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Book Review


Wette, Wolfram.  The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality.  Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). 372 pp, $17.95.

     This work of synthesis reexamines the role of the Wehrmacht on the eastern front in the Second World War.  Wette argues that from the beginning of the campaign the Wehrmacht fought a war of extermination.  This argument is similar to that of Omar Bartov in Hitler's Army, but where Bartov asserts that the Wehrmacht degenerated into "Hitler's Army" over time as casualties on the eastern front were replaced by indoctrinated Hitler Youth, Wette argues that the radicalization of Wehrmacht leadership began much sooner, even before the First World War. In fact, by the launching of the campaign every senior and general officer in the Wehrmacht fought to eradicate "Jewish Bolshevism."  Additionally, Wette traces the development of the "clean hands" myth, the myth that separated SS and Einsatzgruppen from the Wehrmacht and allowed the Wehrmacht to come out of the war almost totally free of any accountability for the Holocaust.  This myth developed in the immediate post-war period and has only recently been challenged by the creation of the "War of Extermination: The Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1941-1944" exhibit that toured Germany in the late 1990s.

     In developing his argument, Wette argues that even before the turn of the century, Germany's military elite were antagonistic towards Russia. They were also anti-Semitic, like many Europeans.  The Great War's aftermath and the turmoil of Weimar provided an opportunity for anti-Semitism and antagonism toward Russia to be combined in the creation of the "Jewish Bolshevist" threat.  Wette points to the notorious "head count" studies of Jewish soldier/casualty ratios during the war, the assassination of Jewish Weimar politicians, and "Aryan clauses" in the Stahlhelm and the Reichswehr as proof that the German military adhered to "Jewish Bolshevist" ideology long before the Nazis came to power.  Hitler merely legitimized their attitude towards Jews by establishing a sympathetic government.  When the Germans launched Barbarossa in 1941, German generals fully understood what Hitler expected of them in regards to treatment of the civilian population.  Wette points out that Wehrmacht soldiers took hundreds of pictures of civilian executions and murders committed by Wehrmacht officers and soldiers, proving that it was not only the Einsatzgruppen that committed such atrocities.

     The second half of the book addresses, arguably, a more serious issue than the Holocaust itself: the Wehrmacht's ability to absolve itself of responsibility and the world's willingness to let them do it.  The "clean hands" myth, Wette argues, began almost at the same time as the invasion of the Soviet Union.  Orders and reports used carefully constructed language that left no question as to their implications at the time, but proved ambiguous for future researchers.  Cold War necessity, the German penchant for tradition, and American willingness to cooperate allowed Wehrmacht generals to write their histories of the campaign favorably despite documented evidence that they were guilty of war crimes.  Noted German scholars such as Andreas Hillgruber and Raul Hilberg challenged the "clean hands" myth in the 1960s and 1970s, but their work met resistance in being published or accepted.  It was not until the 1990s, when the Cold War was over and the next generation of Germans unassociated with the Nazi era began to ask questions about the past, that challenges of the Wehrmacht's integrity received the level of acceptance shown by the popularity of the "War of Extermination" exhibit.

     Wette's arguments are provocative, but only to a degree. Wette himself has fallen victim to the "clean hands" myth in his discussion of NCOs and enlisted men.  The book focuses almost entirely on senior and general officers.  Wette's section on generals and enlisted men asserts that the lower ranks were not as susceptible to propaganda and racial rhetoric, and either excuses them on grounds of "just following orders" or holds up rare examples of resistance.  Wette's book even ends by devoting thirteen pages to a sergeant who was executed for helping Jews in occupied Ukraine escape.  Wette's conclusions about senior and general officers are based on numerous examples, but his conclusions about the millions of soldats are based on one extraordinary sergeant.  Wette's insistence on blaming only the upper echelons is reminiscent of the very post-war and Cold War scholarship he is challenging.  Despite the book's recent publication date, parts of its argument sound much older.  It is surprising that Wette lets the lower ranks off so easily.  There are no citations of the recent works by scholars like Eric Johnson (though he does cite one of Johnson's previous works) and Robert Gellately, who both demonstrated the depths to which Nazi racial ideology permeated the very rungs of the social ladder from which the bulk of the Wehrmacht were drawn.  Additionally, Johnson's work also explores the "clean hands" myth.  His work focuses on the Gestapo rather than the Wehrmacht, but would have nonetheless been a valuable source to consult on Wette's discussion of the myth's construction.

     In terms of structure and style the book is a pleasure to read.  Wette's language is clear and concise and his argument is broken into small, easy to digest sections.  There is no introduction, but the preface and foreword substitute nicely while his brief conclusion ties all his arguments together.  The book contains an adequate index but unfortunately no bibliography, which is especially frustrating considering it is a work of synthesis and therefore forces the reader to dig through the footnotes to find source information.  One must also criticize Wette for not including any photographs.  He mentions several times the large number of incriminating photos available, yet does not include any of them.  The lack of such photos do not necessarily detract from the argument, but they certainly would have reinforced it.

     The arguments and sources presented in the book make it most suited to scholars and graduate students; however, its subject and concise language expand its possible audience to include anyone with an interest in Nazi Germany, military history, the Holocaust, or the Second World War. Wette's section on the continuity of "Jewish Bolshevist" thought in the officer corps and on the construction of the "clean hands" myth are very well argued and could easily be assigned as partial readings in an upper-division undergraduate course without having to add substantially the course reading load by assigning the entire book.

     Wette has also made a contribution to the field of world history.  His specific topic is geographically and culturally limited, but the implications of his conclusions can be applied on a much broader scale.  By exploring the creation, perpetuation and breakdown of the "clean hands" myth, Wette has shown the importance and impact of international events and memory on history.  According to Wette, the Wehrmacht was able to evade responsibility for its role in the Holocaust in large part because the victorious nations of World War II allowed it.  He has demonstrated how one world event, the Cold War, had a drastic impact on how another world event; the Holocaust, was remembered, not only in Germany but in the rest of the world as well.  Wette has demonstrated how subjects which have long been considered exhausted can be reinterpreted in the context of world history.

     In summary, Wette's addition to the historiography of the Wehrmacht and the Holocaust is mixed.  His expansion of Bartov's argument regarding the Nazifacation of the officers of the Wehrmacht is compelling, as is his discussion about the construction of the "clean hands" myth, but his omission of serious discussion on the role of lower ranks and enlisted men leaves something to be desired.  His book therefore provides valuable insights and suggests paths for future research, but has sufficient gaps to prevent it from replacing the many books upon which it is drawn.


Chris Thomas
Texas A&M University


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