Germany's army during World War II was seen by many, on both sides of the conflict, to be politically "neutral". While the Nazi regime carried out the Holocaust, it was thought, the army was elsewhere, carrying out more traditional warfare. This was a fiction. The Wehrmacht were a Nazi army. So how did this fiction spread? And who had an interest in spreading it?
The Wehrmacht - Transcription:
Hello and welcome to "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem. I'm your host Nate Nelson.
The Wehrmacht, Germany's army during World War Two, have always been an intimidating site, but at times they also portrayed as a kind of neutral fighting force. While the extermination of the Jews occurred behind the scenes, it's thought, the Wehrmacht were engaged in traditional warfare, and were removed from Nazi war crimes. This was not the case. The Wehrmacht operated their own dedicated antisemitic propaganda department, which worked hand-in-hand with the Nazi Party's propaganda ministry. Many Wehrmacht soldiers were recruited straight from Hitler Youth, and Wehrmacht units gave support to SS death squadrons as they carried out mass murders of Jews.
In this episode of our show, Dr. Daniel Uziel, Israeli historian and head the photographic collections at Yad Vashem, dispels the myth surrounding the Wehrmacht. But besides demonstrating that they were a Nazi fighting force, through and through, we're going to answer some tougher questions, like: how did the Wehrmacht develop an image of neutrality? And who might have had an interest in convincing people that they weren't in fact committing heinous war crimes?
Q: Dr. Uziel, thank you for sitting with me. What reputation did the Wehrmacht have originally? What are we trying to debunk in this conversation?
A: Well, the original reputation, postwar of course, of the Wehrmacht, was that it was a highly, extremely highly professional army, a highly modern army. And that it was, perhaps most important for our topic today, that it was basically an apolitical army. Which means that it was disconnected from the Nazi regime, from its war crimes, from its criminal actions, and persecutions, and all the negative parts of the Nazi regime. And even furthermore, it was argued that the main resistance, wartime resistance to the Nazi regime came from within the army, and we know that the main attempt on Hitler's life was done, the plot [was done], by army officers. So this was the most central postwar, I would say Cold War reputation of the Wehrmacht, at least in the West.
Q: And why would it have been useful for the Germans to claim to have this sort of ideologically-neutral army?
A: First of all, politically it was quite convenient to have this clean reputation, especially during the 1950's, during the rebuilding of West Germany. And during this rebuilding, reconstruction of a completely new democratic state, it was easy to create new social political traditions, based on this apolitical Wehrmacht. And the other thing was that part of this reconstruction of this new democratic state, was its rearmament in the framework of what later became NATO. And here it was highly useful to present the Wehrmacht as a clean army, because it was impossible to create a completely new army ten years after the end of WWII without using the Wermcht's veterans - officers and soldiers who served in the original Nazi Wehrmacht. So in order to incorporate them into this new army, it was much easier and politically correct, to argue that their original army was not so bad.
Q: Let's get into who these people were and what they did. Tell me about von Reichenau, what was he responsible for?
A: General, later field marshal, Walter von Reichenau was a typical Prussian officer, an old school officer, who served as a staff officer already during WWI. He was originally an artillery officer, but since he was trained for a higher post in the army, in the post-WWI period he served within the general staff of the Reichswehr, the much reduced army of the Weimar Republic. And while he was there, he represented to a large extent, the main spirit prevailing in the officer core of this much reduced army, which was highly nationalist, highly conservative. And because of this attitude, this political attitude, this officer core and general, tended to support Right wing nationalist movement like the Nazi Party. So you can see that Reichenau started to support Nazi movement and Hitler already before they came to power. So when they came to power, he took part, he participated and played a significant role in the Nazification process of this army, this apolitical army, which we are going to discuss later. But during WWII, after the invasion to the Soviet Union, he was promoted and became the commanding officer of Army Group South, on the southern flank of the Eastern front. And he died in January 1942, after he suffered a stroke, and then he was fatally injured during an aircraft crash accident, while he was evacuated back to Germany. But what's quite significant about von Reichenau, and this brings us to our topic today, is a series of orders which he issued while he was the commanding officer of the Sixth Army during the first six months of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. And I want to quote a phrase from one of those orders, an order issued on 10th October 1941, it was called, the so-called Severity Order. And it included the following phrases, and I quote:
"The soldier in the eastern territories is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war, but also a bearer of ruthless national ideology and the avenger of bestialities, which have been inflected upon German and racially related nations. Therefore, the soldier must have full understanding for the necessity of a severe but just revenge on subhuman Jewry. The army has to aim at another purpose, [which means] the annihilation of revolts in hinterland which, as experience proves, have always been caused by Jews." End quote.
And I think this is a good starting point for our discussion today.
Q: Right. I want to explore how an army ends up adopting an ideology in the first place. Is it a matter of who's in leadership? Or the wider cultural of the nation that they're coming from? Being, you know that an army has to recruit thousands of young men, whatever they're coming to the table with is what you get in the Army. How do these factors influence each other?
A: Well this is a highly interesting question, because we definitely can speak about a military culture. And in this respect, as we know, it was said about Prussia, that Prussia was an army with a state. And in this respect the military continue to view its role in the state as not only the guardian of the state in security matters, but also in political matters. And this became much stronger during the Weimar Republic, because of this basic animosity towards the democracy and its values. So in this respect, this conservative value that prevailed in the military since the Prussian times, continued in the Weimar Republic and helped to create this identity, this identity of interests, and values, and ideologies, between the military and the Nazi party. So this plays a crucial role right after 1933, when the Nazis came to power, and they start then this so-called process of adjustment; adjusting the state, the entire state, the entire state services, organizations, and institutions, and the society to their own systems of value and political structures. And here we can talk about the beginning of this Nazification process.
Q: So what exactly comprises this Nazification process?
A: This Nazification process was composed of several elements or measures, which happened in cooperation, it was not coerced by the Nazi party and the Nazi regime on the army, it was done in cooperation between these two institutions. And this comes into play for instance, by changing the symbols of the army, they include the swastika in the symbols of the different branches of the army. And all soldiers are wearing from now on uniforms with the symbols and the emblems of the Nazi regime, with the swastika. It comes into play in the political education of the army. Part of upkeeping the fighting spirit, and the fight the efficiency of the army, is thought of creating this identity, the feeling of identity of the solder with the values and the state he represents, or her serves. And it was done by introducing Nazi ideology to this political training of the army, of the soldiers. And another measure that helped to create, to promote this Nazification was changing the oath of the soldiers. If the soldiers used to swear to serve loyally their country, and the Kaiser or whatever it is, from now on they were swear personally to Adolf Hitler.
Q: Okay so we've got this political environment and these various influences, we've got all the chemicals, we're mixing them together, how does this manifest, what did the Wehrmacht actually do?
A: Well firstly, we have to make this distinction between general war crimes and participation of the Wehrmacht in the Holocaust. So it's wise move to discuss first the general framework, which is the deep involvement of the Wehrmacht in a large amount of crimes committed by the Nazi regime. First of all, you have to point at something which, well it looks quite obvious but it's not so obvious, which is the fact that the military successes of the Wehrmacht, its victories on the battlefield, actually allowed the Nazi regime to commit so many war crimes upon other peoples, right? And this is a basic role played by the Wehrmacht. But then furthermore, we can see how because of its integration into the Nazi state, and its system of values and ideologies, the Wehrmacht became involved in different war crimes. For example, the execution, the maltreatment and the execution of millions of Soviet POWs, during the campaign in the East. We can see it in the enslavement, participation of the Wehrmacht in the enslavement of multiple ethnical groups and peoples during WWII. We can see it in the participation of the Wehrmacht in the exploitation of camp inmates, especially in its related war industry, and arms industry. So the Wehrmacht really plays a very important role in several crimes committed by the Nazi regime in different places. We have to mention the central role of the Wehrmacht, for instantce, in the occupation, the brutal occupation of former Yugoslavia from 1941, where the Wehrmacht was put in control of Serbia, the part that the Germans kept for themselves, from dismembered former Yugoslavia, and here the Wehrmacht leads a very brutal occupation policy that led, among others, to the massive extermination of the Jews, of the Jews of this country. So this is an important point because in most cases we can see how the involvement of the Wehrmacht in the Holocaust happens within the broader framework of its general war crimes in WWII.
Q: How pervasive was this culture, were these crime? Were there certain sects that were more heinous and some which were less, which allowed the German government to sort of characterize the army in one way or the other? Or were these crimes, was this culture rampant throughout the entire army?
A: Well it's much more complicated, because we know that during WWII around 70 million men and women, mostly men of course, served within the ranks of the Wehrmacht, in different roles. So of course not each one of them was involved in war crimes, not each one of them killed Jews for breakfast, and so on. Definitely not. But there were different parts of the Wehrmacht that were more involved than others in crimes against humanity, in war crimes, and were involved in the Holocaust. For instance, security units, that operated in occupied territories, and were tasked to combat resistance, partisans, guerrilla warfare warriors, and so on. We can see this kind of increased involvement within units that were involved in war production, because they used a large amount of slave workers, inmates, and other civilian workers.
Q: And what role did the Wehrmacht play in propagating Nazi ideology and propaganda?
A: Well in this respect, they were quite crucial because after the beginning of WWII, well those operational areas of the Wehrmacht were restricted - the access of civilian reporters and journalists, so these areas were highly restricted. So basically when you look today, when you watch documentary about WWII, on the History Channel, or whatever, and you can see all those German tanks, and soldiers, Luftwaffe flies over England, and so on, all of those images were provided by those military correspondents that belonged... they were all soldiers, which belong to the propaganda branch of the Wehrmacht. So even today we look at WWII through the eyes of the Wehrmacht. What we don't get usually watching those documentaries, is that a large amount of these materials was created in order to serve the Nazi propaganda machinery. So for instance, it was customary in 1940-1941 for those war correspondents of the Wehrmacht: cameraman, press reporters, photographers and so on, to document Jewish ghettoes in Occupied Poland. And those images, and reports, and articles, provided by those reporters, by those war correspondents, were published in the different propaganda media of the Propaganda Ministry, and thus served as antisemitic propaganda of the Third Reich. So it was quite important in this respect. This propaganda branch, quite interestingly, was also responsible for the political education from 1939, it was responsible for the political education of the Whermact, and for leisure activity of the Wehrmacht, which meant providing movies to fields units, by printing front newspapers, in different places and spreading those newspapers to the soldiers, to the troops and so on. Of course, in doing all those activities, we can also find these kinds of ideological education. For instance, those front newspapers included a large amounts of ideological content. Which again, served this Nazification process.
Q: So, considering all this, how did the Wehrmacht come to be perceived as a natural army?
A: Well, at the end of WWII, of course, we have this series of war crime trials, the best known of them was the Nuremberg Trial, trials - there were several trials. And we can find that actually the Wehrmacht, or Wehrmacht officers were tried in front of those trials. So the Wehrmacht was put on trials at the end of WWII, which is highly interesting. And its involvement in war crimes, and its involvement in Holocaust [was] actually exposed in these trials. However, at that time we can also see the beginning of the Cold War. This rip within this wartime alliance, and at that time it became highly crucial for both sides to recreate their own Germany in their own spirit. So of course the Soviets created East Germany, which was a communist country, and the West, well, reestablished a democratic Germany, which became West Germany. And when it came the to the western rearmament during the early 1950's, it was crucial for the former western allies to win over the Germans and to rearm the Germans, in order to strengthen their own western alliance which later became NATO. In order to do that, they had to forgive the Wehrmacht, or to forget the problematic aspects of the Wehrmacht. As a result of that, especially the British government and the US government, tended to contribute to this process by saying, by declaring that well the Wehrmacht was actually an army just like any other army fighting WWII. And as a result of that they don’t have any problem with its past, with its present, and they don’t have any problem when the West German government decides to remobilize those veterans, and to integrate them in the new West German army. One of the most important declarations made at that time was done by General Eisenhower, which in 1951 was still not the president, it takes one more year, he became president in 1952. But as the chief of staff of the American military he declares openly to the media exactly this thing: the Wehrmacht was just like any other army. So we can see this amnesia, sort of amnesia regarding the Wehrmacht, happening within the framework of the Cold War. Definitely.
Q: Take someone like Eisenhower - do you think it was an intentional act to promote this sort of political agenda? Or do you think that he and others actually believed this story? Because in some sense, I imagine, if you're fighting in WWII against the Germans you would have seen the Wehrmacht in their sort of more traditional army capacity. You might not have seen the other side of them that had more to do with Nazi ideology.
A: Well, Eisenhower knew about the problematic past of the Wehrmacht, but again it was highly crucial - this was the most important thing to do at that time, was to create this new and strong alliance, in order to withstand the new threat, the new communist threat from the East.
Q: So to summarize briefly, we discussed the foundations which allowed a perhaps neutral army to begin with to transition to a more ideological Nazi army, and we also covered how that Nazi army was in large part let off the hook for perhaps political reasons or reasons of just effective propaganda. I'd like to ask what would you have listeners take away from the story? What should we learn here?
A: Well, firstly the fact that the Wehrmacht was highly integrated and Nazified during the Third Reich. It was definitely not disconnected from the Nazi regime. It was definitely not an apolitical organization of the Nazi state. It was one of the largest, well not one of the largest, the largest organization of the Nazi State. And, of course of its crucial role for the state it also played a significant role in the crimes of this state. And, last but not least, when you're looking at those historical events, of course in most cases the most interesting part of the story, is the creation of the narrative of those events. So we have to skip sort of these 30 years, postwar 30 years, of looking at the Wehrmacht in an apologetic way – it was an army just like any another army. And the end of this narrative, although was known within academic circles, within scholars[hip], already from the mid-1960s, well, this knowledge or this image of the Wehrmacht as a highly problematic criminal organization, came into public view only after the fall of the Soviet Union the reunification of Germany, and only then, at the beginning of the 1990s, the mid-1990s, a new wave of scholars, young scholars came out and exposed to the broader public the problematic story of the Wehrmacht.
Dr. Uziel thank you very much.
So in summary it wasn't necessarily just the Germans that had an interest in maintaining this image of Wehrmacht neutrality. For different reasons both the Nazis and the allies were content with propagating this fiction. Propaganda it seems can be more complicated than it's made out to be.
This has been "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem, I'm Nate Nelson. Thanks to everybody listening.