The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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BY DR. LATERNSER (Counsel for the General Staff and the OKW):

Q. Field-Marshal, how did you Judge the intention to attack
in the West?

A. In my opinion, since a political agreement with the
Western Powers was no longer possible; there was no other
way out than to launch an offensive in the West and thus end
the war.

Q. Did you participate in the preparations against Norway,
Greece and Yugoslavia?

A. No. I did not know about these campaigns or the opening
of these campaigns until I heard about them over the radio.

Q. How did you, as a military leader, regard the war against

A. I considered the war against Russia to be a preventive
war on our part. In my opinion, there was for Hitler no
other way out of the situation into which he had brought
Germany after he had not dared to invade Britain in the
autumn of 1940. In my opinion, we were forced to acknowledge
that the Soviet Union was a very great threat in 1940 and
1941 - a threat which would become real as soon as we
finally tied up our forces in the fight against Britain. The
only chance of extricating ourselves from that situation
would have been a landing in England in the autumn of 1940,
but that was a risk which Hitler did not take.

Q. How is it possible that the Commander-in-Chief of the
Army and the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, in the
most important military decisions, such as, for instance, a
war against the Soviet Union, were by-passed by Hitler?

A. In my opinion that can be explained as follows:
Politically we generals had not had any say for a long time,
because the political objections raised by the generals, for
instance on the occasion of the occupation of the Rhineland
and the march into Czechoslovakia, had turned out to be
without substance. Hitler had carried his point. He no
longer concerned himself with political objections but only
with military questions.

As far as the military sphere is concerned, I was personally
of the opinion, as I have just said, that the offensive in
the West, from the point of view of the soldier, was an
imperative necessity. The OKH was of a different opinion,
and in this, to my thinking, they advocated the wrong
military course. There again the results proved Hitler to be
right, and it became apparent from his whole behaviour that
after that he thought that he knew more than the Army, so
that on the decisive question of the fight against the
Soviet Union he carried his point and would no longer listen
to the OKH.

Q. You received the Commissar Order, did you not?

A. Yes.

Q. What attitude did you adopt with reference to that order?

A. It was the first time I found myself involved in a
conflict between my soldierly conceptions and my duty to
obey. Actually, I ought to have obeyed, but I told myself
that as a soldier I could not possibly co-operate in a thing

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that, and I told the commander of the army group under which
I came at the time, as well as the commander of the armoured
group, that I would not carry out such an order, which was
against the honour of a soldier.

In practice, the order was not carried out. My divisional
commanders, who had already received the order independently
from me in the Reich, shared my view, and, apart from that,
the Commissars, as good fighters, defended themselves to the
last and in many cases shot themselves rather than be taken
prisoner, or removed their badges of rank and could not be
identified by the troops. The troops, who inwardly disliked
the order intensely, certainly did not look for Commissars
amongst the prisoners.

Q. You have just mentioned the commander of your army group
and the commander of the armoured group. Who were these

A. The commander of the army group was Field-Marshal von
Leeb, and commanding the armoured group was Colonel-General

Q. And what was their attitude to this order?

A. Field-Marshal von Leeb, as my superior, took cognizance
of my report that I would not carry out the order, in other
words, he tacitly approved. Colonel-General Hoeppner, who,
with another general commanding an armoured group, called
Reinhardt, also raised objections, promised that he would
put the objections to the OKH. However, he was not

Q. How did you reconcile your disobedience in this case with
your conception of the military duty to obey?

A. Actually, military obedience is, of course, unconditional
and absolute, but during wars there have always been cases
where higher military leaders did not obey an order or
carried it out differently. That is part of the higher
responsibility which a high military leader bears. No army
leader can be expected to join battle when he knows he is
bound to lose.

In these questions, that is to say, operational questions,
there is in practice, in the final analysis, a certain right
to deviate from orders which have been given, which,
however, must be confirmed by success. In the German Army,
particularly, that independence of lower-ranking leaders has
always been strongly emphasized.

The situation is quite different in the case of orders which
deal with actions on the part of all soldiers. In such
cases, disobedience on the part of a small man can be dealt
with by means of punishment. If the higher leader, however,
has disobeyed orders in such cases, then he undermines not
only his own authority but discipline as a whole and thus
endangers the military success. In such cases it is more
binding on the higher leader than it is on the soldier and
the lower-ranking leader, because he, the higher man, should
be an example.

Q. Did you not undermine discipline by this disobedience of

A. No, not in that case, because the troops felt the same as
I did. In other words, the soldierly feelings which we had
instilled into our troops opposed the political will imposed
upon them by Hitler. Apart from that, we were able to refer
to the order issued by the Commander-in-Chief of the Army,
to the effect that the maintenance of the discipline of the
men should take preference over everything else.

Q. How was the military jurisdiction exercised on the basis
of the order from the Commander-in-Chief of the Army
according to which discipline was to be strictly observed?

A. We exercised military jurisdiction as we had to do
according to our training, in other words, with justice and
as decent soldiers.

I should like to quote as an example that the first two
death sentences with which I had to deal were imposed at the
beginning of the Russian campaign on two German soldiers in
my corps for the rape of Russian women, and it was the same

Q. Now let us come to another chapter. What can you say
about the treatment of prisoners of war?

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A. With reference to the treatment of prisoners of war as
far as it came under our jurisdiction, I must say first of
all that basically we as soldiers respected every brave
opponent, and secondly, that we knew very well from the
First World War that everything one might do to enemy
prisoners of war would finally have repercussions upon one's
own soldiers. As a matter of principle, therefore, we
treated prisoners of war in the manner which we had been
taught as soldiers, and which we had to adopt, that is to
say, in accordance with the laws of warfare.

Q. Did you yourself ever have knowledge of a violation and
did you ever take any action against wrong treatment?

A. Let me say first of all that I have seen many prisoner-of-
war transport columns on the roads over which they passed. I
never saw a prisoner of war who had been shot. But on one
occasion, when I was Commander-in-Chief of the Army Group, I
saw a German soldier hitting a prisoner with a stick in
order to clear the way for my staff car which was trying to
pass the column. I at once stopped and took the man's name,
and on the following day had his commanding officer summoned
before me and ordered him to punish the man, and I told him
that the next time he himself would face a court martial if
he permitted such excesses amongst his troops.

Q. Can you give any explanation for the mass casualties
amongst Russian prisoners of war during that first winter?

A. My army, too, had huge numbers of prisoners later on, up
to 150,000 and it is of course always difficult to find the
necessary food and accommodation for such large numbers. As
far as my army was concerned, we managed to do that. We gave
permission to the population, for instance, to bring food
into the camps for the prisoners and thus ease the

During the large hedgehog battles in 1941 which took place
in the Centre of our Zone and near Kiev, where the prisoners
ran into many hundreds of thousands, the situation was
different. When the Russian soldiers came out of these
hedgehogs in which they had held out to the last, they were
already half-starved, and then, an army with its
transportation space cannot possibly bring with it the means
to feed 500,000 prisoners at once, and accommodate them in
central Russia. After all, the same conditions arose in
Germany after the capitulation, when hundreds of thousands
of soldiers spent weeks in the open and could not be fed
properly either.

Q. To what extent were the Commanders-in-Chief responsible
for prisoners of war?

A. We were responsible for prisoners of war as long as they
were in the area of our armies, that is to say, until they
were handed over to transit camps.

Q. So that was an entirely temporary state of affairs?

A. Yes, unless prisoners of war were employed in our army

Q. In cases where the prisoners remained with the army, how
were they treated?

A. Those prisoners whom we retained in our army areas were
required to help in the work we had to do, and for that
reason they were, of course, decently treated. After all,
every division had about 1,000 - sometimes more - prisoners
whom we employed as so-called auxiliary volunteers, that is
voluntary helpers. These auxiliary volunteers remained
faithful to us and even came along during our retreats, and
that certainly would not have been the case if we had
treated them badly. I should like to quote another example.
When I was Commander-in-Chief of the Army Group South I had
only my own personal staff and no guard, and for about eight
or ten days I had only Cossack guards in my house. If we had
treated the prisoners badly, they would certainly have
killed me.

Q. Now, in regard to prisoners of war in the Reich, to whom
were the camp commandants responsible?

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A. As far as I know, camp commandants within the army
districts came under a General for Prisoners of War, and he
in turn was under the Commander of the Reserve Army.

Q. Who was the Commander of the Reserve Army?

A. The Commander of the Reserve Army was, until 1941,
Colonel-General Fromm, and after 20th July it was Himmler.

Q. Did prisoners of war not come under Himmler in 1944?

A. Yes, I do not know the exact date, but I do know that all
the prisoners of war were expressly put under Himmler.

Q. Was large-scale destruction carried out within the areas
of your army?

A. Yes, in the Ukraine particularly, there was very
considerable destruction, but much of this had already been
carried out when we got there in 1941. All railways had been
destroyed so that in 1943 waterworks, for instance, were
still not in order. All communication installations and
offices had been destroyed; many industrial plants had been
destroyed, for instance, the large dam of Porosche, the
cement works at Kharkov, the large iron works at Kertrek and
Mariopol and the oil industry at Maikop in the Caucasus.

Q. Were there any special reasons why the devastation in
this war was so great? To what must that be attributed?

A. The reason why destruction in this war was far greater
than destruction in previous wars is the tactics employed.
In 1941, Stalin, quite rightly from his point of view,
ordered his army to fight for every foot of ground. Hitler
adopted the same system, and if you force armies to fight to
the last for every foot of ground, the villages and the
towns are bound to go up in flames and become heaps of
rubble. Take, as an example, Sebastopol, which was used as a
fortress for eight months, and finally the town itself was
defended. Take Stalingrad, where for weeks one house after
another was fought for. Rostov and Kharkov were taken twice
by our armies and twice by the Soviet armies during heavy
battles. Kiev and Rovno were taken once, and Odessa was
taken by the Roumanian armies during a battle which lasted
for weeks. It was inevitable that these towns should be half
destroyed in that fighting.

Q. And was there not planned destruction, too?

A. In 1943, during the retreat from the Dnieper, I myself
saw that planned destruction to a considerable extent had
been carried out by order of Hitler. Hitler had ordered that
the territories east of the Dnieper should be made useless
for the Russians. There were several detailed orders from
him to this effect.

Q. Was this destruction necessary for the carrying on of the

A. As far as this retreat at the Dnieper is concerned I have
to answer that question absolutely in the affirmative. The
situation was such that if we could not bring the Soviet
armies to a halt at the Dnieper, and they continued to break
through and to keep up their pressure, the war was lost. The
Dnieper had not been fortified. Hitler had forbidden it when
we had proposed it earlier. There were not sufficient troops
to hold the Dnieper line against a heavy attack. If,
therefore, the Russian attack could not be halted by
bringing up reserves, it could be assumed that by the autumn
of 1943 the fighting , in the southern part of the Eastern
Front would be finished, and the war in the East would end
unfavourably for us. In such cases only the highest leaders
could in the last analysis decide what would be achieved
operationally by military necessity. The lower leader lacks
the ability to judge; he can only see the necessities of his
sector and therefore he cannot have the right to reject such

Q. But these orders regarding the destruction were carried
out in various ways?

A. Certainly. Probably every army leader tried to keep this
destruction within as small a compass as possible,
particularly in the Ukraine, where we soldiers were on
excellent terms with the population. That, after all, is the

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of the individual leader whether or not he decides that his
operational goal can be achieved with a minimum of
destruction. It was different, for instance, when it came to
the destruction of billets. In the East in winter the
possibility of fighting depended to a very considerable
extent on whether the troops could find some kind of shelter
for the night. In the winter the destruction of billets
could be absolutely decisive. In the summer, of course, it
was not important.

Q. What do you know about the destruction of churches and
cultural monuments?

A. I can only say that in my areas cultural monuments were
preserved. A large number of these - in the Crimea on the
southern coast, for instance - were already destroyed when
we arrived, but we carefully preserved the Lividia castle,
for example, and then the Tartar castle in Baktschisarai. I
was once outside Leningrad with my army command preparing an
attack, which, however, was not carried out. There I saw
several Czarist castles, Oranienbaum and others. They were
destroyed, but they were within the range of Russian
artillery, and I myself was under artillery fire while
making this visit. The castles were burned out and they were
certainly not burnt by our troops according to plan.

Q. Now a few questions with reference to the partisan
warfare. Did you get know that the aim of partisan warfare
was to exterminate the Jews and Slavs?

A. No.

Q. Did you give or receive any orders to the effect that no
prisoners were to be taken during partisan fighting?

A. No.

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