Cover of Wehrmacht

Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality
Wolfram Wette
372 pages including index
published in 2002

One of the enduring myths of World War 2 is the idea that the crimes committed by nazi Germany were the work of a relatively small number of villains with the vast majority of the German population either being their victims or just trying to make the best of a bad situation or to do their duty to their country. More specially this myth lives on in the idea that while the Waffen SS was a criminal organisation responsible for uncounted numbers of warcrimes, the Wehrmacht, Germany's most important military organisation, had relatively clean hands. With tens of millions of German men having served in the Wehrmacht during World War 2 it is no surprise that this myth came into being. Far easier to believe you were the innocent dupe of Hitler than to acknowledge that you may just be a fellow criminal. What's strange is that this idea is believed not just in Germany, but throughout Western Europe and America. If like me you're interested in military history, you sooner or later come across military enthusiasts extolling the martial virtues of the Wehrmacht, without much consideration of the context in which they fought.

Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality was written to explode this myth and explain how and why it came into being. Its author, Wolfram Wette, is a German historian who's made his speciality in researching Germany's history of militarism. Until 1995 he worked for the official German institute for military history research, where he worked on Germany's official history of World War 2, which should lend considerable weight to this book. This is no firebrand outsider courting controversy with a perhaps overstated sensationalist thesis (as with Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners), but a distinguished senior historian attempting to put an generally accepted truth before the general public.

As such it came at the right moment, when Germany had finally become receptive to the idea that the Wehrmacht far from having clean hands, was actually deeply involved in the crimes of the nazi regime and had largely done so voluntarily. A travelling exhibition devoted to the crimes of the Wehrmacht had been massively succesful and in the wake of that there was finally room for a honest and open discussion on this subject.

Perhaps the main reason why it had taken so long for the true role of the Wehrmacht in World War 2 to become public knowledge, why the myth of the "clean hands" arose in the first place, is simply because so many Germans served in it; some twenty million, according to Wette. But what also helped is that the Wehrmacht got to write its own history after the war, when the American Historical Division in postwar West Germany recruited quite a few high Wehrmacht officers to help write their history of World War 2, even providing them with full access to primary sources --many of which subsequently went missing.

Furthermore, when the Bundeswehr was established in 1955 its officiers cadre consisted largely or exclusively of Wehrmacht veterans, who of course had a vested interest in whitewashing their own history. So the emphasis in teaching the new army its old history was on traditional notions of doing one's duty to one's country and the defence of it against a ruthless enemy. Finally, with the establishment of the Cold War, there was little interest in the crimes the Wehrmacht had committed against the Soviet Union, once again Germany's enemy. The official truth remained that the Wehrmacht had done its duty towards its fatherland, had been largely innocent of warcrimes and had certainly not been involved in the Holocaust.

That was the myth, but what was the reality? What Wette argues that far from being an innocent bystander to the nazi's crimes, or even an organisation that got "tangled up" in them against its will, the Wehrmacht and much of its higher echelons were enthusiastic supporters and accomplishes. He shows that both antisemitism and the idea of the Russian people as racial inferior to Germans, the natural enemy, were present long before World War 2, in the first case dating back to the traditions of imperial Prussia. During the First World War there had even been an infamous "Jew count", to see if Jewish Germans were really dying in the same number as "real" Germans. As for Russia, the experiences of the First World War as well as the subsequent revolution there created an image of Russia as the natural enemy, superior in numbers but inferior in quality.

It was these alreasy existent attitudes, obviously encouraged by nazi propaganda, that led the Wehrmacht into its warcrimes. Wette makes it clear that almost from the start it was involved in the activities of the Einsatzgruppen, the annihilation groups formed by the SS to seek out and kill Jews, Roma and political commissars. Wehrmacht units helped the Einsatzgruppen rounding up their victims, provided logistical support and such and in several cases were directly involved in the killing sprees themselves. On a smaller scale many Wehrmacht units themselves committed atrocities against civilians, which were usually reported as "anti-partisan actions". Wette also makes clear many soldiers, when not involved in these crimes themselves at least knew about them, as witnessed in primary sources such as lettres home or diary entries.

This was not an easy book to read, both because of the subject and the translation, which was somewhat off in places. But it was worth it, as it laid out clearly and concisively the cases against the Wehrmacht. This is important, as even now there are still many people, both German and non-German, who want to believe in the myth of the "clean hands", either for political reasons or because it would interfere with their World War 2 fantasies. Quite a few war enthusiasts/re-enactors who are found of their noble Wehrmacht desperately fighting against overwhelming odds.

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Webpage created 21-02-2008, last updated 25-02-2008.