The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)
Nuremberg, war crimes, crimes against humanity

The Trial of German Major War Criminals

Sitting at Nuremberg, Germany
9th August to 21st August 1946

Two Hundredth Day: Saturday, 10th August, 1946
(Part 1 of 6)

[Page 50]



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 Russia?

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 like

[Page 51]

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 generals?

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

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 successful.

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 yours?

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 everywhere.

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

[Page 52]

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 situation.

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 area.

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?

[Page 53]

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 war?

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 decisions.

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 problem

[Page 54]

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.

[ Previous | Index | Next ]

Home ·  Site Map ·  What's New? ·  Search Nizkor

© The Nizkor Project, 1991-2012

This site is intended for educational purposes to teach about the Holocaust and to combat hatred. Any statements or excerpts found on this site are for educational purposes only.

As part of these educational purposes, Nizkor may include on this website materials, such as excerpts from the writings of racists and antisemites. Far from approving these writings, Nizkor condemns them and provides them so that its readers can learn the nature and extent of hate and antisemitic discourse. Nizkor urges the readers of these pages to condemn racist and hate speech in all of its forms and manifestations.