The straight-armed Balkenkreuz, a stylized version of the Iron Cross, the emblem of the Wehrmacht.
|Active||1935 – 1945|
|Role||Armed Forces of Nazi Germany|
|Engagements||Spanish Civil War
World War II
Wehrmacht (listen) (help·info) (German: "defence force") was the name of the unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe (air force).
The Waffen-SS, the combat arm of the SS (the Nazi Party's paramilitary organization), became the de facto fourth branch of the Wehrmacht, as it expanded from three regiments to 38 divisions by 1945. The SS was autonomous and existed in parallel to the Wehrmacht; Waffen-SS field units, however, were under the operational control of the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) or the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH)
Before the Nazi Party assumed German government in 1933, the term Wehrmacht generically described a nation’s “home defence” forces, analogous to the German Streitmacht foreign war forces, thus, Britische Wehrmacht denoted “British defence forces”. The term wehrmacht is in Article 47 of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, establishing that: Der Reichspräsident hat den Oberbefehl über die gesamte Wehrmacht des Reiches (“The National President holds supreme command of all armed forces of the nation”). From 1919, Germany’s national defence force was known as the Reichswehr, until its Wehrmacht renaming in 1936.
After World War II (1939–45), the Allies abolished the Wehrmacht. In 1955, when the western Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) re-militarized, its armed forces were named the Bundeswehr ("Federal Defence"). In 1956, upon formal establishment, the armed forces of the Communist, east German Democratic Republic (GDR) were named the Nationale Volksarmee (National People's Army), some of whom, with matériel, were incorporated to the Bundeswehr when the German reunification consolidated the Germanies in 1990.
In German and English usage, Wehrmacht denotes the armed forces of Nazi Germany. Using Wehrmacht to only denote the Heer (land army) is inaccurate, never the less, it is a misusage common to English writing. For branch-of-service identification, Wehrmacht vehicles bore alpha-numeric identity licence plates: WH for the Heer, WL for the Luftwaffe, WM for the Kriegsmarine, and SS for the Waffen-SS.
After World War I ended with the armistice of 11 November 1918, the armed forces were dubbed Friedensheer (peace army) in January 1919. In March 1919, the national assembly passed a law founding a 420,000 strong preliminary army as Vorläufige Reichswehr. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were announced in May, and in June Germany was forced to sign the contract which, among other terms, imposed severe constraints on the size of Germany's armed forces. The army was limited to one hundred thousand men with an additional fifteen thousand in the navy. The fleet was to consist of at most six battleships, six cruisers, and twelve destroyers. Submarines, tanks and heavy artillery were forbidden and the air force was dissolved. A new post-war military (the Reichswehr) was established on 23 March 1921. General conscription was abolished under another mandate of the Versailles treaty.
By 1922, Germany had begun covertly circumventing these conditions. A secret collaboration with the Soviet Union began after the treaty of Rapallo. Major-General Otto Hasse traveled to Moscow in 1923 to further negotiate the terms. Germany helped the Soviet Union with industrialization and Soviet officers were to be trained in Germany. German tank and air force specialists could exercise in the Soviet Union and German chemical weapons research and manufacture would be carried out there along with other projects. Around three hundred German pilots received training at Lipetsk, some tank training took place near Kazan and toxic gas was developed at Saratov for the German army.
After the death of President Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, Hitler assumed the office of Reichspräsident, and thus became commander in chief. All officers and soldiers of the German armed forces had to swear a personal oath of loyalty to the Führer, as Adolf Hitler now was called. By 1935, Germany was openly flouting the military restrictions set forth in the Versailles Treaty, and conscription was reintroduced on 16 March 1935. While the size of the standing army was to remain at about the 100,000-man mark decreed by the treaty, a new group of conscripts equal to this size would receive training each year. The conscription law introduced the name Wehrmacht, so not only can this be regarded as its founding date, but the organization and authority of the Wehrmacht can be viewed as Nazi creations regardless of the political affiliations of its high command (who nevertheless all swore the same personal oath of loyalty to Hitler). The insignia was a simpler version of the Iron Cross (the straight-armed so-called Balkenkreuz or beamed cross) that had been used as an aircraft and tank marking in late World War I. The existence of the Wehrmacht was officially announced on 15 October 1935.
The total number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht during its existence from 1935 until 1945 is believed to have approached 18.2 million. This figure was put forward by historian Rüdiger Overmans and represents the total number of people who ever served in the Wehrmacht, and not the force strength of the Wehrmacht at any point. About 1.3 million Wehrmacht soldiers were killed in action; 250,000 died from non-combat causes; 2.0 million missing in action and unaccounted for after the war; and 359,000 POW deaths, of whom 77,000 were in the custody of the U.S., UK, and France; POW dead includes 266,000 in the post war period after June 1945, primarily in Soviet captivity.
Legally, the Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht was Adolf Hitler in his capacity as Germany's head of state, a position he gained after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in August 1934. In the reshuffle in 1938, Hitler became the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and retained that position until his suicide on 30 April 1945. Administration and military authority initially lay with the war ministry under Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg. After von Blomberg resigned in the course of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair (1938) the ministry was dissolved and the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) under Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel was put in its place. It was headquartered in Wünsdorf near Zossen, and a field echelon (Feldstaffel) was stationed wherever the Führer's headquarters were situated at a given time. Army work was also coordinated by the German General Staff, an institution that had been developing for more than a century and which had sought to institutionalize military perfection.
The OKW coordinated all military activities but Keitel's sway over the three branches of service (army, air force, and navy) was rather limited. Each had its own High Command, known as Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, army), Oberkommando der Marine (OKM, navy), and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL, air force). Each of these high commands had its own general staff. In practice the OKW had operational authority over the Western Front whereas the Eastern Front was under the operational authority of the OKH.
The OKW was also given the task of central economic planning and procurement, but the authority and influence of the OKW's war economy office (Wehrwirtschaftsamt) was challenged by the procurement offices (Waffenämter) of the single branches of service as well as by the Ministry for Armament and Munitions (Reichsministerium für Bewaffnung und Munition), into which it was merged after the ministry was taken over by Albert Speer in early 1942.
The German Army furthered concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground (Heer) and Air Force (Luftwaffe) assets into combined arms teams. Coupled with traditional war fighting methods such as encirclements and the "battle of annihilation", the German military managed many lightning quick victories in the first year of World War II, prompting foreign journalists to create a new word for what they witnessed: Blitzkrieg.
The Heer entered the war with a minority of its formations motorized; infantry remained approximately 90% foot-borne throughout the war, and artillery primarily horse-drawn. The motorized formations received much attention in the world press in the opening years of the war, and were cited as the reason for the success of the German invasions of Poland (September 1939), Norway and Denmark (April 1940), Belgium, France and Netherlands (May 1940), Yugoslavia (April 1941) and the early campaigns in the Soviet Union (June 1941).
After Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, Germany and other Axis powers found themselves engaged in campaigns against three major industrial powers. At this critical juncture, Hitler assumed personal control of the Wehrmacht high command, and his personal failings as a military commander arguably contributed to major defeats in early 1943, at Stalingrad and Tunis in North Africa.
The Germans' military strength was managed through mission-based tactics (rather than order-based tactics) and an almost proverbial discipline. In public opinion, the German Army was, and sometimes still is, seen as a high-tech army. However, such advanced equipment, while featured much in propaganda, was often only available in small numbers or late in the war, as overall supplies of raw materials and armaments ran low. For example, only 40% of all units were motorized, baggage trains often relied on horse-drawn trailers and many soldiers went by foot or used bicycles (Radfahrtruppen).
Some historians, such as British author and ex-newspaper editor Max Hastings, consider that " ... there's no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war". Similar views were also explained in his book "Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy", while in the book World War II : An Illustrated Miscellany, Anthony Evans writes: 'The German soldier was very professional and well trained, aggressive in attack and stubborn in defence. He was always adaptable, particularly in the later years when shortages of equipment were being felt'. However, their integrity was compromised by war crimes, especially those committed on the eastern front. They were over-extended and out-maneuvered before Moscow in 1941, and in North Africa and Stalingrad in 1942, and from 1942/3 onwards, were in constant retreat. Other Axis powers fought with them, especially Hungary and Romania, as well as many volunteers from other nations.
Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Heer during World War II were ethnic Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians along with people from the Baltic states and the Balkans. Russians fought in the Russian Liberation Army or as Hilfswilliger. Non-Russians from the Soviet Union formed the Ostlegionen. These units were all commanded by General Ernst August Köstring and represented about five percent of the forces under the OKH.
The German Air Force, led by Hermann Göring, contributed many units of ground forces to the war in Russia as well as the Normandy front. In 1940, the Fallschirmjäger paratroops conquered the vital Belgian Fort Eben-Emael and took part in the airborne invasion of Norway, but after suffering heavy losses in the Battle of Crete, large scale airdrops were discontinued. Operating as crack infantry, the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division fought in all the theatres of the war. Notable actions include the bloody Monte Cassino, the last ditch defense of Tunisia and numerous key battles on the eastern front. A Fallschirmjäger armored division, the Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring, was also formed and was heavily engaged in Sicily and at Salerno.
Separate from the elite Fallschirmjäger, the Luftwaffe also fielded regular infantry in the Luftwaffe Field Divisions. These units were basic infantry formations formed from Luftwaffe personnel. Lacking competent officers and composed in the main of recruits for the air-force unhappy with their unexpected use as infantry, they understandably lacked in morale. By Göring's personal order they were intended to be restricted to defensive duties in quieter sectors to free up front line troops for combat. The Luftwaffe, being in charge of Germany's anti-aircraft warfare, also used thousands of teenage Luftwaffenhelfer to support the Flak units.
The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) played a major role in World War II as control over the commerce routes in the Atlantic was crucial for Germany, Britain and later the Soviet Union. In the Battle of the Atlantic, the initially successful German U-boat fleet arm was eventually defeated due to Allied technological innovations like sonar, radar, and the breaking of the Enigma code. Large surface vessels were few in number due to construction limitations by international treaties prior to 1935. The "pocket battleships" Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer were important as commerce raiders only in the opening year of the war. No aircraft carrier was operational, as German leadership lost interest in the Graf Zeppelin which had been launched in 1938. Following the loss of the Bismarck in 1941, with Allied air superiority threatening the remaining battlecruisers in French Atlantic harbours, the ships were ordered to make the Channel Dash back to German ports. Operating from fjords of Norway, which had been occupied in 1940, convoys from the USA to the Soviet port of Murmansk could be intercepted even though the Tirpitz spent most of her career as Fleet in being. After the appointment of Karl Doenitz as Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine, Germany stopped constructing battleships and cruisers in favour of U-boats.
The Wehrmacht directed combat operations during World War II (from 1 September 1939 to 8 May 1945) as the German Reich's Armed Forces umbrella command organization. After 1941 the OKH became the de facto Eastern Theatre higher echelon command organization for the Wehrmacht, excluding Waffen-SS except for operational and tactical combat purposes. The OKW conducted operations in the Western Theatre.
The operations by the Kriegsmarine in the North and Mid-Atlantic can also be considered as separate Theatres considering the size of the area of operations and their remoteness from other Theatres.
The Eastern Wehrmacht campaigns included:
However, Hitler demanded that the Wehrmacht had to fight on other fronts, sometimes three simultaneously, thus stretching its resources too thin. By 1944, even the defense of Germany became impossible.
Approximately 5,533,000 German soldiers and from other nationalities fighting for the German army are considered killed or MIA in World War II. The number of wounded surpasses 6,000,000, and the number of prisoners of war reaches 11,000,000, making a total of 22 million casualties from all causes during that conflict.
Due to the constitution of the Weimar Republic no soldier of the Reichswehr was either allowed to become a member of a political party or to vote in an election because there was a strict separation between politics and the armed forces. The same applied later to the Wehrmacht. Most of its leadership was politically conservative but after Adolf Hitler gained power he had promised to rebuild Germany's military strength and thus some officers became invigorated towards the National Socialist movement. In addition, many soldiers had previously been in the Hitler Youth and Reichsarbeitsdienst and had thus been subjected to intensive Nazi indoctrination; as a result, many newly commissioned officers were committed Nazis. In general, the Luftwaffe was heavily Nazi-influenced, as was the navy to a lesser extent; on the other hand, the army (especially amongst the enlisted men) was quite indifferent and even quietly critical of Nazism, although from 1943 onwards the influx of officers and conscripts who had been mainly educated under the Nazis began to strongly dilute this institutional skepticism. Political influence in the military command began to increase later in the war when Hitler's flawed strategic decisions began showing up as serious defeats for the German Army and tensions mounted between the military and the government. When Hitler appointed unqualified personnel such as Hermann Göring to lead his Air Force failure ensued. He also gave to his commanders impossible orders, such as to shoot all officers and enlisted men who retreated from a front line later in the war.
In World War II, the Wehrmacht was involved in a number of war crimes. While the principal perpetrators of the civil suppression behind the front lines amongst German armed forces were the Nazi German political armies (the SS-Totenkopfverbände and particularly the Einsatzgruppen), the traditional armed forces represented by the Wehrmacht committed and ordered (e.g. the Commissar Order) war crimes of their own, particularly during the invasion of Poland in 1939  and later in the war against the Soviet Union. The Nuremberg Trials of the major war criminals at the end of World War II found that the Wehrmacht was not an inherently criminal organization, but that it had committed crimes in the course of the war. Several high ranked members of the Wehrmacht like Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl were convicted for their involvement in war crimes.
As a result of the Cold War, along with the rearmament of the GDR, the Wehrmacht's past tended to be overlooked, so the public view was that the Wehrmacht was "unblemished" by the crimes allegedly committed exclusively by the SS and the political police forces. The finding at Nuremberg that the Wehrmacht was not an inherently criminal organization was seen by many Germans as an exoneration of the Wehrmacht. Among German historians, the deep involvement of the Wehrmacht in war crimes, particularly on the Eastern Front, became widely accepted in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Public awareness in Germany has been lagging behind—as exemplified by controversial reactions and debates to an exhibition on these issues in the mid-1990s.
From all groups of German Resistance those within the Wehrmacht were the most condemned by the NSDAP. There were several attempts by resistance members like Henning von Tresckow or Erich Hoepner to assassinate Hitler as an ignition of a coup d'état. Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff and Axel Freiherr von dem Bussche-Streithorst even tried to do so by suicide bombing. Those and many other officers in the Heer and Kriegsmarine such as Erwin Rommel, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and Wilhelm Canaris opposed the atrocities of the Hitler regime. Combined with Hitler's problematic military leadership, this also culminated in the famous 20 July plot (1944), when a group of German Army officers led by von Stauffenberg tried again to kill Hitler and overthrow his regime. Following this attempt, every officer who approached Hitler was searched from head to foot by his SS guards. As a special degradation all German military personnel were ordered to replace the standard military salute with the Hitler salute from this date on. To what extent the German military forces opposed or supported the Hitler regime is nevertheless highly disputed amongst historians up to the present day.
Some members of the Wehrmacht did save Jews and Non-Jews from the concentration camps and/or mass executions. Anton Schmid, a sergeant in the army, helped 250 Jewish men, women, and children escape from the Vilnius ghetto and provided them with forged passports so that they could get to safety. He was court-martialed and executed as a consequence. Albert Battel, a reserve officer stationed near the Przemysl ghetto, blocked an SS detachment from entering it. He then evacuated up to 100 Jews and their families to the barracks of the local military command, and placed them under his protection. Wilm Hosenfeld, an army captain in Warsaw, helped, hid, or rescued several Poles, including Jews, in occupied Poland. He most notably helped the Polish Jewish composer Władysław Szpilman, who was hiding among the city's ruins, by supplying him with food and water, and didn't reveal him to the Nazi authorities. Hosenfeld later died in a Soviet POW camp.
Prominent German officers from the Wehrmacht era include:
Following the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht which went into effect on 8 May 1945, some Wehrmacht units remained active, either independently (e.g. in Norway), or under Allied command as police forces. By the end of August 1945, these units had been dissolved, and a year later on 20 August 1946, the Allied Control Council declared the Wehrmacht as officially abolished (Kontrollratsgesetz No. 34). While Germany was forbidden to have an army, Allied forces took advantage of the knowledge of Wehrmacht members like Reinhard Gehlen.
It was over ten years before the tensions of the Cold War led to the creation of separate military forces in the Federal Republic of Germany and the socialist German Democratic Republic. The West German military, officially created on 5 May 1955, took the name Bundeswehr, meaning Federal Defence Forces, which pointed back to the old Reichswehr. Its East German counterpart, created on 1 March 1956, took the name National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee). Both organizations employed many former Wehrmacht members, particularly in their formative years.