Ottoman Empire – Military, Fiscal, and Political Organization


Ottoman state builders (c. 1300–1922) erected and maintained one of the more durable and successful examples of empire-building in world history. Born during medieval times in the northwest corner of then Byzantine-Asia Minor, the Ottoman state achieved world-empire status in 1453, with its conquest of Constantinople. For a century before and two centuries after that epochal event, the Ottoman Empire was among the most powerful political entities in the Mediterranean-European world. Indeed, but for the Ming state in China, the Ottoman Empire in about 1500 was likely the most formidable political system on the planet.

The rapid expansion of the Ottoman state from border principality to world empire was due partly to geography and the proximity of weak enemies; but it owed more to Ottoman policies and achievements. After the migrations of Turkish peoples from Central Asia broke the border defenses of the Byzantine Empire back in the eleventh century, many small states and principalities vied for supremacy. The Ottoman dynasty emerged on the Byzantine borderlands not far from Constantinople, and its supporters employed pragmatic statecraft and methods of conquest and rewarded the human material at hand—whether Greek, Bulgarian, Serb, Turkish, Christian, or Muslim—for good service. These pragmatic policies, coupled with an exceptional openness to innovation, including military technology, go far in explaining why this particular minor state ultimately attained world-power status.

In its domestic politics, the Ottoman state underwent continuous change. The Ottoman ruler, the sultan, began as one among equals in the early days of the state. Between about 1453 and the later sixteenth century, however, sultans ruled as true autocrats. Subsequently, others in the imperial family and other members of the palace elites—often in collaboration with provincial elites—maintained real control of the state until the early nineteenth century. Thereafter, bureaucrats and sultans vied for domination. In sum, the sultan nominally presided over the imperial system for all of Ottoman history but actually, personally, ruled only for portions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and nineteenth centuries. It seems important to stress that the principle of sultanic rule by the Ottoman family was hardly ever challenged through the long centuries of the empire’s existence. While this rule was a constant, change otherwise was the norm in domestic politics.

Political power almost always rested in the imperial center and, depending on the particular period, extended into the provinces either through direct military and political instruments or, indirectly, through fiscal means. The state exerted its military, fiscal, and political authority through a number of mechanisms that evolved continuously. One cannot speak of a single, invariant Ottoman system or method of rule, except to say that it was based on policies of flexibility and adaptiveness. Military, fiscal, and political instruments changed constantly, hardly a surprising situation in an empire that existed from the medieval to the modern age. Moreover, much of what historians thought they knew about Ottoman institutions has been challenged and rewritten. Take, for example, the cliché that the janissaries’ prowess as soldiers declined when they ceased living together in bachelor barracks and served as married men. It turns out that already in the fifteenth century, when the janissaries were the most feared military unit in the Mediterranean world, at least some were married with families.

The Ottoman state at first depended on the so-called timar system to compensate much of its military, which was dominated by cavalrymen fighting with bows and arrows. Under this system, the cavalryman was granted revenues from a piece of land sufficient to maintain himself and his horse. He did not actually control the land, but only the taxes deriving from it. Peasants worked the land and the taxes they paid supported the timar cavalryman while he was on campaign as well as when he was not fighting. In reality, the timar was at the center of Ottoman affairs for the earlier era of Ottoman history, perhaps only during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and part of the sixteenth centuries. Hardly had the state developed the timar system when the regime began to discard it, and the cavalry it was meant to support. Increasingly, the empire turned to infantrymen bearing firearms. As it did, the janissaries ceased to be a small, praetorian elite and evolved into a firearmed infantry of massive size. To support these full-time soldiers required vast amounts of cash, and so tax-farming replaced the timar system as the central fiscal instrument. (Timar holders owed service in exchange for the timar revenues, whereas tax farmers paid a sum at the tax farm auction for the right to collect the taxes, and they incurred no service obligation.) By 1700, lifetime tax-farms—seen as better cash cows—began to become commonplace. Varying combinations of cavalry and firearmed infantry, along with massive uses of artillery worked quite well for a time, but lost out in the arms race to central and eastern European foes by the end of the seventeenth century. The Ottoman military continued to evolve and, in the eighteenth century, firearmed troops of provincial notables and the forces of the Crimean Khanate largely replaced both the janissary infantry and the timar cavalry. During the nineteenth century, universal male conscription controlled by the central state slowly developed, and this was perhaps the most radical transformation of all. Lifetime tax-farms were abandoned but tax-farming continued, often in the hands of local notables in partnerships with the Istanbul regime.

Late Panzers


One of the main goals of the reorganization programs in 1944 was to outfit every Panzer-Division with a Panther-Abteilung in addition to the normal Panzer- Abteilung with Pz.Kpfw.lVs. Due to shortages in wheeled vehicles, a new organizational scheme known as “freie Gliederung” was introduced which ”freed” the motor transport from each Panzer-Kompanie and consolidated the baggage and supply vehicles into a Versorgungs-Kompanien (supply companies) within each Panzer-Abteilung. Only two new Heeres Panzer-Divisions were formed. Forced by circumstances, the major effort went into rebuilding Panzer-Divisions and Panzer-Grenadier-Divisions that had been decimated at the Front. Based on Hitler’s suggestion, independent Heeres Panzer-Brigades were formed starting in July 1944. With only two exceptions these independent Heeres Panzer-Brigades had been absorbed into normal Panzer-Divisions and Panzer-Grenadier-Divisions by the end of November 1944.


It wasn’t until 3 August 1944, that the OKH/ Gen.lnsp.d.Pz.Tr./GenStdH/Org.Abt. issued the following order for the Heeres Panzer-Divisions to reorganize in accordance with the standardized “Gliederung Panzer-Division 44”:

  1. The “Gliederung Panzer-Division 44″ goes into effect immediately for all Panzer-Divisions.
  2. Within the bounds of their available personnel and material, the Panzer-Divisions are to convert to this organization. The status of their reorganization is to be reported in the monthly operational status reports. Panzer-Lehr-Division and the 21.Panzer-Division are exceptions. A special organization applies to these two divisions.


Polish Resistance WWII




Polish resistance, first against the German occupiers and later also against the Soviets, was so vast and complex as to defy a satisfactory accounting in so short a tale as ours. Fortunately, the topic boasts a substantial literature; at least in English, however, this literature is rather one-sided and uniformly patriotic. The Poles, if one can generalize about such a large nation, are so steeped in their long history of heroic struggle against foreign invaders, and have such a penchant for painting a romantic, even a messianic, image of themselves, that it is sometimes difficult to detect what actually happened there. If we are to believe the former resisters and the majority of Polish historians, the nation as a whole resisted the Germans from the first day of the war until the last German soldier left the country in the spring of 1945. These historians point out that in order to show their devotion to freedom and to the Western Allies-who in 1939 had failed to help-Poles concentrated on fighting the German oppressors while neglecting the struggle against the Soviet invaders. Only toward the end of the war did some Poles take up arms against the Soviet occupiers and their Polish Communist stooges, for which, again, they received no help from the West.

There is much truth in the above historical interpretation, but it tends to ignore the fact that the majority of the population in Poland, as elsewhere in Europe, were, or at least tried to be, uninvolved bystanders. Poles suffered enormously from being treated as slaves and subhumans, yet many individuals and groups profited from the needs of the German war industry. There were also those who drew benefits from the confiscation of Jewish property and the absence of Jewish businessmen and professionals.

Poles disagree among themselves on the precise nature of the German occupation and on the extent and usefulness of the resistance movement. It is also an open question as to who the true motors of the resistance were: the traditional Polish social elite-descendants of the great landowning aristocrats and of the szlachta (landed gentry)-or educated people in general and the urban workers. There is also disagreement regarding the respective dedication, popularity, and true role of the main resistance groups: the nationalist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic but anti-Nazi National Armed Forces, known as the NSZ; the great conservative-liberal, Western-oriented patriotic resistance organization whose political leadership resided in London, claiming to be the Polish government in exile and whose military arm was the Home Army (Armia Krajowa); the peasant-socialist leftist resistance movements; and, finally, the Communist resistance, whose military arm was called the People’s Army (Armia Ludowa). The latter’s leadership was in Moscow, a tool in the hands of Stalin. Polish historiography said little, until recently, on the Polish resistance movements’ strained relations with the ethnic minorities and the latter’s underground organizations and not much either on how the Poles in general viewed the Holocaust and what the true relations were between the Polish and the Jewish resistance.

At least until recently, Poles liked to cultivate the self-image of an innocent and fiercely independent nation feloniously attacked by two totalitarian monsters: first, Nazi Germany, which had invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and, second, the Soviet Union, whose troops entered Polish territory on September 17. The limitless suffering the German occupiers inflicted on the Polish people was symbolized by the German destruction of Warsaw, first in September 1939 and then during and after the great Warsaw uprising between August and October 1944. Thousands upon thousands of Poles were tortured and killed at such places as Pawiak Prison in Warsaw and the Auschwitz I concentration camp. Polish suffering under Soviet rule was most horribly symbolized by the NKVD massacre of some twenty-two thousand Polish reserve officers and officials, in 1940, at Katyñ and similar places in the Soviet Union, and also by the trial and execution of Polish non-Communist anti-Nazi resisters toward the end of and right after the war.

Poles are correct in saying that there were no important quislings in their country, yet they add only rarely that Poland was the only country in Europe in which the German occupiers never invited collaboration. And although it is absolutely true that Poland was feloniously assaulted by the two superpowers and that the Poles, instead of surrendering, stubbornly resisted the aggressors, only recently did Polish politicians and historians begin to draw a more balanced picture of these events. There was, for instance, the less than fair treatment that interwar Poland had meted out to its ethnic minorities, which at least partly explains the violent hostility of many Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Volksdeutsche (members of the German minority), and Jews toward the Polish state and population. And it is only recently that leading Polish writers have begun to address the issue of popular anti-Semitism during the Holocaust years. Yet it happened all too often that Polish villagers and townspeople grabbed and handed over fugitive Jews to the Polish or the German police. It was a young Polish historian who recently demonstrated in his microhistory of a specific county in southeastern Poland that the majority of Jews in hiding perished as a consequence of betrayal by their Polish neighbors. The common Polish nationalist excuse according to which desperate Polish villagers associated Soviet Communist oppression with Jews, many of whom had joined the Soviet occupation forces, could not possibly apply to a region in central Poland that did not see the Red Army until 1944. The beatings, torture, and lynching of Jews were not a rarity, either; nor was the infamous massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their fellow villagers a unique incident. Polish historical memory has only begun to deal with the nefarious activity of the szmalcownicy, mostly young men in Warsaw and elsewhere who had made a profession of terrorizing and blackmailing Jews in hiding. When the Jew had nothing left to give, he was denounced to the German authorities for a new reward. It is true, however, that Polish underground courts sometimes tried and executed the szmalcownicy.

Steadfast opposition to the German occupation was the official policy of the Polish government in exile. Political and military leaders, who had avoided German or Soviet capture, fled to Romania at the end of September 1939, together with a substantial part of the Polish army. Others escaped to Hungary, where they were also warmly received and treated as honored guests. Subsequently, thousands were allowed to leave through the Balkans for the West. The exile Polish government moved to Paris and then to London, followed by an ever-increasing number of able-bodied refugees from whose ranks the British formed entire infantry and armored brigades. Polish refugees also provided the Royal Air Force with some of its best fighter squadrons, and the British navy profited from a fully manned fleet of Polish cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and transports.

The exile government established its Delegatura in Warsaw, complete with military, political, educational, cultural, judicial, and intelligence departments. When and how resolutely to attack the German occupiers was one of the main dilemmas of the resistance. The difficulties were marked by the customary disagreements between cautious commanders and often reckless local leaders. Fortunately for members of the Polish resistance, they could move relatively easily in the country, where they were protected by the traditional prestige of the Polish freedom fighter. What also helped was the noble origin of many resisters, the unpopularity of the German- and Soviet-occupations, and the efficiency of the underground courts in pursuing traitors. Indeed, Poland was one of the few countries in Hitler’s Europe where it was just as dangerous to serve the Germans as it was to join the resistance. The Polish resister was the legendary “fish in the water,” in the words of Mao Tse-tung regarding the fundamental requirement for a successful resistance. The Polish resister served as a role model for high school students and scouts, both boys and girls, who then served and died as couriers, spies, and nurses in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

Perhaps more than any other country, Poland produced some fabled resistance fighters. We will examine only three here in order to illustrate their bravery and dilemmas, and the tragedies of the resistance, in this case especially of the Polish national resistance.

Władysław Bartoszewski, a Catholic journalist and writer, was an early political prisoner at Auschwitz, from which he was released in 1941. He became the most famous member of the Council for Aid to the Jews (Žegota), founded by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka within the Polish Delegatura in Warsaw as Europe’s only underground organization solely dedicated to assisting Jews. Following his participation in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Bartoszewski-like so many of his fellow resisters-almost automatically continued his resistance activity once under Soviet rule. Accused of being a spy, he spent several months in prison, but the charges were dropped against him. Meanwhile, he continued his feverish political, journalistic, and cultural activity, traveling around the world and receiving innumerable honors and decorations, among them the recognition by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as a “Righteous Among the Nations.” The Israeli government made him an honorary citizen. Arrested again by the Polish government in early 1981, he was subsequently rehabilitated and, following the fall of communism, served as foreign minister of the so-called Solidarity government. The author of some of the most important books on the Polish resistance movement, Bartoszewski was still serving in a high diplomatic position in 2013, at the age of ninety-one.

A well-known figure in the West for, among other things, having given crucial interviews in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 French documentary film Shoah, Jan Karski served during the war as a courier of the Armia Krajowa, the main Polish resistance group. He made several secret trips to France and Great Britain and was once arrested and tortured by the Germans. In 1942 he engaged in his most important clandestine travel, which brought him to Great Britain and from there to the United States. He was carrying documents on German atrocities and on the Jewish death camps, one of which he had visited in disguise. He got as far as the Oval Office in Washington, DC, but neither President Roosevelt nor the latter’s advisers wanted to believe him, or if they did, they still could not or would not do anything to help. Karski ended up as a professor of political science at Georgetown University and the author of, among other books, Story of a Secret State, a wartime report on the Polish underground, which became a near best seller in the West.

Witold Pilecki, a tragic figure, seemed to have united in him all the major characteristics of the “typical” Polish freedom fighter. As so many other Polish resisters, he was of noble origin. In fact, traditionally, Polish society consisted almost uniquely of noble landowners and serfs-those in the cities were mainly non-Polish speakers-and the numerous nobles considered themselves the only true bearers of Polish nationhood. A landowner by occupation, Pilecki served in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 and became a reserve army officer. Following the German attack in August 1939, he fought at the head of his unit until complete defeat and then immediately joined the first armed underground organization. In 1940 he persuaded his superiors to let him be arrested with the aim of being imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp, which at that time held mainly Polish political prisoners. While there, he set up an underground resistance organization and escaped, in April 1943, carrying documents stolen from the Germans. He then served in the Home Army, distinguishing himself especially during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. By then, however, he had already made preparations for resisting the Soviet occupation. Arrested in 1947 for sending intelligence reports to the West on Soviet atrocities, he was tried, sentenced, and in May 1948 executed when he was forty-seven. A nonperson in Communist times, he was “rehabilitated” by the post-Communist government and has become a legendary hero in Poland.

It is nearly impossible to calculate the damage the European resistance movements caused to the enemy. Western historians, especially of the career military type, like to believe that the resistance did not seriously weaken the German war machine. Judging by the World War II experiences of Poland, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia as well as by the later deadly efficiency of the anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan and the Vietcong fighting the Americans in Vietnam, such arguments are no longer completely satisfactory. According to official Polish statistics, between January 1941 and June 1944, the non-Communist, non-right-wing Polish resistance damaged 6,930 locomotives, derailed 732 German transports, damaged 19,058 railway wagons, built faults into 92,000 artillery missiles, and more. Even if such precise figures are debatable, there can be no doubt that the German war industry had to spend millions of man-hours to replace machinery destroyed by Polish guerrillas. Nor should we forget the thousands of German soldiers in partisan-infected areas of Poland and the Soviet Union who had to guard transports instead of joining those on the front line.

Three major events defined the fate and the memory of the Polish resistance: the Warsaw ghetto uprising of April-May 1943 and the purported failure of the Polish resistance to aid the doomed Jewish fighters; the great Warsaw Uprising between August and October 1944 and the related questions as to whether the uprising was premature and whether the Red Army had deliberately refrained from helping the Polish fighters; and the Soviet mistreatment of the members of the Home Army at the end of the war and the continued fight of the “Brothers,” also called the “Cursed Soldiers,” against the Soviets and the Polish Communist regime. The fight ended only in 1952, when the group disbanded.

Muslims in the SS I


Commander of the 13th SS Division, SS-Standartenführer Desiderius Hampel confers with a Chetnik commander in the summer of 1944.

The SS also recruited thousands of Muslims into its ranks. In fact, Himmler shared Hitler’s favorable attitude toward Muslim soldiers. On 2 March 1943, after a meeting with the Reichsführer-SS, General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau wrote about Himmler’s enthusiasm for the foundation of the Muslim SS division in Bosnia:

Himmler certainly approved of my timidly voiced opinion that in the Bosnian Division the conventional SS cultural policy would be well complemented by the addition of field muftis. Christianity he dismissed simply on account of its softness. The hope for the paradise of Mohammed had at any cost to be fostered with the Bosnians since this guaranteed heroic performance.… Himmler regretted the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian military border and again and again spoke about the grand Bosnians and their fez.

In the following months Himmler would argue repeatedly in the same vein. As late as March 1945 he would praise “the dauntless Mohammedans” of the Waffen-SS. Like the Wehrmacht officers, he and his subordinates in the SS Head Office also frequently considered the global propagandistic impact of Muslim soldiers in German uniform. Imagining pan-Islamic unity, Gottlob Berger once explained the employment of Muslim units in southeastern Europe as an attempt “to reach out to the Mohammedans of the whole world, since these are 350 million people who are decisive in the struggle with the British Empire.” Similarly, an internal SS report emphasized that the division was to show the “entire Mohammedan world” that the Third Reich was ready to confront the “common enemies of National Socialism and Islam.”

SS recruiters first began to target Muslims in the Balkans, where, in early 1943, the partisan war threatened to divert more and more troops from the German army, already heavily weakened by defeats in the East and in North Africa. The largest Muslim SS unit of the region was formed in Bosnia. From February 1943 on, Himmler recruited thousands of Muslims into the 13th SS Waffen Mountain Division (13. Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS), which later was renamed “Handžar” (Handschar). The formation was enthusiastically supported by the leading Muslim autonomists, who, in their memorandum of 1 November 1942, had already suggested the establishment of a volunteer unit under German command. Handžar’s deployment took place under the auspices of the Croatian ethnic German SS-Division “Prinz Eugen” and its choleric commander, SS-Gruppenführer Artur Phleps. A considerable part of the division comprised members of the feared Muslim militia of Major Muhamed Hadžiefendić, which had been created by the Ustaša government in northeastern Bosnia in 1941. In the field, the leading German recruiter of Handžar became Karl von Krempler, who had grown up in Serbia and Turkey and was fluent in Bosnian. Although the majority of the Muslim population appeared to approve of the establishment of this division, fewer of them initially volunteered than had been anticipated. In time, though, recruiters enlisted around 20,000 volunteers. Praised by German propaganda in Croatia as “warriors against Bolshevism and Judaism,” they were to become both a political and a military force in the region.

The Ustaša regime followed these events with the utmost suspicion. Its initial attempts to control the project failed. The SS gave short shrift to Zagreb’s requests to include the word “Ustaša” in the name of the division. In the end, the Germans assured Pavelić that around 15 percent of Handžar would be made up of Catholics and that his regime would be involved in the recruitment process. In reality, Bosnians perceived the division as a “Mohammedan issue,” as Winkler put it. Pavelić’s representative and liaison officer, Alija Šuljak, a Muslim who was notorious for his aggressive Ustaša propaganda, was quickly sidelined by German recruitment officers around Krempler. Many Muslims even deserted the Croatian army to join the new SS formation. Although Pavelić saw his hands tied, his regime missed no opportunity to hinder the establishment of the Muslim division. In April, Phleps complained to Berlin that the Croatian government “uses all possible means to obstruct or at least to delay the formation considerably.” The head of the SS Reich Security Head Office, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, reported similar complaints. In some cases, the Croats came at night for Muslim volunteers who had already been enlisted in the ranks of the SS, forced them out of their beds, and sent them to Croatian army barracks. Furious, Himmler ordered his police commissioner on the spot to clamp down on this practice and to search both Croatian barracks and the concentration camps Nova Gradiška and Jasenovac, declaring that he had “definitive and very precise reports” about young men who had been “transported to concentration camps simply because they have enlisted with us.” The perpetrators, he suggested, should themselves be taken to concentration camps or be executed.

Eager to avoid further Croatian sabotage, the SS moved Handžar to southern France, where the division was trained under the command of First World War veteran SS-Oberführer Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig. The German officials in the Balkans, most notably Horstenau, expressed concern about the transfer at this critical point of the war. Himmler, however, coolly rebuffed any such objections. But before long the concerns of the officers on the ground proved to be well founded. In the summer of 1943, when Tito initiated a major offensive in Bosnia, the relatives of Muslim volunteers were targeted first by the partisans. In France, their sons and husbands soon got wind of the developments at home. They knew that their families were left completely vulnerable and without any viable defense. Shocked by these events, especially since the Germans had promised them employment in their own country to protect their homes, many of the Bosnian volunteers became disillusioned. Discontent rose. In the night of 16–17 September, a group of soldiers rebelled and shot an officer. Although caught off guard, the Germans quickly put down the revolt, with fifteen soldiers killed. Numerous rebels were arrested and publicly executed by firing squads. Berger blamed not the Muslims but the (around 2,800) Catholics of the formation. A bit later Hitler expressed the same opinion, stressing that only the Muslims of the division had been proven trustworthy. Soon Handžar was moved to the Silesian training ground at Neuhammer, where Himmler visited twice and gave his motivational speech. Al-Husayni, too, was sent there. Publishing a photo series of his visit to Neuhammer, the Wiener Illustrierte explained to its readers that the Muslims were to fight in the SS ranks with “fanatic faith in their heart,” knowing “that only on the side of Germany can they sustain their freedom of faith and freedom of life.” Finally, in late February 1944, the Muslims were sent back to the Balkans. “Our Führer, Adolf Hitler, has kept his promise. A new era is dawning. We are coming!,” announced a propaganda leaflet distributed throughout Bosnia. Another one declared, “Now we are here!” to fight “every enemy of the homeland.” Hitler and Himmler had personally approved these pamphlets. Handžar was mostly used for antipartisan operations in northeastern Bosnia and acquired a grim reputation for its brutality and violent excesses. A British liaison officer with Tito’s partisans reported on the division’s atrocities: “It behaves well in Moslem territory, but in Serb populated areas massacres all civil population without mercy or regard for age or sex.” After the war, an officer of Handžar gave a graphic report of crimes committed by members of the division: “One woman was killed and her heart taken out, carried around and then thrown into a ditch.” Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s liaison officer at Hitler’s headquarters, reported to Hitler on the atrocities of Handžar during a military briefing on 6 April 1944, describing how the Muslim division had spread fear across the Balkans: “They kill them with only the knife. There was a man who was wounded. He had his arm tied up and with the left hand still finished off 17 enemies. There are also cases where they cut out their enemy’s heart.” Hitler was not interested. “I couldn’t care less” (Das ist Wurst), he replied, and carried on with the meeting’s agenda. A few months later, an internal Wehrmacht report noted: “Muslims have done very well, and so they must be extensively supported and strengthened by military and civil agencies.” Berger, too, was impressed, declaring that “fighting against Tito and the Communists thus becomes for the Moslems a holy war.” When Kersten asked him about Handžar’s military performance, he replied: “First class, they are as tough as the best German divisions were at the beginning of the war. They regard their weapons as sacred.… The Moslems cling to their flag with the same passionate courage, the Prophet’s ancient green flag with a white half-moon, stained with the blood of ancient battles, its staff splintered with bullets.”

Soon, however, it became clear that more local help was needed in the Balkans. Desperate for manpower, German recruiters began to target Albanian Muslims. In early 1944 Hitler endorsed the formation of a Muslim division of Albanians, the 21st SS Waffen Mountain Division (21. Waffen-Gebirgsdivision der SS), called “Skanderbeg.” Skanderbeg, which was deployed in Kosovo, in the area between Peć, Priština, and Prizren, was to operate in northern Albania and the borderlands of Montenegro. It consisted of recruits from the local civilian population, prisoners of war, and Albanian soldiers from Handžar. Enlistment of civilians was, as documents in the Albanian Central State Archive show, organized in close cooperation with the institutions of the Albanian puppet state, most importantly the Ministry of Defense. Keitel ordered the release of Albanian prisoners of war of the “Muslim faith” to swell the ranks of the unit. The basis of the new division, however, was formed by the Albanian contingent of Handžar. Himmler expected “great usefulness” from the unit since the Albanians who fought in Handžar had proved to be highly motivated and disciplined. In practice, though, the division suffered from a shortage of equipment and armaments and a lack of German staff to train new recruits. Over the summer and autumn of 1944, only a single battalion had been readied for combat and employed to fight partisans. “Day-in, day-out and night-in, night-out, Skanderbeg units advanced into the mountains to cover the flanks of the retreating troops,” observed a German soldier in Prizren. “They were the horror of the partisans.” Ultimately, the battalion became directly involved in Nazi crimes. In July 1944 the commander of Skanderbeg, August Schmidhuber, reported that his men had taken measures to crack down on “Jews, Communists and intellectual supporters of the Communists.” Between 28 May and 5 July the Albanians had captured “a sum total of 510 Jews, Communists, and supporters of gangs and political suspects.” Skanderbeg was also involved in retributive hangings following acts of sabotage. With the numbers of deaths and desertions rising, the division was shrinking steadily. Equally problematic was the formation of a third Muslim division of the Waffen-SS in the Balkans, the Bosnian 23rd SS Waffen Mountain Division (23. Waffen-Gebirgsdivision der SS), known as “Kama.” Established in June 1944, Kama comprised both Muslim civilians and several units from Handžar. After a series of desertions, the SS was compelled to disband the unit in late October 1944, only five months after its founding.

In the East, the SS was initially cautious. The Security Police and the Security Service of the SS in the Crimea were first to recruit Muslims systematically, using them as auxiliaries. Based on an agreement with the 11th Army, in early 1942 Otto Ohlendorf employed some of the recruited Crimean Muslims in his Einsatzgruppe D. Soon 1,632 Muslim volunteers were fighting in fourteen so-called Tatar self-defense units (Tatarenselbstschutzkompanien) of Einsatzgruppe D, scattered across the Crimean peninsula. An SS report about the volunteers praised the Tatars for being “explicitly opposed to Bolshevism, Jews, and Gypsies.” Ohlendorf’s right-hand man, Willi Seibert, noted that they had “proved their supreme worth” in combat against partisans. Eventually, SS officers developed the idea of founding another Muslim division in the East. Walter Schellenberg, head of the foreign intelligence of the SD, had discussed the deployment of a formation of Turkic and Tatar volunteers as early as 1941 in the Reich Security Head Office but had given up on these plans due to a lack of personnel and resources. In autumn 1943 the idea was revived and discussed by Schellenberg and Berger. On 14 October 1943, Schellenberg sent Berger a memorandum on the formation of a “Mohammedan Legion of the Waffen-SS” composed of Muslims from the Soviet Union. The “political-ideological basis” of this unit was to be “Islam alone,” it stated. Convinced that the division would have a political and military impact throughout the Islamic world, Schellenberg summarized his ultimate “aim” in one sentence: “Formation of Mohammedan units for the increasing revolutionization and winning over of the entire Islamic world.” Thrilled, Berger recommended the plan to Himmler. The deployment of an Eastern Muslim division was a “political matter of the highest significance and importance,” he stressed, by which “another part of the Mohammedan world would be won” for Germany’s war. Its formation would demonstrate “that we are serious about friendship with the Mohammedan world.”

The following month, Himmler began recruiting among Soviet Muslims for an Eastern Muslim SS Division (Ostmuselmanisches SS-Division), the name emphasizing the religious character of the formation. The Wehrmacht agreed to transfer its Turkic battalions 450 and I/94 to the SS, where they were to become the basis of the new division. Andreas Mayer-Mader, who was still in charge of his Muslim unit, now called Turk Battalion 450, and part of the Turkestani Legion, was recruited by the SS to become commander of the new formation. He seemed particularly suitable, as he claimed to be an expert in the Muslim faith and on the verge of converting to Islam. The Eastern Muslim SS Division was never fully employed, however. Mayer-Mader’s command remained limited to the division’s so-called 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment (1. Ostmuselmanisches SS-Regiment), which derived from the two Wehrmacht battalions. In early 1944 it contained only 800 men. In spring 1944 Fritz Sauckel, Hitler’s general plenipotentiary for labor deployment, released all of those Turkic and Tatar workers from the Labor Service who were willing to fight in the new Muslim unit. SS enlisters also recruited Muslims from prisoner of war camps. With the help of Josef Terboven, Reich commissar for Norway, the SS even screened the prisoner of war camps across Norway for a few hundred detained Muslims. The High Command of the Wehrmacht, though, was increasingly resistant to SS attempts to recruit from its Muslim legions, seeing the SS more and more as a rival in the East. Mayer-Mader, who faced resistance within his unit, was soon discharged, and later killed in mysterious circumstances. He was succeeded by several officers, among them the sadistic Hauptmann Heinz Billig (March–April) and the Nazi careerist SS-Hauptsturmführer Emil Hermann (April–July).100 The 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment first fought partisans in the area around Minsk before being sent to Poland to join the infamous Dirlewanger Regiment in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising—as was a regiment of the Azerbaijani Legion of the Wehrmacht.

Meanwhile, the SS continued to pursue the plan of the Eastern Muslim SS Division—now called the Eastern Turkic SS Corps (Osttürkische Waffenverband der SS). Responsibility for the recruitment of the Eastern Turkic Muslims now fell to Reiner Olzscha of the volunteer section of the SS Head Office. First, the SS needed a new commander, one who was familiar with the Muslim world. A German officer who had served in the Ottoman army during the First World War and a former colonial officer from the Dutch army were suggested. In the early summer of 1944, Berger finally found a suitable man—an officer familiar with “the Eastern Turkic-Islamic world.” Himmler’s new commander of the Eastern Turkic SS Corps was fifty-nine-year-old Wilhelm Hintersatz, better known as Harun al-Rashid Bey, an army officer from Brandenburg who had converted to Islam during the First World War and who had worked with Enver Pasha on the Ottoman general staff. During that time he had also met Otto Liman von Sanders, for whom he felt a deep admiration. The campaign for Islamic mobilization in the Great War had strongly influenced Hintersatz, as it had so many others. After 1918 he had become involved with the former Muslim prisoners of war from the Wünsdorf Camp and had served in Italian intelligence in Abyssinia in the 1930s, claiming in his curriculum vitae that the “trust of the native Mohammedans” had been his best “instrument” there. “The Mohammedans saw in me a fellow believer, who prayed with them without timidity in their mosque,” he boasted. He had “always been ready” to cut the “Achilles’ heel” of Germany’s “most dangerous enemy,” England, which, in his view, was Islam. Married with two children, the qualified engineer was not the archetypical adventurer. He had become involved with Islam and Islamic politics by chance. Playing up his “Islamic connections” and describing his “affiliation with Islam” and the trust he enjoyed among Muslims as his “essential instrument,” he had impressed SS officers. Before his appointment, al-Rashid had worked as a liaison officer of the Reich Security Head Office with the mufti of Jerusalem. Olzscha contacted al-Rashid in May: “I wish to make you a very concrete proposition, which also first and foremost considers the position which distinguishes you as a Mohammedan and former officer.” Indeed, within the SS Head Office, al-Rashid’s appointment was explained with reference to his “close relationships to the Islamic world” and the SS propaganda for the “Turkic-Islamic world.”

Muslims in the SS II

Der Großmufti von Jerusalem [Amin al Husseini] bei den bosnischen Freiwilligen der Waffen-SS. Der Großmufti ist auf dem Truppenübungsplatz ein[getroffen] und schreitet die Front der angetretenen Freiwilligen mit erhobenem Arm ab.

Amin al-Husayni, alongside SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen SS Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig, greeting Bosnian SS volunteers in November 1943.

The Eastern Turkic SS Corps under Harun al-Rashid was to become a reservoir of all Eastern Muslim volunteers. Its base became the 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment, although it was restructured into three, and later four, battalions (Crimea, Turkestan, Idel-Ural, and finally Azerbaijan). Al-Rashid’s most prominent volunteer was Prince Mansur Daoud, a distant cousin of King Faruq of Egypt, whose recruitment strengthened the unit’s pan-Islamic character. Impressed by his performance, al-Rashid reported that Daoud had proven to be a “substantial political factor” and that he, “in the closest cooperation with the chief mullah,” conducted “effective propaganda.” By December 1944 around 3,000 Muslims had been enlisted in the Eastern Turkic SS Corps; in early 1945 it had grown to 8,500. Ultimately, the formation of the complete corps failed, but the SS managed to mobilize significantly more Muslims than had fought in the 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment. In the end, the SS began enlisting every Eastern Muslim within its reach. In the summer of 1944, for instance, 800 former soldiers of the Tatar units, which had been evacuated from the Crimea to Romania, were recruited into the Tatar SS Waffen Mountain Brigade (Tatarische Waffen-Gebirgs-Brigade der SS) and fought, armed only with carbines, in Hungary before being integrated into al-Rashid’s corps. SS recruiters would even screen the Reich Commissariat Ostland for Muslim cannon fodder. In March 1944 the head of Vienna’s Islamic community, Salih Hadzicalić, was consulted by the SS Head Office about the Muslims of Vilnius, prompting the SS to contact Mufti Szynkiewicz about Muslims there. As late as November 1944, the SS command in Danzig reported to the SS Head Office on the “transfer of Muslim members of the police to the Waffen-SS,” specifically two Muslim soldiers who had been recruited in the Ostland. In late 1944 Himmler decided to organize some of the Eastern Muslims into two regiments of a newly founded Caucasian SS Corps (Kaukasischer Waffenverband der SS). Varying in size between 1,000 and 2,000 men, the corps was split into four regiments, of which two were to be Muslim or dominated by Muslims: Northern Caucasian and Azerbaijani (the non-Muslim regiments were Armenian and Georgian). The Azerbaijanis of the Eastern Turkic SS Corps, however, successfully petitioned not to be mixed with Christian Armenians and Georgians in this new corps but to remain in al-Rashid’s purely Islamic formation. As the war was nearing its end, the recruiting process became more and more chaotic. The morale of the troops suffered. In late December 1944 some of the men of the Turkestani regiment, led by their commander, Ghulam Alimov, revolted in the Hungarian-Slovakian border area. Along with 400 to 500 of his men, Alimov arrested all German officers and even executed some of them before escaping into the woods to join the Slovak partisans. In January 1945, however, many of the deserters returned, while only 250 to 300 stayed with the partisans. In the last months of the war, the corps fought in northern Italy, where it finally surrendered to the US Army.

From the beginning, officers in the SS Head Office understood the massive mobilization of Eastern Muslims as part of a general campaign that aimed to revolutionize all Muslims of the Soviet Union against Moscow. A particularly eager proponent of this policy was Emil Hermann. A veteran officer of the SS, Hermann had been responsible for the military and political organization of the Eastern Muslim SS troops before briefly taking over command of the 1st Eastern Muslim Regiment. Olzscha explained after the war that Hermann had hoped to advance his career through the Islamic question and in fact aspired to run an office for Islamic affairs, planned in the SS Head Office. As early as 14 December 1943, Hermann referred to the endeavor to “set Islam in motion” (den Islam in Bewegung bringen werden) in a general memorandum about the foundation of the Eastern SS formation. Although the paper spoke in general terms about the “registration of the currently available Muslim peoples with the aim of employing them in the fight against the enemy powers,” it was mainly concerned with the Muslims of the Soviet Union. Compared to the Arabs, their hatred of foreign rule, which was based on their religiosity, was even more powerful, Hermann wrote. Their “great love of freedom” and the “teaching of Islam” generated a “tremendous pride,” which the SS had to consider in order not to make the same mistakes as the Wehrmacht. Berger reacted to the memorandum with one of his simple notes in the margins: “Yes, agreed!” Five days earlier, when meeting Gerd Schulte, an officer of the SS Head Office who was assigned to oversee the establishment of the Muslim division, Mayer-Mader suggested that the SS should become the protector of the Eastern Turks. Schulte corrected him, emphasizing that one would have to speak about the “patron of all Muslims.” Mayer-Mader understood. In a special report, he outlined his idea for a unit that was organized strictly along Islamic lines and would accommodate Muslims from all parts of the Soviet Union. He also pointed to the division’s effects on the wider Islamic world and discussed its employment in terms of Germany’s general policy on Islam. “Our enemies well know that the interests of Islam and Germany run parallel,” he claimed, describing Muslims and Germans as “the most natural allies.” Almost the entire Muslim world was colonized by the Soviets, British, and French. But even though many Muslims saw “the only hope for Islam in an alliance with Germany,” more had to be done. Apart from propaganda, practical measures were needed “to show the common man that Germany sees in Islam an equal friend and ally.” The most efficient measure was the formation of the division of Eastern Turkic Muslims, which would soon influence all Muslims of the Soviet Union. On 4 January 1944, Mayer-Mader, joined by Heinz Billig, who at that time still led the staff of the new division in Berlin, met Schulte again and established the future goals of the new division. The “short-term objective” was to function as a “task force against Bolshevism.” The “long-term objective,” the SS men decided, would be not only the “liberation of Turkestan” but also the broader “activation of the Muslims” (Aktivierung der Moslems) of the Soviet Union. It was this misconception, the notion that Islam was a bloc that could be “activated,” which dominated the views of German SS officers toward the end of the war.

This idea came even more to the fore in the summer of 1944, when the plans for the Eastern Muslim SS formation were reorganized. Reiner Olzscha wrote a whole series of reports on this matter, all roughly based on his general memorandum of 24 April 1944 about the involvement of the SS in Eastern Muslim affairs. In a report dated 7 June 1944, he discussed the Eastern formation in terms of a wider aim to mobilize Eastern Muslims against the Soviet Union. Stressing that the Muslims were the strongest non-Slavic and non-Christian minority of the Soviet Union, that their religion was a genuine bulwark against Moscow, and that their history of uprisings had proven their anti-Russian and anti-Bolshevist stance, Olzscha argued that the “struggle for freedom of the Mohammedan Turk people” provided an ideal basis for an alliance with Germany, an alliance that would be welcomed in wider parts of the Islamic world. Similar notes followed. In one of them, Olzscha argued that “hundreds of thousands of Turkic Muslims” would form the “strongest subversive minority of the Soviet Union” and should be “exploited” by the SS. In another, he described the new Eastern Muslim SS formation as a “platform for political fanaticization of the Eastern Turks in the fight against Bolshevist Russia.” Berger agreed. Not only the political-national motives but also the “Mohammedan worldview” of the Eastern Muslims were to be used “as an effective bulwark against Bolshevism,” he wrote to Himmler. In some further instructions Berger specified that Himmler’s order for the formation of the “Eastern Turkic Corps” aimed to concentrate all “Turkic Mohammedan anti-Bolshevist forces” for the purpose of “the inner fragmentation of the Soviet Union.” Berger’s plans for the Eastern Muslim Corps and the splintering of the Soviet Union, however, clashed with the realities of the war. In practice its units were not employed on Soviet territory. Nevertheless, officers at the SS Head Office were convinced by the plan. In a report to Berger, SS-Hauptsturmführer Ulrich, an official at the SS Head Office, urged the pursuit of the “desired ultimate goal,” which, he summarized, was the “revolutionalization of the anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia through Islam, as a detonator within the state.” “If this impact, through the 30 million Muslims in the Soviet Union, is to be effected, nevertheless, the deployment of the Eastern Turkic Corps cannot be relinquished.” The SS Head Office would follow these plans until the downfall of the Third Reich in 1945.

A vigorous promoter of Islamic mobilization in the last months of the war was the new commander of the Eastern Muslim formation, Harun al-Rashid, who, like Olzscha and Berger, described the corps as a “platform for the fanaticization” of the Muslims in the Soviet Union. He had “guaranteed” Olzscha a “loyal, combat-ready and soldierly valuable Mohammedan military force” (mohamedanische Waffenkraft). Underlining the importance of employing purely Muslim units, he also pleaded for stronger “Islamic-religious influence.” To guarantee this, he suggested, in June 1944, the deployment and training of the new corps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they could join the Muslim SS units already there. In the Balkans it would be possible, he stressed, to direct “our people” into the mosques and to bring them under the influence of the Bosnian ‘ulama. Al-Rashid went as far as to suggest that, in case the Germans never conquered the Soviet Union, the Eastern Muslims could settle among the “very pro-German Mohammedan population of the Balkans.”

The efforts by the SS to mobilize Muslims were increasingly opposed by the Wehrmacht and the East Ministry. The Wehrmacht feared the disintegration of its Muslim legions. Indeed, Harun al-Rashid internally suggested transferring “all Mohammedan formations” to the Waffen-SS. More forceful opposition to the SS policy of Islamic mobilization of the Eastern Muslims came from Mende and officers of the East Ministry. When the SS began organizing its first Eastern Muslim units in late 1943, Mende’s protégé, the Turkic exile Veli Kajum, concerned about losing influence, protested that “the SS pursued ‘pan-Islamic’ aims.” The SS swiftly confronted Kajum. In February 1944 Mende himself stepped in, writing a lengthy report about the new SS line for Berger, who had by then also seized control of the political department of the East Ministry. Mende acknowledged the central role Islam played in the deployment of Muslim units in the Balkans: “The Western Muslim SS-Division of the Bosniaks can be successful under the unifying idea of Islam because the Bosniaks, who speak Croatian, distinguish themselves from the linguistically undifferentiated Croatian and Serbian environment only through Islam and the particular habits deriving from it. For them Islam is therefore the embodiment of their difference and the bond to the greater Islamic world.” However, he vehemently protested against expanding this policy to the East: “The situation among the Mohammedans in the Soviet Union is very different.” The Wehrmacht had divided Muslims into the four legions according to their ethnicity. “The unification of the Mohammedans of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Muslim SS Division requires a change from the hitherto political-propagandistic treatment,” Mende cautioned. Basing policy toward the Eastern Muslims on “the unifying power of Islam” would inevitably lead to a pan-Turanian movement that could not be controlled. Somewhat inconsistently, he claimed that, in any case, Islam played no decisive role in the East. Only 5 percent of Eastern Muslims were still attached to Islam, and only an additional 20 percent would possibly be receptive to a religious campaign. It was the “national question,” Mende asserted, that played the “decisive role.” Moreover, he warned that “the strong emphasis on unifying Islam” would make the smaller non-Muslim peoples of the Eastern territories, Georgians and Armenians, feel “subordinated,” which would make them turn to Moscow. Still, even Mende acknowledged that the SS policy would have “positive effects on Turkey and probably on the entire Mohammedan world.” He suggested a compromise. The volunteer formations should remain structured along ethnic lines, but this policy could be “complemented by a strong emphasis on the general principles of Islam and through the support of the fraternal bond between the greater Turkic-speaking units.” The SS could not have cared less. A few months later, in the summer of 1944, Mende turned again to Berger to repeat his concerns—once more without success. Finally, on 13 September 1944, representatives of the SS Head Office, including Olzscha and Ulrich, met to consult with Mende. Mende once more complained about the pan-policies of the SS. The SS remained firm. Mende’s position conflicted not only with that of the SS Head Office but also with that of his colleague Johannes Benzing, who supported the SS line. The interwar academic debates about the impact of Islam in the Soviet Union had turned into a conflict over policy making.

The SS policy toward the Muslims of the Eastern territories had a larger dimension. In the final months of the war, Muslim mobilization in the East became part of a full-scale pan-Islamic campaign launched by the SS. “Mobilization of Islam” was, indeed, the title of a memorandum written by the ambitious Emil Hermann in late February 1944. It suggested nothing less than an operation aimed at ensuring “that the whole Islamic world is set in motion” (dass der gesamte Islam in Bewegung gerät). Hermann outlined a gigantic pan-Islamic mobilization project targeting all countries within reach of the SS:

It is proposed to effect a Führer order via the Reichsführer-SS, which summons all capable Muslims within reach in Europe to come to a specific staging point. It must include both Mohammedan civil workers as well as O.T.-laborers [workers of the Organization Todt], prisoners of war, etc. The assemblage of the Mohammedans in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Croatia would have to be carried out in cooperation with the Foreign Office and the foreign governments.… This campaign of orchestration would have to be preceded by a promotion exercise by the grand mufti via broadcast, press and pamphlet propaganda. The 13th Bosnian Waffen Mountain Division as well as the Eastern Muslim and Albanian [divisions], which are currently being deployed, would serve as a substantial propaganda instrument.… With regard to the Crimean Tatars, it is proposed to assemble the mullahs (Odessa or the Crimea itself) and to let the grand mufti speak to them in person. The Mohammedans of the countries of Spain, France, Italy, and Greece can be considered for the Arab Legion. There are only a few Mohammedans in Romania, so a separate formation would be unrealistic. With the Mohammedans of the Bulgarian region, a legion of Pomak Muslims could be employed. Circa 450,000 Pomak Muslims live in Bulgaria, who are suppressed by the Bulgarian government. During the deployment of new Mohammedan formations it must be considered that the officer posts are given to Mohammedans or Germans.

The plan never materialized, although, in the last year of the war, the SS made considerable (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to mobilize, or “activate” as Berger and other SS officers had put it, Muslims wherever possible—not just from the Soviet Union and the Baltic but also from Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. In the autumn of 1943 Himmler asked Berger to assess the issue of including Indian Muslims in Handžar. Berger answered that his “in-depth investigation” had shown that their integration into the Bosnian unit was not possible, as Indian Muslims would feel first Indian, not Muslim. He also advised against the employment of an Indian Muslim Formation (Indischer Moslemverband) on the Eastern Front, as he feared desertion to India. The plan was never pursued. Shortly afterward, Berger came up with another idea. In December 1943, after having consulted the mufti, he suggested to Himmler that they recruit Muslims from eastern Africa who were imprisoned in France: “These Mohammedans would like to fight against the English and Americans in Italy.” Berger expressed his wish to discuss the issue with Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to Paris. This never happened, either. Ultimately, SS recruitment of Arabs was largely unsuccessful, as it had been in the Wehrmacht. In France, under the auspices of the SD, the Brigade Nord-Africaine, a contingent of around 180 Algerians, which operated under the infamous Parisian Gestapo officer Henri Lafont and the Algerian nationalist Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as “SS Muhammad,” was created in early 1944. The unit fought the French resistance in central France but, as the military situation in France deteriorated, disintegrated within months. The plan to establish an “Arab-Islamic army” (Arabisch-Islamische Armee) for the Waffen-SS, as suggested by al-Husayni in the summer of 1944, proved to be entirely unrealistic. The SS reported that only 300 Arabs were available for the establishment of such an army, although Berger was still convinced that more Arab volunteers might be recruited in the future. Once again, the idea never materialized. Even plans for a smaller Arab infantry regiment proved unfeasible.

As the SS tried more and more desperately to enlist every Muslim within reach, eventually even concentration camps were screened for potential recruits. In the spring of 1944 Himmler ordered Berger to contact Oswald Pohl, head of the SS Economic and Administrative Head Office (SS-Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt) and in charge of the general organization of the concentration camps, to discuss the recruitment of Muslim prisoners for the Waffen-SS. Himmler’s personal administrative officer, Rudolf Brandt, even sent Berger a detailed list of Muslim concentration camp detainees, which had been compiled by Pohl’s bureaucrats. Titled “Account of the Inmates of the Islamic Faith” (Aufstellung über die Häftlinge islamitischen Glaubens), it listed all male and female Muslim prisoners in the camps Auschwitz (I–III), Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Groß-Rosen, Mauthausen, Natzweiler, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, and Bergen-Belsen. Altogether, 1,130 Muslim men and nineteen Muslim women were recorded. Most of them were from eastern and southeastern Europe and had presumably been interned as political prisoners. Still, the list was incomplete, as some groups, most notably Muslim prisoners from Arab countries, were not included. The SS Head Office reacted swiftly, prompting a bureaucratic process that lasted half a year and involved the SS Reich Security Head Office, the SS Economic and Administrative Head Office, and Himmler’s staff. Finally, on 16 November 1944, Olzscha reported to Berger that the SS Reich Security Head Office had, despite repeated requests, not yet determined whether some of the Muslims in the concentration camps were suitable for recruitment. Berger informed Himmler of these problems and suggested calling a halt to the process. A part of the Bosnian Muslims had, at the request of the Ustaša government, already been released in the meantime, and the remaining Muslims, who were interned “because of various offenses,” would surely not make good soldiers, the chief of the SS Head Office wrote. Himmler did not pursue the issue further.

Overall, a closer look at the non-German formations of both the Wehrmacht and the SS reveals that Muslims played a significant role within them. While the Wehrmacht was the first to begin recruiting Muslims and mobilized far more overall than Himmler, the SS became the strongest force in the military mobilization of Muslims near the end of the war. Both Wehrmacht and SS authorities considered the soldiers’ religious identity to be important when forming Muslim units. Leading German officials, most notably Hitler, Himmler, and Berger, repeatedly used religious rather than national or ethnic categories when speaking and writing about these formations. As in other cases of non-German mobilization by the Wehrmacht and SS, the recruitment of Muslims was launched primarily to balance the shortage of manpower. Yet, in the Muslims’ case, considerations of general war propaganda as well as notions of the Muslims’ trustworthiness and soldierly quality played an exceptional role. Consequently, the Wehrmacht and the SS recruited a vast number of Muslims and decided to provide them with special religious care and propaganda.

Viking Warfare I


viking seabattle

Scandinavian warfare conducted outside the homelands must have been influenced in terms of strategy and tactics by those of their opponents. There was no uniform, Viking method of warfare. Scandinavians and their Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic antagonists were possessed of a comparable range of offensive and defensive personal equipment and normally fought land battles on foot. Western European written sources offer a few pointers in the direction of pre-battle manoeuvres and formations. The most important strategy in this context was to avoid pitched battles whenever possible. Vikings were perceived to be vulnerable in open country, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle observes, especially when their whereabouts was known, depriving them of the element of surprise. In 876 the Danish great army slipped past the West Saxons on its way from Cambridge to Wareham and subsequently ‘stole away’ from Wareham by night. Similarly Guthrum’s part of the same army arrived at Chippenham in January 878 ‘by stealth’. Four years later, in another winter manoeuvre, Danish Vikings were able to follow tracks left in the snow by departing Franks. On occasion it proved necessary to disencumber themselves before undertaking military operations, as when in 893 and again in 895 the Danes placed their womenfolk (many of them probably English by birth), ships, and other property in East Anglia for safety. Horse-mounted scouts were no doubt used extensively by armies in general, including Viking ones, but they are rarely indicated in our texts. Whenever a pitched battle could not be avoided, it was essential of course to choose one’s ground to advantage and to appear resolute. If we are to believe the annalists recording events in 1003, Sven Forkbeard’s army was able to look that of Ealdorman Ælfric in the eye, and to cause the English war-leader to feign illness and his men to disperse.

Great set-piece battles of the Viking Age, such as Brunanburh (937), Clontarf (1014), and Hastings (1066), were probably preceded by quite elaborate marshalling of troops. At Ashdown the Danes formed themselves into two divisions, one led by two kings and the other by all the jarls. According to a description of the second battle of Corbridge in the Annals of Ulster, there were four batallions of Vikings, all under different leaders. One of these commanded by Ragnall, the king of Waterford, lay in wait out of sight and its assault on the Scottish rear won the day. The shouted negotiations that preceded the poetic account of the battle of Maldon may or may not reflect historical actuality, but at least the precise site of this heroic episode has been identified with a fair degree of certainty. An element of surprise would have been decisive on many an occasion. Guthrum’s defeat at Edington in May 878 was brought about in this way. From the Danes’ perspective, King Alfred’s mounted force crossing over the north-western angle of Salisbury Plain at first light would have been invisible until it came charging down the steep scarp of Edington Hill. After what may have been a relatively brief military encounter, the Danes retreated northwards to their fortified encampment at Chippenham, where they surrendered a fortnight later. Similarly Harald Haardrada’s Norwegians were taken by surprise at Stamford Bridge. Contrary to their popular reputation, Viking armies were frequently beaten. An analysis of battles against the Irish in which Dublin Norsemen participated, down to and including the epic contest at Clontarf, places them on the losing side far more often than not. One obvious reason for this is that they were outnumbered and, in hand-to-hand fighting, numbers count. Irish annalists describe the losers’ fate in matter-of-fact language: in 926, for example, 200 Vikings were beheaded; in 948 the survivors of another major defeat were taken prisoner and no doubt sold into slavery. Lurid Viking methods of dispatching vanquished warlords, especially blood-eagling, belong to the realm of imaginative literature.

The commonest types of warfare in which Vikings engaged assumed the low-level forms of raiding and skirmishing. Many of these casual encounters with local forces and even local populations occurred as Vikings sought food and human captives. The detailed account in the Annals of Fulda for 873 of a raid by an inveterate Viking called Rudolf implies that the tactic was to kill the menfolk in the Ostergau of Frisia and then to take possession of their women, children, and property. In 917 Danes based at Leicester and Northampton made a night-time raid southwards, capturing men and cattle. When monasteries were targeted by Vikings some of their victims were undoubtedly monks, but others were probably members of local defence forces. Irish monasteries were repositories not only of ecclesiastical treasures but also of the wealth of laymen, who would have tried to protect it. Christian armies were sometimes led by abbots and bishops with relatively small forces at their command. In 882 Bishop Wala of Metz made a rash attack on Danish Vikings and brought upon himself both death and posthumous censureship by Archbishop Hincmar of Reims for having taken up arms. Nonetheless in the following year Liubert, the archbishop of Mainz, also with a small force, killed a number of Vikings and recovered their plunder. In northern France in 859 we hear about a sworn association of ‘common people’ who fought bravely against Danish Vikings, whilst in 894 a raiding party returning from the siege of Exeter was put to flight by the townspeople of Chichester. Low-level warfare was probably the norm in the vicinity of the greater Russian rivers used as trade routes, where Swedish Vikings (Varangians) conducted regular forays in order to gather tribute in the form of furs, honey, skins, and wax, and of course slaves, for sale in southern markets.

In the vastness of Russia, ships remained the only feasible means of longdistance transportation; so essential were they that ingenious methods were devised for hauling them over watersheds and around the Dnepr rapids. But in the narrower confines and more open landscapes of Western Europe, horses were used extensively by Viking armies. The Danish great army spent the winter of 865–6 in East Anglia equipping itself with horses; after its defeat by the Franks at Saucourt-en-Vimeu in August 881 it did the same; and in 892 it crossed over the English Channel from Boulogne ‘horses and all’. The section of the army that returned to England in late 884 was subsequently deprived of its Frankish horses by King Alfred’s relieving force. In an earlier phase of the Alfredian wars, Guthrum’s Danes had outridden the West Saxons on their journey from Wareham to Exeter. A great deal of Viking raiding conducted overland depended on horses for mobility as well as convenience. In 866 about 400 Vikings, allied with Bretons, came up the Loire with their horses and then attacked and sacked the town of Le Mans. A detail from the Annals of Ulster illustrates in a precise way the power of the horse: on 26 February 943 Dublin Vikings defeated and killed the energetic northern king, Muirchertach of the Leather Cloaks, whose chief church at Armagh 56 kilometres away was plundered by them on the very next day. Not surprisingly that most exploitative of late Viking Age commanders, Sven Forkbeard, was provided with food and horses by the cowed and war-weary English in 1013. Having left ships and hostages with his son Cnut, Sven rode with the main part of his army around southern England, taking more hostages, with the result that by the time he ‘turned northward to his ships… all the nation regarded him as full king’. Æthelred II’s kingdom had been conquered on horseback over half a century before the battle of Hastings!

England was won by Danes by different military tactics from those used by Normans, their Frenchified descendants. Nevertheless the Bayeux Tapestry shows Norman cavalrymen holding spears aloft like javelins, as well as under arm in couched-lance style. Horses were often at or near the scene of military actions involving Vikings. At the siege of Buttington, situated where Offa’s Dyke meets the Severn near Welshpool, the encircled Danes were forced by lack of food to eat most of their horses. After Edmund Ironside’s victory at Otford in Kent in 1016, Danish warriors retreated on horseback to the island of Sheppey; their horses had presumably been stationed somewhere near the field of battle. Raiding parties would have been horse-mounted for the most part, like that conducted in Brega in the year 1000 by the Dublin Norsemen and their Leinster allies in advance of the main army of their new overlord, Brian Bórama; in the event most of them were killed by Mael Sechnaill’s men. A few years earlier, in 994, Olaf Tryggvason and Sven Forkbeard had ravaged coastal districts of south-eastern England and ‘finally they seized horses and rode as widely as they wished and continued to do indescribable damage’. After their defeat at Saucourt, Danish Vikings indulged in a Cromwellian touch: in the course of extensive pillaging, including the royal palace at Aachen, they stabled their horses in the king’s chapel. On another occasion they turned the advantages of having a steed against its aristocratic rider: according to the Annals of St-Vaast and Regino of Prüm, the east Frankish margrave Henry rode headlong into a pit excavated in advance and was there killed. The same ruse finds a literary echo towards the end of Orkneyinga Saga, where Sven Asleifarson is entrapped in a Dublin street.

In populated areas outside the homelands Scandinavians were vulnerable, whether operating as raiders, traders, or settlers, or some combination of these activities. Just like their victims, Vikings needed protection and security. To start with, their most precious possessions were the ships by which they arrived. Naval encampments designed to protect these were such a novel and distinctive phenomenon in mid-ninth-century Ireland that a descriptive word was coined from two Latin components. A longphort (plural longphuirt) is expressive of ship defence and among the first recorded examples were those at Annagassan (Co. Louth) and Dublin. Naval bases of this kind had the immediate effect of extending the range of inland forays in 841—about 120 and 90 kilometres, respectively. Natural islands were ideal as lairs for fleets, since elaborate defences would not have been required. Some of these were relatively large and situated off the coast: good examples are Noirmoutier in western France and Sheppey and Thanet in south-eastern England. Other island bases were smaller and upriver or, in Ireland, in big lakes and inlets such as Lough Neagh and Strangford Lough. Provided they had adequate supplies, Vikings could feel tolerably safe. In 863 a party of Danes withstood a two-pronged siege for several weeks on an island in the Rhine, despite the fact that it was winter-time, before retreating. Adrevald of Fleury gives us the clearest written account of such a base, on an island in the Loire near his great monastery. Here Vikings secured their ships, erected huts to live in, and kept prisoners in chains, and from here they ventured on plundering forays aboard ship and on horseback. Major naval bases attracted the covetous eyes of other Vikings: in 851 Norwegian Dublin was ransacked and burnt by Danish Vikings; ten years later a substantial ship-borne force attacked the Danish fort on the island of Oissel in the Seine upstream from Rouen.

To identify and to investigate archaeologically relatively short-lived encampments, and thus to describe their design, has not been easy. The standard Viking practice was probably to excavate a ditch and to build a bank inside it, as at Repton; indeed the Danish fort under construction at Louvain at the time of the Frankish assault in 891 was surrounded by a ditch ‘after their fashion’. According to Asser, the winter camp at Reading had gates and extensive use was presumably made of timber for such purposes. The site at Jeufosse selected by Danes in the winter of 856–7 is praised by a Western annalist for its excellence as a base-camp. At Nijmegen in 880–1 they did even better, taking over the king’s palace and building fortifications that proved to be too strong for the royal army. On the other hand, a year or so later, having barricaded themselves in a large farmstead at Avaux in the Low Countries, predatory Vikings decided to decamp by moonlight, but were subsequently defeated on their way back to their ships. Winter camps had to be stocked with provisions, a necessity that exposed the aggressors themselves to attack. The Fulda annalist tells us explicitly that the Frankish tactic at Asselt on the Meuse in 887 was to ambush unsuspecting Vikings outside their stronghold. Two years earlier a war-band took control of Hesbaye and its hinterland, gathering crops of various kinds and assembling a workforce of male and female slaves, only to find itself besieged, deprived of its supplies, and forced to make an overnight escape. Similarly, an English army obliged the Danes to abandon Chester towards the end of 893 by seizing cattle and by burning corn or feeding it to their horses.

Viking Warfare II

917 - Battle of Tempsford



Vikings are rarely recorded besieging mere forts: at the unidentified site of Wigingamere in south-eastern England a large Danish army attacked ‘long into the day’ in the critical year of 917, but gave up when it met with stiff resistance. Quite the opposite occurred at defended towns that were full of loot, for Vikings were capable of mounting and maintaining prolonged sieges. An early example is Bordeaux, beginning in 847. In the following year the besiegers were beaten off by Charles the Bald’s forces, but subsequently, possibly by means of a night attack, the Vikings broke through the defences and ravaged and burnt the town. Their persistence had been rewarded. Danes made elaborate preparations for a siege of London in 1016, digging a large ditch parallel to the southern bank of the Thames and dragging their ships upstream of the bridge. The town on the northern bank was then surrounded by another ditch, with the result that no one could get in or out. Time and again towns in Western Europe were targeted. Their usual fate was to be subjected to plundering and burning, like Bonn and Cologne in 881; occasionally they were captured and taken over for lengthy periods, as happened to York in 866 and London five years later. Viking siege techniques were probably similar to those of their contemporaries: exotic strategems, such as Harald Haardrada’s supposed use of small birds fitted with burning shavings of fir tied to their backs, whereby to set fire to a Sicilian town, belong firmly to a saga writer’s imagination. In due course Vikings built defences for their own urban creations, as at Birka and Hedeby in the homelands, or at Dublin in Ireland. The two Scandinavian ones were abandoned during the Viking Age itself and their mid-tenth-century ramparts can be traced in their entirety. At Dublin, on the other hand, the fortifications have been only partially revealed by archaeological excavations, notably at Wood Quay. There the sequence consisted essentially of earthen banks, reinforced by timber, dated c.950 and c.1000, culminating in a stone wall of c.1100.

Viking attacks of all kinds were heavily dependent for their success on Scandinavian mastery of shipbuilding and navigation. Ships conveyed not only warriors and sometimes horses, but also that element of surprise which has always been decisive in military history. The bewildering mobility of Vikings that so struck contemporaries owed much to their ships. That mobility was demonstrated spectacularly in 859–60, when Danes sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the Rhône as far north as Valence, before retreating to an island base and then setting off for Italy where they attacked Pisa and other towns. In 1005, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ruefully remarks, the Danish fleet left England for home, yet ‘let little time elapse before it came back’. Scandinavians in the Viking Age deployed many types of ship, as the extensive vocabulary in Old Norse implies, but the classic warship of the first half of the period is probably still best represented by the one discovered at Gokstad, in southern Norway, in 1880. With its sixteen pairs of oars it would have had a crew of about 35 men. This ship was built in the last years of the ninth century, at precisely the time when King Alfred was experimenting with ‘longships’ that were roughly twice as big as those of the Danes and equipped with 60 or more oars. These details from a Norwegian ship-burial and from an English text are in perfect accord. Later ships were probably bigger, like that which Earl Godwin gave to King Harthacnut in 1040 and which was manned by 80 warriors. In an incident off the north-east coast of Ireland in 986 the crewmen of three Danish ships were captured; 140 of them were executed and the rest were sold into slavery, implying a complement for each ship of at least 60 and possibly more. Ships of both types were deployed on the open sea and along the greater rivers: in 844, for example, Vikings sailed up the Garonne as far as Toulouse. In more confined spaces their crews took to the oars, as on the Lympne in Kent in 892 and on the Lea north of London two years later.

By the twelfth century there was an obligation on the inhabitants of coastal districts in the Scandinavian homelands to build and man ships for both defensive and offensive purposes. This obligation, known as leidang (lei∂angr), is probably to be interpreted as an expression of growing royal power, along with other developments such as the foundation of bishoprics, the protection of townspeople, and the minting of coins. The antiquity of this system of naval military service is highly uncertain, again for lack of contemporary evidence. Warships were sophisticated in their construction and required carefully selected timber that had to be transported, materials such as rivets, ropes, and sail-cloth, and skilled craftsmen. In one English reference we have a precise indication of the average cost of building a warship—£345 5s. In terms of late Anglo-Saxon notional prices, this was the equivalent of over 4,000 cows. Since a typical Norwegian farmer may have had only a dozen or so, Scandinavian warlords would have disposed of considerable tributary resources in order to assemble a fleet of any size. Social mechanisms of military obligation must be presumed to have lain in the realm of customary dues, which were incurred by the war-band itself when fleets operated abroad. This we can deduce from allusions to ship repairs and even ship construction in Western European sources. In June 866, for example, a group of Vikings moved from their island base near the monastery of St-Denis and sailed down the Seine until they reached a suitable place for both purposes, as well as to take delivery of tribute from the local Frankish population. Four years earlier Weland’s warriors had chosen Jumièges on the same river in order to repair their ships and to await the spring equinox, before making for the open sea.

Memorial stone from Smiss, Gotland, showing a ship full of Viking warriors. Though crudely represented, visible features of the vessel include ornamented stem- and stern-posts, the steering oar to starboard, the mast and supporting stays, and the interwoven sail-cloth. The crewmen wear conical helmets and carry shields. The upper panel depicts two men in single combat.

There has been much debate among scholars about the size of Viking fleets. Contemporary written records offer two types of figure. One is small, precise, and usually associated with circumstantial details. Thus a mere six crews inflicted severe damage on the Isle of Wight in 896, while seven ravaged Southampton and killed or captured most of the inhabitants in 980. The other type of figure is much bigger and normally a round number, suggestive of an estimate. The more conservative of these figures are perfectly credible: the Norwegian fleet that menaced eastern Ireland in 837 in two equal halves clearly heralded a change of policy and the 67 shiploads of warriors who sacked Nantes six years later may have been part of it. Large fleets needed correspondingly large resources: a Danish one based on the Isle of Wight in 998 was exploiting Hampshire and Sussex for its food supply. Sea battles may be distinguished in the same way. Most were probably small-scale skirmishes of the kind that we hear about in Alfred’s reign, as in 882 when the opposition consisted of four ships’ crews, two of which were killed and the others captured. Land-based chroniclers have little to say about major naval battles fought among the Scandinavians themselves. In 852 a Norwegian fleet of 160 ships was attacked by Danish Vikings off the Irish coast over the space of three days and nights, whilst in 914 a ‘naval battle’ (bellum navale) was fought between the rival grandsons of former kings of Dublin. Two large-scale naval battles in Scandinavia had important political consequences for Norway: at Hafrsfjord, near Stavanger, Harald Finehair defeated a coalition of rival warlords c.870, and at Svold, in the Baltic Sea, Olaf Tryggvason lost his life in a contest with his Danish contemporary, Sven Forkbeard, in the year 1000.

Of greater importance than the role of the Viking ship as a mobile platform for conventional fighting was its utility as a mode of conveyance. As we are informed in 1003, ‘Sven went back to the sea, where he knew his ships were’. Armies campaigning among hostile populations depended on their ships as a means of departure as much as they did for their arrival. Their opponents would naturally endeavour to deny them access: only those raiders who could swim out to their waiting ships were able to escape from English pursuers in north Devon and Somerset in 914. In 855 and again in 865 Vikings based on the Loire tried to reach Poitiers about 75 kilometres away on foot, on the first occasion unsuccessfully. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle cites the distance that loot and provisions were carried back to the coast in 1006—over 50 miles—the Danes taunting the inhabitants of Winchester as they marched past their gate. On big Continental waterways the progress of a Viking fleet could serve as an advance warning to the local people, as in 853 when relics and treasures were removed to safety from Tours. Such predictions were less possible further away from the main rivers: six years later the townspeople of Noyon were subjected to a night-time attack by Vikings based on the Seine, at least 85 kilometres to the south-west, and the bishop and other noblemen were taken captive. Fleets sometimes lent support to land-based forces by co-ordinating their movements: this happened along the south coast of England late in 876 as the Danish great army proceeded overland from Wareham to Exeter, though a substantial number of these ships were lost in a storm off Swanage. But the essential role of the ship was to facilitate raiding and profit-taking. The Fulda annalist wrote sorrowfully in 854 about Vikings ‘who for twenty years continuously had cruelly afflicted with fire and slaughter and pillage those places on the borders of Francia which were accessible by ship’.

That military activity shaded off imperceptibly into economic activity was characteristic of the Viking Age. The classic early nineteenth-century view of warfare enunciated by Carl von Clausewitz is that it amounts to a continuation of political intercourse with the admixture of different means; in the case of the Vikings we might see warfare as often as not as a form of economic intercourse. In the autumn of 865, for example, Vikings took over the great monastery north of Paris at St-Denis and spent about twenty days stripping it of movable wealth, carrying booty to their ships each day before returning to base-camp not far away. A similar operation by Dublin Vikings at Clonmacnoise on the Shannon in 936 required only a two-night stopover. In cases such as these, there was no overt political agenda; the motive was easy profit and most of the loot from Britain and Ireland that has been discovered in western Norway in particular must have originated in this way, the beneficiaries including womenfolk whose grave-goods betray the piratical inclinations of their menfolk. Stolen goods could find a ready market elsewhere, as when Danish raiders in Kent in 1048 subsequently made for Flanders where they sold what they had stolen and then went back home. One plundering tactic, therefore, was simply for Viking raiders to turn up, in the words of the Annals of St-Bertin, ‘with their usual surprise attack’. For Christian communities major church festivals were a time of danger: in 929 Kildare was raided from Dublin on St Brigid’s Day, when the place would have been full of pilgrims; in 986 Iona was attacked by Danes on Christmas night, when the community was preoccupied with its devotions. Another tactic was more complex—to threaten destructive violence with a view to exacting tribute. Vikings engaged in this process in the west Frankish kingdom in 866 had come equipped not only with weapons, but also with their own balance-scales for weighing the 4,000 pounds of silver.

The profits of Viking warfare assumed several different forms. Most basic were food and drink, for such provisions enabled warriors to continue to pursue their warlike activities. In 864, for instance, Rodulf Haraldsson and his men received as tribute not only cash, but also flour, livestock, wine, and cider. In Ireland cattle on the hoof were the standard tribute among the native population and Vikings took advantage of this tradition as early as 798. Norwegians, on the other hand, were accustomed to exploiting their own seas for large creatures, which accounts for ‘a great slaughter of porpoises’ by them off the east coast of Ireland in 828. A second form of profit was human beings. High-status people would be ransomed whenever possible; low-status people and others for whom payment was not forthcoming would be retained or sold as slaves. A spectacular ransom was paid in 858 for Abbot Louis of St-Denis and his brother, Gauzlin: 686 pounds of gold and 3,250 pounds of silver. The upcountry bishop of Archenfield, on the Anglo-Welsh border, was delivered at a cost of £40 donated by the West Saxon king in 914. The alternative was death, as in the case of Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury who was brutally murdered in 1012 when payment of the Danes’ demand for £3,000 was not forthcoming. A third form of profit was land on which to settle. The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 896 may imply that Vikings might purchase property, but land must often have been obtained by force of arms. Large-scale political takeovers would have facilitated the acquisition of farmland, as in Northumbria (866–7), East Anglia (869–70), and Mercia (873–4), all of which were to receive Danish settlers in due course. Even earlier, land-taking had occurred in the Scottish Isles and the kingdom of Dublin had been established c.853. Accordingly food and drink, bullion and cash, land and labour were among the considerable profits of Viking warfare.

In effect Vikings were competing among themselves, and with the natives of the countries in which they raided, traded, and settled, for wealth. Amid all the aristocratic and dynastic competition of the Viking Age, the greatest prize was the kingdom of England, which was won initially by the West Saxons in 910–27, by the Danes in 1013–16, and by the Normans in 1066–71. A final Danish challenge failed to materialize in 1085–6. Behind the aggression, brutality, and destructiveness, there was calculating rationality. From our own distant perspective, filtered through external sources for the most part, it has become fashionable to portray Vikings as catalysts of economic and political change. By dishoarding monastic treasuries, wealth was released for more productive purposes, even though some of it was simply rehoarded in Scandinavia. There is an element of truth in this argument, but any temptation to glamorize Vikings should be resisted. Vikings divested of bear-coats, horned helmets, a predilection for blood-eagling, and devilishly ingenious siege tactics are Vikings demythologized, yet they become all the more credible as brave and resourceful fighters. As such they were celebrated by contemporary skalds and their deeds were further elaborated to the point of fictionalization by later generations of saga writers. With that in mind, the modern Icelandic author, Halldor Laxness, published a subtly satirical novel entitled Gerpla in 1956; two years afterwards this appeared in English as The Happy Warriors. According to the book’s own publicity, ‘the inescapable conclusion is that the legendary heroes were not larger than life after all; they were what would nowadays be called misfits, and a nuisance to everyone’. More than that, their historical antecedents brought untold misery, injury, and death to tens of thousands of men, women, and children. But warfare was not a Viking monopoly; Vikings were a Scandinavian manifestation of a universal scourge.

Walter Bedell Smith



(October 5, 1895–August 9, 1961)

Army General, CIA Director

Hardworking Walter Bedell Smith, whose nickname was “Beetle,” was a high-ranking staff officer who performed useful service throughout World War II. In an army dominated by West Point graduates, this former National Guardsman rose through the ranks on account of his skills as an organizer and administrator. During the postwar period, he served capably as ambassador to the Soviet Union, second director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and undersecretary of state.

Smith was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on October 5, 1895, and in 1911 he joined the Indiana National Guard at the age of 16. In 1917, he completed an army reserve officers course and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 39th U.S. Infantry. In this capacity Smith shipped to France to fight in World War I, where he was wounded. By September 1918, he was functioning with the Bureau of Military Intelligence, and two years later he accepted a regular army commission. For the next two decades, Smith endured the tedium of a career infantry officer. After a variety of staff assignments overseas, he attended the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1931 and the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1935. After graduating from the Army War College in 1937, Smith returned to teach at the Infantry School, where he met and impressed Col. George C. Marshall, an officer who played a major role in his subsequent career. Promoted to major in 1939, Smith next reported for duty in Washington, D.C., as part of the General Staff. In August 1941, Marshall, now army chief of staff, lifted Smith out of obscurity by appointing him as his secretary with the temporary rank of colonel.

After American entry in World War II, Smith rose to temporary brigadier general and served as secretary of the U.S.-British Joint Combined Chiefs of Staff. Here he played a crucial role in helping to formulate and adopt a joint strategy to win the war. Smith’s military fortunes advanced again in September 1942, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower appropriated him to serve as his own chief of staff. For his successful planning of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, he gained temporary promotion to major general. On September 3, 1943, Smith signed the instrument of Italy’s surrender on Eisenhower’s behalf before transferring to England as a temporary lieutenant general. Smith then functioned as Eisenhower’s chief of staff at the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, and assisted in drawing up Operation Overlord, the cross-channel invasion of France in June 1944. Smith served as chief planner and executive officer of the entire European theater, an impossibly demanding position, but his brilliance as an administrator overcame most obstacles. From a staff standpoint, the enormous and complex Allied effort functioned smoothly. On May 7, 1945, Smith signed the documents of Germany’s unconditional surrender on Eisenhower’s behalf.

Smith, a permanent major general since August 1945, seemed an unlikely candidate for an ambassadorship, but in February 1946 President Harry Truman nominated him to represent the United States in Moscow. His strident anticommunism, no-nonsense approach to problem solving, and a seemingly endless capacity to absorb details were undoubtedly factors in Truman’s decision. Furthermore, a special act of Congress enabled Smith to retain his military rank, thereby underscoring America’s resolve to confront Stalin with force, if necessary. He held the ambassadorship for the next three years, a period characterized by rapid escalation of tensions with the Soviet Union, but Smith also managed to sign peace treaties with Bulgaria, Romania, Finland, and Hungary. Returning home in March 1949, Smith then briefly took command of the First Army in New York and the following year he published his memoirs. In them, he expressed his belief that the Communists were unalterably determined to subvert the free world, but they also respected force and would not attack if the West maintained its defenses.

In September 1950, Smith was chosen to succeed Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter as head of the CIA. The agency had been founded the previous year to gather intelligence during the cold war, but Hillenkoetter was unable to function effectively in the politically charged atmosphere of Washington, D.C. Furthermore, he failed to assert his independence from the State Department and Defense Department. As a result, the CIA was floundering and it came under severe congressional criticism for failing to predict the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Smith, however, had no such qualms about tackling bureaucrats. By the time his tenure finished in 1953, he completely overhauled the CIA, eliminated control of covert operations by the State Department, and instituted organizational changes that remain in effect today. Much of the agency’s success originated with Smith’s reform efforts and many CIA officers still consider him their finest director.

In February 1953, Smith fulfilled his third and final nonmilitary appointment, that of undersecretary of state. The now President Eisenhower appreciated his sense of order and talent for administration in this era of political uncertainty. True to his hard-line approach to communism, Smith helped Secretary of State John Foster Dulles craft the policy of containment, which remained in place for nearly 40 years. In 1954, when the French were losing their grip on Indochina, he strongly recommended American involvement in the fighting, preferably in concert with Britain. When this cooperation was not forthcoming, Smith then proved instrumental in laying the groundwork for a regional, mutual-defense treaty, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu to the Viet Minh in May 1954, Smith next ventured to Geneva and represented the United States during talks that partitioned Vietnam into the Communist North and independent South. He then resigned from the government in October 1954 to retire and pursue business interests, although he occasionally served as a high-level governmental adviser. This accomplished military bureaucrat died in Washington, D.C., on August 9, 1961.


Crosswell, Daniel K., The Chief of Staff: The Military Career of General Walter Bedell Smith, 1991; Hersh, Burton, The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, 1992; Montague, Ludwell L., General Walter Bedell Smith as Director of Central Intelligence, October, 1950-February, 1953, 1992; Ranelagh, John, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA, 1987; Smith, Walter B., Eisenhower’s Six Great Decisions, 1944–1945, 1956; Smith, Walter B., My Three Years in Moscow, 1951; Snyder, William P., “Walter Bedell Smith: Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff,” Military Affairs 48 (1984): 6–14; Zullas, Michael F., “Walter Bedell Smith: Cold War Diplomat,” unpublished master’s thesis, 1986.