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Wehrmacht was the name of the armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945. It replaced the old Reichswehr and was succeeded by the current Bundeswehr.

The German word Wehrmacht (literally defence force) predates the 1930s and originally meant the entirety of the armed forces of a given country (or another entity, e.g. Christianity). For instance, "Englische Wehrmacht" meant all English forces. Since World War II, the term is almost as closely associated with the so-called Third Reich in German as it is in English.




After World War I had ended with the capitulation of the German empire, the treaty of Versailles imposed severe restrictions on the future military strength of Germany. The size of the army was limited to 100,000 men, with an additional 15,000 men in the navy. The air force was dissolved. The fleet was to consist of at most six battleships, six cruisers, and twelve destroyers; tanks and heavy artillery were forbidden. The new, post-war military was established under these terms on 23 March 1921 under the name Reichswehr. General conscription was abolished, as mandated by the Versailles treaty.

Germany immediately began to pursue plans to circumvent the conditions of the treaty. Key to the quest for the rebuilding of a strong military was the secret collaboration with the Soviet Union that began after the treaty of Rapallo. In 1923, Major General Otto Hasse traveled to Moscow to negotiate the terms of collaboration. Germany helped Soviet Russia with the industrialisation of the country, and Russian officers would be trained in Germany; in return, German tank and air force specialists would be trained in Russia, German chemical weapons research and manufacture would be carried out there, among others. Circa 300 German pilots received training at Lipetsk, tank training took place near Kazan (although only to a small extent), and toxic gas was developed at Saratov.

Beginning immediately after the death of president Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, all soldiers had to take an oath on Adolf Hitler personally; this oath was given as a reason by many soldiers for their continued loyalty for the government, even after they had mentally seceded from National Socialist ideology. In the following years, Germany ignored the Versailles provisions in an increasingly open way. General conscription was reintroduced on 16 March 1935. The size of the standing army remained at about 100,000, but each year another 100,000 received training. The same law introduced the name Wehrmacht, so that this day can be regarded as the date when the Wehrmacht was officially founded. As insignia, it chose a stylised version of the Iron Cross (the so-called Balkenkreuz, or beamed cross) that had first appeared as an aircraft and tank marking in late World War I.

The number of soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht during the time of its existence is believed to be as high as 18.2 million (a number put forward by historian Rüdiger Overmans), but these men did not all serve simultaneously. About 5.3 million men died on the field of battle, and about 11 million were captured by enemy forces. It is not known how many of them died in captivity.

War time

During World War II, a great number of foreign volunteers served in the ranks of the Wehrmacht. Among them were ethnic Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, people from the Baltic states, and from the Balkans. Russians fought in the Russian Liberation Army, and non-Russians from the Soviet Union formed the Ostlegionen. All of these units were managed by a specially appointed general within the high command, Ernst August Köstring. Altogether they made up about 5 percent of the Wehrmacht's men.

The military strength of the Wehrmacht rested on assignment-based tactics (as opposed to order-based tactics) and the almost proverbial discipline. Today, the Wehrmacht is often seen as a high-tech army, due to many new technologies that were introduced during World War II, like the so-called reprisal weapons, the Me 262 jet fighter, or the submarine force, but this is a somewhat misleading impression. Overall, the level of armament was low. For instance, only 40 percent of all units were motorised. The baggage train often had to rely on horses as a means of transportation, and many soldiers went by foot or, in some instances, used bicycles.

A powerful tank force and a powerful air force made possible the quick successes in the early stages of war, when nation after nation was overrun and occupied within mere weeks (Blitzkrieg). This quelled critical voices and convinced military leaders that the new concept of "broad armament" (rather than "deep armament") did indeed make sense; however in the later stages of war, when the powerful adversaries Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States offered tenacious resistance, the "Blitzkrieg" tactics could not be applied, and the relatively low state of armament turned out detrimental for the Wehrmacht.


The military was one of the few organisations that could evade political meddling to a significant extent during the Third Reich. As most of the leadership was politically conservative, and Hitler promised to rebuild Germany's military strength, it was mostly sympathetic towards the National Socialist revolution. However, when, in the later stages of war, political influence in the military command began to increase, and under Hitler's flawed strategic decisions the good fortune of the German armies waned, tensions mounted between the military and the government. These culminated in the so-called July 20 plot in 1944, when a group of Wehrmacht officers led by Claus von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler and overthrow his government. Following the attempt, Hitler distrusted the Wehrmacht and the conservative forces of Germany, and thousands were persecuted and killed, including many Wehrmacht officers.

After World War II

Following the German surrender on 8 May 1945, Germany was forbidden an independent modern army. It was over ten years before the tensions of the Cold War led to the creation of separate military forces in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the German Democratic Republic. The West German military, officially created on 5 May 1955, took the name Bundeswehr, meaning "Federal Military," which pointed back to the old Reichswehr, while its East German counterpart, created on 1 March 1956, took the name National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee). Neither side could do without the experience of the Wehrmacht, so each army initially had a substantial number of former Wehrmacht members among its officers.

Command structure

The Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht was the German Chancellor, a position Adolf Hitler held since 1933. The administration and military authority initially lay with the war ministry under Werner von Blomberg. In 1938, after von Blomberg resigned in the course of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair, the ministry was dissolved, and the Armed Forces High Command, in German Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), under Wilhelm Keitel was put in its place.

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). Within these high commands, each branch had its own general staff.

Alleged war crimes

The most notorious and gruesome war crimes of the Nazi regime, namely the Holocaust, were committed for the most part not by the military, but rather by the Nazi party's paramilitary SS organisation. However, the Wehrmacht did participate in many of these crimes by providing logistical support, securing the area, and handing over prisoners to the SS, aside from generally aiding the Nazi regime and extending and prolonging its rule. The Wehrmacht also committed numerous crimes in the course of fighting guerillas, where brutal revenge was often exerted on the civilian population. The bombing of cities like Rotterdam or Coventry, but also (prominently) of Guernica (although these forces were under command of Franco), is also often criticized.

The International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg tried the OKW on charges of being a criminal orginisation, but it was acquitted. The leaders Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, however, were among members convicted and sentenced to death.

Prominent members

Prominent German soldiers from the Wehrmacht era include:

Due to conscription, many male Germans of a particular age served in the Wehrmacht, including the current Pope Benedict XVI.

See also

Last updated: 08-19-2005 14:31:33
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