In the months before the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, the Wehrmacht’s propagandists warned those living under German occupation that America’s armies would not be as forgiving.
In the pages of Signal, a bi-weekly magazine funded by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and intended for foreign audiences, the Nazis invoked William Tecumseh Sherman’s march across the Confederacy during the American Civil War as a sign of what to expect.
Sherman was, according to the Nazis, the quintessential American general. “The cruelties of the Marquis de Sade and the atrocities perpetrated by Jack the Ripper have never led to mass suggestion,” Signal editor Walther Kiaulehn wrote. “Sherman’s strategy, however, has been acclaimed as classical.”
The Nazis heavily invested in Signal. Ten to 15 editors and 120 translators produced articles in 20 languages with an annual budget in the tens of millions of dollars in today’s currency. Deliberately modeled on Life magazine, Signal emphasized visual stories aggregated from the German army’s combat photographers equipped with state-of-the-art color cameras.
Signal was, of course, heavily censored propaganda designed to present a sympathetic view of life under German military rule. At its peak circulation — some three million copies — in 1943, Nazi-controlled Europe stretched from the Atlantic coast in the west, deep into the Soviet Union in the east and north into the Arctic Circle.
But the war, at this late stage, had decidedly turned in favor of the Allies.
You wouldn’t have known it reading Signal. Battlefield reports emphasized victories and downplayed or ignored defeats. Other stories focused on cheerful fare about life in Vichy France, profiles of composers and travelogues — all to show that on the homefront, the situation was normal.
But by January 1944, more than 1.5 million German soldiers had died on the Eastern Front alone. In need of new recruits, the Wehrmacht saw the magazine as a critically important method to recruit non-German volunteers.
Racism and anti-Semitism, pervasive within Nazi propaganda intended for domestic consumption, rarely showed up in its pages. Instead, the editors presented Germany as the bulwark of European civilization. The Americans — represented by Sherman — were the enemy.
“[Sherman] had become a violent criminal who wished to confer victory on his country’s politics whatever it cost the enemy,” Kiaulehn added. “Never has anybody scorned noble feelings with more blasphemy.”
Sherman, one of the most successful Union generals during the American Civil War, devastated the Confederacy by leading more than 60,000 soldiers in a flanking march through Georgia and the Carolinas in 1863 and 1864. His tactics have remained controversial. Sherman’s troops lived off the land and directly targeted farms, factories and railroads — and more — as military targets.
Atlanta was devastated. Sherman’s army burned much of Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. “Sherman’s strategy is the art of war employed by the unsuccessful,” Signal declared. “He was unsuccessful but by no means untalented. It was his fate to have to fight against enemies better than himself.”
An illustration in the magazine compared a map of Sherman’s march with that of Belgium and the Netherlands — a deliberate message to potential recruits that this brand of “total war” would visit them as well. Around 40,000 Belgians and more than 50,000 Dutch volunteers served in the Waffen SS during World War II.
Signal, of course, presented a highly skewed account of Sherman’s campaigns.
Sherman did destroy cities, towns and farms. But Mark Grimsley, a Civil War historian and author of the book The Hard Hand of War , noted that Sherman never practiced the kind of “total war” which devastated Europe in the 20th century — which included the systematic targeting of civilians and practiced most of all by the Nazis.
“This no one in the Civil War did systematically,” Grimsley wrote.
Civil War historian James McPherson concurred in This Mighty Scourge , a collection of essays on the war. “The killing or rape of white civilians in the South by Union soldiers was extremely rare, in contrast to most invading and conquering armies throughout history,” McPherson wrote.
“Sherman’s soldiers destroyed a great deal of property, to be sure. But Axis and Allied bombers in World War II destroyed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, as well. That was total war.”
Grimsley described Sherman’s strategy as “directed severity.” As the Union troops passed through the South, they selected buildings (such as factories and farms) and infrastructure (such as railroads) which could support an army on the move.
Slave-holding plantations were destroyed en masse . Private farms were pillaged, particularly in South Carolina (where the targeting became more indiscriminate), but less so than plantations or as much as Lost Cause historians would later — and erroneously — claim.
Even more curiously, Sherman enjoyed a reasonably good reputation in the South in the immediate years following the Civil War, according to historian Thom Bassett in the Spring 2012 edition of Civil War Monitor .
Long after the war Sherman was actually very much a persona grata throughout what had been the Confederacy. He was warmly received on several trips across the South and was on good terms with many ex-Confederates who had opposed him on the battlefield. In fact, for the first decade and a half after the Civil War, his most severe criticisms came from fellow unionists motivated by personal animus and professional jealousy. While southerners might have strongly disagreed with Sherman over the justifiability of secession or whether Robert E. Lee was a greater general than Ulysses S. Grant, virtually none of them publicly accused Sherman at that time of the crimes now associated with his campaigns.