In his new capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army, Himmler was able to extend his policing powers to the military sphere. Hitler gave him full authority to ‘establish order’ in the areas behind the fighting zone and sent him, at the beginning of September, to the western border region to put a halt to the retreat of the ‘rear-lines’ troops. Within twenty-four hours, according to Goebbels, he had stopped the ‘flood’ of retreating soldiers, and the images of panic that accompanied them. The Gauleiter were instructed that all returning members of the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS, police, OT and Reich Labour Service, as well as ‘stragglers’, were to be picked up and turned over to the Replacement Army by 9 September, 1944. Local Party leaders were to report to their District Leaders by 7 p.m. the previous evening the numbers of stragglers in their area, and they in turn would pass the information to the Gauleiter within two hours, who would then immediately inform the commander of the Defence District. Himmler was proud of his achievement in arresting the disintegration in the west, and recommended ‘brutal action’ to deal with manifestations of ‘rear-lines’ poor morale. By the middle of September, 160,000 ‘stragglers’ had been rounded up and sent back to the front.
Himmler’s decisive action was rewarded by Hitler by a further remit. It arose from a combination of the increased concern for inner security together with the need felt to provide border protection, especially in the east, following the Red Army’s inroads in the summer. Since early in the war, the Wehrmacht had been ready to conscript civilians in an emergency to support local defence operations. The police were also involved in earlier planning for militias. Himmler had in 1942 set up a ‘Countryside Watch’, later followed by an ‘Urban Watch’, made up mainly of members of Nazi affiliates not called up to the Wehrmacht, to help local police in searching for escaped prisoners of war and repressing any potential unrest from foreign workers. By the end of 1943, the ‘Urban’ and ‘Countryside’ Watches comprised in all around a million men. Some Gauleiter had then in 1943 and 1944 taken steps to form their own ‘Homeland Protection Troops’, reaching beyond Party members to include all men aged eighteen to sixty-five. These did not, however, at this stage find favour with Hitler, who sensed they would have a negative impact on popular morale.
Even so, as war fortunes deteriorated, the Wehrmacht also prepared plans for larger, more formalized militias. With the Red Army approaching the Reich’s eastern frontier, General Heinz Guderian, the recently appointed Chief of the General Staff, proposed what he called a Landsturm (taking its name from the Prussian militias which fought against Napoleon’s army in 1813), to be composed of men exempted for whatever reason from military service, who would help to strengthen border protection in the east. Guderian recommended the deployment of alarm units which would carry out guerrilla-like warfare in their own localities. Every officer would act ‘as if the Führer were present’. Guderian advocated the use of cunning, deception and fantasy, claiming that Red Indian-style action could be successful in fighting for streets, gardens and houses and that the Karl May stories about cowboys and Indians in the Wild West – much liked by Hitler – had proved useful as training manuals.
Guderian’s fanciful schemes never materialized. They were overtaken by plans for the creation of a nationwide organization under Party, not Wehrmacht, control. Some Gauleiter, encouraged by Bormann, had already in August created militias in their own regions. The leader of the SA, the Nazi stormtrooper organization, Wilhelm Schepmann, and Robert Ley, head of the enormous Labour Front, separately contemplated in early September the construction of a Landsturm for national defence, each imagining he would lead it. Hitler’s view, as the conflict between Schepmann and Ley surfaced, was that Himmler was the only person capable of building the envisaged Landsturm. Goebbels agreed, as usual, with Hitler. Schepmann would rapidly succumb to ‘the lethargy of the SA’, while if the task were given to Ley, ‘only pure idiocy would come of it’.
Quietly, however, from behind the scenes, another Nazi leader scented a chance to extend his power. With the enemy close to Germany’s borders, east and west, and a perceived possibility of internal unrest, the way was open for Martin Bormann, working together with Himmler, to devise proposals for a national militia and persuade Hitler that its organization and control had to be placed in the hands of the Party rather than be given to the ‘untrustworthy’ army, thereby ensuring that it would be subjected to the necessary Nazi fanaticism. By the middle of September, Bormann had worked out drafts, approved by Himmler, for a decree by Hitler on the establishment of a ‘People’s Defence’ (Volkswehr). Within a few days, the name had been changed to the more stirring ‘People’s Storm’ (Volkssturm). Himmler told Defence District commanders on 21 September that ‘if the enemy should break in somewhere, he will encounter such a fanatical people, fighting like mad to the end, that he will certainly not get through’.
Hitler’s decree on the establishment of the Deutscher Volkssturm, dated 25 September though actually signed next day and reserved for publication until mid-October, stipulated that the new militia was to be formed of all men between sixteen and sixty who were capable of bearing arms. The Gauleiter, under Bormann’s direction, were given responsibility for summoning the men, forming them into companies and battalions, and all attendant organizational matters. The political aspects of the new militia were left to Bormann, acting on Hitler’s behalf. This gave Bormann enormous scope for defining his remit. Himmler, as Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army (not as head of the SS and police), was placed in charge of the ‘military organization, the training, weaponry and armaments’ of the Volkssturm. Its military deployment, under Hitler’s directive, was in his hands, though he delegated its running to the head of the SS Central Office and General of the Waffen-SS, Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger. The very division of controls outlined in the decree guaranteed in a fashion characteristic of the Third Reich, that there would be continuing disputes about responsibility and control. But, powerful though Himmler and the SS were, the victor in conflicts over control of the Volkssturm turned out to be Martin Bormann. His constant proximity to Hitler enabled him to fend off attempts to reduce his dominance in this new domain by playing on the unique position of the Party to imbue the ‘people’s community’ with the fanatical spirit of National Socialism in the defence of the Reich.
Militarily, the value of the Volkssturm turned out over subsequent months to be predictably low. The loss of the many men – too old, too young, or too unfit for military service – who would die in Volkssturm service would be utterly futile. The creation of the Volkssturm certainly amounted to a desperate move to dredge up the last manpower reserves of the Reich. But it was far from an admission by the regime that the war was lost. In the eyes of the Nazi leadership, the Volkssturm would hold up the enemy, should the war enter Reich territory, and help Germany win time. New weapons, they presumed, were on the way. The enemy coalition was fragile. The more losses could be inflicted on the enemy, particularly on the western Allies, the more likely it was that this coalition would crumble. A settlement, at least in the west, would then be possible. Seen in this way, time gave Germany a chance. Moreover, the Volkssturm would achieve this goal through the inculcation of genuine National Socialist spirit. It would embody the true Nazi revolution as a classless organization, where social rank and standing had no place, and through fanatical commitment, loyalty, obedience and sacrifice. It would also, it was imagined, help to raise popular morale. In reality, these Nazi ideals were far from the minds of the vast majority of those who would trudge unwillingly and fearfully into Volkssturm service, minimally armed but expected to help repel a mighty enemy. A minority, impossible to quantify precisely but including many Volkssturm leaders, were, even so, convinced Nazis, some of them fanatical. Even in the dying days of the regime, Volkssturm members would be involved in police ‘actions’ and atrocities against other German citizens seen to be cowards or defeatists. So whatever its obvious deficiencies as a fighting force, the Volkssturm – a huge organization envisaged as comprising 6 million men – served as a further vehicle of Nazi mobilization, organization and regimentation. As such, it played its own part in preventing any internal collapse and ensuring that a war, rationally lost, would not be ended for some months yet.