Book Review – O. Bartov, Hitler’s Army (Cambridge, Ma., 1996)

Omer Bartov’s book on the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front during the Second World War remains a classic on the role of ideology in combat motivation.

When Omer Bartov’s book was published over 20 years ago it challenged the historiography of the Wehrmacht and its role in World War Two. He disputed arguments that the Wehrmacht was a purely professional force whose soldiers were largely indifferent to Nazi ideology and had minimal role in atrocities and war crimes committed by the Nazis on the Eastern Front.[1] He also rejected positions put forward by modern German historians that Barbarossa was a pre-emptive war that stopped subsequent Bolshevik domination of Europe.[2] Instead, he suggested that the Wehrmacht was Hitler’s army and many soldiers and officers, including senior generals, strongly supported the Nazi party world view and actively engaged in carrying out its criminal policies while fighting against the Soviet Union.

The focus of his study is on the German Army fighting on the Russian front where four out of five German units were deployed. His first proposition is that after the initial successes of Barbarossa in the summer 1941, the Wehrmacht entered a state of ‘de-modernisation’ by the winter. Huge material loses, which were not replaced due to poor economic planning, meant the Wehrmacht ceased to be a mechanized and motorised force but became dependent on horse drawn transport. It was no longer capable of fighting a mobile war of Blitzkrieg but was fighting attritional hand-to-hand positional warfare against a dogged enemy. Unprepared for the winter conditions and engaged in vicious abrasive warfare in the Nazi soldier became brutalised, depressed and stuck in a grinding fight.

Bartov argues that by late 1941 the interpersonal relationships in primary groups which had been the source upon which German soldiers were motivated to fight and endure broke down. The high intensity of warfare had led to high casualties, which disrupted social relationships and the high churn of men through units made it nearly impossible for men to personal friendships and connections to be formed. However, the German army continued to fight effectively with tenacity even given the German army’s material inferiority. Bartov believes that Nazi ideology was a primary motivating force which influenced men to fight and endure.

He argues that the army reflected Nazi society. Many young soldiers who joined up in 1939 had spent their formative years in Nazi youth organisations and were inflused by Nazi ideals. Senior military leaders also supported the Nazi party and actively carried out Nazi policies in the East.

Unit cohesion was also cemented by the deterrence effect of the harsh disciplinary code adopted by the Wehrmacht which saw 15,000 soldiers executed.[3] He argues that atrocities were further encouraged by explicit Nazi policy and also reluctance to prosecute soldiers for crimes against POWs or civilians.  In the end, he believes men were motivated by ideology. Men accepted the Nazi world view as a titanic struggle of civilisations, especially as the war began to turn against the regime from 1943.

His book has two objectives; (1) to examine the extent the Wehrmacht was a ‘political’ army actively engaged in Nazi war crimes on the Eastern Front as opposed to a professional army carrying out orders, and (2) explain why the Wehrmacht fought so well.

On the first objective Bartov is highly convincing. He demonstrates that many formations actively adopted and implemented Nazi policies while fighting in Russia. He focuses on three formations – the 12th Infantry, 18th Infantry and Gross Deutschland divisions – and shows how these units drafted Nazi orders into operational policies and enthusiastically passed them down the command chain for implementation by subordinate units when these order were clearly breaches of the Geneva convention. He also shows how very senior leaders – for example, Heinz Guderian and Eric von Manstein – were willing Nazis and active servants of the state, despite what they may assert after the war.[4]

On the second objective he is less successful. He argues that part of the reason that the Wehrmacht soldier fought so well was that he was an ideological warrior but also spurred on by the coercive fear of harsh disciplinary punishment if he failed in his duty. Bartov makes a strong case for many Nazified soldiers on the front but many not all the estimated five million German soldiers on the Eastern Front were rabid Hitler fans. Professor Richard Overy has suggested the brutalisation of soldiers came from environment pressures as well as ideological motivation. He contends that new soldiers inducted into a unit would be subject to cynical and brutalised survivors in a context where they were subject to partisan violence, in an alien country fighting a losing battle against a determined enemy who had committed atrocities against soldiers like them (e.g. the 1940 Katyn massacre(s) – see poster left).[5] He believed that looking at other armies facing similar harsh conditions would be instructive.[6]

Another area for research would be a reconsidering of the role of primary groups. New research from Robert Engen (and myself) has suggested that groups can form cohesive relationships around their task, function or role and this can sustain men in action rather than primary group relationships solely being based on the socio-emotional relationships as suggested by Shils and Janowitz.

All in all, this is a must read book. Though some of its conclusions on combat motivation and the role of primary group relations could be challenged by new research, it still remains important. It highlights the important role of ideas and belief in sustaining troops in action. As Bartov points out, many historians from Western democracies find the idea of ideological commitment and affiliation as a form of combat motivation very hard to accept.[7]


[1] O. Bartov, Hitler’s Army (Cambridge, Ma., 1996), p.147-148.

[2] Ibid., pp.137-138.

[3] Ibid., p.6.

[4] Ibid., pp.86, 130.

[5] M. Balfour, Propaganda in War 1939–1945: Organisation, Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), pp.332–333.

[6] R.J. Overy, Book Review, The Journal of Modern History 66:4 (12/1994), pp. 878-879.

[7] Bartov, Hitler’s, p.136.