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[Excerpt from translation of "Verbrechen an der Wehrmacht" by Franz W. Seidler, vol. 1]

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The Werhmacht War Crimes Bureau within the High Command of the Werhmacht

The German Armed Forces [Wehrmacht] began the Second World War in the belief that there would be no large-scale violations of international law. But the excesses of the Poles against the ethnic German minorities and wounded German soldiers (111) in the first days of the war soon caused the Wehrmacht leadership to form an official investigative agency. It was suggested by the Operations Division in the Wehrmacht operations staff and approved by Hitler as Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht. The corresponding order of 4 September 1939, signed by General Keitel as Chief of the OKW, read: “At the High command of the Wehrmacht (Wehrmachtrechtabteilung or Armed Forces Legal Division) a ‘Wehrmacht Untersuchungsstelle fur Verletzungen des Volkerrechts’ [“Armed Forces Agency for the Investigation of Violations of International Law”] has been formed with the task of establishing violations of international law by enemy military personnel and civilians against members of the German Wehrmacht and, at the same time, of clarifying accusations raised by foreign countries against the German Wehrmacht in this regard. The courts of the Wehrmacht are requested to correspond to the requests of the above mentioned agencies for proof investigations, especially in the interrogation of witnesses and experts as well as their defense.” On 10 October 1939, the civilian lower courts were ordered to cooperate by the Reich Ministry of Justice.

The work of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau had to be credible above all else. Accusations without proof harmed the cause. Therefore, every case was carefully documented. This work was performed by several judges who, in civilian life, had been concerned with questions of criminal law or were already experienced in similar, corresponding investigations from the First World War. They concerned themselves with the securing of evidence and documentation of the cases by means of eyewitness testimonies, the findings of court martial investigations, medical findings, photos of the pathologists and other documentation. Assistance was provided by the divisional judges of the wartime army. Particularly effective preliminary findings were forwarded through the Wehrmacht operations staff in the OKW to the German Foreign Office relating to the wording of protest notes against the violations of international law. In the German Foreign Office, the legal division of Under Secretary, Dr. Gaus, held talks with the protecting powers of the German Reich. The tasks of the protecting power with regards to the USSR had been taken over by Bulgaria.

On 2 August 1940, the responsibility of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau was expanded to include the investigation of “severe acts of brutality, especially killing, mistreatment and robbery, as well as arson and other war crimes” committed by British or French troops against the French and Belgian civilian population. It was to draw up probative documentation for the peace negotiations and claims for compensation from the population of the occupied territories to the Allies. On 7 May 1942 the German Foreign Counter-Intelligence Office in the OKW ordered the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau to collect documentation relating to violations against soldiers of the Allied states as well.

As the Allied press began to publish alleged atrocities of the Wehrmacht -- just as it had during the First World War -- the work of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau was expanded to include another task. The cases brought forth by the other side were to be investigated to determine the extent to which the accusations were correct. The material collected was intended to refute false accusations whenever possible. During the peace negotiations, at the very latest, German contact persons were to deal with the Allied accusations on the basis of documentation, while evaluating the violations against international law and crimes against humanity committed by Germany’s enemies “on land, sea and in the air” through the use of documentation (112)

All agencies of the Wehrmacht were obliged to cooperate with the Werhmacht War Crimes Bureau. The Foreign Intelligence Agency [Amt Ausland/Abwehr] forwarded the relevant findings from the intelligence services. The Army Groups forwarded the findings of the investigations which were made in their area of command by provost marshals and medical agencies in their own management to the Wehrmacht operations staff, The Wehrmacht Untersuchungstelle even gained access to information through the channels of the 3rd General Staff Officer [Ic Weg]. The Head of the Judge Advocate Generals’s Group in the OKH, Artillery General Eugen Müller, ordered the 3rd General Staff Officer [Ic] of the Divisions to report any mistreatment of wounded and prisoner through the most rapid channels.

After the beginning of the Russian campaign, the “Special Command of the OKW for the Investigation of Bolshevist Atrocities and Actions in Violation of International Law” was formed under the leadership of Prof. Dr. Gerhard Buhtz, medical expert at the University of Breslau. The first report on violations of international law in the field of the Army Group North was delivered on 4 December 1941. With regard to the Army Groups Center and South, the Medical Inspector in the OKH took over the tasks for forensic medical expert reports on victims of war crimes. On 27 August 1941, he assigned several specialists in forensic medicine “to clarify violations of international law and treatments of the Bolsheviks” (113).

The German Foreign Office maintained liaison officers to the Army High commands on the Eastern Front, who were concerned with copies of sworn interrogations of eyewitnesses and of captured papers for the Central Agency. The German Foreign Office also bore the costs of the “Russian-German Committee for the Establishment of Soviet Russian Atrocities against German and Russian Soldiers” which was compiled in April 1942 by the Ambassador, Otto von Hentig, at the High Command of the 11 th Army, to investigate Soviet human rights violations against Soviet [eigenen] soldiers. The most important sources were members of the Wehrmacht who had escaped from the Soviets. In the sworn interrogations they reported on atrocities to which they had been witnesses.

In order to ensure that the documentation obtained would stand up under international law and according to the standards of forensic medicine, great value was placed on the formal establishment of facts. All interrogations of eyewitnesses were entered into a written record. The record was signed, not only by the interrogated persons, but by the interrogating judges and secretary. The witnesses were sworn. The oath was only neglected when the report consisted of hearsay. To ensure accuracy of content, several witnesses were interrogated on the same case whenever possible. For example, in the case of the massacre of 150 to 200 German prisoners of war in Broniki (Ukraine), a total of 12 witnesses were interrogated by a total of 4 judges. Whenever possible, the interrogating judge confirmed the facts of the case through on the spot inspection.

During on-site fact-finding, the medical findings were the most important. All mutilations had to be confirmed by experts, not by ranks of the medical service. The Captain (Medical Corps)s assigned had to establish whether battle wounds or torture were the cause of death, or whether the mutilations were inflicted by weapons of war or by other means, for example, blunt instruments, such as boots, stones or rifle butts, and whether these means were inflicted before or after death. Hand-to-hand combat wounds were often hard to distinguish from mutilations inflicted after death, for example bayonet wounds or bullet wounds at close range on corpses. A distinction had to be made in all cases between close combat wounds, the killing of the wounded, or acts of revenge inflicted on corpses. In cases of suspected deliberate blinding, the possibility had to be taken into account that these injuries could also have been inflicted by birds or by rats. The assumption that the mutilation had been brought about before death, was reinforced by heavy bleeding around the eye sockets. Smoothly cut edges generally indicated cutting, because gunshot wounds tend to cause lacerations of the wound. For this reason, when the parts of the face around the eyes were healthy, this was always considered an indication of deliberate blinding. In difficult cases, only a trained pathologist could avoid errors and false conclusions. If no pathologists were available to investigate the deaths on the site, the photos of the mutilated persons were examined for accuracy by advisory forensic physicians at the Army Health Inspector.

On 12 June1942, the Army Health Inspection issued the “Instructions for the Description of Findings”. These instructions contained instructions for the health officers, who were to investigate murder cases. In particular, the multiple forms of destruction of the skull were described. False conclusions were to be avoided, which might possibly be discovered by experts on the other side. The army doctors were urged only to draw conclusions as to the fatal instrument after careful description of the findings.

The investigation results of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau covered 226 volumes of documents by the end of the war. These volumes covered approximately 8,000 documented cases. After the war, the documentation was transferred to the USA and were returned to Germany, with much of it missing, in 1968 (114).

German counter propaganda

The German reactions to Allied atrocity propaganda both the German Foreign Office and the Reich Ministry for Enlightenment and Propaganda were based on the investigation results of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau. The German notes to the protecting powers of the Reich as against the Allied were always supported by scientifically proven individual case histories.

For worldwide publication, the German Foreign Office, in 1941 and 1942, published a “White Book on Soviet War Crimes on the Eastern Front” in every case. For 1943, a third volume was in preparation. The intent was to enlighten the Western Allies as to the crimes of their Ally while warning the neutral powers of the dangers of Bolshevism. The books bore the title “Bolshevist Crimes against the Laws of War and Humanity”. All volumes contained horrifying examples of murders of prisoners and wounded soldiers, the veracity of which could not be doubted because of the exact time, place, and detailed eyewitness testimonies. The facts of the case were supplemented by emotional appeals and polemical remarks. In the introduction to the first volume, which was primarily concerned with Soviet atrocities against the civilian population, using examples taken from the massacres at Lemberg, the following sentence appears: “Many thousands of members of the Ukrainian people were thrown into prison, subjected to all conceivable forms of mistreatment and torture and finally slaughtered under fearful circumstances. The Bolshevik murderers spared neither women, nor children, nor priests. In addition to the mountains of corpses found in the cellars of the prisons after the liberation of Lemberg, more than 30 corpses of children were found, some of them hanging from the ceiling by hooks in their mouths, some of them crucified to the walls” (115).

The second volume gave priority to the fate of German soldiers in Soviet captivity: “With their hands tied together, their eyes were put out, their tongue, nose, ears and genitals were cut off, the corpse was torn to pieces with bayonet wounds. The screams of pain from the tortured persons and the distorted expressions on the faces of the cruelly mutilated bodies indicate the excruciating tortures by means of which the dehumanized beasts expressed their sense of bloodthirsty exhilaration upon the unhappy victims” (116).

Among the troops, there was no doubt as to the truthfulness of the German atrocity reports.

Anyone who mistrusted National Socialist propaganda found confirmation in the tales of comrades from the Eastern Front. Resistance was offered in obviously hopeless military situations simply because every soldier wished to avoid being taken prisoner. In the event of capture, he had to assume that he would be robbed, tortured, shot or sent to Siberia for forced labor. The German propaganda slogan “Victory or Siberia” seemed quite believable. During the last months of the war, in the face of defeat, German propaganda even adopted the popular joke “Enjoy the war, the peace will be terrible” to encourage the last vestige of any will to resist. Almost no one doubted the enemy’s tendency towards destruction, even though the longing for peace was growing greater by the day.

The Wehrmacht Propaganda Division worked hand in hand with the Reich Ministry for Enlightenment and Propaganda, but were organizationally independent. The OKW was alone responsible for “maintaining the spiritual combat readiness and will to victory in the Armed Forces” and for “active propaganda in the combat zone” i.e. influencing of the hostile population and enemy armed forces. Propaganda companies assumed the task of breaking the hostile will to resist. The propaganda material contained from the Goebbels Ministry, from the Wehrmacht Propaganda Division in the OKW, from the Intelligence Officers of the Armies and from the Reich Ministry for the occupied Eastern territories” (117). At the end of the war, the “SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers” competed against the propaganda troops of the Wehrmacht with great success.

One of the most serious mistakes of German propaganda on the Eastern Front was the legend of the “Soviet Sub-Humans”. After the war winter of 1941-42, it was no longer credible, at least within the Wehrmacht. Its negative effects were reflected long afterwards through improper treatment of the Russian population by the German civilian administration in the occupied territories (118).

The greatest “triumphs” of German propaganda were the result of Allied policy. The bombardment of German cities, the demand for unconditional surrender, and the Morgenthau Plan, disclosed the Allies’ postwar plans for the German people. The alliance of the Western powers with the Soviet Union, whose crimes the Reich Government allowed no one to doubt, rendered both partners criminal. The events that occurred during the Red Army advance on German soil made propagandistic manipulation superfluous. The atrocities were obvious.

In view of the personal experiences of men on the front, or during in the nights of Allied terror bombing, Allied propaganda had no effect on the morale of the Germans. To the very end, the German people were unified by the fear of revenge and retribution. No German units ever deserted to the enemy en masse, as was often the case with Soviet units on the Eastern front, even after the fall of Stalingrad (119).

In distinction to Soviet propaganda, Wehrmacht propaganda never contained any attempted justification for German violations of international law, or any proclamations expressing a disrespect for international law. There were no calls for murder and butchery in the style of Ehrenburg. The propaganda of the Wehrmacht was in the service of the German people: to “maintain a willingness to sacrifice and a determined willingness to defend one’s own people”, to “enlighten people as to measures having an influence on one’s own people”, to “overcome the restlessness and excitement of people caused by enemy actions on the home territory” and to “camouflage, conceal, and deceive foreign countries as to German military intentions” (120).

The refutation of the Soviet atrocity propaganda was one of the most important themes of German propaganda during the whole Russian campaign. The Germans could hardly expect to attract any Soviet deserters if the belief prevailed in the Russian Army that all Russian POWs would be shot on the spot. A Russians belief that the Germans took no prisoners could only result in a Soviet stiffening of resistance. The mass mortality in the POW camps in the fall of 1941 were exploited to the fullest by Soviet propaganda and could not be refuted. But the exaggerations in Soviet descriptions of German cruelties did the Germans more good than it did the Russians. The Note from People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, W.M. Molotov, on 25 November 1941, contained the following passages: “Members of the Soviet Red Army were tortured with red-hot irons, they eyes were put out, legs, arms, ears and nose were cut off, their stomachs slit open, they were tied to tanks and torn to pieces…” Gross exaggerations of this nature became simply stereotypical verbal formulae in the Soviet propaganda during the following period (121).

In diplomatic circles, of course, such accusations were not believable; but among ordinary soldiers of the Red Army, they incited a fear of surrender. Soviet defectors appeared to run a double risk upon capture: the fear of being mistreated by the Germans, plus the fear of being branded a traitor and coward by the Soviet Union, jeopardizing the existence of the defector’s family.

German counter propaganda had to overcome several levels of resistance among members of the Red Army willing to desert and be taken prisoner: for one thing, it was necessary to dispel the fear of being killed upon surrender. The task of dispelling this fear was undertaken by POWs speaking to their former comrades over loudspeakers and explaining in leaflets that they were being treated humanely. Loudspeaker announcements by so-called “Hilfswilligen” [volunteer auxiliaries] among the German armed forces or by members of the Eastern Legion, who fought on the German side in Wehrmacht uniforms, proved particularly effective. The fear of revenge by the Stalinist system against turncoats and prisoners of war was dispelled by references, in German Wehrmacht propaganda -- in accordance with the claims of the Goebbels Propaganda Ministry -- to the near collapse of the Stalinist state, brought about, if not directly by German victory, then at least by inner opposition inside the country. Astonishingly, the belief in the German victory appeared credible even when the war was going badly: 2,300 deserters and 24,000 prisoners were brought in even after the collapse of the Army Group Center on the Eastern Front in October 1944 (122).

Due to the lack of documentation until the end of the war, Allied propaganda was unable to make accusations of German violations of international law to the extent possible for the Germans. Despite a full knowledge of the brutalities of their Soviet Russian partner, the Western Allies continued their alliance with the Soviets until after the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht.


111) Dokumente polnischer Grausamkeit, published by the Deutsche Informationsstelle im Auftrag des Auswärtigen Amtes, Berlin 1940.
112) Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv RW2/v. 34, p. 2
113) Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv H20/293, p. 147.
114) Alfred M. de Zayas (see note 69).
115) Bolschevistische Verbrechen gegen Kriegsrecht und Menschlichkeit. Dokumente, zusammengestellt vom Auswärtigen Amt, Berlin, 1941, p. 3.
116) Bolschevistische Verbrechen gegen Kriegsrecht und Menschlichkeit (see note 115), p. IV.
117) Ortwin Buchbender: Das tönende Erz. Deutsche Propaganda gegen die Rote Armee im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Stuttgart, 1978, p. 18 ff.
118) Alexander Dallin: Deutsche Herrschaft in Rußland 1941-1945, Düsseldorf, 1958; Alexander Werth: Rußland im Krieg 1941-1945, Munich and other cities, 1965.
119) Rudolf Sulzmann: Die Propaganda als Waffe im Krieg, in: Bilanz des Zweiten Weltkrieges. Erkenntnisse und Verpflichtungen für die Zukunft, Oldenberg, 1953, p. 381 ff.
120) Ortwin Buchbender (see note 117), p. 17.
121) Ortwin Buchbender (see note 117), p. 114.
122) Franz W. Seidler: Fahnenflucht: Der Soldat zwischen Eid und Gewissen, Munich and other cities, 1993, p. 114.


From VERBRECHEN AN DER WEHRMACHT: Kriegsgreuel der Roten Armee 1941/42 by Prof. Dr. Alfred Seidler, vol. 1.
Translated by C. Porter
(c) 2006
The book is a winner of the "Pour le Mérite" prize for military history in Germany.