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Armed Forces of Nazi Germany
Emblem of the Wehrmacht, the Balkenkreuz , a stylized version of the Iron Cross seen in varying proportions
War ensign of Germany (1938-1945).svg
Reichskriegsflagge , the war flag and naval ensign of the Wehrmacht (1938–45 version)
Motto Gott mit uns [1]
Founded16 March 1935
Disbanded20 September 1945 [2] [lower-alpha 1]
Service branches
Adolf Hitler (first)
Karl Dönitz (last)
Commander-in-chief Adolf Hitler (first)
Werner von Blomberg (last)
Minister of War Werner von Blomberg
Chief of the Armed Forces High Command Wilhelm Keitel
Military age18–45
Conscription1–2 years
Active personnel18,000,000 (total served) [5]
Budget19 billion ℛℳ (1939) (€72 billion in 2009)
89 billion ℛℳ (1944) (€304 billion in 2009) [lower-alpha 2]
Percent of GDP25% (1939) [7]
75% (1944) [8]
Domestic suppliers Alkett
Henschel & Son
Foreign suppliersFlag of Hungary (1915-1918; angels).svg Kingdom of Hungary
Flag of Spain (1931-1939).svg Second Spanish Republic
Flag of Switzerland.svg   Switzerland [9]
Related articles
History History of Germany during World War II

The Wehrmacht (German pronunciation: [ˈveːɐ̯maxt] ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ), lit.defence force) was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe (air force). The designation "Wehrmacht" replaced the previously used term Reichswehr , and was the manifestation of the Nazi regime's efforts to rearm Germany to a greater extent than the Treaty of Versailles permitted. [10]

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

German Army (1935–1945) 1935-1945 land warfare branch of the German military

The German Army was the land forces component of the Wehrmacht, the regular German Armed Forces, from 1935 until it was demobilized and later dissolved in August 1946. During World War II, a total of about 13.6 million soldiers served in the German Army between 1935-45. Germany's army personnel were made up of volunteers and conscripts.

<i>Kriegsmarine</i> 1935–1945 naval warfare branch of Germanys armed forces

The Kriegsmarine was the navy of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It superseded the Imperial German Navy of the German Empire (1871–1918) and the inter-war Reichsmarine (1919–1935) of the Weimar Republic. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches, along with the Heer (Army) and the Luftwaffe of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces from 1933 to 1945.


After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, one of Adolf Hitler's most overt and audacious moves was to establish the Wehrmacht, a modern offensively-capable armed force, fulfilling the Nazi regime's long-term goals of regaining lost territory as well as gaining new territory and dominating its neighbors. This required the reinstatement of conscription, and massive investment and defense spending on the arms industry. [11]

Adolf Hitlers rise to power A timeline of Adolf Hitlers rise to power.

Adolf Hitler's rise to power began in Germany in September 1919 when Hitler joined the political party then known as the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – DAP. The name was changed in 1920 to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – NSDAP. It was anti-Marxist and opposed to the democratic post-war government of the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles, advocating extreme nationalism and Pan-Germanism as well as virulent anti-Semitism. Hitler's "rise" can be considered to have ended in March 1933, after the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act of 1933 in that month. President Paul von Hindenburg had already appointed Hitler as Chancellor on 30 January 1933 after a series of parliamentary elections and associated backroom intrigues. The Enabling Act—when used ruthlessly and with authority—virtually assured that Hitler could thereafter constitutionally exercise dictatorial power without legal objection.

Arms industry industrial sector which manufactures weapons and military technology and equipment

The arms industry, also known as the defense industry or the arms trade, is a global industry which manufactures and sells weapons and military technology. It consists of a commercial industry involved in the research and development, engineering, production, and servicing of military material, equipment, and facilities. Arms-producing companies, also referred to as arms dealers, defence contractors, or as the military industry, produce arms for the armed forces of states and for civilians. Departments of government also operate in the arms industry, buying and selling weapons, munitions and other military items. An arsenal is a place where arms and ammunition - whether privately or publicly owned - are made, maintained and repaired, stored, or issued, in any combination. Products of the arms industry include guns, artillery, ammunition, missiles, military aircraft, military vehicles, ships, electronic systems, night-vision devices, holographic weapon sights, laser rangefinders, laser sights, hand grenades, landmines and more. The arms industry also provides other logistical and operational support.

The Wehrmacht formed the heart of Germany's politico-military power. In the early part of the Second World War, the Wehrmacht employed combined arms tactics (close cover air-support, tanks, and infantry) to devastating effect in what became known as a Blitzkrieg (lightning war). Its campaigns in France (1940), the Soviet Union (1941), and North Africa (1941/42) are regarded as acts of boldness. [12] At the same time, the far-flung advances strained the Wehrmacht's capacity to the breaking point, culminating in the first major defeat in the Battle of Moscow (1941); by late 1942, Germany was losing the initiative in all theatres. The operational art was no match to the war-making abilities of the Allied coalition, making the Wehrmacht's weaknesses in strategy, doctrine, and logistics readily apparent. [13]

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

<i>Blitzkrieg</i> anglicised term describing a method of warfare. also known as lightning war

Blitzkrieg is a method of warfare whereby an attacking force, spearheaded by a dense concentration of armoured and motorised or mechanised infantry formations with close air support, breaks through the opponent's line of defence by short, fast, powerful attacks and then dislocates the defenders, using speed and surprise to encircle them with the help of air superiority. Through the employment of combined arms in manoeuvre warfare, blitzkrieg attempts to unbalance the enemy by making it difficult for it to respond to the continuously changing front, then defeat it in a decisive Vernichtungsschlacht.

Battle of France Successful German invasion of France in 1940

The Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the German invasion of France and the Low Countries during the Second World War. France had previously invaded Germany in 1939. In the six weeks from 10 May 1940, German forces defeated Allied forces by mobile operations and conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, bringing land operations on the Western Front to an end until the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940 and invaded France over the Alps.

Closely cooperating with the SS and the Einsatzgruppen , the German armed forces committed numerous war crimes and atrocities, despite later denials and promotion of the myth of the Clean Wehrmacht. [14] The majority of the war crimes were committed in the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy, as part of the war of annihilation against the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and Nazi security warfare.

<i>Schutzstaffel</i> Major paramilitary organization of Nazi Germany

The Schutzstaffel was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in Nazi Germany, and later throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II. It began with a small guard unit known as the Saal-Schutz made up of NSDAP volunteers to provide security for party meetings in Munich. In 1925, Heinrich Himmler joined the unit, which had by then been reformed and given its final name. Under his direction (1929–45) it grew from a small paramilitary formation to one of the most powerful organizations in Nazi Germany. From 1929 until the regime's collapse in 1945, the SS was the foremost agency of security, surveillance, and terror within Germany and German-occupied Europe.

<i>Einsatzgruppen</i> Nazi paramilitary death squads, part of the SS

Einsatzgruppen were Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany that were responsible for mass killings, primarily by shooting, during World War II (1939–45) in German-occupied Europe. The Einsatzgruppen were involved in the murder of much of the intelligentsia, including members of the priesthood, and cultural elite of Poland, and had an integral role in the implementation of the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" in territories conquered by Nazi Germany. Almost all of the people they killed were civilians, beginning with the intelligentsia and swiftly progressing to Soviet political commissars, Jews, and Romani people as well as actual or alleged partisans throughout Eastern Europe.

Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives or stories that play a fundamental role in a society, such as foundational tales or origin myths. The main characters in myths are usually gods, demigods or supernatural humans. Stories of everyday human beings, although often of leaders of some type, are usually contained in legends, as opposed to myths.

During the war about 18 million men served in the Wehrmacht. [15] By the time the war ended in Europe in May 1945, German forces (consisting of the Army, Navy and Luftwaffe, the Waffen-SS, the Volkssturm and foreign collaborateur units) had lost approximately 11,300,000 men, [16] about half of whom were missing or killed during the war. Only a few of the Wehrmacht's upper leadership were tried for war crimes, despite evidence suggesting that more were involved in illegal actions. [17] [18] The majority of the three million Wehrmacht soldiers who invaded the USSR participated in committing war crimes. [19]

<i>Luftwaffe</i> Aerial warfare branch of the German military forces during World War II

The Luftwaffe was the aerial warfare branch of the combined German Wehrmacht military forces during World War II. Germany's military air arms during World War I, the Luftstreitkräfte of the Army and the Marine-Fliegerabteilung of the Navy, had been disbanded in May 1920 as a result of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which stated that Germany was forbidden to have any air force.

<i>Waffen-SS</i> armed wing of the Nazi Partys Schutzstaffel

The Waffen-SS was the armed wing of the Nazi Party's SS organisation. Its formations included men from Nazi Germany, along with volunteers and conscripts from both occupied and un-occupied lands.

<i>Volkssturm</i> military unit

The Volkssturm was a national militia established by Nazi Germany during the last months of World War II. It was not set up by the German Army, the ground component of the combined German Wehrmacht armed forces, but by the Nazi Party on the orders of Adolf Hitler and its existence was only officially announced on 16 October 1944. It was staffed by conscripting males between the ages of 16 and 60 years who were not already serving in some military unit. The Volkssturm comprised one of the final components of the total war promulgated by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, part of a Nazi endeavor to overcome their enemies' military strength through force of will.



The German term "Wehrmacht" stems from the compound word of German : wehren, "to defend" and Macht, "power, force". [lower-alpha 3] It has been used to describe any nation's armed forces; for example, Britische Wehrmacht meaning "British Armed Forces". The Frankfurt Constitution of 1849 designated all German military forces as the "German Wehrmacht", consisting of the Seemacht (sea force) and the Landmacht (land force). [20] In 1919, the term Wehrmacht also appears in Article 47 of the Weimar Constitution, establishing that: "The Reich's President holds supreme command of all armed forces [i.e. the Wehrmacht] of the Reich". From 1919, Germany's national defense force was known as the Reichswehr , a name that was dropped in favor of Wehrmacht on 21 May 1935. [21]

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

The Frankfurt Constitution or Constitution of St. Paul's Church (Paulskirchenverfassung), officially named the Constitution of the German Empire of 28 March 1849, was an unsuccessful attempt to create a unified German nation state in the successor states of the Holy Roman Empire organised in the German Confederation. Adopted and proclaimed by the Frankfurt Parliament after the Revolutions of 1848, the constitution contained a charter of fundamental rights and a democratic government in the form of a constitutional monarchy. King Frederick William IV of Prussia was designated head of state as "Emperor of the Germans", a role he rejected.

Weimar Constitution German constitution of 1919

The Constitution of the German Reich, usually known as the Weimar Constitution was the constitution that governed Germany during the Weimar Republic era (1919–1933). The constitution declared Germany to be a democratic parliamentary republic with a legislature elected under proportional representation. Universal suffrage was established, with a minimum voting age of 20. The constitution technically remained in effect throughout the Nazi era from 1933 to 1945.


The blond-haired, blue-eyed Werner Goldberg (1919-2004) was used in Wehrmacht recruitment posters as the "ideal German soldier". He was later "dismissed" after it became known that he was a "Mischling ersten Grades" as defined by the Nuremberg Laws, having half Jewish ancestry. WernerGoldberg.jpg
The blond-haired, blue-eyed Werner Goldberg (1919–2004) was used in Wehrmacht recruitment posters as the "ideal German soldier". He was later "dismissed" after it became known that he was a "Mischling ersten Grades" as defined by the Nuremberg Laws, having half Jewish ancestry.

In January 1919, after World War I ended with the signing of the armistice of 11 November 1918, the armed forces were dubbed Friedensheer (peace army). [22] In March 1919, the national assembly passed a law founding a 420,000-strong preliminary army, the Vorläufige Reichswehr. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were announced in May, and in June, Germany signed the treaty that, 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. [23]

The Reichswehr was limited to 115,000 men, and thus the armed forces, under the leadership of Hans von Seeckt, retained only the most capable officers. The American historians Alan Millet and Williamson Murray wrote "In reducing the officers corps, Seeckt chose the new leadership from the best men of the general staff with ruthless disregard for other constituencies, such as war heroes and the nobility". [24] Seeckt's determination that the Reichswehr be an elite cadre force that would serve as the nucleus of an expanded military when the chance for restoring conscription came essentially led to the creation of a new army, based upon, but very different from, the army that existed in World War I. [24] In the 1920s, Seeckt and his officers developed new doctrines that emphasized speed, aggression, combined arms and initiative on the part of lower officers to take advantage of momentary opportunities. [24] Though Seeckt retired in 1926, the army that went to war in 1939 was largely his creation. [25]

Germany was forbidden to have an air force by the Versailles treaty; nonetheless, Seeckt created a clandestine cadre of air force officers in the early 1920s. These officers saw the role of an air force as winning air superiority, tactical and strategic bombing and providing ground support. That the Luftwaffe did not develop a strategic bombing force in the 1930s was not due to a lack of interest, but because of economic limitations. [26] The leadership of the Navy led by Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, a close protégé of Alfred von Tirpitz, was dedicated to the idea of reviving Tirpitz's High Seas Fleet. Officers who believed in submarine warfare led by Admiral Karl Dönitz were in a minority before 1939. [27]

By 1922, Germany had begun covertly circumventing the conditions of the Versailles Treaty. A secret collaboration with the Soviet Union began after the treaty of Rapallo. [28] Major-General Otto Hasse  [ de ] 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. [29] In 1924 a training base was established at Lipetsk in central Russia, where several hundred German air force personnel received instruction in operational maintenance, navigation, and aerial combat training over the next decade until the Germans finally left in September 1933. [30]

Nazi rise to power

After the death of President Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, Adolf Hitler assumed the office of President of Germany, and thus became commander in chief. In February 1934, the Defence Minister Werner von Blomberg, acting on his own initiative, had all of the Jews serving in the Reichswehr given an automatic and immediate dishonorable discharge. [31] Again, on his own initiative Blomberg had the armed forces adopt Nazi symbols into their uniforms in May 1934. [32] In August of the same year, on Blomberg's initiative and that of the Ministeramt chief General Walther von Reichenau, the entire military took the Hitler oath, an oath of personal loyalty to Hitler. Hitler was most surprised at the offer; the popular view that Hitler imposed the oath on the military is false. [33] The oath read: "I swear by God this sacred oath that to the Leader of the German empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath". [34]

By 1935, Germany was openly flouting the military restrictions set forth in the Versailles Treaty: German re-armament was announced on 16 March as was the reintroduction of conscription. [35] 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"; the Reichswehr was officially renamed the Wehrmacht on 21 May 1935. [36] Hitler's proclamation of the Wehrmacht's existence included a total of no less than 36 divisions in its original projection, contravening the Treaty of Versailles in grandiose fashion. In December 1935, General Ludwig Beck added 48 tank battalions to the planned rearmament program. [37]

Personnel and recruitment

Inspection of German conscripts Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R43590, Potsdam, Musterung fur die Wehrmacht.jpg
Inspection of German conscripts

Recruitment for the Wehrmacht was accomplished through voluntary enlistment and conscription, with 1.3 million being drafted and 2.4 million volunteering in the period 1935–1939. [38] The total number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht during its existence from 1935 to 1945 is believed to have approached 18.2 million. [15] As World War II intensified, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe personnel were increasingly transferred to the Army, and "voluntary" enlistments in the SS were stepped up as well. Following the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, fitness standards for Wehrmacht recruits were drastically lowered, with the regime going so far as to create "special diet" battalions for men with severe stomach ailments. Rear-echelon personnel were sent to front-line duty wherever possible, especially during the last two years of the war. [39]

An African soldier of the Free Arabian Legion Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-177-1465-16, Griechenland, Soldaten der "Legion Freies Arabien".jpg
An African soldier of the Free Arabian Legion

Prior to World War II, the Wehrmacht strove to remain a purely German force; as such, minorities, such as the Czechs in annexed Czechoslovakia, were exempted from military service after Hitler's takeover in 1938. Foreign volunteers were generally not accepted in the German armed forces prior to 1941. [39] With the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the government's positions changed. German propagandists wanted to present the war not as a purely German concern, but as a multi-national crusade against the so-called Jewish Bolshevism. [40] Hence, the Wehrmacht and the SS began to seek out recruits from occupied and neutral countries across Europe: the Germanic populations of the Netherlands and Norway were recruited largely into the SS, while "non-Germanic" people were recruited into the Wehrmacht. The "voluntary" nature of such recruitment was often dubious, especially in the later years of the war, when even Poles living in the Polish Corridor were declared "ethnic Germans" and drafted. [39]

After Germany's defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht also made substantial use of personnel from the Soviet Union, including the Caucasian Muslim Legion, Turkestan legion, Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, Cossacks, and others who wished to fight against the Soviet regime or who were otherwise induced to join. [39] Between 15,000–20,000 White émigrés joined the ranks of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, with 1,500 acting as interpreters and more than 10,000 serving in the Russian Protective Corps. [41] [42]

Command structure

Structure of the Wehrmacht (1935-1938) Wehrmacht structure (1935-1938).svg
Structure of the Wehrmacht (1935–1938)
Structure of the Wehrmacht (1939-1945) Wehrmacht structure (1939-1945).svg
Structure of the Wehrmacht (1939–1945)

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. With the creation of the Wehrmacht in 1935, Hitler elevated himself to Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, [43] retaining the position until his suicide on 30 April 1945. [44] The title of Commander-in-Chief was given to the Minister of the Reichswehr Werner von Blomberg, who was simultaneously renamed the Reich Minister of War. [43] Following the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair, Blomberg resigned and Hitler abolished the Ministry of War. [45] As a replacement for the ministry, the Armed Forces High Command, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) under Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel was put in its place. [46]

Placed under the OKW, were the three branch High Commands: Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), Oberkommando der Marine (OKM), and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL). The OKW was intended to serve as a joint command and coordinate all military activities, with Hitler at the top. [47] Yet, there was a clear lack of cohesion between the three High Commands and the OKW, as senior generals were unaware of the needs, capabilities and limitations of the other branches. [48] With Hitler serving as Supreme Commander, branch commands were often forced to fight for influence with Hitler. However, influence with Hitler not only came from rank and merit, but also who Hitler perceived as loyal, leading to inter-service rivalry, rather than cohesion between his military advisers. [49]

Though many senior officers, such as von Manstein, had advocated for a real tri-service Joint Command, or appointment of a single Joint Chief of Staff, Hitler refused. Even after the defeat at Stalingrad, Hitler refused, stating that Göring as Reichsmarschall and Hitler's deputy would not submit to someone else or see himself as an equal to other service commanders. [50]

In practice the OKW had operational authority over the Western Front whereas the Eastern Front was under the operational authority of the OKH. [51]



The Wehrmacht's "foot-mobile" infantry, 1942 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-217-0465-32A, Russland, Soldaten auf dem Marsch.jpg
The Wehrmacht's "foot-mobile" infantry, 1942

The German Army furthered concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground (Heer) and air force (Luftwaffe) assets into combined arms teams. [53] 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 . Germany's immediate military success on the field at the start of the Second World War coincides the favorable beginning they achieved during the First World War, a fact which some attribute to their superior officer corps. [54]

The Heer entered the war with a minority of its formations motorized; infantry remained approximately 90% foot-borne throughout the war, and artillery was 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 invasions of Poland (September 1939), Denmark and Norway (April 1940), Belgium, France, and Netherlands (May 1940), Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941) and the early stage of Operation Barbarossa in the Soviet Union (June 1941). [55]

After Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, the Axis powers found themselves engaged in campaigns against several major industrial powers while Germany was still in transition to a war economy. German units were then overextended, undersupplied, outmaneuvered, outnumbered and defeated by its enemies in decisive battles during 1941, 1942, and 1943 at the Battle of Moscow, the Siege of Leningrad, Stalingrad, Tunis in North Africa, and the Battle of Kursk. [56] [57]

A tank destroyer battalion, part of the 21 Panzer Division of the Afrika Korps Advance of the Panzerjager-Abteilung 39-AC1942.jpg
A tank destroyer battalion, part of the 21 Panzer Division of the Afrika Korps

The Germans' army military was managed through mission-based tactics (rather than order-based tactics) which was intended to give commanders greater freedom to act on events and exploit opportunities. In public opinion, the German Army was, and sometimes still is, seen as a high-tech army. However, such modern equipment, while featured much in propaganda, was often only available in relatively small numbers. [58] Only 40% to 60% of all units in the Eastern Front were motorized, baggage trains often relied on horse-drawn trailers due to poor roads and weather conditions in the Soviet Union, and for the same reasons many soldiers marched on foot or used bicycles as bicycle infantry. As the fortunes of war turned against them, the Germans were in constant retreat from 1943 and onward. [59] :142 [60] [61]

The Panzer divisions were vital to the German army's early success. In the strategies of the Blitzkrieg, the Wehrmacht combined the mobility of light tanks with airborne assault to quickly progress through weak enemy lines, enabling the German army to quickly and brutally take over Poland and France. [62] These tanks were used to break through enemy lines, isolating regiments from the main force so that the infantry behind the tanks could quickly kill or capture the enemy troops. [63]

Air Force

German paratroopers landing on Crete Bundesarchiv Bild 141-0864, Kreta, Landung von Fallschirmjagern.jpg
German paratroopers landing on Crete

Originally outlawed by the Treaty of Versailles, the Luftwaffe was officially established in 1935, under the leadership of Hermann Göring. [35] First gaining experience in the Spanish Civil War, it was a key element in the early blitzkrieg campaigns (Poland, France 1940, USSR 1941). The Luftwaffe concentrated production on fighters and (small) tactical bombers, like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter and the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. [64] The planes cooperated closely with the ground forces. Overwhelming numbers of fighters assured air-supremacy, and the bombers would attack command- and supply-lines, depots, and other support targets close to the front. The Luftwaffe would also be used to transport paratroopers, as first used during Operation Weserübung. [65] [66] Due to the Army's sway with Hitler, the Luftwaffe was often subordinated to the Army, resulting in it being used as a tactical support role and losing its strategic capabilities. [49]

The Western Allies' strategic bombing campaign against German industrial targets, particularly the round the clock Combined Bomber Offensive and Defence of the Reich, deliberately forced the Luftwaffe into a war of attrition. [67] With German fighter force destroyed the Western Allies had air supremacy over the battlefield, denying support to German forces on the ground and using its own fighter-bombers to attack and disrupt. Following the losses in Operation Bodenplatte in 1945, the Luftwaffe was no longer an effective force. [68]

Karl Donitz inspecting the Saint-Nazaire submarine base in France, June 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 101II-MW-3491-06, St. Nazaire, Uboot U 94, Karl Donitz.jpg
Karl Dönitz inspecting the Saint-Nazaire submarine base in France, June 1941

The Treaty of Versailles disallowed submarines, while limiting the size of the Reichsmarine to six battleships, six cruisers, and twelve destroyers. [23] Following the creation of the Wehrmacht, the navy was renamed the Kriegsmarine. [69]

With the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, the Germany was allowed to increase its navy's size to be 35:100 tonnage of the Royal Navy, and allowed for the construction of U-boats. [70] This was partly done to appease Germany, and because Britain believed the Kriegsmarine would not be able to reach the 35% limit until 1942. [71] The navy was also prioritized last in the German rearmament scheme. [72]

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. [73]

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. [74] No aircraft carrier was operational, as German leadership lost interest in the Graf Zeppelin which had been launched in 1938. [75]

Following the loss of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, with Allied air-superiority threatening the remaining battle-cruisers in French Atlantic harbors, the ships were ordered to make the Channel Dash back to German ports. [76] [77] [78] Operating from fjords along the coast of Norway, which had been occupied since 1940, convoys from North America to the Soviet port of Murmansk could be intercepted though the Tirpitz spent most of her career as fleet in being. [79] After the appointment of Karl Dönitz as Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine (in the aftermath of the Battle of the Barents Sea), Germany stopped constructing battleships and cruisers in favor of U-boats. [80] Though by 1941, the navy had already lost a number of its large surface ships, which could not be replenished during the war. [81]

The Kriegsmarine's most significant contribution to the German war effort was the deployment of its nearly 1,000 U-boats to strike at Allied convoys. [81] The German naval strategy was to attack the convoys in an attempt to prevent the United States from interfering in Europe and to starve out the British. [82] Karl Doenitz, the U-Boat Chief, began unrestricted submarine warfare which cost the Allies 22,898 men and 1,315 ships. [83] The U-boat war remained costly for the Allies until early spring of 1943 when the Allies began to use countermeasures against U-Boats such as the use of Hunter-Killer groups, airborne radar, torpedoes and mines like the FIDO. [84] The submarine war cost the Kriegsmarine 757 U-boats, with more than 30,000 U-boat crewmen killed. [85]

Coexistence with Waffen-SS

An Oberleutnant from the army sitting with a SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer from the Waffen-SS in 1944 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-712-0475-03, Litauisch-lettische Grenze, Lagebesprechung.jpg
An Oberleutnant from the army sitting with a SS-Hauptsturmführer from the Waffen-SS in 1944

In the beginning, there was friction between the SS and the Army, as the Army feared the SS would attempt to become a legitimate part of the armed forces of the Third Reich, partly due to the fighting between the limited armaments, and the perceived fanaticism towards Nazism. [86] [87] However, on 17 August 1938, Hitler codified the role of the SS and the army as to the end the feud between the two. [88] The arming of the SS was to be "procured from the Wehrmacht upon payment", however "in peacetime, no organizational connection with the Wehrmacht exists." [89] The army was however allowed to check the budget of the SS and inspect the combat readiness of the SS troops. [90] In the event of mobilization, the Waffen-SS field units could be placed under the operational control of the OKW or the OKH. All decisions regarding this, would be at Hitler's personal discretion. [90]

Though there existed conflict between the SS and Wehrmacht, many SS officers were former Army officers, which insured continuity and understanding between the two. [87] Throughout the war, Army and SS soldiers worked together in various combat situations, creating bonds between the two groups. [91] Guderian noted that every day the war continued the Army and the SS became closer together. [91] Towards the end of the war, Army units would even be placed under the command of the SS, in Italy and the Netherlands. [91] The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS improved, however, the Waffen-SS was never considered "the fourth branch of the Wehrmacht". [87]

Theatres and campaigns

The Wehrmacht directed combat operations during World War II (from 1 September 1939 – 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 Wehrmacht fought on other fronts, sometimes three simultaneously; redeploying troops from the intensifying theatre in the East to the West after the Normandy landings caused tensions between the General Staffs of both the OKW and the OKH – as Germany lacked sufficient materiel and manpower for a two-front war of such magnitude. [92]

Eastern theatre

German troops in the Soviet Union, October 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1989-030-27, Russland, Infanterie vor brennendem Haus.jpg
German troops in the Soviet Union, October 1941

Major campaigns and battles in Eastern and Central Europe included:

Western theatre

German soldiers in occupied Paris Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1994-036-09A, Paris, Parade auf der Champs Elysee.jpg
German soldiers in occupied Paris

Mediterranean theatre

German tanks during a counter-attack in North Africa, 1942 Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1976-091-06, Nordafrika, Panzer III.jpg
German tanks during a counter-attack in North Africa, 1942

For a time, the Axis Mediterranean Theatre and the North African Campaign were conducted as a joint campaign with the Italian Army, and may be considered a separate theatre.


The Wehrmacht suffered 80% of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. World War II military deaths in Europe by theater and by year.png
The Wehrmacht suffered 80% of its military deaths in the Eastern Front.
German war cemetery in Estonia Cemetery of German soldiers in Toila 24.jpg
German war cemetery in Estonia

More than 6,000,000 soldiers were wounded during the conflict, while more than 11,000,000 became prisoners. In all, approximately 5,318,000 soldiers from Germany and other nationalities fighting for the German armed forces—including the Waffen-SS, Volkssturm and foreign collaborationist units—are estimated to have been killed in action, died of wounds, died in custody or gone missing in World War II. Included in this number are 215,000 Soviet citizens conscripted by Germany. [94]

According to Frank Biess,

German casualties took a sudden jump with the defeat of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad in January 1943, when 180,310 soldiers were killed in one month. Among the 5.3 million Wehrmacht casualties during the Second World War, more than 80 per cent died during the last two years of the war. Approximately three-quarters of these losses occurred on the Eastern front (2.7 million) and during the final stages of the war between January and May 1945 (1.2 million). [95]

Jeffrey Herf wrote that:

Whereas German deaths between 1941 and 1943 on the western front had not exceeded three per cent of the total from all fronts, in 1944 the figure jumped to about 14 per cent. Yet even in the months following D-day, about 68.5 per cent of all German battlefield deaths occurred on the eastern front, as a Soviet blitzkrieg in response devastated the retreating Wehrmacht. [96]

War crimes

Nazi propaganda had told Wehrmacht soldiers to wipe out what were variously called Jewish Bolshevik subhumans, the Mongol hordes, the Asiatic flood and the red beast. [97] 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 , the Waffen-SS , and the Einsatzgruppen , which were responsible for mass killings, primarily by implementation of the so-called Final Solution of the Jewish Question in occupied territories), the traditional armed forces represented by the Wehrmacht committed and ordered war crimes of their own (e.g. the Commissar Order), particularly during the invasion of Poland in 1939 [98] and later in the war against the Soviet Union.

Cooperation with the SS

Prior to the outbreak of war, Hitler informed senior Wehrmacht officers that actions "which would not be in the taste of German generals", would take place in occupied areas and ordered them that they "should not interfere in such matters but restrict themselves to their military duties". [99] Some Wehrmacht officers initially showed a strong dislike for the SS and objected to the Army committing war crimes with the SS, though these objections were not against the idea of the atrocities themselves. [100] Later during the war, relations between the SS and Wehrmacht improved significantly. [101] The common soldier had no qualms with the SS, and often assisted them in rounding up civilians for executions. [102] [103]

The Army's Chief of Staff General Franz Halder in a directive declared that in the event of guerrilla attacks, German troops were to impose "collective measures of force" by massacring entire villages. [104] Cooperation between the SS Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht involved supplying the killing squads with weapons, ammunition, equipment, transport, and even housing. [101] Partisan fighters, Jews, and Communists became synonymous enemies of the Nazi regime and were hunted down and exterminated by the Einsatzgruppen and Wehrmacht alike, something revealed in numerous field journal entries from German soldiers. [105] Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Soviet civilians died from starvation as the Germans requisitioned food for their armies and fodder for their draft horses. [106] According to Thomas Kühne: "an estimated 300,000–500,000 people were killed during the Wehrmacht's Nazi security warfare in the Soviet Union." [107]

While secretly listening to conversations of captured German generals, British officials became aware that the German Army had taken part in the atrocities and mass killing of Jews and were guilty of war crimes. [108] American officials learned of the Wehrmacht's atrocities in much the same way. Taped conversations of soldiers detained as POWs revealed how some of them voluntarily participated in mass executions. [109]

Crimes against civilians

German troops marching civilians to execution Germans take civilians to execution.jpg
German troops marching civilians to execution

During the war, the Wehrmacht committed numerous war crimes against the civilian population in occupied countries. This includes massacres of civilians and running forced brothels in occupied areas.

Massacres would in many cases come as reprisals for acts of resistance. With these reprisals, the Wehrmacht's response would vary in severity and method, depending on the scale of resistance and whether it was in East or West Europe. [110] Often, the number of hostages to be shot was calculated based on a ratio of 100 hostages executed for every German soldier killed and 50 hostages executed for every German soldier wounded. [111] Other times civilians would be rounded up and shot with machine guns. [112]

To combat German officials' fear of venereal disease and onanism, [113] the Wehrmacht established numerous brothels throughout Nazi Germany and its occupied territories. [114] Women would often be kidnapped off the streets and forced to work in the brothels, [115] with an estimated minimum of 34,140 women being forced to serve as prostitutes. [116]

Crimes against POWs

Sixteen blindfolded Partisan youth await execution by German forces in Serbia, 20 August 1941 Partisan youth execution.jpg
Sixteen blindfolded Partisan youth await execution by German forces in Serbia, 20 August 1941

While the Wehrmacht's prisoner-of-war camps for inmates from the west generally satisfied the humanitarian requirement prescribed by international law, [117] prisoners from Poland and the USSR were incarcerated under significantly worse conditions. Between the launching of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 and the following spring, 2.8 million of the 3.2 million Soviet prisoners taken died while in German hands. [118]

Criminal and genocidal organization

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. [119] Among German historians, the view that the Wehrmacht had participated in wartime atrocities, particularly on the Eastern Front, grew in the late 1970s and the 1980s. [120] In the 1990s, public conception in Germany was influenced by controversial reactions and debates about the exhibition of war crime issues. [121]

More recently, the judgement of Nuremberg has come under question. The Israeli historian Omer Bartov, a leading expert on the Wehrmacht [122] wrote in 2003 that the Wehrmacht was a willing instrument of genocide, and that it is untrue that the Wehrmacht was an apolitical, professional fighting force that had only a few "bad apples". [123] Bartov argues that far from being the "untarnished shield", as successive German apologists stated after the war, the Wehrmacht was a criminal organization. [124] Likewise, the British historian Richard J. Evans, a leading expert on modern German history, wrote that the Wehrmacht was a genocidal organization. [97] Historian Ben Shepherd writes that "There is now clear agreement amongst historians that the German Wehrmacht ... identified strongly with National Socialism and embroiled itself in the criminality of the Third Reich." [125] British historian Ian Kershaw concludes that the Wehrmacht's duty was to ensure that the people who met Hitler's requirements of being part of the Aryan Herrenvolk ("Aryan master race") had living space. He wrote that:

The Nazi revolution was broader than just the Holocaust. Its second goal was to eliminate Slavs from central and eastern Europe and to create a Lebensraum for Aryans. ... As Bartov (The Eastern Front; Hitler's Army) shows, it barbarised the German armies on the eastern front. Most of their three million men, from generals to ordinary soldiers, helped exterminate captured Slav soldiers and civilians. This was sometimes cold and deliberate murder of individuals (as with Jews), sometimes generalised brutality and neglect. ... German soldiers' letters and memoirs reveal their terrible reasoning: Slavs were 'the Asiatic-Bolshevik' horde, an inferior but threatening race. [19]

Several high-ranking Wehrmacht officers, including Hermann Hoth, Georg von Küchler, Georg-Hans Reinhardt, Karl von Roques, Walter Warlimont and others, were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the High Command Trial given sentences ranging from time served to life. [126]

Resistance to the Nazi regime

Martin Bormann, Hermann Goring, and Bruno Loerzer surveying the damaged made by the 20 July plot Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1972-025-10, Hitler-Attentat, 20. Juli 1944.jpg
Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, and Bruno Loerzer surveying the damaged made by the 20 July plot

Originally, there was little resistance within the Wehrmacht, as Hitler actively went against the Treaty of Versailles and recovering the Army's honor. [127] The first major resistance began in 1938 with the Oster conspiracy, where several members of the military wanted to remove Hitler from power, as they feared a war with Czechoslovakia would ruin Germany. [128] However, following the success of the early campaigns in Poland, Scandinavia and France, belief in Hitler was restored. [127] With the defeat in Stalingrad, trust in Hitler's leadership began to wane. [129] This caused an increase in resistance within the military. The resistance culminated in the 20 July plot (1944), when a group of officers led by Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Hitler. The attempt failed, resulting in the execution of 4,980 people [130] and the standard military salute to being replaced with the Hitler salute. [131]

Some members of the Wehrmacht did save Jews and non-Jews from the concentration camps and/or mass murder. Anton Schmid – a sergeant in the army – helped between 250 and 300 Jewish men, women, and children escape from the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania. [132] [133] [134] 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. [135] Wilm Hosenfeld—an army captain in Warsaw—helped, hid, or rescued several Poles, including Jews, in occupied Poland. He helped the Polish Jewish composer Władysław Szpilman, who was hiding among the city's ruins, by supplying him with food and water. [136]

According to Wolfram Wette, only three Wehrmacht soldiers are known for being executed for rescuing Jews: Anton Schmid, Friedrich Rath and Friedrich Winking. [137]

After World War II

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. [138] The last Wehrmacht unit to come under Allied control was an isolated weather station in Svalbard, which formally surrendered to a Norwegian relief ship on 4 September. [139]

On 20 September 1945, with Proclamation No. 2 of the Allied Control Council (ACC), "[a]ll German land, naval and air forces, the S.S., S.A., S.D. and Gestapo, with all their organizations, staffs and institution, including the General Staff, the Officers' corps, the Reserve Corps, military schools, war veterans' organizations, and all other military and quasi-military organizations, together with all clubs and associations which serve to keep alive the military tradition in Germany, shall be completely and finally abolished in accordance with the methods and procedures to be laid down by the Allied Representatives." [140] The Wehrmacht was officially dissolved by the ACC Law 34 on 20 August 1946, [141] which proclaimed the OKW, OKH, the Ministry of Aviation and the OKM to be "disbanded, completely liquidated and declared illegal". [142]

Military operational legacy

Immediately following the end of the war, many were quick to dismiss the Wehrmacht due to its failures and claim allied superiority. [143] However, historians have since reevaluated the Wehrmacht in terms of fighting power and tactics, giving it a more favorable assessment, with some calling it one of the best in the world. [144] Partly due to its ability to regularly inflict higher losses than it received, while it fought outnumbered and outgunned. [145]

Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, who attempted to examin the military force of the Wehrmacht in a purely military context, concluded: "The German army was a superb fighting organization. In point of morale, elan, troop cohesion and resilience, it was probably had no equal among twentieth century armies." [146] German historian Rolf-Dieter Müller comes to the following conclusion:" In the purely military sense [...] you can indeed say that the impression of a superior fighting force rightly exists. The proverbial efficiency was even greater than previously thought, because the superiority of the opponent was much higher than at that time German officers suspected. The analysis of Russian archive files finally gives us a clear picture in this regard." [147] Strategic thinker and professor Colin S. Gray believed that the Wehrmacht possessed outstanding tactical and operational capabilities. However, following a number of successful campaigns, German policy began to have victory disease, asking the Wehrmacht to do the impossible. The continued use of the Blitzkrieg also led to Soviets learning the tactic and using it against the Wehrmacht. [148]

Historical revisionism

Soon after the war ended, former Wehrmacht officers, veterans' groups and various far-right authors began to state that the Wehrmacht was an apolitical organization which was largely innocent of Nazi Germany's war crimes and crimes against humanity. [149] Attempting to benefit from the clean Wehrmacht myth, veterans of the Waffen-SS declared that the organisation had virtually been a branch of the Wehrmacht and therefore had fought as "honourably" as it. Its veterans organisation, HIAG, attempted to cultivate a myth of their soldiers having been "Soldiers like any other". [150]

Post war militaries

Former Wehrmacht generals Adolf Heusinger and Hans Speidel sworn into the newly founded Bundeswehr on 12 November 1955 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-34150-0001, Bonn, Theodor Blank, Bundeswehrfreiwillige.jpg
Former Wehrmacht generals Adolf Heusinger and Hans Speidel sworn into the newly founded Bundeswehr on 12 November 1955

Following the division of Germany, many former Wehrmacht and SS officers in West Germany feared a Soviet invasion of the country. To combat this, several prominent officers created a secret army, unknown to the general public and without mandate from the Allied Control Authority or the West German government. [151] [152]

By the mid-1950s, 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 (lit.Federal Defence). Its East German counterpart—created on 1 March 1956—took the name National People's Army (German : Nationale Volksarmee). Both organizations employed many former Wehrmacht members, particularly in their formative years, [153] though neither organization considered themselves successors to the Wehrmacht. [154] [155] [156]

Wehrmacht veterans in West Germany have received pensions through the War Victims' Assistance Act (German : Bundesversorgungsgesetz) from the government. [157] [158] According to The Times of Israel, "The benefits come through the Federal Pension Act, which was passed in 1950 to support war victims, whether civilians or veterans of the Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS." [159]

See also


  1. The official dissolution of the Wehrmacht began with the German Instrument of Surrender of 8 May 1945. Reasserted in Proclamation No. 2 of the Allied Control Council on 20 September 1945, the dissolution was officially declared by ACC Law No. 34 of 20 August 1946. [3] [4]
  2. Total GDP: 75 billion (1939) & 118 billion (1944) [6]
  3. See the Wiktionary article for more information.

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