Why didn't Wehrmacht Soldiers refuse to execute civilians (and Kids) when it was clear that they did nothing wrong?

I know that they were probably told they're partisans or Jews or something along those lines but still I find it hard to believe that so many soldiers executed them for no real reason.

Also how did those soldiers deal with the stress that obviously comes alongside executing innocent people?

Are there any known suicides or mental breakdowns of Wehrmacht Soldiers after such executions?

How did the generals deal with those refusing to shoot?

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    Why the question about Wehrmacht soldiers, specifically? It's not like they're a special case. There are documented examples of soldiers murdering civilians in just about every army and war there's ever been. Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 22:42
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    The Czech revenge-executed civilians after the war, even roday, civilians get executed in war zones, also by U.S. forces. I strongly suspect that this has something to do with the human nature: Even if the „follow your orders“ theory is right, someone must have given the order, so there is a precedent for such thoughts...
    – Narusan
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 5:17
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    Also note that the majority of Wehrmacht soldiers were just like any other soldier on either side of the war, and never was in a situation where he would have been supposed to kill civilians. So most of them didn't even have to refuse, as they were not ordered to. Those who were ordered to (and/or did) execute civilians, were only a very small minority of all the soldiers.
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 6:27
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    Useful : C.Browning's Ordinary Men : "a study of German Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) Reserve Unit 101, which committed massacres and round-ups of Jews for deportations to the Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland in 1942. The conclusion of the book was that the men of Unit 101 killed out of a basic obedience to authority and peer pressure, not blood-lust or primal hatred." Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 7:04
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    @Narusan Even worse, people here still think the Czech "retributions" (including the expelling of all the "Czech-Germans") were perfectly appropriate :/ Despite the fact that the majority wanted nothing to do with the Nazis and even volunteered to join in the defense against German aggression (though they were denied). Despite the fact that they were just friendly neighbors a few years earlier. It's sickening, even more so when you consider this still survives even after the communist occupation, when you'd expect people to learn a lesson.
    – Luaan
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 7:24

6 Answers 6


Saying that no Wehrmacht soldier ever refused to kill civilians or PoWs is wrong, there are documented instances of this happening. It's just that this did not happen often enough to make a difference.

What happened to those who refused to participate? There is this study on some documented instances. In multiple cases, some punishment indeed was inflicted on refusers, but none were actually executed - although one man was incarcerated in Buchenwald concentration camp, which can probably be regarded as a de facto death sentence. Mostly though the case ended in demotion or transfer to another unit.

Why these refusals did not happen more often, then? If there were so little of these cases, they probably were not well-known at the time. It also could be that these officially documented cases were only a small fraction amongst many other, more known to Wermacht soldiers cases - during WW2, ~50000 death sentences for insubordination were carried out in German army. If a soldier thinks that he might be executed for not following the (criminal) order, it makes it not a "taking some kid's life for nothing" situation, but "giving my life for that kid's" - not an easy choice for most humans.


"Those Who Said "No!": Germans Who Refused to Execute Civilians during World War II", David H. Kitterman // German Studies Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (May, 1988), pp. 241-254 - The Johns Hopkins University Press

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    @Marzipanherz is wrong, I'm afraid. There have been genocides where there was only a choice between complicity or death. The holocaust wasn't one of them, at least not for 'real Germans'
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 10:58
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    Marzipanherz is not "wrong" but disabled by depth and length of arguments in comments that are read as answers. Large grey areas. – Will you also address the aspect that "Why not more refused" was also influenced by the fact that quite a few of the soldiers were thinking it was the right thing to do, i.e. in full support of Nazi doctrine or even Nazis themselves? (Before the outrage comes: Ferdinand Schörner) Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 11:58
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    Also note that even if you personally refuse to kill a civilian, chances are that the commander is just going to hand that task over to someone who won't refuse. At which point, it's less "giving my life for that kid's" and more "giving my life for nothing".
    – Nzall
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 11:58
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    The story of Major Trapp always comes to mind when these kind of questions are asked read it here
    – J_rite
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 8:00
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    Mostly though the case ended in demotion or transfer to another unit. If that included penal battalions, which it probably did, that's not far off a de facto death sentence as well.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 8:57

Concerning your questions, beyond the original "why didn't they refuse" one: the massacres definitely caused psychological problems for many soldiers, even the SS - to the point that Himmler himself decided to replace shootings with gas chambers and have prisoners and local auxillaries handle the victims and their bodies as much as possible. Summary from Wikipedia (paper sources there, bolded sections from me):

After a time, Himmler found that the killing methods used by the Einsatzgruppen were inefficient: they were costly, demoralising for the troops, and sometimes did not kill the victims quickly enough. Many of the troops found the massacres to be difficult if not impossible to perform. Some of the perpetrators suffered physical and mental health problems, and many turned to drink. As much as possible, the Einsatzgruppen leaders militarized the genocide. The historian Christian Ingrao notes an attempt was made to make the shootings a collective act without individual responsibility. Framing the shootings in this way was not psychologically sufficient for every perpetrator to feel absolved of guilt. Browning notes three categories of potential perpetrators: those who were eager to participate right from the start, those who participated in spite of moral qualms because they were ordered to do so, and a significant minority who refused to take part. A few men spontaneously became excessively brutal in their killing methods and their zeal for the task. Commander of Einsatzgruppe D, SS-Gruppenführer Otto Ohlendorf, particularly noted this propensity towards excess, and ordered that any man who was too eager to participate or too brutal should not perform any further executions.

During a visit to Minsk in August 1941, Himmler witnessed an Einsatzgruppen mass execution first-hand and concluded that shooting Jews was too stressful for his men. By November he made arrangements for any SS men suffering ill health from having participated in executions to be provided with rest and mental health care. He also decided a transition should be made to gassing the victims, especially the women and children, and ordered the recruitment of expendable native auxiliaries who could assist with the murders. Gas vans, which had been used previously to kill mental patients, began to see service by all four main Einsatzgruppen from 1942. However, the gas vans were not popular with the Einsatzkommandos, because removing the dead bodies from the van and burying them was a horrible ordeal. Prisoners or auxiliaries were often assigned to do this task so as to spare the SS men the trauma.

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    @Bregalad: do you think the Wehrmacht would for some reason be less affected? Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 20:34
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    @Bregalad: how is that a reason that Wehrmacht soldiers would have fewer psychological problems than the SS when committing massacres? Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 11:33
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    @Bregalad the same applied to both. The Wehrmacht had their special groups to deal with "sanitising" villages as well, who ever more deferred to the Einsatzgruppen and their gassing trucks (basically steel boxes with the diesel exhaust piped into the box after the prisoners were forced inside and the door sealed) because the mass shootings were too emotionally stressful even on troops selected and trained for the purpose.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 12:17
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    @MichaelBorgwardt I never said soldiers would have fewer psychological problems (if anything it should be the oposite). I said you didn't answer his question; that Wehrmacht and SS are different and his question says "wehrmacht".
    – Bregalad
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 17:31
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    @Bregalad But they are different in a way that only supports Michael's point! You cannot claim that this answer does not apply to Wehrmacht soldiers without also claiming they would have fewer psychological problems.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 23:00

TL;DR The Milgram experiment has shown that people follow authority figures.

I think you'll find the Milgram experiment to be of interest.

The aim of the experiment was to test obedience to authority experiments, specifically with the aim of answering questions regarding why Axis soldiers committed atrocities.

The procedure of the experiment was for the test subject to administer (fake) electric shocks to a person who was answering questions. They got a shock if they answered incorrectly. The experiment found consistent results that men from many different backgrounds would 'shock' the learner when prompted by the authority figure.

Milgram summarised his research in this way:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

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    – MCW
    Commented Jun 9, 2018 at 12:36

Many soldiers refused and got away with it.

Especially if they did not question the murders in principle and merely said that they were "too weak" to participate themselves.

Others obeyed because they did not think they'd get away with it.

A policy of public punishments for refusals might have been one way to ensure compliance, but it would also have highlighted that those refusals did happen rather often. It was in the interest of the Nazi leadership to sweep these incidents under the rug, figuratively speaking.

Others obeyed because they agreed with the orders.

(Here is the German wikipedia entry on refusal of orders.)

So to answer the last question: Mostly, the generals put those who would not shoot unarmed children into places where they could shoot armed enemy soldiers instead (and be shot at by the enemy in return).

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    'Mostly, the generals put those who would not shoot unarmed children into places where they could shoot armed enemy soldiers instead... and be shot at by the enemy in return'... which in turn provided a very strong rationale for those who did carry out the orders, particularly after the Russian front became known as a likely death sentence.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 18:48
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    I think you missed a case that I'm pretty sure covered a large percentage: solders who disagreed with the orders but followed them anyway because it had been drilled into them that a good soldier follows orders no matter what. Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 20:36
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    @MichaelBorgwardt, I would see that under the second point, soldiers who did not want to obey but did it anyway.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 15:29

They didnt refuse to kill civilians because:

  1. It is a soldiers job to follow orders.
  2. It would of been very hard to distinguish between civilians and partisans.
  3. WW2 was a war about living space for germans & due to that they would of had to go eventually.
  4. Once the men of a peasant family are gone the remaining members could not feed themselves & were therefore a burden to the country.
  5. It was all part of nazi ideology.
  • 4
    Sources would improve this answer. Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 22:14

Because they didn't get the command.

War crimes are typically committed by special units, selected/trained specially for this task. Ordinary marine is not ordered to do such things in "normal" circumstances. Its most important reasons:

  • The military won't demoralize the soldiers with it. Not because they would be nice guys, but because the morale of the soldiers is very important to win the war.
  • Very serious war crimes can be done by quite a few people if they are organized "correctly", there is no need for regular soldiers for that.
  • War crimes are being done typically in secrecy, because they would be a PR disaster in the case of reveal.

The result is that serving as a soldier in an army commiting war crimes1, it means most likely that you are sent to fight, and maybe you die. And most likely you won't ever hear from any nasty (except the ones committed by the enemy), only after the war - and only if you are on the losing side. If you are on the winners', then the "history is written by the winners" rule is applied.

1 If there is a total war, then the "commit or not to commit war crime X" is a non-issue. Only the result of the war is an issue.

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    Sources would improve this answer. Accusations of war crimes must be backed up with evidence. Not sure what marines have to do with anything.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 10:41
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    @MarkC.Wallace I've extended and reoriganized the most, I hope it is already more clear.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 11:12
  • As a theoretical thought this has some value. But there are just too many cases where these theories do not fit all that well. Compare your thoughts with Armenian genocide, Hutu/Tutsi, My Lai massacre etc. If try to find references that back up your claims (and presumably deliver some caveats for reach and applicability) this would indeed improve. – "Ordinary… in 'normal' circumstances", well, that's tautological, is it? These kind of orders are one definition of "no ordinary circumstance". As often as they appear in history, atrocities and genocides are even less ordinary than just "war". Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 14:11
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    This is just not true. There were organizations that specialized in murder, such as the Einsatzgruppen, but the Wehrmacht "participated in Nazi crimes, including the Holocaust". The myth of the clean Wehrmacht that only participated in legal war activities is just that - a myth.
    – tim
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 16:51
  • @tim The overwhelming majority of the Wehrmacht soldiers never seen any atrocities, I explained why. The Wehrmacht itself committed some of them, but only a very small part of its soldiers has taken part in them. on the reasons explained in the post. So is it. Btw, this "all german are/were/aren't/weren't nazi" is the political PR of the today and it is not history.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Jun 9, 2018 at 12:07

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