German soldiers

For the ordinary German soldier, the horrific war on the Eastern Front was unlike its more “civilized” counterpart in the Western campaign. The seeds of anti-semitism, long present among “Aryan” Germans, were germinated and vastly amplified by Nazi propaganda, laws and ultimately direct battlefield orders such as this “Watch-word for the day” issued on November 21, 1941:

German soldier, always consider where Jews still live… Jewish civilians and partisans do not belong in prisoner of war camps, they are to be shot…For Bolshevik subhumans, there is no mercy, not for women and children either.

When (regular army) Wehrmacht troops were ordered to assist the murderous Einsatzgruppen death squads that followed on the heels of their battlefield advances, the scattered protests by Wehrmacht commanders who feared damage to troop morale by unbridled carnage were ignored and the officers disciplined. Hitler himself rebuked one such protest, commenting “…one cannot win a war with Salvation Army tactics.

On the Eastern Front, German soldiers were exhorted to exterminate the barbaric people (inspired by demonic Jewish-Bolshevik forces) who threatened the very existence of the Fatherland.

What was the response of the average German soldier when ordered to kill civilians, including women and children ? In retrospect, it seems mixed:

A German soldier’s letter 1943

German soldier’s guilt-filled diaries

An SS officer’s diary

Although German news reports never mentioned these atrocities, and the general public was somewhat in the dark initially, increasing letters and photographs sent home from the Eastern Front made it unlikely that most German civilians were completely ignorant of the genocide being carried out by their sons far from home. 

With exhortations from their commanders, it appears that many German soldiers on the Eastern Front began acting on their own initiative, killing Jews and shooting Russian prisoners.

However, after perusing examples of their diaries and letters home, my impression is that the average German soldier on the Eastern Front was initially shocked, but soon became inured to much of the atrocity. A common attitude may have been: given the serious threat by these barbarians, it was unfortunately necessary to exterminate them. To protest was not only futile, but dangerous – the prospect of a noble death in battle was better than court-martial or execution.