When Hitler launched his campaign in the East, the German Wehrmacht (Armed Forces) became direct, active partners in his racial war of annihilation. It engaged not only in military operations but also in ideologically motivated actions.
Military guidelines and pronouncements by high-ranking officers mirrored Hitler's conviction that the campaign against the Soviet Union was no ordinary war. Attempting to justify the planned total eradication of "Jewish Bolshevism" in the quest for Lebensraum (Living space), field officers--including Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch (pictured) --stressed the necessity of brutal measures. Consequently, the ensuing campaign of devastation trampled on the traditional international rules of war. Captured Red Army soldiers were not seen as "comrades in arms" but as "useless mouths to feed" who could be ruthlessly liquidated.
It is estimated that between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war perished at the hands of the German military. Most were allowed to starve to death. Others died of exposure after having their warm clothing confiscated, or from exhaustion or epidemics. Others, if they could not keep up, were shot during long marches to prison camps. Survivors suffered horribly as slave laborers and subjects of medical experiments.
The Army turned over to Einsatzkommandos for immediate execution more than 500,000 "politically undesirable prisoners of war." Selected were Communist functionaries, members of the intelligentsia, and all Jews. Wehrmacht units also assisted the Einsatzgruppen by physically securing areas surrounding mass shootings. They sometimes participated in "combing" operations to ferret out and "cleanse" captured Soviet territory of Jews.
Frustrated by partisan guerrilla activity, the Wehrmacht's reprisal policy featured public hangings and executions of large numbers of defenseless civilians. Jews became easy targets because of their identification as purported supporters of Bolshevism. Troops shot those "walking about" during curfew, burned down entire villages suspected of harboring partisans, drove off livestock, destroyed food reserves, and sometimes forced the rounded-up Jews to clear minefields with rakes.
An Einsatzgruppe A report credited the Wehrmacht with shooting 19,000 partisans and "criminals," identified as "mostly Jews," by the end of 1941.
The Wehrmacht even took part in ghetto liquidations, usually under the guise of "anti-partisan" campaigns. In the fall of 1941, the Army helped murder an additional 20,000 Jews in eight such "actions" in the Belorussian region alone. In Latvia, firing squads that murdered captive Jews included Wehrmacht personnel. Anti-partisan reprisal massacres of civilians (again, mainly Jews) and cooperative undertakings between army units, Einsatzgruppen, and police also occurred in the Balkans, and typified the Wehrmacht's complicity in the Holocaust.