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The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality

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Overview

This book is a profound reexamination of the role of the German army, the Wehrmacht, in World War II. Until very recently, the standard story avowed that the ordinary German soldier in World War II was a good soldier, distinct from Hitler's rapacious SS troops, and not an accomplice to the massacres of civilians. Wolfram Wette, a preeminent German military historian, explodes the myth of a "clean" Wehrmacht with devastating clarity.

This book reveals the Wehrmacht's long-standing prejudices against Jews, Slavs, and Bolsheviks, beliefs that predated the prophecies of Mein Kampf and the paranoia of National Socialism. Though the sixteen-million-member German army is often portrayed as a victim of Nazi mania, we come to see that from 1941 to 1944 these soldiers were thoroughly involved in the horrific cleansing of Russia and Eastern Europe. Wette compellingly documents Germany's long-term preparation of its army for a race war deemed necessary to safeguard the country's future; World War II was merely the fulfillment of these plans, on a previously unimaginable scale.

This sober indictment of millions of German soldiers reaches beyond the Wehrmacht's complicity to examine how German academics and ordinary citizens avoided confronting this difficult truth at war's end. Wette shows how atrocities against Jews and others were concealed and sanitized, and history rewritten. Only recently has the German public undertaken a reevaluation of this respected national institution--a painful but necessary process if we are to truly comprehend how the Holocaust was carried out and how we have come to understand it.

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Editorial Reviews

Holocaust and Genocide Studies

[Wette’s] arguments will provide a powerful corrective to the outdated view that Wehrmacht leaders were dragged unwillingly into complicity in Nazi-mandated crimes...Attacking the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht, as Wette reminds us, has been neither easy nor particularly successful in changing popular perceptions. Only through continued research and the writing of critical histories will the complex reality emerge. Wette’s monograph constitutes a key contribution to this effort.
— Stephen G. Fritz

The Historian

Wolfram Wette has synthesized a large body of scholarly studies written by critical military historians in the past thirty years and makes them accessible to a nonspecialist audience...This book is an important contribution to the recent historical literature that reveals the much resisted and painful process by which Germans learned to deal honestly with the unmasterable past.
— Derek S. Linton

Holger H. Herwig
This is a powerful book, provocative, enlightening, disturbing. Based on three decades of solid research, Wette debunks the myth, created by former Wehrmacht officers and continued by their Allied counterparts, that the German military fought a "clean" war in the East 1941-45. He strips away the layers of obfuscation and cover-up to set the record straight: Wehrmacht and SS hand-in hand conducted a campaign of racial extermination in the USSR. The book is a must read.
Gerhard L. Weinberg
A badly needed analysis of how the German World War II military came to descend into mass murder, how this descent originated, how it was systematically obscured by a legend of "clean" warfare, and how that legend is finally being demolished. A fine piece of important research presented in very clear -- and well translated -- prose."
San Francisco Chronicle - Martin Rubin
This is one of those modestly sized books on a large subject that succeeds in being definitive...The Wehrmacht is an important contribution to current German historiography. It seeks an answer to the question that rages in German intellectual circles: Was Nazism an aberration in German history, a sickness that came upon a formerly healthy and civilized nation, or was it a natural outgrowth of traits well-entrenched in the national psyche? It is clear from the outset which side of this controversy Professor Wolfram Wette is on, but it is equally apparent what a thoughtful, well-informed historian he is...The Wehrmacht is as filled with all manner of details--surprising as well as predictable--as it is with passion and insight. Perhaps this is what makes it such a pleasure to read, for Wette never simply asserts, he always proves. Facts, statistics, instances are plentiful, but they never simply lie there on the page; you feel the author's outrage, sometimes his incredulity, even as you trust his veracity and integrity.
Choice - K. Eubank
In the history of WWII, the German army too often has been regarded as an unwilling tool of Adolf Hitler. Wette destroys that myth in his book, an indictment of the German army for its involvement in atrocities against Jews and people in eastern Europe.
Journal of Military History - Lee Baker
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 formulate 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.
Holocaust and Genocide Studies - Stephen G. Fritz
[Wette’s] arguments will provide a powerful corrective to the outdated view that Wehrmacht leaders were dragged unwillingly into complicity in Nazi-mandated crimes...Attacking the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht, as Wette reminds us, has been neither easy nor particularly successful in changing popular perceptions. Only through continued research and the writing of critical histories will the complex reality emerge. Wette’s monograph constitutes a key contribution to this effort.
The Historian - Derek S. Linton
Wolfram Wette has synthesized a large body of scholarly studies written by critical military historians in the past thirty years and makes them accessible to a nonspecialist audience...This book is an important contribution to the recent historical literature that reveals the much resisted and painful process by which Germans learned to deal honestly with the unmasterable past.
San Francisco Chronicle

This is one of those modestly sized books on a large subject that succeeds in being definitive...The Wehrmacht is an important contribution to current German historiography. It seeks an answer to the question that rages in German intellectual circles: Was Nazism an aberration in German history, a sickness that came upon a formerly healthy and civilized nation, or was it a natural outgrowth of traits well-entrenched in the national psyche? It is clear from the outset which side of this controversy Professor Wolfram Wette is on, but it is equally apparent what a thoughtful, well-informed historian he is...The Wehrmacht is as filled with all manner of details—surprising as well as predictable—as it is with passion and insight. Perhaps this is what makes it such a pleasure to read, for Wette never simply asserts, he always proves. Facts, statistics, instances are plentiful, but they never simply lie there on the page; you feel the author's outrage, sometimes his incredulity, even as you trust his veracity and integrity.
— Martin Rubin

Choice

In the history of WWII, the German army too often has been regarded as an unwilling tool of Adolf Hitler. Wette destroys that myth in his book, an indictment of the German army for its involvement in atrocities against Jews and people in eastern Europe.
— K. Eubank

Journal of Military History

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 formulate 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.
— Lee Baker

The Historian
Wolfram Wette has synthesized a large body of scholarly studies written by critical military historians in the past thirty years and makes them accessible to a nonspecialist audience...This book is an important contribution to the recent historical literature that reveals the much resisted and painful process by which Germans learned to deal honestly with the unmasterable past.
— Derek S. Linton
Holocaust and Genocide Studies
[Wette’s] arguments will provide a powerful corrective to the outdated view that Wehrmacht leaders were dragged unwillingly into complicity in Nazi-mandated crimes...Attacking the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht, as Wette reminds us, has been neither easy nor particularly successful in changing popular perceptions. Only through continued research and the writing of critical histories will the complex reality emerge. Wette’s monograph constitutes a key contribution to this effort.
— Stephen G. Fritz
Publishers Weekly
The conventional wisdom that the German army in WWII fought a relatively clean fight, unsullied by the atrocities committed by the Nazi SS, has recently been challenged-and largely demolished. This probing study explores the rise and fall of that myth in the light of scholarship debunking it. Focusing on the Eastern Front, the author contends that the Nazi vision of a racial-ideological death struggle against Slavic hordes and their Jewish-Bolshevik commissars resonated with German officers steeped in traditional anti-Semitic and racist dogmas. Nazi propaganda also swayed millions of soldiers, inuring them to the brutality they would witness and (with a few honorable exceptions, duly noted) participate in. Wette, a historian at the University of Freiburg, notes that the Wehrmacht assisted the SS extermination program, conducted its own mass killings of civilians and castigated the Italian army for refusing to persecute Jews. He goes on to trace the postwar development, fostered by Cold War imperatives and self-serving ex-Wehrmacht generals, of a sanitized legend of Wehrmacht conduct and the controversies that finally undermined it in Germany. More restrained than Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, Wette's hard-hitting indictment also emphasizes the broad culpability of German society for the crimes of the Third Reich. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674025776
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2007
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 659,908
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Wolfram Wette is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Freiburg, Germany.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the English-Language Edition
by Peter Fritzsche

Foreword
by Manfred Messerschmidt

List of Abbreviations

1. Perceptions of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Bolshevism as Enemies

German Perceptions of Russia in the Twentieth Century

National Socialists' Perceptions of Russia: "Jewish Bolshevism"

Perceptions of Russia among the Wehrmacht Generals

2. Anti-Semitism in the German Military

From Anti-Semitism to the Holocaust?

Germany under the Kaiser and the First World War

The Revolutionary Era of 1918-19

The Postwar Period: War Continued by Different Means

The Weimar Republic

The National Socialist Era up to 1939

3. The Wehrmacht and the Murder of Jews

Issuing Orders and Propaganda in the Wehrmacht

Some Theaters of War

Anti-Semitism as a Soldier's Duty

4. Generals and Enlisted Men

The Military Elites in the Grip of a War Ideology

Hitler and the Generals

The "Little Guy" in Uniform

Soldiers of the Wehrmacht in Light of Recent Research

The Will to Survive in the War's Final Phase

5. The Legend of the Wehrmacht's "Clean Hands"

The Birth of a Legend

The War Crimes Trials

Writing History from the Wehrmacht's Point of View

The Cold War Begins

Wehrmacht Crimes, the Justice System, and the Statute of Limitations

6. A Taboo Shatters

Historical Research

Perceptions of the Wehrmacht in the Bundeswehr

After Fifty Years a Taboo Is Broken

7. Conclusion

Notes

Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2012

    Mens bathroom

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2006

    Brutally honest analysis, Red Army's turn

    Another German has the backbone and honesty to analyze the complicity in the murder of non-combatants, this time focusing on the Wehrmacht. Focusing on source documents from the time period, the author lays out in convincing fashion the prevailing mood, orders that were given and propoganda for the Eastern Front. If you have read any of the personal account diaries of both the front line troops and German generals you might have wondered about the disingenuous leaving out of stories or accounts of the slaughter of non-combatants. The most ridiculous memoir being Erdhard Raus, who describes the Russians as brutes and has no comment on the attached Death Head Division within his own organization. Now it's time for Russian historians to show backbone and honesty regarding the Red Army's slaughter, rape, looting and forced slave labor of millions of Germans. To the best of my knowledge only western historians have exposed the level of evil and brutality carried out by the Red Army in the final push for Germany. It's time the Russians showed some character and did an analysis from within.

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    Posted August 14, 2011

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    Posted May 5, 2010

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