Violence in defeat: the Wehrmacht and late-war society in East Prussia, 1944-1945
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date27/11/2020
Willems, Bastiaan Pieter Valentijn
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During the battles for East Prussia in the final year of the Second World War, the ruthless conduct of German troops resulted in vast material and personal damage. By focusing on the besieged ‘Festung Königsberg’ in the spring of 1945, this dissertation argues that the violence that transpired in Germany in 1945 can only be understood by devoting sustained attention to local actors and factors. By combining social history and military history approaches, the research restores agency to the German army, the Wehrmacht, as an active participant in the radicalisation of the German home front. This case study demonstrates that due to the fragmentation of Germany, the decisions and orders of Wehrmacht commanders had a disproportionately large impact at a local level. The radical nature of these decisions was the direct result of the commanders’ violent experiences during the preceding years, while the barbarised mindset of the rank-and-file encouraged the rigorous enforcement of military authority. The dissertation’s findings contribute to four themes within the historiography of the Second World War. First, it contributes to the recent debate surrounding the German Volksgemeinschaft by drawing attention to the limits of loyalty to the regime, and the actors and events that prompted this fidelity to shift. Secondly, by analysing a large number of unused archival sources, it provides the first in-depth urban history of everyday life in Königsberg during its 1945 siege. Thirdly, it challenges the conventional historiographical view in which fanatical Party officials were the main perpetrators of late-war violence by emphasising the significance of the Wehrmacht as a key actor. Even though large numbers of German troops operated in close proximity to German civilians, their conduct has hardly been considered as an explanation of the events of 1945. Lastly, this dissertation combines and transcends the different perspectives on German domestic and martial law, suggesting that the two were ever more closely intertwined as the war progressed, resulting in a shift of behavioural patterns. The focus on Königsberg and its immediate surroundings has allowed for a re-examination of late-war society, being the first to focus attention on the triadic relationship of Wehrmacht, Party, and civilian population.