Skip to main content Accessibility help



This article surveys recent research on the German Wehrmacht's anti-partisan campaign in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. German anti-partisan warfare in the Soviet Union was conducted not just against partisans, but also as cover for annihilating the Reich's ‘ideological enemies’ and plundering ‘bandit areas’ for resources. The Wehrmacht's role was significant, constituting an important element of its wider participation in Nazi crimes. The review sketches the historical background and surveys the historiography's development to the late 1990s. It then examines at length the significant works that have emerged since, dividing them according to the operational levels on which they focus: higher command, individual regions, and, finally, middle-level units.

Corresponding author
School of Law and Social Sciences, Glasgow Caledonian University 70, Cowcaddens Road, Glasgow, G4
Hide All

1 For a literature overview up to the late 1990s and an introduction to the debate up to the late 1980s, see respectively: Rolf-Dieter Müller and Gerd R. Ueberschär, eds., Hitler's war in the East, 1941–1945 (Oxford, 1997); Theo J. Schulte, The German army and Nazi policies in occupied Russia (Oxford, 1989), pp. 1–27. The debate during the 1990s is outlined in Ben Shepherd, ‘German army security units in Russia, 1941–1943: a case study’ (Ph.D. thesis, Birmingham, 2000), ch. 1. Landmark works not cited elsewhere in these footnotes include Manfred Messerschmidt, Die Wehrmacht im NS-Staat (Hamburg, 1969); Christian Streit, Keine Kameraden (Bonn, 1978); Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941–1945 (Basingstoke, 1985); Horst Boog et al., Der Angriff gegen die Sowjetunion (Frankfurt am Main, 1991); Omer Bartov, Hitler's army (New York, NY, 1992).

2 See for instance Latzel, Klaus, ‘Vom Kriegserlebnis zur Kriegserfahrung: Theoretische und methodische Überlegungen zur erfahrungsgeschichtlichen Untersuchung von Feldpostbriefen’, Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen, 56 (1997), pp. 130[0].

3 Christopher Browning, Ordinary men (New York, NY, 1992). For recent related work, see Westermann, Edward B., ‘“Ordinary men” or “ideological soldiers”? Police battalion 310 in Russia, 1942’, German Studies Review, 21 (1998), pp. 4168.

4 See for instance Bartov, Hitler's army; Stephen G. Fritz, Frontsoldaten (Lexington, KY, 1995); Klaus Latzel, Deutsche Soldaten – Nationalsozialistischer Krieg? (Paderborn, 1998); Christoph Rass, Menschenmaterial (Paderborn, 2003).

5 On middle-level sources, see Schulte, German army, ch. 1; Shepherd, ‘German army security units’, pp. 27–32, and the introductory sections of the works surveyed in parts iiiv of this article.

6 Rolf-Dieter Müller, ‘Die Wehrmacht – Historische Last und Verantwortung: Die Historiographie im Spannungsfeld von Wissenschaft und Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, in idem and Hans-Erich Volkmann, eds., Die Wehrmacht (Munich, 1999), pp. 3–35.

7 Martin Broszat, ‘Plädoyer für eine Historisierung des Nationalsozialismus’, in Hermann Graml and Klaus-Dietmar Henke, eds., Nach Hitler (Munich, 1986), pp. 159–73.

8 On the controversies surrounding the exhibition, see Heribert Prantl, ed., Wehrmachtsverbrechen (Hamburg, 1997); Hans-Günther Thiele, Die Wehrmachtausstellung (Bremen, 1997).

9 See particularly contributions by Hannes Heer, Klaus Naumann, and Jan-Phillip Reemtsma in Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann, eds., Vernichtungskrieg (Hamburg, 1996). Several articles in this collection were later translated into English. See Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann, eds., War of extermination (Oxford, 2000).

10 On statistics for death tolls during the partisan war and interpretative issues concerning them, see in the first instance Mulligan, Timothy P., ‘Reckoning the cost of people's war: the German experience in the central USSR’, Russian History, 9 (1982), pp. 2748; Klaus Jochen Arnold, Die Wehrmacht und die Besatzungspolitik in den besetzten Gebieten der Sowjetunion (Berlin, 2005), pp. 462–80. On destruction of villages see Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde (Hamburg, 1999), p. 870.

11 Aubrey C. Dixon and Otto Heilbrunn, Communist guerrilla warfare (London, 1954), p. 85; Johannes Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer (Munich, 2006), pp. 404–6.

12 Due to space limitations, more extensive citation of relevant secondary literature is beyond this article's scope. See Ben Shepherd, War in the Wild East (Cambridge, MA, 2004), chs. 1, 2, and 5, endnotes.

13 See n. 1.

14 Hannes Heer, ‘The logic of the war of extermination’, in Heer and Naumann, eds., War of extermination, pp. 92–126.

15 Arnold, Die Wehrmacht, parts C and F; Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, part i; part ii, sections 3 and 4.

16 Arnold, Die Wehrmacht, pp. 443–4, 482, 526.

17 Hürter's emphasis on the receptivity of older, aristocratic officers to Nazism contrasts significantly with an earlier study by Bernhard R. Kroener, which places greater emphasis on the particular receptivity of younger officers from middle-class backgrounds. Bernhard R. Kroener, ‘Strukturelle Veränderungen in der Militärischen Gesellschaft des Dritten Reiches’, in Michael Prinz and Rainer Zitelmann, eds., Nationalsozialismus und Modernisierung (Darmstadt, 1994), pp. 267–96.

18 Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, part i.

19 Ibid., pp. 606–17.

20 Ibid., part ii, sections 3 and 4.

21 On the longer-term development of the German army's especially ruthless institutional attitude to guerrilla warfare, see in particular John Horne and Alan Kramer, German atrocities, 1914 (New Haven, CT, 2001). See also contributions by Stig Förster, Manfred Messerschmidt, and Thomas Rohkrämer in Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, eds., On the road to total war (Cambridge, 1997); contributions by Trutz von Trotha and Sabine Dabringhaus in Manfred F. Boemeke, Roger Chickering, and Stig Förster, eds., Anticipating total war (Cambridge, 1999).

22 Edward B. Westermann, Hitler's police battalions (Lawrence, KS, 2005); Philip W. Blood, Hitler's bandit hunters (Washington, DC, 2006).

23 Westermann, Hitler's police battalions, pp. 185–91; Blood, Hitler's bandit hunters, pp. 81–6.

24 Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, p. 464.

25 Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, pp. 975–1036.

26 Ibid., p. 877.

27 Ibid., pp. 884–1036.

28 Norbert Kunz, Die Krim unter deutscher Herrschaft (Darmstadt, 2004), pp. 121–8; Manfred Oldenburg, Ideologie und Militärisches Kalkül (Cologne, 2004), section 3.5.

29 Oldenburg, Ideologie, pp. 315, 324.

30 Kunz, Die Krim, p. 121.

31 Oldenburg, Ideologie, pp. 143–7.

32 Ibid., sections 4.4, 5.5.

33 Alexander Hill, The war behind the Eastern Front (London, 2005).

34 Ibid., p. 77.

35 Ibid., pp. 33, 167.

36 See Jörg Friedrich, Das Gesetz des Krieges (Munich, 1993), pp. 743–828.

37 Hartmann, Christian, ‘Verbrecherischer Krieg – verbrecherische Wehrmacht? Überlegungen zur Struktur des deutschen Ostheeres, 1941–1944’, Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 52 (2004), pp. 175.

38 Ibid., pp. 24–30.

39 Ibid., pp. 50–2.

40 Oldenburg, Ideologie, pp. 141–7.

41 Anderson, Truman O., ‘Incident at Baranivka: German reprisals and the Soviet partisan movement in Ukraine, October–December 1941’, Journal of Modern History, 71 (1999), pp. 585623; idem, ‘Germans, Ukrainians and Jews: ethnic politics in Heeresgebiet Süd, June–December 1941’, War in History, 7 (2000), pp. 325–51.

42 Anderson, ‘Germans’.

43 Shepherd, War in the Wild East.

44 Ibid., ch. 6.

45 Ibid., ch. 8.

46 Ibid., pp. 155–61.

47 Lieb, Peter, ‘Täter aus Überzeugung? Oberst Carl von Andrian und die Judenmorde der 707. Infanteriedivision 1941/42’, Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 50 (2002), pp. 523–57.

48 Jürgen Förster, ‘Die Sicherung des Lebensraumes’, in Boog et al., Der Angriff auf die Sowjetunion, pp. 1227–87, here at pp. 1253–4; Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, pp. 609–28.

49 Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, pp. 885–93.

50 Lieb, ‘Täter’, pp. 549–52.

51 Ibid., pp. 535–57.

52 Ibid., pp. 527–30.

53 Oldenburg, Ideologie, pp. 12–13; Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer, pp. 600–6.

54 Bernhard Chiari, Alltag hinter der Front (Düsseldorf, 1998).

55 Though not directly related to this article's specific topic, numerous articles on other aspects of Wehrmacht conduct in the East, or on Wehrmacht security policy elsewhere in occupied Europe, have employed the kinds of sources, many of them non-official in nature, which further illuminate personal motives. See for instance Michael Geyer, ‘Civitella della Chiana on 29 June 1944: the reconstruction of a German “measure”’, in Heer and Naumann, eds., War of extermination, pp. 175–216; Mark Mazower, ‘Military violence and the National Socialist consensus: the Wehrmacht in Greece, 1941–1944’, in Heer and Naumann, eds., War of extermination, pp. 146–74; Hartmann, Christian, ‘Massensterben oder Massenvernichtung? Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene im “Unternehmen Barbarossa”’, in Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 49 (2001), pp. 97158; Olaf Berggötz, Sven, ‘Ernst Jünger und die Geiseln: Die Denkschrift von Ernst Jünger über die Geiselerschießungen in Frankreich 1941/42’, in Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 51 (2003), pp. 405–17.

56 The author's current research (to be published by Harvard in 2010–11), encompassing Wehrmacht anti-partisan units in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, employs this combined approach. A research report, detailing methods and sources, will also be prepared.

57 See Ben Shepherd and Juliette Pattinson, ‘Partisan and anti-partisan warfare in German-occupied Europe: views from above and lessons for the present’, Journal of Strategic Studies, special volume: Partisan and anti-partisan warfare in German-occupied Europe, 1939–1945, 31 (2008), pp. 675–93.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed