Atrocities committed by the German military during World War II indiscriminately against men and women, who, particularly in the east, were objectified and dehumanized. For decades historians maintained that the German armed forces during World War II, collectively called the Wehrmacht, were simple soldiers who had the misfortune of fighting for a criminal regime. Historians tended to separate the Wehrmacht from the specialized units that accompanied it into battle such as the SS, the Secret Police (Gestapo), and the infamous police battalions responsible for murdering entire Jewish communities on the eastern front.

Soon after the war, memoirs from leading German generals seeking to distance themselves from the Nazi regime flooded the publishing market. U.S. and British historians tended to rely on these accounts and portrayed the Wehrmacht as an honorable institution that was hijacked by a clique of criminals. One of the underlying reasons for this sympathetic portrayal was the cold war. The perceived threat from the Soviet Union necessitated that West Germany become a full partner in the defense of western Europe. Denigrating the Wehrmacht, many of whose generals were needed to rebuild the new German military (now called the Bundeswehr), was counterproductive. There was also a sense that the Nuremburg Trials properly identified and punished those responsible for Nazi Germany’s crimes during the war. Too many historians accepted the notion that the Wehrmacht was not involved in the widespread atrocities committed against civilians and soldiers. For the most part, these atrocities occurred on the eastern front against the Soviet people, specifically Jews.

By the mid-1980s historians started to delve further into Wehrmacht activities on the eastern front and quickly learned that regular army units were intimately involved in committing atrocities. The Wehrmacht supported the Nazi regime’s goal of racially reordering Europe and conquering Lebensraum (living space) for Germany in the East. Every organ of the German government was given a role in accomplishing this task, including the Wehrmacht. In 1934 all officers and enlisted men of the Wehrmacht personally swore a loyalty oath to Adolf Hitler. Most did so enthusiastically because they considered Hitler an advocate of military spending and saw a chance to return the military to greatness. The oath bound the Wehrmacht tightly to the Nazi regime and ensured its participation in every phase of Hitler’s plan to destroy European Jewry and dismantle what he called Judeo-Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. Even without the Wehrmacht’s ideological affinity for National Socialism, the German military already had a past record of committing atrocities against civilians during World War I, specifically in Belgium and parts of eastern Europe. Most of the incidents during World War I were isolated, but this was not the case during World War II. Mass executions, population removals, poor treatment of prisoners, and the use of slave labor were Wehrmacht policies handed down from generals to subordinates in an organized fashion.

The Wehrmacht prepared for a different sort of war against the Soviet Union years before the conflict began. According to Nazi leadership, the future war against Poland and the Soviet Union was to be one of annihilation. Beginning with the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Wehrmacht carried with it into battle orders from Hitler to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia so that they would not threaten the German settlement of Polish territory. The Wehrmacht applied broad definitions of who could be considered a partisan and treated large numbers of civilians as legitimate military targets. This definition included Jews, who by virtue of being Jewish were considered automatic threats to the Wehrmacht. Most people identified as partisans were executed, a task shared by the Wehrmacht, the SS, the Gestapo, and police battalions created to occupy territory after the Wehrmacht moved forward. Although many Wehrmacht generals disapproved of their soldiers participating in executions and otherwise enforcing a harsh occupation (mostly for reasons of limited resources), evidence shows that Wehrmacht units were used interchangeably with the SS to execute Jews, Polish clergy, and intellectuals.

Once Germany invaded the Soviet Union in July 1941, the Wehrmacht was already experienced at fighting a war of racial annihilation. The Wehrmacht had to guard against disorder in the ranks while still fulfilling its ugly task of killing large numbers of civilians. Letters and films taken by Wehrmacht soldiers at the front reveal that daily life on the eastern front involved treating civilians and enemy soldiers alike as subhumans worthy of extreme treatment. One of the more infamous Wehrmacht policies was to execute a large number of citizens for every Wehrmacht soldier killed by partisans or resistance fighters. This policy applied to all of Germany’s occupied territories, but it was enforced more regularly in the East. For example, if 5 soldiers were killed by partisans, the Wehrmacht might kill 500 civilians from the town where the partisans allegedly lived. Such policies typified the Wehrmacht’s conduct on the eastern front in particular, especially because it regarded the Soviet people, not just the military, as a dangerous enemy.

Although the Wehrmacht did not specifically target women when committing atrocities, it had no qualms about executing women and children during reprisals for actions taken against its soldiers. Films taken by Wehrmacht soldiers show soldiers putting nooses around the necks of Russian women accused of spying and attaching signs labeling them “Jewish cows” or other insults. Men and women had different experiences in the ghettos and concentration camps erected by other organs of the National Socialist state, but the Wehrmacht’s atrocities were characterized by their speed, brutality, and indifference to artificialities such as gender. The Wehrmacht viewed entire populations as enemies and treated them accordingly.

References and Further Reading

Bartov, Omer. 1992. “The Conduct of War: Soldiers and the Barbarization of Warfare.” The Journal of Modern History 64:32–45.

———. 1992. Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich. New York: Oxford

University Press.

Forster, Jurgen. 1981. “The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination against the Soviet Union.” Yad Vashem Studies 14:7–33.

Rossino, Alexander B. 2003. Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.