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David Harrisville, University of Wisconsin-Madison, History

Unholy Crusade: The Moral Economy of the Wehrmacht in Russia, 1941–44

Scholars now describe Nazi Germany's 1941 invasion of the USSR as a Vernichtungskrieg, a war of extermination marked by unprecedented criminality.  In addition to stripping local communities of the resources necessary for survival, Wehrmacht personnel murdered countless civilians and participated in the implementation of the Final Solution.  My dissertation aims to re-construct the moral world of German troops to explain how they maintained the persistent conviction that they were decent, civilized men and that the invasion was not only ideologically but also morally justified, sentiments that pervade the writings they left behind.   I argue that throughout the war, individual soldiers and the Wehrmacht as an institution asserted a claim to not just ideological but also moral superiority over their Soviet opponents, a claim that eventually collapsed under the weight of the army's crimes.


To shed light on what I term the Wehrmacht's moral economy—the sum of all actions soldiers believed affected the moral balance between them and their enemies—I will study three concrete and so far under-researched aspects of the Wehrmacht experience, namely, encounters with the conquered, religion, and commemoration.  The first theme explores the frequently-expressed view among Wehrmacht members that they were liberators, rather than invaders.  This was sometimes translated into “emancipatory” gestures such as sharing food or providing medical care to Soviet civilians.   Religion, the second theme, was an important catalyst for the formation of a moral community among German troops, always defined in opposition to “atheist bolshevism.”  As the Wehrmacht entered the USSR, soldiers tore down anti-religious exhibitions and chaplains re-opened churches.  More than a few troops even expressed their conviction that the campaign was nothing less than a crusade for Christian civilization.  Finally, I examine ideas and practices surrounding death and burial.  Aided by the Wehrmacht's unusually strong emphasis on individual burials, memorial celebrations, beautified cemeteries, and personalized notifications to the bereaved, I investigate how German soldiers cultivated a particular notion of heroic sacrifice that provided a sense of moral superiority over the Red Army, which they perceived as having little care for the lives of its men.


My project breaks new ground in our understanding of the identity and worldview of German soldiers and the war in the East.  Typically, the emphasis in Wehrmacht studies has been on indoctrination and Nazi ideology, seeking above all an answer to the question of why soldiers fought for Hitler.  I ask instead how they constructed their moral world and convinced themselves of the virtue of their actions.  My work suggests that German troops were not “amoral” as sometimes described; while some wholeheartedly subscribed to Nazi ideas, others chose to view the invasion of the USSR in more traditional moral terms, as a battle of good versus evil.  Ultimately, however, such thinking may have fueled the army's increasing use of brutality as the belief in the moral righteousness of their cause acted as a license to employ ever harsher measures against their opponents.