For the band, see Wehrmacht (band).
German Armed Forces

The straight-armed Balkenkreuz, a stylized version of the Iron Cross, the emblem of the Wehrmacht
Active 1935–46[N 1]
Country  Nazi Germany (1935–45)
 Allied-occupied Germany (1945–46)
Allegiance Nazi Germany
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
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: [ˈveːɐ̯maxt], lit. "defence force"[N 2]) was the unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1946. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe (air force).[3] The designation Wehrmacht for Nazi Germany's military replaced the previously used term, Reichswehr, and constituted the Third Reich’s efforts to rearm the nation to a greater extent than the small armed forces the Treaty of Versailles permitted.[4]

Following Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the country was relegated by the treaty to a very limited army, one barely sufficient for home defense. One of Hitler’s most overt and audacious moves was to establish a mighty fighting force (the Wehrmacht), a modern armed forces fully capable of offensive use. Fulfilling the Nazi regime’s long-term goals of regaining lost territory and dominating its neighbors required massive investment and spending on the armaments industry, as well as military conscription to expand Hitler’s fighting machine.[5] In December 1941, Hitler designated himself as commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht.[6]

The Wehrmacht formed the heart of Germany’s politico-military power. In the early part of World War II, Hitler's generals employed the Wehrmacht through innovative combined arms tactics (close cover air-support, mechanized armor, and infantry) to devastating effect in what was called a Blitzkrieg (lightning war). The Wehrmacht's new military structure,[7] unique combat techniques, newly developed weapons, and unprecedented speed and brutality crushed their opponents.[8]

At the height of their success in 1942, the Nazis dominated more than 3,898,000 square kilometers of territory,[9] an accomplishment made possible by the combined German forces firmly securing conquered territory. Working hand-in-hand at times with the SS, soldiers on the front (especially during the Eastern campaign) sometimes participated in war atrocities, despite later claims otherwise.[10] By the time the war ended in Europe in May 1945, the Wehrmacht had lost approximately 11,300,000 men,[11] of which about half were killed in action. Only a few of the Wehrmacht’s upper leadership were tried for war crimes, although the evidence suggests that more were involved in illegal actions.[12] More or less having ceased to exist by September 1945, the Wehrmacht was officially dissolved by ACC Law 34 on 20 August 1946.[13]

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 Frankfurt Constitution of 1848 (Paulskirchenverfassung) designated all German military forces as the "German Wehrmacht", consisting of the Seemacht (sea force) and the Landmacht (land force).[14] In 1919, the term Wehrmacht also appears in Article 47 of the 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 defense 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, and the term Streitkräfte means "armed forces"; 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.[15] 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.[16]

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".[17] 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.[17] Though Seeckt retired in 1926, the army that went to war in 1939 was largely his creation.[18] 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.[17]

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.[19] 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.[19] 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.[19] 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.[20] Officers who believed in submarine warfare led by Admiral Karl Dönitz were in a minority before 1939.[20] Naval officers saw war almost entirely in tactical and technological terms, and had almost no interest in operational matters.[21]

By 1922, Germany had begun covertly circumventing these conditions. A secret collaboration with the Soviet Union began after the treaty of Rapallo.[22] 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.[23] 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 1933.[24] 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.[25]

By 1935, Germany was openly flouting the military restrictions set forth in the Versailles Treaty: German re-armament was announced on 16 March as was the reintroduction of conscription.[26] While the size of the standing army was to remain at about the 100,000-man mark decreed by the treaty, a new group of conscripts equal to this size would receive training each year. The conscription law introduced the name Wehrmacht, so not only can this be regarded as its founding date, but the organization and authority of the Wehrmacht can be viewed as Nazi creations regardless of the political affiliations of its high command (who nevertheless all swore the same personal oath of loyalty to Hitler).[27] 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.[28]

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.[29] 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.[29]

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.[29] 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 sole surviving sons were revoked, and men as old as sixty were forced to register for combat service.[29]

Following the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 fitness standards for Wehrmacht recruits were drastically lowered, with the regime going so far as to create "special diet" battalions for men with severe stomach ailments.[29] Rear-echelon units were scoured for any available personnel, and these were sent to front-line duty wherever possible, especially during the last two years of the war.[29] 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.[30]

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 Czechoslovakia, were exempted from military service after Hitler's takeover of that country in 1938. Foreign volunteers were generally not accepted in the German armed forces prior to 1941;[29] however, Germans living abroad were encouraged to return and enlist in the Army.[29]

With the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the government's positions on recruitment changed. German propagandists wanted to present the war not as a purely German concern, but as a multi-national crusade against Communism. Hence, the Wehrmacht and S.S. began to seek out recruits from occupied and neutral countries across Europe: the "Germanic" (as the Nazis defined them) peoples of nations such as the Netherlands and Norway were recruited largely into the S.S., while "non-Germanic" people such as Croats were recruited into the Wehrmacht.[29] The "voluntary" nature of such recruitment was often rather dubious, especially in the later years of the war, when even Poles living in the Polish Corridor were declared "ethnic Germans" and drafted into the Army.[29]

After Germany's defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht also made substantial use of personnel from the Soviet Union, including the Caucasian Muslim Legion, Turkestan legion, Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, Cossacks, and others who wished to fight against Stalin or who were otherwise induced to volunteer.[29] 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.[31]

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 prisoners of war, via their unit paymaster.[29] In addition, they were paid a monthly allowance for support of their dependents, which was given directly to those dependents by the civilian authorities.[29] Unlike personal pay, the dependent allowance was payable even if the soldier became a POW.[29] 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.[29] 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).[29] Unlike the war service pay, their regular monthly salary was subject to taxation, and was payable even if they were taken prisoner.[29] Instead of being given to the soldier personally, this payment was deposited into his home bank account, or given to his dependents.[29] Other than the quarters allowance and allowance for his children, the professional soldier was not entitled to any civilian family support.[29]

During wartime, draftees who had achieved the rank of Senior Private First Class or above could apply to be paid the additional, professional, rate if they so desired; however, if their applications were approved, they would no longer be entitled to the civilian family support that draftees otherwise received.[29]

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 combat pay, but was rather described as compensation for "more difficult living conditions".[29] Soldiers compelled to travel in the line of duty received a nightly quarters allowance plus $2.40 (1945 U.S. dollars) per diem.[29]

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 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.[29]

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.[29] Officers were given $12 U.S. per month thereafter for uniform maintenance.[29] 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.[29]

Pensions and leave

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.[29] All soldiers granted an Honorable discharge were given a $20 discharge bonus.[29]

Professional Non-commissioned officers were encouraged to enter the German civil service or agriculture upon discharge; those choosing the latter option were entitled to a cash sum to enable them to purchase farmland.[29]

Leave was granted for a variety of reasons, including recreations, sick-leave, bombing, emergency or occupational.[29] Transportation was supposed to be free for all soldiers on leave, and a special ration card was issued to them.[29] As Germany's military situation worsened, the relatively liberal leave policy practised in the Wehrmacht during the early years of the war was changed, to the point where leave became all but nonexistent during the last years of the war except for convalescing soldiers.[29]

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 passport-sized booklet contained all details of their pre-Wehrmacht service in the German Labor Service together with all assignments and pertinent details of their military service up to their date of discharge.[29] This book was retained by their unit while they were on active assignment; when the soldier was between assignments or otherwise on inactive status, the Wehrpass was returned to them.[29]

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.[29]

Wehrmacht soldiers wore two identical identity discs around their necks, given to them by the first unit with which they served.[29] 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.[29]

Other records kept on Wehrmacht soldiers included a Military Record book (comparable to the 201 file maintained on U.S. Army soldiers), a Health Record Book, and a Classification Card.[29] These records were kept at the recruiting station where the soldier had initially enlisted, and included an official police report on his conduct prior to joining the Armed Forces (which was required as part of the induction process).[29]

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.[29] All other records, including his Soldbuch, were transferred to his home recruiting station for safekeeping.[29]

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.[32] Göring also served as the head of the Luftwaffe and was responsible for handling Germany's war economy.[33]


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[34] 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).

(!) 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.[35] 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.[36]

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".,[37] 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.


Main article: Luftwaffe

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.[38]

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.[39]


Main article: Kriegsmarine
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 Waffen-SS, the combat branch of the SS (the Nazi Party's paramilitary organization), became the de facto fourth branch of the Wehrmacht, as it expanded from three regiments to 38 divisions by 1945. Although the SS was autonomous and existed in parallel to the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS field units were placed under the operational control of the Supreme High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) or the Supreme High Command of the Army (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH).

Competence struggles hampered organization in the German armed forces, as the OKW, OKH, OKL (Luftwaffe had its own ground forces, including tank divisions) and Waffen-SS often worked concurrently and not as a joint command.

Theatres and campaigns

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

The Wehrmacht directed combat operations during World War II (from 1 September 1939 – 8 May 1945) as the German Reich's Armed Forces umbrella command organization. After 1941 the OKH became the de facto Eastern Theatre higher echelon command organization for the Wehrmacht, excluding 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.

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:

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.[40] By 1944, even the defence of Germany became impossible.

Western theatre

German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe.


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.[41]

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).[42]

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.[43]

War crimes

Main articles: War crimes of the Wehrmacht and Consequences of German Nazism
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.[44] 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.[45] 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[46] 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.[47] 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.[48] 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.[49] According to Thomas Kühne, "An estimated 300,000–500,000 people were killed during the Wehrmacht's anti-partisan war in the Soviet Union."[50] 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.[51] 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.[52]

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.[53]

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

The Nuremberg Trials of the major war criminals at the end of World War II found that the Wehrmacht was not an inherently criminal organization, but that it had committed crimes in the course of the war. Several high-ranked members of the Wehrmacht like Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl were convicted for their involvement in war crimes. Among German historians, the view that the Wehrmacht had participated in war time atrocities, particularly on the Eastern Front, grew in the late 1970s and the 1980s. In the 1990s, public conception in Germany was influenced by controversial reactions and debates about the exhibition of war crime issues.[54] More recently, the judgement of Nuremberg has come under question. The Israeli historian Omer Bartov, a leading expert on the Wehrmacht[55] wrote in 2003 that the Wehrmacht was a willing instrument of genocide, and that it is untrue that the Wehrmacht was an apolitical, professional fighting force that had only a few "bad apples".[56] Bartov argues that far from being the "untarnished shield", as successive German apologists stated after the war, the Wehrmacht was a criminal organization.[57] Likewise, the British historian Richard J. Evans, a leading expert on modern German history wrote that the Wehrmacht was a genocidal organization.[45] 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.[58]

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 concentration camps and/or mass-executions. Anton Schmid —a sergeant in the army— helped 250 Jewish men, women, and children escape from the Vilnius ghetto and provided them with forged passports so that they could get to safety. He was court-martialed and executed as a consequence. 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 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.[59] The last Wehrmacht unit to be dissolved was an isolated weather station in Svalbard, which formally surrendered to a Norwegian relief ship on 4 September.[60]

On 20 September 1945, with Proclamation No. 2 of the Allied Control Council, "[a]ll German land, naval and air forces, the S.S., S.A., S.D. and Gestapo, with all their organizations, staffs and institution, including the General Staff, the Officers' corps, the Reserve Corps, military schools, war veterans' organizations, and all other military and quasi-military organizations, together with all clubs and associations which serve to keep alive the military tradition in Germany, shall be completely and finally abiolished in accordance with the methods and procedures to be laid down by the Allied Representatives."[1] After September 20 the allies began officially dismantling the various commands.

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 No. 2 of 20 September 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 considered disbanded, completely liquidated and declared illegal."[2]

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 field grey of the Wehrmacht in order to show discontituity.


See also


  1. Official dissolution of the Wehrmacht began with the German Instrument of Surrender of 8 May 1945. Reasserted in Proclamation No. 2 of the Allied Control Council on 20 September 1945 the dissolution was officially declared by Law No. 34 of 20 August 1946.[1][2]
  2. From German: wehren, "to defend" and Macht, "power, force". See the Wiktionary article for more information.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Enactments and Approved Papers of the Control Council and Coordinating Committee Germany For Year 1945" (PDF) I. Retrieved 2015-01-26.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Enactments and Approved Papers of the Control Council and Coordinating Committee Germany For Year 1945" (PDF) III. Retrieved 2015-01-26.
  3. Die Verfassungen in Deutschland [German Constitution] online. Reichsgesetzblatt (RGB). RGB1 1935, I, no. 52, p. 609 See: http://www.verfassungen.de/de/de33-45/wehrmachtaufbau35.htm
  4. Taylor, Telford. Sword and Swastika: Generals and Nazis in the Third Reich, pp. 90–119.
  5. See: "The Economics of Warfare: from Blitzkrieg to Total War," in Kitchen, Martin (1994). Nazi Germany at War, pp. 39–65.
  6. Williamson, David G. (2002). The Third Reich, p. 178.
  7. 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.
  8. Palmer, Michael (2010). The German Wars: A Concise History, 1859–1945, pp. 169–175.
  9. See the graphical illustration, "Nazi Germany and Europe, 1942," in Michael Freeman (1987). Atlas of Nazi Germany, p. 135.
  10. Bessel, Richard (2006). Nazism and War, pp. 198–203.
  11. Fritz, Stephen G. (2011). Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East, p. 470.
  12. See: "The Legend of the Wehrmacht’s Clean Hands," in Wette, Wolfram (2007). The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, pp. 195–250.
  13. Large, David Clay (1996). Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era, p. 25.
  14. "Verfassung des Deutschen Reiches (Paulskirchenverfassung 1848)".
  15. Wheeler-Bennett, John (1954). The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918–1945, p. 60
  16. Craig, Gordon (1980). Germany, 1866–1945, pp. 424–432.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Millet, Alan & Murray, Williamson A War To Be Won, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000 page 22.
  18. Wheeler-Bennett, John The Nemesis of Power, page 22.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Millet, Alan & Murray, Williamson A War To Be Won, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000 page 33.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Millet, Alan & Murray, Williamson A War To Be Won, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000 page 37.
  21. Millet, Alan & Murray, Williamson A War To Be Won, Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000 page 38.
  22. Wheeler-Bennett, John W. (1954). The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918–1945, p. 131.
  23. 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.
  24. Cooper, Matthew (1981). The German Air Force, 1933–1945: An Anatomy of Failure, pp. 382–383.
  25. Buchheim, Broszat, Jacobsen & Krausnick (1967). Anatomie des SS-Staates, p. 18.
  26. Fischer, Klaus (1995). Nazi Germany: A New History, p. 408.
  27. 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.
  28. Tooze, Adam (2006). The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, p. 208.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 29.4 29.5 29.6 29.7 29.8 29.9 29.10 29.11 29.12 29.13 29.14 29.15 29.16 29.17 29.18 29.19 29.20 29.21 29.22 29.23 29.24 29.25 29.26 29.27 29.28 29.29 29.30 29.31 29.32 29.33 29.34 29.35 29.36 29.37 29.38 29.39 29.40 Handbook on German Military Forces, U.S. War Department Technical Manual TM-E-431, 15 March 1945, Chapter 1: The German Military System.
  30. Kitchen, Martin (1994). Nazi Germany at War, pp. 98–99.
  31. 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.
  32. Kershaw, Ian (2001). Hitler: 1936–1945, Nemesis, pp. 303–304, 396.
  33. Killen, John (2003). The Luftwaffe: A History, p. 49.
  34. Broszat, Martin (1985)[1969]. The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich, p. 295.
  35. Palmer, Michael A. The German Wars: A Concise History, 1859–1945, pp. 96–97.
  36. Mosier, John (2006). Cross of Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German War Machine, 1918–1945, pp. 11–24.
  37. Hastings, Max Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy
  38. Tooze, Adam (2006). The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, pp. 125–130.
  39. One of whom was Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
  40. Fritz, Stephen G. (2011). Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East, pp. 366–368.
  41. Rüdiger Overmans (2000). Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. p. 335. ISBN 3-486-56531-1.
  42. Frank Biess (2006). Homecomings: returning POWs and the legacies of defeat in postwar Germany. Princeton University Press. p.19. ISBN 0-691-12502-3.
  43. 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
  44. 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". Dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-24.
  45. 45.0 45.1 Evans, Richard In Hitler's Shadow 1989 pages 58–60.
  46. Böhler, Jochen (2006). Auftakt zum Vernichtungskrieg. Die Wehrmacht in Polen 1939 (in German). Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. ISBN 3-596-16307-2.
  47. Förster, Jürgen "The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination Against the Soviet Union", page 501
  48. Fritz, Stephen G. (2011) Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East, pp. 92–134.
  49. Geoffrey P. Megargee (2007). "War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941". Rowman & Littlefield. p.121. ISBN 0-7425-4482-6
  50. Helmut Walser Smith (2011). "The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History". Oxford University Press. p.542. ISBN 0-19-923739-5
  51. Cacciottolo, Mario. "The Nazis prisoners bugged by Germans". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 18 January 2013.
  52. Neitzel, Sönke, and Harald Welzer (2012). Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying — The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs, pp. 136–143.
  53. Davies, Norman (2006). Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory. London: Pan Books. p. 271. ISBN 978-0-330-35212-3.
  54. "Crimes of the German Wehrmacht" (PDF). Hamburg Institute for Social Research. 2004. Retrieved 2008-11-28.
  55. 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
  56. Bartov, Omer Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003 page xiii
  57. Bartov, 1999 page 146.
  58. Ian Kershaw. Stalinism and Nazism: dictatorships in comparison. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p.150 ISBN 0-521-56521-9
  59. 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
  60. Barr, W. (2009). "Wettertrupp Haudegen: The last German Arctic weather station of World War II: Part 2". Polar Record 23 (144): 323. doi:10.1017/S0032247400007142.


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  • Williamson, David G. The Third Reich. 3rd edition. London: Longman Publishers, 2002. ISBN 978-0-58236-883-5

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