The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944
by David A. Harrisville
Cornell University Press
328 pp., $34.95
For all that historians have learned in the decades they have spent researching Nazi crimes on the Eastern Front and in the Holocaust, diminishing returns are setting in. True, an event of this magnitude, affecting millions of human souls, will always be worth studying, as individual stories of either horror or heroism emerge from the wreckage. But as for the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, are there really any angles not yet pursued, stones not yet unturned?
Since the publication of Christopher Browning’s bestselling 1992 study, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, the conventional wisdom has been that not only Hitler and the top Nazi leadership, but even ordinary rank-and-file German policemen, participated willingly in the Holocaust. Inspired by a scholarly exhibition, “The German Army and Genocide,” which toured Germany in 1995, recent academic studies have demolished the last remaining notion that the regular German army, or Wehrmacht, was innocent of Nazi race-crimes on the Eastern Front, as some of its surviving generals had claimed after the war.
Now that the German army has been thoroughly dishonored by association with Nazism, it would seem that there are few Eastern Front myths left to debunk, and the degree of difficulty in saying something new is harder than ever, as David Harrisville gamely admits in his introduction to The Virtuous Wehrmacht.
A clue comes on page five, when he suggests that, while everyone now basically agrees that “the campaign the German army waged in the Soviet Union was criminal, even genocidal,” an examination of 2,018 presumably representative wartime letters “suggests that the men in its ranks did not, in fact, consider themselves criminals.” Harrisville sets out, therefore, to explain how German soldiers “set the moral stage for a war of extermination,” while considering themselves “upstanding men pursuing noble goals,” fighting for a “righteous cause.” By conveying this message to their families, German troops laid the seeds of the “virtuous Wehrmacht” myth, Harrisville argues, long before postwar apologias kicked in.
So what was the “righteous cause” for which German soldiers believed themselves to be fighting? The most significant German army directives used to justify abuses and killings—such as the “Commissar Order” and “Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops in Russia”—focused on what Harrisville calls “the supposedly criminal nature of the USSR and its representatives, rather than its ethnic composition.” German soldiers were told, as Operation Barbarossa was launched in June 1941, that the Soviet enemy would “ignore the ‘foundations of humanity’ and ‘international law,’ including by mistreating German prisoners.” They were also told that there had been a “Soviet plot to invade Germany,” which was supposed to justify the invasion by Germany and her allies.
Furthermore, these punitive army orders contained a patina of legality in that, even while “imped[ing] the prosecution of servicemen for crimes against civilians,” they “still allowed for the arrest and punishment of [Germans] whose actions were deemed particularly extreme,” thus “conjur[ing] up the illusion of conformity with international law.” While harsh treatment of “Jewish or Communist elements” seen as responsible for Soviet war crimes was encouraged, German soldiers were repeatedly warned not to take “retaliatory measures” against innocent locals and instructed that “attention should be paid to a good and just treatment of the civilian population.” They were even ordered to pay full price for Soviet food and consumer goods and to issue credit slips for goods costing more cash than they had on hand. As one German grunt wrote to his parents, “It is strictly forbidden for us to steal anything, even a potato.”
Predictably, these ideals ran aground, as the letters reveal, against the brutal realities of war. As German soldiers began to grow hungry themselves, they questioned why they were being “too good” towards civilians and often stole food. Faced also with sniping from partisans, it was hard to remain “clean angels”: many soldiers openly confessed to committing retaliatory crimes against Soviet civilians (although most still insisted that the SS, not the regular army, was guilty of the worst atrocities, such as mass shootings of Jews). Even so, most German soldiers continued to believe that the Soviet enemy committed worse crimes, especially after Stalingrad and Kursk, when the Red Army took the war to the pre-1941 German frontier and beyond. The letters finally assumed a kind of numb fatalism, as the war of attrition ground on and most Germans just wanted it to be over, even while hoping to save their homeland from the horrors of Soviet retribution.
By allowing the German soldiers to speak, Harrisville helps us to see the war through their eyes, almost sympathetically. We come to understand the “rich assortment of ethical norms” these men harbored, with their Christian faith (despite Nazi hostility to Christianity) undergirding their belief that the Germans, unlike the “godless” Soviet enemy, fought according to the laws of war and “upheld honorable standards”—from the treatment of prisoners to burial practices. We are told that “devious” Bolsheviks fought with “inhumane cruelty,” “disguis[ing] themselves in civilian clothes,” firing on medics, and “mutilat[ing] the corpses” of war prisoners.
All these brutal practices, along with the reopening of churches in German-occupied Belorussia and Ukraine (until Hitler perversely intervened to limit joint services held by the Wehrmacht and the locals), reinforced Germans’ belief that they were leading “Europe’s crusade against Bolshevism,” a “war of liberation.” We are told how grateful Red Army prisoners and deserters were to be received into German captivity, which came as a “delightful revelation, the treatment by our soldiers, the good German cigarettes, the shelter with light … and coziness.”
It is revealing that only in this last case—the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war—does Harrisville fact-check his German sources by reminding us that “in reality the Soviet POWs … faced murderous conditions.” When it comes to alleged Soviet plans to invade Germany, Soviet atheism and persecution of Christians, Soviet contempt for international law, Soviet troops firing on medics, Soviet mistreatment of war prisoners and the mutilation of enemy corpses “against every human right and soldierly law,” as one German put it, Harrisville simply glides on by, presumably assuming his readers know that these German claims about the war in the East—what he calls the “liberation fantasy”—are not worth taking seriously. The most Harrisville will say to explain how these themes became a “common refrain” among German soldiers is that such ideas were continually whipped up by those in the Wehrmacht who “worked in the Propagandakompanien (Propaganda Companies, or PK) that followed the line of advance.”
This may well be the case. It does not follow, however, that all of the “common refrains” were necessarily untrue. In order to better understand the motivations of German soldiers, surely it is worth investigating whether, for example, there were Soviet plans to invade Germany (there were—as we now know, following the opening of Soviet military archives), whether the Soviets did persecute Christians and bombard soldiers with atheistic propaganda (true on both counts), and whether the Soviets did disregard international law, mistreat war prisoners, and mutilate German corpses. The USSR, unlike Nazi Germany, was not even a signatory to the Hague or Geneva Conventions recognizing the human rights of POWs, and the Soviets refused to allow Red Cross inspection of POW camps. Stalin and Molotov declined numerous German requests to share prisoner lists or negotiate exchanges. These are facts, even if they are seldom acknowledged.
Harrisville, however, declines to evaluate the accuracy of claims made by German soldiers in their letters, or to investigate parallel Soviet practices in propaganda (such as the political commissars embedded in every unit, whose job it was to enforce the political line and mercilessly punish dissent or desertion). Unlike Grant Harward, in his more impressive study, Romania’s Holy War: Soldiers, Motivation, and the Holocaust (2021), Harrisville doesn’t really discuss Soviet actions or behavior at all. Nor, for that matter, does he discuss the role played by Germany’s Barbarossa allies on the Eastern Front, some of whom had ample motivation to avenge Soviet crimes committed before 1941. Remarkably, there are no index entries for “Finland,” “Hungary,” “Romania,” or “Slovakia.”
In his one-sided approach to history, Harrisville is in good company. Most Western histories of the war on the Eastern Front are based on German sources, with little sense of what was happening on the other side of the lines. Even so, the effect is jarring: it is like reading one of those Cold War histories that decry American armed meddling in Latin America or Southeast Asia without noting that the Soviets were meddling and arming proxies in the same places.
By chronicling the day-to-day views of the German soldiers of Barbarossa, Harrisville has restored voice and even moral agency to the Nazis. To be sure, this is far from the author’s intention: he wants us to be horrified at how convinced these monsters were at the righteousness of their “cause,” a mere fig leaf for genocide. But not every reader may share the author’s assumptions. Some readers may even begin to wonder whether there is more to the war than the cartoonish morality play ingrained into them by Hollywood movies and school textbooks. By beating this nearly dead horse so hard, historians like Harrisville may be drumming it back to life.