Why German Soldiers Don’t Have to Obey Orders

Why German Soldiers Don’t Have to Obey Orders

Consider, if you will, a fraught military standoff. A soldier from the German army receives an order from a superior to fire his gun, but he puts it down and walks away. In the United States, he would have just committed the unforgivable and illegal act of insubordination, even if the superior officer weren’t from the same service branch.

But in this scenario, the German soldier didn’t break the rules—he followed them. Military disobedience is actually baked into the German Bundeswehr, or armed forces. And the reasons why can be found in the country’s sinister past.

American military law states that an order can only be disobeyed if it is unlawful. However, the German military manual states that a military order is not binding if it is not “of any use for service,” or cannot reasonably be executed. In fact, if the order denies human dignity to the armed forces member or the order’s target, it must not be obeyed.

In practice, that means that a soldier or armed forces administrator can ignore a superior officer’s order—even if it’s in the midst of combat or is given by a high-ranking official.

That’s not how it used to be. Unconditional obedience to military orders was once a norm going back to the kingdoms that preceded Germany before it became a nation state in 1871. During World War I, Germany executed 48 soldiers for insubordination, and its basic training regimen—designed around unconditional submission to higher officers—was known as one of Europe’s most brutal.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

After World War I, this discipline softened thanks to the Allied forces, which blamed the country’s strict military hierarchy for the ruthlessness of World War I. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to admit guilt for the war and to restrict its military’s numbers and weapons. The country’s military was effectively dismantled, with officer schools shut down and the number of troops reduced to just 100,000.

However, Germany had no intention of following the treaty’s military provisions. Soon after the treaty was signed, German general Hans von Seeckt began to reorganize and secretly rebuild the military with the help of Russia. German companies began producing forbidden arms on Russian soil and German troops trained with Russian soldiers—all in secret.

By the time Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933 with promises to revive the country’s former might, the German public was ready for it. Hitler immediately began to openly flout the treaty. As he brought Germany’s secretive postwar military into the open, they began pledging their loyalty directly to him. From 1934 on, the German military oath was sworn to Hitler himself—and it contained a clause that promised “unconditional obedience.”

That rule was taken seriously during the lead up to World War II and the conflict itself. At least 15,000 German soldiers were executed for desertion alone, and up to 50,000 were killed for often minor acts of insubordination. An unknown number were summarily executed, often in the moment, by their officers or comrades when they refused to follow commands.

This wasn’t always the case. Historian David H. Kitterman’s research on a group of 135 German soldiers who refused orders to kill Jews, POWs or hostages shows they suffered beatings and death threats for defying their superiors, but none were executed. Although insubordination was taken seriously, excuses that soldiers had “just been obeying orders” when they participated in Holocaust atrocities weren’t entirely true.

When the war ended, the Allies assumed control of Germany and decommissioned its entire military. It took a decade for Germany—now split in two—to regain a military, and in 1955 a new Bundeswehr was created.

The new German armed forces were a different beast than their predecessors. German law forbids the use of its military to do anything other than defend Germany itself, though the military does participate in some humanitarian and NATO coalition missions. Instead of blind obedience, the military emphasizes Innere Führung, a hard-to-translate concept that centers the military experience around the inner conscience of each individual.

As a result, many German soldiers refuse combat assignments or disobey orders—with no consequence. Their ability to do so has been repeatedly held up in civil courts (Germany has no military courts) and in the federal government. In 2007, the German federal government even went so far as to state that German law means unconditional authority or loyalty to superiors can’t exist. Soldiers must not obey unconditionally, the government wrote, but carry out “an obedience which is thinking.” However, the policy statement added, soldiers can’t disobey an order merely because their personal views conflict with those of their superior.

Nowhere is that conception of conscientious military service more apparent than at the Benderblock, a Berlin building where participants of a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler were executed in 1944. Today, the building is a museum to German resistance—and every year, it’s the place where new German soldiers are traditionally sworn to their duties.

It’s intentional that their oaths to defend Germany are sworn in a place not of military obedience, but of military resistance. The brutal legacy of two world wars and the Holocaust explains Germany’s reticence to make its soldiers obey orders no matter what.

This story is part of Heroes Week, a weeklong celebration of our heroes in the armed forces. Read more veterans stories here.

Hitler Oath

The Hitler Oath (German: Führereid or Führer Oath)—also referred in English as the Soldier's Oath [1] —refers to the oaths of allegiance, sworn by the officers and soldiers of the German Armed Forces and civil servants of Nazi Germany between the years 1934 and 1945. The oath pledged personal loyalty to Adolf Hitler in place of loyalty to the constitution of the country. Historians view the personal oath of the Third Reich as an important psychological element to obey orders for committing war crimes, atrocities, and genocide. [2] During the Nuremberg trials, many German officers unsuccessfully attempted to use the oath as a defense against charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. [3]

German Military Oaths: Background

Traditionally, the German military had sworn an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser. This changed after Germany's defeat in World War I and the establishment of a democratic government, the Weimar Republic, in Germany.

The political leaders of the new Weimar Republic sought to democratize the military by changing its social makeup and by changing the oath of allegiance. The new oath required soldiers to swear loyalty to the Weimar Constitution and its institutions, including the office of the Reich President, rather than to any individual.

The Weimar government also viewed the military as a potential threat. Much of the military's conservative leadership did not support the new Republic, and Weimar officials hoped that the oath would help provide legitimacy and security.

For many career soldiers, however, the idea of swearing an oath to a constitution was disconcerting.

Why German Soldiers Don’t Have to Obey Orders - HISTORY

I believe that a soldier can be justified in refusing to obey an order. Yes, he did sign up to do a certain duty. However, inhumane orders are not what he signed up for. The reason the soldier joined the army wasn’t to obey orders. It was to serve the good, and usually the best way to do that is by obeying orders. However, some orders can violate the good. Which orders do that is a matter left up to the soldier’s own conscience.
One other point, to those who felt that the soldier should obey orders because, if he disobeyed, he would be sent to federal prison and his family would be left without a provider. What if the order was for the soldier to kill himself? Let us also presume that this suicide would serve no larger strategic purpose – the commander is simply being ornery. Should the soldier still obey? If he should obey all orders, then yes, If he should do what’s best for himself and his family, then no. And if he is allowed to listen to his own conscience then no.
It is our conscience which makes us human. Once we stop listening to it we become little more than machines. I think the men and women serving our country both should be and are much more than that.

Soldiers are signed up to perform a duty to protect their country. It is up to military superiors to determine what those duties pertain. For this perspective, inhumane or not, moral or immoral, the soldier needs to perform the order to protect their country. It is ideal that the orders given are ideal for protecting their country. We need to trust that superiors do have a higher moral judgment in a military setting. This is not to say that superiors will always make the right decision, but that it is dangerous to let every soldiers make their own decisions.
You are right in that there are those extreme examples where there it is not rationale, such as committing suicide for the sake of committing suicide. But a law which allows every soldier to make their own decisions, or to refuse an order, will be a slippery slope to greater problems.

But when the war is about protecting policy and interests, not our country, then is does it not negate the entire foundation of your argument?

Is the line between protecting interests and protecting one’s country really so easy to define? Did the US army invade Iraq because it was harboring terrorism or because of oil? maybe both? Either way, Branden, the point you are making is better suited as a basis for refusing to be drafted to a war all together (like happened in Vietnam) and not for refusing to obey a specific order.

I agree that this line is not easily distinguished there are different perspectives. The military, which is governed by our government, interprets what protecting our country really means. Our policies and interests can be a means to protecting our government in less direct way and can also be viewed as preventative measures.

For countries like Israel, with many terrorist and other foreign treats, soldiers should place trust into their commanding officers to do whats right. Generally, commanding officers have information that those below them do not, so not following their orders might put others in danger. For example, in the 2008 Hamas attacks on Israel, Hamas would use civilian structures for cover as they launched rockets into Israel. While a commander might know this, an individual soldier may not. So, while a pilot sent to destroy a civilian house may suspect that there are only civilians there, the commander may know otherwise. Since a commanding officer does not have the time to explain to every individual soldier their reasons for attack, the soldiers should do as their are told. Even for a country like Israel with mandatory service, the population is very patriotic and soldiers should believe that their actions are protecting their families back home. If an action did kill civilians, it would be the government’s responsibility to respond (as the Israeli Government did at the time). Normally, western first world countries can be trusted not to kill civilians without necessity.

Just to get a better idea of what you’re saying, is the life of one “terrorist” worth the life of one civilian? Also, what do you mean by “terrorist”?

“Normally, western first world countries can be trusted not to kill civilians without necessity.”
Do you know why? It’s because people on the ground, including commanders, question the orders given to them by higher ups. When a captain is given an order to blow up a civilian home by a major who was given the order to secure a given neighborhood by a colonel, the captain can and should at the very least analyze the order he is about to pass further down the line to his troops.

I’ll address the seond part of your comment first I dont know where you heard that troops question orders, because that’s simply inaccurate. My grandfather actually is a colonel in the US army, so I asked him if soldiers were allowed to question orders based on moral beliefs. He simply laughed and said that the questioning of orders is never allowed and anyone who does so is reprimanded. First world countries do not kill civilians not because soldiers question their orders (they do as they are told), but because the higher officers do not kill civilians without reason.

As for the first part of your comment, the terrorists in this context were people who attacked Israeli civilians with rockets while using their own civilians for cover. If you don’t want to call that terrorism, then call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change their actions. It is the job of the military to protect their own country’s civilians. So if Hamas attackers are hiding behind their own civilians when attacking, the lives of the Israeli citizens supercedes those of the collateral damage that may occur, giving Israel the right to fight back with any means necessary.

Ah, but see, when you define a terrorist act, you’re speaking in terms of only one situation. I want you to give me a definition of terrorism that spans multiple situations. Do that, and we can start working on the first part of your argument.

As for questioning orders, your counter argument is grounded in the fact that your grandfather, who is only one man in an army of many, does not question orders. First, I will counter by saying that my great grandfather, who served during world war two, questioned an order to destroy a home during his tour on the Rhine and it saved the lives of an entire German family. He was but a lowly G.I.. So, invoking the opinion of your grandfather does not do much to further this argument. In conjunction to this, the question is not whether a soldier would get reprimanded, it is whether it is right to take the reprimand and save lives or kill and avoid reprimand. Second, what if the officers get bad intel? How do they know that there are not civilians in the AO? What dictates a “good reason” to kill civilians? You’re missing a lot in how you’re justifying the act of killing civilians and what defines a terrorist. Once we get that taken care of, I’m sure we can move on with figuring out what the correct course of action is.

There is no single definition of terrorism, especially as often as it is evoked nowadays, but in my opinion it is any group which meaningfully civilians (instead of simply attacking soldiers).
What a exact terrorist is, is besides the point, however. You misunderstand why soldiers would get reprimanded for questioning orders. It is not simply a matter of obedience, but in taking the time to question orders so they may allow (in the Israel case) more rockets to be fired, resulting in the death of Israeli civilians instead. Or, as another example, lets say at a military checkpoint in Afganistan, a woman starts running towards them. If she keeps running after they tell her to stop, and the officer tells you to kill her, would you do it? While she may just not understand, she could just as easily have a bomb. Would you bet her life against your own and your fellow troops? So while you say say questioning orders may save lives, it can just as easily cause deaths, especially when decisive action is needed.
As for what justifies killing civilians, I think you miss what it means to be in the military. Their job is to protect their own civilians from attack, not others. So, while they don’t
Kill other civilians on purpose, the lives of one’s own citizens superscedes that of others. As an example, during ww2 the projected casualties for the US taking Japan was around 1 million US troops. Instead of risking their lives, however, the military dropped two atomic bombs, killing a large number of Japanese civilians. By doing this, they saved
countless American lives. As for bad intel argument, the US is generally very good at not attacking until they get very good intel (they didn’t attack Osama’s compound just because they suspected it, but because they knew he was there), so that’s not a reason to question orders.

Simply, a organization without a head is a monster. Superior rank within the military is done purposefully so that the nation can be protected and served. Although one particular soldier may have the choice to refuse to obey an order, that particular soldier may not see how this one action will add to the greater purpose they may not see the entire picture. As an officer of superior rank, you have access to more information and see how certain actions will result and lead to others. Ideally these soldiers would be able to voice their opinion and act morally within the military, but that is not practical for serving the greater purpose.

When recollecting the Holocaust, what is the first image that pops into mind? More often than not, mentioning the Holocaust conjures images of the death camps, gas chambers, mass graves, etc. However, during WWII, these came as a bit of a shock to the invading Allies in fact, I wouldn’t doubt a good bit of the Germans weren’t aware of them. The above statement assumes an ideal military structure in which the leaders are ethical and hold only the motivation of preserving the State. As a soldier you have a duty to obey orders. But you are first and foremost an ethically engaged human being duty bound and responsible to act according to your ethical principles. A good leader keeps his soldiers informed.

I believe that this was a fair ruling. If an order was obviously immoral then it should be easy to prove this to most people in a trial if morals are more or less universal, which I believe they are. It does seem to create a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy though. Having every soldier who ever disobeyed an order stand trial to defend themselves seems extreme and like a large waste of time. Also, this probably hinders the army’s ability to do its job to some extent. In a country where military service was not mandatory, it would make more sense to simply fire the soldier. They probably wouldn’t be able to perform their jobs in the same way after being ordered to do something they found immoral anyway. However, in a country where service is mandatory, being fired is not feasible since it would create an easy out for people who didn’t want to serve. In this case, it does seem to be most fair to let the soldier defend themselves. This gives them options that do not completely strip them of their morality and therefore their humanity.

You say it is extreme and a waste of time to have every soldier who ever disobeyed an order stand trial, but this is exactly what happens in the army, soldiers stand trial for their shirt not being tucked in or their shoes not being shined, this may seem like a waste of time, but it serves a bigger purpose – strict obedience is enforced in the army because in a combat situation lives depend on soldiers obeying orders swiftly and to a tee.
The point you make about firing a soldier because they wouldn’t be able to perform their jobs in the same way after being ordered to do something they found immoral is interesting in the context of draft evasion or resistance. During the Vietnam war some people refused to get drafted because they found the war unjustified and therefore immoral to begin with. A similar thing is happening in Israel, although in much smaller numbers.

I believe the law is a bit foolish, either way the soldier will have to face a trial. Basically soldiers are punished for doing their own job. If you decide to be a soldier you have to obey orders period. You have to separate morality from it or the job will never be done efficiently, I know it sounds harsh, but that is the way it is. If you don’t want to have to make tough choices like that, then don’t become a soldier, there are other ways to serve your country.

I don’t see how this can’t be regarded as unethical, to completely forgo all responsibility and loan your being to what could possibly a completely evil agenda.

It is interesting how a few of you got hang up on the bureaucratic aspects of this, on how it is counterproductive that a soldier stands trial either way or every time they disobey an order. But armies are incredibly big, encumbered and bureaucratic organizations, this is partly due to their hierarchical nature. An army is designed to fight, when you are operating under fire you don’t have time to make sure all soldiers are fully informed, and you have no time to deliberate, which is why soldiers are trained to trust their commanders and obey immediately and without question.
Sure, it might seems foolish, or perhaps vindictive, for a soldier to stand trial for doing their job, but it is important to understand that the supreme court ruling doesn’t pertain to situations when an order is inconvenient, it is suppose to give soldiers support and protection in very extreme cases, when an order blatantly violates very basic moral principles, so regardless of where you stand on this issue, I think Arthur is right to insist on the ethical nature of the question.

In an ideal world where military superiors are truly superior in every sense, specifically morally, soldiers should solely act to obey their orders. The military superior’s moral judgment should be superior to that of soldiers, and therefore soldiers need to execute their orders for the military to work. While there are controversial cases realistically, the orders made by officials should be the decision for their country in theory. This means that there may be some skewed cases where officials with a shoot first, ask question later mentality will make immoral decisions. However, if obedience is set in a case by case basis, the military system would fall apart since there are soldiers who have misguided perceptions on morality.
It is also true that what is moral may not necessary be what is good for the country. This means that countries may benefit at the expense of other countries. Military superiors may have to make immoral decisions in order to benefit their country.

I think you are right to highlight the fact that an army is an organization designed to fight wars, and when fighting a war soldiers will often find themselves doing things that would be considered immoral under normal circumstances. The idea is that as horrible as they are wars are sometimes necessary (a pacifist will disagree with this last statement), and we must recognize that a soldier is put in extreme situations and cannot be expected to follow the same moral principles that guide us in everyday life. You know the expression, all is fair in love and war, the question is if ALL is fair in war, the supreme court ruling expresses the idea that even wars have limits, and it empowers individual soldiers to make the decision when the limit is being transgressed. As some of the comments point out, this can be dangerous, but perhaps it is also ethically necessary.

Like Branden was saying, it down comes to a sense of how much are lives worth in dealing in war. So, my answer is if all is fair in war and I definitely do not believe that it is. I am more familiar with law and a lot in defense law and I always thought that it would be worse to have one innocent person go to prison than to have 10 times the amount of guilty people go free. In a sense, that is what the United States law does in that people are innocent until proven guilty. To make that relation here, I do not believe that innocent people should be killed to make the way for a “greater good” but what is this greater good? Is it what the general and the higher positions in the army predict will be better if we blast a city with innocents? Do we really think that bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima was the actual right choice or is it revisionist history? Truly, we cannot know if it was the right decision or not but the government did decide that they wanted to kill thousands of innocent people to send a message. I do not think that as the pilot, he did the thing that was morally ethical.

Everyone seems so tense on this issue. I’m gonna go ahead and make my views known in class, so here’s something for you all to enjoy on the weekend.

I think the supreme court ruling makes a lot of sense. By not dealing in absolutes, the ruling requires soldiers to always be mindful of what they are doing. The knowledge that they can be held accountable should keep soldiers from committing atrocities, making them stop and ponder the ramifications of their actions. I don’t think this ruling would ever be used against soldiers except in the most severe of occasions. Everyone is capable of making mistakes, even army generals, and in war the risks are so much higher in terms of human life. I would be curious to learn the circumstances in the cases where this ruling was used against soldiers and how blatant the orders were to commit crimes.

The supreme court ruling was issued in response to what is sometimes referred to as the Kfar Qasim massacre, here is the Wikipedia article:

I think the supreme court ruling is necessary. It may seem harsh and unfair, but soldiers should be held accountable for their actions. Killing people is wrong no matter what, regardless if the soldier was just following orders. I realize that the soldier is being punished for doing his job, but ethics is a principle that should always be practiced.

Let’s use Nazi Germany as an example. The Hitler regime did terrible things to the world including murdering 11 million people. The German soldiers under Hitler’s rule were commanded to run concentration camps and exterminate the Jewish people. They were simply taking orders from a superior, but that doesn’t justify aiding in a genocide. In the end, many German soldiers were put on trial in a civil court, and no one thought twice about it. So why should that be different for US soldiers? There is no difference between German soldiers following orders and killing people and US soldiers following orders and killing people. Double standards should not be made based on personal feelings and biases.

I agree with Michael’s response on a supreme ruling. From background knowledge, I know about an event called My Lai which is a brutal event in which hundreds of vietnamese adults and children was brutally murdered due to the zone belong declared a “free fire zone” in which it did not matter if soldiers choose to shoot based on own will.
In fact, an article described the leader of a particular platoon squad to William Calley. Later, people expressed amazement that Calley was chosen as the squad leader because they believed that he almost acted like a child in the war. He had no respect for the people that lived there and if any of the soldiers wanted to rape, hurt, or murder the people there this leader was fine with it.
I believe that these soldiers in Vietnam should have known that killing a mass number of Vietnamese is wrong. They should not have followed the orders to free fire on their captain who clearly did not have a good sense of understanding how to lead a group of soldiers. Because these soldiers have the choice to fire or not, they should have known that the incident would come back when the soldiers were put on trial after the incident.

Did the German Soldier of WW2 have a Choice?

T here have been so many accusations brought to the german veterans of the 2nd world war as many do not believe that they didn’t want to fight that crude war or be part of the holocaust. First of all, we should set some boundaries,I am talking about the minority, those who were against the whole idea of a world war or the idea of the germans trying to become a supreme race by conquering the rest of the world. We are here to discuss those young men that have been pushed by the Fuhrer to fight for the fatherland. For the time period that was set in the 1940s, there was a very different mentality. The sense of respect that a man had towards another was a lot stronger and the reason I am mentioning this is to offer you an understanding of what it would mean if you as a german man over the age of 18 would not want to fight for your country. You would not be able to see your family in their eyes as they would be ashamed of you. Many say that this way of thinking is mostly indoctrinated by the Dictatorship that was being served in the German land at the time however, I would beg to differ.

Even so sadly, with or without consent you did not have much of a choice. Every man that was capable had to fight this war even if they liked it or not. At the end of the day, it does not matter if they are German, Polish or Russian citizens because as a citizen of your country you will want to support your country, therefore, protect it no matter who you are going against.

On the other hand, maybe you do not want war, just want peace and to live a simple life. Just because they hate a race that is different from them does not mean you have to follow the heard of sheep.

I would say that this does definitely apply to the end of the war (1945) when the german army was so desperate they would enrol 12-year-olds that were brainwashed by the Fuhrer and his denial of ‘Victory around the corner’ as well as pensioners over 60 years of age. Neither of the two groups had any training and most of them did egarly want to fight in this war until… the guns start firing and they see what a man cand do to another.

L et’s discuss a different perspective on this topic, one that has been and is still very debated. How about the German troops in the concentration camps? No, I am not talking about the SS soldiers but those who were forced to force others to kill. It was either them or the target they have been ordered to kill. Many say that if they did not want to be part of the holocaust than they should have sabotaged it in some way or at least try to put an end to it. The truth is that it is not that easy and at the end of the day every person has one thing that is more precious than anything and that is their own life. Do not think that these few men that fought a forced war upon them went to sleep at night knowing the atrocities they are part of. Please do take your time to think about the veterans of the German army knowing what they have been part of and how they are seen as well as judged every day. I am not the one to judge them by saying they deserve this, they deserve worst or even if they deserve death. To me, they are veterans of the Second World War and most importantly of a War, therefore, I respect them for their military services and nothing else. Do try to put yourself in the same shoes or better yet boots of a german soldier to see the type of decisions you would have made, I am pretty sure that you would have not done anything differently.

Soldiers are and have been commanded with their lives, they do not have much of a saying when the commander screams to war you go knowing bullets are racing towards your head and heart just to prove something that is not even about the defence of the country, neither something you would care or believe in.

There are a Romanian World war 2 movies called ‘Those in the first line’ and there was a scene that just touched me so much as it was so powerful and full of emotion. There were two soldiers under the age of 18 that have just jumped one another from around the corner, they both have their machineguns aimed at one another and do not know what to do next, they both look so innocent and with a desire to live in their eyes. Next thing you know, a bomb goes of in the distance shaking both of their nerves, making them panic and they both shot one another. Both of them just following orders, but have they ever desired those orders or better yet I should ask would anyone enjoy being ordered to kill someone?

It has been brought to my attention the wrong mentality that people have when discussing such an issue, so if for example, we have 100 people from which 99 are happy to kill their enemy and one isn’t this means we should kill all 100 of them because they are German or axis in general? Every soul matters and at the end of the day who are we to judge the actions to which they might have played a role towards in this cunning war we are talking about. There were so many young teenagers accusing some old german veterans of things they did not even do. Just because he is a german soldier this does not necessarily mean he has been part of the holocaust or has played a role in causing this genocide.

These soldiers have been commanded by SS ranking officers that would more than gladly shoot those who do not obey them, they did not have time for such things and it was very rare to hear of a german soldier not obeying his ranking officer no matter who he was. It was only the Pinnell regiment that did not care much of the way that they behaved as they were delinquents, therefore, they were treated as war criminals.

What you should take home is that there is much more to a man than only his uniform.


Befehlsnotstand is a compound word, made up of the German words Befehl (command or order) and Notstand (emergency). The term has been translated into English by various sources as "necessity to obey order", [6] "a compulsion to obey orders" [7] or "crisis created as a result of following orders". [8]

Notstand in German law can be compared to necessity [9] in the criminal law of other nations. [10]

Background Edit

In German law, the situation Befehlsnotstand arises when a person refusing to carry out an unlawful order faces drastic consequences for the refusal. In such a situation, the person could not be prosecuted for carrying out the order. [2] Drastic consequences, in German law, are defined as a danger to life or body, and are not defined as loss of rank, incarceration or removal to a penal unit, such as a Strafbataillon. [11]

Nazi Germany Edit

The term is commonly, but not exclusively, associated with German war crimes and the Holocaust during World War II, following which Befehlsnotstand was used as line of defence by the accused in post-war trials. In the 1950s and 1960s the use of Befehlsnotstand as a defence in war crimes trials in Germany was quite successful as it generally protected the accused from punishment. With the formation of the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, this changed after historical research by the organisation regarding Einsatzgruppen of the Sicherheitsdienst or concentration camp personnel revealed that no known case could be cited where refusing an order did indeed result in severe punishment. More commonly, military personnel refusing such an order were transferred to a different unit. [2] An example for this was Wehrmacht Captain Otto Freyer, who was transferred towards the end of the war to the Neuengamme concentration camp. Freyer was deemed too soft for his role, which included supervision of executions and commanding a sub-camp at Kaltenkirchen, and he was eventually transferred again at his own request. [12]

In practice, refusing a superior order to participate in war crimes by German soldiers almost never led to dire consequences for the refusing person, and punishment, if any, was relatively mild. It usually resulted in degradation and being sent to serve with fighting units at the front. [13] German historian Sven Felix Kellerhoff argued that, instead of fear of punishment the participants were more afraid of peer pressure and the possibility of exclusion from their group. [3]

Kellerhoff further argued that the situation of Einsatzgruppen members taking part in massacres did not even constitute the lesser Putativnotstand, [3] a state where the individual mistakenly believes their life is in danger if the order is disobeyed when, in reality, no such danger exists. [14]

Manfred Oldenburg, in his book Ideology and Military Calculation, stated that there are no known cases where the refusal to participate in an execution of civilians has led to drastic consequences for soldiers of the Wehrmacht or SS. [4] German soldiers did however face drastic consequences if refusing legal orders during the war. [15] [3] One and a half million German soldiers were sentenced to imprisonment for refusing to follow an order and 30,000 were sentenced to death, of whom 23,000 were executed. [5]

East Germany Edit

Befehlsnotstand was also used as a defence by former East German border guards, tried after the German reunification in the Mauerschützenprozesse [de pl] , the trials of East German borders guards accused of unlawful killings of escapees at the Berlin Wall and the Inner German border as part of the Schießbefehl. [16]

Current German law Edit

In current German law, articles § 34 and § 35 of the German penal code, the Strafgesetzbuch, govern the law on Notstand. Formerly it was governed by articles § 52 and 54. [8]

Article 34 deals with Rechtfertigender Notstand, necessity as justification, while article 35 deals with Entschuldigender Notstand, necessity as excuse. [9]

Argentina Edit

The Law of Due Obedience (Spanish: Ley de obediencia debida), a law passed by the National Congress of Argentina after the end of the military dictatorship, translated in German as the Befehlsnotstandsgesetz (Gesetz meaning law in German), protected all officers and their subordinates of the armed forces and security forces from prosecution for most crimes committed during the dictatorship but was eventually annulled in 2005. [17]

Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by George L Gregory » 08 Mar 2021, 18:50

The plea in court of a "superior order" or in German "Befehl ist Befehl" ("an order is an order") was used extensively during the Nuremberg Trials to the point that it's also alternatively known as the "Nuremberg defense".

Is there any actual evidence of a German (Nazi or non-Nazi) during the Third Reich to have been severely punished for refusing to carry out an order?

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by GregSingh » 20 Apr 2021, 13:44

According to Thomas Geldmacher "between 1939 and 1945 the National Socialist military justice imposed at least 30,000 death sentences against members of the Wehrmacht alone, the enforcement rate was around 70 percent".
Not sure what percentage of these was order refusal, it seems mostly it was a desertion.

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by andrek » 21 Apr 2021, 08:18

According to the appraisers in the German lawsuits against the so-called "Nazi-Opas" there was no such thing. Read the judgments.

According to the appraisers (german historians, historians according to german standards), everyone could have refused "Befehle" or contradicted the transfer to a KZ without being punished. In The Case of Gröning and Demjanjuk, the appraiser claimed, there has never been a single soldier/guard, who has been punished for command refusal.

Again, read the judgements and yes, that refers exclusively to the KZs Auschwitz (Gröning) and maybe Majdanek/Sobibor/Flossenbürg (Demjanjuk). The court ruling against Gröning is final. In the case of Demjanjuk not. And notice, insults or special services are not punishments. The german court asked for a military court judgment and that does not exist. Therefore, everyone could refuse a command. Thus the conclusion is very simple.

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by gebhk » 21 Apr 2021, 20:20

1) If everyone has the right to refuse and order, then it is no longer an order but a suggestion.
2) I'm sorry but I cannot for one second believe that the German armed forces and paramilitaries did not issue orders.

On a more serious note, a related question is what was the position of a German soldier issued an order that was clearly illegal. For example the 1939 soldbuch was very clear about what German military law expected of him in relation to treatment of POWs and enemy non-combatants. What was he expected (legally) to do if, for example, ordered by his superior to murder POWs (the Ciepielow murders a particularly notorious case springs to mind)?

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by Corax » 24 Apr 2021, 23:39

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by AliasDavid » 25 Apr 2021, 09:31

47 Abs. 1 Nr. 2 Militärstrafgesetzbuch was asking a soldier to disobey a criminal order. It would have been up to the military court to decide whether the order was really criminal.

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by gebhk » 25 Apr 2021, 14:50

Thanks Alias David. That makes sense.

Does the Militärstrafgesetzbuch make provision for officers dispensing summary justice in the field? In the sense of the example quoted by Corax?

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by AliasDavid » 25 Apr 2021, 15:39

Giving an order that violates penal law is covered by §47 Abs. 1 (see . tzbuch.pdf).

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by wm » 25 Apr 2021, 18:48

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by gebhk » 25 Apr 2021, 23:53

I'll try to work it out, but may need some help with translation if I fail!

WM - the problem in war is, of course, defining where the 'battlefield' starts and ends.

Re: Refusing an order - (Befehlsnotstand - Necessity to obey orders)

Post by andrek » 26 Apr 2021, 11:02

1) If everyone has the right to refuse and order, then it is no longer an order but a suggestion.
2) I'm sorry but I cannot for one second believe that the German armed forces and paramilitaries did not issue orders.

In the case of Gröning, it increased his penalty that he did not deny commands.

As far as I know, in reality only the so called "Führer" of Dirlewanger's criminal horde shoot a subordinate on the spot, maybe without reason. Maybe the corrupt SS-Führer Fegelein and other war criminals did it. But this was not allowed. Likewise, neither Guderian, Rommel or a Dönitz could shoot a command refuser on the spot, not even with the help of a Militärgericht, not even subsequently allowed. The toleration of offenses is something else and was/is a crime itself.

If you want to read more on this subject, read the files of the SS-judge Konrad Morgen. He has written alot of stuff about the Waffen-SS and "Befehlverweigerung", basicly KZ's and SS in general. In his documents you can read all the paragraphs and the procedures needed to hunt the "Befehlsverweigerer" down. Waffen-SS, Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine or Luftwaffe, the procedures are more or less identical. It looks very easy, but it wasn't. In the early years of the war the so called "Fliegendes Standgericht" were very rare. Later in 1945 they became more standard. If you want to know more about "Fliegende Standgerichte" read the files of the Militärrichter der Kriegsmarine Hans Filbinger. His judgments are well documented and publicly available. In the years 1943 to 1945 - as far as i remember - he spoke no death sentence because of "Befehlsverweigerung".


Professor Neitzel's work is published as Soldaten - Soldiers - with the sub-title, Transcripts of Fighting, Killing and Dying.

He and his fellow author, Harald Welzer, examined more than 150,000 pages of transcripts of recordings made secretly by their British and American captors, and now stored in the British Public Records Office in Kew in London and in the National Archives of the United States.

Professor Neitzel says attitudes to the state and authority determined what a soldier did at the "point of surrender". Italians were most likely to surrender and the Japanese least. The German attitude, as revealed in the conversations, was: "I fought well but I lost so now I go into British captivity".

In contrast, the Japanese attitude was one of deep shame to have been captured, a shame which British and American intelligence exploited.

Professor Neitzel described the interrogators' technique: "They would say: 'If you don't tell me military secrets, I will tell your family you are here in this camp'. They would respond: 'I'll tell you everything, but don't tell my family'."

Why German Soldiers Don’t Have to Obey Orders - HISTORY

Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

Excerpted from his book:
Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

For what developments would a comprehensive explanation of the Holocaust have to account? For the extermination of the Jews to occur, four principal things were necessary:

1. The Nazis - that is, the leadership, specifically Hitler - had to decide to undertake the extermination.
2. They had to gain control over the Jews, namely over the territory in which they resided.
3. They had to organize the extermination and devote to it sufficient resources.
4. They had to induce a large number of people to carry out the killings.

The vast literature on Nazism and the Holocaust treats in great depth the first three elements, as well as others, such as the origins and character of Hitler's genocidal beliefs, and the Nazis' ascendancy to power. Yet, as I have already indicated, it has treated the last element, the focus of this book, perfunctorily and mainly by assumption. It is therefore important to discuss here some analytical and interpretive issues that are central to studying the perpetrators.

Owing to the neglect of the perpetrators in the study of the Holocaust, it is no surprise that the existing interpretations of them have been generally produced in a near empirical vacuum. Until recently, virtually no research has been done on the perpetrators, save on the leaders of the Nazi regime. In the last few years, some publications have appeared that treat one group or another, yet the state of our knowledge about the perpetrators remains deficient. We know little about many of the institutions of killing, little about many aspects of the perpetration of the genocide, and still less about the perpetrators themselves. As a consequence, popular and scholarly myths and misconceptions about the perpetrators abound, including the following. It is commonly believed that the Germans slaughtered Jews by and large in the gas chambers, and that without gas chambers, modern means of transportation, and efficient bureaucracies, the Germans would have been unable to kill millions of Jews. The belief persists that somehow only technology made horror on this scale possible. "Assembly-line killing" is one of the stock phrases in discussions of the event. It is generally believed that gas chambers, because of their efficiency (which is itself greatly overstated), were a necessary instrument for the genocidal slaughter, and that the Germans chose to construct the gas chambers in the first place because they needed more efficient means of killing the Jews. It has been generally believed by scholars (at least until very recently) and non-scholars alike that the perpetrators were primarily, overwhelmingly SS men, the most devoted and brutal Nazis. It has been an unquestioned truism (again until recently) that had a German refused to kill Jews, then he himself would have been killed, sent to a concentration camp, or severely punished. All of these views, views that fundamentally shape people's understanding of the Holocaust, have been held unquestioningly as though they were self-evident truths. They have been virtual articles of faith (derived from sources other than historical inquiry), have substituted for knowledge, and have distorted the way in which this period is understood.

The absence of attention devoted to the perpetrators is surprising for a host of reasons, only one of which is the existence of a now over-ten-year-long debate about the genesis of the initiation of the Holocaust, which has come to be called by the misnomer the "intentionalist-functionalist" debate. For better or worse, this debate has become the organizing debate for much of the scholarship on the Holocaust. Although it has improved our understanding of the exact chronology of the Germans' persecution and mass murder of the Jews, it has also, because of the terms in which it has been cast, confused the analysis of the causes of the Germans' policies (this is taken up in Chapter 4), and it has done next to nothing to increase our knowledge of the perpetrators. Of those who defined this debate and made its central early contributions, only one saw fit to ask the question, Why, once the killing began (however it did), did those receiving the orders to kill do so? It appears that for one reason or another, all the participants in the debate assumed that executing such orders was unproblematic for the actors, and unproblematic for historians and social scientists. The limited character of our knowledge, and therefore our understanding, of this period is highlighted by the simple fact that (however the category of "perpetrator" is defined) the number of people who were perpetrators is unknown. No good estimate, virtually no estimate of any kind, exists of the number of people who knowingly contributed to the genocidal killing in some intimate way. Scholars who discuss them, inexplicably, neither attempt such an estimate nor point out that this, a topic of such great significance, is an important gap in our knowledge. If ten thousand Germans were perpetrators, then the perpetration of the Holocaust, perhaps the Holocaust itself, is a phenomenon of one kind, perhaps the deed of a select, unrepresentative group. If five hundred thousand or one million Germans were perpetrators, then it is a phenomenon of another kind, perhaps best conceived as a German national project. Depending on the number and identity of the Germans who contributed to the genocidal slaughter, different sorts of questions, inquiries, and bodies of theory might be appropriate or necessary in order to explain it.

This dearth of knowledge, not only about the perpetrators but also about the functioning of their host institutions has not stopped some interpreters from making assertions about them - although the most striking fact remains how few even bother to address the subject, let alone take it up at length. Still, from the literature a number of conjectured explanations can be distilled, even if they are not always clearly specified or elaborated upon in a sustained manner. (In fact, strands of different explanations are frequently intermingled without great coherence.) Some of them have been proposed to explain the actions of the German people generally and, by extension, they would apply to the perpetrators as well. Rather than laying out what each interpreter has posited about the perpetrators, an analytical account is provided here of the major arguments, with references to leading exemplars of each one. The most important of them can be classified into five categories:

One explanation argues for external compulsion: the perpetrators were coerced. They were left, by the threat of punishment, with no choice but to follow orders. After all, they were part of military or police-like institutions, institutions with a strict chain of command, demanding subordinate compliance to orders, which should have punished insubordination severely, perhaps with death. Put a gun to anyone's head, so goes the thinking, and he will shoot others to save himself.

A second explanation conceives of the perpetrators as having been blind followers of orders. A number of proposals have been made for the source or sources of this alleged propensity to obey: Hitler's charisma (the perpetrators were, so to speak, caught in his spell), a general human tendency to obey authority, a peculiarly German reverence for and propensity to obey authority, or a totalitarian society's blunting of the individual's moral sense and its conditioning of him or her to accept all tasks as necessary. So a common proposition exists, namely that people obey authority, with a variety of accounts of why this is so. Obviously, the notion that authority, particularly state authority, tends to elicit obedience merits consideration.

A third explanation holds the perpetrators to have been subject to tremendous social psychological pressure, placed upon each one by his comrades and/or by the expectations that accompany the institutional roles that individuals occupy. It is, so goes the argument, extremely difficult for individuals to resist pressures to conform, pressures which can lead individuals to participate in acts which they on their own would not do, indeed would abhor. And a variety of psychological mechanisms are available for such people to rationalize their actions.

A fourth explanation sees the perpetrators as having been petty bureaucrats, or soulless technocrats, who pursued their self-interest or their technocratic goals and tasks with callous disregard for the victims. It can hold for administrators in Berlin as well as for concentration camp personnel. They all had careers to make, and because of the psychological propensity among those who are but cogs in a machine to attribute responsibility to others for overall policy, they could callously pursue their own careers or their own institutional or material interests. The deadening effects of institutions upon the sense of individual responsibility, on the one hand, and the frequent willingness of people to put their interests before those of others, on the other, need hardly be belabored.

A fifth explanation asserts that because tasks were so fragmented, the perpetrators could not understand what the real nature of their actions was they could not comprehend that their small assignments were actually part of a global extermination program. To the extent that they could, this line of thinking continues, the fragmentation of tasks allowed them to deny the importance of their own contributions and to displace responsibility for them onto others. When engaged in unpleasant or morally dubious tasks, it is well known that people have a tendency to shift blame to others.

The explanations can be reconceptualized in terms of their accounts of the actors' capacity for volition: The first explanation (namely coercion) says that the killers could not say "no." The second explanation (obedience) and the third (situational pressure) maintain that Germans were psychologically incapable of saying "no." The fourth explanation (self-interest) contends that Germans had sufficient personal incentives to kill in order not to want to say "no." The fifth explanation (bureaucratic myopia) claims that it never even occurred to the perpetrators that they were engaged in an activity that might make them responsible for saying "no."

Each of these conventional explanations may sound plausible, and some of them obviously contain some truth, so what is wrong with them? While each suffers from particular defects, which are treated at length in Chapter 15, they share a number of dubious common assumptions and features worth mentioning here.

The conventional explanations assume a neutral or condemnatory attitude on the part of the perpetrators towards their actions. They therefore premise their interpretations on the assumption that it must be shown how people can be brought to commit acts to which they would not inwardly assent, acts which they would not agree are necessary or just. They either ignore, deny, or radically minimize the importance of Nazi and perhaps the perpetrators' ideology, moral values, and conception of the victims, for engendering the perpetrators' willingness to kill. Some of these conventional explanations also caricature the perpetrators, and Germans in general. The explanations treat them as if they had been people lacking a moral sense, lacking the ability to make decisions and take stances. They do not conceive of the actors as human agents, as people with wills, but as beings moved solely by external forces or by transhistorical and invariant psychological propensities, such as the slavish following of narrow "self-interest." The conventional explanations suffer from two other major conceptual failings. They do not sufficiently recognize the extraordinary nature of the deed: the mass killing of people. They assume and imply that inducing people to kill human beings is fundamentally no different from getting them to do any other unwanted or distasteful task. Also, none of the conventional explanations deems the identity of the victims to have mattered. The conventional explanations imply that the perpetrators would have treated any other group of intended victims in exactly the same way. That the victims were Jews - according to the logic of these explanations - is irrelevant.

I maintain that any explanation that fails to acknowledge the actors' capacity to know and to judge, namely to understand and to have views about the significance and the morality of their actions, that fails to hold the actors' beliefs and values as central, that fails to emphasize the autonomous motivating force of Nazi ideology, particularly its central component of antisemitism, cannot possibly succeed in telling us much about why the perpetrators acted as they did. Any explanation that ignores either the particular nature of the perpetrators' actions - the systematic, large-scale killing and brutalizing of people - or the identity of the victims is inadequate for a host of reasons. All explanations that adopt these positions, as do the conventional explanations, suffer a mirrored, double failure of recognition of the human aspect of the Holocaust: the humanity of the perpetrators, namely their capacity to judge and to choose to act inhumanely, and the humanity of the victims, that what the perpetrators did, they did to these people with their specific identities, and not to animals or things.

My explanation - which is new to the scholarly literature on the perpetrators - is that the perpetrators, "ordinary Germans," were animated by antisemitism by a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die. The perpetrators' beliefs, their particular brand of antisemitism, though obviously not the sole source, was, I maintain, a most significant and indispensable source of the perpetrators' actions and must be at the center of any explanation of them. Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say "no."

Copyright © 1996 by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen All Rights Reserved

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University and an Associate of Harvard's Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. His doctoral dissertation, which is the basis for his book "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," was awarded the American Political Science Association's 1994 Gabriel A. Almond Award for the best dissertation in the field of comparative politics.

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Why German Soldiers Don’t Have to Obey Orders - HISTORY

By Michael E. Haskew

With the end of World War I, the German Army had not been defeated in the field. Surrender had come due to depleted resources and war weariness at home. When the proud German soldiers returned to their country from war-torn France and Belgium, they were welcomed as heroes.

The bitter terms of the Versailles Treaty placed the vast majority of blame for the Great War on Germany, sowing the seeds of the Nazi rise to power and the coming of another even more terrible world war. Through the upheaval of the interwar years, the German Army, known as the Heer, survived, and its leaders embarked on a clandestine effort to circumvent the terms of the Versailles Treaty that, among other things, had limited its fighting strength to 100,000 men.

The command structure of the Heer embodied a long tradition of competence and efficiency. On the eve of World War II, Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) served as the primary organization through which the Army general staff executed its plans. Although the general staff had been recognized as the officer corps with the most effective grasp of strategy and tactics, Hitler diluted its command efficiency and power base, relegating OKH to a distinctly subordinate role. At the top of a new command structure, Hitler installed himself as supreme military commander. He further created another senior military organization, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW). (Read all about the Wehrmacht and their use in the Second World War by subscribing to WWII History magazine.)

Distrust Between Adolf Hitler and His German Army Generals

Hitler maintained control of both the OKW and the OKH, and there were dissident elements within the general staff—officers who grudgingly came to recognize that the general staff and OKH had been reduced from executive roles that shaped and influenced strategic German military operations to simply carrying out the orders of the Führer as they were handed down from Hitler to OKW.

Many officers who remained associated with the general staff performed their duties with the understanding that opposition to Hitler had to be kept quiet. From the beginning of the Nazi era, senior officers of the general staff opposed the Führer. In turn, Hitler mistrusted the general staff virtually to a man. That mistrust was well founded.

During the 1930s, those officers who had questioned Hitler’s judgment lost credibility as Germany reclaimed territory forfeited following World War I, reoccupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria and Sudetenland, and then occupied all of Czechoslovakia without firing a shot while Great Britain and France pursued a policy of appeasement. The popularity of the Führer had reached such heights that open opposition was hazardous to an officer’s career and might even subject the dissident to harsh punishment. Despite the inherent risk, some officers were convinced that the most effective form of opposition to Hitler might actually come from within.

One such officer was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who led the Abwehr, the Intelligence branch of OKW, beginning in 1935. Canaris’s career is a paradox in that while he was charged with safeguarding the Third Reich against enemy espionage he was also a member of the domestic opposition to the Führer.

Canaris opposed Hitler’s policy of expansion, quietly intervened to save Jews and prisoners of war from execution, persuaded Spanish dictator Francisco Franco not to allow German troops to cross Spanish territory in an attempt to capture the British fortress at Gibraltar, conspired with high-ranking officers of Army Group C on the Eastern Front to assassinate Hitler, and was arrested following the July 20, 1944, attempt to kill the Führer. He eventually paid with his own life on the gallows on April 9, 1945.

“The Führer’s Word is Above All Written Law”

Although a substantial opposition to Hitler existed, senior officers of the Heer witnessed the Führer’s spectacular early successes, and most of them were willing participants in the Nazi plan of conquest. As they became aware of Hitler’s intent to plunge Europe into its second major war in 25 years, some weakly argued that Germany could not possibly be militarily or economically prepared to wage war until 1942. Hitler’s timetable, however, was accelerated. The invasion of Poland took place on September 1, 1939.

These officers had taken a personal oath to Adolf Hitler and believed themselves obligated to perform their duties based on the Führer Principle, which stated, “The Führer’s word is above all written law.” Rooted in Social Darwinism, the Führer Principle was not uniquely Nazi. However, it did find robust application during the 12 years of the Third Reich. Some high-ranking Nazis who stood trial at Nuremburg after the war actually asserted the doctrine in their own defense.

Wilhelm Keitel: Hitler’s Lackey

Following the Blomberg and Frisch scandals in the late 1930s, which removed two of the last impediments to Hitler’s assumption of full control of the German armed forces, the Führer appointed Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel as commander in chief of OKW. Keitel was a career Army officer who had previously served as chief of the Armed Forces Office.

Keitel had been appointed by his former friend, Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg. A veteran of World War I who had been wounded in action and then risen through the ranks of the interwar Reichswehr, he had been alienated from Blomberg, who failed to press Keitel’s idea of a unified command structure for all of the German armed forces. Hitler, however, seemed to be moving toward such a command structure, and Keitel was cooperative.

German Army recruits march in somewhat ragged ranks during a military drill in 1933. Eventually, military service became mandatory for German males ages 18 to 45.

As the chief of OKW, Keitel structured the organization with an Economics Section under Maj. Gen. Georg Thomas, an Intelligence Section under Canaris, and an Operations Section led by Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl. As time passed, Keitel became devoted to Hitler. He supported the Führer with blind obedience and was quoted at Nuremberg as saying that the Führer Principle was paramount in “all areas and it is completely natural that it had a special application in reference to the military.”

Keitel did attempt to stand up to Hitler as plans for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, were being formulated. He objected that the plan was too ambitious. Hitler was enraged. When Keitel offered to resign, Hitler declined, saying that only he, as supreme commander of the German armed forces, could decide when and if the head of OKW should step aside. From that time on, Keitel was a slavish servant to the Führer, so much so that some officers whispered a joke that he should be referred to as “Lakeitel” or “Lackey.”

Implementing Hitler’s Ruthless Orders

As World War II dragged on, Hitler exploited his relationship with Keitel, issuing orders such as the “Night and Fog” directive of December 1941, mandating that enemies of the Nazi state were to “disappear” without a trace, and decrees for the killing of prisoners and the immediate execution of Communist Party commissars if captured.

Weeks before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler declared that the war in the East was to be one of annihilation. Keitel issued the Barbarossa Decree, sanctioning the ruthless suppression of Partisan activities and authorizing units of the Heer to use extreme measures in the process. Further, officers were directed to use harsh measures against the local populations when attacks against German forces occurred if the actual parties could not be located. Officers were given the power to execute hostile persons without trial or formal adherence to any law or legal process.

Heer officers were assured that they were authorized to exercise such authority without fear of prosecution for actions that would normally be violations of German law. Generals and senior commanders who protested summary executions and acts of brutality committed by both Army and Waffen SS (armed SS) personnel were often relieved of duty.

Each of these orders originated with Hitler. However, their implementation rested with Wilhelm Keitel, and the signatures on the actual paper orders belonged to Keitel as well.

While Keitel had considered himself a loyal officer of the Heer, he fatally linked that loyalty to Adolf Hitler. Therefore, he undermined the effectiveness of the Army general staff and OKH. Keitel left an indelible stain on the honor of the Heer and its officer corps. He was hanged as a war criminal.

Controlling the German Army Through the OKW

In the spring of 1940, the German armed forces, or Wehrmacht, moved against the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Denmark. Historically, such an operation would have been planned by the Army general staff and executed through OKH. However, Operation Weserübung (Weser Exercise) was controlled from the outset by OKW. Soon afterward, OKW issued orders to move an entire division of the Heer from Norway to Finland, establishing a new theater of war for the armed forces that was completely outside the control of the general staff or OKH.

When the invasion of the Soviet Union commenced on June 22, 1941, Hitler interfered with operations from the beginning. He accomplished this through orders issued by OKW. Just as he had done in France weeks earlier, ordering his ground troops to halt and allowing thousands of British and French soldiers to escape from Dunkirk, he grew restless as German forces neared the Soviet capital of Moscow.

Hitler diverted troops of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center to the north and south of the Soviet capital, rendering Bock’s planned armored offensive to capture Moscow impossible to execute and depriving Bock of the initiative to potentially win the war in the East.

The Nazis began indoctrinating children to their ideology and in service to the militaristic state at an early age. In this photo, boys of the Hitler Youth listen to an instructor on the proper use of the compass during an orienteering exercise. By the time World War II broke out, the Hitler Youth had produced thousands of young, fanatical Nazi soldiers.

Oberfelshaber West

From the autumn of 1940 until the end of the war, the Feldheer (Field Army) in the West, also known as the Westheer, was under the control of Oberfelshaber West, or OB West, which answered directly to OKW. OB West was responsible for the implementation of orders issued by Hitler and transmitted through OKW. The OB West area of operations included the coastal defenses of the Atlantic Wall and the occupied territories of the Low Countries. At the end of the war, the remnants of OB West command were located in Bavaria.

Hitler’s continuing suspicions of the general staff and the high-ranking commanders whose careers were traced to the officer elite of the Junker class, is evidenced by the Führer’s replacement of the commander of OB West no fewer than six times. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was appointed and then sacked on three occasions. He commanded OB West from October 1940 to April 1941 and was replaced by Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben from May 1941 to March 1942. Rundstedt was reinstated and commanded OB West from March 1942 to July 1944 and was followed by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge from early July to mid-August of that year. Field Marshal Walter Model held the post for two weeks in August and September 1944, and Rundstedt again commanded OB West from September 1944 until March 1945. The final commander of OB West was Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who served for the remaining weeks of the war.

“Hitler’s distrust of the generals caused him to interfere extensively in the conduct of operations,” wrote author Walter Goerlitz in History of the German General Staff. “The policy … which left the subordinate commander freedom for individual decisions within the framework of general directives, and which had become an essential part of Germany’s traditional military method, was particularly in place in those great Russian spaces. Hitler, however, a victim of the illusion that he could move armies around as though they were battalions on parade, now adopted the practice of leaving commanders virtually no latitude at all. There was already a severe difference of opinion between General Staff and Supreme War Lord as to the real objectives of the campaign. Hitler … introduced into it a further element of disastrous uncertainty.”

Officers of the Heer

The German soldier was, without question, part of a great war machine, trained, organized, and intended for conquest. Quite a small percentage of those who wore the uniform of the Heer were officers.

While the Heer grew exponentially during the 1930s, the character of its officer corps evolved markedly. The tradition of Prussian and then German aristocratic senior commanders began to fade for several reasons, including Hitler’s mistrust of the elite old-line officers, the expansion itself which demanded larger numbers of officers to lead growing military units, and the indoctrination of Nazi ideology throughout the ranks of the Heer, which eventually subordinated itself to the Führer. As the war progressed, individuals who might not otherwise have been able to achieve officer rank did actually do so, either based on merit, heroism on the battlefield, or due to attrition as casualties mounted.

Officers of the Heer were grouped into three classifications based upon experience and particularly the circumstances under which the individual had risen to officer rank. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the reserve officer corps consisted primarily of noncommissioned officers who had served with distinction and were commissioned as reserve officers when they were discharged from active duty or men who had been conscripted and carried out their duties capably during their first year of service, showing promise as officers. A sufficient level of education was required for the second group, and such qualified reservists were designated as officer cadets, who received extensive training as infantry platoon leaders during their second year of service. Reservists were required to participate in yearly training exercises.

The other two groups of officers were within the framework of the standing Heer or had retired from it. General staff corps officers included those who were considered capable of high command and were chosen for specialized training to fill such roles. The regular officers were active with the Heer and held various command and staff positions throughout the hierarchy. As the war progressed, the number of regular officers was increased via the recall of many who had retired prior to 1939 and the permanent commissioning of some noncommissioned officers promoted in the field.

The Wartime Officer Corps

The requirement for manpower led to conscripts being retained for service following the end of their initial required enlistment period. A few of these men volunteered or were recognized as having the necessary qualities to become reserve officers. These conscripts were trained as officers, received reserve commissions, and pledged to serve through the end of the war.

German troops rush past burning houses as they sweep through a Russian village during the early days of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union that commenced on June 22, 1941. In an ironic twist, the Soviets allowed German infantry and armored units to train secretly inside the Soviet Union during the interwar years, violating of the Treaty of Versailles.

During wartime, soldiers were regularly promoted to officer rank following a few months of specific training based on their combat experience and leadership capabilities. The standard training period for officer candidates remained lengthy, up to 20 months. Some officer candidates received credit for active duty regardless of combat experience because of the increasing need for field officers as casualty rates climbed.

Four Sections of Rank

The officer corps of the Heer was divided into four sections based on rank, one consisting of junior officers such as lieutenants, another of all captains, and a third of field grade officers that included majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels. The fourth group encompassed all general officers, who, along with lower ranking officers of the general staff, were distinguished easily by wide red stripes running the length of their uniform trousers.

Although the elite status of the German officer corps was eroded somewhat during the Nazi era, the prewar life of an officer included good pay, accommodations, and food. Officers were given a uniform allowance upon commissioning but afterward were required to purchase their own uniforms.

Offensive Actions and Leading From the Front

While wartime training periods were frequently shortened due to the need for officers in combat zones, the standard regular officer training regimen included 10 months of basic infantry and noncommissioned officer schooling under the direction of the Ersatzheer (Replacement Army), seven months in the field to include affiliation with an actively serving unit, training in an appropriate staff setting or combat arms school, and three months of advanced, specialized training in infantry, armor, artillery, or support branches. The training curriculum for reserve officer candidates was similar, although it involved more extensive supervision by the Ersatzheer.

Continually favoring offensive action, the training regimen of the Heer stressed the concept of leading from the front. In doing so, it paid a terrible price. By the end of World War II, at least 80 German generals had been killed in action, while dozens more had suffered wounds. From September 1939 through March 1942, more than 16,000 German officers died, the majority of them in action on the Eastern Front.

NCOs of the German Army

The noncommissioned officer was the backbone of the Army in the field and included career soldiers or those identified from the ranks of draftees who completed training and chose to apply for noncommissioned officer rank. The latter were designated as a reserve component to differentiate them from those who had chosen a military career rather than been conscripted. Divided into two groups, senior and junior, noncommissioned officers were distinguished as one or the other by the presence of a cord worn on the soldier’s sidearm. Junior noncommissioned officers did not wear cords.

Young men over 16 years of age were allowed to apply for noncommissioned officer training and to enter the Army at the age of 17, while those active soldiers who applied for noncommissioned officer training were required to have served at least a year from the date of their conscription. Service terms of four years and six months or of 12 years were initially available depending upon the age of the soldier, and training included four months of basic instruction followed by six months of specific training for infantry, artillery, armor, mountain troops, or other service.

Late in the war, the training regimen was modified, accelerating the basic period to take place within an active arm of the Heer rather than in a school setting. This was followed by five months as a squad commander or possibly a shorter period for other specialized assignments. Eventually, the exigencies of war reduced the training of some noncommissioned officers to less than three months, particularly for soldiers who had already served for long periods and experienced combat.

Foot Soldiers of the Heer

The Landser, or ordinary German foot soldier, was usually a conscript who received his notification to report for service from the local civil police organization. Volunteers did receive one major benefit, a choice of their branch of service. The conscript reported for registration and underwent two physical examinations to determine his fitness for service. Assignment to a specific unit or an order to return home until called to active duty then followed. The call-up was usually communicated by mail and included orders for reporting along with instructions for transportation.

During World War II, soldiers were assigned to a unit within the Ersatzheer before moving on to the Feldheer. Training consisted of 16 weeks of physical fitness and basic command and fire and maneuver techniques. The soldier became familiar with a variety of weapons and was knowledgeable in field operations up to the platoon level. Harsh training and discipline were hallmarks of the Heer during World War II, and both OKW and the general staff approved of strict rules and regulations. As the war progressed, such measures were considered vital to maintaining discipline in the ranks and ensuring that soldiers would obey orders. Offenses such as disobedience or desertion were punishable by immediate execution. At times even officers who were perceived to have failed in their duties were summarily shot.

The training was rigorous, continuing a proven track that had been effective during the years of the interwar Reichswehr and the clandestine buildup of the German military. Lengthy forced marches with full combat loads, live fire drills, and relentless rounds of conditioning exercises resulted in some soldiers dying from sheer exhaustion. Injuries were common. The typical day lasted from sunrise until well after dark. Although the Heer was one of the most highly mechanized armies in the world, only about 20 percent of it was motorized during World War II. Soldiers who entered the artillery or supply branches were trained to care for their unit’s horses.

During one of Hitler’s last public appearances, he presents the German cross to a 12-year-old boy for heroism in action against the Soviets approaching the capital of Berlin.

Infantry training was a requirement for all personnel regardless of intent to serve in other branches of the Heer. Basic artillery school, for example, included an additional three months of training once the compulsory infantry course was completed.

The Military Service Law

Published in 1945, the U.S. Army technical manual on the German military organization notes the opening clause of the Military Service Law issued by Hitler on May 21, 1935. “Military service is honorary service to the German people. Every German is liable to military service. In time of war, in addition to liability to military service, every German man and every German woman is liable to service to the Fatherland.”

From 1935 on, German men were subject to military service from their 18th birthday until the end of the month of March following their 45th birthday. Later, the age of conscription was extended from age 17 to 61, and during the last days of the Third Reich boys as young as 12 were defending the smoldering ruins of Berlin. Individuals deemed somewhat short of immediately fit for service were classified in one of several reserve components and subject to activation at any time.

Certain classes, such as Jews, were excluded from service. However, as the need for manpower increased the standards for physical fitness were lowered. Even convicts serving prison terms were pressed into the ranks, and convalescing soldiers who might have previously been furloughed were returned to their units.

10 Million Soldiers of the Heer

During the course of World War II, the strength of the Heer approached 10 million men at its peak. Between 1939 and 1945, the Heer suffered more than 4.2 million dead and nearly 400,000 taken prisoner, bearing by far the heaviest burden of the fight for Nazi Germany. The combat prowess of the German soldier in World War II was grudgingly acknowledged by his adversaries, and historians have noted that as a whole the Heer acquitted itself with tremendous courage in the face of a continually deteriorating strategic and tactical situation after 1942. Although some Heer units are known to have committed atrocities against prisoners and civilians, most common soldiers served with honor.

Generalmajor Erwin Rommel took this photo of the German Panzers of his 7th Panzer Division advancing through the rolling terrain of northeastern France.

In his acclaimed book Frontsoldaten, Stephen G. Fritz comments, “As perpetrators, whether out of conviction or not, these common men existed as part of a great destructive machine, ready and willing to kill and destroy in order to achieve the goals of a murderous regime. In the role of victims, they lived daily with the physical hardships, the psychological burdens, and the often crushing anxieties of death and killing that constitute the everyday life of all combat soldiers.”

The Feldheer Fighting in Multiple Theaters

For all his ineptitude as a military strategist, particularly his strategic blunders committed in 1940 and later, Hitler was the catalyst for the growth and development of a fighting machine which was, up to that time, the most formidable in the world. The Heer was the premiere component of that machine, fighting across fronts that extended from the Caucasus to the desert of North Africa and from the English Channel to the Arctic Circle.

When the Feldheer deployed for combat, its strategic perspective was divided into theaters both large and small, created on the same basic principle of separating the frontline units and combat commands from support and administrative units to their rear. Division or corps formations were placed before the enemy on the strategic map with reserves drawn up to provide reinforcements. The frontline troops and reserves were grouped in an area designated as the combat zone. Directly behind, in the communications zone, were the rear areas of individual armies, while the rear area of an entire army group was still farther back. Collectively, the combat and communications zones were known as a theater of operations.

Behind the theater of operations was the occupied territory, or zone of military administration, which included ground under the control of the Heer ranging in size from a few square miles to an entire country. The German homeland was farthest from the combat front and divided into military districts that maintained direct communication with the Feldheer and the Ersatzheer to facilitate the transportation of supplies and troops to the front lines. The theater concept proved flexible and easily adapted to the size and strength of the forces available.

The organizational structure of the Feldheer changed continually during World War II as divisions, corps, and armies were realigned among commands, transferred from one operational area to another, or refitted as replacement troops to fill the depleted ranks of units that had taken combat losses. At times, some Heer units were so depleted that they retained their designation as divisions or regiments although their effective strength was far below the standard level.

A column of German PzKpfw. III tanks rolls down a dirt road in Tunisia. Battle groups such as Kampfgruppe Fullriede proved effective in the field with armor, artillery, and infantry working in concert. Although intended as temporary combat formations, they often endured extended periods on the front lines.

Heeresgruppen Nord

The largest operational unit within the Feldheer was the army group, which consisted of two or more armies with organic components of infantry, armor, artillery, and often a Luftwaffe air contingent operating cooperatively. The strength of an army group was usually several hundred thousand soldiers. Those that consisted entirely of German troops were known as Heeresgruppen.

One example of the evolving composition and deployment of Feldheer forces is Heeresgruppe Nord, Army Group North, which was nominally under the control of OKH throughout World War II. Army Group North was formed in September 1939 under the command of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. During the invasion of Poland, its organic elements included the Third and Fourth Armies with the 10th Panzer Division and the 73rd, 206th, and 208th Infantry Divisions in reserve.

In October 1939, following the Polish campaign, Army Group North was transferred to the West, redesignated Army Group B, and included the Fourth and Sixth Armies. By the time the Heer executed Case Yellow, unleashing 136 divisions for the invasion of France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, Bock’s Army Group B included the three corps of General Georg von Kuchler’s Eighteenth Army and the six corps of the Sixth Army under General Walter von Reichenau. The total strength of Army Group B included 29 divisions in the spring and summer of 1940. Of these, 23 were infantry, three panzer, two motorized infantry, and one cavalry.

Army Group North on the Eastern Front

In preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union, a new Army Group North was constituted on the Eastern Front and consisted largely of units drawn from Army Group C. Under Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, Army Group North advanced on Leningrad and was poised to take the city when Hitler ordered the advance halted so that its civilian population could be starved into submission by siege. In the end, the 900-day siege of Leningrad was unsuccessful and tied down large numbers of German troops. During the opening months of Operation Barbarossa, this second incarnation of Army Group North included the Eighteenth Army, Sixteenth Army, Fourth Panzer Army, and specialized units.

Army Group North was deployed on the Eastern Front for the remainder of the war, and in October 1941 included the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies along with the troops of the Spanish Blue Division, Fascist soldiers from Franco’s Spain who volunteered to serve with the Feldheer. A year later, under the command of von Kuchler, Army Group North was augmented by the Eleventh Army. During seven months of combat along the Baltic in 1944, the army group was commanded by Field Marshal Walter Model, Col. Gen. Georg Lindemann, Col. Gen. Johannes Friessner, and Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner.

In the waning months of the war, Army Group North operated in Prussia with the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies reinforced by various detachments and battle groups. Fighting in Latvia in January 1945, it was renamed Army Group Courland, while the remnants of the former Army Group Center was renamed as yet another Army Group North.

The Three Army Group Bs

Army Group B was actually the designation of three different formations during the war. In addition to Bock’s command of 300,000 troops that fought in Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940, a second Army Group B was formed in the East prior to the Wehrmacht offensive against the Red Army in the summer of 1942. This command consisted primarily of troops of the former Army Group South and included the ill-fated Sixth Army under Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, which was annihilated by the Red Army during the six-month Battle of Stalingrad. After the Stalingrad debacle, this Army Group B was combined with Army Group Don to form another Army Group South.

During the catastrophic German defeat at Stalingrad, a Wehrmacht soldier peers from cover through a telescopic viewer. The distant Soviet Red Army tightened the ring of steel around the Germans at Stalingrad until they capitulated in February 1943.

The third incarnation of Army Group B took shape in northern Italy in 1943 under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The army group was transferred to France after D-Day, and command passed to Field Marshal Günther von Kluge and later to Field Marshal Model. Elements of Army Group B participated in the fighting in Normandy, Operation Market-Garden, the Allied airborne and ground offensive in the Netherlands in the autumn of 1944, and the Ardennes offensive, which is popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge.

While in Italy, Army Group B included at various times the German Second Army, the Italian Eighth Army, the Hungarian Second Army, and for a time the II SS Panzer Corps. Its composition on the Western Front included Panzer Group West, the First Army, Seventh Army, Fifteenth Army, the Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies, and the First Parachute Army.

The Armeegruppe

Axis army groups that included German formations along with those of other nations, particularly the Italian Army in North Africa and the Romanian and Hungarian Armies on the Eastern Front, were often designated as Armeegruppen. Prior to 1943, the term Armeegruppe was more loosely defined and included reinforced formations or even large groupings of particular divisions. Later, when Axis forces of more than one nation operated cooperatively, the headquarters of the German component of the Armeegruppe was usually in overall command.

Armies, Corps, and Divisions of the Heer

A standard army-sized unit within the Heer numbered from 60,000 to 100,000 troops formed in one or more corps and including attached specialized units. An army corps consisted of one or more divisions along with attached units, reserves, and any additional support troops assigned. Corps headquarters served as “bridge” command structure between the strategic direction of armies and the tactical deployment of smaller units such as divisions or battle groups. The corps generally consisted of 40,000 to 60,000 soldiers including both combat and support troops.

The composition of Feldheer divisions during World War II depended on their type and purpose. Infantry divisions were comprised of different units than panzer divisions. Therefore, an infantry division most often consisted of up to four regiments along with attached units totaling of 10,000 to 20,000 men. Its headquarters provided tactical field direction for fighting regiments under its command.

The 1st Infantry Division

Activated in October 1934, during the early phase of the Heer’s growth under the Nazi regime, the 1st Infantry Division traced its beginning to the prewar Reichswehr and was originally known by a series of euphemistic names to camouflage its true purpose as an infantry formation, which violated the terms of the Versailles Treaty. A “Wave One” unit, the 1st Division included soldiers who were called up in the first wave of German military conscription prior to World War II.

The 1st Division participated in the Polish campaign as a component of the XXVI Corps and Third Army commanded by General von Küchler. The division transferred to France briefly and then returned to the Eastern Front for the rest of the war. Participating in the advance of the Eighteenth Army on Leningrad, the division fought in the area of Lake Ladoga and transferred to the First Panzer Army in the winter of 1943. Later operating with the Third and Fourth Armies, the 1st Division fought the Soviet Red Army in the vicinity of Königsberg in East Prussia until the end of the war.

On September 2, 1943, German soldiers, camouflaged against the snow, which already blankets the ground, move forward. Alert to the potential Soviet offensive that was to come, the Germans took a heavy toll in Russian casualties, both military and civilian.

The exigencies of combat influenced the composition of the 1st Division significantly. During the Polish campaign, it consisted of three infantry regiments, the 1st, 22nd, and 43rd, an artillery regiment with an attached battalion, machine-gun, antitank, pioneer, reconnaissance, signals, and medical battalions. By 1944, the division included Füsilier Regiment 22, which combined the capabilities of heavy infantry and reconnaissance troops Grenadier Regiments 22 and 43, comprised of ordinary foot soldiers Artillery Regiment 1 with an additional artillery battalion and various support formations. From its inception through the end of the war, the 1st Division was led by no fewer than 12 different commanders.

Organizing Regiments and Companies

Below the division level, the regiment consisted of 2,000 to 6,000 soldiers, who engaged in direct combat with the enemy and deployed organic units along with attached formations as necessary. At times, the regiment included independent battalions or abteilungen. In theory, the 500- to 1,000-man abteilung was the smallest unit in the Heer that was capable of sustained combat operations without the direct support of other units. An operational abteilung regularly included infantry, artillery, armor, and pioneer formations, along with heavy weapons support such as machine-gun and mortar units, to accomplish an assigned tactical mission.

The 100- to 200-man company served at the tactical level and usually included four or five platoons, which were the primary combat formations of the Heer infantry. Each platoon was initially divided into squads of 13 soldiers. Later, when the 13-man configuration proved unwieldy on the battlefield, the size of the squad was decreased to 10 men. Although Hitler controlled the highest levels of command through OKW, subordinate commanders in the field were often allowed considerable independence. Junior officers and noncommissioned officers of the Heer gained a reputation for independent combat initiative.

Kampfgruppen: Germany’s Combat Command Structure

Combat operations often involved the formation of self-contained units known as battle groups, or kampfgruppen. These were combinations of units that provided comprehensive ground capabilities and ranged in size from corps to battalion or company level. Each kampfgruppe usually included infantry, armor, artillery, and antitank elements along with support troops such as pioneers and medical detachments.

Formed in the field and comprised of the units at hand, the kampfgruppe was often a temporary organization that bore the name of its commanding officer and was ordered to carry out a specific mission. A standard formation of Heer tactical guidelines and field operations, the kampfgruppe was somewhat similar to the combat command structure employed by the U.S. Army during World War II.

The Kampfgruppe in Action

During the retreat of Axis forces across North Africa following their defeat at El Alamein in the autumn of 1942, German and Italian troops were pushed across hundreds of miles of desert. With Allied forces advancing from east and west, Axis troops under Generals Erwin Rommel and Hans-Jürgen von Arnim were in danger of being cut off from one another during their fighting withdrawal toward the Tunisian coast. Several kampfgruppe were dispatched to hold vital mountain passes against the advancing Allies.

German soldiers raise the Nazi flag in Belgium. The invasion of France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, resulted in the swift conquest of those nations. The might of Nazi arms was well illustrated with the magnificent assault by German glider troops on Fort Eben Emael on the Belgian-Dutch frontier.

One such battle group was Kampfgruppe Fullriede, formed in February 1943 under the command of Lt. Col. Fritz Fullriede. Defending the Fondouk passes along a front of 65 kilometers, Fullriede had 12 infantry companies, nine German and three Italian, 14 Italian field guns, three small German artillery pieces, and the 334th Armored Car Battalion, which fielded several light antiaircraft guns and two 88mm cannons originally intended for antiaircraft use but deadly in an antitank role. Augmented by a platoon of special forces from the famed Brandenburg Regiment, Kampfgruppe Fullriede launched a successful counterattack against U.S. forces that had previously driven his forward elements from defensive positions and captured a nearby village.

Further reinforced by the 190th Reconnaissance Battalion, Fullriede deployed a pair of self-propelled 75mm guns and cleared another mountain pass. Holding these routes open for days with little replenishment of supplies or reinforcements, Kampfgruppe Fullriede was retired on April 9, 1943, after nearly two months of steady combat.

The combat formations of the Feldheer proved adept at swift movement and exploitation of breakthroughs in enemy lines during offensive operations, particularly the Blitzkrieg, which combined air, armor, infantry, and artillery in the swift conquest of Poland, vast territory of the Soviet Union, and much of Western Europe from 1939 to 1941.

Once on the defensive, the Feldheer was resilient, its tactical commanders resourceful, and its soldiers battle hardened and grimly determined to defend the Fatherland.

Originally Published January 11, 2017


“With the end of World War I, the German Army had not been defeated in the field. Surrender had come due to depleted resources and war weariness at home”

The Germany Army on the Western Front were defeated in the First World War. The Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser Offensive/Operation Micheal) in the Spring of 1918 was a big gamble and a disaster for Germany. When the Allies fought back, the German Troops crumbled, many of them gave up. Germany was being pushed back along the Western Front. The German Army suffered numerous defeats from Late Spring to Early Fall on the Western Front. The Battle of Verdun was a huge defeat for The Germans, and a pyrrhic victory for the French.

Surrender actually was a cease fire, (The Armistice of 1918) had came because the Kaiser’s Government collapsed. The German Military panicked, and threw the disaster to Reichstag Politicians to deal with, who negotiated the Armistice,) The Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 was a fait accompli by the Allies, were the terms were dictated to the Germans..

Excellent presentation of Nazi structure and organization and accounts for much of their early success. I would also note that success owes a lot to the disunity and unpreparedness of the opposition countries pre-war who seemed to have learned little from WW I. The Czechs had a substantial arms industry. The French had competent aircraft though in short supply, a standing army, and a quality tank and tank corps led by the mercurial but competent de Gaulle. Churchill fought for British aircraft programs against opposition in his own party. Stalin eviscerated his own officer corps in the purges of 1931-33. Finally, Poland had defeated the Soviet army in 1920-21 and could have given a strong fight against the Germans had it maintained a professional standing army with decent equipment. It would have taken only a unified certainty of force by these countries to cause a full on revolt by the career German staff to force Hitler to back down or even be replaced.

I’ve seen estimates that @ 15000 members of German army were punished by execution in WWll. This number is adequate to inspire unquestioning discipline in any army.

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