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Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in…
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Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (1991)

by Omer Bartov

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Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, And War In the Third Reich
Omer Bartov

Omer's thesis is that the Wehrmacht was far from the professional, nonpolitical force it has often been portrayed to be in postwar histories. This is a thesis that has been promulgated in an increasing number of more recent histories, I came to this book prepared to believe it, and Bartov does in fact make a very strong case. Hence the title, Hitler's Army.

Bartov develops four supporting subsidiary theses. The first is that the Wehrmacht was rapidly demodernized in the brutal fighting on the Eastern Front. The "demodernization" that Bartov speaks of is the rapid loss of the technical edge of the Wehrmacht, most visible in its high tank losses but extending even to company-level equipment, which led to the bulk of the Wehrmacht fighting a trench war very much like World War I for most of the war.

Bartov's second subsidiary thesis is the destruction of the primary group. By "primary groups" he means the social structure of squads, platoons, and companies that had trained and fought together, the "band of brothers." He quotes extensively from letters and cites casualty statistics that show how incredibly bad the attrition was and how little chance there was of meaningful primary groups remaining intact or being reestablished once destroyed. He argues instead that the continuing ability of the Wehrmacht to fight so well rested on its increasing Nazification. This is in direct opposition to the school of thought, first developed by Dupuy and most clearly articulated by van Creveld, that the fighting power of the Wehrmacht was almost entirely due to its excellent unit cohesion, which was a creation of its primary groups. Bartov shows quite convincingly that the Wehrmach's institutions and policies for maintaining the primary group existed mostly on paper once the war of attrition in the East kicked in -- and it kicked it much earlier in the fighting than has been recognized. This may be because the Russians suffered much more visible attrition, deflecting attention away from just how much the Germans were hurting.

I note that Bartov seems to regard the fighting in the West as mostly a side show, largely irrelevant to really understanding the real nature of the Wehrmacht. Yeah. That sounds like cherry picking. Still, it's certainly true that most of the Wehrmacht did most of its fighting in the East and it's plausible this is where its character was mostly shaped after 1941.

Bartov's third subsidiary theme is the inversion of discipline. Germany executed far more of its own soldiers in the Second World War than in the First, but almost never for crimes against civilians or enemy combatants. The troops were kept fighting, in part, through brutal discipline towards those who showed cowardice or disobeyed orders -- but, at the same time, crimes against civilians or enemy prisoners were ignored or even encouraged. Bartov argues that the combination had the effect of maintaining fighting strength by making the entire Wehrmacht guilty together; losing the war was unthinkable because of the retribution every soldier knew was likely to follow.

Bartov's fourth and final thesis was that the soldiers of the Wehrmacht were indoctrinated with a world view that had strong religious overtones and which was actually the inverse of reality. He seeks to demonstrate that, the worse the Nazi crimes became, the more the soldiers blamed their own crimes on their victims -- a particularly powerful example of projection. He demonstrates that even opponents of the regime at the time, and German historians decades later, subconsciously lapse into Nazi ideological language in their letters and other writings. This was probably the weakest part of the book, and it's no surprise that this is also the part where Bartov's own political agenda peeks out. Bartov tells us, in effect, that Germans and non-Germans who argue that the postwar German army was important as a bulwark against Communism are just a bunch of neo-Nazis. He is clearly unsympathetic to a reunited Germany (this book was published in 1992) and I have to admit that this made me a bit unsympathetic to Bartov.

Nevertheless, the book is worth reading, and most of the theses stand up. Thumbs up. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 8, 2016 |
I guess this is one of those cases where a groundbreaking work gets left behind by the further historiography it helped to spawn. ( )
  Matteocalosi | Sep 16, 2014 |
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Almost half a century after its total destruction in the Second World War, the Wehrmacht remains a major bone of contention in the scholarship on the Third Reich.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195079035, Paperback)

As the Cold War followed on the heels of the Second World War, as the Nuremburg Trials faded in the shadow of the Iron Curtain, both the Germans and the West were quick to accept the idea that Hitler's army had been no SS, no Gestapo, that it was a professional force little touched by Nazi politics. But in this compelling account Omer Bartov reveals a very different history, as he probes the experience of the average soldier to show just how thoroughly Nazi ideology permeated the army.

In Hitler's Army, Bartov focuses on the titanic struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union--where the vast majority of German troops fought--to show how the savagery of war reshaped the army in Hitler's image. Both brutalized and brutalizing, these soldiers needed to see their bitter sacrifices as noble patriotism and to justify their own atrocities by seeing their victims as subhuman. In the unprecedented ferocity and catastrophic losses of the Eastrn front, he writes, soldiers embraced the idea that the war was a defense of civilization against Jewish/Bolshevik barbarism, a war of racial survival to be waged at all costs. Bartov describes the incredible scale and destruction of the invasion of Russia in horrific detail. Even in the first months--often depicted as a time of easy victories--undermanned and ill-equipped German units were stretched to the breaking point by vast distances and bitter Soviet resistance. Facing scarce supplies and enormous casualties, the average soldier sank to ta a primitive level of existence, re-experiencing the trench warfare of World War I under the most extreme weather conditions imaginable; the fighting itself was savage, and massacres of prisoners were common. Troops looted food and supplies from civilians with wild abandon; they mercilessly wiped out villages suspected of aiding partisans. Incredible losses led to recruits being thrown together in units that once had been filled with men from the same communities, making Nazi ideology even more important as a binding force. And they were further brutalized by a military justice system that executed almost 15,000 German soldiers during the war. Bartov goes on to explore letters, diaries, military reports, and other sources, showing how widespread Hitler's views became among common fighting men--men who grew up, he reminds us, under the Nazi regime. In the end, they truly became Hitler's army.

In six years of warfare, the vast majority of German men passed through the Wehrmacht and almost every family had a relative who fought in the East. Bartov's powerful new account of how deeply Nazi ideology penetrated the army sheds new light on how deeply it penetrated the nation. Hitler's Army makes an important correction not merely to the historical record but to how we see the world today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:16 -0400)

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