By late 1944 much of the war was being fought on the German frontier, the army had to cooperate with the Nazi Party’s civilian agencies in defending the homeland. In theory, this cooperation should have proceeded smoothly. OKH guidelines from August 1944 directed that civilian agencies such as the police, medical services and economic bodies advise their own personnel about what to do in case of enemy attack. In turn, those personnel were to coordinate with local Wehrmacht commandants in the preparation of defences. In reality, however, such joined-up thinking was often sorely lacking. Army officers were especially frustrated when the party’s own Reich defence commissars had primary responsibility for building defences, for many of these officials were incompetent. In Aachen in western Germany, for instance, they threw wild parties for themselves while defensive ditches were being dug in front of the city. They also failed to evacuate Aachen’s civilian population before the area became a war zone.
But the failure of the bomb plot undoubtedly eroded the army’s remaining power over military policy. Above all, it ushered in structural changes that further benefited the SS at the army’s expense. By February 1944, Waffen-SS generals were already being appointed to high positions in several areas of military administration, and a few days before 20 July, Hitler decided to award Himmler control of fifteen new Volksgrenadier (People’s Grenadier) divisions. Now, in the aftermath of the plot, Hitler hailed the Volksgrenadier divisions as the vanguard of the new, fanatical National Socialist people’s army that would emerge following the purging of the July traitors.
In the event, the mainstay of the Volksgrenadier divisions consisted of hastily trained, patchily equipped and poorly officered youngsters from the 1926 and 1927 intakes. Himmler had to press-gang much of their manpower, throwing in ethnic Germans, returning convalescents, Luftwaffe and navy personnel, sixteen-year-old boys and German railworkers to plug the gaps. General Balck’s memoirs describe the condition of the Volksgrenadier divisions as ‘abominable for the most part’. Rundstedt was particularly scathing after the war about the decision to conscript non-Reich ethnic Germans into the divisions: ‘We expected a so-called Volksdeutscher soldier to give his life and blood whilst his relatives were in a concentration camp in Poland.’ Nevertheless, Volksgrenadier units led by experienced officers and NCOs would come to give a better account of themselves, at least until those leaders were killed, wounded, or captured. The regime would raise a great many such divisions – forty-nine in total – and Himmler’s control over them constituted a major incursion into the military sphere. Hitler also implemented a massive SS power grab against the army’s own existing remit; now that the Replacement Army had proved itself a subversive cesspit in Hitler’s eyes, he placed Himmler in charge of it, and appointed SS men to key positions within it.
Himmler was also placed in charge of the new German ‘home guard’, the Volkssturm. Volkssturm units were inferior even to Volksgrenadier divisions; they could include virtually any man aged between eighteen and fifty-five who was not yet in uniform, and in time, Hitler Youth units comprising boys as young as fourteen would be incorporated into them as well. Regular army soldiers viewed the Volkssturm with a mixture of puzzlement (‘I don’t know, this Volkssturm business is all strange to me,’ wrote Lance Corporal Hans B. from his barracks in Landsberg), derision (they often mocked the Volkssturm men as Opas or grandpas), and sympathy. ‘Were the authorities going to stop the Red Army with them?’ wrote Guy Sajer after the war. ‘The comparison seemed tragic and ludicrous.’ But Volkssturm units at least freed up regular army troops from non-combat duties. And, as their performance at the front would later show, although they were deficient militarily, they were by no means useless if deployed in the right way.
In the straitened circumstances of the autumn of 1944, Hitler saw the Volkssturm, like the Volksgrenadiers, as a vital addition to German military manpower. Indeed, as many as 650,000 Volkssturm men may eventually have ended up fighting on the eastern front alone. Moreover, Hitler and the Nazi leadership, particularly Bormann, saw the Volkssturm as anything but an exercise in barrel-scraping. In their belief that, with the ‘traitors’ out of the way, they had an opportunity to renew and fanaticize the German war effort, they saw the Volkssturm as a further means of indoctrinating and mobilizing the entire German people. Hitler also believed that the existence of the Volkssturm, like that of the Volksgrenadiers, would enable the Reich to face the invading Allies with a true people’s army, one whose sheer size, determination and fanaticism would grind the Allies down. With deep defences capable of sustaining a First World War-style stalemate, German willpower and fanaticism would best Allied mechanization and resources. In Guderian’s words, the Volkssturm would show the Allies that there were ‘85 million National Socialists who stand behind Adolf Hitler’.
The fact that Hitler entrusted overall control of the Volksgrenadier divisions and the Volkssturm to Himmler highlighted his belief not only that fanaticism could stop the enemy, but also that the SS could be far more trusted than the army to harness it. Hitler restricted the army’s own control over Volksgrenadier and Volkssturm formations to matters of tactical deployment. As it was, Himmler’s control of the Volkssturm soon brought him into a turf war with Bormann. Now that the Reich had lost most of its occupied territory and the war was coming to Germany itself, the guileful Bormann believed that Himmler’s influence had peaked and that the time was ripe for the Nazi Party to strengthen its control over the German people. But this particular turf war excluded the army; indeed, when General Burgdorf tried to increase the army’s influence over the Volkssturm, Bormann was able to frustrate his efforts.
One of the most famously poignant images of the war’s final months is that of barely trained, Panzerfaust-armed fourteen-year-old Hitler Youth boys being sent to die against Allied tanks. But with its replacement system now collapsing rapidly, the army’s own final levy comprised schoolboys who were little older, recruited well before their studies had ended and given perfunctory training at best. So-called infantry and Panzer divisions were raised from local schools and garrisons. At the end of February, six thousand boys born in 1929 were called up to strengthen rear defence lines. A measure of how far desperation was breaking all taboos was that there were even calls for a women’s battalion.
Volkssturm units brought some benefit, as long as they were used for static, particularly urban defence, and properly incorporated into the wider plans of the local Wehrmacht and party authorities. Too often, however, the party authorities would shift Volkssturm units without Wehrmacht consent and leave them dangerously exposed. Wehrmacht commanders themselves often failed to inform Volkssturm units about their plans, and at times sacrificed them as a rearguard while they got their own men out. Volkssturm units in the east sometimes fought fanatically, partly because of inherent anti-Slavism, partly to avoid being captured. For Army did not kill them on capture, as older men they were less likely to survive Soviet captivity. The OKH also made reasonable efforts to integrate Volkssturm units into its plans. Conditions in the west were often the polar opposite: the OKW overlooked the Volkssturm, and Volkssturm men did not particularly fear the prospect of capture by the Western Allies, save by potentially vengeful French troops. Volkssturm units in the west, then, often performed poorly or disintegrated entirely. And sometimes army units dissolved Volkssturm units themselves, palming off the better personnel to replace their own losses before sending the rest home.