Today’s generation can be forgiven for seeing the Second World War’s common participants as engaging in a battle of ideologies. That being said, the Waffen SS were the ultimate outsiders who became the ultimate insiders. During the blitzkrieg into Poland the Wehrmacht saw them as little more than auxiliaries, along for the ride. It is therefore interesting to appreciate the fact that the majority of the Heer were not ideologues, and therefore why they were capable of constantly putting up amazing fronts against an opponent (Russia) that outnumbered them 13:1.
The German military predated the rise of national socialism and shared few values with the Fuhrer and his henchmen. German military officers usually hailed from rigid class hierarchies that could trace their bloodlines back 600 years to the Teutonic Knights.
Stereotypically, this is the image we have of the Kaiser, the pickelhaube, and the monocle, and this was actually the attitude of the majority of Germany’s fighting men during the second World War. In other words, the majority of the Heer’s warriors were primarily interested in fighting to preserve Germany’s honor after what they viewed as the betrayal of Versailles.
No man exemplifies this aspect of the Wehrmacht as much as Dietrich von Saucken. The Panzer leader famously refused every formality when greeting the fuhrer, hands on his cavalry sword he made a slight bow and proclaimed his lack of intention to fight under the NS brass. The two men’s eyes met and the fuhrer’s will crumbled, as he allowed the cavalry officer to lead his own kampfgruppe.
Like Ernst Junger his only interest was a deep sense of personal honor that his Junker ancestors instilled in him.
If we are to understand the motivations that led Germans to fight under the banner of National Socialism, we should remember that the majority of the fighting men were ideological anachronisms, products of 19th century thinking, at best.
To appreciate this truth is to begin to understand why German officers, from Rommel on down often had a reputation for honorable dealings with their opponents, despite the broad brush we often paint their side with.