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Institution: University of Edinburgh

Author: Steven Crawford Grundy

Over half a century has passed since the Holocaust ended but it is with us still. It is the modern tragedy of Germany, the most despicable, most perverse chapter of the country’s history. For many years after 1945, the story of World War II was written with the Holocaust left out. The result was that the genocide of the Jews was rarely situated within the military context. For too long the Wehrmacht was portrayed as a guiltless bystander, shielded from culpability and fighting a “clean” war on the Eastern Front.

This erroneous representation of the German army was centred primarily on apologetic post-war literature written by veterans, notably Field Marshal Kesselring, who adjoined their experiences in the west with the totally different conditions that reigned in Soviet Russia. It was only after the reunification of Germany in 1989 and the emergence of a third generation of scholars, more detached and more open-minded methodologically, that research on the Wehrmacht’s role in the persecution of the Jews became a public issue.

Yet for all the progress made in the scholarship of the Wehrmacht, its historiography still suffers from one major lacuna; why the common soldier partook in the killing of Jews. This question must loom large in any evaluation of the Holocaust. A sense of apathy permeates much of this work, a notion that, in practical terms, it is impossible to untangle the variegated reasons for individual involvement. The following analysis is a study of the various motives, an exploration of the period when the Wehrmacht’s envelopment in the Shoah reached its zenith.

It treats soldierly participation not simply as a logical culmination of Nazi philosophy, but rather discusses the vital prerequisites which led combatants to participate in brutal actions against the Jewish people. Above all, this article examines the juncture when ethnic cleansing became important for the German combatant. The decision to act involved more than merely anti-Semitic propensities. Somehow, the killing of Jews had to become urgent enough to generate soldierly involvement. The aim of this essay, then, is to make better sense of why the Wehrmacht soldier contributed to the extermination of the Jewish people during the invasion of the Soviet Union.

In order to understand why German combatants took part in the massacring of the Jews it is essential to correlate the Holocaust with broader transformations in Nazi Germany. Burleigh and Wippermann most notably highlight the importance of indoctrination. On the 3rd February, 1933 Adolf Hitler declared that the construction of a powerful Wehrmacht was paramount in rebuilding the fatherland. It was crucial, he claimed, that the nation’s people, particularly the German youth, came to perceive war and conflict as central rudiments of life.

Indeed, adolescents underwent an increasingly Nazified education. Schools came under the aegis of Bernhard Rust, who successfully shifted the curriculum towards a systematic National Socialist course. Textbooks became vehicles for Nazi espousal whilst racial ideology was taught and practiced in the school syllabus. Furthermore, the promulgation of the Professional Civil Service law on the 7th April, 1933 dismissed thousands of teachers and educational administrators because of either their Jewish ancestry or their political unreliability. In Berlin alone, during the first months of the Third Reich, 19 of the 34 municipal education counsellors were ousted from their posts. The seeds of national mobilisation were thusly geminating.

Alternatively, the “Law of the Hitlerjugend,” passed in December, 1936 made enrolment in the Nazi paramilitary organization mandatory. Societies, such as the German Socialist Youth Association, were suppressed, whilst the establishments of the bourgeois parties merged into the Hitler Youth. More importantly, Nazi preliminary preparation of German minors combined organizational principles, such as absolute obedience to authority, with strict ideological codes; the most important of which was quasi-religious faith in the Führer. Zmarzlik underlines this point:

“We were politically programmed: programmed to obey orders” Nazi influence, therefore, seeped into every aspect of German boyhood. The NSDAP likewise stamped its authority on the Wehrmacht. The deep-rooted Prussian influence was disbanded and replaced by fanatical National Socialists. Interestingly, there was a marked connexion between the social strata which supported Hitler’s regime and those which provided the officers for his conquest of Soviet Russia. The Wehrmacht’s frontline troops were likewise young men who had come of age under Nazism. These soldiers were, hence, the most obvious agents for interactive brutalization.

In conjunction with this argument, Jeffrey Herf asserts that there was a fundamental link between Nazifying Germany and anti-Semitism. More specifically, the state embraced a new art of politics- the art of propaganda. Goebbels’s press machine successfully adopted this modern utensil and employed both the spoken and written word as mechanisms for the Nazi cause. Anti-Semitism took on various forms. Hitler, for instance, needed the Jewish people as a permanent scapegoat against which Germany could unite. Revenge was consequently employed to fulfil a psychological need.

The notorious “stab-in-the-back” legend, which blamed the Jewish people (as well as socialists and communists) for Germany’s defeat in World War I proved a useful benchmark. Building on this myth, Nazi propaganda signposted the historical predisposition of the German people to explain the nation’s kaleidoscopic grievances. Most notably, anti-Jewish propaganda was ubiquitous in Goebbels’s weekly magazine Das Reich. Circulation of the journal grew from 500.000 in October 1940 to 800.000 in 1941. Moreover, powerful headlines such as “It’s the Jews fault” had an effect on the Wehrmacht soldiers, as Corporal Eduard E. illustrated: “Now I understand it and think it’s completely true; there is only one thing good enough for the Jews, annihilation… their guilt is simply huge”

Fear also proved an invaluable component in anti-Semitic propaganda. The adjoining of international Jewry with Bolshevism depicted the enemy as a dangerous pariah who transcended any allegiance to nation-states. In Hitler’s Weltanschauung, this autonomous entity, universal Judaism, controlled assorted agents and accomplices which served its evil interests. If not identified and destroyed, Nazi propagandists maintained, Jewry would annihilate the German people. This hysterical tone and the perception that the conflict with the Jew was an issue of life and death formed a constant in Nazi anti-Semitism. More importantly, the Wehrmacht soldier embraced this facet, as a combatant of the 707th Infantry division exemplified in 1941: “The Jews, the spiritual leaders and carriers of Bolshevism and the communist idea, are our deadly enemies. They are to be annihilated.” It is no surprise, then, that the atmosphere in the Wehrmacht towards Jews became increasingly ugly.

Furthermore, there is a striking similarity between the perceptions and mentality of letters written by German soldiers and the line of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. On the eve of Operation Barbarossa the German soldier was primarily motivated by the image of a heroic crusade against Jewish-Bolshevism, particularly after the uncovering of NKVD massacres against Polish and Ukrainian nationalists. Conversely, amidst the prospect of military defeat following the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, the impulse to annihilate began to increasingly intermingle with fantasies of revenge and punishment against the Jews. Anti-Semitic propaganda, therefore, dehumanised the enemy and was a crucial strand in the soldier’s decision to participate in the extermination of the Jewish people.

It would be tempting therefore to draw a straight line between the integration of Nazi principles into the states organisational structures and the soldier’s decision to kill Jews. The Wehrmacht and indeed German society as a whole, was brainwashed by anti-Semitic propaganda to abhor the Jewish people which, thusly, crystallised soldierly involvement. This temptation should be resisted. Whilst Nazi propaganda did inflame anti-Semitism, it did not automatically compel Wehrmacht soldiers’ to murder the Jewish people. These ideological frameworks were conditions, not causes. If they predisposed, they did not dispose. More was needed. In fact, it took a peculiar historical conjuncture to trigger soldierly participation in the Holocaust.

What did change the German soldier’s attitude towards the Jewish people was the complexion of the Eastern Front. Bartov, for instance, highlights the grotesque nature of the war. The Wehrmacht confronted an alien civilisation, completely different from Western society. In contrast to the conflict in the West, very few officers spoke the native language or had any sense of affinity with the Soviet population. Moreover, France was considered a ‘degenerate’ state and unlike Stalinist Russia not marked for subjugation. Military combat was likewise different in the East. The Wehrmacht soldier was struck by the endless spaces he had to conquer as well as estranged by the impassable mud and extreme temperatures.

The Russian winter also compelled combatants to take shelter in primitive lodgings which lacked seasonal protection. These cataclysmic conditions, Bartov argues, enhanced the sense that the crusade against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ constituted a return to a primeval conflict in which the legal and moral traditions of human civilisation were no longer viable.

More significantly, the emerging reality of Soviet Russia not only appeared to validate Nazi propaganda but was even worse than the soldier’s own expectations. A letter sent by an NCO in mid-July, 1941 was blunt: “[…] when one reads the ‘Stürmer’ and looks at the picture this is only a weak illustration of what we see here and the crimes committed by the Jews.” Hence, whilst the anti-Semitic propaganda did prepare German soldiers psychologically for the atrocious conditions of the Eastern Front, it was above all their own experiences that crystallised abhorrence of Judaism.

Then again, the equation ‘Jew equals partisan’ was significant too. Manoschek underlines the partisan war as a military pretext for soldierly participation in the Shoah. By transforming Jews into combatants they were judged legitimate targets for military prosecution. The murdering of Jews was similarly declared a measure of defence and security for the German soldier once Stalin had called for organized resistance against the Wehrmacht. By the autumn of 1941, then, the prevailing watchword all along the front was: “The Jews are without exception identical with the concept of partisan.”

Indeed, once the battle against partisans became a substantial concern for the Wehrmacht, the number of Jews murdered scaled new heights. Most notably, after the Red Army’s counter-offensive in 1942 broke through the German lines, particularly in Belorussia, the partisan was no longer simply a projection of the soldier’s imagined anxieties. Instead, he existed in the flesh and began a veritable war. It is no accident that the first large undertakings against the partisans in the rear area of Army Group Centre were commanded by the same general who had been responsible for the “Jew-hunts” and “ghetto actions” in the part of Belorussia under civil administration.

Major General von Bechtolsheim consequently launched “Operation Bamberg” on the 28th March, 1942 in which 3500 “partisan and helpers,” mostly Jews, were shot by the 707th Infantry Division.  A soldier’s letter from Belorussia in October thusly pointed out: “We have to creep around because of the partisans… We must now shoot all the Jews in the radius of 150km, all of them, even women and children.” The killing of Jews, therefore, followed on the rationale of German security policy. Each individual Jew in the occupied territories was categorised as an enemy; determined to obstruct the Wehrmacht’s invasion. In short, the German soldier’s extermination of the Jewish people went hand-in-hand with the fight against enemy partisans.

Nonetheless, Blass is right to conclude that situational variables can only clarify so much. Whilst the ferociousness of the war does explain why the German soldier’s anti-Semitism increased, it does not follow that he would participate in mass shootings of the Jewish people. Red Army soldiers, for instance, were also forced to suffer the horrific character of the Eastern Front but did not engage in systematic slaughter. True, they did treat the enemy callously, even immorally, but Josef Stalin did not advocate the annihilation of the German people. Hence, unlike Moscow, the Nazi state sanctioned the carnage.

On the 30th March, 1941, Hitler professed that the subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union would be a war of extermination. This avowal was fortified by the Wehrmacht’s adoption of the infamous ‘Barbarossa Decree,’ which exonerated soldiers from war crimes against the population (unless it clashed with military discipline). In the same spirit, Field Marshal von Reichenau declared on the 10th October: “The soldier in the Eastern territories is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war but also a bearer of a ruthless national idea… Therefore, the soldier must have full understanding for the necessity of a severe but just revenge against Jewish sub-humanity.”

Generals, such as Guderian, have maintained that they refused to issue von Reichenau’s order, let alone execute it.  This, however, has been proven false. The Field Marshal’s instructions were not only adopted by the 6th Army but filtered through the ranks of the entire Wehrmacht. As a result, the institutional regulatory framework not only unchained the German soldier from international law but more importantly encouraged him to take stark action against the Jewish people. The significance of this facet is underlined by the psychologist Milgram who asserted; “It is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is truly an intermediate link in a chain of evil action.”

A comparison is pertinent here. Prior to the Battle of France in 1940 the German soldier was ordered by the High Command to honour international law. This was primarily because Hitler advocated a diplomatic agreement with London and feared a military conflict on two fronts. Moreover, the relatively few cases of armed robbery and rape by German soldiers’ that occurred in occupied France between 1940 and 1941 were punished by death. The crusade against ‘Jewish-Bolshevism,’ in contrast, freed the Wehrmacht soldier from responsibility and encouraged the employment of harsh measures against the Jewish foe. The state-sanctioning of the Holocaust was therefore a crucial dynamo in triggering soldierly involvement.

Nonetheless, this evidence does not fully explain why Wehrmacht soldier killed either. Rather, it begs the fundamental question why he instigated the murdering of Jews; at times even disobeying direct orders. On 24th September, 1941 the commander of the Army Group South, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, made it clear that operations against the Jews were solely the task of the Einsatzgruppen. Soldiers who contravened the order, he maintained, would be punished most severely.

Goldhagen is right to draw attention to this enigmatic quandary. German soldiers became perpetrators during the Holocaust not simply because they were following orders. It is crucial, therefore, to go beyond conformity and authority obedience to understand the soldier’s motives. Powerful as these are, they are only starters. Understanding the reasons for the killings means understanding human choices. Above all, it required a soldier’s response to bring the anti-Jewish crusade to pass.

For the key consideration behind the German soldier’s decision we must look to the other rationale articulated by individuals; duty. This was the explanation typically advanced by combatants when they addressed the question of why they participated in the annihilation of the Jews. It is worth pausing to dissect this element in detail. First of all, duty meant an obligation to the German fatherland. The Wehrmacht soldier perceived the extermination as a contribution to final victory in the East. One veteran described it thusly: “[…] If from the point of view of the state and our philosophy this is required well for God’s sake, you’ll have to do your duty, you must summon up the necessary understanding to say that this just has to be done.” The extermination of the Jewish people consequently became an emblem of national virtue; a patriotic act.

This point is underscored by empirical data. In 1982 Schwarz provided researchers with a unique corpus of statistics concerning the conscious thoughts of Austrian Wehrmacht soldiers. Interestingly, when asked ‘which soldierly principles were most important to you at the time’ the answer ‘fulfilment of duty’ peaked at 69.3%, thereby indicating a high degree of both political and soldierly identification with the NSDAP. For a large segment of Wehrmacht soldiers’ the conflict in the East was not only a military affair in which they were preoccupied with defeating the enemy and attempting to survive. Rather, they accepted the regimes perception of the war as an ideological struggle in which they were duty bound to eliminate the Jewish people.

Even here, however, the picture that emerges is incomplete, inasmuch as the “duty” referred to was purely a nationalistic concept, having to do with the combatants’ responsibility to the fatherland. Though it can be right to define the duty imperative in exclusively national terms, it does not suffice as an explanation for the Wehrmacht soldier’s participation in the Holocaust. Instead, it is crucial to go further and argue that the common soldier not only considered the murdering of Jews a duty to Greater Germany but also an obligation to the messianic leader Adolf Hitler.

Faith in Hitler was from the very start a major component in the distortion of the troop’s perception on the Eastern Front. Lance-Corporal Hans Fleischauer personified this point: “The Jew is a real master in murdering, burning and massacring… We all cannot be thankful enough to our Führer, who had protected us from such brutalities and only for that we must follow him through thick and thin.”

Zimbardo underlines further the power of charismatic tyrannical leaders. Above and beyond everything else, Hitler instilled in the Wehrmacht soldier a sense of community and purpose. His extraordinary diplomatic successes, coupled with swift military victories, drove German national exaltation towards collective insanity. In the belief that they were acting honourably, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht murdered the Jewish people effectively and in vast numbers.

Private Herbert S. echoed Fleischhauer’s reasoning: “The Jew should have known that the Führer is accustomed to mean what he says and now they have to take the consequences. These are hard in the extreme but necessary if peace and harmony between nations are to return at last.” Faith in the Führer, then, allowed soldiers’ to believe in the essential moral value of the most heinous crimes and to trust Hitler’s promises of the inevitable Endsieg.

With the benefit of hindsight it becomes clear that the German soldier participated in the murdering of the Jewish people for myriad reasons. Whilst Bloxham and Krusher are correct to underline the dangers of pigeonholing soldierly motives into a singular box it will not suffice to ignore visible leitmotifs. First of all, the Jewish people had to be ostracised. Powerful anti-Semitic propaganda portrayed Judaism as a dangerous pariah, responsible for the nation’s calamitous political and economic misery. Likewise, the German youth was programmed to obey orders and perceive life as a constant struggle for survival between competing ideological systems and races.

The headline effect of indoctrination and propaganda was, hence, to mould the Wehrmacht soldier into a racist and robotic follower of National Socialist philosophy. Secondly, situational valuables were fundamental in entrenching the soldiers’ abhorrence of the Jewish people. Both the dreadful nature of the Eastern front, coupled with anti-partisan warfare, confirmed the soldiers’ worst expectations and hardened them against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’. Thirdly and more significantly, the soldiers’ partaking in the Holocaust was state-sanctioned.

The Nazi government unchained its troops from international law and encouraged soldierly partaking in the crusade against the Jewish people. Yet, as Heer stresses, these explanations ought not to eclipse the importance of duty. Loyalty to the Führer, intermixed with nationalistic obligation, was the most important stepping-stone for soldierly participation in the Holocaust. As a result, combatants within the Wehrmacht did not perceive their murdering of Jews as an end in itself, but rather as a means to ensure final victory for Hitler and Germany.

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