The German Wehrmacht or “defence force” was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1946. It consisted of the Heer or Army, the Kriegmarine or Navy and the Luftwaffe or Air Force. The designation Wehrmacht for Nazi Germany’s military replaced the previously used term, Reichswehr (1919–1935), and constituted the Third Reich’s efforts to rearm the nation to a greater extent than the Treaty of Versailles permitted.
Following Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the country was relegated by the Versailles treaty to a limited army of only 100,000, one barely sufficient for home defence. The Reichswehr, formed under the newly formed Weimar Republic was the precursor to the Wehrmacht. After the Nazi seizure of power, one of Hitler’s most overt and audacious moves was to establish a mighty fighting force, a modern armed forces fully capable of offensive use. Fulfilling the Nazi regime’s long-term goals of regaining lost territory and dominating its neighbours required massive investment and spending on the armaments industry, as well as military conscription to expand Hitler’s fighting machine. In December 1941, Hitler designated himself as commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht.
The Wehrmacht formed the heart of Germany’s politico-military power. In the early part of World War II, Hitler’s Generals employed the Wehrmacht through innovative combined arms tactics, close cover air-support, mechanized armour, and infantry, to devastating effect in what was called a Blitzkrieg or lightning war. The Wehrmacht’s new military structure, unique combat techniques, newly developed weapons, and unprecedented speed and brutality crushed their opponents.
At the height of their success in 1942, the Nazis dominated more than 3.898.000 square kilometres of territory, an accomplishment made possible by the combined German forces firmly securing conquered territory. Working hand-in-hand at times with the SS soldiers on the front, especially during the Eastern campaign, sometimes participated in war atrocities, despite later denials. By the time the war ended in Europe in May 1945, the Wehrmacht had lost approximately 11.300.000 men, of which about half were killed in action
. Only a few of the Wehrmacht’s upper leadership were tried for war crimes , although the evidence suggests that more were involved in illegal actions. The Wehrmacht did not have a direct successor in post-World War II Germany, and was wholly replaced by the Bundeswehr who shunned the traditions of the dissolved Wehrmacht.