In Nazi eyes, the Soviet Union was the “wild east,” a savage region ripe for exploitation, its subhuman inhabitants destined for extermination or helotry. An especially brutal dimension of the German army’s eastern war was its anti-partisan campaign. This conflict brought death and destruction to thousands of Soviet civilians, and has been held as a prime example of ordinary German soldiers participating in the Nazi regime’s annihilation policies.
Ben Shepherd enters the heated debate over the wartime behavior of the Wehrmacht in a detailed study of the motivation and conduct of its anti-partisan campaign in the Soviet Union. He investigates how anti-partisan warfare was conducted, not by the generals, but by the far more numerous, average Germans serving as officers in the field. What shaped their behavior was more complex than Nazi ideology alone. The influence of German society, as well as of party and army, together with officers’ grueling yet diverse experience of their environment and enemy, made them perceive the anti-partisan war in varied ways. Reactions ranged from extreme brutality to relative restraint; some sought less to terrorize the native population than to try to win it over. The emerging picture does not dilute the suffering the Wehrmacht’s eastern war inflicted. It shows, however, that properly judging ordinary Germans’ role in that war is more complicated than is indicated by either wholesale condemnation or wholesale exoneration.
This valuable study offers a nuanced discussion of the diversity of behaviors within the German army, as well as providing a compelling exploration of the war and counterinsurgency operations on the eastern front.
The epic clash on the Eastern Front in the Second World War remains arguably the largest conflict ever fought… Analyzing the official paperwork of three army security divisions responsible for the suppression of Soviet insurgents, Shepherd focuses on the conduct and motivation of the field officers, who served as the crucial links that ‘converted the ideological, military, and economic imperatives of the Third Reich’s war of extermination into action.’ He reveals that at all levels the Wehrmacht was thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazi anti-Bolshevik, anti-Slav, and anti-Semitic ideology… But Shepherd reveals that as partisan activity intensified, many officers (mostly from western Germany, and so largely immune from the anti-Slav sentiment that pervaded eastern Germany) calculatedly acted with some restraint and even attempted to cultivate ties with Soviet civilians in order to stanch support for the guerrillas and woo deserters—even as Wehrmacht units, commanded by ideological fanatics (who tended to be from eastern Germany), continued and extended their arbitrary killing spree. Shepherd in no way exonerates the Wehrmacht. The conduct of all German officers he examines was ferocious, even criminal—though some were more brutal than pragmatic, and some more pragmatic than brutal. But in highlighting the diversity and fluidity of the Wehrmacht’s response to the partisan threat, he illuminates both the mercurial nature of warfare and a particularly savage aspect of the most savage war yet waged.
This important book marks the confluence of several relatively recent historiographical trends that have influenced military history in general and accounts of Nazi Germany’s war in the East particular… Shepherd demonstrates his mastery of the considerable literature in this area… Shepherd’s monograph is well written, and his arguments and conclusions are sound. This book will appeal to experts as well as general readers with an interest in the Soviet–German war.
Ben Shepherd’s excellent study of the Nazi invasion of Russia during World War II is well reasoned and carefully argued. He illuminates the complex sequence of events and ideas that led to the development of a ‘culture of brutality’ in the Wehrmacht.
- 336 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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