Tradition and Murder in the Wehrmacht

by Charles B. Burdick

Helmut Krausnick and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm. Die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges: Die Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD 1938-1942. Institut ffir Zeitgeschichte, Quellen und Darstellungen zur Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 22. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1981. 687 pages, illustrations, maps.

For generations of Germans, Potsdam's Garrison Church represented Prussian traditions. The bells of its carillon punctuated every half hour with the melancholy song set to a Mozart melody: "Always practice loyalty and honesty to the coolness of your grave" (Ueb immer Treu und Redlichkeit . . . ). From 1797 to 1945 the bells resounded throughout the city, dominating the cadence of hobnailed boots and the drums of Potsdam's elite guard regiments. In the simple crypt beneath the high church tower rested the remains of Frederick William 1, the founder of the Brandenburg-Prussian army and Frederick II, the military genius responsible for Prussia's glory and power. The two rulers had created the symbols and structure of authority and tradition for all Germans.1

These traditions were essential for the continuity of the national state and its citizens. They provided a basis for communal feeling, national education, human values, social deportment, emotional feeling, and collective history. In the sense of identifiable characteristics they suggested discipline, order, structure, punctuality, diligence, honesty, hard work, loyalty, obedience, character, etc. These Prussian traits, as perceived by all Germans and most foreigners, provided the foundation for German unity, purpose, and continuity.2 Clearly these attributes were essential to national self-understanding and direction. They were, despite occasional misuse, standards which Germans viewed as collective and individual regulations essential for themselves and their country.

For professional soldiers these broad requirements provided basic principles of lifelong conduct. The bureaucratic rules and regulations administering them were harsh in judgment and swift in execution. All soldiers, irrespective of station, background, or position, knew the requirements and understood the price of controvertion. Around them were the reminders of proper participation-barrack's names, unit designations, national holidays, elderly heroes, military museums. While history books seldom detailed the errors of those individuals who failed these rules, oral tradition maintained the records of personal disaster through generations. This world was harsh but clear. Before 1914 Germany had a well-defined history validating its past, justifying its present, and maintaining faith in its future. There were no doubts.

The loss of World War I shattered this confidence about purpose and being. Despite the sacrifices and slaughter Germany's win had not prevailed at the end. Throughout the world Germany and Germans suffered the emotional opprobrium and material tragedy of defeat. They required time to fit this national and personal catastrophe into their traditions, which they began to doubt. History did not provide that opportunity. With inflation, prosperity, and depression alternating in one decade; with inexperienced and unpopular political leadership providing different messages; with unknown and uncertain social forces shifting directions, the general populace accepted the messianic enticements of Adolf Hitler. His siren call of easy answers, refined traditions, and renewed direction attracted many and confused everyone.

No institution or organization could avoid the Nazi monster for long. This point of confrontation between the known, the acceptable, the historical and the unknown, untested, and unclear was inevitable. Few observers (then or now) sought to understand this confrontational predicament, which required an immediate answer. The German traditions espoused by Hitler and his Nazi thugs were far different from those represented by the Garrison church. They used immediacy, emotion, instability, noise, conflict, hate; a range of exhilarating emotions foreign to tradition and history. Individuals from every social group, age level, economic position confronted this grotesque reality and the immediate, unsavory decision required by the new order. Few possessed any clear guideline or understanding of the choice between obedience and resistance. The former course was easier and purchased time while the latter went against all tradition and belief. Very few citizens understood the seriousness of the conflict or the probable consequence of delay or indecision.

The military professionals could not procrastinate nor rationalize as other bodies did. The soldiers were living artifacts of tradition. They knew Frederick the Great's campaigns by heart, understood Bismarck's glorious victories, and remembered World War I's patriotic horrors. Their initial stance was one of watchful obedience to the legitimate head of state. While many remembered the historical concepts of tyrannicide, they could not abrogate their upbringing, education, training, experience. They lacked both the understanding and the mechanism to resist the engaging Mephisto. Their world lacked any preparation for this foreign world. They had no acceptable alternative, but in not seeking one they unwittingly surrendered their integrity and collective awareness. Hitler would set the agenda, control the discussion, and make the decisions. With the arrival of military rearmament, territorial expansion, international posturing, and successful nationalism, soldiers became important again. The general euphoria supporting the Nazi movement infected everyone with uncertainty about moral principles and the eventual outcomes. Soldiers, like most Germans, confronted the Nazi issue alone and surrendered institutional trust and personal integrity, which had been standards of personal belief, in favor of pragmatism and relativism. The collective guidance of tradition with its responsibilities and regulations disappeared quietly without formal notice or replacement. Immediacy triumphed over the past.

Rather than use history for direction military men sought co-existence with the Nazi usurpers. In doing so they compromised their principles (without understanding that choice) and began their sordid descent into Hades. Rather than clearly define the issue, they engaged their energies in multiple endeavors that allotted to activity, involvement, and ambition greater importance than to thought or value study. They gave up the past and found themselves constantly engaged on numerous fronts: against Hitler (compliance was not adulation), against foreign adversaries, against each other, against their own integrity and honor, against all tradition. Each one utilized his private agenda without realizing that such individualism supported Nazi methods of control. With such convenient division Hitler subverted his potential opposition. He set the tone, the standard, the pace, the rules for everyone. While he could not confront them collectively, he could confound their individual value systems at every turn. Hitler called the tune and the dance, no matter how individual soldiers groused about either one. Ambition and immediacy destroyed tradition and reality. The dissipation of strength assured compliance and subservience.

The volume under review spells out, in horrific detail, the erosion of integrity, the loss of understanding, the destruction of trust among German soldiers. It reflects the dreadful price these men paid for their easy compromises with false pride and ambition. They negotiated principles and history with tragic consequences for their nation, profession, and themselves. In judging them historians must be cautious lest hindsight support the normal media notion of easy truth. Voltaire put the issue succinctly: "Murder is wrong unless done in large numbers to the sound of drums." Every belligerent accepts murder, permits atrocities, condones savagery in the guise of patriotism. Expecting individuals to be angels while killing others for patriotic reasons is specious. What matters is the pretense of rules, the control of animal instincts, the training of individual reactions. Regulation, understanding, and tradition provide a semblance of control. Krausnick and Wilhelm chronicle this blurring between the required slaughter of war and the bestiality of murder.

The book is really two related studies in the same binding. Krausnick's segment describes the genesis of the small Einsatzgruppen as units for controlling occupied areas. They were mobile units, usually 600 to 1,000 men, drawn from the SS, the police, and the Gestapo (and were termed "the Gestapo on wheels"). In conception they were for political and police activities in civilian areas as determined by Nazi officials. They operated independently of military organizations and responsibilities. Krausnick describes their use from the occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia through their genocidal crimes in Poland and Russia. Wilhelm concentrates on Einsatzgruppe A with painstaking care and describes its leaders and activities in massive detail. The two efforts complement each other in forming a terrifying unity.

Krausnick's powerful essay provides horrendous evidence of the loss of tradition and integrity among German soldiers. He describes the development of the SS Einsatzgruppen from uncertain units dependent upon their leader, Heinrich Himmler, to acceptable tools of military occupation policy. He shows how the original policies, possibly useful for controlling an area, disappeared into the racial destructiveness required by the Nazi ideology.

With the Russian invasion four Einsatzgruppen followed the army groups into action. They understood their freedom of action and murdered with abandon. With their limited strength they had some difficulties until they recruited helpers among the natives. As they increased their brutality the Russo-German conflict also descended into a frenzy of bloodshed. Murder became commonplace as guerilla-soldier-civilian identities merged into likeness; as party national-military requirements overlapped responsibilities; as collaborationist mercenaries-sycophants-bureaucrats served objectionable ends overwhelming everyone. Krausnick underscores the ironies of these concerns and the erosion of integrity in the Wehrmacht. He points out the problems and details in unforgiving directness. Many soldiers participated in Einsatzgruppen activities, with differing degrees of willingness. Others turned their heads and knowingly overlooked the issues through convenient ignorance. Some participants did everything passively and followed their orders without thought or question. Clearly many soldiers did their duty with blinders on and disregarded rumor or report in favor of patriotic fervor. Krausnick's basic charge is that few soldiers raised the questions demanded by their upbringing and represented by the bells in the Garrison tower. Ideology, emotion, and convenience undermined the heritage, slowly but steadily turning decent souls into uncaring animals. 3

As the Einsatzgruppen expanded their activities from dubious, indirect assaults on the civilian population into participation in Jewish extermination, the majority rationalized that the barbarous war against Russia permitted such harshness. Whether through belief or acceptance the field commanders allowed the enforcement of Nazi racial theories in their areas. Such thought allowed the eradication of the "Jewish-Bolshevik" system. The wholesale murder of Jews eliminated the root source of an immoral government. Krausnick hammers with passion at this moral concern. He is a plaintiff in that he seeks no understanding of the participants nor does he provide explanation. His concern is the betrayal of human rights and centuries of tradition. He finds acceptance as evil as open participation. His case is impressive.

Wilhelm's lengthier section probes the specifics of Einsatzgruppe A. He is concerned with the mechanics of mass murder and the murders. The leaders of this small force reflected a break with the past and perceived themselves as the creators of new rules, directions, and traditions. They were serving a new order, a new administration for a better world. As the progenitors of a superior race they utilized different rules. Wilhelm investigates their individual experiences and Nazi affiliations. He does so in the context of psychosocial maladjustment but finds the majority normal. Perhaps he neglects the impact of World War I on their lives (as do other historians), but he describes their growth and experience as Nazis in impressive detail. Increasing the master race by eliminating inferior peoples was a patriotic duty and contribution to civilization. It was also good business.

Wilhelm points out that the Einsatzgruppe A people were less than what they pretended to their superiors. Wilhelm documents their cruelty, greed, ineffectiveness, savagery, and self-serving criminality. They had no guidance system, no orderly regulation, no moral principles, and quickly became corrupt representatives of a corrupt government. To be sure they used mercenaries or impressed people wherever possible and avoided direct involvement in murder. At some level they had reservations about these activities.

Ultimately the book is an impressive document. The authors describe the events, in both the general and specific sense. They do not address the fundamental issue of participation. Perhaps their restraint is appropriate. The German soldiers confronted a dreadful war with insufficient resources, overtaxed manpower, guerilla actions, extended territory, confused leadership, and moral uncertainty. They were decent men who gradually lost their long- held rules for governing life. They accepted the horror of the Einsatzgruppen as a necessary part of the conflict. The issue remains for all of us.

The authors have written a splendid volume with the skill required of the historian's craft-honest, careful, orderly, responsible. They have done the definitive study on an apparently narrow subject that is actually of much greater significance. Their treatise is long and ponderous but provides the unsavory details. Their description will remain and persist as a reminder for all of us.

While these authors describe the events in full detail, they seek little explanation or understanding of the motives or influences behind them. A recent book by Omer Bartov seeks some comprehension of this important concern.4 While flawed in terms of language and scope, his study provides a benchmark volume. Utilizing the records of three divisions (12th Infantry, 18th Armored, and Grossdeutschland) as the basis for his case study, he searches for an explanation of the barbarization of the war. His genuine search for the human perspective, i.e., the rationale for decent people's murdering other decent people, provides impressive reading. Bartov seeks understanding rather than blanket condemnation or single-minded moral certitude. His effort provides a fine contribution to awareness. One can grouse over various professional concerns, but this reviewer admires the effort. One hopes that Bartov's efforts will create further scholarly interest.

The issue of individual responsibility eludes historians. Judging the thinking, the motivations, the actions of others from past events is extraordinarily difficult. The Krausnick and Wilhelm study describes the events with the required moral outrage; the Bartov effort searches for comprehension. Both succeed. History cannot disappear.

Currently the West German Bundeswehr seeks to publish an official statement on military tradition. It is long overdue. Such an announcement must include the entire past, from monarchy to Reichswehr to Wehrmacht to Bundeswehr. Clearly any statement will address the general issues of National Socialism and its place in German history. The document must discuss the service of those soldiers who committed war crimes, those who trafficked with the enemy for patriotic reasons, those who supported the 20 July 1944 attempt on Hitler's life, and those who honestly served their country with distinction.5 Behind the words stand the Einsatzgruppen and their role in the totality. This need for continuity and tradition reflects the concerns of thirty years intense discussion. The past and present do not configure well in these circumstances.

In April 1945 the British bombed Potsdam. Their bombs started the carillon in the Garrison church playing ueb immer Treu and Redlichkeit. Amid the fiery destruction of the city the music played for hours. Soldiers had earlier removed the remains of Frederick William I and Frederick II to Marburg. The destruction of the church terminated a tradition, void of content and moral value, which had led good and decent people into accepting and justifying the most heinous crimes. The method of incorporating these experiences into a national heritage has required many years and still lacks a genuine answer. The search deserves our admiration. Any group willing to seek an answer to such irreconcilable issues merits approbation.

The issue does not go away. In a magnificent speech commemorating 8 May 1945 the West German President, Richard von Weizsacker, addressed the issue directly in May 1985. He proposed, "For us May 8th is above all a day on which we recall what people had to suffer. At the same time, it is a day of reflection on the course of our history. The more honest we are in observing this day, the freer we will be to face its consequences responsibly."6

In 1986 Austria elected Kurt Waldheim. president. On the surface he did not participate in any war crimes but he did conceal his military career for decades. Waldheim did do his duty under difficult circumstances but chose to let ambition overcome judgment, hubris overcome integrity, concealment overcome honesty. His great sin was not coping with his past.

Tradition continues because we cannot avoid history. The Bundeswehr confronts that issue. It must be capable of atomic warfare while bearing a Nazi past, of defeating Russia while bearing the guilt of a Belgian occupation, of pursuing democracy while remembering the Einsatzgruppen. The problem is enormous. One must honor the effort without neglecting history.


1. See the superb study by Donald Abenheim, "A Valid Heritage: The Policy on Military Tradition in the Emergence of the Bundeswehr, 1950-1965," Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1985.

2. Robert Herzstein, "Preussens Gloria? The Changing Fate of Prussian Traditions in the German Democratic Republic," Ninth Annual Conference of the German Studies Association, Washington, DC, 4-6 Oct. 1985.

3. An important study is Jurgen Forster, "The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination against the Soviet Union," Yad Vashem Studies 14 (1981): 7-33. He reprises the issue and expands the argument in "New Wine in Old Skins? The Wehrmacht and the War of 'Weltanschauungen,' 1941, " in The German Military in the Age of Total War, ed. Wilhelm Deist (London, 1985), pp. 304-22.

4. Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-1945: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (New York, 1986). Another study, more structured, traditional, and formalistic, is Richard C. Fattig, "Reprisal: the German Army and the Execution of Hostages During the Second World War," Ph.D. diss., University of California, San Diego, 1980. Fattig studies the history of his topic and concludes that any final resolution is not possible. He understands the problem but avoids a personal answer declaring his views.

5. The article by David C. Large, " 'A Gift to the Future? The Anti-Nazi Resistence Movement and West German Rearmament," German Studies Review 7 (1984): 499- 529, raises good questions but lacks the required support in answering them.

6. Remembrance, Sorrow and Reconciliation. Speeches and Declarations in Connection with the 40th Anniversary of the End of the Second World War in Europe (Bonn, n.d.), pp. 57-72.

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