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Ideologies of War, Genocide & Terror

Bessel: Nazism and War

Excerpts from: Bessel, Richard. (2004). Nazism and War. New York: The Modern Library.


6—The first World War had left Germany a much less civilized, much rougher place in which “to get on with life.” Not surprisingly, this provoked widespread resentment. Faced with the disintegration of order, Germans looked for somewhere to place blame for the catastrophe that had befallen them.

Rather than confront the hard truths about how their country had got into, fought, and been impoverished by the war, they looked angrily in two directions: externally, at the Allies who imposed the allegedly intolerable Versailles diktat upon a prostrate Germany; and internally, at those at home who supposedly had stabbed Germany in the back.

7-8—Germany’s prospects—it was easy to believe that German soldiers had not been defeated on the field, but instead had been undetermined by traitors and revolutionaries at home. Whereas the frontline soldiers allegedly had fought a heroic struggle to the end, it was the fainthearted population at home—whose morale had been sapped by shortages, hardship, and unscrupulous left-wing agitators who knew no Fatherland—who supposedly had failed to sustain Germany’s war effort. A myth of heroic struggle was coupled with a myth of betrayal, and the myths proved easier to swallow than the ambiguous, messy, and uncomfortable reality of how Germany in fact had lost the war.

10—Adolf Hitler, who quite literally could not see what was happening in Germany when the Armistice was signed, was determined that the stab in the back never should happen again. Never again would there be a betrayal at home of German soldiers at the front; never again would allegedly un-German elements be allowed to spread their poison among the civilian population.

The answer to the rhetorical question Hitler asked in the passage of Mein Kampf describing his experience of November 1918—“Were we still worthy to partake in the glory of the past?”—would become an emphatic “Yes.” The shame of 1918 would be expunged, through either total victory or total defeat. The traitorous elements would be eliminated; there would be no second armistice.

97—On February 2, 1940, Himmler spoke of putting two and a half million Jews to work building a huge antitank ditch along the entire length of the German-Soviet demarcation line.

131—Unlike the short victorious campaigns of 1939 and 1940, the fighting on the eastern front went on and on. Wehrmacht units often had little respite and suffered tremendous numbers of dead and wounded. On the Russian steppes there stretched out before the German soldiers the prospect of seemingly endless war—a gruesome marriage of Nazi fantasy and nightmarish reality.

132—Hitler accepted von Brauchitsch’s resignation and assumed direct personal command of the army (as “Supreme Commander of the Army” in von Brauchitsch’s place). Hitler’s decision to take personal command revealed both his contempt for military professionals (“Anyone can do a bit of operational command”) and the importance of his experience in the First World War. Announcing this decision to his soldiers, the Nazi dictator told them:

I already know war from the four years of the mighty struggle on the western front in 1914-1918. As a simple soldier I experienced the horrors of almost all the great battles. I was wounded twice and in the end was threatened with blindness. Therefore nothing that torments you, that burdens you, that worries you, is unknown to me.

The front soldier of the First World War was convinced that he knew best how to fight the Second.

With the German invasion crumbling before Moscow, Hitler insisted that the Wehrmacht hold its positions at all costs and “without regard to the consequences.” Every man must defend himself where he is.” In taking this decision, Hitler may have saved the German forces from collapse before Moscow.

However, the significance of this tactic extended far beyond what occurred in December 1941. The idea that German troops should hold their ground “without regard to the consequences,” should fight to the last man and the last bullet in seemingly hopeless situations, became fixed in the minds of the Nazi leadership and of Hitler in particular.

133-Over the coming months and years, commanders who held out against impossible odds—such as Major General Theodor Scherer, the commander whose outnumbered and surrounded troops held out against Soviet forces at Cholm for 107 days between January and May 1942—were accorded the highest praise. (Scherer was decorated personally by Hitler.)

Commanders who chose to retreat or surrender rather than have their troops die fighting against impossible odds—such as General Erich Hoepner, who withdrew his troops from the gates of Moscow in January 1942 rather than see them needlessly slaughtered, or Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, who surrendered at Stalingrad in 1943—were cashiered and/or condemned as traitors to the German Volk.

140—When the chief of the Wehrmacht staff, Alfred Jodl, spoke on November 7 to assembled government and Nazi Party leaders about “the strategic position at the beginning of the fifth year of war,” he had little to offer beyond the assertion that in November 1918 Germany had been “broken not at the front, but at home” and a reference to the “ethical and moral foundations of our struggle.”

Jodl summed up, in astounding testimony to an inability or unwillingness to think in rational strategic terms and to the extent to which Nazism had permeated the professional military mentality:

At this hour I want not to speak from the mouth but to acknowledge from the deepest recesses of the heart, that our trust and our faith in the Fuhrer is limitless, that for us there is no higher law and no more sacred duty than to fight to the last breath for the freedom of our people, that we want to rid ourselves of everything soft and disloyal.

150—Despite the fact that defeat was staring the Nazi regime in the face, it persisted in its attempt to restructure Europe’s racial composition through mass murder.

Second, during the summer of 1944, after the Allied landings in Normandy, German casualties reached levels never before seen, not even with the defeat at Stalingrad. July and August 1944 proved the bloodiest months yet for the Wehrmacht; over 215,000 German soldiers were killed in July, and nearly 350,000 were killed in August. With defeat unavoidable, the Nazi regime persisted in sending its soldiers to their deaths in hundreds of thousands.

150—Supposedly embodying the spirit of the Landsturm of 1813, the Volkssturm was to bring all men between the ages of sixteen and sixty capable of bearing arms into an “army of millions of idealists” who would prefer death to giving up the “freedom” of the German people.

Although the military value of the poorly armed Volkssturm was virtually nil, this did not stop Hitler from calling on teenagers and old men to fight and to die in a lost cause. Instead of rational strategy and rational politics, all that Nazism had to offer, in the end, was an apocalyptic vision of bloodshed, destruction, and death.

162-163—The bombs fell on supporters and opponents of the regime alike, on the old and the young, on Germans and on foreigners trapped in German cities. On April 3 and 4, 1945, when the Thuringian city of Nordhaussen was bombed, some 8,000 of the 65,000 people then in the overcrowded city were killed, including 1,300 concentration camp prisoners housed in barracks.

Altogether 500,000 people were killed by the bombing in Germany—some estimates reach nearly 600,000—and more than 800,000 were injured. In the last four months of the war alone, when the bombing campaign was at its most ferocious, at least 130,000 people died.

163—Bombing not only damaged morale, it also contributed mightily to what Neil Gregor, discussing the effects of the bombing in Nuremberg, has described as a “process of social dissolution, in which the dominant process was a successive reduction of horizons to the level of local community, family and the individual.”
Social organization, social networks, and social solidarities were shattered, in what Bernd Rusinek has described in his history of Cologne during the last year of the war as “the increasing chaos of the social terrain.” Together with the physical environment, society and community were being smashed, leaving individuals to look out for themselves.

166—The result was casualties on a colossal scale—so much so that Germany in January 1945 became the site of what perhaps was the greatest killing frenzy had ever seen. Certainly the last months of the war were, for Nazi Germany, by far the most bloody.

In January 1945 alone, more than 450,000 German soldiers lost their lives (a considerably greater number of soldiers than either the United Kingdom or the United States lost during the entire war). In February, March, and April, the number of German military dead approached three hundred thousand per month.

167—Only weeks before unconditional surrender, on April 7, 1945, Donitz called upon all naval officers to fight to the bitter end:

In this situation on thing matters: to continue fighting and despite all the blows of fate still to bring about a turning point…Fanatical will must enflame our hearts.
Our military duty, which we fulfill unwaveringly whatever may occur to the left and right and all around us, makes us stand courageously, firmly and loyally like a rock of resistance. Anyone who does not behave thus is a scoundrel. He must be strung up with a placard tied around him: “Here hangs a traitor.”

175—Military police and SS units patrolled behind the lines in order to catch and kill any soldier who might be suspected of desertion. Any soldier who was apprehended and was unable to provide the necessary identification, or who was suspected of desertion, faced hanging or the firing squad.

In January 1945, Himmler had commended the commander of Fortress Schneidemuhl (a German city 200 kilometers east of Berlin) not least because he had shot retreating German soldiers and hung signs from the corpses announcing “That is what happens to all cowards.”

Orders were issued to “strengthen the front” by capturing deserters and distributed to the Nazi Party Gauleiter on March 9: All Wehrmacht soldiers who were discovered away from their units and had not been wounded were to be shot.

This was no mere rhetoric, as General Wilhelm Wetzel (deputy commanding general of the Tenth Army Corps and, in the words of Manfred Messerschmidt, “an officer of the good old ‘unpolitical’ Reichswehr school”) made clear in a proclamation to his troops: “On March 27, 1945, 21 soldiers whom the court-martial has sentenced to death for desertion were shot in Hamburg. Every shirker and coward will meet the same fate without mercy.”

One may ask what was the sense of such draconian measures at this late date; just weeks before Germany’s unconditional surrender. Two answers suggest themselves. First, there was the memory and supposed lessons of the end of the First World War, when “shirking” behind the lines by hundreds of thousands of soldiers and large-scale desertion accompanied the German collapse in 1918—when, as Hitler put it in Mein Kampf, “an army of deserters poured into the stations at the rear or returned home.”

The remarkable severity with which Wehrmacht “justice” treated those accused of desertion—some fifteen thousand of whom were executed, as opposed to just eighteen German soldiers executed for desertion in the First World War—was an expression of the determination that, as Hitler had sworn in September 1939, there would “never be another November 1918 in German history.”

177—On February 15, the radical Reich justice minister Otto Georg Thierack issued a decree setting up drumhead courts-martial, consisting of a judge, a Nazi Party functionary, and Wehrmacht officer. These courts were to be established in “defense regions threatened by the enemy,” to act “with necessary harshness” against all those who out of “cowardice and self-interest” attempted “to evade their duties with regard to the general public.”

177—Writing to the Nazi Party Gauleiter in western Germany, where the British and Americans were driving forward, Martin Bormann recommended these courts as a “weapon for the extermination of all parasites to the Volk [Volksschadlinge],” to be used “as the Fuhrer would have done, ruthlessly and without regard to person and rank.”

178—On April 3, Himmler—who by this point himself was seeking to make contacts with the Allies behind Hitler’s back—ordered:

At the present juncture in the war it all depends on the stubborn, unyielding will to hold out. The most drastic measures are to be taken against hanging out white flags, opening up anti-tank defenses, no appearing for service in the Volkssturm and similar phenomena. Where a white flag appears on a house, all the male persons are to be shot.

Vicious and vengeful terror was aimed at “defeatists” doing little more than trying to survive the inevitable defeat of the Third Reich in one piece.

179—By the spring of 1945, the numbers of refugees from the east and evacuees from cities threatened by bombing had reached such proportions—an estimated nineteen million people at the end of March—that one may speak of the widespread destruction of German society.

By the end of the war, one-quarter of the entire German population had been uprooted, their social networks broken, their economic position destroyed. In the last months of the war, just about all the once stable structures of everyday life in Germany disintegrated. The country was literally falling apart.

180—The chaos and extreme violence of the last stages of the Second World War turned the continent of Europe into a gigantic prison and a sea of blood. If there was a distillation of Nazism, it lay in the senseless destruction of human life during the final months of the war. In the end, all Nazism had to offer was war and destruction, war without end or an end through war.

186—May it become, at some future time, part of the code of honor of the German officer, as it is already in our Navy, that the surrender of a district or of a town is impossible, and that the leaders here above all must march ahead as shining examples, faithfully fulfilling their duty unto death. [Hitler]

196—Among the most remarkable features of the history of Nazism after 1945 is that it disappeared so completely from the German landscape. Once Hitler had committed suicide, for many Germans it was almost as if they could awake from the Nazi nightmare and leave their erstwhile beliefs (conveniently) behind.

196—After Hitler shot himself, Nazism evaporated as a political force.