As much as the Second World War was a military conflict, it was also a conflict waged against civilians and non-military targets. In terms of both magnitude and the level of industrialization, Nazi Germany was at the forefront of these atrocities. During the Holocaust era, Nazi Germany murdered 17 million people based on their religion, ethnicity, disability, political persuasion, or sexuality. In addition to these victims, war crimes were wide-spread, and often sanctioned at the highest level. These were not only murders either, but also rape, torture, burning down villages, looting, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The paramilitary SS was the key perpetrator of the Holocaust, supplying personnel for both the Einsatzgruppen death squads working on the Eastern Front, as well as the concentration and extermination camps. The SS did not work alone, however. The Waffen-SS routinely swapped personnel with the SS. In addition, both the Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht not only supported the SS, but also took active part in the murders.

When dealing primarily with the hardware of the German armored forces, it can be easy to forget that the vehicles and weapons were manned by soldiers of the Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht who took active part in the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

Mindset and Policy

It can be difficult to fully determine the degree to which German armored units were involved in atrocities as a matter of policy, as opposed to impromptu actions and decisions made by local commanders. There does, however, exist documents issued at a higher that demonstrate a systemic disregard for the laws of war.

Systematic reprisals against civilians

On 16 September 1941, Wilhelm Keitel, head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (high command of the armed forces)Look up term, signed an order titled Communist insurgency in the occupied territories. This order set forward a number of guidelines that show a clear disregard for the laws of was and the value of human life. The guidelines were widely distributed, not only to the high commands in the territories with significant communist activities, but to the high commands of every occupied country in Europe. It would therefore have been plainly evident to the entire German military leadership that these reprisals were taking place.1

  • At every case of insurrection against the German occupation force, regardless of the particular circumstances, it must be assumed that they are of communist origin.
  • To nip the activities in the bud, the harshest possible measures must be taken immediately at the first signs to assert the authority of the occupational force and to prevent them from spreading. It must be remembered that human lives are often worthless in the affected countries, and a deterrent effect can therefore only be achieved through unusual harshness. The atonement for the life of a German soldier must therefore generally be balanced by the death sentence of 50 to 100 communists. The way in which the enforcement is carried out must increate the deterrent effect.
    The opposite approach, beginning with relatively mild punishments and being content with just using the threat of more severe measures as a deterrent, does not follow these principles and is therefore not to be used.
  • The political relationships between Germany and the countries in question are not important for the behavior of the military occupation authorities.
    Rather, it must be considered, and also emphasized through propaganda, that the sharp measures liberates the local population from the communist criminals and thereby benefits them.
    Skilful propaganda of this kind will therefore also ensure that the sharp measures against the communists do not have any unwanted side effect with the friendly-minded parts of the population.
  • Local autorities will generally fail to carry out such violent measures. Using them as auxiliary forces causes increased dangers for our own units and must therefore be avoided.
    Conversely, prizes and rewards can be used im ample measures to secure the appropriate help from the local population.
  • If, by exception, there are pending court-martial proceedings regarding communist uprisings or other violations against the German occupational force, the harshest punishments are mandaten.
    Only the death penalty can be considered a true deterrent. Especially espionage, acts and attempts of sabotage, and enlisting with a foreign military, must on principle be punished by death. The death penalty must also in general be imposed in cases of unauthorized gun posession.

Enslavement of prisoners

The order below was issued by I. SS-Panzer-Korps on 2 May 1943 and was signed by its commander SS-Obergruppenführer (lieutenant general) Paul Hausser. The order describes explicitly how Soviet prisoners of war were seen as a resource to be exploited.2

Special order!

During the coming operations, prisoners must be brought in in greater numbers.

At the home front, the total war demands the usage and greatest effort of the entire work force; at the battlefield, it turns the enemy's humans into valuable booty. Every prisoner lost means a worker lost for the Reich and for the expansion in the conquered territories. The more prisoners the troops make available to the home front, the more they make German men available for the front lines and wives and mothers for their real duties.

The troops are to be emphatically lectured that the war in the East is a war for humans. They must understand that, in the fourth year of the war, it is more important to harness the manpower of the enemy in our own service than it is to destroy it. We SS men are free from false humanitarism, but we acknowledge the necessity of this war.

Steps have been taken to ensure that the troops are not burdened by the shipping off of prisoners of war. The Army High Command have now set up guarded prisoner trains that will transport the prisoners to the army-level prisoner assembly points, and later army-level prisoner camps.

Draft signed by:
Hausser

Forced civilian labour in combat

In the October 1944 issue of the magazine Nachrichtenblatt der Panzertruppen (newsletter of the armored forces), with a circulation of 12 000, there was an article detailing experiences from the Warsaw uprising. In this article, the use of civilians to clear obstacles during combat is suggested twice.3

Urban combat by tanks and armored infantry

(Note: In the text below, the expression tanks covers tanks, assault guns, tank destroyers, and assault tanks.)

In Warsaw, the fighting style of the Polish insurgents was fanatical, extremely insidious, and dogged. A tank battalion has compiled the following experiences from this urban combat in Warsaw.

Wrong! Right!
[…]
6. Tanks are used for tasks such as driving over or tearing apart barricades, as well as used against house walls or rolling over vehicles and guns, for which they are not build. The valuable firepower of the tanks must be preserved by all means. During house-to-house combat, tanks are particularly vulnerable at close range due to the numerous ways in which they can be attacked by the enemy, and a therefore not suited for this type of combat. The task of the accompanying armored infantry is to pretect the tanks from such surprises. The armored infantry have to take the lead and clear barricades and obstacles. For this purpose, clearing commands are to be created from the civilian population.
[…]
8. The seemingly non-fighting harmless population is not watched, and is hardly used for clearing work. All able-bodied civilians are ruthlessly used for clearing work - even under enemy fire. The majority of the population helped the insurgents directly or indirectly.
[…]

The Inspector General of the Armored Forces emphasized the importance of these experiences. They are to be observed for all urban combat.

[…]

Examples of Atrocities

While there is ample evidence incriminating the Wehrmacht as a whole in the crimes of the Third Reich, sources become scarce at the level of individual units. After the war, the perpetrators had an obvious self-interest in hiding the facts, while the victims were rarely alive to tell their story. Written reports and orders were often phrased euphemistically making them difficult to decipher.

Despite these challenges, there are many examples of crimes committed by soldiers of German armored units. The list below is by no means exhaustive, but is extensive enough to demonstrate that the systemic criminal behaviour of the German armed forces also permeated their armored branch.

1. SS-Panzer-Division

Date Incident name Location Incident
19 September 1939 Poland 50 Jews killed by a member of the artillery regiment.4
28 May 1940 Wormhoudt Massacre Wormhout, France 30 British and French prisoners-of-war killed.56
Late 1941 or early 1942 Gully of Petrushino Taganrog, Russia Hundreds of civilians killed.7
Large number of Soviet prisoners-of-war killed, with orders from the division's commander, Sepp Dietrich, to not take any prisoners.8
September 1943 Italy 131 civilians killed in 29 incidents.9
17 December 1944 Malmedy Massacre Malmedy, Belgium 87 American prisoners-of-war killed.

2. SS-Panzer-Division

Date Incident name Location Incident
11 and 12 April 1941 Alibunar Massacre Alibunar, Yugoslavia About 200 civilians and prisoners-of-war killed, partially in retaliation of the death of the adjutant of Wilhelm Bittrich.10
September 1941 Belarus Aided in the killing of 920 Jews by an Einsatzgruppe.
9 June 1944 Tulle Massacre Tulle, France 99 civilians killed in Tulle on 9 June 1944 in retaliation of French Resistance actions.
10 June 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane Massacre Oradour-sur-Glane, France 642 civilians, including 207 children, killed in retaliation of French Resistance actions.11

3. SS-Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
September 1939 Poland Killing of Jewish community leaders and burning of synagogues.
22 May 1940 Aubigny-en-Artois, France 92 civilians killed.12
22 May 1940 Berles-Montchel, France 45 civilians killed.13
24 May 1940 Beuvry, France 48 civilians killed.14
27 May 1940 Le Paradis, France 97 British prisoners-of-war killed.15
19 and 20 June 1940 Chasselay, France About 100 black French Army prisoners-of-war killed in collaboration with Infanterie-Regiment Großdeutschland.16
1940 Lyon Killing of black French Army prisoners-of-war.17
July 1941 Krāslava, Latvia Looting of the city.18
June 1942 Damjansk, Russia Soviet prisoners-of-war killed in retaliation of the death of SS-Hauptsturmführer Christian Frederik von Schalburg.19

5. SS-Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
2 and 3 July 1941 Novosilky, Ukraine Village burned down, and a number of civilians from the village and a Jews incidentally passing killed, in retaliation of the death of SS-Standartenführer Hilmar Wäckerle.20
2 to 3 July 1941 Zolochiv, Ukraine Pogroms, indiscriminate killing of civilians and prisoners-of-war, rapes, and looting, with an estimated 600 to 1000 killed.2122
3 to 5 July 1941 Ozerna, Ukraine Between 180 and 200 Jews killed after being ordered to dig their own mass grave, and a synagogue burned down.23
4 to 5 July 1941 Ternopil, Ukraine Between 2300 and 4000 Jews and other civilians killed.24
31 July to 9 November 1941 Tarashcha, Ukraine About 1000 Jews killed in a series of massacres in collaboration with German security forces, Einsatzkommando 5, and local police.25
1943 Kyiv, Ukraine 135 civilians killed.26
August 1943 Denmark Participation by soldiers on leave in mass arrests of Jewish population.27

12. SS-Panzer-Division

Date Incident name Location Incident
7 to 17 June 1944 Ardenne Abbey Massacre Authie, France 20 Canadian prisoners-of-war of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, 27th Canadian Armored Regiment, and Stormont, Dundas Glengarry Highlanders killed.28

16. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division

Date Location Incident
June to December 1944 Italy About 2100 civilians killed in about 60 indidents.29

1. Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
5 September 1939 Milejowiec, Poland Killed civilians in Milejowiec in retaliation of a Polish Army counter-attack.30

4. Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
September 1939 Poland Killing of civilians and prisoners-of-war.31

6. Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
15 and 16 June 1940 France Killing of black French Army prisoners-of-war.32

9. Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
12 June 1944 France 53 civilians killed in collaboration with Division Brandenburg and Luftwaffe ground forces.33

10. Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
February 1943 Tunisia Denial of food and medicine and active killing of American prisoners-of-war of 168th Infantry Regiment.34

16. Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
September and October 1943 Italy About 100 civilians killed in about 40 incidents.35

26. Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
September 1943 to April 1945 Italy 239 civilians killed in 30 incidents.36

3. Panzergrenadier-Division

Date Location Incident
September 1943 to August 1944 Italy About 250 civilians killed in about 100 incidents.37
29 August 1944 Robert-Espagne, Beurey-sur-Saulx, Couvonges and Mognéville, France 86 civilians killed.38

15. Panzergrenadier-Division

Date Location Incident
September 1943 to October 1944 Italy About 380 civilians killed in about 100 incidents.39

29. Panzergrenadier-Division

Date Location Incident
September 1943 to April 1945 Italy 180 civilians killed in 11 incidents.40

90. Panzergrenadier-Division

Date Location Incident
August 1944 to April 1945 Italy 44 civilians killed in 16 incidents.41

Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland

Date Location Incident
10 June 1940 France About 150 black French Army prisoners-of-war killed
19 and 20 June 1940 Chasselay, France ]About 100 black French Army prisoners-of-war killed in collaboration with SS-Division Totenkopf42
21 April 1941 Pančevo, Yugoslavia 18 civilians killed in retaliation of the death of a German officer and wounding of a German soldier.43

Panzerarmee-Nachrichten-Regiment 4

Date Location Incident
September 1942 Peregruznoe, Russia 30-40 Jews killed.44

1. Fallschirm-Panzer-Division

Date Location Incident
August 1943 to April 1945 Italy About 1400 civilians killed in about 200 incidents.45

References

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  5. WILLIAMSON, Gordon. The SS: Hitler's Instrument of Terror : The full story from street fighters to the Waffen-SS. Blitz Editions, 1996. Page 238. Back
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  28. Abbaye d'Ardenne. Veterans Affairs Canada, 2019. Back
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  35. 16. Panzer-Division/XIV. Panzerkorps. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Back
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  40. 29. Panzer-Grenadier-Division “Falke“. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Back
  41. 90. Panzer-Grenadier-Division. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Back
  42. Murdered Warriors: The Chasselay Massacre, June 1940. The National WWII Museum, 2020. Back
  43. BROWN, Kevin. “Du Strick, Du Kugel”: “You hang, you take the bullet”: Pancevo Massacre, 1941. 2020. Back
  44. BEORN, Waitman. Negotiating Murder: A Panzer Signal Company and the Destruction of the Jews of Peregruznoe, 1942. University of North Carolina, 2009. Back
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