Hilfswillige – Hiwi

290. Infanterie-Division–Hilfswillige being awarded. September 1943


The Germans would allow no `Russian’ political administration, but there was a considerable effort to recruit the local inhabitants at the grass-roots to aid the Axis cause. Millions of people were conscripted as forced labourers. The Germans were also able to secure the services of a very large number of Soviet citizens in their armed forces, as German Army auxiliaries (the Hilfswillige – Hiwi), but also even as military units, some directly involved in counter-insurgency duties. This recruitment to serve the Reich in fields, mines, factories and even in military uniform was most successful among the non-Russian nationalities. There were several distinct reasons for this, including the fact that most of the German-occupied territory was inhabited by minorities.  In European terms this contribution was large, partly due to the huge pool of potential personnel.
Operation “Blau” was launched on 28 June 1942, and by mid- September-that is, even before the battle of Stalingrad began taking its toll–over a third of a million men were lost. 45 Following the destruction of Paulus’ 6 Army in the cauldron of Stalingrad, the Soviet counter-offensive of winter and autumn 1943, and the abortive German “Zitadelle” offensive, losses rocketed to unprecedented levels. Between November 1942 and October 1943 the Ostheer sustained well over a million and a half casualties (including the sick), of whom close to 700,000 were permanently lost. As replacements could not keep up with this rate of casualties, no less than 40 divisions were either disbanded or re-grouped into so-called “small divisions,” and the establishment figures of the remaining formations were cut almost by half to 10,700 soldiers. Indeed, by December 1943 the Ostheer’s overall strength was down by more than a million men to just over 2,000,000 soldiers. In an attempt to make up for this mammoth shortage, the army now greatly intensified the conscription of Soviet POWs and civilians, euphemistically called volunteers, or Hiwis, whose number ultimately reached some 320,000 men. While the Hiwis were distributed among German formations mainly as replacements for service troops ordered to combat duty, another 150,000 men belonging to Soviet national minorities were organized into semi-independent Ostlegionen, though even in this case most command positions were held by Germans. 46 Yet none of these measures, including the transfer to the front in the second half of 1943 of another half a million noncombat troops from the rear, young recruits, women, foreigners, and ethnic Germans, could make up for the increasing losses. 47 In summer 1944 the great Soviet offensive against Army Group Center claimed a monthly average of over 200,000 soldiers and almost 4000 Hiwis during the five months between 1 July and 31 December. Indicative of the much greater weight of the Eastern Front even following the Allies’ landing in Europe is that in the West the monthly average of German casualties during the same period was just over 8000 men. 48 By November 1944 the Ostheer’s total manpower had further declined to 1,840,000 men, and that in spite of the recruitment of yet more UK-Stellen personnel and the conscription of 16-year-old lads. 49 By the end of March 1945 the Ostheer’s overall casualties mounted to 6,172,373 men, or double its original manpower on 22 June 1941, a figure which constituted fully four-fifths of the total losses sustained by the Feldheer on all fronts since the invasion of the Soviet Union. 50 And yet, among combat units at the front casualties were proportionately much higher still, with a corresponding impact on the formation and life-expectancy of “primary groups.”

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