Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
13 Dec. 2021
Review by Jonathan Beard, New York City
The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941–1944
By David A. Harrisville
Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 309. ISBN 978–1–5017–6004–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, European Theater Print Version

The opening of the Wehrmacht Exhibition in Hamburg (Mar. 1995) has made it hard to sustain the myth of the "clean Wehrmacht," that is, the idea that ordinary German soldiers, even on the Eastern Front, fought a war free of atrocities. Yet, for several decades after World War II, most historians, not to mention German politicians, maintained that only the SS or men in the Einsatzgruppen had committed mass murders.

Today it is widely accepted that the Wehrmacht carried out a Vernichtungskrieg, a war of extermination, that killed millions of Jews, Communist Party officials, Red Army POWs, and hapless civilians. In The Virtuous Wehrmacht, David Harrisville (an independent scholar who has taught at Furman University and the University of Wisconsin) explains how this myth originated by reading the letters these men sent home as they invaded the Soviet Union. Soldiers mailed billions of Feldpostbriefe ("field post letters") to friends and family; Harrisvilles was able to consult a museum and a military archive containing tens of thousands of them, mostly donated by their recipients over the past seventhy-five years. He selected thirty men who had served at the front in the USSR between 1941 and 1945 and read hundreds of letters written by each. The complete sample comprises 2018 letters. Most of the writers were enlisted men, though some were junior officers. They were broadly representative of German society: about two-thirds were Protestant, and one third were Catholic. Some were ardent Nazis, others were not fond of the regime. Only eleven survived the war.

Chapter 1, "Honorable Self and Villainous Other," describes the principal dilemma these soldiers faced: the need to construct images of themselves as decent men and of their enemies as racially and morally inferior. Yet all the while their own behavior was barbarous. Soldiers who swallowed the new Nazi morality whole could take comfort in knowing that Hitler and their officers stood behind them. Others sought reassurance in the German army's traditional honor. These self-images grew harder to maintain as the military situation worsened. As for loyalty to the Führer and Aryan brotherhood, the author points out that references to those were quickly scrubbed from postwar accounts.

Chapter 2, Rationalizing Atrocities, concerns letters soldiers wrote home as they committed or witnessed crimes. In an early work of the crimes of the Wehrmacht,[1] Omer Bartov proved that virtually every unit on the Eastern Front executed Jews and commissars out of hand, hanged suspected partisans, and destroyed entire villages in reprisals. Surprisingly, Harrisville is able to establish that, although soldiers' letters home were censored, those that meantioned atrocities were not. The censors were more interested in military secrets and information that might reflect on army morale than in the killing of millions of Jews and Soviet POWs.

Chapter 3, "Religious Justifications for Barbarossa," is the most interesting part of the book. It highlights both the interactions of German soldiers and Russian Christians and contradictions between Nazi doctrine and the men's personal desires. By 1941, Joseph Stalin had killed thousands of Orthodox priests and sent others to the Gulag; thousands of churches were closed, some converted into "museums of atheism." When the Wehrmacht arrived in these places, they reopened churches and held services. Grateful Russian civilians sometimes participated. The soldiers liked to see themselves as liberating these people from the grip of the godless Bolsheviks, and such actions fostered cooperation if not collaboration. However,

The events would not last long. When news of them reached the Führer's ear at the beginning of August, OKW swiftly handed down a Führer-Erlass (decree) that "members of the Wehrmacht must unconditionally keep their distance" from the population's religious activities, which were to be "neither promoted nor hindered." The order also forcefully stated that chaplains were forbidden from ministering to anyone outside the Wehrmacht. In the middle of September, Hitler issued several clarifications, including that Wehrmacht worship services could not be performed in Soviet churches and that "the participation of the civil population (including Volksdeutsch) in field worship services of the Wehrmacht is forbidden." In an indication of how seriously the Führer took the matter every chaplain was required to acknowledge the order in writing. Army units received news of these decisions slowly and in piecemeal fashion, but by at least October 1941 the reopening phenomenon had effectively come to an end. (109)

In any case, there were never enough chaplains. Hitler limited the entire armed forces to nine hundred chaplains and later in the war stipulated that chaplains who were killed were not to be replaced.

Chapter 4, The Liberators: Barbarossa as an Emancipatory Act, examines how the soldiers' letters home—and the way their memories were processed in West Germany after the war—portrayed the Wehrmacht's men as nice guys who treated Russians decently, if not always generously. This was, Harrisville notes "wildly incongruent with the realities of a Vernichtungskrieg that took the lives of more than fifteen million Soviet civilian men and women..." (136). The men's fantasies of the benefits they were providing to the people in occupied areas became increasingly hard to sustain as the war turned against Germany. Food grew scarcer, demand for forced labor grew, and the occupation became ever harsher and deadlier. This aspect of the Nazi invasion, as well as the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht, has been well studied. But chap. 5, Death and Victimhood, moves in a different direction. When Barbarossa began, commanders assured their men that, if they were killed, they would be buried in a military cemetery, with honors, unlike Russian soldiers. Early in the war, the Wehrmacht was able to keep its promises, but as death tolls grew, especially during the German retreat, individual burials disappeared.

The book's conclusion summarizes Harrisville's findings, but also includes an impressive appendix providing details on each soldier's life, fate, duties, and correspondents. There are also extensive notes and a good bibliography in this worthy addition to the now copious literature on German soldiers on the Eastern Front.

[1] Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1991).

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