The straight-armed Balkenkreuz, a stylized version of the Iron Cross, the emblem of the Wehrmacht.
Active 1935–1945
Country  Nazi Germany
Allegiance Nazi Germany
Flensburg Government
Branch Heer
Role Armed forces of Nazi Germany
Size 18,200,000 (aggregate for all years)
Garrison/HQ Zossen
Patron Adolf Hitler
Colors Feldgrau
Engagements Spanish Civil War
World War II
Ceremonial chief Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Hermann Göring
Wilhelm Keitel
Erich Raeder
Karl Dönitz
Robert Ritter von Greim

The Wehrmacht (German pronunciation: [ˈveːɐ̯maxt] ( listen) (literally, defensive might, or more accurately, defense forces) – from German: wehren, to defend and die Macht, the might/power) were the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe (air force).


Origin and use of the term

Before the National Socialist German Workers' Party assumed control of the German government in 1933, the term Wehrmacht generically described a nation’s “home defence” forces, analogous to the German Streitmacht foreign war forces, thus, Britische Wehrmacht denoted “British defence forces.” The term Wehrmacht is in Article 47 of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, establishing that: Der Reichspräsident hat den Oberbefehl über die gesamte Wehrmacht des Reiches (“The National President holds supreme command of all armed forces of the nation”). From 1919, Germany’s national defence force was known as the Reichswehr, until its renaming as Wehrmacht in 1935.

After World War II (1939–45), the Allies abolished the Wehrmacht. In 1955, when the western Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) remilitarized, its armed forces were named the Bundeswehr ("Federal Defence"). In 1956, upon formal establishment, the armed forces of the Communist, east German Democratic Republic (GDR) were named the Nationale Volksarmee (National People's Army), some of whom, with matériel, were incorporated to the Bundeswehr when the German reunification consolidated the two Germanies in 1990.[1]

In German and English usage, Wehrmacht denotes the armed forces of Nazi Germany. Using Wehrmacht to denote only the Heer (land forces) is inaccurate; nevertheless, it is a misusage common in English writing.

For branch-of-service identification, Wehrmacht vehicles bore alpha-numeric identity licence plates: WH for the Heer, WL for the Luftwaffe, WM for the Kriegsmarine. SS vehicles bore the identity licence prefix SS, always depicted with the double Sigrunen of the force.

Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht

The Waffen-SS, the combat branch of the SS (the Nazi Party's paramilitary organization), became the de facto fourth branch of the Wehrmacht, as it expanded from three regiments to 38 divisions by 1945. Although the SS was autonomous and existed in parallel to the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS field units were placed under the operational control of the Supreme High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) or the Supreme High Command of the Army (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH).

Competence struggles hampered organization in the German armed forces, as OKW, OKH, OKL (Luftwaffe had its own ground forces, including tank divisions) and Waffen-SS often worked concurrently and not as a joint command.


After World War I ended with the armistice of 11 November 1918, the armed forces were dubbed Friedensheer (peace army) in January 1919. In March 1919, the national assembly passed a law founding a 420,000 strong preliminary army as Vorläufige Reichswehr. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were announced in May, and in June Germany was forced to sign the treaty which, among other terms, imposed severe constraints on the size of Germany's armed forces. The army was limited to one hundred thousand men with an additional fifteen thousand in the navy. The fleet was to consist of at most six battleships, six cruisers, and twelve destroyers. Submarines, tanks and heavy artillery were forbidden and the air force was dissolved. A new post-war military (the Reichswehr) was established on 23 March 1921. General conscription was abolished under another mandate of the Versailles treaty.

By 1922, Germany had begun covertly circumventing these conditions. A secret collaboration with the Soviet Union began after the treaty of Rapallo. Major-General Otto Hasse traveled to Moscow in 1923 to further negotiate the terms. Germany helped the Soviet Union with industrialization and Soviet officers were to be trained in Germany. German tank and air force specialists could exercise in the Soviet Union and German chemical weapons research and manufacture would be carried out there along with other projects. Around 300 German pilots received training at Lipetsk, some tank training took place near Kazan and toxic gas was developed at Saratov for the German army.

Hitler and reinstatement of conscription

After the death of President Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, Hitler assumed the office of Reichspräsident, and thus became commander in chief. All officers and soldiers of the German armed forces had to swear a personal oath of loyalty to the Führer, as Adolf Hitler now was called. By 1935, Germany was openly flouting the military restrictions set forth in the Versailles Treaty, and conscription was reintroduced on 16 March 1935.

While the size of the standing army was to remain at about the 100,000-man mark decreed by the treaty, a new group of conscripts equal to this size would receive training each year. The conscription law introduced the name Wehrmacht, so not only can this be regarded as its founding date, but the organization and authority of the Wehrmacht can be viewed as Nazi creations regardless of the political affiliations of its high command (who nevertheless all swore the same personal oath of loyalty to Hitler). The insignia was a simpler version of the Iron Cross (the straight-armed so-called Balkenkreuz or beamed cross) that had been used as an aircraft and tank marking in late World War I, beginning in March and April of 1918. The existence of the Wehrmacht was officially announced on 15 October 1935.


The total number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht during its existence from 1935-1945 is believed to have approached 18.2 million. This figure was put forward by historian Rüdiger Overmans and represents the total number of people who ever served in the Wehrmacht, and not the force strength of the Wehrmacht at any point.

Command structure

Legally, the Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht was Adolf Hitler in his capacity as Germany's head of state, a position he gained after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in August 1934. In the reshuffle in 1938, Hitler became the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and retained that position until his suicide on 30 April 1945. Administration and military authority initially lay with the war ministry under Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg. After von Blomberg resigned in the course of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair (1938), the ministry was dissolved and the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) under Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel was put in its place. It was headquartered in Wünsdorf near Zossen, and a field echelon (Feldstaffel) was stationed wherever the Führer's headquarters were situated at a given time. Army work was also coordinated by the German General Staff, an institution that had been developing for more than a century and which had sought to institutionalize military perfection.

The OKW coordinated all military activities but Keitel's sway over the three branches of service (army, air force, and navy) was rather limited. Each had its own High Command, known as Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, army), Oberkommando der Marine (OKM, navy), and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL, air force). Each of these high commands had its own general staff. In practice the OKW had operational authority over the Western Front whereas the Eastern Front was under the operational authority of the OKH.

Flag for the Commander-in-Chief of the German Armed Forces (1935–1938).
  • Supreme High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW)
    • Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces
    • Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces
      • Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg (1933–1934), President of the Reich
      • Führer and Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler (1934 to 1935)
      • Generaloberst Werner von Blomberg (1935 to 1938), Minister for War, promoted Generalfeldmarschall (1936)
        • vested into the Supreme Commander (theoretically) and the Chief of the Supreme High Command (practically)
    • Vice Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces
      • General Werner von Blomberg (1933–1935), promoted Generaloberst 1933
    • Chief of the Armed Forces Supreme High Command—Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel (1938–1945)
    • Chief of the Operations Staff (Wehrmachtführungsstab)—Generaloberst Alfred Jodl

(!) Promotion to field marshal was considered as something which is only done in wartime.

The OKW was also given the task of central economic planning and procurement, but the authority and influence of the OKW's war economy office (Wehrwirtschaftsamt) was challenged by the procurement offices (Waffenämter) of the single branches of service as well as by the Ministry for Armament and Munitions (Reichsministerium für Bewaffnung und Munition), into which it was merged after the ministry was taken over by Albert Speer in early 1942.

War years


A Heeresadler ("Army Eagle") decal for the helmets of the Wehrmacht Heer (model 1942).

The German Army furthered concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground (Heer) and Air Force (Luftwaffe) assets into combined arms teams. Coupled with traditional war fighting methods such as encirclements and the "battle of annihilation", the German military managed many lightning quick victories in the first year of World War II, prompting foreign journalists to create a new word for what they witnessed: Blitzkrieg.

The Heer entered the war with a minority of its formations motorized; infantry remained approximately 90% foot-borne throughout the war, and artillery was primarily horse-drawn. The motorized formations received much attention in the world press in the opening years of the war, and were cited as the reason for the success of the invasions of Poland (September 1939), Norway and Denmark (April 1940), Belgium, France and Netherlands (May 1940), Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941) and the early campaigns in the Soviet Union (June 1941).

After Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, Germany and other Axis powers found themselves engaged in campaigns against three major industrial powers. At this critical juncture, Hitler assumed personal control of the Wehrmacht high command, and his personal failings as a military commander arguably contributed to major defeats in early 1943, at Stalingrad and Tunis in North Africa.

The Panzerjäger-Abteilung 39 ('Tank-hunter battalion 39', part of "Kampfgruppe Gräf", part of the 21. Panzer Division) of the Afrika Korps on the move.

The Germans' military strength was managed through mission-based tactics (rather than order-based tactics) and an almost proverbial discipline. In public opinion, the German Army was, and sometimes still is, seen as a high-tech army. However, such advanced equipment, while featured much in propaganda, was often only available in small numbers or late in the war, as overall supplies of raw materials and armaments ran low. For example, only 40% of all units were motorized, baggage trains often relied on horse-drawn trailers and many soldiers went by foot or used bicycles (Radfahrtruppen).

Some historians, such as British author and ex-newspaper editor Max Hastings, consider that "... there's no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war". Similar views were also expressed in his book Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy, while in the book World War II : An Illustrated Miscellany, Anthony Evans writes: "The German soldier was very professional and well trained, aggressive in attack and stubborn in defence. He was always adaptable, particularly in the later years when shortages of equipment were being felt". However, their integrity was compromised by war crimes, especially those committed on the eastern front. They were over-extended and out-maneuvered before Moscow in 1941, and in North Africa and Stalingrad in 1942, and from 1942-1943 onward, were in constant retreat. Other Axis powers fought with them, especially Hungary and Romania, as well as many volunteers from other nations.

Wehrmacht infantrymen marching across Russia's vast steppes, 1942.

Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Heer during World War II were ethnic Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians along with people from the Baltic states and the Balkans. Russians fought in the Russian Liberation Army or as Hilfswilliger. Non-Russians from the Soviet Union formed the Ostlegionen. These units were all commanded by General Ernst August Köstring and represented about five percent of the forces under the OKH.

Air Force

The Luftwaffe (German Air Force), led by Hermann Göring, was a key element in the early Blitzkrieg campaigns (Poland, France 1940, USSR 1941). The Luftwaffe concentrated on fighters and (small) tactical bombers, like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter and the Junkers Ju 87 (Stuka) dive bomber.

The planes cooperated closely with the ground forces. Massive numbers of fighters assured air supremacy, and the bombers would attack command- and supply lines, depots, and other support targets close to the front. They soon achieved an aura of invincibility and terror, where both civilians and soldiers were struck with fear, and started fleeing as soon as the planes were spotted. This caused confusion and disorganisation behind enemy lines, and in conjunction with the "ghost" Panzer Divisions that seemed to be able to appear anywhere, made the Blitzkrieg campaigns highly effective.

As the war progressed, Germany's enemies drastically increased their aircraft production, air supremacy was lost and allied forces gradually gained air superiority, particularly in the West of the theatre of operations. In the second half of the war, the Luftwaffe was reduced to insignificance. As the Western allies started a strategic bombing campaign against German industrial targets they established air supremacy over Germany which the Luftwaffe was unable to contest, leaving German cities open to Allied carpet bombing and massive destruction.

German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) landing on Crete.

Air Force units in a ground role

The Luftwaffe contributed many units of ground forces to the war in Russia as well as the Normandy front. In 1940, the Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) conquered the vital Belgian Fort Eben-Emael and took part in the airborne invasion of Norway, but after suffering heavy losses in the Battle of Crete, large scale airdrops were discontinued. Operating as crack infantry, the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division fought in all the theatres of the war. Notable actions include the bloody Monte Cassino, the last ditch defence of Tunisia and numerous key battles on the eastern front. A Fallschirmjäger armored division—the Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring—was also formed and was heavily engaged in Sicily and at Salerno.

Separate from the elite Fallschirmjäger, the Luftwaffe also fielded regular infantry in the Luftwaffe Field Divisions. These units were basic infantry formations formed from Luftwaffe personnel. Due to a lack of competent officers and unhappiness by the recruits at having been forced into an infantry role, morale was low in these units. By Göring's personal order they were intended to be restricted to defensive duties in quieter sectors to free up front line troops for combat.

The Luftwaffe—being in charge of Germany's anti-aircraft defences—also used thousands of teenage Luftwaffenhelfer to support the Flak units.[2]


The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) played a major role in World War II as control over the commerce routes in the Atlantic was crucial for Germany, Britain and later the Soviet Union. In the Battle of the Atlantic, the initially successful German U-boat fleet arm was eventually defeated due to Allied technological innovations like sonar, radar, and the breaking of the Enigma code. Large surface vessels were few in number due to construction limitations by international treaties prior to 1935. The "pocket battleships" Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer were important as commerce raiders only in the opening year of the war. No aircraft carrier was operational, as German leadership lost interest in the Graf Zeppelin which had been launched in 1938. Following the loss of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, with Allied air superiority threatening the remaining battlecruisers in French Atlantic harbors, the ships were ordered to make the Channel Dash back to German ports. Operating from fjords of Norway, which had been occupied in 1940, convoys from the U.S. to the Soviet port of Murmansk could be intercepted even though the Tirpitz spent most of her career as Fleet in being. After the appointment of Karl Doenitz as Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine, Germany stopped constructing battleships and cruisers in favor of U-boats.[citation needed]

Theaters and campaigns

German cavalry and motorized units entering Poland from East Prussia during the Invasion of Poland of 1939.

The Wehrmacht directed combat operations during World War II (from 1 September 1939-8 May 1945) as the German Reich's Armed Forces umbrella command organization. After 1941 the OKH became the de facto Eastern Theatre higher echelon command organization for the Wehrmacht, excluding Waffen-SS except for operational and tactical combat purposes. The OKW conducted operations in the Western Theater.

For a time, the Axis Mediterranean Theater and the North African Campaign was conducted as a joint campaign with the Italian Army, and may be considered a separate theatre.

  • North African Campaign in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt between the UK and Commonwealth (and later, U.S.) forces and the Axis forces.
  • The Italian "Theater" (1943–45) was in fact a continuation of the Axis defeat in North Africa, and was a Campaign for defence of Italy.

The operations by the Kriegsmarine in the North and Mid-Atlantic can also be considered as separate theaters considering the size of the area of operations and their remoteness from other theaters.

Eastern theater

The Eastern Wehrmacht campaigns included:

  • Czechoslovakian campaign
  • Austrian Anschluss campaign
  • Battle of Poland campaign (Fall Weiss)—a joint invasion by Germany, the Soviet Union and Slovakia.
  • Balkans and Greece (Operation Marita)
  • Operation Barbarossa Campaign, also known as the Eastern Front, was the largest and most lethal campaign that the Wehrmacht Heer fought in during World War II. The Campaign against the Soviet Union was strategically the most crucial for Germany and its allies during World War II because of the economic and political repercussions defeat of the Soviet Union would have had on the outcome of the war, including that of the conflict with the UK and the U.S. in the Western Theater. The Eastern Front was also the Theater that demanded more resources than any other Theater throughout the war. The large area covered by the Eastern Front necessitated the division of the Theatre in to four separate Strategic Directions overseen by the Army Group North, Army Group Centre, Army Group South, and the Army Norway. These commands would conduct their own interdependent strategic campaigns within the theater.
  • Battle of the Caucasus.
  • A subset of the Eastern Front was a number of anti-partisan operations against guerrilla units and counter-insurgency operations largely by Waffen-SS units behind Axis lines.

However, Hitler demanded that the Wehrmacht had to fight on other fronts, sometimes three simultaneously, thus stretching its resources too thin. By 1944, even the defence of Germany became impossible.

Western theatre

German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe.
  • Phony War (Sitzkrieg).
  • The Denmark campaign as Operation Weserübung
  • The Norwegian Campaign.
  • The largest campaign in the Western Theatre involving combat was conducted against the Netherlands, Belgium, etc. and France (Fall Gelb) in 1940. This predominantly land campaign evolved into two subsequent campaigns, one by the Luftwaffe against the UK, and the other by the Kriegsmarine against the strategic supply routes linking the UK to the rest of the World.
  • The Western Front resumed in 1944 against the Allied forces with the Battle of Normandy.
  • The strategic air campaigns the Luftwaffe won in 1939 and 1940 in Poland and France ended with the Battle of Britain. From 1941 to the end of 1943, the Luftwaffe entered a long and bloody air battle with the Red Air Force that affected its participation in the campaign against the RAF. Allied air forces enjoyed aerial superiority on all three Theaters by the summer of 1944. In respect to the Battle of Britain, had the Luftwaffe pursued its early goal of bombing the RAF airfields and fighting a war of attrition, it is likely they would have been victorious. However, in response to a string of events beginning with a small-scale air raid on Berlin by British bombers, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe bomber forces to attack British cities. These reprisal attacks shifted the weight of the Luftwaffe away from the RAF and onto British civilians, allowing the RAF to rebuild its fighting strength and, within a few short months, turn the tide against the Luftwaffe in the skies above England.
  • The Battle of the Atlantic resulted in early Kriegsmarine successes that forced Winston Churchill to confide after the war that the only real threat he felt to Britain's survival was the "U-Boat peril."


The number of wounded during the entire conflict surpasses 6,000,000, and the number of prisoners of war reaches 11,000,000. In all, approximately 5,533,000 soldiers from Germany and other nationalities fighting for the German armed forces—including the Waffen-SS—are estimated to have been killed in action, died of wounds, died in custody or gone missing in World War II. Included in this number are 215,000 Soviet citizens conscripted by Germany.[3]

According to Frank Biess, "German casualties took a sudden jump with the defeat of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad in January 1943, when 180,310 soldiers were killed in one month. Among the 5.3 million Wehrmacht casualties during the Second World War, more than 80 percent died during the last two years of the war. Approximately three-quarters of these losses occurred on the Eastern front (2.7 million) and during the final stages of the war between January and May 1945 (1.2 million)."[4] Jeffrey Herf wrote that:

Whereas German deaths between 1941 and 1943 on the western front had not exceeded 3 percent of the total from all fronts, in 1944 the figure jumped to about 14 percent. Yet even in the months following D-day, about 68.5 percent of all German battlefield deaths occurred on the eastern front, as a Soviet blitzkrieg in response devastated the retreating Wehrmacht.[5]

Politics of the Wehrmacht

Foreign volunteer battalion in the Wehrmacht. Soldiers of the Free Arabian Legion in Greece, September 1943.

Due to the constitution of the Weimar Republic, no soldier of the Reichswehr was allowed to be a member of a political party nor to vote in an election. This was because in theory there was a strict separation between politics and the armed forces. The same theory applied later to the Wehrmacht. In the 1920s, the military did not accept the democratic Weimar Republic as legitimate, and so the Reichswehr under the leadership of Hans von Seeckt became a “state within the state” that operated largely outside the control of politicians.[6] Reflecting this position as a “state within the state”, the Reichswehr created the Ministeramt or Office of the Ministerial Affairs in 1928 under Kurt von Schleicher to lobby the politicians.[7] German historian Eberhard Kolb wrote that:

“…from the mid-1920s onwards the Army leaders had developed and propagated new social conceptions of a militarist kind, tending towards a fusion of the military and civilian sectors and ultimately a totalitarian military state (Wehrstaat)”.[8]

What the German military wanted to see above all was the Wiederwehraftmachung of Germany, namely the total militarization of German society in order to fight a total war and thus ensure that Germany did not lose the next war.[9] As such, what both the Nazis and the German Army wanted to see was Germany remade into a totally militarized Volksgemeinschaft that would be ruthlessly purged of those considered to be internal enemies, such as the Jews who were believed to have "stabbed" Germany in "the back" in 1918.[10] By 1931, Germany's reserves of experienced reservists were coming to an end, because Part V of the Treaty of Versailles forbade conscription and existing reservists were aging.[11] General Kurt von Schleicher worried that unless conscription was restored soon, German military power would be destroyed forever.[11] So, Schleicher and the rest of the Reichswehr leadership were determined that Germany must end Versailles, and in the meantime saw the SA and the other right-wing paramilitary groups as the best substitute for conscription. Schleicher and other Reichswehr generals made a secret contract with the SA starting in 1931.[11] Like the rest of the Reichswehr leadership, Schleicher viewed democracy as a great impediment to military power, and firmly believed that only a dictatorship could make Germany a great military power again.[12] Thus Schleicher worked to replace the democracy with a dictatorship headed by himself. Thus, he played a key role in the downfall of the Weimar Republic and unintentionally helped to bring about Nazi Germany.[13]

About 300 Polish POWs executed by the soldiers of the German 15th motorized infantry regiment in Ciepielów on September 9th, 1939.

Many officers too in the early 1930s started to express admiration for National Socialism, which they saw as a the best way of creating the much desired Wehrstaat (defence state).[12] An important sign of the sympathy for National Socialism within the military came in September–October 1930, with the trial in Leipzig of three junior officers, Lieutenant Richard Scheringer, Hans Friedrich Wendt and Hans Ludin. The three men were charged with membership in the Nazi Party; at that time membership in political parties was forbidden for members of the Reichswehr. The three officers openly admitted to Nazi Party membership, and used as their defence the claim that the Nazi Party membership should not be forbidden to Reichswehr personnel. When the three officers were caught red-handed distributing Nazi literature at their base, their commanding officer, General Ludwig Beck (of the 5th Artillery Regiment based in Ulm), was furious at their arrest, and argued that since the Nazi Party was a force for good, Reichswehr personnel should be allowed to join the Party.[14] At the Leipzig trial of Ludin and Scheringer, Beck and other officers testified about the good character of the accused, described the Nazi Party as a positive force in German life, and proclaimed his belief that the Reichswehr ban on Nazi Party membership should be rescinded. The trial in Leipzig caused a media sensation and Hitler himself testified at the trial about how much Nazi and Reichswehr values were one and the same.[15] After the trial, many Reichswehr officers started to favour the NSDAP.[16]

British historian A.J. Nicholls wrote that the popular stereotype of the German military in the 1920s-1930s as old-fashioned reactionary Junkers is incorrect, and a disproportionate number of officers had a technocratic bent, and instead of looking back to the Second Reich looked with confidence towards a new dynamic, high-tech and revolutionary future dominated by men like themselves.[12] Israeli historian Omer Bartov wrote that most officers were National Socialists "because they believed had it not been for [Hitler] they would never have been able to realize their dreams of a highly modern, total war of expansion".[17] Bartov wrote:

"The combined gratification of personal ambitions, technological obsessions and nationalist aspirations greatly enhanced their identification with Hitler's regime as individuals, professionals, representatives of a caste and leaders of a vast conscript army. Men such as Beck and Guderian, Manstein and Rommel, Doentiz and Kesserlring, Milch and Udet cannot be described as mere soldiers strictly devoted to their profession, rearmament and the autonomy of the military establishment while remaining indifferent to and detached from Nazi rule and ideology. The many points of contact between Hitler and his young generals were thus important elements in the integration of the Wehrmacht into the Third Reich, in stark contradication of its image as a "haven" from Nazism".[17]

Because of these conceptions of Germany remade into a totalitarian Wehrstaat, the leadership of the military welcomed and embraced the National Socialist regime.[18] The German historian Jürgen Förster wrote that it was wrong as many historians have to dismiss the Wehrmacht's self-proclaimed role as one of the "twin pillars" of Nazi Germany (the other pillar being the NSDAP).[18] General Ludwig Beck welcomed the coming of the Nazi regime in 1933, writing "I have wished for years for the political revolution, and now my wishes have come true. It is the first ray of hope since 1918.".[19] (Ironically, Beck was later executed for opposing National Socialism.) In addition, many soldiers had previously been in the Hitler Youth and Reichsarbeitsdienst and had thus been subjected to intensive Nazi indoctrination; as a result, many newly commissioned officers were committed Nazis. In general, the Luftwaffe (airforce) was heavily Nazi-influenced, as was the navy and army to a lesser degree, through that was only relative. On December 8, 1938, the OKW had instructed all officers in all three services to be thoroughly 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 military.[20] 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:

A column of tanks and other armoured vehicles of the Panzerwaffe, near Stalingrad, 1942.
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.[20]

Anti-Semitic attitudes like the views expressed above coloured all the instructions that came to Wehrmacht during the summer of 1939 as part of the preparations for the invasion of Poland.[20] The war against the Soviet Union was presented as a war of extermination right from the start. In 1989, the British historian Richard J. Evans wrote that right from the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Wehrmacht waged a genocidal war of "extreme brutality and barbarism".[21] Evans wrote that Wehrmacht officers regarded the Russians as "sub-human", were from the time of the invasion of Poland in 1939 telling their troops the 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", language clearly intended to produce war crimes by reducing the enemy to something less than human.[22] Such views helped to explain why 3,300,000 of the 5,700,000 Soviet POWs taken by the Germans died in captivity.[23] On May 19, 1941, the OKW issued the "Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops in Russia" which began by declaring that "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".[24] The "Guidelines" urged "ruthless and vigorous measures against Bolshevik inciters, guerillas, saboteurs, Jews and the complete elimination of all active and passive resistance"".[24] Reflecting the influence of the guidelines, in a directive sent out to the troops under his command, General Erich Hoepner of the Panzer Group 4 proclaimed:

"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 defense of European culture against Muscovite-Asiatic inundation and of the repluse 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 remorselessy and totally. In particular no adherents of the contemporary Russian Bolshevik system are to be spared".[25]

Very typical of the German Army propaganda as part of the preparations for Barbarossa was the following passage from a pamphlet issued in June 1941:

Captured Soviet soldiers of Turkestani and/or Muslim backgrounds were drafted in large numbers into the Ostlegionen of the Wehrmacht. France, 1943.[26]
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].[27]

As a result of the very intense anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic propaganda before and during Barbarossa, most Army officers and soldiers tended to regard the war against the Soviet Union in Nazi terms, seeing their Soviet opponents as so much sub-human trash deserving to be destroyed without mercy.[27] One German soldier wrote home to his father on August 4, 1941 that:

German infantry marching, Soviet Union, June 1943.
The pitful 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.[27]

The overwhelming 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 in the Army were inclinced to be especially zealous National Socialists with a third of them having joined the Nazi Party by 1941.[28] Among higher ranking officers, 29.2% were NSDAP members by 1941.[29] The Wehrmacht obeyed Hitler's criminal orders for Barbarossa not because of obedience to orders, but because they, like Hitler, believed that the Soviet Union was run by Jews, and that Germany must completely destroy "Judeo-Bolshevism".[30] German historian Jürgen Förster wrote that most Wehrmacht officers genuinely believed that most Red Army commissars were Jews who in turn were what kept the Red Army going, and that the best way to bring about victory against the Soviet Union was to exterminate the commissars so as to deprive the Russian soldiers of their Jewish leaders.[31]

From 1943 onwards, the influx of officers and conscripts who had been mainly educated under the Nazis, began to further increase the National Socialism in the army.[32] Political influence in the military command began to increase later in the war when Hitler's flawed strategic decisions began showing up as serious defeats for the German Army and tensions mounted between the military and the government. When Hitler appointed unqualified personnel such as Hermann Göring to lead his Air Force, failure ensued.

War crimes

A mass execution of Polish hostages in Palmiry - The German execution of 51 Polish hostages in retaliation for an attack on a Nazi police station by the underground organization "White Eagle"

In World War II, the Wehrmacht was involved in a number of war crimes. While the principal perpetrators of the civil suppression behind the front lines 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 and ordered (e.g. the Commissar Order) war crimes of their own, particularly during the invasion of Poland in 1939 [33] and later in the war against the Soviet Union. The Army's Chief of Staff General Franz Halder in a directive declared that in the event of guerrila attacks, German troops were to impose "collective measures of force" by massacring entire villages.[34] Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Soviet civilians died from starvation as the Germans requisitioned food for their armies and fodder for their draft horses.[35]

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. Between the launching of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 and the following spring, 2.8 million of the 3.2 million Soviet prisoners taken died while in German hands.[36]

Soviet Union, October 1941.

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. Several high ranked members of the Wehrmacht like Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl were convicted for their involvement in war crimes. Among German historians, the view that the Wehrmacht had participated in war time atrocities, particularly on the Eastern Front, grew in the late 1970s and the 1980s. In the 1990s, public conception in Germany was influenced by controversial reactions and debates about the exhibition of war crime issues.[37] More recently, the judgement of Nuremberg has come under question. The Israeli historian Omer Bartov, a leading expert on the Wehrmacht[38] wrote in 2003 that the Wehrmacht was a willing instrument of genocide, and that it is untrue that the Wehrmacht was an apolitical, professional fighting force that had only a few "bad apples".[39] Bartov argues that far from being the "untarnished shield", as successive German apologists stated after the war, the Wehrmacht was a criminal organization.[40] Likewise, the British historian Richard J. Evans, a leading expert on modern German history wrote that the Wehrmacht was a genocidal organization.[41] British historian Ian Kershaw wrote that:

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.[42]

Resistance to the Nazi regime

Major General Henning von Tresckow

From all groups of German Resistance, those within the Wehrmacht were the most condemned by the NSDAP. There were several attempts by resistance members like Henning von Tresckow, Erich Hoepner or Friedrich Olbricht to assassinate Hitler as an ignition of a coup d'état. Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff and Axel Freiherr von dem Bussche-Streithorst even tried to do so by suicide bombing. Those and many other officers in the Heer and Kriegsmarine such as Erwin Rommel, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and Wilhelm Canaris opposed the atrocities of the Hitler regime. Combined with Hitler's problematic military leadership, this also culminated in the famous 20 July plot (1944), when a group of German Army officers led by von Stauffenberg tried again to kill Hitler and overthrow his regime. Following this attempt, every officer who approached Hitler was searched from head to foot by his SS guards. As a special degradation all German military personnel were ordered to replace the standard military salute with the Hitler salute from this date on. To what extent the German military forces opposed or supported the Hitler regime is nevertheless highly disputed amongst historians up to the present day.

Some members of the Wehrmacht did save Jews and non-Jews from the concentration camps and/or mass executions. Anton Schmid—a sergeant in the army—helped 250 Jewish men, women, and children escape from the Vilnius ghetto and provided them with forged passports so that they could get to safety. He was court-martialed and executed as a consequence. Albert Battel, a reserve officer stationed near the Przemysl ghetto, blocked an SS detachment from entering it. He then evacuated up to 100 Jews and their families to the barracks of the local military command, and placed them under his protection. Wilm Hosenfeld—an army captain in Warsaw—helped, hid, or rescued several Poles, including Jews, in occupied Poland. Most notably, he helped the Polish Jewish composer Władysław Szpilman, who was hiding among the city's ruins, by supplying him with food and water, and did not betray him to the Nazi authorities. Hosenfeld later died in a Soviet POW camp.

Prominent members

Prominent German officers from the Wehrmacht era include:

After World War II

Following the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht, which went into effect on 8 May 1945, some Wehrmacht units remained active, either independently (e.g. in Norway), or under Allied command as police forces.[43] By the end of August 1945, these units were dissolved, and a year later on 20 August 1946, the Allied Control Council declared the Wehrmacht as officially abolished (Kontrollratsgesetz No. 34). While Germany was forbidden to have an army, Allied forces took advantage of the knowledge of Wehrmacht members like Reinhard Gehlen.

It was over ten years before the tensions of the Cold War led to the creation of separate military forces in the Federal Republic of Germany and the socialist German Democratic Republic. The West German military, officially created on 5 May 1955, took the name Bundeswehr, meaning Federal Defence Forces, which pointed back to the old Reichswehr. Its East German counterpart—created on 1 March 1956—took the name National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee). Both organizations employed many former Wehrmacht members, particularly in their formative years.

See also


  1. ^ The predecessor army of the eastern National People’s Army was the Kasernierte Volkspolizei (KVP; Barracked People's Police, est. 1952), which disguised its military nature in postwar demilitarised Germany—hence the police name.
  2. ^ One of whom was Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI
  3. ^ Rűdiger Overmans (2000). Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Wikipedia. p. 335. ISBN 3-486-56531-1. http://books.google.com/books?. 
  4. ^ Frank Biess (2006). "Homecomings: returning POWs and the legacies of defeat in postwar Germany". Princeton University Press. p.19. ISBN 0691125023
  5. ^ Jeffrey Herf (2006). The Jewish enemy: Nazi propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust. Harvard University Press. p.252. ISBN 0674021754
  6. ^ Kolb, Eberhard The Weimar Republic London: Routledge, 2005 page 172
  7. ^ Wheeler-Bennett, John The Nemesis of Power, London: Macmillan, 1967 page 198.
  8. ^ Kolb, Eberhard The Weimar Republic London: Routledge, 2005 page 173
  9. ^ Förster, Jürgen "Complicity or Entanglement? The Wehrmact, the War and the Holocaust" pages 266-283 from The Holocaust and History The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamiend edited by Michael Berenbaum & Abraham Peck, Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1998 page 267.
  10. ^ Förster, Jürgen "Complicity or Entanglement? The Wehrmact, the War and the Holocaust" pages 266-283 from The Holocaust and History The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamend edited by Michael Berenbaum & Abraham Peck, Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1998 page 268.
  11. ^ a b c Nicholls, A.J. Weimar and the Rise of Hitler, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000 page 163.
  12. ^ a b c Nicholls, A.J. Weimar and the Rise of Hitler, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000 pages 163-164.
  13. ^ Kolb, Eberhard The Weimar Republic Routledge, 2005 page 126
  14. ^ Wheeler-Bennett 1967, p. 217.
  15. ^ Wheeler-Bennett, John The Nemesis of Power, London: Macmillan, 1967 pages 216-219
  16. ^ Wheeler-Bennett, John The Nemesis of Power, London: Macmillan 1968 pages 220-223
  17. ^ a b Bartov, Omer (1999). "Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich". In Leitz, Christian. The Third Reich. London: Blackwell. pp. 129–150 [p. 145]. 
  18. ^ a b Förster, Jürgen "Complicity or Entanglement? The Wehrmact, the War and the Holocaust" pages 266-283 from The Holocaust and History The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamiend edited by Michael Berenbaum & Abraham Peck, Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1998 pages 267-268.
  19. ^ May 2000, p. 33.
  20. ^ a b c Förster 1998, page 270.
  21. ^ Evans, Richard In Hitler's Shadow West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape the Nazi Past, New York: Pantheon 1989 pages 58-60.
  22. ^ Evans 1989 pages 59-60.
  23. ^ Evans 1989 page 58.
  24. ^ a b Förster, 1989 page 500.
  25. ^ Förster, 1989 pages 500-501.
  26. ^ Robert L. Canfield, Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective (p.212) – "The majority of Central Asian soldiers taken prisoner opted for the enemy – a fact still hidden from the Soviet public today – although systematic starvation and cruel treatment in German hands, which resulted in appalling losses, must have been one of the major inducements to change sides. As Turkistanis they joined the so-called "Eastern Legions," which were part of the Wehrmacht and later the Waffen SS, to fight the Red Army (Hauner 1981:339-57). The estimates of their numbers vary between 250,000 and 400,000, which include the Kalmyks, the Tatars and members of the Caucasian ethnic groups (Alexiev 1982:33)."
  27. ^ a b c Förster 2004, p 127
  28. ^ Evans, Richard J. (1989). In Hitler's Shadow West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape the Nazi Past. New York: Pantheon. p. 59. ISBN 0-394-57686-1. 
  29. ^ Bartov, Omer The Eastern Front, 1941-45 German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, Palgrave: London, 2001 page 49.
  30. ^ Förster 1998, page 273.
  31. ^ Förster 1998, page 274.
  32. ^ Beevor, Antony (1998). "Stalingrad" or "Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942–1943" (In the US). New York: Viking, 1998 (hardcover, ISBN 0-670-87095-1); London: Penguin Books, 1999 (paperback, ISBN 0-14-028458-3).
  33. ^ Böhler, Jochen (2006) (in German). Auftakt zum Vernichtungskrieg. Die Wehrmacht in Polen 1939. Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. ISBN 3596163072. 
  34. ^ Förster, Jürgen "The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination Against the Soviet Union", page 501
  35. ^ Geoffrey P. Megargee (2007). "War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941". Rowman & Littlefield. p.121. ISBN 0742544826
  36. ^ Davies, Norman (2006). Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory. London: Pan Books. p. 271. ISBN 9780330352123. 
  37. ^ "Crimes of the German Wehrmacht" (PDF). Hamburg Institute for Social Research. 2004. http://www.verbrechen-der-wehrmacht.de/pdf/vdw_en.pdf. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  38. ^ Leitz, Christian "Editor's Introduction" pages 131-132 from "Army: Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich" by Omer Bartov; pages 129-150 from The Third Reich The Essential Readings edited by Christian Leitz, London: Blackwell, 1999
  39. ^ Bartov, Omer Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003 page xiii
  40. ^ Bartov, 1999 page 146.
  41. ^ Evans, Richard In Hitler's Shadow 1989 pages 58-60.
  42. ^ Ian Kershaw. Stalinism and Nazism: dictatorships in comparison. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p.150 ISBN 0521565219
  43. ^ Alexander Fischer: „Teheran – Jalta – Potsdam“, Die sowjetischen Protokolle von den Kriegskonferenzen der „Großen Drei“, mit Fußnoten aus den Aufzeichnungen des US Department of State, Köln 1968, S.322 und 324


  • Bartov, Omer "Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich" pages 129-150 from The Third Reich The Essential Readings by Christian Leitz, London: Blackwell, 1999, ISBN 0-631-20700-7.
  • Evans, Richard J. In Hitler's Shadow West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape the Nazi Past. New York: Pantheon, 1989, ISBN 0-394-57686-1.
  • Förster, Jürgen "The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination Against the Soviet Union" pages 494-520 from The Nazi Holocaust Part 3 The "Final Solution": The Implementation of Mass Murder Volume 2 edited by Michael Marrus, Westpoint: Meckler Press, 1989 ISBN 0-88736-255-9.
  • Förster, Jürgen "Complicity or Entanglement? The Wehrmact, the War and the Holocaust" pages 266-283 from The Holocaust and History The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamiend edited by Michael Berenbaum & Abraham Peck, Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1998, ISBN 0253333741.
  • Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944, 1985, reissued 1999, Pan, ISBN 0-330-39012-0
  • Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1945, 2004, Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-90836-8
  • Anthony A Evans, World War II: An Illustrated Miscellany, 2005, Worth Press, ISBN 1-84567-681-5
  • Geoffrey P. Megargee, War of Annihilation. Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941, 2006, Rowman & Littelefield, ISBN 0-7425-4481
  • Geoffrey P. Megargee, Inside Hitler's High Command, 2000, University Press of Kansas, ISBN 978-0700611874
  • (German) Böhler, Jochen (2006) (in German). Auftakt zum Vernichtungskrieg. Die Wehrmacht in Polen 1939. Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. ISBN 3596163072. 
  • W.J.K. Davies, German Army Handbook, 1973, Ian Allen Ltd., Shepperton, Surrey, ISBN 0-7110-0290-8
  • Fest, Joachim; Plotting Hitler's Death—The Story of the German Resistance, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-8050-4213-X
  • Former Waffen-SS soldiers, Wenn alle Brueder schweigen (When all our brothers are silent), Munin Verlag GmbH, Osnabrueck, 3rd revised edition 1981, ISBN 3-921242-21-5
  • Lubbeck, William; Hurt, David B. At Leningrad's Gates: The Story of a Soldier with Army Group North. Philadelphia, PA: Casemate, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 1-932033-55-6).
  • U.S. National Archives, Captured German Records Microfilmed at Alexandria, Virginia, Microfilm publications T-77 and T-78, 2,680 rolls
  • U.S. War Department, Handbook on German Military Forces, 15 March 1945, Technical Manual TM-E 30-451

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