War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans

 by Ben Shepherd; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2004, $29.95.

In the mid-1990s, the Wehrmacht exhibition (Wehrmachts-Ausstellung) that traveled to cities in Germany and Austria generated debate and controversy by highlighting the crimes committed by “Hitler’s Army” in the occupied territories. The exhibition, combined with contemporary scholarship on the German army, effectively shattered the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” trapped in the service of an evil regime by its own code of professional honor and its obligation to the defense of the German people.

Recent scholarship continues to broaden our understanding of the complicity and participation of the armed forces in campaigns of mass murder and exploitation in the East. With the exposure of Wehrmacht crimes and atrocities, historians also sought to determine the motives for the army’s participation in the genocidal actions of the National Socialist regime. The pioneering work of Omer Bartov and others, including Stephen Fritz, addressed the attitudes and motives responsible for transforming the ordinary Landser into an instrument for conducting racial war. In contrast to these earlier macrohistorical attempts to explain the motivations of the German army as a whole, newer studies have focused on explaining the actions of military units in specific geographical areas or concentrated on individual units. Ben Shepherd’s work falls into the latter group by concentrating on the actions of the 221st Security Division in occupied Russia in an attempt to determine the motive for “the brutality of the Wehrmacht’s war of extermination at the level not of high command, but of prosecution: the officers and soldiers of the lower levels, the ‘ordinary men’ who put it into action.”

Shepherd discusses the range of factors that influenced the motivation of the Ostheer as it prepared to enter the Soviet Union in June 1941, including Nazi ideology, institutional mentality, age and social demographics, policy guidelines and wartime conditions. In addition, he provides an excellent overview of the historical roots of the German army’s paranoia and experience in dealing with guerrilla warfare. Shepherd’s target group, the 221st Security Division, encompasses an over-age, undersize cohort that “fell far short of the yardstick of military excellence with which the Wehrmacht is so widely associated.”

Despite their second- and third-string status, the officers of the 221st proved adept at conducting a campaign of atrocity and economic exploitation, which Shepherd segregates into three chronological periods. The brutality exhibited by the unit during the first months of the German invasion built upon a range of factors, including the regime’s ideological precepts of anti-Semitism and anti-Bolshevism “legitimized” in a series of criminal orders that resulted in “victimizing terror” aimed largely at Communist functionaries and Jews. By late summer, the difficulties experienced by the Ostheer in the advance on Moscow led to a broader campaign of “general terror” and “ideological extermination” that encompassed the local populations of the East.

In the second phase of the German occupation in 1942, Shepherd identifies an increasing shift toward “cultivation” of the population in an attempt to win hearts and minds. These efforts at “constructive engagement” ultimately failed due to the ideological and exploitive aspects of the German occupation, especially the expropriation of livestock and foodstuffs and the impressment of the population for forced labor.

In the third phase, the military reverses suffered by the German army in 1943 and the increasingly harsh conditions combined with lack of manpower, inadequate training and poor equipment led the unit’s leadership to abandon constructive engagement in favor of a policy of increasing brutality. The result was the creation of dead zones designed to deny resources and areas of operation to the growing partisan movement.

Shepherd provides a fair and insightful analysis of the motivations that determined the actions of midlevel officers within the unit, ranging from the ideological to the pragmatic. He also contrasts the actions taken by the 221st with other security divisions in the East and demonstrates the wide latitude of discretion enjoyed by officers in these units. Unfortunately for the local populations, the 221st’s efforts at cultivation proved the exception rather than the rule. Shepherd argues convincingly that midlevel officers played a key role in dictating the ruthless nature of the war in the East and that these men bear the weight of responsibility for the brutal face of Nazi occupation policy. Shepherd’s excellent study provides a significant addition to emerging scholarship on the Wehrmacht that focuses on the actions and motivations of individual units, a trend that promises to offer important insights into the motives of those involved in Adolf Hitler’s “crusade in the East.”


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here