Wikipedia's myth of the clean Wehrmacht and what you can do about it
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.
Nowhere was the distorted picture more apparent than on English Wikipedia c. 2015, with the articles on "Stuka aces" and "Panzer aces"; thousands of recipients of the "coveted Knight’s Cross" awarded for "extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership"; and generals leading from "the frontlines" with "jovial, caring attitude". There were Waffen-SS commanders who "opposed the Nazi party" and Luftwaffe pilots who were "rabidly anti-Nazi". A Wehrmacht general was "praised for his humanitarianism", while a field marshal had a whole section dedicated to same. Collaborationist police units "clashed" with SS forces, who moreover only "tried" to execute concentration camp inmates. In the more extreme example, a commander of an SS death squad "worked (...) to reduce the atrocities committed".
That some of Wikipedia's low-trafficked articles would be sourced to AchtungPanzer!, Aces of the Luftwaffe, and other dubious websites was not surprising. 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, "ace" status, enemy materiel destroyed—ships sunk, aircraft downed, tanks "busted", bridges blown up, 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.
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.
Reaching out to outside experts
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 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.
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:
- Phaleristics-oriented catalogues of award winners and their respective decorations; these are primary sources insufficient for establishing notability or for sourcing matters of history.
- 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.
- 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.
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 Signpost for providing me with an opportunity to share my perspective.
K.e.coffman has been a member of WikiProject:Military History since 2015 and a member of the Society for Military History since 2017. 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 wiki.coffman-at-gmail.com.
Related community discussions from WP:MILHIST archives:
- Report from German Wiki (2011)
- Helden der Wehrmacht (Heroes of the Wehrmacht) (2013)
- WWII content: Otto Kittel, other GA/FA articles (2016)
- GA / FA articles (2017)
- * 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. p. 191. ISBN 978-0-521-83365-3.
- Headquarters Gazette, Society for Military History, Winter 2018, p. 10.
- See AfD:List of Stuka aces and 2015 version of the Panzer ace article.
- "...the coveted Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub)..." in Otto Weiß (pilot).
- "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.
- "Opposition of the Nazi Party" (section), in Wilhelm Bittrich (uncited).
- Edit summary: "It is a firm fact, was Marseille rabidly anti-Nazi" in Der Stern von Afrika.
- "The Cardinal left notes in his diary praising Bayerlein for his humanitarianism", in Fritz Bayerlein (uncited).
- "Humanitarianism" (section), in Erwin Rommel. See also: "Humanitarian actions" (section) and "humanitarian actions" (body), both in Wehrmacht.
- "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.
- As detailed on Talk#Use of source, in Arthur Nebe.
- Problematic WII content: Selection of diffs on my user page.
- See for example: Talk#Sources, in Hans-Ulrich Rudel; Talk#Propaganda origins, in Helmut Wick; and Talk#Tags, in Erich Hartmann. All three are GA / MilHist A-class articles.
- See for example: Talk#Leeb and Einsatzgruppe A, in Wilhelm von Leeb, and Talk#Commissar order, in Erich Hoepner.
- Note: Before submitting my draft to SMH, I approached each historian for quote approval. My email was: "I reached out to the U.S. based Society of Military History http://www.smh-hq.org/, who invited me to submit an article for their newsletter. I'd like your permission to quote you in the article, which is attached as a Word document." Sample responses were: "I have no objection to my inclusion as quoted in your piece for the SMH newsletter" and: "You have permission to quote me. In fact, you can say: this is fascinating and quite disturbing".
- 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.