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Nazi army

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Nazi army

Not to be confused with Bundeswehr.
This article is about the military of Nazi Germany. For the band, see Wehrmacht (band).

Armed Forces of Germany
Iron Cross, the emblem of the Wehrmacht.
Active 1935–1945
Country  Nazi Germany
Allegiance Adolf Hitler
Branch Heer
Role Armed forces of Nazi Germany
Size 20,700,000 (total who served at any time)

2,200,000 (1945)

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] (Defence Force)—from German: wehren, to defend and Macht, power, force, cognate to English might) was the unified armed forces of 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

The term Wehrmacht generically describes a nation's Armed Forces, thus, Britische Wehrmacht denotes “British Armed 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 Reich's President holds supreme command of all armed forces of the Reich”). From 1919, Germany’s national defence force was known as the Reichswehr, which name was dropped in favor of Wehrmacht on 16 March 1935. The name Wehrmacht even in Germany is generally considered a proper noun of the 1935-45 armed forces, being replaced by Streitkräfte in its original meaning; however, this was not so even some decades after 1945. In English writing Wehrmacht is often used to refer specifically to the land forces (army); the correct German for this is Heer.

Ranks in the Wehrmacht


The post of the Reichsmarschall was the highest military ranking that a German could reach. The post was held solely by Hermann Göring, the most powerful Nazi leader in Germany apart from Hitler. Göring also served as the head of the Luftwaffe and was responsible for handling Germany's war economy.


In 1936, Hitler revived the rank of field marshal (pic. 1 and 2), originally only for the Minister of War and Commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht.


The rank of Generaloberst (pic. 3), usually translated as "colonel general", but perhaps better as "senior general" was equivalent to a four-star rank.


This three-star rank (pic. 4) was formally linked to the branch of the army Heer, or air-force Luftwaffe, in which the officer served, and (nominally) commanded: in addition to the long established General der Kavallerie, General der Artillerie and General der Infanterie, the Wehrmacht also had General der Panzertruppe (armoured troops), General der Gebirgstruppe (mountain troops), General der Pioniere (engineers), General der Fallschirm-Truppe (parachute-troops), General der Flieger (aviators), General der Flakartillerie (anti-aircraft) and General der Nachrichtentruppe (communications troops).


The German Generalleutnant (pic. 5) two-star rank was usually a division commander.


The German 'Generalmajor (pic. 6) one-star rank was usually a brigade commander. The staff corps of the Wehrmacht, medical, veterinary, judicial and chaplain, used special designations for their general officers, with Generalarzt, Generalveterinär, Generalrichter and Feldbischof being the equivalent of Generalmajor; Generalstabsarzt, Generalstabsveterinär and Generalstabsrichter the equivalent of Generalleutnant; and (the unique) Generaloberstabsarzt, Generaloberstabsveterinär and Generaloberstabsrichter the equivalent of General. With the formation of the Luftwaffe, air-force generals began to use the same general ranks as the German army. The shoulder insignia was identical to that used by the army, with the addition of special collar patches worn by Luftwaffe general officers.

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.

The limitions imposed by Versailles turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the military. That the Reichswehr was limited to 100,000 men ensured that under the new leadership of Hans von Seeckt that the Reichswehr kept only the very best officers. The American historians Alan Millet and Williamson Murray wrote "In reducing the officers corps, Seeckt chose the new leadership from the best men of the general staff with ruthless disregard for other constituencies, such as war heroes and the nobility".[1] Seeckt's determination that the Reichswehr be an elite cadre force that would serve as the nucleus of an expanded military when the chance for restoring conscription came essentially led to the creation of a new army, based upon, but very different from the army that existed in World War I.[1] Though Seeckt retired in 1926, the army that went to war in 1939 was largely his creation.[2] In the 1920s, Seeckt and his officers developed new doctrines emphasizing speed, aggression, combined arms and initiative on the part of lower officers to take advantage of momentary opportunities.[1] Germany was forbidden to have an air-force by Versailles, but Seeckt who saw the advantages of air-warfare created a clandestine cadre of air-force officers in the early 1920s.[3] Seeckt's cadre of secret air-officers saw the role of an air-force as winning air-superiority, tactical and strategic bombing and providing ground support.[3] That the Luftwaffe did not develop a strategic bombing force in the 1930s was not due to a lack of interest, but because of economic limitations.[3] The leadership of the Navy led by Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, a close protégé of Alfred von Tirpitz was dedicated to the idea of reviving Tirpitz's High Seas Fleet.[4] Officers who believed in submarine warfare led by Admiral Karl Dönitz were in a minority before 1939.[4] Naval officers saw war almost entirely in tactical and technological terms, and had almost no interest in operational matters.[5]

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.

Adolf Hitler and the 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 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 1918. The existence of the Wehrmacht was officially announced on 15 October 1935.[by whom?]


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 (de) 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

Further information: Wehrmacht and National Socialism

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.

  • Supreme High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW)
    • Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces
    • Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces
    • 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


Main article: German Army (1935–1945)

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 stage of 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 several major industrial powers while Germany was still in transition to a war economy. German units were then overextended, undersupplied, outmaneuvered, outnumbered and defeated by its enemies in decisive battles during 1941, 1942, and 1943 at Battle of Moscow, Siege of Leningrad, Stalingrad, Tunis in North Africa, and Battle of Kursk.

The Germans' army military was managed through mission-based tactics (rather than order-based tactics) which was intended to give commanders greater freedom to act on events and exploit opportunities. In public opinion, the German Army was, and sometimes still is, seen as a high-tech army. However, such modern equipment, while featured much in propaganda, was often only available in relatively small numbers. This was primarily because the country was not run as a war economy until 1942-1943. Only 40% to 60% of all units in the Eastern Front were motorized, baggage trains often relied on horse-drawn trailers due to poor roads and weather conditions in the Soviet Union, and for the same reasons many soldiers marched on 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".,[6] 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 overextended and outmaneuvered before Moscow in 1941, and in North Africa and Stalingrad in 1942, and from 1942 to 1943 onward, were in constant retreat. Other Axis powers fought with them, especially Hungary and Romania, as well as many volunteers from other nations.

Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Heer during World War II were ethnic Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Czechs and Hungarians along with people from the Baltic states and the Balkans. Russian emigrees and defectors from the Soviet Union formed 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.


Main article: Luftwaffe

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 and quality, improved pilot training, so 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.

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 Fallschirm-Jäger (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 Fallschirm-Jäger 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 Fallschirm-Jäger, 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.[7]


Main article: Kriegsmarine

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 (in the aftermath of the Battle of the Barents Sea), Germany stopped constructing battleships and cruisers in favor of U-boats.

Theaters and campaigns

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 theatre

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, 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 demanded more resources than any other Theater throughout the war. The large area covered by the Eastern Front necessitated the division of the Theatre into 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.
  • Part of the Eastern Front was anti-partisan operations against guerrilla units and counter-insurgency operations largely by Waffen-SS units on the occupied territories behind Axis front 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

  • 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, the Luftwaffe pursued its early goal of bombing the RAF airfields and fighting a war of attrition initially, but while doing so it struggled to inflict losses faster than the RAF could replace them. Luftwaffe itself was never able to replace their losses at anything close to their loss rate due to Germany unlike the UK not being on a war economy footing, even if Luftwaffe started the battle at a numerical advantage. Later, 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".


More than 6,000,000 soldiers were wounded during the conflict, while more than 11,000,000 became prisoners. 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.[8]

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).[9]

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.[10]


Main article: Consequences of German Nazism

During World War II, the Wehrmacht perpetrated numerous war crimes.[11] 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[12] 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 guerrilla attacks, German troops were to impose "collective measures of force" by massacring entire villages.[13] 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.[14] According to Thomas Kühne, "An estimated 300,000–500,000 people were killed during the Wehrmacht's anti-partisan war in the Soviet Union."[15] While secretly listening to conversations of captured German generals, British officials became aware that the German army had taken part in the atrocities and mass killing of Jews and were guilty of war crimes.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18] More recently, the judgement of Nuremberg has come under question. The Israeli historian Omer Bartov, a leading expert on the Wehrmacht[19] 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".[20] Bartov argues that far from being the "untarnished shield", as successive German apologists stated after the war, the Wehrmacht was a criminal organization.[21] Likewise, the British historian Richard J. Evans, a leading expert on modern German history wrote that the Wehrmacht was a genocidal organization.[22] British historian Ian Kershaw concludes that the Wehrmacht's duty was to ensure the people who met Hitler's requirements of being part of the Aryan Herrenvolk ("Aryan master race") living space, he 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.[23]

Resistance to the Nazi regime

Main article: German Resistance

From all groups of German Resistance, those within the Wehrmacht were the most condemned by the NSDAP[original research?]. There were several attempts by resistance members like Henning von Tresckow, Erich Hoepner or Friedrich Olbricht to assassinate Adolf 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[original research?]. 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,[original research?] 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.

Humanitarian acts

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 officers

Prominent German officers from the Wehrmacht era include:


German Army Generalfeldmarschalls in order of promotion:

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.[24] By the end of August 1945, these units were dissolved.

On September 20, 1945, with proclamation 2 of the Allied Control Council, "all German armed forces on land, on sea and in the air, the SS, SA, SD and Gestapo, with all their organizations, staffs and institution, including the general staff, the officer corps, the reserve corps, the military schools, veterans organizations, ..., are to be fully and finally disbanded in accordance with the methods and procedures as defined by the Allied representatives." After September 20 the allies began officially dismantling the various commands.[25]

A year later on 20 August 1946, the Allied Control Council declared the Wehrmacht as officially abolished (Kontrollratsgesetz No. 34). It specifically says: "Because of paragraph I of proclamation nr. 2 from September 20th, 1945, the Allied Control Council issues the following law:" - now it lists again the same institutions as above - but omits the SS, SA, SD and Gestapo and adds instead "The German war offices: Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) and Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine ... are hereby viewed as disbanded and fully liquidated and declared unlawful." Surprisingly the law says "are hereby viewed as disbanded and fully liquidated" and then it states that any attempt to violate the law will be prosecuted with up to the death penalty.

In the mid-1950s, 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, though neither organization considered themselves to be successors to the Wehrmacht, and in the case of the Bundeswehr rejected the traditional grey of the Wehrmacht in order to show discontituity.


See also



  • 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.
  • Bartov, Omer Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-19-506879-3.
  • Bartov, Omer The Eastern Front, 1941–45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986, ISBN 0-312-22486-9.
  • Bergen, Doris "'Germany Is Our Mission: Christ Is Our Strength!' The Wehrmacht Chaplaincy and the 'German Christian' Movement" pages 522–536 from Church History, Volume 66, Issue #, September 1997.
  • Bergen, Doris "Between God and Hitler: German Military Chaplains and the Crimes of the Third Reich" pages 123–138 from In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century edited by Omer Bartov and Phyllis Mack, New York: Berghahn Books, 2001, ISBN 1571813020.
  • Davies, W. German Army Handbook, 1973, Ian Allen Ltd., Shepperton, Surrey, ISBN 0-7110-0290-8
  • Evans, Anthony A., World War II: An Illustrated Miscellany, 2005, Worth Press, ISBN 1-84567-681-5
  • 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.
  • Fest, Joachim; Plotting Hitler's Death—The Story of the German Resistance, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-8050-4213-X
  • 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 0-253-33374-1.
  • Förster, Jürgen "The German Military’s Image of Russia" pages 117–129 from Russia War, Peace and Diplomacy edited by Ljubica & Mark Erickson, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 ISBN 978-0-297-84913-1.
  • Geyer, Michael ”Etudes in Political History: Reichswehr, NSDAP and the Seizure of Power” pages 101–123 from The Nazi Machtergreifung edited by Peter Stachura, London: Allen & Unwin, 1983, ISBN 0-04-943026-2.\
  • Geyer, Michael "Professionals and Junkers: German Rearmament and Politics in the Weimar Republic" pages 77–133 from Social Change and Political Development in Weimar Germany edited by Richard Bessel & Edgar Feuchtwanger, London: Croom Helm, 1981, ISBN 0-389-20176-6.
  • Goda, Norman "Black Marks: Hitler's Bribery of his Senior Officers During World War II" pages 413–452 from The Journal of Modern History, Volume 72, Issue # 2, June 2000; reprinted pages 96–137 in Corrupt Histories edited by Emmanuel Kreike and William Chester Jordan, Toronto: Hushion House, 2005, ISBN 1-58046-173-5.
  • Hastings, Max, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944, 1985, reissued 1999, Pan, ISBN 0-330-39012-0
  • Hastings, Max Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1945, 2004, Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-90836-8
  • Heer, Hannes & Naumann, Klaus (editors) War of Extermination: the German Military in World War II, 1941–1944, New York: Berghahn Books, ISBN 1-57181-493-0.
  • Kitterman, David "The Justice of the Wehrmacht Legal System: Servant or Opponent of National Socialism?" pages 450–469 from Central European History, Volume 24, Issue #4, 1991.
  • 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).
  • Geoffrey P. Megargee, War of Annihilation. Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941, 2006, Rowman & Littelefield, ISBN 0-7425-4481
  • Megargee, Geoffrey, Inside Hitler's High Command, 2000, University Press of Kansas, ISBN 978-0-7006-1187-4
  • Messerschmidt, Manfred "The Wehrmacht and the Volksgemeinschaft" pages 719–744 from Journal of Contemporary History, Volume 18, Issue # 4, October 1983.
  • Müller, Klaus-Jürgen The Army, Politics and Society in Germany 1933–1945: Studies in the Army’s Relation to Nazism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-7190-1071-3
  • O’Neill, Robert The German Army and the Nazi Party, 1933–39, London: Corgi, 1966, ISBN 0-552-07910-3.
  • Schulte, Theo The German Army and Nazi Policies in Occupied Russia, Oxford: Berg, 1989, ISBN 0-85496-160-7.
  • Shepard, Ben War in the Wild East: the German Army and Soviet Partisans, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-674-01296-8.
  • Smelser, Ronald & Davies, Edward The Myth of the Eastern Front: the Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-521-83365-3
  • 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
  • Wallach, Jehuda The Dogma of the Battle Of Annihilation: The Theories of Clausewitz and Schlieffen and Their Impact On the German Conduct of Two World Wars, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986, ISBN 0-313-24438-3.
  • Wette, Wolfram The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-674-02213-3.
  • .Wheeler-Bennett, John The Nemesis of Power The German Army in Politics 1918–1945, London: Macmillan, 1967, ISBN 1-4039-1812-0.
  • 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

External links

  • Extensive history and information about German armed forces from 1919 to 1945
  • The Wehrmacht, the Holocaust, and War Crimes
  • The Wehrmacht: A Criminal Organization? A review of Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann work on the subject
  •, Allied and Axis North Africa and the Mediterranean Theater of Operations Research Group with largest collections of North African Campaign and MTO photographs on the internet
  • Examples of, and information about, camouflage uniforms used by the Wehrmacht Heer, Wehrmacht Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS during the Second World War
  • Archives of the German military manuals including secret manuals of Enigma and Cryptography
  • article about Wehrmacht veterans
  • Georgische legion—Units and photos
  • Over 2,000 original German World War II soldier photographs from the Eastern Front
  • 'Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg', WGN Radio Chicago—including a link to the interview with Max Hastings (29/11/04)
  • Large amount of information on the Wehrmacht during 1935 until 1945
  • Wehrmacht Propaganda Troops and the Jews - an article by Dr. Daniel Uziel

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