Historical story

It was easy to lose your head in the Wehrmacht. Literally

The authorities of the Third Reich, various German diarists, and eventually all neo-Nazi historians praised the extraordinary courage and tenacity of the Wehrmacht soldiers. Indeed, until the very end of the war, the Germans fought fiercely, and even desertions occurred less frequently in their ranks than in the US Army. It's just that the military justice system had a huge impact on it.

During World War I, German field courts treated their soldiers relatively leniently. During the four-year conflict, only 48 death sentences were carried out. Adolf Hitler saw the seeds of defeat in this gentle approach, among other things. When he was starting his own war twenty years later, he wasn't going to repeat the same mistakes.

During World War I, only 48 German soldiers were sentenced to death. Hitler was not that lenient.

As early as 1935, the Nazis added a new crime punishable by death to the military law code:unspecified and therefore easy to convict if necessary Zersetzung der Wehrkraft (literally:spreading your combat strength). The effects were noticeable quickly. During the war, German courts sentenced to death between 500 and 1,000 of their own soldiers each month .

It was only the tip of the iceberg. The great bureaucratic machine entwined the entire army with its tentacles. For example, only from January 1940 to June 1941 106 546 were brought before a court members of the Wehrmacht. In most cases, the trial turned out to be a formality, as as many as 89.4% of them were found guilty. The percentage would have been even higher if it were not for the officers, who often got away with crimes (they were sentenced twice less often than privates).

In equal ranks, "brave" soldiers ...

Let us return, however, to the death penalty, which is certainly the most legible testimony to the true face of the Wehrmacht. The title of this article is by no means exaggerated. In the German army, you had to be careful not to stand in front of a firing squad.

Martin van Creveld, author of the book "Wehrmacht versus the US Army" calculated that from 1940 to 1945 in the Wehrmacht a total of about 11,700 death sentences were carried out . Much more was, of course, ordered.

For comparison, the US Army executed ... one person for military crimes throughout the war! Americans more often executed the death sentences on soldiers for civil offenses (murder, rape), but there were only 69 of them in total. In total, the Germans shot and hung their soldiers 167 times more often than the Americans !

Well, it looks like we have just unraveled at least part of the mystery of the extraordinary "courage" of the German soldiers. Probably everyone would be brave in such circumstances…


  • Martin van Creveld, Wehrmacht versus the US Army 1939-1945. Combat Strength Comparison , Erica Publishing Institute, 2011, pp. 168-173.