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Clausewitz famously said war was the “continuation of politics by other means.” Had he been unfortunate enough to witness the way the Wehrmacht fought on the Eastern Front in World War II, he might well have said war (or at least that war) was the “continuation of politics by any means.” Hitler was terribly specific about this. The Slavs, he said, were Untermenschen (subhumans). The Communists were Judeo-bolschewisten (Jewish Bolsheviks). Soviet soldiers were keine Kameraden (not comrades-in-arms). The East was future German Lebensraum (living space). All this meant that the ordinary rules of armed conflict had to be suspended. The German armed forces were to conduct a Vernichtungskrieg, a war of annihilation.
The German military had never been in the business of wanton destruction. On the contrary, it prided itself on being the most professional fighting force in the world. It was admired for many things, but two of them were honor and loyalty. And it was the clash of these two otherwise laudable traits that got the Wehrmacht in deep trouble, for Hitler essentially ask the German military to choose between the two in the East. Would the army uphold the traditional, honorable ideal of civilized military conduct, or would it remain loyal to Hitler and prosecute his Vernichtungskrieg?
As Valerie Hébert shows in her remarkable Hitler's Generals on Trial: The Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg (University Press of Kansas, 2010), they chose the latter course. At Hitler’s request, they murdered civilians, starved prisoners of war, and enslaved occupied peoples by the millions. So it’s little wonder that after the war the victors called the leaders of the Wehrmacht to account for their thoroughly criminal behavior. And here they behaved no better, for they lamely claimed that they didn’t commit these outrages, didn’t know others were committing them, or were under orders so they had no choice. When they did admit to killing thousands in one or another Aktion, they claimed it was military necessity or that they were forced to be brutal because the Soviets were more brutal still (a pathetic instance of blaming the victim).
Given the setting (their honor and even lives were on the line), it’s not surprising that they lied and rationalized. What is more unsettling is that they showed little or no remorse for what they had done (during or after the trials) and that they enjoyed considerable sympathy within the German population. As Valarie points out, the Germans mounted large campaigns both against the Nuremberg proceedings and for the release of the Wehrmacht-criminals after they had been incarcerated. The former were unsuccessful, though the latter resulted in the premature release of nearly all those convicted in the Wehrmacht trials.
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