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.

Mindset and Policy

It can be difficult to 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 some official documents that hint to a more systematic disregard for the customs of war.

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:

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

Below are examples of some of the crimes committed by soldiers of German armored units.

Unit Area Incidents
1. SS-Panzer-Division Italy 131 civilians killed in 29 incidents during September 1943
Belgium 87 American prisoners-of-war killed at Malmedy on 17 December 1944
2. SS-Panzer-Division Belarus Aided in the killing of 920 Jews by an Einsatzgruppe in September 1941
France
  • 99 civilians killed in Tulle on 9 June 1944 in retaliation of French Resistance actions
  • 642 civilians killed in Oradour-sur-Glane on 10 June 1944 in retaliation of French Resistance actions
3. SS-Panzer-Division Poland Killing of Jewish community leaders and burning of synagogues during September 1939
France
  • 97 British prisoners-of-war killed on 27 May 1940
  • About 100 black French Army prisoners-of-war killed on 19 and 20 June 1940 together with Infanterie-Regiment Großdeutschland
16. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Italy About 2100 civilians killed in about 60 indidents between June 1944 and December 1944
1. Panzer-Division Poland Killed civilians on 5 September 1939 in retaliation of a Polish Army counter-attack
4. Panzer-Division Poland Killing of civilians and prisoners-of-war during September 1939
6. Panzer-Division France Killing of black French Army prisoners-of-war on the night of 15 and 16 June 1940
9. Panzer-Division France 53 civilians killed on 12 June 1944 together with Division Brandenburg and Luftwaffe ground forces
10. Panzer-Division Tunisia Killing of American prisoners-of-war in February 1943
16. Panzer-Division Italy About 100 civilians killed in about 40 incidents during September and October 1943
26. Panzer-Division Italy 239 civilians killed in 30 incidents between September 1943 and April 1945
3. Panzer-Grenadier-Division Italy About 250 civilians killed in about 100 incidents between September 1943 and August 1944
15. Panzer-Grenadier-Division Italy About 380 civilians killed in about 100 incidents between September 1943 and October 1944
29. Panzer-Grenadier-Division Italy 180 civilians killed in 11 incidents between September 1943 and April 1945
90. Panzer-Grenadier-Division Italy 44 civilians killed in 16 incidents between August 1944 and April 1945
Panzer-Grenadier-Division Großdeutschland Yugoslavia 36 civilians killed in retaliation of the death of a German soldier
France
  • About 150 black French Army prisoners-of-war killed on 10 June 1940
  • About 100 black French Army prisoners-of-war killed on 19 and 20 June 1940 together with SS-Division Totenkopf
Panzerarmee-Nachrichten-Regiment 4 Peregruznoe, Russia 30-40 Jews killed in September 1942
1. Fallschirm-Panzer-Division Italy About 1400 civilians killed in about 200 incidents between August 1943 and April 1945

Sources

  1. 15. Panzer-Grenadier-Division/XIV. Panzerkorps. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Available from Internet: <http://www.straginazifasciste.it/?page_id=297&ricerca=776&lang=en> [Fetched 2020-09-18].
  2. 16. Panzer-Division/XIV. Panzerkorps. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Available from Internet: <http://www.straginazifasciste.it/?page_id=297&ricerca=94&lang=en> [Fetched 2020-09-18].
  3. 26. Panzer-Division. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Available from Internet: <http://www.straginazifasciste.it/?page_id=297&ricerca=392&lang=en> [Fetched 2020-09-18].
  4. 29. Panzer-Grenadier-Division “Falke“. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Available from Internet: <http://www.straginazifasciste.it/?page_id=297&ricerca=1002&lang=en> [Fetched 2020-09-18].
  5. 90. Panzer-Grenadier-Division. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Available from Internet: <http://www.straginazifasciste.it/?page_id=297&ricerca=310&lang=en> [Fetched 2020-09-18].
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  7. Fallschirm-Panzer-Division “Hermann Goring“. Atlante delle Stragi Naziste e Fasciste in Italia. Available from Internet: <http://www.straginazifasciste.it/?page_id=297&ricerca=190&lang=en> [Fetched 2020-09-18].
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  9. Nachrichtenblatt der Panzertruppen No. 16, Oktober 1944. Berlin : Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen, 1944. 28 p. NARA T78 R623.
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  14. Murdered Warriors: The Chasselay Massacre, June 1940. New Orleans, LA : The National WWII Museum, 2020. Available from Internet: <https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/chasselay-massacre-june-1940> [Fetched 2020-09-18].
  15. BEORN, Waitman. Negotiating Murder: A Panzer Signal Company and the Destruction of the Jews of Peregruznoe, 1942. Chapel Hill, NC : University of North Carolina, 2009. 29 p.
  16. DRAKE, Colonel Thomas D. Factual Account of Operations 168th Infantry, 34th Division, from 24 December 1942 to 17 February 1943. 1943. 12 p.