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The Nazi Party: Military Organization of the Third Reich

Oberkommando der Wehrmacht

The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW (Wehrmacht High Command, Armed Forces High Command) was part of the command structure of the German armed forces during World War II. In theory, it served as the military general staff for Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, coordinating the efforts of the German Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine), and Air Force (Luftwaffe). In theory, the OKW was only Hitler’s military office, was charged with translating Hitler’s ideas into military orders, and had little real control over the Army, Navy, and Air Force High Commands. However, as the war progressed the OKW found itself exercising increasing amounts of direct command authority over military units, particularly in the West. This created a situation such that by 1942 the OKW was the de facto command of Western forces while the OKH (the Army High Command) exercised de facto command of the Russian front.

The OKW had been formed in 1938 following the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair which led to the dismissal of Werner von Blomberg and the dissolution of the Reichswehrministerium (Reich Ministry of War).

There was a rivalry between OKW and the OKH (Army High Command, Oberkommando des Heeres): Because most German operations during World War II were army operations (with air support), the Army High Command demanded control over the German military forces. Hitler decided against the OKH and in favor of the OKW.

During the war, more and more influence moved from the OKH to the OKW. Norway was the first “OKW war theater.” More and more theaters came under the complete control of the OKW. Finally, only the Russian Front stayed under the control of the Army High Command.

The OKW ran military operations on the Western Front, in Africa, and in Italy. In the west operations were further split between the OKW and the Oberbefehlshaber West (OBW, Commander in Chief West), who was Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt (later Field Marshal Günther von Kluge).

There was even more fragmentation as naval and air operations had their own commands (Oberkommando der Marine (OKM) and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL, Hermann Göring)) which, while theoretically subordinate, were largely independent of the OKW or the OBW.

The OKW was headed for the entire war by Wilhelm Keitel and reported directly to Hitler, from whom most operational orders actually originated as he had made himself Oberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht (Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces) and Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres (head of the OKH).

Alfred Jodl was Keitel’s Chef des Wehrmachtführungsstabes (Chief of Operation Staff), while Walter Warlimont was Deputy Chief.

The OKW was indicted but acquitted of charges during the Nuremberg trials of being a criminal organization. Keitel and Jodl however were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.

Oberkommando des Heeres

The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) was Germany’s Army High Command. In theory, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) commanded the OKH. However, the de facto situation after 1941 was that the OKW directly commanded operations on the Western front while the OKH commanded the Russian front.

The German Heer, or army, was formed in May of 1935. It was formed after the passing of the Law for the Reconstruction of the National Defense Forces. This law brought back into existence a free-standing German army, navy, and airforce, something that had been essentially banned after the end of World War I.

With the end of World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Weimar Republic - the successor to Imperial Germany - was allowed only a small defensive military force known as the Reichswehr. The Reichswehr’s size and composition were strictly controlled by the Allies in the hope that by restricting its constitution they could prevent future German military aggression. The Reichswehr consisted of 100,000 men divided between a small standing army, the Reichsheer, and a small defensive navy, the Reichsmarine.

In 1933, the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) came to power and the infamous Third Reich was born. Two years later in 1935, the Treaty of Versailles was renounced and the Reichswehr became the Wehrmacht. The newly formed Wehrmacht would still consist of an army and a navy - the renamed Heer and Kriegsmarine, but a new airforce was born as well - the Luftwaffe.

The Heer initially consisted of 21 Divisional-sized units and 3 Army Groups to control them, as well as numerous smaller formations. Between 1935 and 1945, this force grew to consist of hundreds of Divisions, dozens of Army Groups, and thousands of smaller supporting units. Between 1939 and 1945, close to 13 million served in the Heer. Over 1.6 million were killed and over 4.1 million were wounded. Of the 7361 men awarded the initial grade of the highest German combat honor of WWII, the Knights Cross, 4777 were from the Heer making up 65% of the total awarded.

Between 1939 and 1945 the Heer bore the majority of six years worth of fierce combat, some of which was so fierce - as on the Eastern Front - humankind will likely never again see such fighting. Although not immune to the overtones of politics and the occasional brush with questionable actions, the vast majority of German Heer units served with great distinction across many thousands of miles of battlefields.

The Heer was defeated with the German capitulation on May 8, 1945, although some units continued to fight for a few days longer in fits of sporadic resistance, mainly against the Soviets in the East. The Allied Control Council passed a law formally dissolving the Wehrmacht on the 20th of August 1946, the official "death" date of the German Heer.

There also existed the Oberkommando der Marine (OKM) and the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) for the navy and the air force respectively. These were theoretically subordinate to the OKW, but in actuality acted quite independently.

The Army commanders (Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres, or OBdH for short) of the Wehrmacht were,

Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch (1935 - 1938)

Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch (1938 to December 19, 1941)

Führer and Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler (December 19, 1941 - April 30, 1945)

Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner April 30, 1945 - May 8, 1945)

Following German tradition, the OBdH did not plan operations. This task was left to the General Staff, so actually, the most important man in the Army (and the Navy, but less so in the Luftwaffe, which was commanded by Hermann Göring) was the chief of the general staff. It should be noted that the Heer (army) always has been the leading factor in planning campaigns. Thus there was no such thing as combined planning of the different services. The position of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, which was by definition superior to the OKH, was not intended for that, nor did it have the resources to do so.

Later in the war, the OKH became responsible for fewer and fewer tasks. For example, the invasion of Norway was entirely planned outside the OKH.

During World War II, the Chiefs of General Staff were:

Generaloberst Franz Halder (September 1, 1938 - September 24, 1942)

Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler (September 24, 1942 - June 10, 1944)

Generalleutnant Adolf Heusinger  )June 10, 1944 - July 24, 1944)

Generaloberst Heinz Guderian (July 21, 1944 - March 28, 1945)

General der Infanterie Hans Kreb (April 1, 1945 -  April 30, 1945)

When Hitler took command of the army on 19 Dec 1941, the importance of the GenStdH decreased, and Hitler continued to become more and more responsible for operational planning.

Oberkommando der Marine

The Oberkommando der Marine (or OKM for short) was Germany’s Naval High Command until 1945. The German Kriegsmarine, or navy, was formed in May of 1935. It was formed after the passing of the "Law for the Reconstruction of the National Defense Forces". This law brought back into existence a free-standing German army, navy, and airforce, something that had been essentially banned after the end of World War I.

The Kriegsmarine can be said to have consisted of three main components between 1935 and 1945, individual naval vessels, naval formations consisting of specific types of ships, and a wide variety of ground-based units. From these three main components, the Kriegsmarine fielded thousands of ships and hundreds of naval formations and ground units. Between 1939 and 1945, over 1.5 million served in the Kriegsmarine. Over 65,000 were killed, over 105,000 went missing and over 21,000 were wounded. Of the 7361 men awarded the initial grade of the highest German combat honor of WWII, the Knights Cross, 318 were from the Kriegsmarine making up 4% of the total awarded.

Of all the branches of the Wehrmacht, the Kriegsmarine was the most under-appreciated. It fought against superior numbers on almost every front with a force greatly limited by a lack of effective coordination and a harsh misunderstanding from within the German High Command (OKW). Although Allied air and naval power largely destroyed the entire German High Seas Fleet and U-boat force, the smaller and auxiliary vessels of the Kriegsmarine continued to serve effectively until the last hours of WWII. These vessels saw service along thousands of miles of coast in every theater of war and provided an important link in the backbone of the Wehrmacht.

German naval ground units also provided a critical service during WWII, manning massive guns along the Atlantic Wall in the west and naval flak and artillery units all across Western and Eastern Europe. There were also countless naval infantry, engineer, and communications units as well. In the last months of WWII, almost all of the naval ground units were involved directly in the fighting of some form or another, some naval units even took part in the Battle for Berlin in 1945.

The Kriegsmarine was officially disbanded in August of 1946 by the Allied Control Commission, although many smaller Kriegsmarine ships survived on active service, now under Allied control, as a part of the German contingent to clear the oceans and seas of mines sown by Axis and Allies alike.

The commanders (Oberbefehlshaber des Marine, or OBdM for short) of the Kriegsmarine were:

Grossadmiral Erich Raeder (September 24, 1928- January 30, 1943)

Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz (January 30, 1943 - May 1, 1945)

Generaladmiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg (after Dönitz becomes Head of State when Hitler committed suicide) (May 1, 1945 - May 8, 1945)

The Luftwaffe

The German Luftwaffe, or airforce, was formed in May of 1935. It was formed after the passing of the Law for the Reconstruction of the National Defense Forces. This law brought back into existence a free-standing German army, navy, and airforce, something that had been essentially banned after the end of World War I.

Although officially announced in 1935, the Luftwaffe had existed in one form or another practically since the day the treaty banning it had been signed. Initially, there were Freikorps air units, then later glider and sailplane formations tasked with finding ways around the rigid restrictions of Versailles, a secret training base in the Soviet Union, and various cover organizations for the initial forming of the new German airforce.

The Luftwaffe consisted of air units that made up the majority of the German airforce, as well as Fallschrimjäger units, Luftwaffe Field Divisions, the elite Herman Göring ground formations, thousands of smaller anti-aircraft, engineer, communications, and security units, and a fair number of Luftwaffe naval vessels and formations as well. Between 1939 and 1945 over 3.4 million served in the Luftwaffe. Over 165,000 were killed, over 155,000 went missing and over 192,000 were wounded. Of the 7361 men awarded the initial grade of the highest German combat honor of WWII, the Knights Cross, 1785 were from the Luftwaffe making up 24% of the total awarded.

Initially, the Luftwaffe ruled the skies but thereafter fought an increasingly futile war of attrition which when combined with vital mistakes in aircraft production and utilization, was its death knoll. In the face of this, the Luftwaffe produced the most successful air aces of all time. As well, the feats of the Fallschirmjäger in the first airborne operations in history are as heroic as they are tragic. German paratroops suffered appalling losses on Crete and essentially never saw large-scale airborne operations again. Some Luftwaffe ground units fought well during WWII, such as certain Luftwaffe field divisions and the elite Hermann Göring formations, while other units simply served.

Ultimately the structure of the Luftwaffe was a grand reflection of its commander, Hermann Göring. He strove to create a personal army with responsibilities as far-reaching as possible. It was partly due to the strain on resources and manpower that the Wehrmacht was ultimately defeated. 

The Luftwaffe was officially disbanded in August of 1946 by the Allied Control Commission.

The SA

The Sturmabteilung (SA, German for “Storm Division” and is usually translated as stormtroops or stormtroopers) functioned as a paramilitary organization of the NSDAP – the German Nazi party. It played a key role in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. SA men were often known as brownshirts from the color of their uniform and to distinguish them from the SS who were known as blackshirts.

The SA was also the first Nazi paramilitary group to develop pseudo-military titles for bestowal upon its members. The SA ranks would be adopted by several other Nazi Party groups, chief among them the SS.

The SS

The Schutzstaffel (Protective Squadron), or SS, was a large paramilitary organization that belonged to the Nazi party. The SS was led by Heinrich Himmler from 1929 until it was disbanded in 1945 with the defeat of Germany in World War II. The Nazis regarded the SS as an elite unit, a Party’s “praetorian guard,” with all SS personnel selected on racial and ideological grounds. The SS was distinguished from the German military, Nazi Party, and German state officials by their own SS ranks, SS unit insignia, and SS uniforms.

The most recognizable branches of the SS, later charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, were the departments that comprised the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA, Reich Security Head Office), Sicherheitsdienst (SD, Security Service), Einsatzgruppen (Special Mission Groups), the concentration camp service known as the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV, Death’s Head Formations), and the Gestapo (Secret State Police).

The SS fighting units, called the Waffen-SS, were to evolve into highly skilled and effective soldiers, in many cases superior in these respects to the German army, the Heer.

Of all the German military organizations of WWII, the Waffen-SS is one of the most widely studied. This is in part because of the combat record of the Waffen-SS and the elite status of many of its units, and in part because of the brutality attributed to some of its formations and the war crimes some of its members were responsible for. By the end of WWII, over 1,000,000 soldiers in 38 divisions would serve in the Waffen-SS, including over 200,000 conscripts.

The Waffen-SS was a part of the German Schutzstaffel or SS, which saw its rise during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The SS was the single most powerful political organization within the Third Reich and consisted of the Allgemeine-SS, Totenkopfverbande, and the Waffen-SS.

The Waffen-SS was born in 1933 after Hitler came to power when Politisches Bereitschaften or Political Readiness Detachments were formed under the control of the SS. These units were organized along military lines and were intended to help counter Communist strikes. On October 1st, 1934 these units became the SS-Verfügungstruppen or SS Special Use Troops. Initially, the Verfügungstruppen consisted of small detachments located in larger German cities but by 1935 they were organized into battalions and in 1936 into Standarten or regiments. In 1936 two main SS-V Standarten existed, Deutschland and Germania. The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler also existed at this time and although related it was considered somewhat outside the purview of the SS-V.

In 1938 the SS-Verfügungstruppen took part in the occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia alongside the Wehrmacht. After the occupation of Austria, a third Standart was formed known as Der Führer. In 1939, the SS-Verfügungstruppen consisted of three Standarden, the LAH, and a number of smaller service and support units. For the Campaign in Poland in 1939, all SS-V units were organized into the SS-Verfügungstruppe-Division and placed under the operational command of the Wehrmacht. The SS-Verfügungstruppe-Division also fought in the Western Campaign of 1940. After the conclusion of the Western Campaign, the SS-Verfügungstruppen was renamed and became the Waffen-SS.

Although the Waffen-SS is frequently considered an elite organization not all of its units were actually elite. Some Waffen-SS units formed after 1943 had less-than-ideal combat records. This was in part due to the fact that the number of volunteers eligible for service in the Waffen-SS shrank as the war continued while the need for replacements increased. The number of conscripts taken into the Waffen-SS of lesser quality or questionable ability had a direct impact on combat effectiveness.

After WWII ended the Waffen-SS was condemned at the Nurnberg Trials as a criminal organization. This was in part due to a series of high-profile atrocities and because of their connection to the SS and NSDAP. Only those who were conscripted into the Waffen-SS were exempt from the Nurnberg declaration. As a result, Waffen-SS veterans were generally denied the rights and benefits granted to other WWII German veterans. Waffen-SS prisoners of war were often held in strict confinement and were treated harshly by the Soviets. Many foreign volunteers that served in the Waffen-SS were also treated severely by their national governments. In the years since WWII, there have been attempts to rehabilitate the image and legality of Waffen-SS veterans, both through legislation and in published works by former officers like Paul Hausser (Soldaten wie andere auch - Soldiers Like Any Other). To this day the stigma on veterans from the Waffen-SS remains.

After the war, the judges of the Nuremberg Trials declared the entirety of the SS as a criminal organization, among others because of its implementation of racial policies of genocide.

The Volkssturm

The Volkssturm, literally translated as People’s Storm in the meaning of National Storm, was a German national militia of the last months of the Nazi regime. It was founded on Adolf Hitler’s orders on October 18, 1944 and effectively conscripted all males between the ages of 16 to 60 years of age (who did not already serve in some military unit) as part of the German Home Guard.

National Socialist Motor Corps

The National Socialist Motor Corps (German: Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrerkorps; NSKK), also known as the National Socialist Drivers Corps, was a paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party that existed from 1931 to 1945. The group was a successor organization to the older National Socialist Automobile Corps, which had existed since the beginning of 1930.

The National Socialist Motor Corps was the smallest of the Nazi Party organizations and had originally been formed as a motorized corps of the Sturmabteilung (SA). In 1934, the group had a membership of approximately ten thousand and was separated from the SA to become an independent organization. This action may have saved the NSKK from extinction, as shortly thereafter the SA suffered a major purge during the Night of the Long Knives.

The primary aim of the NSKK was to educate its members in motoring skills. They were mainly trained in the operation and maintenance of high-performance motorcycles and automobiles. In the mid 1930s, the NSKK also served as a roadside assistance group, comparable to the modern-day American Automobile Association or the British Automobile Association.

Membership in the NSKK did not require any knowledge of automobiles and the group was known to accept persons for membership without driver’s licenses. It was thought that training in the NSKK would make up for any previous lack of knowledge. The NSKK did, however, adhere to racial doctrine and screened its members for Aryan qualities. The NSKK was also a paramilitary organization with its own system of paramilitary ranks.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the National Socialist Motor Corps became a target of the Wehrmacht for recruitment, since NSKK members possessed knowledge of motorized transport, whereas the bulk of the Wehrmacht relied on horses. Most NSKK members thereafter joined the regular military, serving in the transport corps of the various service branches.

In 1945, the NSKK was disbanded and the group was declared a “condemned organization” at the Nuremberg Trials (although not a criminal one). This was due in part to the NSKK’s origins in the SA and its doctrine of racial superiority required from its members.

National Socialist Flyers Corps

The National Socialist Flyers Corps was a paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party that was founded in the early 1930s during the years when a German Air Force was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. The organization was based closely on the organization of the Sturmabteilung (SA) and maintained a system of paramilitary ranks closely associated with the SA.

During the early years of its existence, the NSFK conducted military aviation training in gliders and private airplanes. When Nazi Germany formed the Luftwaffe, many NSFK members transferred. As all such prior NSFK members were also Nazi Party members; this gave the new Luftwaffe a strong Nazi ideological base in contrast to the other branches of the German military, which were comprised of “Old Guard” officers from the German aristocracy.

The National Socialist Flyers Corps continued to exist after the Luftwaffe was founded but to a much smaller degree. During World War II, the NSFK mainly performed air defense duties such as reserve anti-aircraft service.

Source: Feldgrau.