The following article is an edited version of a presentation I have given. I may make further edits when I can be bothered.
What is the Wehrmacht
Before I explain what the Clean Wehrmacht myth I should explain what the Wehrmacht is. The Wehrmacht were the armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1946, made up of the Heer, the Army, the Kreigsmarine, the Navy and the Luftwaffe, the airforce. Whilst it was mainly the Heer, in particular on the Eastern front, that was involved in war crimes all three branches of the Wehrmact were involved in crimes of the Nazi regime. It is important to note that the SS command structure was completely separate to the Wehrmacht, which helped senior Wehrmacht officers attempting to disassociate themselves with ‘Nazi’ War Crimes.
What is the clean Wehrmacht myth?
The Clean Wehrmacht myth is, put simply, that that the Wehrmacht didn’t do war crimes, or the war crimes it soldiers did do, were nothing in excess of the Western allies or the Soviet Union, and that any war crimes that did happen were the SS, although some more extreme defenders of the behaviour of the German armed forces in the Second World war would defend the actions of the Waffen SS
How the clean Wehrmacht myth spread.
When it became obvious that it was inevitable Germany was going to lose the war and the SS started trying to cover up their crimes, the senior commander of the Wehrmacht took a different approach and decided to deny all knowledge of the crimes of the Nazi regime, and claim that all the war crimes that did happen were committed by the SS. Both Heinz Guderain and Erich Von Manstein, two of the most successful Wehrmacht Generals of the war, wrote war memoirs which ignored or downplayed the Wehrmacht’s role in war crimes on the Eastern front,
Covering up the myth became essentially an official policy of former the western allies (Now NATO), when in 1950 Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the federal republic of Germany met a group of former senior Wehrmacht officers at Himmerod abbey, where they came up Himmerod memorandum, its fairly easy to see where the memorandum got its name. The purpose of the Himmerod memorandum was to discuss various matter relating to the creation of the German army, the Bundeswehr. The participants concluded that there could be no new German army without the ‘historical rehabilitation’ of the Wehrmacht, which is essentially a euphemism for re writing history to make the public, and the international community feel more comfortable with a new German army. Whilst many Wehrmacht defenders dismiss accounts of Wehrmacht war crimes as the ‘Victors writing history’ the German state sponsored effort to rewrite the German side of the military history of world war 2 shows that the reality was much closer to “The defeated rewriting history.”
Germany was not alone when it came to rewriting the German military history of the second world war, Eisenhower openly spoke in favour of the idea that the average Wehrmacht soldier was separated from the crimes of the Nazi regime American army’s official history of the eastern front was written by Franz Halder, one of the significant figures behind generalplanost
All of this could be proved wrong by other sources but the only non-German sources on the Eastern Front were Russian, and western historians had fairly limited access to the Soviet archives and Russian sources until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991
Why is the Clean Wehrmacht myth wrong?
Some supporters of the clean Wehrmacht myth attempt to downplay the war crimes of the because all armies involved in the second world war committed war crimes, which is technically correct, but no army with the exception of the SS and the Japanese army in china, did anything comparable to the Wehrmacht’s war crimes which were systematic when it came to cleansing ethnic minorities and destroying villages in retaliation for ‘partisan’, partisans being civilians attacking behind the line but generally being used as an excuse for any action against civilians, attacks. The actions of the Wehrmacht in Poland and the Soviet Union was absolutely abhorrent, with the Wehrmacht burning down over 500 towns and villages and carrying out over 700 mass murders in the short campaign against Poland. The Wehrmacht was responsible for the murders of thousands of prisoners of war, either through directly killing them or starvation. The blame failure to treat POWs correctly must be shared by all ranks of the Wehrmacht, with Senior officers failing to provide food and supporting killings and there many recorded occasions of enlisted men shooting Soviet prisoners of war because they had nothing better to do.
The Barbarossa decree, issued by Wehrmacht field marshal, Keitel , states that
“The partisans are to be ruthlessly eliminated in battle or during attempts to escape”, and all attacks by the civilian population against Wehrmacht soldiers are to be “suppressed by the army on the spot by using extreme measures, till [the] annihilation of the attackers;
Every officer in the German occupation in the East of the future will be entitled to perform execution(s) without trial, without any formalities, on any person suspected of having a hostile attitude towards the Germans”, (the same applied to prisoners of war);
“If you have not managed to identify and punish the perpetrators of anti-German acts, you are allowed to apply the principle of collective responsibility. ‘Collective measures’ against residents of the area where the attack occurred can then be applied after approval by the battalion commander or higher level of command”;
German soldiers who commit crimes against humanity, the USSR and prisoners of war are to be exempted from criminal responsibility, even if they commit acts punishable according to German law
Just following orders is not an acceptable excuse the Wehrmacht’s crimes, with the whole chain of command being directly involved in the war crimes of the Wehrmacht. The Allied war crimes trials show that just following orders is not an acceptable, and evidence suggests that German soldiers who refused to take part in reprisals against civilians were not executed.
The Heer was not the not the only branch of the Wehrmacht to take part in war crimes, with the Kreigsmarine’s unrestricted U-boat campaign being considered a war-crime, with both senior admirals, Donitz and Raeder, being given a prison sentance at the Nuremberg trials, and the Luftwaffe strafing civilians.
So why does this matter?
For me it is important to recognise the role of all the people involved in the crimes of the Nazi regime in order to pursue some sort of historical justice, even if it is too late for real justice. It is also important not to whitewash people’s complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime in order for lesson to be learnt so humanity does not make the same mistakes again.