Hitler's Army by Omer Bartov
as part of the question of Grossdeutschland's Complicity in War Crimes

The question of the Wehrmacht's complicity in the various war crimes committed by Germany and her allies during the Second World War is a complex and nagging one.  There will always be debate as to what the "normal German soldier" knew about the crimes being committed, in the field and at home, during the Third Reich period.  As the elite unit of the German Army, one that identified not with one single region of the nation as did most German Army units, but with the Greater German nation that Hitler had created, there is additional reason to wonder if the GD Regiment/Division was not in some way inextricably linked to the heinous and extensive crimes and atrocities committed by Germans and their allies in Eastern Europe.

In fact, the Division's own archival material was used (in concert with that of two other, less famous, divisions) as the basis of at least two books devoted to the study of German "barbarism" in the Eastern Front campaigns.  Just as naturally, the division's own chronicler (Knight's Cross bearer Helmuth Spaeter, who served in the reconnaissance battalion and also as a General Staff officer in the Division) does not mention or even hint at the possibility of GD's involvement in what has come to be known as The Final Solution to the Jewish Question, or other crimes involving civilians and enemy soldiers not of Jewish descent.

Unfortunately, these two approaches to the Grossdeutschland's involvement in the Eastern campaign are all that is available to the interested reader (in English).  There are several divisional histories and books dealing with the division GD - see the bibliography page of this site - but none have cared to address in the least the topic of GD's alleged involvement in war crimes and atrocities.  This is not an indictment of these histories - the war crimes question is arguably outside the scope of any history seeking to describe the military history of the formation.

The would-be researcher is also stymied by the fact that while the role of SS and Police units in the eastern territories were terrifyingly well documented, the involvement of the Wehrmacht, in more than general terms, has not been as well chronicled.  (On that point, as on any of the points on this page, the webmaster seeks to be corrected.)  While the orders of high ranking Wehrmacht and Heer officers have been preserved, linking the Army in general terms as both sentient of, and willing abettors of (if not actual participants in) genocide in the east, the role of specific units at divisional level or lower has not been well chronicled - this goes for the GD Division as well as any other formation.

This might be attributable to a number of factors;

  1. German Army divisions simply did not participate or have knowledge in the genocidal activities of the einsatzgruppen, Police Battalions, and other security forces in the east.

  2. A deliberate attempt was (understandably) made by divisional/regimental chroniclers to not discuss matters of complicity in genocidal activities, due to any of several factors such as guilt, embarrassment, denial, fear of self-crimination, a feeling that such subject matter was not relevant to a military history, etc.

  3. These activities were so widespread that the divisional/regimental historians simply felt them not worth discussing, again due to lack of relevance to the topic at hand, guilt, embarrassment, fear of self-crimination, etc.

Introduction, Definitions and Disclaimer

The Wehrmacht (Armed Forces), and more specifically the Heer (Army) consisted of several million men, the majority of who served on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945.  It is unwise to attempt to generalize the experience of the "average" soldier, or ask what the "average" soldier knew or did not know about war crimes or atrocities, especially if one's definition of those words is unclear or undefined.

The purpose of this page is to try and discuss several things, but first and foremost to discuss the historical record and ascertain what specific proof exists to set the Division Grossdeutschland apart from any other formation in the Heer with respect to involvement in "war crimes."   To do that some definitions are in order, but lest anyone doubt the wisdom of trying to discuss the historical record from this perspective, let it be pointed out that some Waffen SS formations stand out due to the allegations, and in many cases, proof, of complicity in war crimes.

To say that the war in the East was brutal seems silly; all wars are brutal, since the object of wars are to take men in their physical prime, from the most productive years of their lives, and have them kill each other in great numbers, in horrifying ways.  If one can accept, however, that this form of killing is legal, or not criminal, then one can proceed to a discussion of "war crimes."  For purposes of this discussion, we will not address the issue of treatment of prisoners of war, or of armed civilians (partisans), and instead focus on the treatment of unarmed civilians.  This discussion will center on the notion that the killing of unarmed civilians constitutes a "war crime" or "atrocity".  Other forms of war crime - the deliberate starvation of enemy civilians, for example - will not be discussed here as it lies outside what one might expect the jurisdiction of an infantry regiment/division to be.

In short, what I propose to examine is the historical record, and whether or not GD can really be painted in a worse light than any other German Army unit.

The reasons for this discussion are several:

a)  The GD Division is often confused with Waffen SS units, and sometimes with the General SS who were responsible in a direct way for the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, mainly in the east.

b)  The complicity of the German Army as a whole is still very much open to debate, especially with regards to the knowledge of, and level of participation in, what has always been euphemistically known as the Final Solution, or more popularly as The Holocaust.

c)  The above two factors have caused some to assume that GD was responsible for crimes, and that by extension, anyone seeking to study or understand their history (such as this webmaster) is glorifying the deaths of untold innocents.

The following game reviews led this writer to question the historical record of the GD:

M. Evan Brooks posted the following two game reviews to the internet:

(I-95 CD) Strategic Simulations, Inc.; Rick Martinez; 1998; ***
A detailed armor simulation of World War II, it only covered campaigns on the Russian Front.  Infantry/combined arms operations still came up short, but the more objectionable aspect of the design was allowing the player to be a member of certain questionable divisions --
while Grossdeutschland was not a Waffen SS division, there is sufficient historical evidence to question its participation in war crimes. (emphasis added)

(A/C/Ap) Strategic Simulations, Inc.; Roger Damon; 1985; ***
A tactical simulation of armored warfare on the Eastern Front during World War II, it was marred by historical inaccuracy. Reconnaissance by fire was overemphasized, and opportunity fire was hit-and-miss. It lacked the panache and élan to yield an enduring game experience. Also, I found it somewhat disturbing that the game identified so closely with the "Grossdeutschland" Panzer Grenadier Division. Historically, that Division was not formed until 1944, and since game scenarios occurred in 1942, it would seem obvious that the reference is to the "Grossdeutschland" Panzer Division; while not a criminal organization like the Waffen SS, "
Grossdeutschland" was not adverse to being escorted by Einsatzkommando extermination groups. The close identification with a "tainted" unit left me with an uncomfortable feeling. (emphasis added)

The last comment - about "not (being) averse to being escorted by Einsatzkommando extermination groups" seemed puzzling.   Obviously, if true, it probably did not form part of the historical record.   But even if indeed it was true, does that not leave deeper questions unasked? The whole question of what constitutes a crime, and how much responsibility can be placed on the Army, is a complex and possibly unanswerable one.  The following presents some food for thought - and hopefully shows some of the above allegations regarding GD to be untrue - or at the least, equally true of the entire German Army as a whole without singling the GD out.

Planned Genocide

There can be no doubt among serious historians that the war in the East paved the way for deliberately genocidal policies and actions, perpetrated by German and allied security forces as a direct result of orders from Adolf Hitler and his subordinates.  As the German Armed Forces conquered new territory after the invasion of Russia, Special Action units (einsatzgruppen), as well as Police Battalions and other forces, followed in their wake.  Mass executions of Jewish persons, political commisars serving in the Soviet armed forces, and other "undesirables" were - on order from the highest authority - implemented almost as soon as new territory was conquered.

The question of what the Wehrmacht knew about these activities is the hotbed of controversy - and the lower the level one examines, the murkier the water gets, as more and more individuals are involved and one has to generalize more.    For example, Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the Armed Forces throughout World War II, was hanged in 1945 in part because of his obvious knowledge and complicity in genocidal activities by the German military.  The question of what the average rifleman, squad leader, company, battalion, regimental, division commander knew - or what he could reasonably have been expected to do with that knowledge - is much more complex.

Nonetheless, many authors have tackled the question.  It is generally assumed that the massive scale of the crimes committed would necessarily require if not the knowledge of, but the actual participation of, German soldiers serving in the east (as opposed to the SS, Police and other security forces to whom genocidal activity was assigned.)  To quote from Hitler's War and the Germans: Public Mood and Attitude During the Second World War (Steinert, translated by T.E.J. DeWitt, Ohio University Press, 1977 ISBN 0-8214-0186-6)

For many Wehrmacht members in the East - it is impossible to estimate their exact number - the shootings could not remain secret.  Based on a report (by an officer touring the front in December 1941) we know that executions of Jews, prisoners and commisars "were widely known" and met sharp criticism from among the officer corps.  These executions were viewed as "injurious to the honor of the German Army."...Numerous other eye-witness accounts reveal that German soldiers were unwilling witnesses, or watched deliberately, or even assisted in these massacres.

The Nazi regime always found new believable excuses to justify these gruesome actions, such as arson, attacks on the Wehrmacht, sabotage, espionage, and above all the formation of guerilla bands.

...Under the rubric of fighting partisans, units of the Wehrmacht were involved in these crimes.   Occasionally the army enlisted the support of Einsatzgruppen to fight straggling enemy formations.  Good relations therefore often developed between leaders of the Einsatzgruppen and front units.

...Men on leave brought reports of shootings back to Germany and rumors multiplied.

The theme of German knowledge and willing complicity is studied in detail in the controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Goldhagen.  He contends also that the scale of crimes - not only in the East, but in Germany itself - makes it impossible to excuse away any German soldier or civilian who claims ignorance of the genocidal activities of select groups of Germans and their allies.

Some points in general before we examine the specific case of the Division Grossdeutschland:

Death as Punishment

The German Army, perhaps even the German people, regard death very differently than North Americans.  The Canadian and American armies both executed exactly one soldier each during the Second World War for "cowardice" - US Army Private Eddie Slovik and Canadian Army Private Joseph Pringle were both executed for desertion.  On the other hand, executions in the Germany Army in the Second World War numbered in the tens of thousands, for a variety of offences but including desertion.

While executions for capital offences were also carried out, no officer of the Allied armies was ever executed simply because he lost a battle.  This was not the case in the German Army - witness the officers tried after the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen in 1945, for example, where death sentences were liberally handed out.  While an extreme example, one can also look at the number of suicides among officers during the war as example that life was somehow not held in the same regard among Germans.  Hitler promoted von Paulus, the commander of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, because he knew that no German Field Marshall had ever been captured, and that von Paulus would do the "honorable" thing by killing himself. 

All of this speaks to a very different view of death, and a tolerance for its use as a disciplinary tool or a way of preserving public order.  It speaks also of an emphasis on the greater good rather than the life of an individual or individuals.  It helps explain, perhaps, why a German soldier might not feel it excessive to kill enemy civilians - especially if he believed they were guilty of sabotage, for example - since death and capital punishment was something so liberally applied within his own military.

This does not excuse Germans for their conduct of the war, or for criminal acts, but does perhaps help one to understand how a German might view them, or interpret these acts as not being criminal.

German Propaganda

Little can be said here that hasn't been said very well in hundreds of other sources about the dehumanization of other races by German propaganda before and during the Second World War.  The conclusions are self evident - that the campaign of developing hatred and fear of other races, especially the Jews, was very effective for many reasons.  Anti-Semitism was rife not just in Germany but much of the civilized world in the 1930s and 1940s, individuals living in that period were rarely as cosmopolitan, educated or - most importantly - open to tolerance as we have become in the 21st Century, and the constant barrage of rhetoric legitimized this hatred.  The propaganda was far from subtle, such as films likening Jewish persons to rats running through a sewer - and the effect of official government agencies not just condoning, but perpetuating this kind of thought made it not just easy to hate other races, not only encouraged Germans to hate other races, but demanded it of them, in concert with official government policies on everything from marriage laws to rationing to outlining who could work and who could not.


Before we look at the Division GD, then, it must be acknowledged that what a German in the Wehrmacht in 1941 thought of as criminal is not necessarily what we today would regard as criminal or immoral.  In a perfect world, this would be so, but coming from a culture where death was commonly applied as a means of preserving public order, raised in a society where his race and culture were considered the only ones worthy of existence, and where official policy was aimed at the annihilation of other races and cultures, it is not hard to see where a German soldier would feel either justification in participating, or simply witnessing, "criminal" acts, or at the very least not feel obliged to intervene.

Many Germans, to their credit, did just that - the 20th of July plot being the most famous example.  It is noteworthy, in a discussion of Grossdeutschland's complicity in war crimes in World War Two, that the officer in Berlin who was decorated and lauded for stopping the activities of many plotters in Berlin was a Knight's Cross bearer of the Division GD, Ernst-Otto Remer, and that many years after the war, said officer was exiled from the "new" Germany for his political statements to the effect that the Holocaust did not take place on the scale generally believed.

But there were other Germans, some serving the in the Army, who also tried to act or speak out against what they saw as criminal actions by the regime.  It is politically correct to refer to them as "heroes" today, and certainly they were brave and worthy of the name.  But so too were the landser of the GD Division on the battlefields of the eastern front.   Direct comparisons between the two would be fruitless.

And while we today now know, not just from Nuremberg but from My Lai and other similar episodes, that "I was only following orders" is no longer considered a defence in civilized society, in the 1940s those kinds of conclusions had yet to be made.  German society was founded on order and discipline with little emphasis on the rights of the individual - something which the more "civilized" western societies 60+ years later has more trouble identifying with (many will add "thankfully").

And finally, there is the question of legal combatants.  The German military interpreted very sharply the difference between "legal" and "illegal" combatants.  Under international law, soldiers must be identified by a uniform; even during the war, German authorities (beginning with Adolf Hitler himself) interpreted international law in such a way that even commandos were to be considered "illegal combatants" and executed out of hand.  Partisans could be, for example, executed "legally" as saboteurs.   This is not to try and dismiss the disgusting atrocities committed against civilians in the east as mere anti-partisan work, but does speak to a mind set (certainly encouraged, as the quote above mentions) whereby executions and atrocities were explained away as legitimate retaliation against saboteurs.  It might be noted that German saboteurs, both in the United States and in the field during the Battle of the Bulge, for just two examples, were executed during the war for espionage activities - all perfectly legally.

Grossdeutschland and Atrocities - Yugoslavia

The first references to GD's participation in war crimes comes from an episode during the occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941.  The book The German Army and Genocide (ISBN 1565845250) tells of an account of Grossdeutschland troops being involved in suspicious acts. 

David Clarke was kind enough to post the following for me on a public message board:

Hi Michael, only the Foreward was written by Bartov, the book is a compilation of photographs "Edited by The Hamburg Institute For Social Research" and, I believe, is part of the photographs used in the "German Army and Genocide" presentation that caused such an uproar in Germany. As to the specific incident, the shootings are described on page 42, followed by eight photos. The book says in part "When one German soldier was shot and one seriously wounded in Pancevo, Wehrmacht soldiers and the Waffen SS rounded up about 100 civilians at random...the town commander, Lt. Col. Fritz Bandelow conducted the Court's Martial...The presiding judge, SS-Sturmbannführer Rudolf Hoffmann sentenced 36 of those arrested to death. On April 21, 1941, four of the civilians were the first to be shot...On the following day eighteen victims were hanged in a cemetery and fourteen more were shot at the cemetary wall by an execution squad of the Wehrmacht's Grossdeutschland regiment."

In the photo sequence, GD's cuffband cannot be read due to the size of the photos. However, the cuffbands are on the right arm.   I count eight or nine bodies sprawled in pools of blood by the wall and one photo in the sequence doesn't seem to be open to interpretation. A German soldier, with a cuff-band on his right arm is firing a pistol at an already shot man (the coup de grace?). These are my observations from the book. Best Regards, David

Spaeter's history does not deal with this incident; during an account of the occupation of Belgrade, Spaeter tells us that "Draconian measures were occasionally required to halt looting by the civilian population."  The events of 21 April in Pancevo are not discussed directly, though many references are made to "security duties" in Yugoslavia.

This incident is a foreshadowing of the problems the historian will have wrestling with the experiences of the German soldier in Russia. The implications are clear; the 100 civilians had not participated directly in any criminal activity.  Yet considering what has been said earlier about the "legality" of shooting saboteurs (and remembering that the shooting of people for lesser offences such as looting was de rigeur in Nazi Germany), while one today can not dismiss the Germans as innocent, one can see why they would not have viewed their own actions as criminal.

The historian is presented with problems that go beyond the philosophical; short of examining every primary document related to this incident, he is required to take the word of historians before him who tell us that the 100 civilians were indeed innocent, were indeed selected at random, and as the writer would seem to imply, that the death sentences were undeserved (though the philosophical question of the definition of "deserved" is also a nagging one).

Certainly, to a North American, say, living in 2002, the use of indiscriminate shootings to enforce civil order is barbaric and criminal.  To soldiers of a society in which street fighting had been simply a means to political ends in the 1920s and 30s, their view of "criminal" might be very much different.

Grossdeutschland and Atrocities - Barbarossa

The involvement of Grossdeutschland's role in the eastern front has been discussed in several books in English, as has already been stated.  The divisional histories talk about the military aspects, but only two books have focused primarily on the division's role in war crimes and atrocities (both in the sense of direct participation, and in a general sense, if one views the entire war in the east as an atrocity on a grand scale).

I'd like to examine Omer Bartov's book The Eastern Front, 1941-45, German Troops, and the Barbarization of Warfare (1986, ISBN 0-312-22486-9) as one of the two books that deal directly with GD and the question of illegal or immoral activities.  (The other book I refer to as addressing this theme is Hitler's Army, by the same author, which deals in a similar way with the subject matter.)

Bartov uses primary source material, as well as secondary sources such as the official divisional history by Spaeter, as the basis for his discussion.  His footnotes reveal no conversations with surviving German soldiers, much less GD veterans.  This is probably understandable; in 1986 most veterans would have been a minimum of 57 or so years of age; interrogating them on the question of war crimes would border on cruelty.  Though the absence of a "smoking gun" in the form of a confession by just one of the tens of thousands of men who served in the division may be worthy of at least passing comment - though one is careful not to place much emphasis on it.

Bartov's book focusses on three divisions (the other two are the 18th Panzer Division and the 12th Infantry Division) and their experiences in Russia.  The evidence reviewed is heavily statistical at times, as we shall see below, and the main thrust of the work is to answer the question: "What were the causes of the barbarisation of German troops on the Eastern Front during the Second World War?"

Bartov's Introduction

Bartov tells us that the German Army, both through the biographies of its generals and the divisional histories of its soldiers, sought to "clear themselves of the charge of collaborating with the regime and implementing its policies" and that further wanted to "(lay) claim to a set of moral values which stood in stark contradiction to their actions."  In other words, that the while the German Army is/has been considered to be willing participants in the genocidal and criminal acts carried out in the east, soldier and general alike have, through the written word, attempted to paint a picture of themselves at variance with their actual actions.

This introduction is fair enough, but for one point, made evident further on - that the German Army's collusion in the genocide was a fact.  Bartov is fair in taking this position; a common historian's tact - to set out from one assumption and then attempt to answer some question about it without having to prove the assumption.  In this case, Bartov is trying to answer his question about why the German soldier became barbaric by assuming that German troops were willing participants on a grand scale in genocide and atrocities.

Bartov very excellently makes plain his hypothesis, stating that what he wants to prove is that the German Army was "barbarised" as "the result of three major factors: the conditions at the front; the social and educational background of the junior officers; and the political indoctrination of the troops." Of most use to anyone interested in the Grossdeutschland's involvement in war crimes, he proposes to take the unusual tack of examining the question "from the bottom" rather than the normal view of examining evidence regarding staff officers, generals, etc.  Bartov feels that while many generals have claimed since the war that individual soldiers were to busy fighting to be criminally involved, his study would examine this notion in detail (with attention paid also to the importance of political indoctrination).

So we are left not with a promise to examine a proof of German complicity in war crimes, but more a promise to examine why German soldiers were complicit in these war crimes, it being assumed as a given that the German Army was a willing participant.   I wish to examine Bartov's book from this perspective - not as to whether or not he proves his thesis, but as to whether or not one can glean from his writings that the GD did in fact participate in these war crimes - as is taken for granted - at all.  Bartov ends the introduction by saying "For the men who were educated in Hitler's Germany, indoctrinated in the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich and sent into a war of unimaginable ferocity, barbarism was normality, humaneness long forgotten."

Bartov's First Chapter - Conditions at the Front

The conditions at the front discussed by Bartov in the first chapter are mainly simply divisional history, with most of the information available elsewhere on this site.  We can stipulate that conditions for the GD were tough - the extreme casualties are mentioned on this site, and we can add to that Bartov's description of the openness of the terrain (and the consequent need to march over long distances - first forward, then during the long retreats of 1943 and 1944.   Other themes mentioned are lack of rest and sleep, poor health and attendant low morale, lack of proper clothing (especially the first winter in Russia) bad food, and battle fatigue.  A lengthy discussion of discipline and morale follows, supported by courts martial statistics.  It is here that a case for participation in atrocities might be built - Bartov does not seek to do so, taking participation as a given and thus feeling no need to make such a case - but for the purpose of this discussion, we see Bartov speak about "moral offences", and deferring further comment to Chapter Four.  A conclusion that raping Russian women was not considered a "moral offence" comes from out of the blue, however, and the reader is left to wait until the fourth chapter to see if proof for this claim will be presented.

Bartov's methodology can be shown to be weak when he presents the courts martial statistics for the GD division, and seemingly large leaps of logic are taken.  When quoting the number of courts martial tried by division GD in relation to the 12th Infantry Division, he presumes it is due to greater stress placed on the GD Division, and presents a conclusion that discipline and morale in the division was "closely connected with a sense of isolation and a growing need for rationalisation which would provide reasons for all this bitter fighting so far from home."  This conclusion is based, apparently, solely on a statement made in the divisional history to the effect that many men were asking whether they had been forgotten, whether at home or by the high command.  He furthers his conclusion with a quote from the diary of a young soldier who expresses these same sentiments.  But the quote comes from the same source - the divisional history - and not independent research on Bartov's part.  Surely this quote had already been selected by Spaeter because of its relevance to the first statement regarding divisional morale?

Other than this conclusion that the courts martial rate was indicative of increased stress on the division - something Bartov fails to prove - nothing else substantial is said with regards to these statistics.  He ends the chapter with a discussion of German soldier's psychology.  However, he tries to equate the writing style of the historian - in this, and many, cases, the style of the GD Divisional history is a "mixture of romanticism and nihilism" - with how the German soldier thought.  This does not necessarily follow; a soldier in a war will not necessarily view things the same way as a historian - even a veteran of the same conflict the soldier fights in - does.  Bartov ends the chapter with a lengthy quote from Guy Sajer, and a discussion of why the German soldier did not "break" or collapse during the fighting in the East - forgetting, one supposes, that the German soldier in Italy, Africa, and western Europe often fought against similar odds.

Bartov's Second Chapter - German Officers

Bartov does not discuss the GD in detail in Chapter Two, but instead makes some reasonable observations about the age, education and political feelings of German Army officers.  He concludes that German officers were expected not only to go into battle and lead their men in combat, but also to "(implement) the military aspects of (German) policies;....instructing and educating the troops in the spirit of National Socialism...." and ensuring that their men not sympathized with the ideology of the state.

Bartov's Third Chapter - Indoctrination

Bartov uses some sparse examples from GD's history, along with other information relevant to other formations in particular, to discuss the political indoctrination of German troops, and again presents a believable case that German troops were subjected intensively to information of a political nature, dealing with Germany, her place in the world, the inferiority of other races, and other similar subjects.  His conclusion that "The German soldier on the Eastern Front of the Second World War...had been the target of years of anti-Bolshevik, anti-Slav and anti-Semetic indoctrination..." is valid and supported.

Bartov's Fourth Chapter - Barbarism and Criminality

The fourth and final chapter of Bartov's book is where all the threads of the previous chapter are intended to come together.   Again, Bartov's goal is not to prove that German soldiers participated actively in atrocities and war crimes, as he takes it for granted that they did so.  My purpose is to glean what information Bartov presents in favour of his own thesis, to examine the specific question of Grossdeutschland's complicity in these crimes.

Of that, there are tantalizing bits of evidence alluded to, but never fully presented.

In fact, the first mention of GD in the chapter seems to absolve them of any involvement in war crimes - a directive from September 1942 issued by the Division is quoted as follows:

All Russian commisars - politruks - who fall alive into the hands of the troops are to be transferred immediately to the divisional intelligence section.  Shooting by the troops after taking them prisoner is strictly forbidden.

Though one wants to guard against reading too much into this; this does not in anyway speak to the practice of dealing with commisars after interrogation.  Bartov does not explore that aspect at all with relation to the GD.

The next mention of the GD Division deals with the treatment of prisoners - specifically the policy of forming march columns and transporting PWs to the rear by foot, usually over hundreds of kilometres.  Oddly enough, Bartov has already mentioned the fact that German soldiers advancing into Russia - even motorized GD - did so mainly by foot.  When one realized the shortage of motorized transport in the German Army during World War Two, one can see a quandry for German commanders, but not necessarily perpetration of an evil act.  Lack of food did result in starvation, including deliberately, of enemy PWs, but Bartov provides no specific discussion of GD's practices.  The lack of winter clothing is also discussed, and the fact that many Soviet PWs perished for want of adequate clothing.   This was a problem for German troops also.  Criminal neglect through lack of medical attention to Soviet prisoners is addressed also, but again is not relevant to the GD Division, as medical care beyond the immediate would be left to those rear area organizations responsible for the PWs as they moved back through the various administrative areas and chains of command.

The use of Hilfswilliger (Hiwis), volunteer workers formerly soldiers in the Red Army, is mentioned, and the GD is seen to have used PWs for labor parties in the summer and autumn of 1942, including burial parties, road and fortification construction, assisting service units, and a cryptic reference to "collecting booty" (in the 1940s sense of the word.)  In November 1942, Bartov tells us that the division was ordered to reorganize its service units as far as possible by replacing able bodied men with Hiwis, so that they could be used in combat duties.   The GD Division went on to examine the use of PWs for mine clearance duties (other divisions had already adopted these men for that task).

Again, Bartov makes a great leap of logic.   When he presents evidence that a mine clearing platoon of the 12th Infantry Division suffered high casualties, he concludes that "We should not be surprised to read in a report of the GD Division dated 11 January 1943 that 'Between the months of January and May a great number of the volunteers attached to the division have run away.'"  For some reason, the experience of a 36 man platoon in an entirely different division is used as a reason for the GD's volunteers running away.  It simply does not follow, but Bartov somehow feels justified in making this connection.

Bartov talks about "Maltreatment and indiscriminate shooting of Russian POWs....carried out in a disciplined manner by the troops at the front" but gives no evidence or reference to the GD ever carrying out these actions.  He refers in vague terms to "The files of the divisions indicat(ing) that 'wild', undisciplined and indiscriminate shooting of Russian soldiers who had put down their weapons and surrendered, began during the very first days of the campaign and was carried out by the troops in spite of their commanders' objections to such 'unmilitary' behaviour." But other than the two words in quotations, he gives no indication of which division he is talking about, or whether the files indicate entire battalions of men, or simply one or two squads of unruly troops.  One might suggest he is being deliberately vague here in the absence of any more specific evidence.   Two pages later he does use orders of the commander of an entire panzer corps about 'wild' shootings as evidence that this behaviour was widespread - but despite his promise in the introduction to go beyond the accepted route of studying the orders of general staff officers, Bartov does not give us any specific references to units or incidents - just general comments by a very senior officer.  Again, GD is not mentioned at all.

GD is not mentioned at all in the next section dealing with anti-partisan warfare, except to say that the division did order all captured partisans to be "destroyed", and that one battalion commander ordered all civilians suspected of helping partisans to be killed.  Bartov does not discuss these orders, their context, or their consequences at all.  Further orders issued by the GD Division that all partisans and enemy agents were to be handed to the GFP (Secret Field Police) rather than the SD (Security Service) are quoted, but Bartov merely remarks "As far as we know, these orders were more a manifestation of administrative rivalry than a sudden awaking of guilty consciences; the Geheime Feld Polizei was considered to be just as ruthless as the Einsatzgruppen in its treatment of civilians and, indeed, received from the SD high marks for its efficiency."  The conclusion is given no source other than a reference to a secondary source.

The next reference to GD was detailing of divisional orders warning soldiers about the dangers of contacts with female civilians, as well as children, who could very well be enemy agents.  It may have escaped Bartov's notice that similar instructions were given to western Allied troops entering Germany in 1945.  He concludes this portion by saying the GD Division solved the problem of civilian contacts by simply evicting all civilians from their billets, but added that civilians were kept in barracks for various duties - and fails to say whether or not this was true of the GD Division, merely using orders from another unit (the headquarters of the 46th Panzer Corps) as "proof" of this.  In fact, these orders were merely a further warning against contacts with enemy civilians - not any kind of indication (and hence evidence) that women were in fact kept in German barracks, as Bartov alleges.

The most damning, and chilling, evidence that Bartov presents against the GD Division comes on page 133, where he describes how GD was ordered to "live off the land" in the summer of 1942.  He casually states "Here the GD also assisted the SD units behind the front by marking Jews and foreigners with the "J" and "A" respectively."  The footnote indicates a numbered file in the Bundesarchiv, but no direct quote is given, and we are given no clue as to why Bartov is making this statement.  One presumes he is quoting a divisional order, but absolutely no attribution is given beyond a simple numbered file.   Several pages later, GD Divisional orders are quoted where troops are ordered to ruthlessly conscript civilians to assist with construction of fortifications."

Unfortunately, this is simply a divisional order - which in itself is not evidence that it was distributed, though even if one presumes that it was (a fairly safe bet) there is no evidence that it was obeyed, or interpreted in the same manner as either the general issuing the order, or Bartov reading the order in the archives, interpreted it.  There is also a reference to the recruitment of civilian labour, and the operations officer of the GD Division is quoted in a letter to his wife in June 1942 as saying that 100 women were sent to Germany against their will.  He mentions that "this is bitter, although perhaps they will be better off in Germany."  Again, this seems to paint GD in a sympathetic light - the saddened reaction of the officer is interesting.

The chapter is concluded with an accounting of an evacuation and destruction operation mounted by a small unit of GD in September 1943.  Over 13,000 civilians were evacuated along with almost 10,000 livestock, 1260 agricultural machines were destroyed along with 165 mills, while 1392 tons of crops were removed.  Bartov concludes the entire chapter by saying "The files of the GD Division are silent on the fate of the people whose homes and lands it had devastated." 

One of the final statements about GD was the fact that the Division used so many Hiwis, it was considered worthwhile to print leaflets and newspapers in Russian, but again, the reference is to an order in a file, and Bartov apparently has no idea if this order was ever carried out.  Either way, its relevance to the question of war crimes is nil.

Bartov's Conclusion

While Bartov's book may indeed have proven his thesis - that will be left to the reader to decide - the researcher interesting in finding direct evidence of GD's involvement in war crimes will be disappointed.   While the divisional files may hold many important documents - the allegation that soldiers of the division pinned "J" and "A" (for Jude and Auslander) devices on civilians is indeed tantalizing to the historian eager to prove complicity - no one has unfortunately yet been able to study them and make a direct link between Grossdeutschland's existence on the eastern front, and participation in military operations there, and any direct involvement in war crimes or atrocities.


I am not sure there can be any doubt that the war in the east was brutal; certainly prisoners of war from both sides were treated very poorly, and stories of soldiers being murdered by Russian and German alike are no doubt true.   Small scale "atrocities" were likely a fact of life on the Russian Front, and GD was no exception.  The divisional history talks of instances where butchered German prisoners were encountered, and one can assume that Russian prisoners were not always treated in accordance with army regulations or international law in return.   Can we exclude them from a discussion of war crimes and atrocities?  It might be best to do so.

Was the Grossdeutschland Division guilty of committing atrocities on a larger scale against civilians?  There seems to be little direct evidence, aside from the executions in Pancevo in April 1941, that the Division did so.   Which is not to say they never happened, but for many reasons outlined above, they were obviously not chronicled in the divisional history, and Bartov's argument did not require that such evidence (if it exists) be provided.

Did the Grossdeutschland Division abet war criminals?   Without doubt.  Whether one can add the adjective "knowingly" (or even apply the term "war criminals" to members of the division proper) is open to lengthy debate.  Certainly any soldier on the eastern front was guilty, for lack of a better word, of creating the conditions in which the einsatzgruppen and Police Battalions in the field were able to operate, and the slave labour and ultimately the Death Camps in Germany and the occupied territories were able to commit their crimes.   Simply put, it was the German Army that created the conditions in which millions of people passed into slavery and millions more were routinely slaughtered. 

The final nagging question - what did the average German know, to what degree did he actively participate, and how much blame should he be assigned for not just his actions, but his inaction - will never be answered.  Perhaps the final question is - given the conditions of the time; all that has been discussed on this page, about the German's views on death, race, and the importance of the whole as opposed to the individual - what can we reasonably have expected the average German to have done differently?  And given the track record of most "civilized" nations, dating back throughout man's existence, how loudly can any one group condemn them without inviting introspection back onto themselves?

But more importantly, this final question revolves around how the German soldier saw himself.  In Pancevo, a group of civilians was tried by court martial - the soldiers taking part in the executions would likely not have been witness to either the alleged incidents involving shootings of German soldiers, nor the trials.   They were simply told to impose capital punishment - a legal remedy in Germany at the time - and followed their orders.  We know today that this was a war crime; that the people executed were not guilty of anything by the standards in which guilt and innocence are measured today in the western world.  It was likely not so clear cut to the executioners in Pancevo in April 1941.

The later, equally disturbing and disgusting excesses carried out in the Soviet Union can be the subject of the same speculation - what did the German Army know, but just as importantly, how did it feel about them?  One can't imagine explaining away Babi Yar as anti-partisan fighting, but can it be demonstrated that the German Army (and, most importantly to us here, the Grossdeutschland Division) actively participated in anything anywhere near the scale of Babi Yar?  Again, there is no evidence of this, though the use of euphemism in official records and histories may obscure these facts to the modern researcher.

Thoughts for Further Discussion

We may never know the answers, but we should continue to ask the questions.  Some responses to a preliminary draft of this article posted at the Battlefront.com message board prompted some follow up questions:

Some other points raised in the discussion were the number of photographs in existence of "regular" German soldiers at executions or places of execution, apparently unbothered enough by the event to pose for the camera, sometimes with the deceased.