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Today, despite a rise in the popularity and publicity of neo-Nazis, most reasonable people disagree with the basic premise of Nazi ideology, if not all of its tenets. Despite this, there is a large number of reasonable people who have been tricked into believing and parroting the lies of German soldiers and officers, many of which were propagated into popular memory by Nazis and neo-Nazis outside of Germany after the war. One of the most insidious of these lies is the myth of the “Clean Wehrmacht,” spread particularly by Wehrmacht members put on trial in Nuremberg.
The basic premise of this myth is that while the Waffen-SS and other branches of the government were committing horrific war crimes, the Wehrmacht were merely fighting the war and weren’t informed about, much less involved in, any of the atrocities being committed in the name of Germany. These Wehrmacht members claimed they were Germans, but not Nazis. While it is true that the Wehrmacht was not officially affiliated with the Nazi party, its membership was full of Nazis and served the German state, which had essentially become interchangeable with the Nazi party by the time the war started, meaning that they killed and died to preserve the Nazi party. This alone could be considered a horrendous act worthy of condemnation from the tribunals at Nuremberg, but in truth, the Wehrmacht certainly did participate in numerous war crimes, on all fronts and from the very beginning of the war. As long as there were so-called “enemies of the state” around, the Wehrmacht would actively participate in their destruction.
The Western Front of WWII is not usually known for the brutal fighting that other areas of the conflict are, but when it came to Allied soldiers and civilians who fit within Hitler’s broad definition of “enemies of the state, ”the Wehrmacht were as brutal as possible. These “enemies of the state” included anyone of Jewish heritage or any of the other ethnic backgrounds that the Nazis despised, and anyone who disagreed with the state in any way deemed anti-state.
During the Battle for France, the Wehrmacht would treat white soldiers with a modicum of respect, following the Geneva conventions in their conduct, but African troops found a different fate awaiting them. The French military had included African troops in its military since the 1850s. In World War I, the French military managed to mobilize 160,000 Tirailleurs Sénégalais who became well-known for their heroic fighting. During the Battle for France, 66,000 African soldiers saw combat, going up against the Nazi war machine and Nazi ideology. The Wehrmacht slaughtered every one of them they could. Wehrmacht troops killed any wounded African troops they ran into, ruthlessly bombarded African resistance with artillery and flamethrowers, and hunted down African soldiers one by one, relentlessly chasing them and never taking prisoners in these situations. POWs who should have been protected under Geneva convention standards were often shot, and those who made it to camps were forced to starve, only saved by food snuck to them by white POWs.
Minor offenses in captivity warranted being shot, and were covered up under a loose interpretation of what constituted an escape attempt—a sick joke considering the amount of white POWs able to escape undetected. There are numerous accounts of African soldiers being separated from their white counterparts, taken aside, and shot throughout the entire campaign and even after armistice.
The Wehrmacht didn’t stop their war of extermination after these soldiers had died either. They destroyed the military name tags of African soldiers to prevent the identification of corpses. They often forbade the burial of African soldiers, and those who were buried were not allowed marked or decorated graves. In one particularly horrifying incident, German tanks ran over the bodies of shot African soldiers to ensure that none survived, mutilating the corpses in the process. In total the French records suggest 1,500 African soldiers died, but the incompleteness of these records suggests there may have been twice that many.
The Wehrmacht had very specific reasons for these war crimes. While there were no specific orders from the high command as there were on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht had very specific notions about African soldiers which made it easier for them to justify massacring those soldiers. Some specific orders on black POWs were issued mentioning the “perfidious” fighting of black soldiers, and asking for black POWs to be guarded strictly.
This can help explain some of the criminal treatment of black soldiers, but these orders don’t mention shooting black soldiers execution style or destroying their identification. The major cause of these crimes lies in the ideological makeup of the Wehrmacht. In a colonial context, the Germans already had an understanding of black men as ruthless savages who wanted to kill all white men and rape their women, stemming from the German occupation of East Africa.
In World War I this manifested in the German government decrying the use of “wild” Africans against “civilized” European soldiers, and accusing black soldiers of mutilating German soldiers. The presence of African troops in the occupation of the Rhineland set the Nazi propaganda machine ablaze, with such claims being distributed as France having unleashed uncivilized hordes of rapists and perverts upon Germany, and the “Negroized France” that needed to recruit Africans to make up for its weaknesses and its degeneracy.
In Nazi race theory, Africans were on the lowest tier, known as üntermensch or subhumans, and were seen as essentially only tools for the Jews. During the Western campaign itself, Goebbels issued false horror stories of African troops assaulting Germans in every medium available and called those soldiers “black animals clothed in khaki by the French”. The most common response that German civilians had to this propaganda was, “These black beasts should be shot after being captured.” The Wehrmacht read and listened to these same papers and radio stations, so there is no reason to believe that the Wehrmacht wasn’t being primed to massacre African soldiers by Hitler’s government and Wehrmacht officers, especially since Wehrmacht troops and officers supported the Nazi party. While Georg Grossjohann does much to surreptitiously omit Wehrmacht war crimes in his book Five Years, Four Fronts, he does admit that the Wehrmacht were not innocent defenders of their homeland, but were blatant supporters of the party.
While most atrocities committed under Nazi occupation were carried out by the SS, the Wehrmacht still had their parts to play when they were stationed in occupied territory. In the Netherlands, the Wehrmacht took more power over the occupied territory than was intended, and their attempts to stay “clean” resulted in failure. Hitler originally intended to institute an isolated military administration, but decided to change it to a civilian government because of a lack of confidence in his military leaders to lead the Netherlands properly. The Wehrmacht still had its role, though, serving as an auxiliary to Nazi government agencies like the SS. While this would only last a brief time, the Dutch were initially receptive to the occupying forces for a period known as “the honeymoon” period.
After a few months, however, the Wehrmacht began to take more direct control over the Netherlands, and thus received more orders to act against Jewish elements in the region which they followed with aplomb. The Wehrmacht were given the right to use their military forces to suppress “domestic disturbances”, and they used this right to seize and publicly torture Jewish men before sending them to concentration camps. The Wehrmacht later served in auxiliary roles in the deportation of Jews to death camps like Auschwitz. Altogether, this proves that Wehrmacht claims of having no knowledge of the camps and the Holocaust were lies to save themselves.
Additionally, the Wehrmacht served as strike-breakers, marching into Amsterdam and firing upon strikers until they caved and continued their work. While the Wehrmacht attempted to distinguish themselves from the Nazi party, any person in occupied territory like the Netherlands would find no difference in their treatment between the two.
The Eastern Front is infamous for the horrors committed by both Germany and the Soviet Union. However, while the Soviet Union’s crimes were reactionary, sprung from a desire for vengeance, Germany used the Wehrmacht as the advanced guard for the Nazi party’s race war. Poland was the first country of the Eastern Front to feel the wrath of the Wehrmacht’s war of extermination. In many ways, Poland was a training ground for the techniques that Hitler wished to eventually use on the Soviet Union, and the Wehrmacht were a large part of not only the military strategy, but the ideological strategy as well. While the Wehrmacht did not directly take part in the large scale extermination campaigns in Poland as they did in the Netherlands, they did execute “enemy partisans,” many of whom actually had no part in the fighting, and they knew about the establishment of the camps and continued to toe the party line.
In 1941 the Wehrmacht developed a model for “the solution to the Jewish and Gypsy question,” and in Serbia directly planned their extermination, again preparing for the war in the Soviet Union. Not only were the Wehrmacht officers ordering these atrocities, but the propaganda troop of the Wehrmacht was spreading information to troops about the inferiority of the Serbian Slavs. Wehrmacht soldiers were proud of their “accomplishments.” They openly talked with their family about their massacres without protest or remorse, and even sent pictures home despite the prohibition from high command.
In Lithuania, a program was enacted to incite the Lithuanians to turn on their Jewish neighbors. The program was successful and the resulting massacre lasted several days. German soldiers watched the events and did not interrupt, essentially offering protection for these programs. While Wehrmacht troops were not actively participating in these attacks, their protection was essential to their success and the murder of thousands of Jews.
Ukraine was hit hard by Wehrmacht troops. One particularly vicious act of barbarism occurred in August 1941 in an event known as the Children’s Massacre. The town of Belaya Tserkov, lying close to the Ukrainian capital city Kiev, was the site of the Children’s Massacre where 90 Jewish children were murdered by Wehrmacht soldiers working in conjunction with SS commandos. Detailed records were kept on this horrific display of violence. Grossjohann does not mention this in his book in the section where he is stationed in Belaya Tserkov, and many other Wehrmacht also kept quiet, but thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, seven documents describing this massacre survived and showed just how entangled the Wehrmacht were in Hitler’s war of extermination. The Children’s Massacre was not an isolated incident either, just one of the ones that was documented best. The massacre at Babi Yar, also near Kiev, claimed the lives of 30,000 Jewish victims and involved close cooperation of the Wehrmacht.
In Russia, the fighting itself was brutal enough to be considered inhumane at the very least, but the Wehrmacht executed their plans for extermination that they had been fine tuning throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. Here, the Wehrmacht and SS had a very clear division of labor for their horrors. Immediately after seizing a region, the Wehrmacht commander issued an order for all Jews to be registered. Large posters were made and posted, ordering all Jewish residents to come forward and identify themselves to make it simple for the SS to arrest them, assuming they didn’t grasp the severity of the situation and flee underground. The SS would then begin the systematic killing of the Jews who came forward. This close working relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS only grew over the course of the war, eventually leading to members of both the SS and the Wehrmacht to view the separation between the two organizations as purely artificial. Eventually, the only issue the Wehrmacht had with the killing of Jews and Slavs was economic concerns over the loss of labor in conquered regions. Despite this, Wehrmacht troops continued executing “partisans,” with the slogan “Jews and partisans are the same thing” making the true goal behind these executions obvious. Soviet troops and officers were also often executed regardless of heritage for their communist beliefs, or sometimes even rounded up and sent to the concentration and death camps, all by Wehrmacht troops.
Why has this myth persisted? Once again, this myth began during the Nuremberg Trials, a time when sympathy for the Nazis was at an all-time international low. And yet, in this climate a lie exonerating the very same troops that had taken so many lives from so many nations was able to not only sprout, but become a hard-set part of the layman’s understanding of WWII. This is because of a concerted propaganda effort by Nazi sympathizers and former Wehrmacht soldiers to get as many of them out of the trials as possible.
The fact of the matter is that no one who lived in Germany under the Nazi regime is completely clear of guilt for the horror committed by the Nazis, but after the war the Wehrmacht attempted to create an image of an innocent “clean” Wehrmacht. Their lies and the lies of neo-Nazi groups allowed this myth to permeate the cultural zeitgeist surrounding World War II in America and elsewhere. The Wehrmacht, just like their party affiliated counterparts, committed horrible acts against anyone declared an “enemy of the state.” It didn’t matter if they were on the Western front, in occupied territory, or on the Eastern front, if they weren’t Aryan or Nazis, the Wehrmacht were more than willing to assist the state in exterminating these “enemies” in grotesque fashion. Anti-semitism and ethnic and ideological cleansing were a soldier’s duty, and it was a duty that most of the Wehrmacht fulfilled with little complaint, and often eagerness. The “clean” Wehrmacht myth, despite being a fairly common misconception in America, has been thoroughly debunked, and this fact needs to be brought to everyone’s attention.
Sources and Further Reading:
Raffael Scheck. "“They Are Just Savages”: German Massacres of Black Soldiers from the French Army in 1940." The Journal of Modern History 77, no. 2 (2005): 328.
Georg Grossjohann, Five Years, Four Fronts, (New York, Random House, 1999), xxvii.
Jennifer L Foray. "The 'Clean Wehrmacht' in the German-occupied Netherlands, 1940–5." Journal of Contemporary History 45, no. 4 (2010): 769.
Wolfram Wette, The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, and Reality, (Cambridge, Oxford University Press, 2006), 100.