War crimes of the Wehrmacht

War crimes of the Wehrmacht

War crimes of the Wehrmacht are those carried out by traditional German armed forces during World War II. While the principal perpetrators of the Holocaust amongst German armed forces were the Nazi German "political" armies (the SS-Totenkopfverbände and particularly the Einsatzgruppen), the traditional armed forces represented by the Wehrmacht committed war crimes of their own, particularly on the Eastern Front in the war against the Soviet Union. The Nuremberg Trials of the major war criminals at the end of World War II found that the Wehrmacht was not an inherently criminal organization, but that it had committed crimes in the course of the war.

=War crimes=

The war crimes of Wehrmacht include:

=Atrocities during the Invasion of Poland=

Wehrmacht units killed thousands of Polish civilians during the 1939 September campaign through executions and terror bombing of cities. 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, and the Wehrmacht carried out 714 mass executions, alongside mass incidents of plunder, banditry and murder. Altogether, it is estimated that 16,376 Polish (including many Jews) fell victim to those atrocities. Approximately 60% of these crimes were committed by the Wehrmacht.cite book | author=Lukas, Richard C. | title=Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation 1939-1944 | editor= | others=Davies, Norman | publisher=Hippocrene Books | id=ISBN 0-7818-0901-0 ] Wehrmacht soldiers frequently engaged in massacres of Jews on their own rather than just assist in rounding up Jews for the SS"55 Dni Wehrmachtu w Polsce" Szymon Datner Warsaw 1967 page 67-74] .

Mass rapes

Rapes were committed by Wehrmacht"55 Dni Wehrmachtu w Polsce" Szymon Datner Warsaw 1967 page 67] forces on Jewish women and girls by German soldiers during Invasion of Poland"55 Dni Wehrmachtu w Polsce" Szymon Datner Warsaw 1967 page 67 "Zanotowano szereg faktów gwałcenia kobiet i dziewcząt żydowskich"(Numerous facts of cases of rapes made upon Jewish women and girls were reported)] .Rapes were also committed against Polish women and girls during mass executions carried out primarily by Selbstschutz, which were accompanied by Wehrmacht soldiers and on territory under the administration of the German military; the rapes were done before shooting female captives [http://www.kki.net.pl/~museum/rozdz3,2.htm] .Thousands of Soviet female nurses, doctors and field medics fell victim to rape when captured during the war, and often they were murdered afterwards"Zbrodnie Wehrmachtu na jeńcach wojennych w II Wojnie Światowej Szymon Datner Warsaw 1961 page 215] .The Wehrmacht also ran brothels where women were forced to work [http://www.wilpf.int.ch/publications/1992ruthseifert.htm] . Ruth Seifert in "War and Rape. Analytical Approaches" writes "In the Eastern territories the Wehrmacht used to brand the bodies of captured partisan women - and other women as well - with the words "Whore for Hitler's troops" and to use them accordingly".

Atrocities during the Battle of France

Vinkt massacre

Between May 25 and May 28 1940, the German 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 taken. In all, 86 civilians are known to have been executed, but the total death toll was probably around 140.

Destruction of Warsaw

Up to 13,000 soldiers and 250,000 civilians were killed by German-led forces during the Warsaw Uprising. Human shields were used by German forces during the fighting and during the Wola massacre August 5-August 8, 1944 50,000 civilians were executed to intimidate the Poles into surrender.

Commissar Order

The order cast the war against Russia as one of ideological and racial differences, and provided for the immediate liquidation of political commissars of the Red Army. The order stated that German soldiers guilty of violating international laws would be "excused". The order was formulated on Hitler's behalf by the Wehrmacht command and distributed to field commanders.Several field commanders, who valued their honor as officers higher than the Nazi ideology, instructed their units not to follow the Commissar Order.

Barbarossa Decree

The decree, issued by Field Marshal Keitel a few weeks before Operation Barbarossa, exempted punishable offences 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 maintenance of discipline.

POW Camps

:"see also Prisoner of war and Geneva Convention (1929)"In 1929, the "Third Geneva Convention (1929) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War" had been signed by Germany and [http://www.cicr.org/ihl.nsf/WebSign?ReadForm&id=305&ps=P most other countries] , while the USSR and Japan did not sign until after the war (final version of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949). This meant that Germany was 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. In fact, the Soviet Union and the Empire of Japan also did not treat prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

While the Wehrmacht's prisoner-of-war camps in the West generally satisfied the humanitarian conditions 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 prisoners suffered from malnutrition and diseases like typhus that resulted from the Wehrmacht's failure to provide sufficient food, shelter, proper sanitation and medical care for the prisoners. Prisoners were regularly subject to torture, beatings and humiliation. Between the launching of Operation Barbarossa in summer 1941 and the following spring, more than two million Soviet prisoners of war died while in German hands. 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.

A Grand total of 5.6 Million Soviet Soldiers were taken prisoner and out of 5.6 million 3.6 million would die in captivity. [http://www.historynet.com/wars_conflicts/world_war_2/3037296.html]

Massacres of prisoners-of-war

Killing of POWs by Wehrmacht soldiers started during the September 1939 campaign in Poland. Numerous examples exist in which Polish soldiers were killed after capture, for instance at Śladów where 252 POWs were shot or drowned, at Ciepielów where some 300 POWs were killed, and at Zambrów where a further 300 POWs were killed. Some 50 British officers who had escaped from Stalag Luft III were shot after recapture, and 15 uniformed U.S. Army officers and men were shot without trial in Italy. 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. [Scheck, R. (2006). "Hitler's African Victims". Cambridge University Press. [http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521857994&ss=exc Excerpt] .] After the Italian armistice in 1943 in several occasions where Italian troops resisted their forcible disarmament by the Germans, Italian POWs were executed. Most infamous is the massacre of the Acqui Division at Kefalonia.

Night and Fog Decree

This decree, issued by Hitler in 1941 and disseminated along with a directive from Keitel, was operative 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 to make them disappear without a 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."

Reprisal actions

In Yugoslavia and Greece, several villages were razed and their inhabitants murdered during anti-partisan operations. Examples include the massacres of Kommeno and Kalavryta in Greece.

In occupied Poland and the USSR, hundreds of villages were wiped out and their inhabitants murdered. In the USSR, captured Soviet partisans 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. As many as 100 hostages were murdered for every German killed. In 1944, prior to and after the invasion, the French Resistance and the Maquis increased their activities against all German organisations, including the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. About 600 Maquis died in combat against the 15,000 strong Waffen-SS in Southern France, slowing the move to the new front in the North. After further incidents, Major Otto Dickmann's Waffen-SS troops wiped out the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in retaliation.

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." 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.

Postwar views

Upon the end of the war in 1945, several Wehrmacht generals made a statement that defended the actions against partisans, executions of hostages, and the use of slave laborers as necessary to 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. This statement said that the armed forces had fought honorably and left the impression that the Wehrmacht had not committed war crimes and was "unblemished".

However a number of high Wehrmacht officers stood trial for war crimes. OKW commander-in-chief Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and chief of operations staff Alfred Jodl were indicted and tried for war crimes by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. Both were convicted of all charges, sentenced to death and executed by hanging. 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. This was seen by many in the German public as exonerating the Wehrmacht's role in war crimes.

The prosecution of war crimes lost steam during the 1950s as the Cold War deepened; both German states needed to establish armed forces, and could not do so without trained soldiers and officers that had served in the Wehrmacht. 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.


Original exhibition 1995 - 1999

The view of the "unblemished" Wehrmacht was shaken by an exhibition produced by the "Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung" (Hamburg Institute for Social Research) [http://www.his-online.de/] titled "Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944" ("War of Annihilation. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944"). The popular and controversial traveling exhibition seen by an estimated 1.2 million visitors over the last decade asserted, with the support of written documents and photographs, that the Wehrmacht was "involved in planning and implementing a war of annihilation against Jews, prisoners of war, and the civilian population". Historian Hannes Heer and Gerd Hankel had prepared it.


After criticisms about incorrect attribution and captioning of some of the images in the exhibition, e.g. by Polish historian Bogdan Musial and Hungarian historian Krisztián Ungváry, the head and founder of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Jan Philipp Reemtsma suspended the display, pending review of its content by a committee of historians. In 1999, the institute transferred the exhibition to a "Trägerverein". Hannes Heer resigned from his post as "Leiter", and in 2000 from the institute, too. Reports had surfaced about his extreme left wing past in which he was sentenced several timesFact|date=July 2007.

The committee's report [http://www.his-online.de/download/Kommissionsbericht.pdf] in 2000 stated that accusations of forged materials were not justified, but that some of the exhibit's documentation had inaccuracies and that the arguments presented were too sweeping. Yet, the committee reaffirmed the reliability of the exhibition in general:

: "The fundamental statements made in the exhibition about the Wehrmacht and the war of annihilation in 'the east' are correct. It is indisputable that, in the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht not only 'entangled' itself in genocide perpetrated against the Jewish population, in crimes perpetrated against Soviet POWs, and in the fight against the civilian population, but in fact participated in these crimes, playing at times a supporting, at times a leading role. These were not isolated cases of 'abuse' or 'excesses'; they were activities based on decisions reached by top level military leaders or troop leaders on or behind the front lines." [cite web| url=http://www.verbrechen-der-wehrmacht.de/pdf/vdw_en.pdf| title= Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of Annihilation 1941-1944: An outline of the exhibition| language=English| publisher=Hamburg Institute for Social Research| format=PDF| accessdate=2006-03-12]

The committee recommended that the exhibition be reopened in revised form, presenting the material and, as far as possible, leaving the formation of conclusions to the exhibition's viewers.

Revised exhibition 2001 - 2004

The revised exhibition was now named "Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges 1941–1944."("Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of Annihilation 1941-1944"). [cite web| url=http://www.verbrechen-der-wehrmacht.de| title=Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges 1941—1944| accessdate=2006-03-12] . It focuses on Public international law and travelled from 2001 to 2004. Since then, it has permanently been at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.


The documentary "Der unbekannte Soldat" ("The Unknown Soldier") by Michael Verhoeven was in cinemas from August 2006, and has been available on DVD since February 2007. It compares the two versions of the exhibitions, and the background of its maker Jan Philipp Reemtsma, heir of the Reemtsma tobacco company which had held a reported 60% market share in Nazi Germany.

Exhibition about Wehrmacht in Poland 1939

It was criticized that both exhibitions only covered German presence in the Soviet Union in the years 1941-1945, and excluded German occupation of Poland since September 1939. A cooperation of Polish Institute of National Remembrance and [http://www.dhi.waw.pl/de/ Deutsches Historisches Institut in Warsaw] , the Polish exhibition „Größte Härte ... Verbrechen der Wehrmacht in Polen September/Oktober 1939“ was presented on 1 September 2004 in Poland, and the German version in 2005 ( [http://www.dhi.waw.pl/de/instytut/projekty/2/] [http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/historiker/03431.pdf] ). From 1 September 2007 to early 2008, it will be shown in Nuremberg at the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds. [http://www.museen.nuernberg.de/dokuzentrum/ausstellungen.html#polen]

Analysis of photos and letters concerning war crimes by German soldiers

The attitude of German soldiers towards atrocities committed on Jews and Poles in WW2 was also studied using photos and correspondence left after the war.

Photos serve as a valuable source of knowledge, as taking them and making albums about the persecution of Jews was a popular custom among German soldiers. These photos are not official propaganda of the German state and represent personal experience. Their overall attitude is antisemitic [http://www1.yadvashem.org/about_holocaust/studies/ordinary/levein_uziel_full.html Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Photos] " Judith Levin and Daniel Uziel Yad Vashem Institute Yad Vashem Studies, No. 26] . German soldiers as well as police members took pictures of Jewish deportations, executions, humiliation, and the abuse to which they were subjected. According to researchers photographs indicate the consent of the photographers to the abuses and murders committed. "This consent is the result of several factors, including the antisemitic ideology and prolonged, intensive indoctrination."Archival evidence as to the reaction to policies of racial extermination can also be traced in various letters that remained after the war. 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. Another sample are German soldiers' letters that were sent home and copied during the war by special Polish Home Army cell that infiltrated German post system to collect possible intelligence assets [http://www.polityka.pl Niemieckie listy ze wschodu] Polityka - nr 51 (2483) 18-12-2004; Jerzy Kochanowski, Marcin Zaremba] . Those letters have been analyzed by historians and the picture they paint is similar to views expressed by Judith Levin and Daniel Uziel. Many soldiers write openly about extermination of Jews and are proud of it. Support for "untermensch" and "master race" concepts are also part of the attitude expressed by German soldiers. Presented examples reflecting this trend include samples such as :"I'm one of those who are decreasing number of partisans. I put them against the wall and everyone gets a bullet in his head, very merry and interesting job", "My point of view:this nation deserves only the knaut, only by it they can be educated; a part of them already experienced that;others still try to resist. Yesterday I had possibility to see 40 partisants, something like that I had never encountered before. I became convinced that we are the masters, others are untermenschen". Much more evidence of such trends and thoughts among Wehrmacht soldiers exists and is subject to research by historians.

In conclusion the historians responsible for the exhibition assume that the antisemitic climate and propaganda in Nazi Germany had an immense impact on the entire population and emphasize the importance of the indoctrination.

ee also

*Command responsibility
*German war crimes
*Holocaust denial
*Allied war crimes during World War II
*Hunger Plan



External links

* [http://wih.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/11/2/148.pdf "Prisoner Taking and Prisoner Killing in the Age of Total War"] : Towards a Political Economy of Military Defeat

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