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Hitler reviewing the Wehrmacht

Hitler's Army and the Permeation of Nazi Ideology:
An investigation into the Wehrmacht's Relationship with the Third Reich

Book Essay on: Omer Bartov, Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 256 pages.
UCSB: D757 .B27

by Matt Stegner
March 13, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Get it at amazon.com for $17

About Matt Stegner

I am a fifth year senior Political Science major and History minor. I transferred from Saddleback community college in 2007 where I received my associate of arts degree in Political Science. Growing up as a child I heard many stories from my grandfathers about their experiences in the European theater of WWII. This sparked a deep interest in European history, specifically Germany. Having already been taught a great deal about the American army's role during the Second World War, I wanted to expand my knowledge and focus on the German army. Having previously read some of his work I chose Bartov's book because I enjoy his style of writing. As a result I decided to look into his work regarding the Wehrmacht's relationship with Hitler and the Third Reich.

Abstract (back to top)

In his book Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich, Omer Bartov explores the degree to which the Wehrmacht was a highly professional military organization carrying out orders, or an extremely politicized army motivated by widespread National Socialist ideals. Bartov wants to understand whether the Wehrmacht was indeed "Hitler's army." Using an extensive collection of German soldiers' personal letters and official Wehrmacht documents Bartov argues that the Wehrmacht became an integral part of the Nazi regime. In order to establish his argument he presents four theses that together provide insight into the Nazification of Germany's soldiers. Bartov first addresses the contradiction between the Wehrmacht being viewed as a powerful modern army and the rapid demodernization it suffered. He next addresses the shortcomings of the popular theory surrounding primary groups. Bartov then suggests that harsh discipline of the Wehrmacht was responsible for keeping the cohesion of front line units. He ends with a discussion of the extent to which years of premilitary and army indoctrination distorted the soldiers' perception of reality. Overall I argue that Bartov's claim is convincingly supported by his thesis and evidence.

Essay (back to top)

Despite ending over a half century ago with its total destruction, the Wehrmacht continues to draw debate on its position within the Third Reich. In his book Hitler’s Army Omar Bartov attempts to address the degree to which the Wehrmacht was a highly professional military organization carrying out orders, or an extremely politicized army motivated by widespread National Socialist ideals. Bartov uses four distinct yet related theses to contest the idea that the Wehrmacht was detached from Hitler’s political aims and acting independently from its Nazi masters. His work provides evidence that the Wehrmacht truly became Hitler’s army through German soldiers’ war experience, social organization, motivation, and perception of reality; especially on the eastern Front. Drawing on an extensive collection of Wehrmacht documents and letters from German soldiers, Bartov proposes that the soldiers’ perception and experience throughout the war was in fact impacted by Nazi ideology. His argument highlights the profound demodernization the Wehrmacht suffered on the eastern front along with the destruction of “primary groups”. This resulted in the leadership compensating by intensifying the troops political indoctrination to sustain cohesion and motivation. Combined with the harsh discipline, acceptance of war crimes, adoration of Hitler, and the extent of pre-military indoctrination distorting soldiers’ perception of reality, Bartov explains the success Nazi propaganda had influencing the Wehrmacht. Bartov’s four theses together provide persuasive and concrete evidence confirming that during the war the Wehrmacht was not independent of the Nazi regime but rather truly Hitler’s army in both its actions and beliefs.

Bartov begins by pointing out the contradiction between the notions that the Wehrmacht was a powerful modern army, and the intense demodernization it suffered particularly on the Eastern Front. With the huge success of the Blitzkrieg campaigns on the western front, the Reich used the same technique when it invaded the Soviet Union. Unfortunately the Reich’s Blitzkrieg tactics and strategies, along with limitations of production capacity due to not totally mobilizing the Reich’s economy, proved to be devastating. It led to a vast majority of the Ostheer (eastern army) living and fighting in primitive conditions. In an effort to adequately supply the war the overall production of tanks, weapons, and transportation was increased significantly. This promoted the view of modernization within the Wehrmacht; however, the experience of most ground troops was that of demodernization, returning to trench warfare at times (Bartov, 16). The eastern front soldiers had a vast expanse of territory to cover and were exposed to the harsh winters of Russia. Heavy fighting and poor weather conditions continued to diminish the number of tanks and trucks forcing troops to halt their advance. Thus the demodernization resulted in “throughout the front lack of fighting machines combined with the climatic and geographical peculiarities of Russia to deprive this former Blitzkrieg army of all semblance of modernity” (Bartov, 18). By early September the Wehrmacht had lost almost two-thirds of its tanks on the Eastern front forcing them to rely on horse-drawn wagons and declare itself “incapable of conducting mobile warfare” (Bartov, 20).

With its material strength and manpower dwindling, the entrenched Wehrmacht soldiers began showing symptoms of “mental attrition caused by fatigue, hunger, exposure, diseases, and anxiety” (Bartov, 22). Soldiers faced new aspects of this harsh war constantly with no accommodation against the elements; the troops spent both day and night exposed in the open. By 1942 two-thirds of the overall 214,000 casualties were victims of illness and frostbite, as opposed to enemy action. These elements not only materially demodernized the Ostheer but brought about a change in mentality; soldiers gained the instinct of self-preservation. One soldier wrote, “Here war is pursued in its pure form, any sign of humanity seems to have disappeared from deeds, hearts, and minds” (Bartov 26). This could be the reason behind the willingness of the men fighting on the eastern front to make the ultimate sacrifice, they refused to give up. There was a disordered element in this new mentality in which troops welcomed death and returned to savagery. Additionally, “The demodernization of the front consequently greatly enhanced the brutalization of the troops, and made the soldiers more receptive to ideological indoctrination and more willing to implement the policies it advocated” (Bartov, 28). This process of demodernization of the front had many significant penalties, one of which was the destruction of “primary groups”. Primary Groups derive from a theory believing that the social organization of the Wehrmacht, in which troops were organized into a specific unit from the same conscription zone, would allow men to forge “primary groups” making ideology needless.

In the second chapter Bartov seeks to discredit the commonly held conception that “primary groups” were the social units providing the cohesion of the Wehrmacht. Formulated in 1948 by Shils and Janowitz, the “primary group” theory suggested,

The cohesion of the Wehrmacht was thus said to have been the product not of abstract ideas, but of a concrete and clearly identifiable social system which catered to the formation and preservation of close personal ties between soldiers within a network of “primary groups” (Bartov 31).

This theory maintains that social organization made ideology unnecessary, asserting that the outstanding fighting power of the German army rested on its organization. Bartov challenges this popular theory by insisting that the Wehrmacht constant loss of life at the front line destroyed these “primary groups”, and instead ideology provided the cohesion and will to continue fighting.

Bartov focuses on the tremendous loss of life suffered by the Wehrmacht to weaken the argument for “primary group” ties. The invasion of the Soviet Union consisted of 142 division representing 3,050,000 men (Bartov 36). By September almost all of the divisions were reporting upwards of 50 percent declines in their initial battle strength, and by November the high command had exhausted all of its reserves. Bartov questions how primary groups could survive in the midst of these tremendous losses. In order to compensate for these tremendous losses the Wehrmacht had a replacement system which attempted to follow the primary group structure. However, this soon became impossible when front-line formations began to diminish rapidly; in the rush to reinforce them there was no time for consideration of “primary group” ties. With this constant turnover rate within formations Bartov concludes that most soldiers had little “opportunity of forming stable primary groups, many of them hardly spent more than a few days in its ranks before they were either killed or sent back to the rear in hospital trains” (Bartov, 49). Bartov effectively refutes the “primary group” theory by pointing out the massive casualties and rapid manpower turnover rate, leaving ideology as the factor behind the Wehrmacht social organization.

Harsh military discipline and obedience had a long tradition in Germany however with the unique circumstances on the eastern front discipline took a new form. Commanders turned to draconian punishment to instill into the troops fear of noncompliance. Fearful of their commanders and the enemy, troops turned against civilians and prisoners. Legalization of crimes, which became commonplace within the Nazi regime, soon permeated the ranks of the Wehrmacht. “Soldiers were ordered to commit official and organized acts of murder and destruction against enemy civilians, POW’s, and property;” actions such as these were rarely punished (Bartov, 61). This perversion of discipline raised the level of barbarism, which in turn further brutalized discipline. The army did not merely turn a blind eye towards the criminal actions of the regime, and it ordered its troops to carry them out (Bartov, 70). This was in part because the army’s propaganda represented all Russians as Untermenschen, people not deserving of life. By legalizing murder, torture, robbery and destruction within a highly ideological context, controlling troops became difficult.

Following this new found acceptance of crimes, Bartov focuses on how the Ostheer became the target of harsher policies concerning punishment for breaches of discipline regarding combat activity. By allowing troops to get away with breaches of discipline in regards to treatment of POWs and civilians, it became possible for the officers to enforce harsh combat discipline to maintain the cohesion of the army. Bartov highlights this fact by explaining that between 13,000 and 15,000 German soldiers were put to death by their own army mostly based upon ideological political grounds (Bartov, 96). The eastern front’s discipline was achieved through fear of execution if a soldier neglected his duties, such as by desertion or self-inflicted wounds. This was reinforced within an order from Hitler, “Every commanding officer…will enforce the execution of orders, if necessary by the force of arms, and will immediately open fire in case of insubordination” (Bartov, 100). This vicious circle of brutality confirmed that the Nazi view of war had been positively established within the Wehrmacht and “remolded its conception of legality and criminality, morality and justice, discipline and obedience” (Bartov, 95).The Ostheer was therefore held together by a combination of harsh combat discipline and general license to barbarism towards the enemy rather than “primary groups.” Both of these elements became a central component of the Wehrmacht’s determination to fight, and provided an ideological cohesion which played a crucial role in the prevention of disintegration of the army.

With his three previous theses thoroughly explained, Bartov moves on to discuss the extent to which years of pre-military and army indoctrination distorted the soldiers’ perception of reality. By using personal memoirs from soldiers regarding their experience within the Hitler Youth to generals who fought on the eastern front, Bartov is able to portray the Werhmacht’s extreme deification of the Fuhrer. A majority of the fighting men in the Third Reich spent a considerable amount of their youth under National Socialism. The regime realized the potential in indoctrinating Germany’s youth at a highly impressionable age and consequently won them over by entrusting them with tremendous destructive powers (Bartov, 110). The degree to which Nazi ideology, put forth by the HJ, molded the youth’s minds is evident in soldier Dieter Borkowski’s memoir; when he heard of Hitler’s suicide he stated, “These words make me feel sick, as if I would have to vomit. I think that my life has no sense any more” (Bartov, 110). As the youth movement began to adopt Hitler’s vision, the army also began to introduce indoctrination to the troops.

The indoctrination of the troops had two significant roles, First it taught the troops to trust and believe in Hitler’s political and military wisdom without doubt, and second it provided the soldiers with an image of the enemy so distorted that they were able to justify their actions. “Belief” in Hitler became a central element in Nazi ideology; in order to promote this the Wehrmacht’s propaganda associated Hitler with God to present his mission as emanating from a divine will (Bartov, 120). To ensure the troops would receive the appropriate political instructions, educational officers were introduced to reaffirm that their enemy was “the embodiment of the Satanic and insane hatred against the whole of noble humanity” (Bartov, 126). By dehumanizing the enemy, the Wehrmacht was able to justify its atrocities; an NCO described the Russians as “no longer human beings, but wild hordes and beasts” (Bartov, 158). By addressing contrasting theories Bartov effectively dismisses the opposing view that Nazi ideology did not permeate into the Wehrmacht and proves Nazi indoctrination did in fact did have a major impact. The distorted perception of reality amongst the ranks of the Wehrmacht in the latter stages of the war proved to be a causal factor in maintaining the cohesion of the army.

Despite providing ample evidence to support his theses, several opponents question Bartov’s argument. In The Journal of Modern History’s review R. J. Overy questions whether German soldiers’ responses were due to indoctrination or the pressures of the environment, such as trekking across destroyed landscape and being subjected to partisan violence. He believes that behaviors of other armies in similarly harsh conditions need to be compared to confirm Bartov’s theses.

In conclusion, Bartov proves his theses that combined the demodernization of the front, destruction of “primary groups”, perversion of discipline, and distortion of reality truly molded the Wehrmacht into Hitler’s army. The vivid accounts of soldiers’ and commanders’ experiences portray the Wehrmacht’s development throughout the war and sheds light on its exact role within the regime. I strongly believe that with the support of Bartov’s material evidence, historians should not place the Wehrmacht in a separate category when addressing the appalling crimes committed by the Nazis; rather described as a primary component to Hitler’s Weltanschauung.


Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/26/09)

Book Reviews:

  • Moore, Bob Review of Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich, by Omer Bartov. The English Historical Review; Apr1995, Vol. 110 No. 436, pp 540-541 http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.ucsb.edu:2048/stable/pdfplus/576158.pdf
    In this article Moore clearly articulates support for Bartov’s argument that the German army was not a separate entity from the regime of terror, but rather an ‘integral part’ of the regime. He declares that Bartov’s study should not only be seen as crucial, but as a definitive contribution to the debate surrounding the Wehrmacht. Moore gives a brief overview of how the multiple theses Bartov puts forth effectively refute a number of long held theories surrounding the nature of the Wehrmacht. Ultimately Moore finds the book to be an important contribution to a continuous debate about the nature of Nazi Germany while also noting its implications for future studies
  • Overy, R. J. Review of Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich, by Omer Bartov. The Journal of Modern History; Dec1994, Vol. 66 No. 4, pp 878-879 http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.ucsb.edu:2048/stable/pdfplus/2125215.pdf
    Overy provides a very thorough summery of Bartov’s central themes in his book. He praises Bartov’s clear views and boldness to contest the common arguments regarding the Wehrmacht. However, Overy feels that Bartov’s view may be limited by the factors he presents and that he fails to mention particular circumstances of combat. Overy suggests that the situation the soldier’s faced needs to be further examined. Overy claims that because soldiers were exposed to devastated landscapes and subjected to partisan violence, it is hard to determine whether the soldiers’ response was due to indoctrination or pressures of the environment. All in all, Overy feels Bartov’s thought provoking work is an exceptional contribution for historians.
  • Stein, George H. Review of Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich, by Omer Bartov. The American Historical Review; Oct1992, Vol. 97 No. 3, pp 1242-1243 http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.ucsb.edu:2048/stable/pdfplus/2165605.pdf
    In this review Stein feels Bartov’s work is an “imaginatively presented” and impressively researched argument about the controversial debate surrounding the Wehrmacht. He feels that Bartovs argument is strong and well supported by primary sources such as documents, letters and diaries. The review provides a concise yet comprehensive summary of the chapters and breakdown Bartov’s argument.

Books and Articles:

  • Robert M. Citino, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 431. UCSB: D757 .C56 2007.
    This book focuses on the Wehrmacht during the critical year of 1942 when their brilliant victories and huge territorial gains were replaced by stalemates and retreats. Citino carefully explores and examines every major Wehrmacht campaign and battle in the Russian and North African theaters during this year. His book goes into great detail about the actual battles and provides excellent information not found in Bartov’s brief descriptions. Citino notes that 1942 proved to be more than a turning point for the Wehrmacht, but instead marked the end of a traditional pattern of war making. Citino’s book provides an excellent supplement to Bartov’s lack of specific details regarding battles.
  • Wolfram Wette, The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 372. UCSB: D757 .W4313 2006.
    In this book Wette puts forth an insightful reexamination of the role the Wehrmacht during WWII. He argues against the commonly held story that the average soldier was a good soldier, unlike the brutish SS troops, and not a collaborator in the mass killings of civilians. Wette exposes the myth of a “clean” Wehrmacht and reveals that the army’s long standing prejudices were established well before WWII started. I would recommend exploring this book following Bartov’s, as Wette mentions and cites Bartov’s work and contribution to the scholorship surrounding the Wehrmacht.
  • Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2.
    (Oxford University Press, 1948), pp. 280-315
    Within this 1948 work, Cohesion and Disintegration of the Wehrmacht in World War II, Shils and Janowitz present the primary group theory that Bartov refutes. The theory argues that the Wehrmachts cohesion throughout the war was a result of close personal ties between soldiers within a network of primary groups. The theory is in disagreement with Bartov’s thesis and provides another point of view that should be considered for diverse assessment of the Wehrmacht.

Web Sites:

  • Wikipedia, “War Crimes of the Wehrmacht”, (Last revised: February/22/2009) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_crimes_of_the_Wehrmacht
    This Wikipedia entry provides extremely brief explanations of multiple war crimes that the Wehrmacht committed during WWII in addition to post war sentiments. The website does review some of the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht such as the massacres of POWs, but fails to do so with credible and convincing factual support. This website should merely be used as a starting point to get a general understanding of the Wehrmacht’s role in the war.
  • Jason Pipes, “Research on the German Armed Forces 1918-1945” (Created: 2006), http://www.feldgrau.com/
    While this site does not specifically focus on the Wehrmacht’s direct role during the war, it does research the technical, organizational and operational details of all the German armed forces during WWII. These forces include the German army (Heer), navy (Kriegsmarine) and air force (Luftwaffe). It could be worth examining and comparing the other German forces during the war to understand the importance of the Wehrmacht.
  • Randall Bytwerk, “Nazi Propaganda (1939-1945)” (Last revised: January/27/2009), http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/ww2era.htm
    This website gives an abundant collection of National Socialist propaganda distributed between 1939 and 1945. Because a significant portion of Bartov’s thesis emphasizes the importance of such propaganda, it is an excellent source to help reinforce his argument. It covers materials such as speeches and writings by Nazi leaders, anti Semitic material and actual war propaganda.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/22/09; last updated: 4/19/09
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