David Harrisville, "The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier"

David Harrisville, "The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944"

Chaired by Chad S.A. Gibbs (College of Charleston)
Comment by Thomas Kühne (Clark University)

24 February 2022
2:00PM CST

Sponsored by:
George L. Mosse Program in History
College of Charleston Zucker/Goldberg Center for Holocaust Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for European Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History

Based on the recent publication, "The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944" (Cornell University Press, 2022). Visit the book website here: @81501760044/the-virtuous-wehrmacht/

"The Virtuous Wehrmacht" explores the myth of the German armed forces' innocence during World War II by reconstructing the moral world of German soldiers on the Eastern Front. How did they avoid feelings of guilt about the many atrocities their side committed? David A. Harrisville compellingly demonstrates that this myth of innocence was created during the course of the war itself—and did not arise as a postwar whitewashing of events.

In 1941 three million Wehrmacht troops overran the border between German- and Soviet-occupied Poland, racing toward the USSR in the largest military operation in modern history. Over the next four years, they embarked on a campaign of wanton brutality, murdering countless civilians, systemically starving millions of Soviet prisoners of war, and actively participating in the genocide of Eastern European Jews. After the war, however, German servicemen insisted that they had fought honorably and that their institution had never involved itself in Nazi crimes.

Drawing on more than two thousand letters from German soldiers, contextualized by operational and home front documents, Harrisville shows that this myth was the culmination of long-running efforts by the army to preserve an illusion of respectability in the midst of a criminal operation. The primary authors of this fabrication were ordinary soldiers cultivating a decent self-image and developing moral arguments to explain their behavior by drawing on a constellation of values that long preceded Nazism.

"The Virtuous Wehrmacht" explains how the army encouraged troops to view themselves as honorable representatives of a civilized nation, not only racially but morally superior to others.

David Harrisville specializes in the history of the Third Reich and the Second World War. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017, where he served as a Teaching Assistant and later a Lecturer and postdoctoral fellow. He has held several fellowships, including at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—through the George L. Mosse Program—and at the Free University of Berlin. From 2018-2019 he served as Visiting Assistant Professor of Modern European History at Furman University in South Carolina.

Chad S.A. Gibbs serves as director of the Zucker/Goldberg Center for Holocaust Studies and assistant professor of Jewish Studies. He is a historian of the Holocaust, antisemitism, modern Germany, and war and society. Chad’s current project focuses on gender, geography, and social networks in Jewish resistance at Treblinka. Chad has held fellowships from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Yale University Fortunoff Video Archive, the George L. Mosse Program in History, and the USC Shoah Foundation, where he remains an Affiliated Researcher. His extensive work in oral histories at several archives contributes teaching and scholarly interests in the collection and analysis of survivor testimonies as well as the generational transmission of knowledge and trauma.

Prior to academic life, Chad served eight years in the US Army including combat deployment to Iraq. He was wounded there in 2006 and medically retired in 2009. The intersection of Chad’s military background and research interests drives his desire to bring the lessons of the Holocaust in the form of genocide and atrocity prevention training to military audiences. In this area, he has recently led professional development sessions for US Army leaders at Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, TX.

Chad received his PhD in History with a minor in Gender and Women’s History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his MA in History from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and his BA in History from the University of Wyoming.

Thomas Kühne is the Director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, where he holds the Strassler Chair in Holocaust History. He teaches Modern European and German History, with a focus on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. His research explores the place of war and genocide in long-term traditions of political culture and political emotions, and of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in the continuities and discontinuities of the 20th century.
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