Crimes Committed by the Wehrmacht
In November 1939, as a response to objections about the SS’s brutality, Hitler curtly retorted, "One can’t fight a war with Salvation Army methods."60 This facetious comment by the Führer exemplified Hitler’s perception of how the war should be conducted in the East – devoid of empathy and emphasizing deserved punitive measures against the invaded territory. Although Hitler’s agenda for war in the East was clearly calculated on ideological grounds prior to the invasions, the precise logistics of its conduction were not. Thus, as the coming sections will elucidate, the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht evolved over time as the leadership adapted methods for conducting their Vernichtungskrieg on a region-specific basis – both for efficiency and deniability, as a loss came to appear inevitable. The first case will be Poland, where extermination policies were tested; then I will examine Greece and the Balkan states of Yugoslavia where the aggressive tactics against Partisans became legitimized; and finally I will look at the Soviet Union, the location of perhaps the most heinous crimes committed during the war’s entirety.
As a brief note: the Wehrmacht is comprised by multiple forces, including the Heer (army), the Luftwaffe (air force), and the Kriegsmarine (navy). For the sake of brevity, only the Heer’s crimes will be examined; particularly since the Kriegsmarine was based away from the Eastern front, and the extent of the Luftwaffe’s crimes were advanced sorties that targeted pockets of so-called "Partisans." Thus, their removal from the field eliminated the personal nature of committing such crimes, obliging less indoctrination by command.
Poland: Assessing the Wehrmacht’s Receptiveness
On the very day that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, Hitler addressed his Wehrmacht generals at the Berghof on his expectations for the impending war in Poland, a segment of it which was documented in Helmuth Greiner’s diary:
"Politically there had been a remarkable achievement, now the Wehrmacht would have to prove itself and demonstrate its ability. The war would be waged with the greatest brutality and ruthlessness and until Poland was totally destroyed. The goal was not to occupy the land but to annihilate all forces. He would create the reason for the war. Later in history no one would ask about the reasons."61Thus, Hitler’s plan for Poland was deliberate, lacking only a public impetus for engagement. On the eve of the invasion of Poland, Hitler made that contrived impetus explicitly known during a radio address to Wehrmacht troops:
"The Polish State has rebuffed my attempts to negotiate peaceful, neighborly relations; it has instead resorted to arms. Germans in Poland are being persecuted with bloody terror and driven from home and farmstead… I have been left with no other choice than to use force against force… Always remain aware in every circumstance that you are representatives of Greater National Socialist Germany! Long live our people and our Reich!" 62This poignant appeal on the grounds of overt Polish provocation emboldened Wehrmacht soldiers who, as discussed earlier, were already predisposed to harp on anti-Semitic/Slavic prejudices when they conducted war and occupation. Consequently, in Poland we find the incipient cases of war crimes by the Wehrmacht. Following their invasion and swift victories, members of the Wehrmacht were exposed to the initial phases of Hitler’s Holocaust in an attempt to accustom them to the new expectations of how war should be waged in the East. Thus, the hope was that the Wehrmacht, who led the invasion of towns, would gradually adopt into their toolkit the racial acumen possessed by the SS groups, who followed closely behind them clearing the towns of Untermenschen. Although "official" policies stressed absolute separation of duties between these groups, its practical application, as we will see, was quite the opposite. What would come to characterize the Wehrmacht’s complicity in Poland was passive compliance through unopposing observation of public murders, war crimes against POWs, and in many instances, direct involvement in shootings of civilians or unarmed army personnel – however the uniting factor of all of these was a general sense of apathy towards the ethical treatment of the Polish population, obviously spurred on by racial and ethnic prejudices.
When the army invaded Poland, they came upon an army and people that had been mythologized in their minds as indeed subhuman. Examining the Erfahrungsberichte (field reports) of the invaders, Alexander Rossino notes that derogatory comments about the Polish landscape and people peppered these reports. POWs were described by one soldier as behaving "entirely un-European, even inhumanly"; another described the civilians as "Polish swine" and "damned civilian swine;" and some towns were viewed as "knuckle deep in squalor."63 Such commentaries were endemic in the field reports of Wehrmacht soldiers, elucidating their perception of the subhuman Pole and Jew. Accordingly, Mineau’s suggested reification of the enemy comes into play here, as soldiers wrongly justified mistreatment of the occupied populations because they were unworthy of ethical treatment. This would ultimately come to be partially remedied when command began taking disciplinary action against Wehrmacht crimes, however they did not curb them entirely.
Crimes Against Unarmed Civilians
The Wehrmacht’s treatment of unarmed civilian Poles ranged anywhere from plundering, to rapes, to outright murder. A report dated just 16 days after the invasion highlights an incident in which a Polish girl just 16 years old was forcibly raped by two soldiers in her parents’ bedroom.64 In another case, three soldiers broke into a house late at night and pistol-whipped members of the family in their beds. They then proceeded to rape the 20-year-old daughter at gunpoint in front of her family, eventually leaving with several of their material possessions.65 In the latter case, the soldiers were reported as having been arrested by field officers, but the unruliness of Wehrmacht soldiers in instances of rape was rampant in field reports.
Crimes extended beyond rape and looting, however, as there were numerous cases of soldiers murdering Poles and Jews with either no provocation, or as retaliatory measure against contrived enemies. An example of a case in which no provocation was compulsory for execution is the murder of about 900 Jews on September 15, 1939 after Przemysl was taken by the Wehrmacht. The bodies were tossed into mass graves, which were later exhumed and concealed in 1944. The reason for this crime was "Jewish origin."66 In this instance, outright anti-Semitism prompted this massacre.
Other cases arose from retaliatory efforts by members of the Wehrmacht. In one case, members of the 8th Air Reconnaissance Unit found four mutilated German soldiers in the town of Konskie. Enraged, they gathered an undetermined number of Jewish men and forced them to dig their own graves at the local graveyard, all the while kicking and beating them. The local commander, Major Schulz, confronted the soldiers after watching the scene for some time, and told them that although Jews were the "source of all misfortune in the world," the troops still had to demonstrate discipline. The soldiers agreed and began to disperse, however other soldiers who had gathered to watch the initial scene, then proceeded to beat the Jews again as they attempted to flee. One soldier fired a shot, prompting others to fire. The result: twenty-two Jews dead. The soldier who fired the initial shots was court martialed, but only received a one year sentence because the court ruled his actions partially rational given his discovery of the mutilated bodies.67 Another massacre of 200 unarmed civilians occurred when the 95th Infantry Regiment with an attached SS group entered the town of Zloczew on September 3, 1939. Germans stopped one Pole as they marched in, inquiring whether Polish forces or Jews were in the town. There were then reports of random firing by soldiers into houses, despite an absence of resistance. That night, as another Polish witness recalled, Wehrmacht personnel "ran amok" as they fired on refugees in the town. Victims included a ten-year-old girl disemboweled after being shot in the back and a one-and-a-half-year-old girl whose skull was crushed by the butt of a soldier’s rifle. Postwar investigations concluded that it was highly unlikely that the massacre of civilians in Zloczew was accidentally committed during the heat of battle, as the miniscule remnant forces left behind to defend the town were deemed by the invading company to be sporadic and uncoordinated. Nevertheless, the accused members of the Wehrmacht maintained that they did encounter pockets of civilian resistance prompting their response.68 Thus, such retributive measures often provided impetus for murdering unarmed civilians and Jews in Poland, regardless of the enemy’s existence.
Crimes Against “Guerillas”
These punitive actions eventually came to take on a more systematic nature, as an informal tit-for-tat policy took hold among companies. Deeming the civilian population to be "guerilla" or "Partisan" ensured that swift and decisive measures could be taken against perceived enemies of the Wehrmacht. In other words, they could simultaneously massacre civilians and avoid martial reprimand by simply deeming them "Partisans." What is important to note is that even when civilians were defending their towns, arguably a form of "Partisanship," the brutality exhibited by the Wehrmacht was especially harsh. One such example is the XIII Corps’ eastward advance through Poland in the first two weeks of the invasion. Passing through the town of Ostrówek one night after the company suffered seven casualties in a town eight miles to the west, troops of one division began randomly burning homes and machine-gunning civilians. One victim, Aniela Hes, recalled her 77-year-old father being shot as he attempted to flee, her brother-in-law being shot while looking out his window, and her sister being killed when she opened the door to see what has happening. The commanding General maintained that the company had been fired on by the civilians, and evidence does show that they did experience some sniper fire earlier in the day. Ultimately, however, the troops’ response was vengeful and disproportionate given the limited resistance they experienced.
Figure 4 Soldier posing next to executed Polish civilians in Ciepielów.
POWs were sometimes adorned with the undesirable tag of "Partisan" as well. A soldier of a motorized infantry regiment reported, for example, on the massacre of 300 Polish prisoners after 14 members of their regiment were killed. He reports, the commanding Colonel Wessel "asserts that these [responsible] snipers were Partisans, even though every one of the 300 Poles taken prisoner is wearing a uniform. They are forced to take off their jackets. There, now they look more like Partisans." The "Partisans" were then marched to a ditch where the soldier found them all shot. He then states, "I risk taking two photographs, then one of the armed motorcyclists who did the job on orders from Lieutenant Colonel Wessel posed proudly in front of my lens."69
The blatant malevolence exhibited by these soldiers for the Polish people was staggering. By labeling their enemy’s population "Partisan," they were able to (in their minds) circumvent international laws, all the while relieving themselves of any remorse – as seen in the soldier who proudly stood next to his prized kills. Acts of retribution against Partisans was no extant phenomenon, however. In Poland it was somewhat of an informal system that still received some criticism from military courts, but later in the war it would truly become a systematized mode of exterminating undesirable populations, popularly supported by the Wehrmacht’s leadership.
Crimes Against POWs
As evinced by the aforementioned incident, Polish POWs received horrific treatment once in the hands of the Wehrmacht. The question of the treatment of POWs in all areas occupied by Germany was deliberated at the Nuremburg trials from 1945-1946. Their finding was:
"Prisoners of war were ill-treated and tortured and murdered, not only in defiance of the well-established rules of international law, but in complete disregard of the elementary dictates of humanity"70This mistreatment began from the outset when Germany invaded Poland, and reports certainly support the trial’s assertion.
On September 12, 1939, prisoners were moved into a local elementary school building in Szczucin, among them wounded soldiers. After a Polish officer seized a Wehrmacht officer’s pistol and shot himself and the German, grenades were instantaneously thrown into the building and soldiers outside began to open fire. Members of the Wehrmacht battalion then set fire to the building, and according to the testimony of two Polish priests, "Some [Polish] soldiers tried to jump from the upper story and the roof of the building, but the Germans shot at them and killed them on the spot."71 Seven days later on September 18, 1939, soldiers from an unidentified Panzer unit entered the village of Sladów where they "shot and drowned over 300 people, including some 150 war prisoners…"72 Szymon Datner contends that further offenses were committed by the Wehrmacht during their September 1939 campaign, "including cases of maltreatment, or even murder, of wounded prisoners, and the murder of medical personnel, in disregard of the Red Cross emblem."73 This would set a precedent for the eventual treatment of prisoners when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Establishing the Wehrmacht’s Role
The result of the apparent apathy towards the ethical treatment of Poles and Jews during Wehrmacht’s invasion and occupation created a highly undesirable situation for Poland’s population. The ideological currents promoted by Hitler and the high command endorsed a racially driven war, yet astonishingly the Wehrmacht’s high command was somehow taken by surprise when its soldiers began engaging in discriminate killings of civilians and POWs. A marked trait of Poland, thus, was recalcitrance by the Wehrmacht rank and file resulting from technical and authoritative disorganization within the Wehrmacht. This is seen in complaints by senior officials in the Wehrmacht, whose reasons for lodging complaints against their soldiers’ exposure to war crimes (whether it was those they were directly involved in or those that the SS committed in front of them) ranged anywhere from moral repugnance to a loss of military discipline to a jealous defense of the Wehrmacht’s executive authority on the Front.74 Gen. Johannes Blaskowitz claimed that "the troops do not want to be identified with the atrocities committed by the Security Police, and refuse any cooperation with these Einsatzgruppen…,"75 while Gen. von Brauchitsch complained of a Police Battalion’s exclusion of Wehrmacht assistance in a "military" operation.76 Opinions of disapproval of SS operations on moral grounds like Blaskowitz’s did exist, however not in great numbers in terms of formal complaints. Conversely, many objections resembled those of Brauchitsch who felt the SS operations were encroaching on the Wehrmacht’s authority. The most complaints, however, came from officers that were concerned by the potential of soldiers becoming unruly and losing their military discipline. Thus, they would issue orders like Commanding General of the XVIIIth Army Corps Georg von Küchler did in July 1940:
"… I emphasize the necessity to see to it that all soldiers of the army, especially officers, refrain from any and all criticism of the battle with the population of the GG [General Government], for example the treatment of Polish minorities, of Jews, and of church affairs… Certain units of the party and of the state are entrusted with carrying out this völklische struggle in the East. Soldiers are to keep their distance from these affairs of others units."77As this order demonstrates, eventually the Wehrmacht leadership was able to organize their understandings of the necessary rapport between them and the SS groups – that being a strict demarcation between the Wehrmacht soldier’s duties and those of the SS. While this still did not do much to curb the frequency of Wehrmacht involvement in crimes, their role as an ideology-driven force was radically altered when Germany rescinded their non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. The complexity of this relationship changed as they began to work side-by-side, with racial eliminationist policies now emanating from the Wehrmacht high command’s orders, thereby suggesting them permissible by the average soldier’s ethical and soldierly code.
Greece and Yugoslavia: Anti-Partisan Wars and Reprisal Killings
In 1941, in preparation for Germany’s imminent invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler aimed to secure his southeastern flank by invading Greece and Yugoslavia. The offensive began on April 6 with the assistance of Italian forces, and Yugoslavia and Greece both capitulated on April 18 and April 21, respectively. While Greece would remain intact as a state, divided among its victors into multiple zones of occupation, Yugoslavia was completely dismantled with individual regions divvied out to the various Axis partners.78 Similarities did exist between these two states, beyond their swift capitulation to Germany’s overwhelming Blitzkrieg. Following their defeats, both countries contained considerable sums of Partisan and guerilla forces, which provided a twofold "approval package": first, both countries became rehearsal grounds for systematized Partisan/guerilla warfare that the Wehrmacht would experience later in the Soviet Union; second, their resistance provided impetus for a formal policy of massive reprisal killings, which almost always targeted racial categories like Jews. In the grander scheme, in conjunction with methods of abnormal warfare practiced elsewhere, the Wehrmacht was successfully desensitized for both their war against the Soviet Union and their participation in the systematic liquidation of Untermenschen.
Yugoslavia: the Case of Serbia
Yugoslavia’s populations were both highly receptive and staunchly resistant. Croatia, for example, was headed by a collaborationist government, while Serbia and Macedonia contained significant amounts of resistance forces called Partisans. While examining each of these areas would be illuminating, Serbia provides the best case study as the bulk of substantive literature has been written on it and the anti-Partisan war was particularly gruesome there. Postwar statistics confirm that Serbia was the location of one of the most efficiently applied efforts of liquidation: in April 1941, "approximately 17,000 Jews lived in Serbia under German military rule. One year later, Serbia was ‘free of Jews.'"79 This came at the behest of General Ludwig von Schröder, the Wehrmacht commander in Serbia, who ordered that all Gypsies and Jews be identified, registered, and subjected to forced labor.80 Thus, the standardized persecution of Jews in occupied areas began with the occupation of Serbia, all the while supervised and many times directly implemented by the Wehrmacht. If anything was to prophesy the nature of warfare in Serbia, it was the codename for the initiative bombing of Belgrade marking the invasion of Yugoslavia: "Unternehmen Strafgericht," or "Operation Punishment."
The case of Serbia in 1941, Christopher Browning argues, is somewhat unique relative to other areas of German occupation. This is because he considers it a "minor theater not at the center of Hitler’s 'war of destruction' and quest for Lebensraum" which diminished the role of the SS. As a result, "military commanders there had greater latitude to act according to their own inclinations, attitudes, and values." Traditional Wehrmacht historiography would assert that this relative autonomy would lead to a more orderly and principled occupation, however it is the contradictory nature of the Wehrmacht’s behavior here that typifies the coalescence of military and Nazi attitudes. Several factors contributed to the Wehrmacht’s irregular warfare in Serbia, including the "Nazi political culture exulting in unfettered power, violence, and racial superiority," the exhortation of troops to be "‘tough’ and to act like true Herrenmenschen," and the denigration of Slavic populations, which when combined resulted in a "predilection for violence and atrocity."81 Field Marshal Wilhelm List, German occupation commander of the Balkans in 1941 and a "deeply religious non-Nazi," described Serbs at the Nuremberg trials as "far more passionate, hot blooded, and more cruel."82 This description, although partially rooted in historical prejudices, arose from the irregular, Partisan warfare that was waged in Serbia. Still, while their numbers and presence were considerable, the Wehrmacht’s response was astoundingly disproportionate, targeting Jews, Gypsies, and Serb civilians as either "Partisans" or victims for reprisal killings. Communists were eventually added to this list after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, having previously been exempted by the pact between the two countries.
Figure 5 Execution squad of the Wehrmacht's Großdeutschland Regiment performs its task in Šabac.
To be fair, or at least as fair as one can be in such an examination, the Partisan situation in Serbia was rather muddled, contributing to the confusion of the Wehrmacht. For that reason, it must be noted. In August 1954, the U.S. Department of the Army published a pamphlet titled "German Antiguerilla Operations in the Balkans (1941-1944)." The crux of their study of Yugoslavia is that the Partisan movement there was disorganized to the extent that a mini civil war was actually occurring between resistance forces. Involved were the "Chetniks" headed by Col. Draja Mihailovitch, the formal commander of the resistance forces in Yugoslavia, and the Partisans, headed by Tito. The former generally engaged in "restricted to small-scale actions and sabotage," while the latter were Communist irregulars who engaged in guerilla warfare. Complicating matters further, there were bands of guerilla fighters who operated under their own authority.83 Thus, Partisanship was erratic and rampant, impelling the Germans to simply combine all under the tag of Partisan. Nevertheless, this does not absolve the Wehrmacht of their decision to resultantly target civilians and Jews, as an informal policy of discriminate decimation predated those actions.
The Partisans did find success in thwarting a smooth Wehrmacht occupation. However, their virtue was also their vice, as the guerilla tactics enabled the Germans to justify massive reprisals or "atonement" executions of civilians. Initially, Wehrmacht leadership explicitly ascribed the SD-Einsatzgruppe the role of suppressing Partisan resistance – hostage shootings were the immediate result, targeting Jews, Gypsies, civilian Serbs, and eventually Communists. The Wehrmacht was responsible for burning villages following Partisan attacks and arresting "suspicious persons" that would be handed over to the Security Police. In effect, the Wehrmacht provided the Einsatzgruppe with their "hostage reservoir."84 Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht did engage in the execution of civilians. On April 22, 1941 in Panevo, for instance, eighteen civilians, including one woman, were hanged in a cemetery while fourteen more were shot along the cemetery wall by a Wehrmacht execution squad. Leaving their bodies hanging for several days as a deterrent, it was a reprisal for the death of one soldier and another who was seriously wounded.85 The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SD units would soon change as the military apparatus saw an expansion of their role in the Partisan war, particularly when the Soviet Union was invaded on June 22, 1941.
With Operation Barbarossa came a marked shift in the manner in which occupation and offensives were implemented. In Yugoslavia, orders were given for the radicalization of warfare, and in some cases, Wehrmacht leadership adamantly pressed for this. When Gen. Heinrich Danckelmann demanded that the OKW approve the addition of further SD attachments to Wehrmacht units, they denied his request, informing him that: "Due to turmoil and an increase in acts of sabotage, the Führer expects [Wehrmacht] troops to be used to restore peace and order through quick and decisive action." Thus, the Wehrmacht took up the struggle against the Partisans, forming mobile strike forces that were supplemented by members of police battalions and the SD. The scope of these groups’ tactical clearances was unrestrained, and their coalescence marked the disbandment of overtly delineated functions to cooperative efforts between the Wehrmacht and SS units – members of the Wehrmacht now began to familiarize themselves with SS techniques of liquidation. 86 Still, formalized, direct involvement by the Wehrmacht in the killings did not officially begin until General Franz Böhme was appointed Plenipotentiary Commanding General of Serbia in September 1941.
Not surprisingly, on the same day as Böhme’s appointment came the issuance of Keitel’s order on "combatting Communist insurrection in the occupied regions," which anticipated the execution of anywhere from fifty to one hundred Communists as a "reprisal for the life of a German soldier."87 Böhme was a hardline General, and his appointment spelled the doom of the enemy population. He quickly declared the entire population to be the enemy, having all men arrested and interned in prisons and concentration camps, women and children driven from their homes, villages burned, and livestock confiscated – all done in an effort to send a message to the Partisans of Serbia.88 He also took Keitel’s order to heart, eventually issuing orders that systematized the ratio of executions to victims of Partisan attacks at 100 to 1. Böhme’s first reprisal order came when 21 soldiers were killed by Partisans. Adhering to the 100 to 1 ratio, he issued the following order: "The Chief of Military Administration is requested to select 2,100 prisoners (primarily Jews and Gypsies) in the concentration camps Šabac and Belgrade." This was the first time that the Wehrmacht was ordered to carry out the executions of “hostages,” with the 342nd Division and Corps Intelligence Section 449 responsible in this particular case.89 Eventually, on October 10, 1941, much to the satisfaction of the SS, Böhme issued his comprehensive extermination order, targeting "all Communists, people suspected of being Communists, all Jews, [and] a given number of nationalist and democratically minded inhabitants…" These individuals were to be "seized as hostages in swift operations” and told that “hostages will be shot if German soldiers or ethnic Germans are attacked."90 The results of this order were catastrophic.
Figure 6 "Hostage Execution" form for the execution of 385 hostages from the Šabac concentration camp.
Böhme appealed to historical reminiscences, informing all units that "You are to carry out your task in an area in which, in 1914, rivers of German blood flowed as the result of the duplicity of the Serbs, men and women. You are the avengers of these dead."91 Wehrmacht soldiers, for the most part, willingly responded to such justifications. In Oberleutnant Walther’s November 1 report, he noted that "Shooting Jews is simpler than shooting Gypsies. One has to admit that the Jews die stoically, standing quietly, while the Gypsies howl, scream…"92 Another Oberleutnant, Walter Liepe, casually recounts the executions of hundreds of Jews on different occasions in his field report, at one point stating that, "the units returned to their quarters well satisfied."93 In fact, the mass murder of these so-called "hostages" had become so commonplace by December that "Hostage Executions" forms were printed to hasten the process: to be written was the date, incident "atoned for," number executed, and unit who performed the execution.94
There are two notable massacres which demonstrate the magnitude of reprisal killings by the Wehrmacht in Serbia. First, the massacre in Kraljevo occurred on October 16, 1941. Partisan and Chetnik forces surrounded Wehrmacht units in the vital defensive point of Kraljevo, prompting them to round up hostages comprised of Communists, nationalists, democrats, and Jews on the 14th. On the 16th, members of the 749th and 737th Infantry Regiments and the 717th Infantry Division executed 1,736 men and 19 women. Gen. Böhme lauded these efforts in his October 20 order of the day, "I express my admiration to all officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men who were engaged in these successful operations. Onward to new deeds! Böhme."95 These new deeds came in the second massacre occurring in Kragujevac. Here, more than 2,300 Serbs of all ages were executed to atone for 10 dead and 26 wounded Wehrmacht soldiers in the area. The execution occurred on October 20 after the Wehrmacht had dragged men and boys, including entire school classes with their teachers, into holding barracks. These executions were similarly praised, particularly the "aggressive spirit" and "initiative of the troops" that did not "tend to passivity."96
In Serbia, thus, we see the initial phases of Wehrmacht complicity in systematic executions of contrived enemies. Wolfram Wette argues that "In the Serbian theater of war the Wehrmacht not only created the political and logistical conditions for murdering Jews – as became the rule in the Soviet Union – but also planned their extermination itself and then proceeded to carry it out."97 Yet their targeting of Jews also expanded beyond males here, as the Wehrmacht assisted in the collection, imprisonment and gassing of women and children. They of course held to the absurd justification that Jews and Gypsies were "clearly informants for the rebels," and knowingly led women and children into mobile gas vans that were being employed by March 1942.98 However, the complexity of Wehrmacht complicity may not have become as radicalized in Serbia had not the invasion of the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa occurred.
In Greece, the anti-Partisan war similarly dictated the treatment of civilians. It resembled Yugoslavia much in the same way in that, because they were under the military administration of the Wehrmacht’s Commander Southeast, civilians felt the effects of terroristic warfare. In the Hamburg Institute’s examination of the Wehrmacht’s crimes, they contend that their executions "fanned the flames of national resistance," leading them to respond with more selective reprisals, targeting Jews, Roma and Sinti.99 One common practice in direct contravention of international law was the use of hostages (mostly Jews from the concentration camp at Haidari) as “human shields.” On the Salonika-Athens railway-line, for example, the first two cars of troop and supply trains were open-platform cars loaded with hostages. This would in theory discourage Partisans from attacking railway lines.100
Figure 7 Officer in the 7th Parachute Division finishing off executed "Partisans" in Kondomari.
Reprisals further characterized the Wehrmacht’s invasion and occupation of Greece. When German paratroopers first invaded Crete in May 1941, the Cretan islanders assisted in the defense of the city. Crete was taken in late May, and a livid General Kurt Student, commander of the XI Air Corps, ordered "Revenge Operations" to be carried in response to their participation. His instructions were unambiguously distributed: "1) Shootings; 2) Forced Levies; 3) Burning down villages; 4) Extermination of the male population of the entire region."101 The following day on June 2, Greeks were executed in Kondomari, and the vengeance spread elsewhere, including Kandanos and Alikanos. Estimates place the total number of civilians shot in response to Crete at 2,000 (this number may be exaggerated however). Regardless, General Student and other Wehrmacht commanders in Greece dismissed their soldiers from the outset of all criminal culpability in the shootings of citizens as "reprisals."
By 1943, the complexity of the occupation of Greece had changed dramatically. Fearing an Allied invasion, coupled with an increase in Partisan attacks, the Wehrmacht’s treatment of civilians became increasingly brutal.102 In Kalavrita on December 10, 1943, the largest single massacre in Greece occurred in response to the capture and execution of a German company of about eighty in October. This reprisal resulted in the torching of 24 towns and villages, three monasteries, and 696 civilians shot. The request emanated from Generalmajor Karl von Le Suire of the 117th Jägerdivision, who ordered his men to "level" the villages which had supported the Partisans.103
On August 16, for instance, 317 Greeks from of all ages and both sexes were murdered in the town of Komeno. Committed by the 12th Company of the 98th Regiment of the elite First Mountain Division shortly before dawn, the massacre was carefully orchestrated, as the company of about 100 men encircled the town, firing a flare to alert assault squads to storm the houses. One of the ancillary troops later recalled, "So far as I could see from the tangled mass of humanity there were more women and children than men there."104 What is significant about this event is not only the scale of its inhumaneness, but the participants’ justifications several years later. All of the soldiers agreed that it was done as a reprisal, but glaring discrepancies existed as to who it revenged.105 The Komeno massacre is significant in this respect: for many Wehrmacht soldiers, reprisals killings did not harp on deep-seeded despondency for the loss of fellow combatants, but rather blind and impulsive hatred, likely rooted in xenophobic sentiments; crimes committed in the Soviet Union certainly support this. In other words, these soldiers could not recall who they avenged, but merely followed orders out of some sort of impulsive rage. In effect, this strips reprisals of any tactical credibility (which they arguably lack nonetheless), but instead makes them strictly criminal actions. Unfortunately, impulsive hatred became the catalyst for so many so-called Untermenschen losing their lives during measures of atonement, especially in the Soviet Union.