Wehrmacht (German: "defence force" or more literally "defence-power") was the name of the unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe (air force). The Waffen-SS, an initially-small paramilitary section of Heinrich Himmler's Allgemeine SS that grew to nearly a million strong during World War II was, De Facto, a fourth branch of the Wehrmacht, under operational and field command of OKW and OKH.
Origin and use of the term
Before the rise of the NSDAP, the term Wehrmacht generically described the domestic armed forces, of any nation, being used as the "home defence" version of the German Streitmacht or foreign war forces, thus, Britische Wehrmacht denoted "British defence forces". The term is in Article 47 of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, establishing that "Der Reichspräsident hat den Oberbefehl über die gesamte Wehrmacht des Reiches" ("The National President holds supreme command of all armed forces of the nation). From 1919 until its renaming to Wehrmacht in 1936, the German armed forced had been known as the Reichswehr ("National Defence").
After World War II, and under Allied occupation, the Wehrmacht was abolished in Germany. In 1955, when West Germany re-militarized, its armed forces were named the Bundeswehr ("Federal Defences"). In 1956, upon formal establishment, East Germany's armed forces were named the Nationale Volksarmee (National People's Army), most of whom, with matériel, were incorporated to the present-day Bundeswehr when the German Democratic Republic was incorporated to the Federal Republic of Germany in the German reunification of 1990.
In German and English usage, Wehrmacht customarily refers to Germany's NSDAP-era and World War II armed forces. Using Wehrmacht as synonymous with only the Wehrmacht Heer (land army) is inaccurate. Having its most-common usage as such, ignores massive evidence to the contrary. As branch-of-service identification, Wehrmacht vehicles had an alpha-numeric identity licence plate reading WH for the Heer, WL for the Luftwaffe, and WM for the Kriegsmarine, plus, SS for the "Waffen-SS".
After World War I, ended with the armistice of 11 November 1918, the armed forces were dubbed Friedensheer (peace army) in January 1919. In March 1919, the national assembly passed a law founding a 420,000 strong preliminary army as Vorläufige Reichswehr. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were announced in May, and in June Germany was forced to sign the contract which, among other terms, imposed severe constraints on the size of Germany's armed forces. The army was limited to one hundred thousand men with an additional fifteen thousand in the navy. The fleet was to consist of at most six battleships, six cruisers, and twelve destroyers. Submarines, tanks and heavy artillery were forbidden and the air force was dissolved. A new post-war military (the Reichswehr) was established on 23 March 1921. General conscription was abolished under another mandate of the Versailles treaty.
By 1922, Germany had begun covertly circumventing these conditions. A secret collaboration with the Soviet Union began after the treaty of Rapallo. Major-General Otto Hasse traveled to Moscow in 1923 to further negotiate the terms. Germany helped the Soviet Union with industrialisation and Soviet officers were to be trained in Germany. German tank and air force specialists could exercise in the Soviet Union and German chemical weapons research and manufacture would be carried out there along with other projects. Around three hundred German pilots received training at Lipetsk, some tank training took place near Kazan and toxic gas was developed at Saratov for the German army.
After the death of President Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August 1934, Hitler assumed the office of Reichspräsident, and thus became commander in chief. All officers and soldiers of the German armed forces had to swear a personal oath of loyalty to the Führer, as Adolf Hitler now was called. By 1935, Germany was openly flouting the military restrictions set forth in the Versailles Treaty, and conscription was reintroduced on 16 March 1935. While the size of the standing army was to remain at about the 100,000-man mark decreed by the treaty, a new group of conscripts equal to this size would receive training each year. The conscription law introduced the name Wehrmacht, so not only can this be regarded as its founding date, but the organisation and authority of the Wehrmacht can be viewed as Nazi creations regardless of the political affiliations of its high command (who nevertheless all swore the same personal oath of loyalty to Hitler). The insignia was a simpler version of the Iron Cross (the straight-armed so-called Balkenkreuz or beamed cross) that had been used as an aircraft and tank marking in late World War I. The existence of the Wehrmacht was officially announced on 15 October 1935.