- The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality
By now there can be no doubt that the German armed forces committed mass murder on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. Over the last twenty years various scholars, from the pioneering work of Omer Bartov to the more recent work of Ben Shepherd and a host of American and German scholars, have demonstrated that the view of a Wehrmacht with "clean hands" is entirely mistaken. These studies have shown that "average" German soldiers were completely capable of and willing to commit the worst atrocities imaginable. This book is another contribution to that corpus. Thus far the focus has been on explaining how and why the typical Landser became capable of mass murder, but this book is not about the average soldier's descent into barbarism. It is rather a study of the path trod by the commanding officers: the field marshals, generals, and colonels who formulated policy and created an environment in which mass murder could occur. As such, this book complements earlier studies by focusing on the highest levels of the Wehrmacht. Wette demonstrates that this level of command not only knew about and approved of mass murder but, after the war, successfully created the myth that the Wehrmacht had played no role in the crimes committed during the war.
The major premise of the book is that the German military elite held many views in common with Hitler. In addition to a common antisemitism, the most important of these views was the belief in the need to militarize German society as a first step towards redressing German grievances. They thus shared the idea that any future war would be a war of aggressive conquest and extermination. The Wehrmacht did not need to be Nazified, as its most senior commanders, even men like Seeckt, Blomberg, Fritsch, and Beck, already shared the basic Nazi assumptions about the nature of a future war. As Wette points out, not only were the notorious "criminal orders" written and issued by the Wehrmacht, but military commanders like Manstein and Hoepner went even further by emphasizing, on their own authority, the [End Page 1156] ideological nature of the invasion of the U.S.S.R. Once the war was lost, many of the same officers (often working for the U.S. Army's historical project) then sanitized and even erased evidence of the true nature of the fighting in order to perpetuate the myth that the German army, like Germany itself, had been a victim of Nazism, not its handmaiden. This deception, along with other factors, gave the Wehrmacht a sheen of decency which has only recently been removed (the traveling Wehrmacht exhibition from 1995–99 and the commentary it elicited played a significant role in shattering the myth).
It is difficult to tell to whom this book is directed; while impressive in its familiarity with the relevant literature, it is based almost entirely upon secondary sources which will be entirely familiar to any specialist. In addition, because it relies heavily upon previously published work, it offers very little which will be new to anyone who has read more than a handful of books on this topic. Its contents, however, assume familiarity with the issues and so it cannot have been intended for a general audience. Since it is a good introduction to the topic of a "dirty" Wehrmacht, it would be most useful in a senior seminar or a graduate readings course or to instructors who cannot read the German literature.