Nowadays, it is being assumed by the majority of Western historians that during the time of WW2 on Eastern front, German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) had fought in essentially gallant manner and that the atrocities, perpetrated against civilians, during the course of this war, were the result of Waffen SS involvement. In his book Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich, Omer Bartov aimed at exposing such point of view as largely fallacious.
According to the author, it is namely the fact that Wehrmacht soldiers were being just as committed to Nazi ideology, as it was the case with SS soldiers, that had naturally predisposed them towards conducting the ‘war of annihilation’: “Unable to rely on its hitherto highly successful Blitzkrieg tactics, the Wehrmacht accepted Hitler’s view that this was an all-or-nothing struggle for survival, a ‘war of ideologies’ which demanded total spiritual commitment” (4).
During the course of Russian camping, argues Bartov, the representatives of ‘primary groups’ (consisting of ‘old-school’ Prussian officers with an acute sense of personal honor) within Wehrmacht were effectively eliminated, due to the high rate of atrocities on Eastern front. Therefore, through the years 1942-1943, Wehrmacht had ceased being the army of professionals, in traditional sense of this word.
Instead, it became the ‘army of civilians’, who compensated for their lack of military training with the sheer extent of their commitment to the Nazi cause: “Nazi propaganda did its utmost to convince the troops (Wehrmacht) that they were defending humanity against a demonic invasion” (9). Hence, Bartov’s thesis – Wehrmacht used to indulge in genocidal actions against civilians in Russia to essentially the same extent as it used to be the case with Waffen SS.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that in his book Bartov had come up with a number of perfectly legitimate suggestions, it appears that he deliberately strived to misrepresent many of them, in order not to face the accusations of ‘historical revisionism’.
For example, Bartov has to be given a credit for dispelling the myth that, upon attacking Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Germans enjoyed an overwhelming technical superiority: “In June 1941 the Ostheer’s troops attacked with 3648 tanks out of a total German stock of 5694… Facing it in Western Russia were 2,900,000 Soviet soldiers supported by no less than 15,000 tanks out of a total armored force of 24,000 – more than all the tanks in the rest of the world put together” (15).
Nevertheless, in his book author never bothered to provide readers with explanatory insight as to what was the actual reason for the fact that, as of June 22, 1941, Soviets had concentrated the military might of previously unprecedented proportions along fifty kilometers strip away from German border.
Neither Bartov addresses the question as to why many Soviets military aerodromes were located as close as ten kilometers away from the border. The reason for this is simple. Had he done it, the reason why Germany attacked Soviet Union in 1941 would become perfectly clear – Hitler struck USSR due to essentially preventive considerations, on his part. Nowadays, more and more secret documents from Russia’s archives become available to the public.
The reading of these documents leaves very little doubt as to the fact that Stalin was planning to invade Germany, and consequentially the whole Europe, in July of 1941. After all, up until USSR’s collapse in 1991, country’s coat of arms featured the Communist symbol of hammer and sickle in the foreground of the whole planet, and Soviet Constitution openly stated that it was just a matter of time, before the rest of world’s countries would join Soviet Union.
After having captured the huge amounts of Soviet military equipment, located right along the border, and after having been exposed to the actual realities of how Soviet citizens lived in ‘workers’ paradise’, even those German soldiers with Communist past, became instantly convinced that Germany’s cause in the war against USSR was absolutely just.
In his book, Bartov quotes from the letter of a German soldier Egon Freitag, dated August 28, 1941: “We were never mercenaries, but – to use the hackneyed phrase – defenders of the Fatherland” (34). As author had rightly pointed out: “For him (Freitag)… Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union was a defensive operation” (34).
Therefore, the overall thesis of Bartov’s book as to the fact that Wehrmacht soldiers’ willingness to fight to the bitter end in Russia came as the result of these soldiers being continuously subjected to Nazi propaganda, does not stand much of a ground. The actual explanation for is much simpler – German soldiers did not want Soviet Commissars to be allowed to do in Germany what they had done in Russia – pure and simple. Nazi propaganda had nothing to do with it.
In its turn, this brings us to discuss another shortcoming of Bartov’s book – the fact that in it, author promotes an idea that, as the war against USSR progressed, Wehrmacht’s soldiers were becoming ideologically brainwashed to ever-increased extent: “Because they were fighting against Untermenscben, the troops were allowed to treat them with great brutality” (71), and that Germany’s war against Soviet Union should be thought of as the war of conquest, in classical sense of this word: “The German invasion of Russia, intended to create a vast new Lebensraum for the Aryan race” (73).
Apparently, while working on his book, author remained utterly ignorant that the term Untermenscben (sub-humans) has never been applied to the actual Russians per se, but only to Communist officials, Commissars and to their puppets among locals. Had it been otherwise, there would not be more then million of former Soviet subjects fighting along the side with Germans in Russian Liberation Army, and as volunteers in Waffen SS divisions.
Also, the expansion of Lebensraum (living space) has never been Hitler’s priority – had he been truly concerned with the expansion of Lebensraum, he would have occupied Southern France instead.
After all, French Riviera is so much more attractive as ‘living space’; as compared to what it is the case with Russian barren snowy plains. As of 1941, German Armed Forces were outstretched as they were – Hitler did not even have enough manpower to ensure German military presence in Greece, Yugoslavia and Norway. And yet, historians like Bartov seriously believe that the foremost reason for Germany’s war against Soviet Union was the expansion of Lebensraum.
In its turn, this serves as an indication of the fact that, even though in his book Bartov proclaimed its adherence to the principle of historical objectivity, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich is best referred as politically engaged book – hence, proving the validity of a famous saying that victors write the history.
This is exactly the reason why author talks of executions of Soviet partisans by German military authorities as an ‘atrocity’: “Sanctioned already in the ‘Barbarossa’ decree, collective punishment for partisan attacks soon became the rule, and from that point on no one in the army seemed to bother much about the identity of the murdered” (90).
Whatever the ugly and inhuman it might be, the execution of partisans cannot be considered an atrocity, simply because, according to the rules of armed warfare, sanctioned by Geneva Convention of 1927, partisans and guerrillas never enjoyed the status of combatants. This is why, upon being captured, they used to be treated as spies. After all, Americans and Soviets never hesitated to execute civilians who shot at them, without wearing the uniform of an opposing army.
And yet, when Germans did the same, it is being referred to as an ‘atrocity’, all of the sudden, and as the ultimate consequence – the whole German army is being represented as the gang of murderous criminals. Nevertheless, unlike what it used to be the case in Soviet Army, German soldiers had never been given explicit orders to kill and rape civilians and German newspapers never featured slogans ‘kill the Russian just for the sake of doing it’.
Therefore, even though Bartov’s book contains a number of valid ideas, its overall sounding is best described as being significantly affected by author’s political biasness. Moreover, a closer analysis of many claims, contained in it, exposes the essence of these claims as only partly valid, or as conceptually fallacious, altogether.
For example, the statement that: “The Wehrmacht was the army of the people, and the willing tool of the regime, more than any of its military predecessors” (10), points out to the fact that Bartov may never heard of Napoleon’s French army, which was even more of ‘people’s army’, as compared to what it used to be the case with Wehrmacht.
Thus, we cannot agree with Bartov’s thesis that the military valor, exhibited by German soldiers throughout the course of WW2, was merely the consequence of them having been brainwashed by Nazi propaganda. Whatever the politically incorrect it might sound – by fighting numerically and technically superior hordes of Communist barbarians from the East, German soldiers were indeed aiming to do their best to protect Western civilization, as their foremost priority.
Bartov, Omer. Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.