The participation of foreign nationals in the service of the German armed forces during the Second World War has evoked both curiosity and consternation. Many Germans saw their presence as evidence of the legitimacy of the war against Bolshevik Russia and proof of a reassuring measure of acceptance of the “New Order in Europe,” the political structure the German Reich’s envisioned in occupied Europe. For the resistance movements and post-war liberated governments, these volunteers represented collaboration and treason of the basest order.
What foreign nationals volunteered for service in the German forces? For what ends did they serve and why? How many served, and to what extent did they contribute to German military fortunes? This study attempts to analyze the experience of Western European volunteers in the German Army and Waffen-SS in order to discuss the character of their military collaboration, their motivations, and the effects of their service on the German war effort. In so doing, it will focus on German efforts to integrate non-German nationals into the German Wehrmacht (armed forces), how successful they were in doing so, and what measures they took to achieve their objectives.
Although foreign nationals from virtually every European nation served in one or more branches of the German armed forces, those serving in the ground forces far outnumbered those who served in the air and at sea; they also took a more direct part in combat than the others. Of the national groups concerned, the Western European volunteers—especially those racially categorized as “Nordics” by the Nazi regime—served the longest in the war and came closest to achieving integration with the German forces. This study of foreign volunteers in the German armed forces will focus on the Army and Waffen-SS contingents, the manner and circumstances of their formation, and the method and rationale of their employment. In studying the character of volunteer participation and employment in a comparative cross-national and politico-military perspective, several interesting factors emerge: the nature of military collaboration, German attitudes toward foreign nationalities, actions of the German military bureaucracy, and true military performance.
The only full-length study of the volunteer phenomenon is the apologist work of a former SS commander, General Felix Steiner, entitled Die Freiwilligen: Idee und Opfergang. 1 Based largely on personal notes, memory, and contemporary literature, this book overemphasizes the notion of the SS as a pre-NATO anti-Bolshevik European army and exaggerates the numbers of participants. George Stein, in his classic study, The Waffen-SS, opened a chapter on the Western European SS volunteers with the remark that “no serious study of the mobilization of non-German manpower for the German armed forces has yet appeared….” He exposed the notion of the SS as Euro-army as a myth and established the essential facts of its organization, composition, and operation, but developed none of these to any extent. Robert Gelwick’s unpublished doctoral dissertation on SS personnel policies is encyclopedic but nonanalytical, although it includes a chapter on volunteer policy. Edgar Knoebel’s unpublished doctoral dissertation on SS manpower policy in Belgium covers Belgian volunteers in some detail against a background of native politics and occupation policy. David Littlejohn, a British librarian, published The Patriotic Traitors, an encyclopedic study of European collaboration in general. He used a remarkable assemblage of contemporary literature to flesh out the basic secondary sources and outline the history of military volunteers as well as native militias, paramilitary and political action cadres, all as extensions of collaborationist politics. Finally, François Duprat muddied the waters in several studies of the Waffen-SS by accepting much of the 1950s-vintage apologia, compiling numerous errors and failing to provide adequate documentation.
The historiography of wars frequently demonstrates that a vital waiting period must elapse before sound historical analysis can begin to supplant the ‘war as I knew it’ brand of memoirs and the more tendentious and politically-tainted types of polemics. Thus, the 1980s brought considerable improvement to the field. The essay by Jurgen Förster and Gert R. Überschär in Volume Four of the German Military History Research Office series on Germany in World War II provided essential development of relevant themes, and Bernd Wegner’s book on the organizational and ideological components of the Waffen-SS became a required adjunct to the surveys by Stein and Robert Koehl. However, the apologist line has regrettably gathered new momentum, under the guise of “revisionism,” and even the myth of the Waffen-SS as a NATO progenitor is rising again with new fervor. The best of these remains the work of Hans Werner Neulen, who frequently provides most interesting details but without satisfactory documentation, more in the line of Duprat’s earlier work. In the last decade, a number of studies by national historians have detailed the activities of volunteer contingents from France, Spain, Norway, Denmark, and Belgium in a manner that stimulates my hopes that we may eventually free ourselves from the apologist line.
What I hope to contribute by using new and original source material, as well as by fully exploiting the known sources, is to clarify the essential events, factors, and statistics of the volunteer phenomenon in Western Europe and to establish the diversity of the volunteer experience in terms of variables developed through German occupation policies, racial notions, and ideological values. In addition, I will seek to answer the question of the actual utility—military and political—of the volunteer movement to the German war effort in the same manner that Alan Milward assessed the economic value to Germany of occupied Europe.
With this material contribution to the history of the volunteer groups and military collaborationists in Europe, I also hope to place an obstacle before future writers. Any attempts to glorify or exaggerate the accomplishments of these volunteers must deal with my findings first. Otherwise, let readers of these authors beware!
There were four essential issues that determined the course and character of the Western European volunteers’ service in the German forces: manpower policy, Nazi ideology, the New Order, and the Russo-German War. Military manpower policy in the German armed forces played a crucial role in the struggle of Himmler’s Waffen-SS to obtain full-fledged status as a second army and the fourth military service. Later, the SS would fulfill the German Army’s worst nightmares and conceive of itself as the sole military standard-bearer of the postwar Third Reich. Nazi ideology and racial doctrines, as sporadic and unbalanced as they became in practice, influenced the recruiting of volunteers. Notions of Germanic racial superiority initially limited the terms of service offered to foreign volunteers by the German forces, but at the same time Germanic racial myths possessed a powerful influence among the political right in the “Nordic” occupied territories. The political extension of the Germanic Reich, the New Order in Europe, had its own influence over potential volunteers and German bureaucrats alike. German propagandists would point to the Western volunteers as evidence of a nascent pan-European brotherhood, and the veterans themselves would allege, ex post facto, that they had done it all for Europe. Finally, the epic event of the Russo-German War of 1941-1945 proved catalytic (as well as catastrophic) for the fortunes of foreign nationals in the German forces. Initially, the coming of the war against the Soviet Union presented great opportunities for German propaganda in the occupied and neutral states of Europe. The war against Russia qualified in this extreme view as a crusade undertaken by the strongest European power—on behalf of the rest of Europe—to rid civilization of the “Bolshevik Menace,” which in some tracts was even more wickedly referred to as the “Judeo-Bolshevik world enemy.”These trends worked most decisively in the evolution of the Waffen-SS, which sought particular advantages from the recruitment of non-German citizens …”
Use this page to print a PDF version of each chapter of A European Anabasis — Western European Volunteers in the German Army and SS, 1940-1945.
- Crusade and Propaganda
- A Neutral Variation and Some Consequences
- Transformation in 1943
- Despair and Fanatacism 1944-45
- The Character of Military Collaboration
- Selected Bibliography