It has long been standard to proclaim that the German army, or "Wehrmacht," was not like other institutions under the Third Reich. This myth, known to some as the "clean hands" version of the Wehrmacht's history, contends that the German army fought a relatively fair fight during World War II and avoided the atrocity-laden conduct associated with more notorious units like the Schutzstaffel, or "SS."
Wolfram Wette, a historian at the University of Freiberg in Germany, has just written a book that will make Wehrmacht apologists very uncomfortable. The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality explodes the "clean hands" myth by documenting both the long history of anti-Semitism in the German armed forces and the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht during the course of World War II. Wette does away with the idea that as "professional" soldiers, Wehrmacht officers and enlisted men were immune to the propaganda of race hatred spread by the Nazi government; instead he shows how long-standing anti-Semitic tendencies within the army were stoked and inflamed by this propaganda, leading to some of the worst atrocities of the war. He goes on to explain how the "clean hands" myth came to be the standard narrative of the Wehrmacht's contact during the war, fostered by ex-officers looking to absolve themselves of guilt and an international community more concerned with the management of Cold War political perception than any engagement with historical truth.
Several reviewers have already commented on the sheer authoritativeness of Wette's work. As Martin Rubin wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:
This is one of those modestly sized books on a large subject that succeeds in being definitive.
He goes on:
Indeed, The Wehrmacht is as filled with all manner of details--surprising as well as predictable--as it is with passion and insight. Perhaps this is what makes it such a pleasure to read, for Wette never simply asserts, he always proves. Facts, statistics, instances are plentiful, but they never simply lie there on the page; you feel the author's outrage, sometimes his incredulity, even as you trust his veracity and integrity. The atrocities committed by Wehrmacht troops detailed in this book are literally sickening. Wette will cite the excuses offered up by the German top brass, but you don't believe for a moment that he sees them for anything but contemptible efforts to save their own skin.
The "clean hands" myth has been powerful in Germany--these are the types of issues that still make people very uncomfortable, as evidenced by several controversial exhibitions in Germany during the 1990s (pdf link). Wette has been at the forefront of bringing the truth to light, and we're glad to be able to provide an English translation (expertly done by Deborah Lucas Schneider) so that English-speaking readers can engage in the remarkable process of historical remembering that's going on in a part of the world that still struggles to reconcile with the darker moments of its past.