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Armed Forces of Germany
The straight-armed Balkenkreuz, a stylized version of the Iron Cross, the emblem of the Wehrmacht
Active 1935–1946[N 1]
Country  Nazi Germany (1935–1945)
 Allied-occupied Germany (1945–1946)
Allegiance Adolf Hitler
Branch Heer
Role Armed forces of Nazi Germany

20,700,000 (total who served at any time)

2,200,000 (1945)
Garrison/HQ Zossen
Patron Adolf Hitler
Motto Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer
Colors Feldgrau
Engagements Spanish Civil War
World War II
Decorations See full list.
Ceremonial chief Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Hermann Göring
Wilhelm Keitel
Erich Raeder
Karl Dönitz
Robert Ritter von Greim

The Wehrmacht (German pronunciation:  ( ), lit. 'defence force'[N 2]) was the unified armed forces of Germany from 1870-1918 and 1935 to 1946. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe (air force).[2] The designation Wehrmacht for Nazi Germany's military replaced the previously used term, Reichswehr and constituted the Third Reich’s efforts to rearm their nation to a greater extent than the Treaty of Versailles permitted.[3]

Following Germany’s defeat in the First World War, they were relegated by the treaty to a limited army. One of Hitler’s most overt and audacious moves was the establishment of a mighty fighting force (the Wehrmacht), an army designed for imperial conquest. Fulfilling the Nazi regime’s long term goals (unknown to their neighbors) of global conquest required massive investment and spending in the German armaments industry and conscription to properly man the Führer’s military machine.[4] In December, 1941, Hitler named himself commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht.[5]

Along with the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe, the Wehrmacht formed the heart of Germany’s politico-military apparatus. Hitler's generals successfully employed the Wehrmacht using innovative combined arms tactics (close cover air-support, mechanized armor, and infantry) to devastating effect in a method of war called Blitzkrieg (lightning war). The Wehrmacht and the German military juggernaut incorporated a new military structure,[6] unique combat techniques, new-found weapons, and an unprecedented speed and brutality against their opponents.[7]

At the height of their success in 1942, the Germans dominated upwards of 3,898,000 square kilometers of territory,[8] an accomplishment made possible by the combined German forces with the Wehrmacht firmly securing conquered territory. Working hand-in-hand at times with the SS, soldiers on the front (especially during the Eastern campaign) participated in various war atrocities, despite claims otherwise.[9] By the time the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the Wehrmacht had lost approximately 11,300,000 men.[10] Only a few members of the Wehrmacht’s upper leadership were tried for war crimes after World War II, notwithstanding the evidence which made many more culpable.[11] More or less deconstructed by September 1945, the Wehrmacht was officially dissolved by ACC Law 34 on 20 August 1946.[12]

Origin and use of the term

The German term Wehrmacht generically describes any nation's Armed Forces, thus, Britische Wehrmacht denotes "British Armed Forces." The term Wehrmacht is in Article 47 of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, establishing that: The Reich's President holds supreme command of all armed forces [i.e. the Wehrmacht] of the Reich ("Der Reichspräsident hat den Oberbefehl über die gesamte Wehrmacht des Reiches"). From 1919, Germany's national defence force was known as the Reichswehr, which name was dropped in favor of Wehrmacht on 16 March 1935. In modern day Germany the name Wehrmacht is considered a proper noun for the 1935–45 armed forces, being replaced by Streitkräfte in its original meaning; however, this was not so even some decades after 1945. In English writing Wehrmacht is often used to refer specifically to the land forces (army); the correct German for this is Heer.


Werner Goldberg, who was blond and blue-eyed and was used in Wehrmacht recruitment posters as "The Ideal German Soldier."

After World War I ended with the signing of the armistice of 11 November 1918, the armed forces were dubbed Friedensheer (peace army) in January 1919.[13] In March 1919, the national assembly passed a law founding a 420,000-strong preliminary army as Vorläufige Reichswehr. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were announced in May, and in June, Germany was forced to sign the treaty which, among other terms, imposed severe constraints on the size of Germany's armed forces. The army was limited to one hundred thousand men with an additional fifteen thousand in the navy. The fleet was to consist of at most six battleships, six cruisers, and twelve destroyers. Submarines, tanks and heavy artillery were forbidden and the air-force was dissolved. A new post-war military (the Reichswehr) was established on 23 March 1921. General conscription was abolished under another mandate of the Versailles treaty.[14]

The limitations imposed by Versailles turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the military. That the Reichswehr was limited to 100,000 men ensured that under the new leadership of Hans von Seeckt, the Reichswehr kept only the very best officers. The American historians Alan Millet and Williamson Murray wrote "In reducing the officers corps, Seeckt chose the new leadership from the best men of the general staff with ruthless disregard for other constituencies, such as war heroes and the nobility".[15] Seeckt's determination that the Reichswehr be an elite cadre force that would serve as the nucleus of an expanded military when the chance for restoring conscription came essentially led to the creation of a new army, based upon, but very different from, the army that existed in World War I.[15] Though Seeckt retired in 1926, the army that went to war in 1939 was largely his creation.[16] In the 1920s, Seeckt and his officers developed new doctrines emphasizing speed, aggression, combined arms and initiative on the part of lower officers to take advantage of momentary opportunities.[15] Germany was forbidden to have an air-force by Versailles, but Seeckt, who saw the advantages of air-warfare, created a clandestine cadre of air-force officers in the early 1920s.[17] Seeckt's cadre of secret air-officers saw the role of an air-force as winning air-superiority, tactical and strategic bombing and providing ground support.[17] That the Luftwaffe did not develop a strategic bombing force in the 1930s was not due to a lack of interest, but because of economic limitations.[17] The leadership of the Navy led by Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, a close protégé of Alfred von Tirpitz, was dedicated to the idea of reviving Tirpitz's High Seas Fleet.[18] Officers who believed in submarine warfare led by Admiral Karl Dönitz were in a minority before 1939.[18] Naval officers saw war almost entirely in tactical and technological terms, and had almost no interest in operational matters.[19]

By 1922, Germany had begun covertly circumventing these conditions. A secret collaboration with the Soviet Union began after the treaty of Rapallo.[20] Major-General Otto Hasse traveled to Moscow in 1923 to further negotiate the terms. Germany helped the Soviet Union with industrialization and Soviet officers were to be trained in Germany. German tank and air-force specialists could exercise in the Soviet Union and German chemical weapons research and manufacture would be carried out there along with other projects.[21] In 1924 a training base was established at Lipetsk in central Russia, where several hundred German air force personnel received instruction in operational maintenance, navigation, and aerial combat training over the next decade until the Germans finally left in September of 1933.[22] Additionally some tank training took place near Kazan, and toxic gas was developed at Saratov for the German army.

Adolf Hitler and the reinstatement of conscription

After the death of President Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, Adolf Hitler assumed the office of Reichspräsident, and thus became commander in chief. All officers and soldiers of the German armed forces had to swear a personal oath of loyalty to the Führer, as Hitler was called. The oath stated the following:

"I swear by God this sacred oath that to the Leader of the German empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath." German: Ich schwöre bei Gott diesen heiligen Eid, daß ich dem Führer des Deutschen Reiches und Volkes Adolf Hitler, dem Oberbefehlshaber der Wehrmacht, unbedingten Gehorsam leisten und als tapferer Soldat bereit sein will, jederzeit für diesen Eid mein Leben einzusetzen.[23]

By 1935, Germany was openly flouting the military restrictions set forth in the Versailles Treaty: [25] Hitler’s proclamation of the Wehrmacht's existence included a total of no less than 36 divisions in its original projection, contravening the Treaty of Versailles in grandiose fashion. In December 1935, General Ludwig Beck added 48 tank battalions to the planned rearmament program.[26]

The insignia of the Wehrmacht was a simpler version of the Iron Cross (the straight-armed so-called Balkenkreuz or beamed cross) that had been used as an aircraft and tank marking in late World War I, beginning in March and April 1918.



The total number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht during its existence from 1935 to 1945 is believed to have approached 18.2 million. This figure was put forward by historian Rüdiger Overmans and represents the total number of people who ever served in the Wehrmacht, and not the force strength of the Wehrmacht at any point.


Inspection of German conscripts

Recruitment for the Wehrmacht was accomplished through voluntary enlistment (1933–45) and conscription (1935–45). Men were registered for service by annual classes, and deferments for students and those working in vital economic enterprises and industries were liberally granted, prior to the war.[27] Men were called up for service by individual letter; before the war, older registrants were only required to attend occasional training exercises of limited duration.[27]

During the early stages of World War II, occupational and medical discharges from service were fairly easy to obtain, but as the conflict intensified, these became fewer and harder to come by.[27] Naval and Luftwaffe personnel were increasingly transferred to the Army as the war wore on, and "voluntary" enlistments in the S.S. were stepped up, as well. Eventually, exemptions previously granted to [27]

Following the [27] Finally, as Wehrmacht losses mounted, the Nazi government instituted the Volkssturm, a home guard made up mostly of old men and boys, who proved totally inadequate to stop the advancing Allied armies during the final months of the war.[28]

Foreign recruits

A Volga Tatar Wehrmacht unit

Prior to World War II, the Wehrmacht strove to remain a purely German force; as such, minorities, such as the Czechs in annexed [27]

With the [27]

After Germany's defeat in the [27] Entire units were formed from these people, many of which were renowned for their bravery; however, others did not perform as well. Following the war, many of these recruits were repatriated to the Soviet Union, where most perished in the Gulag or were executed. Besides, a few thousand White émigrés joined the ranks of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, often acting as interpreters.[29]

Pay and allowances

A Wehrmacht soldier's payment system generally varied depending on whether a soldier was a draftee or a professional soldier and might be further modified with allowances to address individual circumstances.

All Wehrmacht soldiers on combat duty (draftee or professional) were paid a non-taxable war-service salary in advance every ten to thirty days, unless they were [27] The amount of these payments were based on the soldier's rank.

Professional soldiers received, in addition to the pay and allowances described above, their usual peacetime Wehrmacht monthly salary, payable by check one to two months in advance; plus a housing allowance (if not living in barracks), and an allowance for their dependents.[27] As with the wartime pay, this compensation was based upon their rank, and was subject to a mandatory deduction that partially offset their war-service pay (see previous paragraph).[27] Unlike the war service pay, their regular monthly salary was subject to taxation, and was payable even if they were taken prisoner.[27] Instead of being given to the soldier personally, this payment was deposited into his home [27]

During wartime, draftees who had achieved the rank of Senior [27]

For a table of both salaries, arranged by rank and given in 1945 U.S. Dollars, see Item 6: Wehrmacht Pay Table.

In addition to these salaries, all soldiers on front-line duty (regardless of rank) received the equivalent of 40 U.S. cents per day as a special allowance; this was not considered [27]

Other benefits

All soldiers, professional or draftee, were entitled to free rations, quarters and clothing (the last was free only to enlisted men) while on active service; those compelled to eat away from their unit received $1.20 U.S. per day per diem. Professional soldiers were not given any additional allowance for quarters if living off-base (as this was considered part of their base pay), but draftees received assistance for their families while on active duty.[27]

Enlisted men were given all uniforms, boots, etc. without charge, while Wehrmacht officers were granted a one-time uniform allowance of $180 U.S. upon commissioning; $280 was paid to Naval officers.[27] Officers were given $12 U.S. per month thereafter for uniform maintenance.[27] Professional soldiers were paid a cash enlistment bonus: $120 U.S. for a twelve-year contract, or $40 U.S. for a 4.5 year contract.[27]

Pensions and furloughs

Regular officers and professional soldiers were eligible for various benefits upon discharge, depending upon their length of service. Lump-sum payments, unemployment assistance and pensions were available, depending upon length and character of service.[27] All soldiers granted an [27]

Professional [27]


Documents and I.D. tags

The cover of a Wehrpass.

All Wehrmacht soldiers, professional and draftee, were issued a Wehrpass, or Service Record Book, upon their initial examination for military service. This [27]

In addition to their Wehrpass, Wehrmacht soldiers were issued a Soldbuch, or pay-book, which they kept in their possession at all times. This booklet, also passport-size, contained their Military registration number (Wehrnummer) and Identity-disc number, together with a complete record of all pay and awards received, medical history, promotions, assignments, and other pertinent information related to each individual's military service.[27]

Wehrmacht soldiers wore two identical identity discs around their necks, given to them by the first unit with which they served.[27] Each soldier's serial number, unit and blood type were recorded on the tag, which could be re-issued (with a new serial number) by future units to which the soldier was assigned.[27]

Other records kept on Wehrmacht soldiers included a Military Record book (comparable to the [27]

Upon discharge, the soldier traded his Soldbuch for his Wehrpass, which remained in his possession for life (as did his Serial Number); deceased soldiers' Wehrpasses were forwarded to their next of kin.[27] All other records, including his Soldbuch, were transferred to his home recruiting station for safekeeping.[27]

Top ranks


The post of the Reichsmarschall was the highest military ranking that a German could reach. The post was held solely by Hermann Göring, the most powerful Nazi leader in Germany apart from Hitler, who designated him as his successor on 29 June 1941.[30] Göring also served as the head of the Luftwaffe and was responsible for handling Germany's war economy.[31]


In 1936, Hitler revived the rank of field marshal, originally only for the Minister of War and Commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht.


The rank of Generaloberst, usually translated as "colonel general", but perhaps better as "senior general" was equivalent to a four-star rank.


This three-star rank was formally linked to the branch of the army Heer, or air-force Luftwaffe, in which the officer served, and (nominally) commanded: in addition to the long established General der Kavallerie, General der Artillerie and General der Infanterie, the Wehrmacht also had General der Panzertruppe (armoured troops), General der Gebirgstruppe (mountain troops), General der Pioniere (engineers), General der Fallschirm-Truppe (parachute-troops), General der Flieger (aviators), General der Flakartillerie (anti-aircraft) and General der Nachrichtentruppe (communications troops).


The German Generalleutnant two-star rank was usually a division commander.


The German "Generalmajor" one-star rank was usually a brigade commander. The staff corps of the Wehrmacht, medical, veterinary, judicial and chaplain, used special designations for their general officers, with Generalarzt, Generalveterinär, Generalrichter and Feldbischof being the equivalent of Generalmajor; Generalstabsarzt, Generalstabsveterinär and Generalstabsrichter the equivalent of Generalleutnant; and (the unique) Generaloberstabsarzt, Generaloberstabsveterinär and Generaloberstabsrichter the equivalent of General. With the formation of the Luftwaffe, air-force generals began to use the same general ranks as the German army. The shoulder insignia was identical to that used by the army, with the addition of special collar patches worn by Luftwaffe general officers.

Command structure

Legally, the Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht was Adolf Hitler in his capacity as Germany's head of state, a position he gained after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in August 1934. In the reshuffle in 1938, Hitler became the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces[32] and retained that position until his suicide on 30 April 1945. Administration and military authority initially lay with the war ministry under Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg. After von Blomberg resigned in the course of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair (1938), the ministry was dissolved and the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW) under Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel was put in its place. It was headquartered in Wünsdorf near Zossen, and a field echelon (Feldstaffel) was stationed wherever the Führer '​s headquarters were situated at a given time. Army work was also coordinated by the German General Staff, an institution that had been developing for more than a century and which had sought to institutionalize military perfection.

The OKW coordinated all military activities but Keitel's sway over the three branches of service (army, air-force, and navy) was rather limited. Each had its own High Command, known as Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, army), Oberkommando der Marine (OKM, navy), and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL, air-force). Each of these high commands had its own general staff. In practice the OKW had operational authority over the Western Front whereas the Eastern Front was under the operational authority of the OKH.

Flag for the Commander-in-Chief of the German Armed Forces (1935–1938).
  • Supreme High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW)

(!) Promotion to field marshal was considered as something which is only done in wartime.

The OKW was also given the task of central economic planning and procurement, but the authority and influence of the OKW's war economy office (Wehrwirtschaftsamt) was challenged by the procurement offices (Waffenämter) of the single branches of service as well as by the Ministry for Armament and Munitions (Reichsministerium für Bewaffnung und Munition), into which it was merged after the ministry was taken over by Albert Speer in early 1942.

War years


A Heeresadler ("Army Eagle") decal for the helmets of the Wehrmacht Heer (model 1942).

The German Army furthered concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground (Heer) and Air-Force (Luftwaffe) assets into combined arms teams.[33] Coupled with traditional war fighting methods such as encirclements and the "battle of annihilation", the German military managed many lightning quick victories in the first year of World War II, prompting foreign journalists to create a new word for what they witnessed: Blitzkrieg. Germany's immediate military success on the field at the start of the Second World War coincides the favorable beginning they achieved during the First World War, a fact which some attribute to their superior officer corps.[34]

The Heer entered the war with a minority of its formations motorized; infantry remained approximately 90% foot-borne throughout the war, and artillery was primarily horse-drawn. The motorized formations received much attention in the world press in the opening years of the war, and were cited as the reason for the success of the invasions of Poland (September 1939), Norway and Denmark (April 1940), Belgium, France, and Netherlands (May 1940), Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941) and the early stage of campaigns in the Soviet Union (June 1941).

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

The Panzerjäger-Abteilung 39 ('Tank-hunter battalion 39', part of "Kampfgruppe Gräf", part of the 21. Panzer Division) of the Afrika Korps on the move.

The Germans' army military was managed through mission-based tactics (rather than order-based tactics) which was intended to give commanders greater freedom to act on events and exploit opportunities. In public opinion, the German Army was, and sometimes still is, seen as a high-tech army. However, such modern equipment, while featured much in propaganda, was often only available in relatively small numbers. This was primarily because the country was not run as a war economy until 1942–1943. Only 40% to 60% of all units in the Eastern Front were motorized, baggage trains often relied on horse-drawn trailers due to poor roads and weather conditions in the Soviet Union, and for the same reasons many soldiers marched on foot or used bicycles (Radfahrtruppen).

Some historians, such as British author and ex-newspaper editor Max Hastings, consider that "... there's no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war".,[35] while in the book World War II: An Illustrated Miscellany, Anthony Evans writes: "The German soldier was very professional and well trained, aggressive in attack and stubborn in defence. He was always adaptable, particularly in the later years when shortages of equipment were being felt". However, their integrity was compromised by war crimes, especially those committed on the eastern front. They were overextended and outmaneuvered before Moscow in 1941, and in North Africa and Stalingrad in 1942, and from 1942 to 1943 onward, were in constant retreat. Other Axis powers fought with them, especially Hungary and Romania, as well as many volunteers from other nations.

Wehrmacht infantrymen marching across Russia's vast steppes, 1942.

Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Heer during World War II were ethnic Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Czechs and Hungarians along with people from the Baltic states and the Balkans. Russian emigrees and defectors from the Soviet Union formed the Russian Liberation Army or as Hilfswilliger. Non-Russians from the Soviet Union formed the Ostlegionen. These units were all commanded by General Ernst August Köstring and represented about five percent of the forces under the OKH.


The Luftwaffe (German Air-Force), led by Hermann Göring, was a key element in the early Blitzkrieg campaigns (Poland, France 1940, USSR 1941). The Luftwaffe concentrated production on fighters and (small) tactical bombers, like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter and the Junkers Ju 87 (Stuka) dive bomber.[36]

The planes cooperated closely with the ground forces. Massive numbers of fighters assured air-supremacy, and the bombers would attack command- and supply lines, depots, and other support targets close to the front. They soon achieved an aura of invincibility and terror, where both civilians and soldiers were struck with fear, and started fleeing as soon as the planes were spotted. This caused confusion and disorganisation behind enemy lines, and in conjunction with the "ghost" Panzer Divisions that seemed to be able to appear anywhere, made the Blitzkrieg campaigns highly effective.

As the war progressed, Germany's enemies drastically increased their aircraft production and quality, improved pilot training, so air-supremacy was lost and allied forces gradually gained air-superiority, particularly in the West of the theatre of operations. In the second half of the war, the Luftwaffe was reduced to insignificance. As the Western allies started a strategic bombing campaign against German industrial targets they established air supremacy over Germany deliberately forcing the Luftwaffe into a war of attrition it would lose, leaving German cities open to Allied area bombing and denying support to German forces on the ground.

German paratroopers (Fallschirm-Jäger) landing on Crete.

Air force units in a ground role

The Luftwaffe contributed many units of ground forces to the war in Russia as well as the Normandy front. In 1940, the Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) conquered the vital Belgian Fort Eben-Emael and took part in the airborne invasion of Norway, but after suffering heavy losses in the Battle of Crete, large scale airdrops were discontinued. Operating as crack infantry, the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division fought in all the theatres of the war. Notable actions include the bloody battles of Monte Cassino, the last-ditch defence of Tunisia and numerous key battles on the Eastern Front. A Fallschirmjäger armored division—the Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring—was also formed and was heavily engaged in Sicily and at Salerno.

Separate from the elite Fallschirmjäger, the Luftwaffe also fielded regular infantry in the Luftwaffe Field Divisions. These units were basic infantry formations formed from Luftwaffe personnel. Due to a lack of competent officers and unhappiness by the recruits at having been forced into an infantry role, morale was low in these units. By Göring's personal order they were intended to be restricted to defensive duties in quieter sectors to free up front line troops for combat.

The Luftwaffe – being in charge of Germany's anti-aircraft defences – also used thousands of teenage Luftwaffenhelfer to support the Flak units.[37]


Karl Dönitz inspecting the Saint-Nazaire submarine base in France, June 1941

The Kriegsmarine (navy) played a major role in World War II as control over the commerce routes in the Atlantic was crucial for Germany, Britain and later the Soviet Union. In the Battle of the Atlantic, the initially successful German U-boat fleet arm was eventually defeated due to Allied technological innovations like sonar, radar, and the breaking of the Enigma code. Large surface vessels were few in number due to construction limitations by international treaties prior to 1935. The "pocket battleships" Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer were important as commerce raiders only in the opening year of the war. No aircraft carrier was operational, as German leadership lost interest in the Graf Zeppelin which had been launched in 1938. Following the loss of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, with Allied air-superiority threatening the remaining battlecruisers in French Atlantic harbors, the ships were ordered to make the Channel Dash back to German ports. Operating from fjords of Norway, which had been occupied in 1940, convoys from North America to the Soviet port of Murmansk could be intercepted though the Tirpitz spent most of her career as fleet in being. After the appointment of Karl Doenitz as Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine (in the aftermath of the Battle of the Barents Sea), Germany stopped constructing battleships and cruisers in favor of U-boats.

Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht

The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) or the Supreme High Command of the Army (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH).

Luftwaffe had its own ground forces, including tank divisions) and Waffen-SS often worked concurrently and not as a joint command.

Theaters and campaigns

German cavalry and motorized units entering Poland from East Prussia during the Invasion of Poland of 1939.

The Wehrmacht directed combat Waffen-SS except for operational and tactical combat purposes. The OKW conducted operations in the Western Theater.

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

  • North African Campaign in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt between the UK and Commonwealth (and later, U.S.) forces and the Axis forces.
  • The Italian "Theater" (1943–45) was in fact a continuation of the Axis defeat in North Africa, and was a Campaign for defence of Italy.

The operations by the Kriegsmarine in the North and Mid-Atlantic can also be considered as separate theaters considering the size of the area of operations and their remoteness from other theaters.

Eastern theatre

Soviet Union, October 1941.

The Eastern Wehrmacht campaigns included:

  • Czechoslovakian campaign
  • Austrian Anschluss campaign
  • Battle of Poland campaign (Fall Weiss)—a joint invasion by Germany, the Soviet Union and Slovakia.
  • Balkans and Greece (Operation Marita)
  • Operation Barbarossa Campaign, also known as the Eastern Front, was the largest and most lethal campaign that the Wehrmacht Heer fought in during World War II. The Campaign against the Soviet Union was strategically the most crucial for Germany and its allies, because of the economic and political repercussions defeat of the Soviet Union would have had on the outcome of the war, including that of the conflict with the UK and the U.S. in the Western Theater. The Eastern Front demanded more resources than any other Theater throughout the war. The large area covered by the Eastern Front necessitated the division of the Theatre into four separate Strategic Directions overseen by the Army Group North, Army Group Centre, Army Group South, and the Army Norway. These commands would conduct their own interdependent strategic campaigns within the theater.
  • Battle of the Caucasus.
  • Part of the Eastern Front was anti-partisan operations against guerrilla units and counter-insurgency operations largely by Waffen-SS units on the occupied territories behind Axis front lines.

However, Hitler demanded that the Wehrmacht had to fight on other fronts, sometimes three simultaneously, thus stretching its resources too thin. Hitler's insistence on withdrawing troops from the intensifying theater in the East and moving them to the West after D-Day created tensions between the General Staff of both the OKW and the OKH as there just was not sufficient material and manpower for a two front war of such magnitude.[38] By 1944, even the defence of Germany became impossible.

Western theatre

German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe.
  • Phony War (Sitzkrieg).
  • The Denmark campaign as Operation Weserübung
  • The Norwegian Campaign.
  • The largest campaign in the Western Theatre involving combat was conducted against the Netherlands, Belgium, etc. and France (Fall Gelb) in 1940. This predominantly land campaign evolved into two subsequent campaigns, one by the Luftwaffe against the UK, and the other by the Kriegsmarine against the strategic supply routes linking the UK to the rest of the World.
  • The Western Front resumed in 1944 against the Allied forces with the Battle of Normandy.
  • The strategic air-campaigns the Luftwaffe won in 1939 and 1940 in Poland and France ended with the Battle of Britain. From 1941 to the end of 1943, the Luftwaffe entered a long and bloody air-battle with the Red Air-Force that affected its participation in the campaign against the RAF. Allied air-forces enjoyed aerial superiority on all three Theaters by the summer of 1944. In respect to the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe pursued its early goal of bombing the RAF airfields and fighting a war of attrition initially, but while doing so it struggled to inflict losses faster than the RAF could replace them. Luftwaffe itself was never able to replace their losses at anything close to their loss rate due to Germany unlike the UK not being on a war economy footing, even if Luftwaffe started the battle at a numerical advantage. Later, in response to a string of events beginning with a small-scale air-raid on Berlin by British bombers, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe bomber forces to attack British cities. These reprisal attacks shifted the weight of the Luftwaffe away from the RAF and onto British civilians, allowing the RAF to rebuild its fighting strength and, within a few short months, turn the tide against the Luftwaffe in the skies above England.
  • The Battle of the Atlantic resulted in early Kriegsmarine successes that forced Winston Churchill to confide after the war that the only real threat he felt to Britain's survival was the "U-Boat peril".


Toila war cemetery in Estonia. There are 2,132 graves of German soldiers whose names are carved on these memorial stones.

More than 6,000,000 soldiers were wounded during the conflict, while more than 11,000,000 became prisoners. In all, approximately 5,533,000 soldiers from Germany and other nationalities fighting for the German armed forces—including the Waffen-SS—are estimated to have been killed in action, died of wounds, died in custody or gone missing in World War II. Included in this number are 215,000 Soviet citizens conscripted by Germany.[39]

According to Frank Biess,

German casualties took a sudden jump with the defeat of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad in January 1943, when 180,310 soldiers were killed in one month. Among the 5.3 million Wehrmacht casualties during the Second World War, more than 80 percent died during the last two years of the war. Approximately three-quarters of these losses occurred on the Eastern front (2.7 million) and during the final stages of the war between January and May 1945 (1.2 million).[40]

Jeffrey Herf wrote that:

Whereas German deaths between 1941 and 1943 on the western front had not exceeded 3 percent of the total from all fronts, in 1944 the figure jumped to about 14 percent. Yet even in the months following D-day, about 68.5 percent of all German battlefield deaths occurred on the eastern front, as a Soviet blitzkrieg in response devastated the retreating Wehrmacht.[41]


A mass execution of 56 Polish hostages in Bochnia, near Kraków, following the invasion, December 18, 1939

During World War II, the Wehrmacht perpetrated numerous war crimes.[42] Nazi propaganda had told Wehrmacht soldiers to wipe out what were variously called Jewish Bolshevik subhumans, the Mongol hordes, the Asiatic flood and the red beast.[43] While the principal perpetrators of the civil suppression behind the front lines amongst German armed forces were the Nazi German "political" armies (the SS-Totenkopfverbände and particularly the Einsatzgruppen), the traditional armed forces represented by the Wehrmacht committed and ordered (e.g. the Commissar Order) war crimes of their own, particularly during the invasion of Poland in 1939[44] and later in the war against the Soviet Union.

The Army's Chief of Staff General Franz Halder in a directive declared that in the event of guerrilla attacks, German troops were to impose "collective measures of force" by massacring entire villages.[45] Cooperation between the SS Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht involved supplying the killing squads with weapons, ammunition, equipment, transport, and even housing. Partisan fighters, Jews, and Communists became synonymous enemies of the Nazi regime and were hunted down and exterminated by the Einsatzgruppen and Wehrmacht alike, something revealed in numerous field journal entries from German soldiers.[46] Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Soviet civilians died from starvation as the Germans requisitioned food for their armies and fodder for their draft horses.[47] According to Thomas Kühne, "An estimated 300,000–500,000 people were killed during the Wehrmacht's anti-partisan war in the Soviet Union."[48] While secretly listening to conversations of captured German generals, British officials became aware that the German army had taken part in the atrocities and mass killing of Jews and were guilty of war crimes.[49] American officials learned of Wehrmacht atrocities in much the same way. Taped conversations of soldiers detained as POWs revealed how some of them voluntarily participated in mass executions.[50]

While the Wehrmacht's prisoner-of-war camps for inmates from the west generally satisfied the humanitarian requirement prescribed by international law, prisoners from Poland (which never capitulated) and the USSR were incarcerated under significantly worse conditions. Between the launching of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 and the following spring, 2.8 million of the 3.2 million Soviet prisoners taken died while in German hands.[51]

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

The [43] British historian Ian Kershaw concludes that the Wehrmacht's duty was to ensure the people who met Hitler's requirements of being part of the Aryan Herrenvolk ("Aryan master race") living space, he wrote that:

The Nazi revolution was broader than just the Holocaust. Its second goal was to eliminate Slavs from central and eastern Europe and to create a Lebensraum for Aryans. ... As Bartov (The Eastern Front; Hitler's Army) shows, it barbarised the German armies on the eastern front. Most of their three million men, from generals to ordinary soldiers, helped exterminate captured Slav soldiers and civilians. This was sometimes cold and deliberate murder of individuals (as with Jews), sometimes generalised brutality and neglect. ... German soldiers' letters and memoirs reveal their terrible reasoning: Slavs were 'the Asiatic-Bolshevik' horde, an inferior but threatening race. Only a minority of officers and men were Nazi members.[56]

Resistance to the Nazi regime

Major General Henning von Tresckow.

From all groups of German Resistance, those within the Wehrmacht were the most condemned by the NSDAP. There were several attempts by resistance members like Henning von Tresckow, Erich Hoepner or Friedrich Olbricht to assassinate Adolf Hitler as an ignition of a coup d'état. Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff and Axel Freiherr von dem Bussche-Streithorst even tried to do so by suicide bombing. Those and many other officers in the Heer and Kriegsmarine such as Erwin Rommel, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and Wilhelm Canaris opposed the actions of the Hitler regime. Combined with Hitler's problematic military leadership, this also culminated in the famous 20 July plot (1944), when a group of German Army officers led by von Stauffenberg tried again to kill Hitler and overthrow his regime. Following this attempt, every officer who approached Hitler was searched from head to foot by his SS guards. As a special degradation, all German military personnel were ordered to replace the standard military salute with the Hitler salute from this date on. To what extent the German military forces opposed or supported the Hitler regime is nevertheless highly disputed amongst historians up to the present day

Humanitarian acts

Some members of the Wehrmacht did save Jews and non-Jews from the Albert Battel, a reserve officer stationed near the Przemysl ghetto, blocked an SS detachment from entering it. He then evacuated up to 100 Jews and their families to the barracks of the local military command, and placed them under his protection. Wilm Hosenfeld—an army captain in Warsaw—helped, hid, or rescued several Poles, including Jews, in occupied Poland. Most notably, he helped the Polish Jewish composer Władysław Szpilman, who was hiding among the city's ruins, by supplying him with food and water, and did not betray him to the Nazi authorities. Hosenfeld later died in a Soviet POW camp.

Prominent officers

Prominent German officers from the Wehrmacht era include:

Adolf Hitler with generals Paulus and von Bock in Poltawa, German-occupied Ukraine, June 1942


Most of Germany's field marshals were promoted during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony. German Army Generalfeldmarschalls in order of promotion:

After World War II

Following the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht, which went into effect on 8 May 1945, some Wehrmacht units remained active, either independently (e.g. in Norway), or under Allied command as police forces.[57] By the end of August 1945, these units were dissolved.

On September 20, 1945, with proclamation 2 of the After September 20 the allies began officially dismantling the various commands.[58]

A year later on 20 August 1946, the Allied Control Council declared the Wehrmacht as officially abolished (Kontrollratsgesetz No. 34). It specifically says: "Because of paragraph I of proclamation nr. 2 from September 20th, 1945, the Allied Control Council issues the following law:" - now it lists again the same institutions as above - but omits the SS, SA, SD and Gestapo and adds instead "The German war offices: Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) and Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine ... are hereby viewed as disbanded and fully liquidated and declared unlawful." Surprisingly the law says "are hereby viewed as disbanded and fully liquidated" and then it states that any attempt to violate the law will be prosecuted with up to the death penalty.

In the mid-1950s, tensions of the Cold War led to the creation of separate military forces in the Federal Republic of Germany and the socialist German Democratic Republic. The West German military, officially created on 5 May 1955, took the name Bundeswehr, meaning Federal Defence Forces, which pointed back to the old Reichswehr. Its East German counterpart—created on 1 March 1956—took the name National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee). Both organizations employed many former Wehrmacht members, particularly in their formative years, though neither organization considered themselves to be successors to the Wehrmacht, and in the case of the Bundeswehr rejected the traditional grey of the Wehrmacht in order to show discontituity.


See also


  1. ^ Official dissolution of the Wehrmacht began with Proclamation No. 2 of the Allied Control Council on 20 September 1945 and was not complete until Order No. 34 of 20 August 1946.[1]
  2. ^ From German: wehren, "to defend" and Macht, "power, force". See the Wiktionary article for more information.


  1. ^ "Control Council Law No. 34, Resolution of the Wehrmacht of 20 August 1946" (in German). Official Gazette of the Control Council for Germany, 1 May 2004 – 7 June 2004, p. 172.
  2. ^ Die Verfassungen in Deutschland [German Constitution] online. Reichsgesetzblatt (RGB). RGB1 1935, I, no. 52, p. 609 See:
  3. ^ Taylor, Telford. Sword and Swastika: Generals and Nazis in the Third Reich, pp. 90-119.
  4. ^ See: "The Economics of Warfare: from Blitzkrieg to Total War," in Kitchen, Martin (1994). Nazi Germany at War, pp. 39-65.
  5. ^ Williamson, David G. (2002). The Third Reich, p. 178.
  6. ^ The High Command of the Wehrmacht was known as the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) after 1938. See: Stackelberg, Roderick (2007). The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany, p. 311.
  7. ^ Palmer, Michael (2010). The German Wars: A Concise History, 1859-1945, pp. 169-175.
  8. ^ See the graphical illustration, "Nazi Germany and Europe, 1942," in Michael Freeman (1987). Atlas of Nazi Germany, p. 135.
  9. ^ Bessel, Richard (2006). Nazism and War, pp. 198-203.
  10. ^ Fritz, Stephen G. (2011). Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East, p. 470.
  11. ^ See: "The Legend of the Wehrmacht’s Clean Hands," in Wette, Wolfram (2007). The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, pp. 195-250.
  12. ^ Large, David Clay (1996). Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era, p. 25.
  13. ^ Wheeler-Bennett, John (1954). The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-1945, p. 60
  14. ^ Craig, Gordon (1980). Germany, 1866-1945, pp. 424-432.
  15. ^ a b c Millet, Alan & Murray, Williamson A War To Be Won, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000 page 22.
  16. ^ Wheeler-Bennett, John The Nemesis of Power, page 22.
  17. ^ a b c Millet, Alan & Murray, Williamson A War To Be Won, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000 page 33.
  18. ^ a b Millet, Alan & Murray, Williamson A War To Be Won, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000 page 37.
  19. ^ Millet, Alan & Murray, Williamson A War To Be Won, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000 page 38.
  20. ^ Wheeler-Bennett,John W. (1954). The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-1945, p. 131.
  21. ^ Manfred Zeidler, "The Strange Allies - Red Army and Reichswehr in the Inter-War Period," in Schlögel (2006) Russian-German Special Relations in the Twentieth Century: A Closed Chapter?, pp. 106-111.
  22. ^ Cooper, Matthew (1981). The German Air Force, 1933-1945: An Anatomy of Failure, pp. 382-383.
  23. ^ Buchheim, Broszat, Jacobsen & Krausnick (1967). Anatomie des SS-Staates, p. 18.
  24. ^ Fischer, Klaus (1995). Nazi Germany: A New History, p. 408.
  25. ^ More specifically, the Reichswehr was officially renamed the Wehrmacht on 21 May 1935. See: Stone, David J. (2006) Fighting for the Fatherland: The Story of the German Soldier from 1648 to the Present Day, p. 316.
  26. ^ Tooze, Adam (2006). The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, p. 208.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao Handbook on German Military Forces, U.S. War Department Technical Manual TM-E-431, 15 March 1945, Chapter 1: The German Military System.
  28. ^ Kitchen, Martin (1994). Nazi Germany at War, pp. 98-99.
  29. ^ [1] Oleg Beyda, «'Iron Cross of the Wrangel's Army': Russian Emigrants as Interpreters in the Wehrmacht.» Journal of Slavic Military Studies 27, no. 3 (2014): 433.
  30. ^ Kershaw, Ian (2001). Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis, pp. 303-304, 396.
  31. ^ Killen, John (2003). The Luftwaffe: A History, p. 49.
  32. ^ Broszat, Martin (1985)[1969]. The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich, p. 295.
  33. ^ Palmer, Michael A. The German Wars: A Concise History, 1859-1945, pp. 96-97.
  34. ^ Mosier, John (2006). Cross of Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German War Machine, 1918-1945, pp. 11-24.
  35. ^ Hastings, Max Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy
  36. ^ Tooze, Adam (2006). The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, pp. 125-130.
  37. ^ One of whom was Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
  38. ^ Fritz, Stephen G. (2011). Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East, pp. 366-368.
  39. ^ Rüdiger Overmans (2000). Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. p. 335.  
  40. ^ Frank Biess (2006). Homecomings: returning POWs and the legacies of defeat in postwar Germany. Princeton University Press. p.19. ISBN 0-691-12502-3.
  41. ^ Jeffrey Herf (2006). The Jewish enemy: Nazi propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust. Harvard University Press. p.252. ISBN 0-674-02175-4
  42. ^ David Baker (2012-09-22). I liked to shoot everything - women, kids ... it was kind of sport': Secret Nazi tapes reveal how ordinary German soldiers were responsible for war crimes and not just SS | Mail Online"'". Retrieved 2013-06-24. 
  43. ^ a b Evans, Richard In Hitler's Shadow 1989 pages 58–60.
  44. ^ Böhler, Jochen (2006). Auftakt zum Vernichtungskrieg. Die Wehrmacht in Polen 1939 (in German). Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.  
  45. ^ Förster, Jürgen "The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination Against the Soviet Union", page 501
  46. ^ Fritz, Stephen G. (2011) Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East, pp. 92-134.
  47. ^ Geoffrey P. Megargee (2007). "War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941". Rowman & Littlefield. p.121. ISBN 0-7425-4482-6
  48. ^ Helmut Walser Smith (2011). "The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History". Oxford University Press. p.542. ISBN 0-19-923739-5
  49. ^ Cacciottolo, Mario. "The Nazis prisoners bugged by Germans". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 18 January 2013. 
  50. ^ Neitzel, Sönke, and Harald Welzer (2012). Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying - The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs, pp. 136-143.
  51. ^ Davies, Norman (2006). Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory. London: Pan Books. p. 271.  
  52. ^ "Crimes of the German Wehrmacht" (PDF). Hamburg Institute for Social Research. 2004. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  53. ^ Leitz, Christian "Editor's Introduction" pages 131–132 from "Army: Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich" by Omer Bartov; pages 129–150 from The Third Reich The Essential Readings edited by Christian Leitz, London: Blackwell, 1999
  54. ^ Bartov, Omer Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003 page xiii
  55. ^ Bartov, 1999 page 146.
  56. ^ Ian Kershaw. Stalinism and Nazism: dictatorships in comparison. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p.150 ISBN 0-521-56521-9
  57. ^ Alexander Fischer: "Teheran – Jalta – Potsdam", Die sowjetischen Protokolle von den Kriegskonferenzen der "Großen Drei", mit Fußnoten aus den Aufzeichnungen des US Department of State, Köln 1968, S.322 und 324
  58. ^ "Allied Control Council documents" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-06-24. 


External links

  • Extensive history and information about German armed forces from 1919 to 1945
  • The Wehrmacht, the Holocaust, and War Crimes
  • The Wehrmacht: A Criminal Organization? A review of Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann work on the subject
  •, Allied and Axis North Africa and the Mediterranean Theater of Operations Research Group with largest collections of North African Campaign and MTO photographs on the internet
  • Examples of, and information about, camouflage uniforms used by the Wehrmacht Heer, Wehrmacht Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS during the Second World War
  • Archives of the German military manuals including secret manuals of Enigma and Cryptography
  • article about Wehrmacht veteransDeutsche Welle
  • Georgische legion—Units and photos
  • Over 2,000 original German World War II soldier photographs from the Eastern Front
  • 'Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg', WGN Radio Chicago—including a link to the interview with Max Hastings (29 November 2004)
  • Large amount of information on the Wehrmacht during 1935 until 1945
  • Wehrmacht Propaganda Troops and the Jews - an article by Dr. Daniel Uziel
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