Recent decades saw the publishing of a number of historical books, the authors of which promote essentially a revisionist outlook on the history of WW2.
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Omer Bartov’s Hitler’s army: Soldiers, Nazis, and war in the Third Reich represents a good example of such a literature, because in it, the author had made a point in trying to reveal the conceptual fallaciousness of an idea that, during the course of Germany’s campaign in Eastern front, Wehrmacht had fought in a gallant manner and that it is namely the Waffen SS, which should be solely blamed for the atrocities, committed against Soviet civilians through 1941-1944.
According to Bartov, throughout the course of hostilities, German soldiers were becoming increasingly committed to Nazi ideology, which in its turn, had naturally predisposed them towards conducting the ‘war of annihilation’: “Unable to rely on its hitherto highly successful Blitzkrieg tactics, the Wehrmacht accepted Hitler’s view that this was an all-or-nothing struggle for survival, a ‘war of ideologies’ which demanded total spiritual commitment” (p. 4).
Author strives to substantiate the soundness of this idea by pointing out to the fact that, throughout campaign’s initial stages, the representatives of ‘primary groups’ within German army (consisting of Prussian aristocratic officers) had been effectively eliminated due to a high atrocity rate.
Therefore, through years 1942-1943, Wehrmacht had ceased being the army of professionals, in traditional sense of this word.
Instead, it became the ‘army of civilians’, who compensated for their lack of military training with the sheer extent of their commitment to the Nazi cause: “Nazi propaganda did its utmost to convince the troops (Wehrmacht) that they were defending humanity against a demonic invasion” (p. 9).
Hence, Bartov’s thesis – Wehrmacht used to indulge in genocidal actions against civilians in Russia to the same extent as it used to be the case with Waffen SS. Apparently, author implies that the very fact that German soldiers considered Russians sub-humans, had motivated them to fight to the bitter end.
Nevertheless, even though Bartov’s book contains a number of legitimate suggestions, as to the manner in which German army had fought the Soviets, it appears that in many cases author deliberately tried to misrepresent these suggestions’ actual significance.
For example, unlike most contemporary historians, Bartov had proven himself being intellectually honest enough by dispelling the myth that in the summer of 1941 Wehrmacht enjoyed a complete technical and numerical superiority over the Red Army: “In June 1941 the Ostheer’s troops attacked with 3648 tanks. Facing it in Western Russia were… no less than 15,000 tanks out of a total armored force of 24,000 – more than all the tanks in the rest of the world put together” (p. 15).
Yet, author never bothered to come up with an explanation as to why, as of June 22, 1941, Soviets concentrated these tanks within 50-100 kilometers wide strip, along German border. The reason for this is simple – as it was being revealed by Suvorov (1990), Stalin himself was planning to invade Germany and consequentially the whole Europe as early as July 6, 1941.1
Therefore, Germany’s attack on Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 was essentially preventive. Had Bartov mentioned the true reason for Hitler’s attack on USSR, his academic reputation would have been damaged – after all, as we are being well aware of, British most prominent historian David Irving had spent three years in Austrian jail due to being charged with ‘historical revisionism’.
In its turn, this explains why, despite Bartov’s intention to provide readers with rather unconventional insight onto the actual realities of Germany’s war against Soviet Union, his book’s discursive suggestions appear utterly conformist.
As we have mentioned earlier, Bartov claims that it was German soldiers’ ideologically inspired hate of Russian ‘sub-humans’ that motivated them to indulge in genocidal activities: “Because they were fighting against Untermenschen (sub-humans), the troops were allowed to treat them with great brutality” (p. 71).
Moreover, just as it has traditionally been the case with Communist historians, Bartov also refers to Germany’s war against USSR as the classical war of conquest, instigated by Hitler’s intention to expand his country’s ‘living space’: “The German invasion of Russia, intended to create a vast new Lebensraum for the Aryan race” (p. 73).
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Apparently, while working on his book, author remained quite ignorant as to the fact that the term Untermenscben has never been applied to Russians en masse, but only to Communist officials, Commissars and to their puppets among locals.
Otherwise, there would not be more then million of former Soviet subjects fighting along the side with Germans in Russian Liberation Army and as volunteers in Waffen SS divisions.
Also, the expansion of Lebensraum (living space) has never been Hitler’s priority – had he been truly concerned with the expansion of Lebensraum, he would have proceeded with occupying Southern France, instead of embarking upon the conquest of Russia’s snowy plains.
The same can be said about Bartov’s treatment of the subject of ‘atrocities’. According to the author, it was due to German soldiers being ideologically brainwashed that they used to deal with Soviet partisans rather harshly.
Yet, the actual explanation to is more banal – according to the Geneva Convention of 1927, partisans were never considered a legitimate combatants, which is why, upon being caught shooting at Germans from behind without wearing the uniform of an opposing army, they used to be treated as spies.
After all, Americans, British and Soviets acted in essentially similar manner, while addressing the issue of armed resistance, on the part of German civilians in Germany’s occupied territories.
Thus, unlike what Bartov would like readers to believe, it was namely German soldiers’ rationale-driven considerations of protecting their homeland, which had motivated them to fight Soviets on Eastern front – not their ideological commitment to the Nazi cause.
After having captured the huge amounts of Soviet military equipment, located right along the border, and after having been exposed to the actual realities of how Soviet citizens lived in ‘workers’ paradise’, even those German soldiers with Communist past became instantly convinced that Germany’s cause in the war against USSR was absolutely just.
In his book, Bartov quotes from the letter of a German soldier Egon Freitag, dated August 28, 1941: “We were never mercenaries, but – to use the hackneyed phrase – defenders of the Fatherland” (p. 34). As author had rightly pointed out: “For him (Freitag)… Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union was a defensive operation” (p. 34).
Therefore, the overall thesis of Bartov’s book as to the fact that Wehrmacht soldiers’ willingness to fight to the bitter end in Russia came as the result of these soldiers being continuously subjected to Nazi propaganda, does not stand much of a ground.
The actual explanation for is much simpler – German soldiers did not want Communist Commissars to be allowed to do in Germany what they had done in Russia – pure and simple. Nazi propaganda had very little to do with it.
Bartov, O. (1992). Hitler’s army: Soldiers, Nazis, and war in the Third Reich. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Suvorov, V. (1990). Icebreaker: Who started the Second World War? London, Hamish Hamilton.
1 Suvorov, V. (1990). Icebreaker: Who started the Second World War? London, Hamish Hamilton. 82 p.