Unlike World War I, which is now seen as more of a pointless political folly, World War II is often thought of as a war against evil and hatred. Most infamously, the Nazi party is seen as the pinnacle of evil in the western world. Indeed, Hitler’s extermination of 11 million or so people in his genocidal campaigns, war crimes and hateful ideologies has helped earn him and the Nazi party a continuing legacy of hurt to this day. In accordance with that, many think it reasonable that anyone who stood by and turned a blind eye to such evil is just as guilty for not stopping it. Now, many people go so far as to assume everyone in Germany between 1939-1945 collaborated with evil. One of the more easy targets to turn one’s outrage towards: the soldiers.
What could they have done? That is the million dollar question in this whole controversy
over the German army’s responsibility for the evils that took place under Hitler. Many argue that the German army could have done something to stop the war crimes taking place or save all of the people in the camps, but what? Many soldiers were fighting on different fronts, and were doing the same things their opponents were doing day to day, like fight and survive. Those people didn’t have much time to go hunting down people Hitler didn’t like. Morally, they were simply being soldiers during a war. Were there war crimes that many could have not committed? Sure. The German army wasn’t perfectly “clean”. There were war crimes, killings of innocent civilians, treating POWs cruelly, but it would be an equal lie to say that other nation’s armies including our own did not do all of the above too. That doesn’t justify the wrongs that were committed, but downplaying our own “dirty secrets” yet painting the entire Wehrmacht with that brush is hypocritical.
And the defense of “we were just following orders”, if you look at military culture, it makes sense. These soldiers were brought up to obey any order without question as impressionable young men. The risk of disobeying was too great, and often the cards were stacked against them even if they were right not to obey. The consequences were immediate and swift, no time to bring it before a tribunal after the war ends. Imagine you are a young man, barely out of your teens, and a much older officer tells you to do something wrong, like kill civilians. Now, you might have plenty of qualms and moral objections about doing so, but considering your situation, what do you do? Defy your officer and probably get shot too, or do it and survive yourself? One’s actions in the heat of the moment may surprise them… The responsibility of these war crimes should be on the people giving the orders, not the men under them. Men who were taught never to question an order and do it on pain of severe punishment or death I would argue to be just as responsible as someone who drove away from a crime at gunpoint. Independent thought is not often historically emphasized in the military.
Also, most controversially, in my historical opinion, rescuing all of the concentration camp victims wasn’t feasible in the middle of a major war. The German army wouldn’t have had the time to revolt and overthrow Hitler and the SS and liberate everyone who has been wronged and also keep up the fight in Europe if they had wanted too. Courageously, Staffenburg and his officers tried, but failed. Hitler’s genocidal campaigns sapped many
resources from Germany’s war, perhaps they would have won otherwise. Even without a Wehrmacht overthrow, Germany still lost the war. Would it be the right thing to stop the suffering going on? Yes, but in war, one must make hard choices. Saving the country altogether, or saving these unfortunate victims. While it seems incredibly harsh and callous, in the midst of an increasingly lost war, their country came first, and yet, even directing resources to the front, they still lost. Still think this is a flimsy excuse morally? Think about all of the groups pleading us to save them, and how many we can support in our country today… How much should we be obligated to stop suffering not directly affecting our country?
Lastly, but an important note too is that even Hitler and the SS did not fully trust the Wehrmacht. Hitler was suspicious of them, especially after several plots on his life by Wehrmacht officers, such as Col. Staffenburg and his men. The Wehrmacht also wanted to keep the traditional Germany army symbols, such as the iron cross, and their own salute, not Hitler’s as their official salute. Only after Staffenburg’s plot did Hitler enforce it for the German army too in addition to civilians. While some were members of the Nazi party, the army as a whole kept many pre-Nazi traditions as many had military careers before the Nazis came into power. Going even further, at the end of the war, people were involuntarily conscripted into the SS as well.
Overall, it would be nice to think that the German army could have done more to not collaborate with Hitler’s evils, but in the midst of World War II, it just wasn’t feasible. The people who fought for Germany between 1939 and 1945 had the same motives for doing so as any other soldier, and the majority fought the war, the same as all the other soldiers. Yes, lines were blurred and things did happen in the German army, but it also happened in the allied forces too. It would be nice to think that the German army could just “go on strike” until Hitler left, but it’s just not realistic. Is it possible to fight for one’s country, but not necessarily for one’s leader? Could they have fought more for Germany than for Hitler? Perhaps they fought in the midst of evil, surrounded by evil, by an evil dictator, but I believe it unfair to say they fought for evil. In many ways, they were one of Hitler’s many victims too. Underneath the uniform, they were as human as you and I, and if you ever get the chance to meet one today, learn their story before you judge.