The German Wehrmacht's war against the Soviet Union differed from all other European wars of the modern era, including the campaigns waged by the Wehrmacht against other countries during World War II. This was a war directed not only against another army, but against parts of the civilian population as well. The Jewish population was to be murdered, the non-Jewish civilian population decimated by starvation and acts of terror and recruited for or coerced into slave labor. These criminal acts did not result from escalating violence in the course of the war but were an integral element of German war plans from the outset.
War plans were, however, only one factor determining what actually occurred during the German occupation of eastern Europe. Each situation also carried the mark of current conditions, temporary influences, and the behavioral patterns and actions of those involved.
The laws and customs of war and international humanitarian law in effect at the time included a number of internationally accepted principles which were to be complied with in any war. Although the laws and customs of war permitted some deeply inhuman practices and also did not set down rules for all possible situations, they did make a clear distinction between right and wrong.
The exhibition Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of Annihilation, 19411944 documents the participation of the Wehrmacht in crimes committed during World War II, taking as its starting point contemporary international humanitarian law and the laws and customs of war. The exhibition documents six dimensions of this war of annihilation: the genocide perpetrated against Soviet Jews, the mass death of Soviet prisoners of war, starvation as a strategy of war, the war against partisans, and reprisals and executions of hostages.
The exhibition shows the at times active, at times passive participation of the Wehrmacht in these crimes. On the basis of research carried out to date, it is impossible to estimate the exact number of Wehrmacht soldiers and officers involved. However, the exhibition also shows the actual behavior of individuals. The »Options for action« section demonstrates that the war of annihilation did not occur in a realm governed by some abstract dynamic, but was characterized by various levels of decision-making and individual responsibility.