were the reports of the 11th Army commanded by Erich von Manstein on the "wastage" rates in the first half of 1942. According to the reports:[91]

Date Died/shot Escaped Handed over
to the SD
Discharged Total wastage
7.1.1942 135 181 140 26 507
6.2.1942 1,116 155 111 2,293 3,680
6.3.1942 1,115 36 66 298 1,522

Between the launching of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 and the following spring, 2.8 million of the 3.2 million prisoners taken died while in German hands.[92] The German failure to attain their anticipated victory in the East led to significant shortages of labor for German war production and, beginning in 1942, prisoners of war in the eastern POW camps – primarily Soviets – were seen as a source of slave labor to keep Germany's wartime economy running.[92] On August 6, 1941, the OKW declared that Soviet POWs capable of work were to receive 2,200 calories/day and those not capable of work 2,040 calories/day.[93] On October 21, 1941, the OKW ordered a huge reduction in the food rations for Soviet POWs, with POWs incapable of work henceforth to receive only 1,490 calories/day.[94] In a meeting of senior generals called at Orša on November 13, 1941, the Army's First quarter-master General Eduard Wagner stated "Non-working prisoners of war in the camps are to starve".[94]

A grand total of 5.7 million Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner during the war, of whom at least 3.3 million (58 percent of the total) died in captivity.[95]


The killing of POWs by Wehrmacht soldiers started during the September 1939 Poland campaign. In many cases large groups of Polish soldiers were murdered after capture. Hitler's Commando Order, issued in 1942, provided "justification" for the shooting of enemy commandos, whether uniformed or not.

The massacres include that of at least 1500 black French POWs of West African origin and was preceded by propaganda depicting the Africans as savages.[96] From October 1942 onwards, the Wehrmacht carried out the 'Commando Order' calling for the summary execution of all captured commandos, even if in uniform. After the Italian armistice in 1943, many POWs were executed on several occasions when Italian troops resisted their forcible disarmament by the Germans. The massacre of the Acqui Division at Kefalonia is the most infamous.

On March 26, 1944, 15 uniformed US Army officers and men were shot without trial at La Spezia, in Italy, after orders of the commander of the German 75th Army Corps, General Anton Dostler, despite the opposition of his subordinates of the 135th Fortress Brigade. Dostler was sentenced to death by an American military tribunal and executed by firing squad in December 1945.[97][98]

Night and Fog Decree

Main article: Nacht und Nebel
A commemorative plaque to the French victims at Hinzert concentration camp, using the expressions "Nacht und Nebel" and "NN-Deported"

The Night and Fog Decree, issued by Hitler in 1941 and disseminated along with a directive from Keitel, was operated within the conquered territories in the West (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands). The decree allowed those "endangering German security" to be seized and made to disappear without trace. Keitel's directive stated that "efficient intimidation can only be achieved either by capital punishment or by measures by which the relatives of the criminal and the population do not know his fate."[99]

Reprisal actions

A German soldier in front of a sign erected after the razing of Kandanos, in Crete in 1941. The sign roughly translates to "Kandanos was destroyed in reprisal for the brutal murders of paratrooper and pioneer convoys in an ambush by armed men and women."
The murder of Greek civilians in Kondomari, Kakopetros Crete by German Paratroopers 1941

In Yugoslavia and Greece, many villages were razed and their inhabitants murdered during anti-partisan operations. Examples in Greece include: Kondomari, Distomo, Mousiotitsa, Kommeno, Drakeia and Kalavryta; the razing of Kandanos and the holocausts of Viannos and Kedros.

In occupied Poland and the USSR, hundreds of villages were wiped out and their inhabitants murdered. In the USSR, captured Soviet and Jewish partisans were used to sweep fields of land mines.

In a number of occupied countries, the Wehrmacht's response to partisan attacks by resistance movements was to take and shoot hostages. Examples are: Putten (Netherlands), Oradour-sur-Glane (France), Telavåg (Norway) and Lidice (Czech Republic). As many as 100 hostages were murdered for every German killed. In 1944, prior to and after the D-Day invasion, the French Resistance and the Maquis increased their activities against all German organisations, including the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS.

In issuing orders for hostage-taking, Keitel stated that "it is important that these should include well-known personalities or members of their families." A Wehrmacht commander in France stated that "the better known the hostages to be shot, the greater will be the deterrent effect on the perpetrators." The author William Shirer stated that over 30,000 hostages are believed to have been executed in the West alone. The Wehrmacht's hostage policy was also pursued in Greece, Yugoslavia, Scandinavia, and Poland.

Destruction of Warsaw

Up to 13,000 soldiers and between 120,000 and 200,000 civilians were killed by German-led forces during the Warsaw Uprising. At least 5,000 German regular soldiers assisted the SS in crushing Polish resistance, most of them reserve units.[100] Human shields were used by German forces during the fighting.[101]

Human experimentation

See also: Doctors' trial
Siegfried Handloser at Nuremberg in November 1946. He was Generaloberstabsarzt (Colonel General, Medical Service); Medical Inspector of the Army (Heeressanitätsinspekteur); and Chief of the Medical Services of the Armed Forces (Chef des Wehrmachtsanitätswesens). He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment

Throughout the war Germany engaged in numerous experiments on human prisoners and POWs. The Wehrmacht had full knowledge of those experiments, and performed some of its own. It provided assistance regarding:

In many cases the test subjects, even if they survived, were murdered afterwards to study any changes within their bodies that happened during the experiment.[103]

Examples of experiments conducted by the Wehrmacht include:

Biological warfare

During the war members of the Wehrmacht attempted to influence Hitler's decision to study biological warfare only regarding defense. The head of the Science Division of the Wehrmacht, Erich Schumann, urged the Führer that "America must be attacked simultaneously with various human and animal epidemic pathogens, as well as plant pests."[110] Laboratory tests were prepared for the use of plague, anthrax, cholera and typhoid. The possibility of using foot and mouth disease against Britain was also studied.[111]

Postwar views

Evolving analysis

At the end of the war in 1945, several Wehrmacht generals made a statement that defended the actions against partisans, the executions of hostages and the use of slave labor as necessary to the war effort. The generals contended that the Holocaust was committed by the SS and its partner organizations, and that the Wehrmacht command had been unaware of these actions in the death camps. The statement said that the armed forces had fought honorably and left the impression that the Wehrmacht had not committed war crimes.

However, individual high-ranking Wehrmacht officers stood trial for war crimes. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, and chief of operations staff Alfred Jodl were both indicted and tried for war crimes by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. They were convicted of all charges, sentenced to death and executed by hanging, although Jodl was acquitted post-mortem seven years later. While the tribunal declared that the Gestapo, SD and SS (including the Waffen-SS) were inherently criminal organizations, the court did not reach the same conclusion with respect to the Wehrmacht General Staff and High Command. The accused were members of the Nazi Party itself and were executing the party's beliefs through their rank. The German Wehrmacht along with Allied armies committed what are classified as war crimes. The SS and political "Armed" groups committed what are classified as crimes against humanity.

The prosecution of war crimes lost momentum during the 1950s as the Cold War intensified; both German states needed to establish armed forces and could not do so without trained officers and soldiers that had served in the Wehrmacht. German historiography in the 1950s viewed war crimes by German soldiers as exceptional rather than ordinary; soldiers were seen as victims of the Nazi regime. Traces of this attitude can still be seen in some German works today, which minimize the number of soldiers who took part in Nazi crimes.[112] This was especially the case as the German public in the immediate post-war period were more interested in seeing themselves rather than others as victims.[113] Thus the subject of Red Army atrocities against German civilians in 1944–45 received vastly more popular and historical interest in the 1950s than did the subject of Wehrmacht atrocities against Soviet civilians in 1941–44.[113] Beyond that, Operation Barbarossa had been portrayed in Germany as a "preventive war" forced on Germany by Soviet attack alleged to be planned for July 1941.[113] This claim was widely believed in the Reich during the war, and indeed was so popular that as late as the 1950s some West German historians were still arguing Operation Barbarossa was a "preventive war".[113] As a result of this view of Operation Barbarossa, for many Germans, violence inflicted by the Wehrmacht on Soviet civilians and POWs was seen as something that the Soviets had brought down on themselves, hence the absence of any guilt on the part of many Germans.[114] Cold War priorities and taboos about revisiting the most unpleasant aspects of World War II meant that the Wehrmacht's role in war crimes was not seriously re-examined until the early 1980s.[115][116]

In their memoirs, German Army generals claimed that the war had been a "clean war" on their part with the Army fighting because of the noble Prussian-German traditions, patriotism and a deep sense of honour and duty and that National Socialism had virtually no influence on the Army.[117] In this version, almost all German war crimes were the work of the SS and any "excesses" committed by the Army were only the product of a long and bitter war and were no different from Allied war crimes.[117] Very typical were the claims of one Infantry commander, who stated in his memoirs that all of the battles fought by his men were "always fairly conducted, though tough and bitter."[118] Such claims were widely believed not only in Germany but abroad, with the British military historian Captain Basil Liddell Hart writing that "the German Army in the field on the whole observed the rules of war better than in 1914–18".[119]

On 11 December 1979, the West German television show Report aired a documentary entitled "Crimes of the Wehrmacht in World War Two".[113] The public's reaction was almost overwhelmingly negative, with World War II veterans leading a campaign to have the producer of Report fired for the "defamation" of German soldiers. This despite the fact – as the German historian Jürgen Förster was to write in 1989 – that the producers of the documentary had gone out of their way to be fair and unbiased.[113]

In 1986, the German historian Hans Mommsen wrote about the role of the Wehrmacht under National Socialism:

The leadership of the Wehrmacht rather willingly made themselves into accomplices in the policy of extermination. It did this by generating the "criminal orders" and implementing them. By no means did they merely passively support the implementation of their concept, although there was a certain reluctance for reasons of military discipline and a few isolated protests. To construct a "casual nexus" over all this amounts in fact to steering away from the decisive responsibility of the military leadership and the bureaucratic elites.[120]

British historian Ian Kershaw wrote that the genocide and extreme brutality used by the Nazis was their way of ensuring the Lebensraum ("living space") for the people who met the strict requirements of being part of Hitler's Aryan Herrenvolk ("Aryan master race") and the elimination of the Slavic people:

The Nazi revolution was broader than just the Holocaust. Its second goal was to eliminate Slavs from central and eastern Europe and to create a Lebensraum for Aryans. ... As Bartov (The Eastern Front; Hitler's Army) shows, it barbarised the German armies on the eastern front. Most of their three million men, from generals to ordinary soldiers, helped exterminate captured Slav soldiers and civilians. This was sometimes cold and deliberate murder of individuals (as with Jews), sometimes generalised brutality and neglect. ... German soldiers' letters and memoirs reveal their terrible reasoning: Slavs were 'the Asiatic-Bolshevik' horde, an inferior but threatening race. Only a minority of officers and men were Nazi members.[121]

In 1989, the British historian Richard J. Evans wrote that right from the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht fought a genocidal war of "extreme brutality and barbarism".[122] Evans noted that the Wehrmacht officers regarded the Russians as "sub-human", were from the time of the invasion of Poland in 1939 telling their troops that war was caused by "Jewish vermin", and explained to the troops that the war against the Soviet Union was a war to wipe out what were variously called "Jewish Bolshevik subhumans", the "Mongol hordes", the "Asiatic flood" and the "red beast".[123] Such views helped to explain why 3,300,000 of the 5,700,000 Soviet POWs taken by the Germans died in captivity.[124] In 1992, Omer Bartov noted that the three leaders of the "new revisionism" in German history that sparked the Historikerstreit of the late 1980s were all in some ways seeking to promote the image of the Wehrmacht as a force for the good, and seeking to portray the Wehrmacht as a victim of the Allies rather the victimizer of the peoples of Europe, writing of "...the bizarre inversion of the Wehrmacht's roles proposed by all three exponents of the new revisionism, whereby overtly or by implication the Army is transformed from culprit to saviour, from an object of hatred and fear to one of empathy and pity, from victimizer to victim".[125] Specially, Bartov noted:

Bartov wrote that all three historians had in varying ways sought to justify and excuse Wehrmacht war crimes by depicting the Wehrmacht as engaging in a heroic battle for Western civilization, often using the same language as the Nazis such as referring to the Red Army as the "Asiatic hordes".[125] Bartov ended that these sorts of arguments reflected a broader unwillingness of the part of some Germans to admit to what their Army did during the war.[125] In 1998, Jürgen Förster, a German historian, wrote that for too long most people have accepted at face value the self-serving claims made by generals like Erich von Manstein and Siegfried Westphal who promoted the idea of the Wehrmacht in their memoirs as a highly professional, apolitical force who were victims of Adolf Hitler rather than his followers.[126] Förster argues that the Wehrmacht played a key role in the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and other war crimes.[127] In 1999, the New Zealand historian Christian Leitz wrote that the claims promoted after the war that the Wehrmacht had been an "untarnished shield" with the Army somehow standing apart from the regime it served so loyally was a "myth" that no serious historian had taken seriously since the 1980s.[115][116]


In his 2004 essay "Celluloid Soldiers" about post-war German films, the Israeli historian Omer Bartov wrote that German films of the 1950s showed the average German soldier as a heroic victim: noble, tough, brave, honourable and patriotic, while fighting hard in a senseless war for a regime that he did not care for.[128] The 08/15 film trilogy of 1954–55 concerns a sensitive young German soldier named Asch (Joachim Fuchsberger). No mention is ever made of the genocidal aspects of Germany's war in the East with instead the German soldiers being shown as the victims of a war that they can not fathom the reasons for.[129] Bartov commented that given the intense indoctrination in the Wehrmacht about how the war against the Soviet Union was a war to destroy "Judeo-Bolshevism" that Asch would most definitely have known what they were fighting for.[129] The war on the Eastern Front was portrayed in a manner that suggested that all who fought in the war were equally victims, but since the focus in the 08/15 films is on the unit commanded by Asch inevitably the impression is given that it was German soldiers who were the primary victims of the war.[129] The term 8/15 refers to a type of German machine gun used in World War I that was manufactured in such quantities that 8/15 became German Army slang for anything was standard issue, which implied that Asch and the soldiers under his command were Everyman characters of the war on the Eastern Front.[130] The last of the 08/15 films ends with Germany being occupied by a gang of American soldiers portrayed as bubble-gum chewing, slack-jawed morons and uncultured louts, totally inferior in every respect to the heroic German soldiers.[129] The only exception is the black-marketing Jewish American officer, who is shown as both hyper-intelligent and unscrupulous, which Bartov noted seems to imply that the real tragedy of World War II was the Nazis did not get a chance to exterminate all of the Jews, who have now returned with Germany's defeat to once more exploit the German people.[129] This is especially the case because the Jewish officer speaks his German with an upper-class accent, which is evidently meant to suggest he is a rich German Jew who fled to the United States in the 1930s and upon his return after 1945 is engaging in the same sort of black-market activities that had led the Nazis to run people like him out of Germany in the first place.[129]

In Der Arzt von Stalingrad (The Doctor from Stalingrad) of 1958, dealing with German POWs in the Soviet Union, the Germans are portrayed as more civilized, humane and intelligent than the Soviets, who are shown for the most part as Mongol savages who brutalized the German prisoners.[131] One of the German POWs, the dashing Doctor Sellnow (Walter Reyer), successfully seduces the beautiful and tough Red Army Captain Alexandra Kasalniskaya (Eva Bartok), who prefers him to the sadistic and hideously deformed camp commandant Piotr Markov (Hannes Messemer), which as Bartov comments is also meant to show that even in defeat, German men were more sexually virile and potent than their Russian counterparts.[131] This was especially important to German audiences because of the "crisis in masculinity" in Germany after the war, namely doubts about how manly German men were after losing the war.[130] Hence the exaggerated picture German films liked to show of the typical Wehrmacht soldier as an ultra-macho type who was just as much a victorious conquering hero in the bedroom as on the battlefield.[132] Bartov argued that the need to show German soldiers as manly war heroes meant they could never be shown as war criminals.[132] Bartov wrote that the portrayal of the Soviet guards as mostly Asian shows disturbing affinities to war-time Nazi propaganda, where the Red Army was often described as "the Asiatic horde".[131] A recurring theme in Der Arzt von Stalingrad was that the German soldiers were being punished for crimes that they had not committed.[131] In the 1959 film Hunde, wolt ihr ewig leben? (Dogs, do you want to live forever?), which deals with the Battle of Stalingrad, the focus is on celebrating the heroism of the German soldiers in that battle, who are shown as valiantly holding out against overwhelming odds with no mention at all of what those soldiers were fighting for, namely National Socialist ideology or the Holocaust.[133] Bartov noted that the clear impression that these films give is that the average German soldier who fought on the Eastern Front was a hero worthy of the highest admiration.[133] This in turn led to a tendency to portray the war in the East in a manner that was devoid of its political context with the war being reduced to struggle between German soldiers whom the audiences were expected to like and admire vs. vast hordes of nameless, faceless, brutal Russian soldiers.[134] In such a narrative, war crimes by the Wehrmacht had no place.[134]

This period also saw a number of films that depicted the military resistance to Hitler. In Des Teufels General (The Devil's General) of 1954, a Luftwaffe general named Harras (Curd Jürgens), loosely modeled on Ernst Udet, appears at first to be a cynical fool whose major interests in life appear to be beautiful women and alcohol, but who turns out to a gallant and upright anti-Nazi officer who is secretly sabotaging the German war effort by designing faulty planes.[135] General Harras, who is represented as a great German patriot has turned against the Nazi regime because of certain unspecified "abominations" which are neither shown nor explained.[135] Bartov commented that in this film, the German officer corps is shown as a group of fundamentally noble and honourable men who happened to be serving an evil regime made up of a small gang of gangsterish misfits totally unrepresentative of German society, which served to exculpate both the officer corps and by extension German society.[136] This impression is further reinforced by the comic exchanges between the decent and upright Harras and various thuggish Nazis.[135] The witty, elegant, and sophisticated bon vivant Harras whose wisecracks aimed at boorish Nazi leaders served to show that while the latter may be Harras's political superiors, the former remains their social superior.[135] Officers such as Harras may have served a criminal regime, but Des Teufels General seems to suggest that there never a part of that regime.[135] Bartov wrote that no German film of the 1950s showed the deep commitment felt by many German soldiers to National Socialism, the utterly ruthless way the German Army fought the war and the mindless nihilist brutality of the later Wehrmacht.[137]

Bartov also wrote that German film-makers liked to show the heroic last stand of the 6th Army at Stalingrad, but none has so far showed the 6th Army's massive co-operation with the Einsatzgruppen in murdering Soviet Jews in 1941 during its march across the Ukraine.[138] Likewise, Bartov commented that German films tended to dwell on the suffering of the 6th Army during the Battle of Stalingrad and its aftermath without reflecting on the fact that it was the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union and that the Russians were fighting to defend their country.[138] Bartov went on to state that as late as the 1991 film Mein Krieg (My War), featuring interview footage of six German veterans juxtaposed with their amateur films the veterans shot during the war, contains strong hints that the interviewees saw and/or were involved in war crimes with at one point a mass grave of civilians in Russia being glimpsed in the background of one of the amateur films; but the point is not pressed by the film-makers.[139]

Only with Jenseits des Krieges (released in the US as East of War) in 1996, a documentary directed by Ruth Beckermann dealing with the public's reaction to the exhibition "War of Extermination" in Vienna in 1995, did a German film admit to Wehrmacht war crimes being commonplace instead of an exception to the rule.[140] Some veterans in Jenseits des Krieges denied that the German Army committed any war crimes at all while others express relief at long last that the truth has been told.[141] One critic wrote of the veterans in Jenseits des Krieges that "Some are sorry for their brutality, while others rationalize such acts as shooting POWs, raping women and butchering Jewish people as part of what soldiers were expected to do".[142]


Main article: Wehrmachtsausstellung

The Wehrmachtsausstellung (German: German Army exhibition) was the name for two exhibitions focusing on war crimes of the Wehrmacht committed on the East Front from 1941 to 1944. They ran from 1995 to 1999 in the original form, and (following extensive criticism) from 2001 to 2004 in a revised form. Since then, it has permanently been at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

The exhibition was the subject of a documentary, Der unbekannte Soldat ("The Unknown Soldier") by Michael Verhoeven, in 2006. It compares the two versions of the exhibition, and its maker, Jan Philipp Reemtsma.

Exhibition about the Wehrmacht in Poland in 1939

One criticism was that both exhibitions only covered the German presence in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 and excluded the German occupation of Poland after September 1939. The Polish exhibition "Größte Härte ... Verbrechen der Wehrmacht in Polen September/Oktober 1939", a cooperative effort of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance and the Deutsches Historisches Institut in Warsaw, was presented on September 1, 2004, in Poland. A German version was presented in 2005 ([143]). It was scheduled to be shown in Nuremberg at the Documentation Center of the Nazi Party Rallying Grounds from September 1, 2007 to early 2008.[144]

Analysis of photos and letters

German soldiers photographing the hanging of a Soviet citizen (the original caption claims he was a partisan)
Rumors immediately began circulating of appalling crimes committed in the occupied territories – wholesale deportations and systematic massacres ... A story solemnly made the rounds of the world's newspapers that storks migrating from Holland to South Africa had been found with messages taped to their legs that read, "Help us! The Nazis are killing us all!"[145]

The attitude of German soldiers towards atrocities committed on Jews and Poles in World War II was also studied using photographs and correspondence left after the war.

Photographs serve as a valuable source of knowledge; taking them and making albums about the persecution of Jews was a popular custom among German soldiers. These pictures are not the official propaganda of the German state but represent personal experience. Their overall attitude is antisemitic.[146]

German soldiers as well as police members took pictures of Jewish executions, deportations, humiliation and the abuse to which they were also subjected. According to researchers, pictures indicate the consent of the photographers to the abuses and murders committed.[146] "This consent is the result of several factors, including the anti-Semitic ideology and prolonged, intensive indoctrination."[146] Archival evidence as to the reaction to policies of racial extermination can also be traced in various letters that survived the war.[146] Many letters from Wehrmacht soldiers were published in 1941 and entitled "German Soldiers See the Soviet Union"; this publication includes authentic letters from soldiers on the Eastern front. To give an example of the intensive indoctrination "that transcends the mere results of military service", researchers Judith Levin and Daniel Uziel quote a German soldier writing:

The German people is deeply indebted to the Fuehrer, because if these animals, our enemies here, had reached Germany, murders of a nature not yet witnessed in the world would have occurred ... No newspaper can describe what we have seen. It verges on the unbelievable, and even the Middle Ages do not compare with what has transpired here. Reading Der Stuermer and observing its photos give only a limited impression of what we have seen here and of the crimes committed here by the Jews.

Judith Levin and Daniel Uziel state that this type of writing and opinion was very common in correspondence left by German soldiers, especially on the Eastern Front.[146]

Other samples of German soldiers' letters were sent home and copied during the war by a special Polish Home Army cell that infiltrated the German postal system.[147] These letters have been analyzed by historians and the picture they paint is similar to views expressed by Judith Levin and Daniel Uziel. Many soldiers wrote openly about the extermination of Jews and were proud of it. Support for "untermensch" and "master race" concepts were also part of the attitude expressed by German soldiers.[147] Presented examples reflecting this trend include samples such as:

I'm one of those who are decreasing [the] number of partisans. I put them against the wall and everyone gets a bullet in his head, [a] very merry and interesting job.

...My point of view: this nation deserves only the knaut, only by it can they be educated; a part of them already experienced that; others still try to resist. Yesterday I had [the] possibility to see 40 partisans, something like that I had never encountered before. I became convinced that we are the masters, others are untermenschen.[147]

Much more evidence of such trends and thoughts among Wehrmacht soldiers exists and is subject to research by historians.[146]

The historians responsible for the exhibition assume that the anti-Semitic climate and propaganda in Nazi Germany had an immense impact on the entire population and emphasize the importance of the indoctrination.[146]

See also


  1. Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum. "The Holocaust in Ioannina". Retrieved 5 January 2009.
  2. Raptis, Alekos; Tzallas, Thumios (28 July 2005). "Deportation of Jews of Ioannina" (PDF). Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum. Retrieved 5 January 2009.
  3. Guy Walters (2012-11-01). "We gunned down English women and children – it was great fun: Newly published transcripts of the private conversations of PoWs prove ordinary German soldiers were just as barbaric as the SS death squads". Mail Online. Retrieved 2013-02-19.
  4. Baker, David (21 September 2012). "'I liked to shoot everything – women, kids ... it was kind of sport': Secret Nazi tapes reveal how ordinary German soldiers were responsible for war crimes and not just SS". Daily Mail.
  5. Stein 1984, pp. xxiv, xxv, 23.
  6. 1 2 Wette, Wolfram The Wehrmacht History, Myth and Reality, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006 page 210
  7. Wette, Wolfram The Wehrmacht History, Myth and Reality, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006 pages 211-212
  8. Förster 1998, page 267.
  9. 1 2 Förster 1998, page 268.
  10. 1 2 3 Förster 1998, page 270.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Förster 1998, page 271.
  12. Lukas, Richard C. Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation 1939–1944. Davies, Norman. Hippocrene Books. ISBN 0-7818-0901-0.
  13. 1 2 3 Datner, Szymon (1964). Crimes against Prisoners-of-War. Responsibility of the Wehrmacht. pp. 20–35.
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