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Wehrmacht
The Concise Encyclopedia of World War II. Cathal J. Nolan. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. p1168-1178.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Cathal J. Nolan
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Page 1168

Wehrmacht

“Armed Forces” or “Armed Power.” Often used colloquially to refer to the “German Army,” the Wehrmacht actually incorporated the Heer (Army), Luftwaffe (Air Force), and Kriegsmarine (Navy). From 1935 the Nazis employed “Wehrmacht” in place of the older “Reichswehr,” which was used by Imperial Germany and during the Weimar period. The Waffen-SS, a private and Nazi Party armed force, is not usually listed under assets of the Wehrmacht. That is so even though, before the July Plot of 1944 and even in most field deployments after that,Page 1169  |  Top of ArticleWaffen-SS divisions normally operated under Wehrmacht command. Similarly, Volkssturm militia raised from late September 1944 are not normally counted in the regular Wehrmacht order of battle.

Most in the officer corps were initially cautious about Adolf Hitler's revolution, and especially about the swelling and potentially rival ranks of the Sturmabteilung (SA). Hitler solved that problem with ruthless murders of his own followers during the Night of the Long Knives (June 30-July 2, 1934). He followed that blood sacrifice to the old guard by compelling Germany's soldiers to swear an oath of loyalty to his person—a fact often cited and much abused after the war as an excuse for why more Wehrmacht officers did not oppose the regime. Wehrmacht nervousness continued through Hitler's coup de main in the Rhineland in 1936, rising higher still over his aggressive foreign policies toward the West during the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938. Hitler navigated through the crisis without provoking the European war that the General Staff feared. Senior officers who had opposed him were purged, and direction of the Wehrmacht shifted to a new Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW). Hitler thereafter had the dominant role in all strategic planning and timing, though he did not yet take personal command of operations. That final challenge to the military professionals he despised, even as they slavishly carried out his orders, came in December 1941 as the Wehrmacht bogged down in front of Moscow. Prior to that final prostration before their Führer, officers willingly and eagerly followed Hitler into a general war that the Wehrmacht was always most unlikely to win.

Out of a conviction that he knew better than any general how to wage total war, but with the full support of most of the officer corps at all levels of command, Hitler led the Wehrmacht into successful invasions of Poland (1939), Denmark, Norway, France, and the Low Countries (1940), and Yugoslavia and Greece (1941). However, Germany conducted those successful serial wars with an exceptionally poor and muddled grand strategy. As planned-for small wars widened and deepened into a general war from 1939, Germany's military strategy was revealed to be deeply ill conceived. Hitler's direction of Germany's grand strategy and military strategy—and his later interference even at the level of operational art—greatly assisted final victory by the great coalition that assembled in opposition to Nazi Germany at the end of 1941, known thereafter as the United Nations alliance. The Wehrmacht proved much better at fighting battles and campaigns than German leaders were at planning or winning wars in the years that followed. Yet, Hitler's personal responsibility for the Wehrmacht's ultimate military failure and destruction should not be overstated.

Solely crediting German generals for the Wehrmacht's triumphs from 1939 to 1941, and blaming Hitler alone for all strategic and operational woes and errors from 1942 to 1945, was long a standard view of the German side of the war. It is wrong on both scores and not accepted by historians today. Hitler was not always militarily wrong and must receive credit for early military successes, as well as blame for major blunders. Meanwhile, his generals bore far more blame for military as well as geopolitical failures than they claimed in self-exculpatory interviews given or memoirs published after the war. In fact, the generals of the OKW andPage 1170  |  Top of ArticleOKH bore great responsibility for militarily overreaching. They must also shoulder responsibility for many operational failures. And they were singularly culpable for the Wehrmacht's systematic criminal behavior with regard to captive prisoners and civilians in the east. That is another raw truth from which most of the German generals successfully misdirected attention for several decades after the war, but no longer. All that said, even as Hitler and his generals proceeded to lose the war, on the tactical and operational levels the Wehrmacht was seldom outmatched by opponents before mid-1942. Even after its decline set in, it continued to display a level of skill in defensive operations that allowed German soldiers to inflict enormous damage on their enemies. From where did this fatal combination of operational skill surrounded by strategic nonsense and imperial overreach arise? Wehrmacht command training drew upon the rich German tradition of the General Staff, reshaped by the OKW from 1938: responding to severe manpower restrictions of the Versailles Army, the prewar officer corps represented the best and brightest of the survivors. It engaged in intense study of the operational reasons the Reichswehr lost the Great War. Unfortunately, it did not assess the fatal flaws that attended the entire project of German imperial ambitions in Europe.

There are other reasons that explain German military superiority, unit-for-unit until the middle of the war. Reaching back to the 19th century, General Staff thinking and all officer training stressed highly aggressive offensive doctrine: the core idea of “Vernichtungsschlacht” (“battle of annihilation”). Under pressures of modern, industrialized warfare, the Wehrmacht evolved that idea into a new doctrine of consecutive battles of annihilation, or “Vernichtungskrieg’ (“war of annihilation”). The Reichswehr also self-consciously built on German success in restoring movement to the Western Front during the spring offensives of 1918, within a new context of seeking quick and decisive operations in accordance with ideas of the Vernichtungskrieg. The renamed, increasingly nazified Wehrmacht took up the torch by concentrating prewar training on stormtrooper infiltration tactics, developing armored mobility and fresh armored doctrine, and above all, learning combined arms assaults that coordinated armor and aircraft attacks with infantry and artillery support. That helps explain why the Wehrmacht fielded 21 armored divisions at the start of its invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, even if those expanded numbers were achieved by decreasing the number of tank regiments in each designated Panzer division. Another handicap that intense training and real skill overcame was the fact that many of the new armor divisions were equipped with outdated German tanks or old and less reliable captured Czech, Polish, and French models. Motorized infantry divisions in 1941 were similarly equipped with an eclectic array of captured as well as German trucks and command cars, and diverse captured artillery and even small arms. Clearly, the key to early Wehrmacht success was not superior weapons or numbers. It was the fact that German operational doctrine stayed ahead of all enemy armies for at least the first two years of the war.

Even massed armor and aggressive doctrine does not suffice to explain why the German army nearly overwhelmed the Red Army in the summer and fall of 1941. The Wehrmacht accomplishment was enormous: it drove the Red Army back hundreds of miles, destroyed vast formations of men and mountains of SovietPage 1171  |  Top of Articleequipment, and took several million prisoners of war. It did all that despite launching offensive operations with barely more men than the Red Army fielded in the western Soviet Union alone, while also inferior in the quality and quantity of many weapons and sorely deficient in transport. Its only significant advantage was in the air, where the Luftwaffe was initially markedly superior to the VVS in experience, skill, and quality of aircraft. The main answer to the puzzle of stunning German operational success lies in the experience and superb fighting ability of Wehrmacht officers, NCOs, and many ordinary Landser, men who honed combat skills in Poland, France, and the Low Countries before 1941. Especially in the Heer, ordinary soldiers were encouraged to see themselves as future leaders. Preceding the Nazi rise to power as far back as the 1920s, military training looked to prepare every Landser to a level two ranks above his own so that he could step into a combat leadership role should his NCOs or junior officers go down. Officers were similarly encouraged to think two ranks above their present one. This training in leadership and expectation of battle initiative gave the Wehrmacht a decided combat advantage over all armies that it faced. The Wehrmacht's operational doctrine was far ahead of its opponent's, giving dash and energy to deep operations that aimed at concentric encirclements of whole enemy armies. In addition, the Soviet military it faced in 1941 was still recovering from being savaged by blood purges of its top officers. Not only was the Red Army caught while still mobilizing, it was struck hard while in the midst of massive expansion, both a swelling and reorganization made in such haste that nearly half its soldiers were raw recruits without even basic training, and with many wearing their uniform only from April or May. Adding to that debilitation, the enemy was filling ranks of many new divisions with disaffected conscripts from recently annexed border areas such as the Baltic States or with sullen, anti-Soviet peasants from Ukraine and Belorussia.

On the eve of BARBAROSSA the Wehrmacht was a supremely confident force. Hated Poland had been crushed under its tank treads inside a month during FALL WEISS. Denmark had fallen in a day during WESERÜBUNG. Norway had proven more difficult, but fell all the same inside a month. The Dutch quickly succumbed to threats and bombing and the Wehrmacht overran Belgium in under two weeks at the outset of FALL GELB. Then the Panzers pushed the British Expeditionary Force back across the Channel. Mighty France, with a powerful Army that stood hard and fast against Germany for four bloody years in the last war, was beaten in a month and surrendered in just seven weeks. German officers regularly holidayed in Paris, nearly 1.5 million French POWs were hostages within Germany, while more Frenchmen toiled as laborers in German war factories. Some French fascists already wore German uniforms, while the government at Vichy groveled daily while seeking a place in the New Order in Europe carved out by Hitler and his generals. This cocksure, most successful military had gone on to expel the British from Greece and Crete, overrun Albania after the Italian Army faltered and failed, and defeated Yugoslavia's million-man army inside a week. Because of the Wehrmacht, Hitler was master of Europe from the Atlantic to the Vistula, from the high Arctic of Scandinavia to the warm-water shores of the Mediterranean. Because of Hitler, the Wehrmacht was the single greatest beneficiary of the Nazi Revolution. FlushedPage 1172  |  Top of Articlewith visions of permanent mastery, the officer corps enthusiastically assisted Hitler in planning and then carrying out a fateful invasion of the Soviet Union over the second half of 1941.

It is reasonable to avoid moral condemnation of the entire Wehrmacht: the literature about broad military culpability in the crimes of the Nazi regime in the east is vast and persuasive, but clearly some in the German military did not endorse mass killings or genocide. Still, it must be accepted that the most extraordinary crimes of the 20th century could not have been carried out without the direct complicity and acquiescence of top generals at the very least, those in command of armies or army groups, and many lower level officers and ordinary Landser as well. Wehrmacht officers were tied to their Führer in a Faustian bargain from before the war, but had not yet been asked to pay the devil's price. Most of Hitler's generals later speciously claimed that their fate was bound to his by personal oath. But oath-breaking had not stopped their betrayal of the Weimar Republic, to which the same men had also sworn fealty. Moreover, as Gerhard Weinberg noted, after the war no top Wehrmacht commanders were troubled about lying under oath at war crimes trials. In fact, most German officers were connected to the Nazi regime by essential agreement with its aims. A few protested the first massacres of innocents in Poland. But 250 Wehrmacht generals sat in mute approval during a two hour dissertation by Hitler on March 30, 1941, in which he laid out plans for racial exterminations on a vast scale in the coming war with the Soviet Union. They then obeyed the agreement made by superiors on the OKW, calling for close cooperation in the field with the murder gangs of the Einsatzgruppen. Minimal protest by officers against the Reichenau order, and their compliant distribution of that illegal order to their troops, similarly demonstrated the essential agreement of the highest levels of the Wehrmacht officer corps with Nazi war aims of extermination to accompany territorial conquest.

Officers were also driven to compliance with criminal and murderous policies by personal ambition, including for vast wealth which conquest and expropriation promised and Hitler actually delivered to many. Hitler paid massive bribes to many Generalfeldmarschälle, and promised them huge postwar slave haciendas in the east. In sum, for ideological, personal, and professional reasons most German officers freely chose to bind themselves to the singular, driving, perverted will of their Führer. They progressively failed to uphold their own vaunted professional standards, until by 1943 the Nazi Party was directly involved in selecting officer candidates. Fresh young warriors were inducted into the Wehrmacht who had been primed for the fight by whole childhoods spent in the Hitlerjungend, where they imbibed race ideology and the regime's deviant but powerful idealism. Many German soldiers, perhaps most, thus believed that they served a noble cause, a crusade for civilization against Soviet barbarism and “Jewish-Bolshevism.” Leading officers looked away from or permitted killings of prisoners of war and civilians because they thought this would make for smoother operations and certain victory. When a few officers on the ground called for more moderation and better treatment of the Slavic populations they were conquering, they did so mainly forPage 1173  |  Top of Articlepragmatic reasons of seeking to forestall local partisan resistance and to lower Red Army resolve.

The Wehrmacht was one of history's great armies in 1941, at the height of its strength, martial confidence, and racial and ideological arrogance. Its men happily marched east, singing and laughing, burning and killing. It is all on film. At first, all went better than well: huge Soviet formations were encircled in vast Kesselschlacht (“cauldron battles”) at Smolensk, Uman, Kiev, and Viazma-Briansk. One Army Group drove toward Leningrad in the north while another entered the Crimean peninsula in the distant south. But the massed tanks and men of Army Group Center that launched TAIFUN on September 30, 1941 were blocked in front of Moscow in late November, then sent reeling back by a stunning set of counterattacks. During the Soviet offensive in front of and around Moscow, good German officers were shot for ordering tactical retreats in the face of a Führer Order that insisted on “fanatical resistance.” The Wehrmacht was finally beginning to pay its Faustian debt to Hitler. Pounds of its flesh would be stripped away in the months and years to come, until only old bones were left in 1945, inside dishonored uniforms stained with Rassenkampf (“race war”) and war crimes. The Wehrmacht's toady service to the most criminal regime in history cannot be veiled by its considerable feats of arms, by its professional skill and pretensions. Criminality on a mass scale was a central feature of the regime it sustained in power, and of the war it waged with all the professional skill it could muster. Besides, in military as much as in moral terms, the Wehrmacht was overmatched and crushed in the end. It lost to Soviet and democratic armies that were hastily assembled and sometimes ineptly led, but which learned to fight the Wehrmacht by fighting it, until they prevailed and it was wiped from the face of Europe.

The Wehrmacht's long defeat began when it was pushed back from Moscow by twinned assaults: the Moscow offensive operation (December 5, 1941–January 7, 1942) and Rzhev-Viazma strategic operation (January 8–April 20, 1942). Scrambling to survive a potential catastrophe, Army Group Center finally established a double line of defense in the central section of the Eastern Front that lasted more or less intact until late 1943. Hitler's attention was instead drawn to perceived opportunities in the south. Stalemate persisted around Leningrad on the northern end of the line, where it took three Red Army offensives to finally establish a narrow land link to the besieged city through the Shlisselburg corridor only in January 1943. The siege would go on, even then until January 1944. The strategic tide clearly turned with a sickening failure of Operation BLAU and its derivatives, CLAUSEWITZ, EDELWEISS, and FISCHREIHER. Hitler's great southern gamble in 1942 led to utter catastrophe when the Red Army launched Operation URANUS from December 1942 to January 1943, catching the Wehrmacht totally by surprise. At Stalingrad the Wehrmacht lost an entire field army, the 6th, along with its first surrendered Field Marshal, Friedrich von Paulus. There followed heavy fighting that pushed Army Group A out of the Crimea and Army Group B back across the Don, a retreat of nearly 400 miles across southern Russia. That one winter of fighting in the east alone cost the Wehrmacht 327,000 men and thousands of guns and war machines. That was not a rate of loss it could sustain. And Germany could no longer countPage 1174  |  Top of Articleon its minor Axis partners for cannon fodder: Italian, Hungarian, and Rumanian armies were also smashed around Stalingrad, and essentially dropped out of the Axis order of battle in the east. Meanwhile, the British had defeated the Afrika Korps at El Alamein in November 1942, and a week later the Western Allies carried out the TORCH landings in Morocco and Algeria. By April 1943, two more German armies were lost in Tunisia. Everywhere, Germany's enemies started major offensive or counteroffensive operations. And in London, Washington, and Moscow, they were already looking ahead to the invasion of Germany itself.

The Wehrmacht launched its final major offensive of the war in the east in late summer 1943: ZITADELLE. Even as the resulting great fight was underway at Kursk, the Western Allies landed in Sicily, and thereafter jumped onto the Italian mainland. The Wehrmacht had once identified and driven through enemy Schwerpunkt in brilliantly conceived and elegantly conducted operations. Now, less skilled German soldiers increasingly relied on Nazi exhortations to “iron will” to overcome the enemy's steel weapons. From late 1943 the operational emphasis from Hitler and his harder, more political late-war generals was to hold strongpoints and fortified places, to fight to the end even from inferior positions in some Gefechtstreifen or with desperate Panzerjägdgruppe. After Kursk the Red Army conducted a series of rolling offensives almost without letup, though not without local defeats. These operations carried the fighting out of the Soviet Union in late 1944, into the Balkans, Rumania, Hungary, Poland, and East Prussia. Wehrmacht personnel reached a pinnacle of just over 12,000,000 in 1944, but only 4,000,000 were combat soldiers. The deterioration continued after the July Plot, as the Heinrich Himmler and the Schutzstaffel (SS) reached a peak of approval by Hitler. Parts of the Wehrmacht came under the control of more overtly Nazi generals while most of its recruits were substandard, many controlled by the Nazi Party in poor quality Volksgrenadier divisions or even more hopeless Volkssturm. From January to May, 1945, the final Soviet offensives drove the Wehrmacht back to Berlin and the Elbe, where the Soviet hammer smashed into the Western anvil positioned in France from June 1944, then set up across the Rhine before advancing and deep into western and southern Germany by April–May, 1945.

During the Wehrmacht's final campaigns in 1944–1945 it underwent massive destruction of men and matériel. Despite advances in weapons technology, it became less well equipped and far less mechanized or motorized, even less modern. Losses were partly made up by conscripting more Germans into the military, men previously exempt but now freed from essential war production and farm work by importing millions of foreign slaves and forced laborers into the Reich. Even that supply of Germans ran out, while also running up against Albert Speer's powerful insistence on retaining skilled workers in tank and aircraft factories and the U-boat yards. Therefore, in the last year of the war German conscription expanded up and down the demographic chart, scooping up 17 and even 16 year olds, and pulling down those in their 40s and 50s, even recalling to arms for a second time graybeards who had fought for the Kaiser in the first Great War of the 20th century. Military casualties of all types—killed, wounded, missing, taken prisoner—averaged nearly 400,000 per month over the last five months of the war. The German military'sPage 1175  |  Top of Articleown records show that by May 1945, the Wehrmacht employed “flying courts” that executed at least 21,000 of its own men for desertion or disobedience. That figure excludes thousands more executed by the Waffen-SS, or by Nazi Party fanatics who hanged from lampposts any man or boy of military age they caught wearing mufti or without a proper explanation of why he was not at the front.

The officer corps progressively lost its professional independence as the war turned against Germany: from December 22, 1943, Nazi “leadership officers” were forced on the Wehrmacht; promotion of senior commanders most often reflected Hitler's view of their ideological loyalty, rather than pure military competence; and more and better recruits were siphoned away into the Nazi Party's rival armed force, the growing and favored Waffen-SS. The Wehrmacht still commanded most SS units, but its rivalry with the armed wing of the SS was growing. Special resentment attached to better supplied and equipped formations of Waffen-SS, notably privileged and increasingly elite SS Panzer divisions. On the other hand, many Wehrmacht officers admired SS tenacity in combat and came to rely on SS-men as shock troops or to hold the line while others fell back. Still, all that any of these measures did was delay defeat, prolong suffering, increase casualties, and promote greater destruction by the air forces and armies of the mighty alliance that opposed Germany. By 1945 the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS were alike “demodernized” in equipment and combat power. Panzer divisions were denuded of tanks and armored vehicles, anti-tank tactics and instructions bordered on suicidal, and the final few operations of the war were conducted with minimal mobility—even the horses were gone—and without air support.

Much debate attends the degree to which the Wehrmacht was nazified during the war. Into the 1960s its defenders—surviving generals and the historians who admired them, notably Basil Liddell Hart—asserted that the Wehrmacht had been apolitical, that it had preserved traditional German military values and honor as it fought with supreme skill in the face of Hitler's interference and provision of the worst strategic leadership of modern times. It is true that some Wehrmacht officers and men refused illegal orders to carry out atrocities, and that others joined coup and assassination plots that aimed to kill Hitler and to end the war before Germany was totally defeated. But most German soldiers and generals did no such thing. Instead, the available evidence provided by more recent historical research strongly supports the conclusion that the Wehrmacht was progressively politicized and nazified, especially after the war began to go badly for Germany. This process had actually begun before the war, when the officer corps was compelled to take an oath of loyalty not to the German nation or state, but to the person and leadership principle (Führerprinzip) of Adolf Hitler. Along with the forced adoption of the Nazi salute and some Nazi uniform and vehicle insignia, these measures thoroughly politicized the officer corps and armed forces by the end of the war. Overall, as in most other areas of German society and national life and institutions, the Wehrmacht was extensively and progressively nazified. Despite such efforts, thousands of Jews—most assimilated and aggressive German nationalists, but defined as Jews by Nazi “race” standards—served in the Wehrmacht, including Field Marshal Erhard Milch of the Luftwaffe.

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There is overwhelming evidence that the Wehrmacht was thoroughly criminalized as well as nazified as the war progressed. Much of the evidence has been compiled in a multivolume postwar study by the Wehrmacht's successor, the Bundeswehr, published as Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg. This and other studies affirm that Wehrmacht generals, officers, and soldiers participated—many times, enthusiastically—in endemic war crimes and the mass murder of one 1.5 million Jews by SS Einsatzgruppen. Some officers and men complained bitterly about Italians who refused to participate in killing French or Balkan Jews. The Bundeswehr study additionally and conclusively demonstrates that the same men conducted themselves with everyday callous disregard for most laws and norms of war, especially toward Red Army soldiers and prisoners on the Eastern Front. It was the Wehrmacht—not the SS or Nazi Party—which was principally to blame for malign neglect to death of several million Soviet prisoners of war in its rear areas of direct responsibility. The Wehrmacht was similarly responsible for mass civilian deaths: it was Hitler regime as well as OKW official policy to allow millions of Soviet civilians to starve to death, especially in the large cities of the east, in accordance with directives that Moscow, Leningrad, and other centers of Slavic civilization must be permanently leveled and the local populations reduced by 90 percent, down to manageable numbers of postwar slaves.

After the war, many Wehrmacht officers maintained that it was solely the SS who implemented the “final solution” and committed atrocities against prisoners and civilians. This claim of moral absolution has been thoroughly discredited by interviews with eyewitness, including thousands of German soldiers who reported active participation in war crimes and crimes against humanity. These included rounding up Jews for slave labor and death camps run by the SS; gross mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war; and carrying out the infamous Commissar order to summarily execute tens of thousands of captured Soviet political officers. Many Wehrmacht officers, probably most, and large numbers of regular soldiers were deeply implicated by moral and physical passivity in the face of rank atrocity, bestiality, and illegal orders. And more than a few were enthusiastic sadists and murderers. Nor could officers believably plead ignorance of SS crimes, as most did in the immediate aftermath of the war and at their criminal trials. Most German officers accepted passively, and some actively endorsed, the illegal and immoral special orders issued by the OKW prior to, and during, BARBAROSSA. These orders were essential to the Nazi idea of Rassenkampf. For example, to keep men on the move and in formation during the advance on Stalingrad, local commanders and the OKW issued strict orders to stop the spontaneous practice of thousands of German soldiers gathering to watch or to photograph Sonderkommando executions of Jews and “partisans.” In final defense of their utter dereliction of the traditional German military code of duty and honor, most Wehrmacht officers and men later asserted a defense of “superior orders.” That argument was explicitly rejected by the Nuremberg Tribunal after the war. That said, there were also men in the Wehrmacht who did not support genocide. Such men were quietly uncooperative with illegal orders. A brave few actually spoke out against them.

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There were many non-Germans in the Wehrmacht. Austrians who were conscripted into the German armed forces tended to be regarded, and many so regarded themselves, as regular Germans. This, too, reflected nazification of Wehrmacht thinking, as Austrians enlisted under the Nazi designation for their annexed country: “Ostmark.” Upon capture, however, many Austrian soldiers insisted upon a separate identity from other German troops, mainly to secure moderately better treatment of prisoners of war in NKVD camps by other non-German Axis prisoners, such as Rumanians, Hungarians, or Italians. There were also many men from subject nationalities of the Soviet empire in the Wehrmacht. Some were forced into German uniform as the sole means of avoiding starvation and death in squalid prisoner of war camps. Others volunteered from nationalist motives: Ukrainians, Balts, and other anti-Soviet non-Russians, and at least 50,000 Cossacks. Many had fathers who fought the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1918–1921). Others served out of hatred for the Soviet system, often dating back to some great crime the Soviet state had committed against their people or their families. The NKVD termed these non-German Wehrmacht troops “non-Russians,” to uphold the fiction that the Soviet population was wholly devoted to Stalin and the regime. That was essential to propaganda of the “Great Fatherland War (1941–1945),” which denied that the Axis invasion had reopened ancient wounds and grievances among subject nationalities of the western Soviet Union. In fact, wartime division cut so deeply that—even after extinction of the Soviet Union in 1991—the scale of enlistment in the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS of anti-Soviet ethnic groups and of Russians was still not admitted in official Russian histories.

During its invasion of Poland the Wehrmacht lost 8,082 killed and 32,000 wounded or missing. In addition to military casualties it inflicted on the Polish Army, it murdered at least 16,000 Poles and burned 530 towns and villages in brutal reprisals before giving up administrative authority on October 30, 1939. During invasions of France and the Low Countries the Wehrmacht lost another 50,000 men. Those relatively low figures—exchanged for shockingly complete victories—greatly contributed to the allure that the idea of decisive battle already exerted over German military thinking during planning for BARBAROSSA. But quick victory eluded the Wehrmacht in the east. From June 22 to September 1, 1941, the Wehrmacht inflicted over 3 million casualties on the Red Army while suffering loss of 20 percent of its own effective strength: 330,000 of 500,000 vehicles of all types, 65 percent of battle tanks, and 686,000 permanent losses of personnel (dead, missing, or seriously disabled). Over the next ten months the Wehrmacht lost another 922,000 effectives. In the following year of war, on all fronts it lost 2,077,000 men. Almost all those casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front, with some lost in fighting partisans in the Balkans and the Western Allies in North Africa. Until just before the invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944), the Wehrmacht used most of Western Europe as a reserve and rest area for troops engaged in heavy fighting on the Eastern Front, and then in Italy.

As late as June 1, 1944, even with transfers of units from the east to the front in Italy and more divisions to France and the Low Countries in expectation of the coming invasion, 239 out of 386 numbered German divisions were still facing thePage 1178  |  Top of ArticleRed Army. By August the number shifted to 1 million men in the west compared to 2.1 million still in the east. From June 6 to November 30, 1944, the Wehrmacht lost 1,457,000 men. Over 900,000 of those casualties were inflicted on the Eastern Front. The Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS lost 120,000 in the Ardennes offensive (1944). Excluding that number from 1945 figures, in the last four months and one week of the war Germany suffered at least two million military casualties, mostly Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, but also Volkssturm and sundry others. By the time of the Wehrmacht's utter defeat in May 1945, its dead and missing totaled 5.3 million men. Not counting millions more taken prisoner at the surrender, Germany's total military casualties for the war were 13,488,000, of which 10,758,000 were suffered on the Eastern Front. Those grim facts are mutely remembered in the headstone inscription on millions of German war graves: “gefallen im Osten” (“died in the East”).

Suggested Reading

Andris J. Kursietis, The Wehrmacht at War, 1939–1945 (1999)

Geoffrey Megargee, War of Annihilation (2006)

A. Seaton, The German Army in World War II (1982).

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Nolan, Cathal J. "Wehrmacht." The Concise Encyclopedia of World War II, vol. 2, Greenwood Press, 2010, pp. 1168-1178. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com%2Fps%2Fi.do%3Fp%3DGVRL%26sw%3Dw%26u%3Dgale%26v%3D2.1%26id%3DGALE%257CCX1762102069%26it%3Dr%26asid%3D3e3f490c9296992c15600038a666cb03. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1762102069

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