The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau

  • The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945, by Alfred M. de Zayas. Nebraska University Press, 1989. Softcover, 364 pages. Bibliography, index, photographs. ISBN: 0-8032-9908-7

Reviewed by Robert Clive

When the topic of atrocities committed during the Second World War is discussed, such places as Babi Yar, Lidice, Malmedy and Oradour-sur-Glane almost immediately come to mind. But few will mention -- or even have heard of -- Bromberg, Bassabetovka, Goldap, Hohensalza, Nemmersdorf, or St. Pierre de Rumilly. The first group of names are associated with war crimes attributed to the Nazis. In the second list, the victims were Germans murdered by anti-Axis forces.

That atrocities were committed by the Allies against Germans and non-combatant civilians on both the Eastern and Western fronts is not often acknowledged. In large measure this reflects the fact that "victors write the history." As a recent spate of popular books attests, the Second World War has been established in the public consciousness as "the last good war," in which the forces of Evil were vanquished, despite the enormous costs involved, both material and moral.

In an important book only now available in English translation, Alfred M. de Zayas, a graduate of Harvard Law School, outlines the history of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, which from September 1939 until May 1945 kept a running record of war crimes committed against the Germans, their allies, and civilians.

The study grew out of research de Zayas undertook among previously unexamined German war-time legal records while he was director of the "Working Group on the Laws of War" at the Institute of International Law at Göttingen University (from which institution he also holds a Ph.D. in history). First published in 1979 as Die Wehrmacht-Untersuchungsstelle by Universitas/Langen Muller, the book was very favorably received throughout German-speaking Europe and served as the basis for a highly acclaimed two-part television documentary broadcast in Germany in 1983.

All belligerents investigated reported breaches of the laws and customs of war. When hostilities ended in 1945, Axis political and military leaders were imprisoned and many were executed for their alleged involvement in war crimes -- a process that continues to this day. Allied officials who were responsible for committing atrocities against Axis personnel have not been similarly dealt with.

The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau was the direct successor to the Prussian Bureau of Investigation of Violations of the Laws of War, which conducted investigations until after the end of the First World War as an arm of the Reich War Ministry. There was a remarkable degree of continuity between the two organizations. Johannes Goldsche, a military judge who served as deputy chief of the Prussian Bureau, was appointed director of the Wehrmacht Bureau and served in this capacity throughout the Second World War. Both bureaus had the identical mission: to document allied offenses and submit reports. Some of their findings served as the basis for diplomatic protests lodged by the German Foreign Office against the Allied powers. But as we know, during and after the two wars, international public opinion tended to dismiss out of hand German allegations of Allied war crimes. Thus far, the one exception has been the case of Katyn, where thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals were murdered by the Soviets near Smolensk.

The author did not accept German allegations at face value. After sifting through several hundred volumes of official records, he interviewed more than 300 judges, witnesses, and victims. He cross-checked events mentioned in Bureau reports by consulting other German record groups and relevant American, British, French, and Swiss files. (Soviet records remain largely unavailable to scrutiny by Western researchers). De Zayas's research "confirmed the correctness of the protocols." He goes on to forthrightly state:

All in all the coherency of the War Crimes Bureau files, the confirmation of persons involved, and the comparison with other historical sources justify the conclusion that the Bureau did function in a trustworthy manner, that its investigations were authentic and its documents reliable ... The Bureau was not a propaganda arm of the Nazi regime ...

De Zayas divides his study into two parts. The first twelve chapters outline the history of the Prussian bureau and then relate why and when the Wehrmacht agency was started. The Bureau's personnel and methods of operation are delineated.

Part Two presents details on specific cases. A careful line is drawn between historical events and mere propaganda. To those who have been brought up on a steady diet of Nazi atrocity stories, it is this second section that contains real eye-openers.

The Wehrmacht Bureau established that Polish military personnel and civilians committed numerous atrocities against ethnic Germans living within Poland's pre-war frontiers, and against German civilians and soldiers after the war commenced. On the Western Front, the Bureau determined that the British were guilty of plundering the French and Belgian populace. The famous Belgian cyclist Julian Vervaecke was among the civilians killed by British soldiers. The French likewise executed Belgian non-combatants, Jewish refugees, and prisoners of war.

In his discussion of atrocities committed by the Allies in the West, de Zayas affirms that "there was no fabrication of atrocity stories [by the Bureau] but rather the methodical collection and evaluation of evidence. Nor was there any attempt to blame the Allies for destruction that may have been caused by the Germans themselves."

Most of the existing records deal with atrocities committed on the Eastern Front by the Red Army and Soviet secret police (the NKVD). From the outset of the war in the East, the Bureau received reports of atrocities and wholesale violations of the internationally accepted rules of warfare. And as the Axis armies advanced, Soviet subjects came forward to reveal additional acts of barbarism perpetrated by the Soviet authorities.

POWs, whether Germans or Axis allies, were often shot out of hand, or shortly after they had been questioned. At Feodosiya, on the Black Sea, wounded soldiers were drenched with water and then left on the beaches to freeze to death. Captured soldiers were not merely executed, but frequently subjected to torture and mutilation first, then left where their remains could be easily discovered.

When the Red Army invaded German territory in late 1944, civilians who had been unable to flee before their advance were condemned to undergo a regime of ferocious brutality. At such towns as Goldap, Gumbinnen, and Nemmersdorf, even children were raped before being murdered by Russian soldiers. (The book includes photographs of these deeds). Alexander Solzhenitsyn is cited by de Zayas for his testimony on this topic. The famous Russian author, who fought as a captain in the Red Army, confirmed that, "all of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction."

The Bureau also documented Soviet crimes against non-Germans. Chapters deal with Lvov, where thousands of civilians were found murdered in the prisons of the NKVD; Katyn; and Vinnitsa, a Ukrainian town where mass graves dating from 1936 were discovered. De Zayas reiterates that "the War Crimes Bureau was not established to fabricate documents on Allied war crimes: its records are genuine; its investigations were carried out methodically, in a judicial manner."

This study does not consider atrocities attributed to the Germans and their allies. De Zayas does point out, however, that the Soviets conducted the first war crimes trials against members of the German armed forces when three soldiers captured at Stalingrad were hanged in 1943, after being found "guilty" of liquidating Soviet citizens in specially constructed gas vans.

With respect to the alleged Nazi "Final Solution" to the Jewish Question, in a footnote de Zayas concedes:

Without exception, all the German military judges interviewed by the author claimed not to have known about exterminations at any of the concentration camps until after the end of the war. A few admitted hearing rumors of executions on the Eastern Front but claimed that they had been unable to obtain corroborative evidence.

Elsewhere, de Zayas remarks:

The investigations described in this book manifest again and again the subjective conviction of the German military judges in the field and of the staff members of the Bureau that the German armed forces were fighting honorably, in compliance with the Hague and Geneva Convention, while those on the other side were violating those Conventions.

De Zayas has opened a new chapter in the study of the conduct of the Second World War. Now that his book is available in English translation, and published by a distinguished university press, its appearance hopefully will generate discussion of the topics it has raised, and inspire others to further research.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1990 (Vol. 10, No. 2), pp. 237-241.