Cornell University Press

The Clean Wehrmacht: Making a Myth

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The year 2021 is the eightieth anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the largest military campaign in modern history. Soldiers of the Wehrmacht—the armed forces of Nazi Germany—stormed into the Soviet Union, where they would spend four years attempting to destroy Joseph Stalin’s communist regime. Their efforts proved unsuccessful. The overwhelming might of the Red Army would eventually turn the tides of war in the Allies’ favor and precipitate the Third Reich’s ultimate downfall.

The Wehrmacht may have lost the war, but it won the battle of postwar memory. Few of its members were ever prosecuted for war crimes. Instead, the German public remembered the army as an honorable institution whose men had behaved decently and avoided any involvement in Nazi atrocities. Politicians, former generals, and ordinary veterans all contributed to this popular narrative, which today has come to be known as the myth of the clean Wehrmacht.

The Wehrmacht may have lost the war, but it won the battle of postwar memory.

Scholars have dismantled the myth over the last several decades. The war the Wehrmacht waged on the Eastern Front, we now know, was more a criminal campaign than a conventional one. Soldiers murdered millions of civilians—including Jews—despoiled the region of economic resources, burned tens of thousands of villages to the ground, and starved millions of POWs. All this was in service to the Nazi regime’s ideological goal of destroying “Jewish Bolshevism” and killing or enslaving the USSR’s “subhuman” inhabitants.

In recent years, scholars have tallied the army’s crimes and investigated the motives behind them but some crucial questions remain unanswered. What did soldiers think about the atrocities their side committed, and how did they emerge from the war insisting that they had remained innocent? What ideas of good and evil influenced the army and its men?  Finally, where did the Wehrmacht myth come from and why did it have such a powerful hold over the German public?

 What ideas of good and evil influenced the army and its men?

The Virtuous Wehrmacht reconstructs the moral history of the Wehrmacht to provide answers to these questions. I find that although many of them took part in atrocities, German soldiers uniformly considered themselves the “good guys”—honorable men who embodied virtuous ideals. Through the billions of letters they wrote to their friends and family back home, they portrayed themselves in a positive light and cast the campaign as a just war waged against an evil enemy.

To promote this image, some relied on Nazi ideology. Many others, I argue, fell back on more traditional moral concepts such as justice, freedom, and the value of all human life to make the case that their side was in the right. In their writings, they portrayed themselves as upstanding men, good comrades, pious Christians, or supporters of a righteous cause. When they admitted to acts of brutality, they found ways to rationalize their conduct. To reinforce this self-image, soldiers took small actions such as handing out candy to children, offering economic assistance to the local population, or reopening churches the Soviets had closed. In an effort to preserve the army’s reputation and win over Soviet civilians, their commanders sometimes instituted conciliatory occupation policies and issued orders reminding their men to behave decently.

When they admitted to acts of brutality, they found ways to rationalize their conduct.

Words and actions like these paled in comparison to the devastation the Wehrmacht visited upon the USSR and its inhabitants, but they helped soldiers to morally reconcile themselves to their participation. They also helped the army and its men convince members of the German public back home that they retained the moral high ground. I argue that the origins of the clean Wehrmacht myth are to be found in these developments, rather than postwar events. Its authors were not prominent figures but ordinary soldiers wielding the power of the pen to create a façade of honor and decency even as they fulfilled Hitler’s wishes.

*Featured: German troops in Russia, 1941, General Services Administration. National Archives and Records Service. Office of the National Archives. (ca. 1949 – 1985)

The Virtuous Wehrmacht
Cover image for The Virtuous Wehrmacht.
Read more about this book.

David A. Harrisville is an independent scholar. He has held various academic positions, including, most recently, Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Furman University.

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