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Widening the Circle: General Weikersthal and the War of Annihilation, 1941–42

  • David W. Wildermuth (a1)
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Recent scholarship concerning the Wehrmacht leadership in Nazi Germany's war against the Soviet Union (1941–1945) has provided a much more nuanced picture of the motivation and responsibility of the uppermost strata of general for the brutalization of the conflict. The generals just outside this inner military circle, however, continue to be largely ignored. Questions on the mentality of lower-ranking, frontline commanders toward the war of annihilation and what latitude they reserved for themselves in carrying out orders remain, like the war on the front itself, one of the least researched topics of World War II.

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1 For the newest standard work, see Hürter, Johannes, Hitlers Heerführer (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2007). See also Hasenclever, Jörn, Wehrmacht und Besatzungspolitik in der Sowjetunion (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2010); Hartmann, Christian, Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2009); and Pohl, Dieter, Die Herrschaft der Wehrmacht (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2008).

2 Rolf-Dieter Müller, Der Zweite Weltkrieg 1939–1945, vol. 21, Gebhard, Bruno, Gebhardt. Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte in 24 Bänden (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta Verlag, 2004), 39.

3 Interview with Karl Ulrich Weikersthal, July 10, 2010. For the powerful influence of such military rituals on the youngest generation in Wilhelmine Germany, see Ullrich, Volker, Die nervöse Großmacht 1871–1918 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2004), 402.

4 This unit had a long tradition, having been formed in 1806 and participating in Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

5 Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart (hereafter HstA), M430/2 Bü 510, PA Walther Fischer von Weikersthal, Personal-Bericht zum 1. Dezember 1913.

6 Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, 80.

7 Showalter, Dennis, “Comrades, Enemies, Victims: The Prussian/German Army and the Ostvölker,” in The Germans and the East, ed. Ingrao, Charles W. and Szabo, Franz A. J. (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press), 217.

9 Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel, War Land on the Eastern Front (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 31.

10 HStA Stuttgart, M430/2 Bü 510, PA Walther Fischer von Weikersthal, Personal-Bericht zum 1. Dezember 1913.

11 See, for example, an account from another German source: “It was a horrifying sight, these villages, deserted, half burned out and haunted by hungry crows, in which only on occasion, out of a stark, barricaded house with blind, covered windows, from a disgusting door crack would lean out a sad figure, wasted down to bones, which in terrible greeting would vomit on the doorstep and then immediately crawl back into the darkness of these unhealthy, forbidden houses.” Liulevicius, War Land, 42.

12 For a comparison of occupation policies, see Pohl, Die Herrschaft der Wehrmacht, Chap. 1, “Besatzung und Gewalt im Ersten Weltkrieg,” 1.

13 Liulevicius, War Land, 42.

14 Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, 70. HStA, M430/2 Bü 510, PA Walther Fischer von Weikersthal, Beurteilung zu 10. August 1919.

15 See, for example, Messerschmidt, Manfred, Die Wehrmacht im NS-Staat. Zeit der Indoktrination (Hamburg: Deckers Verlag, 1969).

16 Interview with Karl-Ulrich von Weikersthal, July 10, 2010.

19 International Military Tribunal (hereafter IMT), The Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Tribunal at Nuremberg, 42 vols. (Nuremberg, 1947–49), vol. 38, Document 221-L, 92.

20 Freiherr von Welck, “Kriegsverbrechen des deutschen Heeres,” Soldat im Volk (January 1980): 3. The order denied the right of political military commissars attached to Red Army units to be treated as combatants and called for their immediate execution. For a detailed analysis of the order, see Römer, Felix, Der Kommisarbefehl (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2008).

21 Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv Freiburg im Breisgau (hereafter BA-MA), RH24/5 104, Anlage zum Tätigkeitsbericht, June 29, 1941. Gerhard Bopp, a member of the Aufklärungsabteilung of the 35th Division, entered into his war diary on June 24, 1941, “In the vicinity a civilian is executed! Reason: Communist functionary. That is, they are all being executed.” Bopp, Gerhard, Kriegstagebuch (Weissach im Tal and Hamburg: Timon Verlag, 2005).

22 BA-MA, RH26/35 139, entry June 17, 1941, and RH39/377, Merkblatt: Kennt Ihr den Feind?

23 BA-MA, RH39/377, Radfahr Bataillon 35, “Soldaten der 35. Division,” June 22, 1941.

24 Figures from Streit, Christian, Keine Kameraden (Bonn: Dietz, 1997), 83.

25 BA-MA, RH26/35 35, entry June 22, 1941: Bewertung des Gegners.

26 BA-MA, RH39/375, entry June 30, 1941. In four days of combat, only seven prisoners were recorded in the Aufklärungsabteilung's war diary. Ibid., Entries June 26–30, 1941.

27 Welck, “Kriegsverbrechen des deutschen Heeres,” 3.

28 BA-MA, RH26/35 35, entry June 29, 1941, Noon.

29 Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, 254 and 363.

30 BA-MA, RH26/35 35, entry June 29, 1941, 6:30 a.m.

31 BA-MA, RH26/35 41, entry June 28, 1941, 7:30 p.m.

32 BA-MA, RH26 35, June 29, 1941, 1:00 p.m.

33 See Wildermuth, David W., “Who killed Lida's Jewish Intelligentsia? A Case Study of the Wehrmacht during the Holocaust's ‘First Hour,’” scheduled to appear in Holocaust and Genocide Studies 27, no. 1 (Spring 2013).

34 BA-MA, RH26/5 7, entry June 28, 1941, also ibid., “Verstoss gegen das Völkerrecht.”

35 BA-MA, RH26/35 41, Einsatz der 14./I.R. 111 bei der Gruppe Mandelsloh vom 28. Juni–3. Juli 1941, entries June 28, 1941, and June 30, 1941. See also BA-MA, Msg2/5548, Durchbruch durch die Grenzbefestigungen, Kesselschlacht von Bialystock, entry June 27, 1941.

36 BA-MA, Msg 1/3193, Frhr. von R., Bericht: Dwarcec, April 1, 1942.

37 See USC Shoah Visual History testimony of Meyer Bronicki, segments 25–26. As a seventeen-year-old boy, Bronicki was part of the round-up of Jews documented by Freiherr von R. in his report entitled “Dwarcec,” but his testimony provides crucial details to the special attention that could be given Soviet Jewry by frontline troops not found in the report. Bronicki recalls how “[the Germans] had a machine gun in front of us, and [. . .] they were going to machine-gun us because this German soldier got killed by a [Russian] sniper.” Only after the last-minute intervention of one of the town's Gentiles were the Jews locked inside the synagogue until after the departure of the Aufklärungsabteilung from Dwarcec. Bronicki's account of the afternoon's events complements Freiherr von R.'s report, which mentioned the death of a single German soldier by a sniper during an initial foray in Dwarcec the previous day.

38 BA-MA, RH26/35 35, entry June 23, 1941.

39 See BA-MA RH26/35 39 betr.: Aufrechterhaltung der Manneszucht.

41 The war diary of the division's supply branch (Ib) noted the first difficulties with the normal flow of provisions on June 23, which remained a constant concern due to scarcity of food and inadequate transport capacity. Compare BA-MA, RH26/35 140, Entries June 23, 1941; June 27, 1941; July 13, 1941; Aug. 9, 1941; and Aug. 13, 1941.

42 See BA-MA, RH26/35 39, July 31, 1941, Div. Ia notes.

43 BA-MA, RH26/35 39, Hinweise A.H.Qu., Aug. 10, 1941.

44 See RH26/35 172, Aug. 24, 1941, betr.: Ortskommandanten.

45 According to Freiherr von Welck, Weikersthal's ordering of the divisional Feldgendarmerie to police the villages proved a quick and effective deterrent to further illegal and violent requisitions by divisional troops. Welck, “Kriegsverbrechen des deutschen Heeres.” The 180 divisional court martial records currently housed in the Tsentral'nyi arkhiv Ministerstva oborony in Podolsk, Russia, would provide great insight into the validity of such claims and the general culture of discipline in the division. Previous attempts by the author to gain access to these records were unsuccessful.

46 IMT, The Trial of the Major War Criminals, vol. 28, Document 1743-PS, 3.

48 BA-MA RH26/35 140, 2. Meldung über Ernteeinbringung und Herbstbestellung im Bereich der 35. Division von 8.9.41.

49 BA-MA RH26/35 140, 4. Meldung über Ernteeinbringung und Herbstbestellung im Bereich der 35. Division für die Zeit v. 14.9.-20.9.41.

50 BA-MA, RH26/35 88, Tätigkeitsbericht der Abteilung Ic in der Zeit vom 1.4.41 bis 1.3.42.

51 BA-MA, RH26/35 88, Tätigkeitsbericht, June 22–Nov.10, 1941; compare also RH26/35 92, Gefangenvernehmung, Sept. 19, 1941.

52 It is likely no coincidence that the collaborator was identified as the miller of the town of W., again underscoring the relationship between food supply and cooperation. See BA-MA, RH39/377, Rad.Btl.35 betr.: Partisanenabwehr.

53 Ibid. These men had registered with local authorities as per regulations, but were still to be closely watched by the divisional Ortskommandant of Sharowy.

54 National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA), T312/Roll 275, Armeeoberkommando 9AOK, Sept. 10, 1941, betr.: Partisanenbekämpfung.

55 BA-MA, RH26/35 172, Sept. 14, 1941, betr: Partisanenbekämpfung.

56 Ibid. For the original directive from the Ninth Army, see NARA, T312/Roll 275, Armeeoberkommando 9AOK, Sept. 10, 1941, betr.: Partisanenbekämpfung.

57 BA-MA, RH26/35 140, An Generalkommando V. Armeekorps, Sept. 17, 1941.

58 This memo, issued by Goering's Liason Staff of the Office for Defense Economy and Armaments and entitled “Notes on the Economy for the period August 15–September 16, 1941,” was issued on September 16, 1941. IMT, The Trial of the Major War Criminals, vol. 36, Document 003-EC, 107.

59 The first replacements, a march battalion of 308 men, arrived on August 17, 1941. BA-MA, RH26/35 35, entry Aug. 17, 1941.

60 BA-MA, RH26/35 40, Ib Beitrag zur Kommandeur-Besprechung am 11.8.41.

61 Ibid., Ib Beitrag zur Kommandeur-Besprechung am 19.8.41.

62 BA-MA, RH26/35 72, Zustandsbericht Divisionsarzt 35. Division, Nov. 13, 1941.

63 BA-MA, Pers 6/142, PA Walther Fischer von Weikersthal.

65 See Tessin, Georg, Verbände und Truppen der deutschen Wehrmacht und Waffen-SS im Zweiten Weltkrieg, vol. 5 (Osnabrück: Biblio Verlag, 1977), 185. Through December 1941 and January 1942, the 56th, 112th, 167th, and 296th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 25th and 29th Infantry Divisions (mot.) belonged at one time or another to the LIII Corps. In mid-January 1942, units of the 3rd Panzer Division were placed under his command. See NARA Ia Abschrift 13. Januar 1942 Bezug: Fernschreiben Pz.A.O.K. 2, Abt. Ia v. 12.1.42.

66 NARA, T314/Roll 10310, KTB LIII AK, entry Dec. 5, 1941: “Das Korps steht da und halt den Schild vor, doch ist der Schild an einigen Stellen brüchig.”

67 Compare NARA, T314/Roll 1310, KTB LIII AK, KTB Entry Dec. 5, 1941: “The Commanding General [Weikersthal] saw the troops as they marched yesterday. Apathetic. One should have no illusions as to the fighting capabilities of the division.”

68 NARA, T314/Roll 1310, KTB LIII AK, KTB entry Dec. 9, 1941.

69 Schramm, Percy E., ed., Kriegstagebuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht, vol. 1 (Augsburg: Bechtermünz, 2002), Fernschreiben an Heeresgruppe Mitte, Dec. 18, 1941. NARA, T314/Roll 1310, KTB LIII AK, KTB entry Dec. 23, 1941.

70 NARA, T314/Roll 1310, KTB LIII AK, KTB entry Dec. 19, 1941.

71 Compare ibid., KTB entry Dec. 9, 1941: “The Commanding General [Weikersthal] is considering whether to order the retreat behind the Don tonight. The [2nd Panzer-] Army gives us freedom of decision.”

72 Ibid., KTB entry Dec. 21, 1941.

73 Guderian's Army Order #24 to his corps commanders for the taking of winter positions called for the destruction of virtually all infrastructure behind the retreating army. See ibid., Anlage A, Band 2 zu KTB LIII AK, Armeebefehl für das Einnehmen der Winterstellung.

74 Ibid., entry Dec. 7, 1941: “When the Soviet [armed forces] arrived, the inhabitants participated in the fight. Everyone was there at once. Partisan groups [were also] present”; entry Dec. 10, 1941: “Stalinogorsk not very friendly. Mayor disappeared. Countless people who wanted to infiltrate themselves arrested”; entry Dec. 11, 1941: “A.A.120 (112.I.D.) south of Stalinogorsk has difficulties with the civilian population.”

75 Ibid., KTB LIII AK, KTB entry Dec. 9, 1941.

76 Weikersthal suggested evacuated civilians be relocated to areas where additional labor was needed for road maintenance. NARA, T314/Roll 1314, Anlage A zu KTB2 LIII AK, Generalkdo. LIIIA.K. an 112., 167., 296. I.D. und 4.Pz.Div., Jan. 6, 1942.

77 NARA, T314/Roll 1313, KTB2 LIII AK, KTB entry Jan. 1, 1942.

78 NARA, T314/Roll 1310, KTB LIII AK, KTB entry Dec. 27, 1941.

79 NARA, T314/Roll 1314, Armeebefehl Nr. 29, Jan. 4, 1942.

80 NARA, T314/Roll 1310, KTB LIII AK, KTB entry Dec. 27, 1941.

81 See NARA, T314/Roll 1313, Anlage G, Band 2, Fernschreiben an 112., 167., und 296. I.D., Dec. 30, 1941; and T314/Roll 1314, Generalkommando LIIIA.K. an die Herren Kommandeuere der 112., 167. und 296.I.d. und 4.Pz.Div., Jan. 5, 1942.

82 See NARA, T314/Roll 1313, Abschrift an Oberkommando der 2. Panzerarmee, Jan. 13, 1942: against seven Red Army divisions equipped for winter fighting, the LIII Corps could defend with its three decimated infantry divisions, two-thirds of a further division, and “weak elements” of the 3.Pz. Division.

83 See NARA, T314/Roll 1313, Abschrift an Oberkommando der 2. Panzerarmee, Jan. 13, 1942.

84 See NARA, T314/Roll 1314, Fernschreiben von Pz.A.O.K.2. an LIIIA.K., Jan. 14, 1942.

85 See NARA, T314/Roll 1313, KTG LIII Corps, entry Jan. 23, 1942. See Walter Fischer von Weikersthal, Rückzug und Abwehr im Winter 41–42 im Rahmen eines Armeekorps, aus dem Gedächtnis niedergeschrieben, May 20, 1947.

87 General Weikersthal did suffer from ill health which had required him as early as April 1919 to request a leave of absence from his unit. HStA, M430/2 Bü 510, PA Walther Fischer von Weikersthal, Personal-Bericht zum 1. Dezember 1913. While the harsh conditions in the east no doubt impacted his overall health negatively, the timing of his transfer, as well as his orders immediately previous to it, give credence to the interpretation that the question of his health was the occasion, but not the cause, of his return to Germany. Weikersthal himself seems to underscore the possibility of manipulating personal health issues, this time to his own benefit, in his later contesting of a command in Norway, a theater that was regarded as a career “killer,” and subsequent acceptance of a command in the Pas-de-Calais region of France.

88 NARA, Captured German records, T314/1315, LIII Army Corps, Brief July 6, 1941.

89 Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, 508.

90 Christian Gerlach argues for the interpretation of a concrete Hungerplan in his work Kalkulierte Morde (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1999), 46. For more moderate positions, compare Rolf-Dieter Müller's interpretation of a Hungerstrategie in Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, vol. 4 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1983), 146, as well as Hürter's characterization of a Hungerkalkül, in Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, 491.

91 BA-MA, RH26/35 140, Qu.-Besprechung am 18.9.41.

92 Karl Fischer von Weikersthal, letter to author, July 16, 2010.

93 Interview with Karl Ulrich Weikersthal, July 10, 2010.

I would like to thank the Fulbright Foundation and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for their support during the research and writing of this article. I would especially like to thank Jürgen Matthäus and Geoff Megargee of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies for their generous assistance and comments on earlier versions of this work.

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