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Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/April 2018/Review essay

< Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history‎ | News‎ | April 2018
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Wikipedia's Myth of the Clean Wehrmacht and What You Can Do About it

By: K.e.coffman

Note: This essay has been adapted from an article on the same topic in Society for Military History's Headquarters Gazette, Winter 2018.[1]

Poster reads: "German Soldier is Fighting for Europe", aka "romantic heroicisation of the German army fighting to save Europe from a rapacious Communism".[2]

Despite the abundant World War II historiography published in the last 20 years, the popular perceptions of the German armed forces as an apolitical and professional institution that stood apart from the Nazi regime largely remains intact in the Anglophone world. The myth of the "clean Wehrmacht"—and even clean Waffen-SS—lives on. Below are my experiences in dealing with the issues of historical distortions in Wikipedia articles, along with my outreach to outside experts and suggestions for the Wikipedia community.

Nur Soldat

Nowhere was the distorted picture more apparent than on English Wikipedia c. 2015, with the articles on "Stuka aces" and "Panzer aces";[3] thousands of recipients of the "coveted Knight’s Cross" awarded for "extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership";[4] and generals leading from "the frontlines" with "jovial, caring attitude".[5] There were Waffen-SS commanders who "opposed the Nazi party"[6] and Luftwaffe pilots who were "rabidly anti-Nazi".[7] A Wehrmacht general was "praised for his humanitarianism",[8] while a field marshal had a whole section dedicated to same.[9] Collaborationist police units "clashed" with SS forces, who moreover only "tried" to execute concentration camp inmates.[10] In the more extreme example, a commander of an SS death squad "worked (...) to reduce atrocities committed".[11]

That some of Wikipedia's low-trafficked articles would be sourced to AchtungPanzer!, Aces of the Luftwaffe, and other dubious websites was not surprising.[12] But what troubled me was that the concept of Nur-Soldat ("merely soldier") was so prevalent on Wikipedia. This view celebrates the martial accomplishments of military men with a focus on their medals, enemy materiel destroyed—ships sunk, aircraft downed, tanks "busted", bridges blown up,—"ace" status, and so on while dismissing social and political context of the war as irrelevant. Because of the questionable sources, which tend to be hobbyist and / or non-independent in nature, this view frequently veers towards fan fiction and hagiography. Undertones of war-time Wehrmacht propaganda are also present since that’s where the origins of the sources often lay.[13]

The other side of the coin is the clean Wehrmacht mythology, which emphasises the professional, apolitical image of the German armed forces and its commanding officers, who (according to the myth) stood apart from and in disapproval of Hitler’s regime, whom they allegedly opposed at every turn. An apologist worldview akin to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, it posits that if it weren’t for Hitler’s inept leadership, difficult terrain and weather conditions on the Eastern front, and Allied material superiority, the German army would have emerged victorious. This outlook borders on historical revisionism and whitewashing: accomplishments are celebrated while crimes and ideological alignment with the regime are minimised, in contrast to the contemporary historiography of the war.[14]

Reaching out to outside experts

Historian Deborah Lipstadt found my email "disturbing".

I was surprised that editors did not share my concerns or appreciate the extent of these problems. Faced with what I perceived to be issues of entrenched local consensus, I emailed a number of historians, providing examples from my user page (User:K.e.coffman) and a few Wiki discussions. I initially emailed those experts whose books I read and used in my editing. I then expanded my outreach to members of the Military History Working Group, a German professional association that focuses on the interdisciplinary war studies and military history. I also contacted the U.S.-based international Society for Military History and was invited to submit a story for their quarterly newsletter.[1]

Reaching out to historians was relatively straightforward: those in academia almost always have their emails published in their University profiles. Military History Working Group publishes a member list, which includes contact information, specialisation, and interests. I received responses from about half of those whom I emailed. Some referred me to others while some offered encouragement and feedback. Below are select quotes from the responses I received:

Let me recommend Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies, The Myth of the Eastern Front (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008). It provides an interesting (or horrifying) look at the topic you wrote about.
— Charles D. Melson, U.S. Marine Corps Chief Historian (retired)

This is fascinating and quite disturbing.
— Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust historian

I had noticed occasionally that on some pages this myth of the clean Wehrmacht is reproduced but wasn't aware that it is done so systematically. Even more do I appreciate your work.
— Thomas Kühne, historian of Nazi Germany

The English Wikipedia pages are far more sympathetic towards the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS than the German ones. Of the mainstream websites, Wikipedia and Amazon are the worst distributors of pro-Nazi perspectives and the Wehrmacht myth.
— Jens Westemeier, military historian

Yes, this is one of those myths about Nazi Germany at war that simply won't lie down and die, no matter how many stakes are driven through its heart. The nature of Wikipedia is a large part of the problem, because "enthusiasts" are the ones who tend to spend the most time writing and editing.
— S.P. MacKenzie, military historian

Some sources belong in the dustbin of history

Why should this concern Wikipedia editors? First, I believe that mythology in our articles has a large—and detrimental—impact on the popular perception of the World War II history, due to Wikipedia's high rankings in search engines and perceived authoritativeness. An academic article may be read by a thousand of people in total, but a page on Heinz Guderian, for example, receives an average of a thousand views per day, every day.

Second, we should use sources that do not meet the bar set forth in WP:MILMOS#SOURCES with caution. In my experience, the types of sources that almost always turn out to be problematic fall roughly into these three categories:

  1. Phaleristics-oriented catalogues of award winners and their respective decorations; these are primary sources insufficient for establishing notability or for sourcing matters of history.
  2. Landser-pulp literature, known in German as Landser Hefte, which aims to heroicise the military men and strays into historical fiction while doing so. Franz Kurowski is the prime example of such authors.
  3. Deliberate historical distortions, published by authors such as the fringe Richard Landwehr and various authors affiliated with HIAG, the post-war Waffen-SS lobby group in West Germany. In German, these works are generally published by far-right and extremist publishers such as the Munin Verlag, the Arndt Verlag, and the Nation Europa Verlag, among others.

In North America, Group 2 & 3 titles are being published by militaria presses J.J. Fedorowicz and Schiffer Publishing. Some eventually find their way into speciality publishers, such as Osprey Publishing and Stackpole Books that have a wider distribution. The prolific Kurowski reached even wider audiences through the publication of his works in the mass-market Ballantine Books.

"A new era has opened in which new histories and fresh perspectives on the war [on the Eastern Front] are not only possible, but expected. It is no longer acceptable to simply parrot the views of historians who wrote their books, no matter how definitive at the time, more than twenty years ago."

—Historian Lee Baker, of University of Cincinnati, writing in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies in 2008[15]

Finally, we need to be aware of the conflict between recent historiography and older popular history or even academic publications, which present more positive views of the German military, such as those steeped in Cold war mentality. The key underlying issue is that many sources that would normally meet Wikipedia's criteria for WP:IRS are unusable because they are dated or skewed by political or self-serving, exculpatory motivations.

Wikipedia can be a wonderful resource to educate the public about the important issues of history. What’s great about it is that it’s always evolving, with new knowledge added all the time. It’s in everybody’s interest that this knowledge is free of historical distortions. I’m looking a for wider awareness of these issues and I thank The Bugle for providing me with an opportunity to share my perspective.

K.e.coffman has been a member of WikiProject:Military History since 2015. His Good Articles include Rommel myth, HIAG, Arthur Nebe, Hitler's Generals on Trial, Mogilev Conference, and others. K.e.coffman can be reached at User talk:K.e.coffman or via email

See also


  1. ^ a b Headquarters Gazette, Society for Military History, Winter 2018, p. 10.
  2. ^ Smelser & Davies 2008, p. 191.
  3. ^ See AfD:List of Stuka aces and 2015 version of the Panzer ace article.
  4. ^ "...the coveted Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub)..." in Otto Weiß (pilot).
  5. ^ "His jovial, caring attitude towards his troops resulted in him being granted the affectionate nickname Papa Scholz" in Fritz von Scholz, cited to a hagiographic source.
  6. ^ "Opposition of the Nazi Party" (section), in Wilhelm Bittrich (uncited).
  7. ^ Edit summary: "It is a firm fact, was Marseille rabidly anti-Nazi" in Der Stern von Afrika.
  8. ^ "The Cardinal left notes in his diary praising Bayerlein for his humanitarianism", in Fritz Bayerlein (uncited).
  9. ^ "Humanitarianism" (section), in Erwin Rommel. See also: "Humanitarian actions" (section) and "humanitarian actions" (body), both in Wehrmacht.
  10. ^ "On September 19, 1944 Police Battalion 287 had a clash in Klooga concentration camp with members of the German Sonderkommando, who tried to execute prisoners in the camp", in Estonian Auxiliary Police, cited to a fan site. See also: Talk:36th Estonian Police Battalion#Novogrudok.
  11. ^ As detailed on Talk#Use of source, in Arthur Nebe.
  12. ^ Problematic WII content: Selection of diffs on my user page.
  13. ^ See for example: Talk#Sources, in Hans-Ulrich Rudel; Talk#Propaganda origins, in Helmut Wick; and Talk#Tags, in Erich Hartmann.
  14. ^ See for example: Talk#Leeb and Einsatzgruppe A, in Wilhelm von Leeb, and Talk#Commissar order, in Erich Hoepner.
  15. ^ Baker, Lee (2008): "Review: The German Defeat in the East, 1944-1945 by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr". Journal of Slavic Military Studies. Jul-Sep 2008, Vol. 21 Issue 3, pp. 593-594. DOI: 10.1080/13518040802313985.

Further reading

  • Smelser, Ronald; Davies, Edward J. (2008). The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83365-3.
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  • Thank you for this essay! Very thoughtful. On the whole I think much of our military history coverage (across nations and eras) tends to take an overly "heroic" tone, reflecting many bombastic popular-history sources, but I hadn't previously considered this to be a particular problem for WW2 Germany articles. What can we do about it - except be more sceptical of low-quality sources? The Land (talk) 20:28, 8 April 2018 (UTC)
    @The Land: the challenges seems to be especially pronounced in the German military articles, in part due to the concerted efforts to establish and support the myth of the clean Wehrmacht, which found its way into English-language sources during the Cold war. There's no myth of the clean Red Army, for example. I don't have a ready-made solution apart from, as you say, being critical of dated and / or self-serving sources. --K.e.coffman (talk) 02:25, 12 April 2018 (UTC)
    @The Land: I have written about my own experience in an earlier Op-ed in 2011, which you might enjoy. While notability requires reliable third-party sources, it is important to understand that verifiability does not. You don't have to source an article on netball from books on cricket! On Wikipedia, we have a concept of a reliable source; but as historians, we are often confronted with sources of varying reliability. Sources can date, and even recently published ones can contain outdated material; the book review from Lee baker quoted above goes on to say: "This book, unfortunately, does just that"! Sometimes poor or outdated sources are all we have, so that is what he must use; but on Wikipedia, we have the inside running: we can correct the articles as new and better material becomes available. (It is frustrating, though, to see mistakes being replicated that we have already corrected on Wikipedia.) While we demand a neutral point of view in the articles, that doesn't apply to the sources we use! You can still use Fox News to source an article about Hilary Clinton! Hawkeye7 (discuss) 06:05, 12 April 2018 (UTC)
    @Hawkeye7: I'm a bit surprised at this comment: Sometimes poor or outdated sources are all we have, so that is what he must use. Why must we use "poor" sources? K.e.coffman (talk) 02:23, 14 April 2018 (UTC)
    It's our purpose: to collect knowledge into an encyclopaedia. We use the best sources we have, in the knowledge that some subjects have better quality sources than others. For some of Shakespeare's plays we have editions in quarto and folio; from which we know that the folios are better, but sometimes flawed; but for many plays we have only the folios, so that's what we must use. Hawkeye7 (discuss) 03:04, 14 April 2018 (UTC)
    @Hawkeye7: I'm not sure I'm following your example. I assume you mean Shakespeare's First Folio above, among others. If so, we would not use the Folio for an article on Shakespeare's work; we'd use a secondary source instead, written by (hopefully) an expert in the field. If we knew that the author were a crank and a fraud, would we still use such a source?
In a similar fashion, quality in military history sources vary greatly when it comes to the German war effort of 1939-45. We know that certain publications, authors and publishers are apologist, denialist, hagiographic, Landser-pulp, extremist, and / or written by former NS-propagandists, etc. Would you still advocate using such sources, especially for our Good, A-Class and Featured Articles? Here's one specific example: Talk:Helmut_Wick#Propaganda_origins. This is an A-class article: Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/Assessment/Helmut Wick. I would appreciate hearing your take. K.e.coffman (talk) 01:11, 16 April 2018 (UTC)

Comments (2)

  • It's funny. The effort to purge slanted accounts about Wermacht heroics looks the same as historical revisionism designed to paint all Germans with the same Nazi brush. Chris Troutman (talk) 01:54, 11 April 2018 (UTC)
  • I agree, @Chris troutman:: the effort to purge sources seems remarkably like revisionism at its worst. In an of itself, revisionism is not necessarily a bad thing, and ideas about WWII are undergoing significant revision now. I'm thinking specifically of Chris Browning's analysis in his 1970s dissertation of "finalization" of the Final Solution (it actually happened before the Wannsee Conference.) Some of the "military" focused histories on inept leadership, weather, terrain, and material advantages as reasons for German loss in the East does not mean they belong to the "lost cause". These were indeed reasons the Germans lost in the east. Wars are not necessarily won or lost on ideology alone. It seems to me that an appropriate balance between concrete disadvantages in the east, the massive manpower the Soviets could mobilize, and the ideological challenges of European antisemitism combine to explain some of the German problems in Eastern Europe. I've noticed, also, a very pro-Soviet leaning emerging in these articles: the Soviets were not angels in how they treated the population, the enemy, and even their own troops. The advantage of Wikipedia is that it can be an evolving analysis of the conflict, not one locked in time and space. As such, we need to give room to a variety of analytical tools used by historians to examine the past. auntieruth (talk) 14:39, 20 April 2018 (UTC)
  • @Auntieruth55: if there are articles glorifying the Red Army, please raise the issue at MILHIST or let me know directly so that I can have a look. I'm an equal opportunity editor :-). Re: inept leadership, weather, terrain, and material advantages (...) These were indeed reasons the Germans lost in the east - you've just enumerated what historian Jonathan House calls "Three Wehrmacht Alibis". He has a lecture on YouTube on the topic that I recommend highly; very interesting:
K.e.coffman (talk) 01:37, 21 April 2018 (UTC)
Unlike pro-nazi apologists and anti-soviet propagandists, I'm interested in the similarities of the C20th Johnny come latelys with the Western slave empires and their crimes against humanity, which began at least as far back as the 17th Century and haven't stopped. That dog barks louder than both factions, it makes them seem a little Laputan. RegardsKeith-264 (talk) 19:19, 24 April 2018 (UTC)

Comments (3)

  • A really good article. This problem has troubled me for a while and used to be particularly bad on the pages of minor (usually non-German) Waffen SS divisions. Your contributions, K.e.coffman, have made a real difference.—Brigade Piron (talk) 06:58, 25 April 2018 (UTC)