I love to write about people in a variety of settings, circumstances, and time periods. By reading and writing about different cultural groups in a particular historical time period you learn about the people.
If you want to really learn about a culture you read and write about their armies. Armies a microcosm of the societies they come from. A culture’s values are put on display in the way they fight a war. It’s the culture at its most extreme.
To really understand any culture you have to strip your minds of notions or old ideas. Old ideas that are positive or negative stop learning. Stereotypes are confining and tight. Removing them is tough.
Ideas that don’t fit templates are unwelcome, smelly guests in the houses of our minds. They shock and challenge us. In this series I will try and flesh out the traditional, two-dimensional views we have the German Army.
The things I learned studying the army of Nazi Germany shocked and challenged me.
Using a wide variety primary sources- some of the them firsthand accounts and stories I live will try to make the German Army something we can understand.
After visiting Dachau a month ago I was left with a lot of questions about the horrible things I saw there. The answers I found surprised me.
I will try to show you how German soldiers really lived, how they died and why they fought.
Adolf Hitler and his armed forces achieved some of the greatest conquests in military history. The German Army did things militarily the world thought impossible.
Between 1939 and 1941, the German military forces conquered a huge part of Europe. From Paris to Moscow the Germans overran most of the armies in Europe. Not since Napoleon had the world since such military power.
The Germans were humiliated in World War I. They felt justified in their quest for power.
Under the Third Reich (1939-1945), Germany became a military society. Everybody underwent military training. Young children in the Hitler Youth trained as soldiers. It was mandatory for both sexes.
Young men wore uniforms, played sports, did war games and learned Nazi ideology. Young women were taught home economics and about motherhood.
All able-bodied young men from ages eighteen to twenty-five faced mandatory conscription into the German armed forces. They served in three armed, military-style organizations:
– The “Wehrmacht” which was the army, navy and air force.
– The SS (Schutzstafflen- meaning “protection squad”) This began as Hitler’s bodyguards but was expanded to become a powerful military force. It had the General SS (Waffen- meaning “weapon”) which was almost a separate army of the German army. The Death’s Head SS ran the concentration camps.
– The Order Police (Ordnunpoizei) brought all local and regional police forces under the direct control of the Nazi regime.
The SS and the Order police got military training. They were uniformed, armed and put in barracks like the regular army. They did engaged in political repression, the political repression of Jews and other minorities.
They were deployed in Germany and conquered countries. They were an integral part of military operations and an important element of maintaining control of occupied lands.
The overall idea of the Nazi regime was to create a perfect Germanic race that would rule Europe. In the end the Germans were responsible for the death of 6 million non-combatants.
Most historians think that number is low, especially on the eastern front (Russia). Many of the official numbers were lost in the fog of battle.
The New German Army
Nazi ideology changed the German Army, an army humiliated after WWI. It emphasized unity and equality for the German people. This belief was demonstrated best by the German Army.
Before the Nazis the army was regulated. The officer corps was made up mostly wealthy and educated men from old, Prussian military families. The Nazis opened up the officer corps to any who showed leadership abilities.
The true qualification for an officer’s career was exemplary ability, the true authority in military leadership. Everyone who led a unit had to be best man in the unit. Leadership by example was the rule.
The German Army taught all soldiers should take responsibility for the outcome of each mission. This produced a dynamic leadership structure that the soldiers respected and were loyal to.
Propaganda helped to create a culture of military service and sacrifice. Most German soldiers were willing to commit themselves to the army and fight. Not all Germans were Nazis.
A former artillery officer, Siegfried Knappe, explains in his haunting memoir “Soldat” (Soldier): Those of us who were soldiers in the German Army during World War II were young men fighting for their country. We were not ‘Nazi’ soldiers; we were just German soldiers.”
A major recruiting tool for the German Army was something called Greater Germany (Großdeutschland). Ethnic Germans from the conquered countries like Austria and the Sudetentland in Czechoslovakia joined and fought for the German Army.
The idea was to create a German Army of German-speaking people in a single nation-state army.
In the book “Forgotten Soldier” the author Guy Sajer writes about his experiences on the Eastern Front during World War II. Sajer is part German and part French. He says he”…has a disastrous love affair with the war and with the army.” It is a striking book.
Whether the soldiers were citizens of Germany, or one of the occupied countries made little difference. Soldiers of the Third Reich shared a commitment to Hitler and the idea of a better Germany through service.
The motto was “Fuhrer (Leader-Hitler), Folk (German People) and Deutschland (Fatherland). Hitler was viewed as the savior of Germany. In the 1930s the average German soldier felt they were superior to all others and they could accomplish anything.
The German success early in the war enforced this belief.