The German army had its ups and downs during World War II, winning a series of dramatic early victories and then suffering a parade of catastrophic defeats until the final collapse of 1945. Its historical reputation has followed the same pattern. Most military writers loved it in the immediate postwar years. They admired its innovative adoption of mechanized warfare, its intricate interplay between tank formations and air power, and its daring operational maneuvers.
Starting in the 1990s, however, that reputation began to tarnish. As new records became available, especially from the now-defunct Soviet Union, the focus shifted away from the German army’s operational excellence and toward the criminal nature of the war it waged. The army used to get a pass on Hitler’s horrors, while the more fanatical Waffen-SS got the blame. But no serious person can still believe that the German army had “clean hands” in World War II. The evidence against it is simply overwhelming.
These two schools—operational excellence and criminality—often talk past one another, however, and that is the very reason why Hitler’s Soldiers is such a rich and satisfying book. Ben H. Shepherd is an exponent of both trends. He spends much of the book describing the army’s “astounding record of military success.” Before we ask why the German army lost, he notes, we “need to ask how it won, so repeatedly and spectacularly, in the early years of the war,” and then remained in the field later, under blows that would have crumpled many other armies.
However, Shepherd also narrates the nastier aspects of the German war. His previous books have dealt with anti-partisan warfare and he is an expert on all facets: the army’s brutal occupation policies, its smash-and-grab economic practices, and the plastic nature of the term “anti-partisan,” which gave the men in the field carte blanche to kill anyone they wished, as long as the dead showed up in the official reports as “bandits” or “terrorists.” When we think of the Holocaust, our minds usually turn to Auschwitz, but millions of Jews perished in the German army’s aggressive anti-partisan campaigns, even though the victims never grabbed a gun or lifted a finger against their German occupiers.
The key to understanding both viewpoints of the German army at war, Shepherd argues, is Nazi ideology and propaganda. From the high commanders down to the typical “ground-pounder,” German soldiers really did believe in the Führer’s “world-historical mission” to redeem Germany. They believed in Nazi racial theories, crackpot notions that saw some races as born to rule and others as innately inferior or lazy or evil. They really did believe that Germany stood under attack by an “international Jewish conspiracy” and that the stakes were nothing less than victory or death. The men might not have all been “ideological fanatics,” but they were “permeated” with Nazi ideology, Shepherd argues, and these attitudes help to explain why the army stayed in the field so tenaciously, and why it killed civilians so viciously.
Shepherd notes the paradox, however. The more fanatically the German army fought—whether holding on senselessly in a war long lost or carrying out ever more mind-numbing atrocities—the more determined its enemies became to destroy it utterly, along with Germany itself. “Thus did the German army’s moral failure and military failure reinforce one another,” he writes in conclusion. Of all the guides that modern armies use in war, the maps and charts and aerial reconnaissance photos, the moral compass remains the most indispensable. —Robert M. Citino is the Senior Historian at the National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.