By Dick Martin
In putting together the Springfield Veterans Book, one of the big surprises for me, and there were many, was the respect our soldiers had for the German soldiers in the regular army (Heer). It seems like all of the atrocities were committed by Hitler’s other army, the Waffen-SS, which was made up of more radical, psychopathic, and maniacal soldiers; ie, the Waffen-SS were the soldiers responsible for the Malmedy massacre. An example of the regular army soldiers (Heer) was related to me by Chuck Dawes, who spent most of his time in Europe as a POW. He said the regular army Wehrmacht were much like American soldiers. He told me that he often thanked God for being a German-held POW and not a Jap-held POW. Chuck said that if the guards had food they shared it with the POWs and if the guards were without food, they all starved together.
As Hitler began his European domination, he unleashed his two distinct armies on Europe. It is almost impossible to overstate Nazi Germany’s military achievements at the outset of World War 2. The two armies (Waffen-SS and Heer) competed with each other. Despite impressions of Hitler’s German State being one of monolithic centralized control, Hitler encouraged competition among the various state and party organs. It stood to reason, therefore, such duplication of effort would ultimately manifest itself on the battlefield. At their peaks, the terrorist leaning Waffen-SS was composed of approximately 900,000 soldiers and the regular army Heer was composed of approximately 13,600,000 soldiers.
Initial membership requirements for the Waffen-SS were more exacting than those for the Heer. Potential recruits were required to prove their “Aryan” ancestry back several generations, be at least 5’ 9” tall and could be rejected for having even a single dental filling. Only one applicant in four was accepted into the elite force. Levels of political indoctrination were significantly higher in the Waffen-SS than in the Heer. Recruits of all ranks were given extensive classroom instruction in the National Socialist ideology. Political involvement was mandatory for the Waffen-SS. Every member of the Waffen-SS was required to be a member of the Nazi Party. It is no wonder that the Waffen-SS was much more fanatical than the regular army Heer. As the war widened volunteers were recruited from the populations of such allied nations as Holland, Norway, France and Russia.
Perhaps the most fiercely debated aspect of the relationship between the Heer and Waffen-SS is the question of which organization was the most complicit in war crimes. The debate came up immediately after the war ended as the allies prepared for the Nuremberg war trials. The Heer would have us believe that the Waffen-SS, which was declared a criminal organization at the trials, was the more complicit. The Heer war crimes were spread out over an organization that was approximately 14 times bigger than the Waffen-SS. That the Waffen-SS did not have a monopoly on brutality throughout the war is well documented. However considering the size off the two organizations, the Waffen-SS would have to be considered the more evil of the two.
Taken and edited from an article in the July 2020 Military History magazine.