War crimes have become a topic of extensive contention over the past few years as the atrocities committed in historical wars continue emerging. Immediately after the end of the Second World War, Germany endeavored to purge itself of any trace of Nazism, seeking guidance from the West to establish a solid basis on which it would establish the new German state. After the war ended, Germany became demilitarized and was partitioned into four occupation districts which were controlled by the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and the United States. The German military, one of the major canons of German identity since the establishment of the present day German state, experiences major changes to free itself of the past Nazi trends and undergo remilitarization. The Wehrmacht, the term granted to the German army during the regime of the Nazi, was dispersed following the war, with the German army retaining its legacy. The Wehrmacht, existing as a Nazi establishment, was linked to the war crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime.
In an effort to alienate themselves from the war crimes, the developers of the new German, the Bundeswehr, reconstructed the Wehrmacht not as offenders, but as honorable soldiers executing their duty, a perspective that was required incase Germany was to effectively rearm itself. On the basis of the delinking from the Wehrmacht with the war crimes characteristic of the Nazi regime emerged the legend that was branded Wehrmacht’s “clean hands”, absconding the Wehrmacht of all war crimes linked to the Nazi regime (Citino). The legend that was referred to as the Wehrmacht’s “clean hands” was effective from the perspective that it managed to remilitarize the West German state and reestablished the honor that was linked to the German military, but the event that transpired during the second World War were dishonorable effectively making the Wehrmacht’s hands dirty.
As the acknowledgement of the reparation right continuously rises, so do the legal ramifications associated with its practical application. Evidently, the scope of international human rights law, fresh instances present unique opportunities to consistently define the bounds of this right, as is evident in an ever rising jurisprudence in relation to remedies law. Some of the issues, owing to their capacity to yield new forms of injury and even fresh violations of rights, seek for additional deliberation and interpretation (Citino). This is evident in the instance of the equity doctrine of “clean hands” which asserts that an aggrieved entity’s offence may inhibit their claim to reparations. Nevertheless, this doctrine, which mirrored in cases in which human rights violation victims seek relief, contradicts strongly with the solidly entrenched legal canon of non-discrimination. Analysis of the German Army involvement on the eastern front reveals considerable deception by the creators of the theory (Citino). The entire goals of the legend of “clean hands” was to deceive and depict the military as independent of Nazism and as an organization that was strictly adhering to order and generally unaffected by Nazism racial ideology to expedite rearmament since the military was not involved in war crimes. Following the war, various trials were conducted to convict the members of the Nazi regime as well as the Wehrmacht of any war crimes (Citino). Over the course of these trials, most of the involved generals were reliant upon catastrophe order, emanating from Hitler as a rationalization for their actions.
The generals as well as military witnesses who were summoned during the trial asserted that the catastrophe orders were legitimate, however, “and the dependence on these directives by general as a section of their defense, cast considerable doubts on the assertions made by generals that the Wehrmacht had opposed the ideology of National Socialism.” The assertions of the legitimacy of the catastrophe orders weakened the conception that the Wehrmacht was blameless for Nazi crimes (McCracken). Incase these directives were illegitimate and still bore the apprehensions on ramifications from the commanders, then the conception that the Wehrmacht was executing their duty would be relevant. Executing any directive from a commander, even in case one does not approve of it, is performing one’s duty. Most of the catastrophe directive were explicitly or secondarily linked to the mass murders conducted by the Nazi regime. With the general underscoring the authenticity of such directives, it cast doubt on the political standing of the Wehrmacht in its entirety (McCracken). The legend depicted the Wehrmacht as a politically neutral establishment but various surveys conducted indicated that more than 50% of all the released prisoners of war frequently favored the notions held by Hitler. With an excess of 50% of all prisoners of war indicating preference for Hitler’s doctrines, then they backed not only Hitler as a human, but also his ideology as well as undertaking including the genocides and other mass killings of undesirable populations such as the Jews.
The Western Front, with most of the fighting ensuing in Netherlands, Belgium, and France, was not immune from the mass, indiscriminate killing executed by the Nazi regime. The Eastern Fronts is infamous for mass murders and the largest proportion of Nazi war crimes ensued in this arena, but the Western From was also linked to various incidence of mass exterminations (McCracken). In contrast to the Eastern Front, the leadership in the German army acknowledged the Geneva Convention in its conflict engagement against the western allied forces. In addition to this, the German Army Command had even disseminated numerous publications of this treaty to all its factions. In spite of all the camps of the Wehrmacht possess the directives based on the Geneva Convention, the units still executed black soldiers linked to the French Army (McCracken). When taken captive by the Germans, the black soldiers were normally separated from the whites and subsequently experiences harsh treatment. In some instances, black captives were shot in some cases up to one hundred souls at once. This was evidently an infringement of the Geneva Convention as well as a manifestation of the Nazi racial ideology as well as the inferiority of the other races (McCracken). In this regards, the Wehrmacht became extensively entwined in Nazi racial philosophy and in line with this, the Holocaust. The Jewish population in the Netherlands was not spared in the evil confinements to the concentration camps. In addition to this, the Dutch and public Nazis were in active participation of the deportation of the Jews moving from Netherlands and the Wehrmacht offered clandestine assistance through the apprehension of the remaining Jews who were successful at evading the initial moves to apprehend them (McCracken). Additionally, the Wehrmacht made efforts to separate itself from the Nazi philosophy and remain politically neutral, but impetuses from the regime as well as the local civilian population of the Nazi movement, associated the armed forces to the persecution perpetrated against the Dutch Jews. The Wehrmacht, in this regards, cannot be considered to have been innocent of the atrocities on the Western Front and performed their actions based in the Nazi racial philosophy.
The Wehrmacht soldiers engaged in war in the Eastern Front, with most of the combat occurring in Russia and Poland, were more involved in war crimes in comparison to their comrades on the Western Front, executing several and regular mass murders. Essentially, the combat on the Eastern Front developed into a war of methodical extermination for Germany. Additionally, Russian and Jewish political adherents became the primary targets of the German military element and were exterminated of compelled to serve in labor camps (Willems). While this may be accurate that Schutzstaffel, or more prominently termed as the SS, and specialized mobile assassin units recognized as Einsatzgruppen executed most of the killing on the Eastern Front, they were not solely involved in the mass murder of millions. The extermination of Jews and partisan in Russian totaled to millions of individuals being executed in extermination camp established in the seized territories (Willems). As the conflict on the Eastern Front resembled that in World War One, troops positioned on the frontline experienced demoralization. To maintain order as well as discipline within the camps, the higher command class of the Wehrmacht gave the armed forces on the frontline the authorization to vent their frustrations and anger on the opponent’s civilians and troops. This decree from the Eastern Front forced the troops to become more ruthless and more open to ideological indoctrination and more predisposed to execute the policies it promoted. Subsequently, the anti-partisan conflict advanced into executing the mass murder of the Jewish populace located in the Eastern front in line with Nazi racial ideology (Willems). In essence, the armed forces in the Wehrmacht became completely indoctrinated with the Nazi racial philosophy and enforced the policies it promoted. From the directives offered, soldiers were licensed to undertake executions without explicit orders and were granted explicit order to engage in genocidal moves of the Nazi regime essentially transforming the Wehrmacht into a key participant in the genocide acts.
In spite of the effectiveness of rearmament, the notion of Wehrmacht’s clean hands was evidently baseless. Evidence from the Second World War as well as the ensuing trial of Wehrmacht commandants weakened the philosophy of the Wehrmacht being free of any war crimes. The generals backed the legitimacy of the catastrophe directives questioning the political loyalties of the entire organization. On both the Eastern and Western fronts, the Wehrmacht was associated with the genocidal actions aligned with Nazi racial philosophy. The troops executed black prisoners of war that had been apprehended from the French Army, in spite of having access to the detailed policies of the Geneva Convention treaty, and underscored the deportation of the Netherlands Jews. In the East, the troops were granted free sovereignty to vent their frustration and anger in the populaces and engage in mass extermination of the Jews in the seized territory. In this regards, the Wehrmacht’s hands were not clean as evidenced by the actions executed during the Second World War which were in direct violation of the Geneva Convention.
Citino, Robert M. The Wehrmacht’s Last Stand: The German Campaigns of 1944-1945. University Press of Kansas, 2017.
McCracken, Kenneth R. “The Legend of the Wehrmacht’s “Clean Hands”: The Attempt to Remove Nazism from the German Military.” (2017).
Willems, Bastiaan. “Aftershocks of Total War: the Post-War Consequences of the Wehrmacht’s Retreat Through East Prussia.” VIERTELJAHRSHEFTE FUR ZEITGESCHICHTE66.3 (2018): 403-+.