How Did the Ordinary German Soldier Behave During the War and the Holocaust?

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A German Landser on the Eastern Front
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How did the Ordinary German Soldier Behave During the War and the Holocaust?

In 1997, I unearthed the war diaries of two Luftwaffe security battalions from the years 1942 to 1944. These diaries meticulously chronicled the battalion, company, platoon, and squad level operations, detailing their anti-partisan actions, the hunting and killing of Jews, and their encounters with the largest Soviet offensive in 1944. In essence, these diaries encapsulated the three main phases of German military operations in the East. As battalion-level reports, they included vivid, firsthand accounts from ordinary soldiers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Furthermore, since these battalions were under the direct command of Hermann Göring and his staff, the diaries provided insight into how the higher echelons of the Nazi hierarchy responded to these reports and the fortunes of the battalions. As historian Richard Holmes described, these documents were ‘the smoking gun of my research,’ allowing us to walk in step with the German soldier.

Since the 1980s, academics have grappled with the complex history of the German soldier without reaching a definitive conclusion. Various plausible theories have been proposed, ranging from ‘demodernisation’ and barbarization to Nazism and the concept of ‘working towards Hitler’—the idea that soldiers complied with the regime’s crimes without necessarily being party members. Microstudies of generals to junior officers, and analyses of different divisions in campaigns and battles, have failed to pinpoint a definitive interpretation of the ordinary soldier’s conduct.

In recent years, scholars have sifted through tons of personal letters in search of the ‘Nazi’ soldier, yet have been unable to isolate a clear picture of the soldier’s performance during the war and the Holocaust. Despite extensive research, the ordinary Landser (German infantryman) has remained elusive. Some scholars have suggested these soldiers were characterized by a cadaver-like obedience to discipline, the ultimate automatons. In stark contrast, popular myths depict them as the finest soldiers to ever grace the battlefield, tainted only by their association with a regime that perpetrated the Holocaust.

The Setting and Challenges of Researching the Luftwaffe’s Role in the Holocaust.

The events chronicled in my book mostly took place in the Polish forest of Białowieża. This setting proved both a boon and a conundrum for my research. Uncovering the Luftwaffe’s role in the Holocaust was a significant discovery. However, explaining why the battalions were stationed in the forest, their strategic mission, and their involvement in genocidal crimes posed substantial challenges.

There were three primary hurdles. The first was organizing the original documents. The Luftwaffe action reports, diaries, and orders were paired with geo-references, yet the Luftwaffe map lacked scale, dates, or usable geo-references, complicating even simple GPS location finding. The geopolitical frontiers and boundaries had shifted so drastically that two-thirds of the forest, now in Belarus since 1947, were nearly impossible to isolate. During the Holocaust, over a hundred settlements had been destroyed and were no longer on modern maps. Sometimes, villages obliterated by the Nazis were reconstructed in different locations. Additionally, there were virtually no surviving community members to discuss the Nazi occupation; only three Jews returned after the war, but they emigrated following the Soviet antisemitic program in 1968.

The second challenge was explaining why the Luftwaffe battalions were posted to the forest and what their mission entailed. The connections to other Nazi institutions were not immediately evident until I discovered a series of 1941 newspaper articles in Berlin’s natural history museum. These articles elucidated the relationship between the Luftwaffe and two other state institutions under Göring’s mandate—hunting and forestry. Once these links were established, I could confirm their existence in Luftwaffe memoirs and postwar histories that had been previously ignored. The creation of a cultural edifice of rituals and procedures shared by hunters, foresters, and flyers shifted the research direction towards reconstructing events more proactively.

The final challenge was finding a means to project the battalions’ collective missions and actions into a coherent form of media. Traditional map flags could not capture more than a small fraction of daily activities in the forest. Testing this approach would have required printing a map the size of a seminar room and adding tiny figures—a needle-in-the-haystack scenario. In 2010, my partner tested some data from the records using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software to map the movement of troops. The results were outstanding. By digitizing the Luftwaffe map and reconstructing maps from 1915 and 1927, we began layering data. These layers detailed Holocaust-related activities, actions against partisans, and confrontations with the Soviet Red Army during the 1944 Operation Bagration.

These breakthroughs not only illuminated the specific operations of the Luftwaffe battalions but also enhanced our understanding of the broader mechanisms of the Holocaust and wartime strategies, offering a more comprehensive picture of history.

The Culmination of Rigorous Academic Inquiry

This work represents the culmination of rigorous academic inquiry, serving as the second part of my doctoral thesis on the intricate dynamics of Nazi security warfare and the Holocaust. Delving deep into the annals of history, this research journey began with a pivotal discovery within the vaults of the German military archive, but then led to further archival research in USA, UK, Poland, and Belgium. These archival documents contained a wealth of evidence that illuminated critical themes underscoring Hitler’s campaign of occupation and genocide across Eastern Europe.

Firstly, the notion that no organization remained exempt from implication shatters the defence once offered by senior members of the Wehrmacht, who sought to deflect accusations of war crimes. Secondly, the chilling revelation that ordinary soldiers often acted independently and willingly in perpetrating acts of violence against Jews, civilians, and partisans challenges conventional narratives that focus solely on command-driven atrocities.

Equally unsettling is the revelation that the leading echelons of the Nazi regime not only condoned but profited from the Holocaust, reaping both financial gain and territorial expansion through their colonial ambitions. Moreover, the stark contrast between this meticulously documented evidence and the often-subjective nature of testimonial-based histories underscores the book’s unique contribution to Holocaust scholarship.

Perhaps most strikingly, the absence of definitive evidence implicating Göring’s Luftwaffe in Holocaust-related operations until now highlights the depth of the revelations contained within these pages. Through meticulous research and compelling prose, this book transcends the realm of academia, offering readers a haunting reminder of humanity’s darkest chapter and challenging us to confront uncomfortable truths about complicity, accountability, and the enduring legacy of genocide.

Philip W. Blood is a historian and the author of Birds of Prey: Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Ordinary Soldiers, and the Holocaust in Poland.

How Did the Ordinary German Soldier Behave During the War and the Holocaust?

How Did the Ordinary German Soldier Behave During the War and the Holocaust?