It’s certainly fair to say that Adolf Hitler played a central role in the Holocaust, but he couldn’t do it alone or just with the help of the Nazi elite. Many institutions and individuals had to help Hitler carry out his program. And, this is especially true of the army, which was in a position to oppose him back in the 1930s, but chose to support him instead, and whose conquests later gave Nazis access to most of the Jews whom they eventually murdered.
After the war many senior generals tried to say that the army wasn’t involved in any of the crimes, that it was all the fault of the SS. But, that’s a lie.
It may be true that most German soldiers were not involved in crimes directly, whether or not they supported them, but the army as an institution supported the SS and committed its own crimes.
Now, why did this come about? Was the military really full of Nazis? Yes and No.
If we look at the army as an institution, we have to realize that it wasn’t monolithic. There were somewhere between 12 and 13.5 million people who served in the German army between 1933 and 1945. Certainly not all of them shared the same attitudes.
It’s a different picture, however, when we look at the senior generals. These were men who shared a common background, common values, and common attitudes. They tended to be politically conservative, obedient, and ambitious. It was a very homogeneous group. Now, technically these men were not Nazis, because by regulation soldiers could not participate in politics. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a significant convergence of views and interests between them and the Nazi Party.
In the 1920s and -30s, a lot of generals didn’t believe that they had really lost the First World War, at least not on the battlefield. Instead, they believed that they had been stabbed in the back by Jews and Leftists on the home front. Further, they believed that Germany would have to rearm and fight another war to regain its honor, its position as a European power, and its economic prosperity. They believed that this next war was going to be a total war. It was going to call for all of Germany’s resources, and therefore, it was going to require an authoritarian government in order to mobilize German society.
This new war would also target all of the enemy’s resources, not just the enemy soldiers on the front lines, but all of the civilians behind them. The Army also had something of a complex, if you will, about counterinsurgency warfare. This went back at least to the war with France in 1870. The only way to beat partisans, the generals believed, was to be brutal with enemy civilians, and so force them to cooperate.
In the eyes of the senior generals, military necessity, as they called it, would always trump international law.
Now, put all of these things together, and you have the basis for the military’s support of Nazism early on and for the fact that senior commanders could commit atrocities in pursuit of Nazi aims, even if they did not see themselves as Nazis per se.
The army committed the first atrocities in Poland in 1939, when it shot POWs and suspected partisans.
There were fewer crimes during the Western campaign in 1940, primarily because the Germans didn’t feel the same sort of racial hatred for the French that they did for the Poles.
But, the greatest crimes took place in the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. This war was planned to be a war of annihilation right from the start: that was the phrase that Hitler used. The German High Command issued a series of orders to the troops, saying that they were to shoot certain categories of POWs on sight; that they should meet any resistance on the part of the civilian population with the utmost brutality; and that no German soldier who committed an offense against a Soviet civilian would be tried.
The results of all this were horrendous. The German Army took massive quantities of food away from Soviet civilians and condemned millions of them to starvation. It used millions of people for forced labor, both in the military occupied zone and back in Germany. It shot civilians and burned down villages in response to acts of resistance. It killed millions of Soviet POWs, either outright or through neglect and abuse. And it participated in the genocide against the Jews. The army’s leaders believed that the Jews were the driving force behind Communism. Eliminate them, and you take the fight out of the Red Army and the partisans. So, the army provided support to the SS killing units and sometimes incited local collaborators with their own nationalist and antisemitic agendas to commit acts of violence, and sometimes, it carried out shootings entirely on its own.
Altogether the army was responsible for millions of deaths outside of combat.
Now, what’s the point of learning about all this? I think the point is really twofold. First of all, we have to use history properly. We can study the German army, but the history has to be complete and accurate. We can’t depend on the lies that the German generals told. And secondly, this is a prime example of what happens when a chain of command goes corrupt, when it creates the wrong climate, when it starts to encourage atrocities instead of fighting against them.
Geoff Megargee, senior applied research scholar at the Museum, provides a brief summary of the role played by the German army during the Holocaust. Megargee is author of Inside Hitler’s High Command and War of Annihiliation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941.