by David A. Harrisville
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 309.
Illus. map, append., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1501760041
Uncovering the Role of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front
The story of the atrocities committed by the German army as it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 is now familiar: Jews and commissars were murdered out of hand, the millions of Red Army POWs were mostly allowed to starve to death after capture, and over the next three years, more millions of Soviet civilians were killed or died of hunger and disease. What David Harrisville is interested in is how ordinary German soldiers felt about their participation in this Vernichtungskrieg, or War of Extermination.
Many books have studied this question, but Harrisville uses a somewhat different method than any previous investigation. Books by historians or participants written after the war benefitted, or suffered, from hindsight, so several historians have mined the vast trove of Feldpostbriefe—the letters German soldiers sent home to families and friends. Billions of these letters were sent, but Harrisville worked with a very limited, carefully selected sample from the letters kept at the Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication in Berlin.
Harrisville chose 30 soldiers, and read between 100 and 500 letters by each man, all sent between 1941 and 1944. In all, he cites 2,018 letters. In some ways, these 30 were representative of the Wehrmacht: about a third were Catholics, and two-thirds, Protestant. Some were fervent Nazis, while others were indifferent or somewhat hostile to the regime. What they did have in common was service at the front—and this explains why only 11 of the 30 survived the war.
In Chapter 1, Harrisville describes how the soldiers struggled to maintain their self-images as decent, while confronting enemies they wanted to view as both racially inferior and morally corrupt. He is interested in the conflict between the “traditional” codes of honor these men had, as Germans, Christians, and soldiers, in contrast to the new Nazi codes of honor that supposedly governed their war against the Jewish-Bolshevik enemy. Orders from Hitler urged them to see Soviet soldiers and civilians as sub humans to be treated with absolute ruthlessness, but not every officer, much less every soldier, obeyed them.
Chapter 2, “Rationalizing Atrocities”, concerns the letters soldiers wrote home as they committed crimes against prisoners of war, Jews, suspected partisans, and, most of all, the civilians they encountered day in, day out. In none of the letters does any of these men admit to killing Jews, though several letters mention that thousands were murdered as the Wehrmacht advanced. Readers may be surprised that such letters exist, since Feldpostbriefe were supposedly censored. But Harrisville points out that the censors were looking for restricted military information, and were not worried about reports of atrocities, given the nature of Barbarossa. What is remarkable—in this chapter and throughout the book—is the constant reporting of terrible treatment of the Soviet population. Soldiers steal their crops and livestock to feed themselves, knowing that this means starvation for the villagers. Soldiers move into their homes in mid-winter, and either demand to be fed, or evict the occupants into the cold. Freezing soldiers even rip the boots from civilians’ feet, leaving them to face the winter barefoot.
Chapter 3, The “Crusaders,” which deals with religion and its role in interactions between Germans and Russians, is the most interesting section of The Virtuous Wehrmacht. As the soldiers advanced into what is now Belarus and Ukraine, they found many churches. They had almost all been closed by Stalin, and some had been turned into warehouses or museums of atheism. In many cases, the Germans reopened them, and held services, which both provided them with solace and ingratiated them with the local people, who were glad to return to their Christian roots. But such practices came to a halt once Hitler found out. Not only was he determinedly anti-Christian, he did not want the Wehrmacht to appear to be helping the local Slavic population, who were destined for eventual “replacement.” The book also mentions that the Nazis authorized only 900 chaplains for the armed forces, and when they became casualties, they were not replaced.
The next two chapters concern the role of the Wehrmacht as “liberators” and its burial practices. The former, of course, ran into problems both because the Germans killed and destroyed as they conquered, and because the Nazi command did not intend to free the Russian people. The chapter on burial explains how initial ambitious plans for individual and well-marked graves foundered as the army first suffered massive casualties, then had to retreat from the Soviet Union.
For readers familiar with the Eastern Front, The Virtuous Wehrmacht provides new insight into the feelings of the Germans who fought there.
Note: The Virtuous Wehrmacht, a volume in the series “Battlegrounds: Cornell Studies in Military History”, is also available in audio- and e-editions.
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