- Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus by Waitman Wade Beorn
The myth that the Wehrmacht fought a “clean” war in the Soviet Union has long since been de-bunked by historians of the Second World War. Yet, as Waitman Beorn argues, while serious scholarship on the Wehrmacht’s murderous actions on the Eastern Front began in the late 1970s, there is still much we do not know about how, precisely, the German Army in the East contributed to the Holocaust. This volume [End Page 529] seeks to fill in this gap by showing the specific nature and mechanisms of Wehrmacht complicity in the Final Solution, both as an institution and on the part of its individual soldiers. Beorn’s work provides important insights into the motivations, circumstances, and processes that marked Wehrmacht participation in the Holocaust in the East.
The author uses a series of case studies to focus on the Wehrmacht’s conduct in Belarus in 1941–42. The initial chapters establish the geographical, historical, political, and institutional contexts for the German occupation of Belarus. Next, Beorn examines five examples of Wehrmacht activity: a German battalion’s support of an Einsatzkommando’s September 1941 massacre of Jews in Krupki; a September 1941 conference on “anti-partisan” warfare in Mogilev—a conference that significantly shaped the parameters and nature of the Wehrmacht’s contribution to the Holocaust; an Army company’s independent shooting of 150 Jews in the village of Krucha in October 1941; the Army’s assistance in the mass killing of the Jews of Slonim and Novogrudok in November 1941; and the effects of long-term occupation on German soldiers’ interactions with Jews, also in Slonim and Novogrudok. Each of these instances illustrates an aspect of the Wehrmacht’s complicity in the Holocaust. Together they outline the Army’s descent from providing logistical and manpower support for the Einsatzgruppen’s mass shootings to serving as an integral and fully complicit part of the Nazis’ “genocidal project.” In laying out his argument, Beorn relies on hundreds of statements made by German veterans under postwar judicial investigation, as well as on contemporary military documents, survivor testimonies, and field interviews with local witnesses.
Beorn argues that Wehrmacht involvement in the Holocaust derived from three main sources. First, unit cultures and the relative eagerness of unit leaders to participate in the genocide were highly significant. The extent to which individual unit commanders (ranging from the division to the platoon level) were willing (or not) to fulfill orders or to pursue Jews on their own was critical in influencing the degree to which soldiers participated in the Final Solution. Some officers went out of their way to kill or torment Jews, while a few others refused to allow their men to participate directly or even indirectly. Most commanders, however, followed a middle course in which they neither enthusiastically endorsed genocidal actions nor did anything to hinder them.
The second critical element was the Wehrmacht formulation “Jew=Bolshevik=partisan.” This concept was built upon the German military’s historically brutal policies against irregular fighters (as seen in its genocidal campaigns in Southwest Africa in the early 1900s and its harsh occupation of Belgium and France during World War I). The nazification of the German Army during the 1930s intensified the officer corps’ latent antisemitism and contributed to the institutional acceptance—tacit or otherwise—of Nazi racialism. The Wehrmacht’s cooperation with the SS in the occupation of Poland, the fulfillment of the “criminal orders” issued on the eve of Barbarossa, and the barbaric treatment of Soviet POWs further justified the radicalized Wehrmacht behavior in the name of “security.” Accordingly, under this formula, [End Page 530] Jews were seen inherently as Bolsheviks or as Bolshevik supporters, which in turn meant that they were really partisans or that they actively assisted the partisans. While the reality was that the partisan movement did not emerge in any significant way until 1942–1943—that is, after most of the Jews in the occupied...