Neu Das Heer I

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Albert Schnez as Bundeswher General. Schnez played a central part in the plan to create a secret army. Schnez was born in 1911 and served as a colonel in World War II before ascending the ranks in the Bundeswehr, which was founded in 1955.

For nearly six decades, the 321-page file lay unnoticed in the archives of the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency — but now its contents have revealed a new chapter of German postwar history that is as spectacular as it is mysterious.

The previously secret documents reveal the existence of a coalition of approximately 2,000 former officers — veterans of the Nazi-era Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS — who decided to put together an army in postwar Germany in 1949. They made their preparations without a mandate from the German government, without the knowledge of the parliament and, the documents show, by circumventing Allied occupation forces.

The goal of the retired officers: to defend nascent West Germany against Eastern aggression in the early stages of the Cold War and, on the domestic front, deploy against the Communists in the event of a civil war. It collected information about left-wing politicians like Social Democrat (SPD) Fritz Erler, a key player in reforming the party after World War II, and spied on students like Joachim Peckert, who later became a senior official at the West German Embassy in Moscow during the 1970s.

The new discovery was brought about by a coincidence. Historian Agilolf Kesselring found the documents — which belonged to the Gehlen Organization, the predecessor to the current foreign intelligence agency — while working for an Independent Historical Commission hired by the BND to investigate its early history. Similar commissions have been hired by a number of German authorities in recent years, including the Finance and Foreign Ministries to create an accurate record of once hushed-up legacies.

Kesselring uncovered the documents, which were given the strange title of “Insurances,” while trying to determine the number of workers employed by the BND.

Instead of insurance papers, Kesselring stumbled upon what can now be considered the most significant discovery of the Independent Historical Commission. The study he wrote based on the discovery was released this week.

An Ease in Undermining Democracy

The file is incomplete and thus needs to be considered with some restraint. Even so, its contents testify to the ease with which democratic and constitutional standards could be undermined in the early years of West Germany’s existence.

According to the papers, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer didn’t find out about the existence of the paramilitary group until 1951, at which point he evidently did not decide to break it up.

In the event of a war, the documents claimed, the secret army would include 40,000 fighters. The involvement of leading figures in Germany’s future armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are an indication of just how serious the undertaking was likely to have been.

Among its most important actors was Albert Schnez. Schnez was born in 1911 and served as a colonel in World War II before ascending the ranks of the Bundeswehr, which was founded in 1955. By the end of the 1950s he was part of the entourage of then Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss (CDU) and later served the German army chief under Chancellor Willy Brandt and Defense Minister Helmut Schmidt (both of the SPD).

Statements by Schnez quoted in the documents suggest that the project to build a clandestine army was also supported by Hans Speidel — who would become the NATO Supreme Commander of the Allied Army in Central Europe in 1957 — and Adolf Heusinger, the first inspector general of the Bundeswehr.

Kesselring, the historian, has a special connection to military history: His grandfather Albert was a general field marshal and southern supreme commander in the Third Reich, with Schnez as his subordinate “general of transportation” in Italy. Both men tried to prevent Germany’s partial surrender in Italy.

In his study, Kesselring lets Schnez off easily: He doesn’t mention his ties to the right-wing milieu, and he describes his spying on supposed left-wingers as “security checks.” When asked about it, the historian explains that he will deal with these aspects of the file in a comprehensive study in the coming year. But the BND has recently released the “Insurances” files, making it possible to paint an independent picture.

The army project began in the postwar period in Swabia, the region surrounding Stuttgart, where then 40-year-old Schnez traded in wood, textiles and household items and, on the side, organized social evenings for the veterans of the 25th Infantry Division, in which he had served. They helped one another out, supported the widows and orphans of colleagues and spoke about times old and new.

Fears of Attack from the East

But their debates always returned to the same question: What should be done if the Russians or their Eastern European allies invade? West Germany was still without an army at the time, and the Americans had removed many of their GIs from Europe in 1945.

At first, Schnez’ group considered allowing themselves to be defeated and then leading partisan warfare from behind the lines, before relocating somewhere outside of Germany. In the event of a sudden attack from the East, an employee with the Gehlen Organization would later write, Schnez wanted to withdraw his troops and bring them to safety outside of Germany. They would then wage the battle to free Germany from abroad.

To prepare a response to the potential threat, Schnez, the son of a Swabian government official, sought to found an army. Even though it violated Allied law — military or “military-like” organizations were banned, and those who contravened the rules risked life in prison — it quickly became very popular.

The army began to take shape starting at the latest in 1950. Schnez recruited donations from businesspeople and like-minded former officers, contacted veterans groups of other divisions, asked transport companies which vehicles they could provide in the worst-case scenario and worked on an emergency plan.

Anton Grasser, a former infantry general who was then employed by Schnez’ company, took care of the weapons. In 1950, he began his career at the Federal Interior Ministry in Bonn, where he became inspector general and oversaw the coordination of German Police Tactical Units in the German states for the event of war. He wanted to use their assets to equip the troop in case of an emergency. There is no sign that then Interior Minister Robert Lehr had been informed of these plans.

Schnez wanted to found an organization of units composed of former officers, ideally entire staffs of elite divisions of the Wehrmacht, which could be rapidly deployed in case of an attack. According to the lists contained in the documents, the men were all employed: They included businesspeople, sales representatives, a coal merchant, a criminal lawyer, an attorney, a technical instructor and even a mayor. Presumably they were all anti-Communists and, in some cases, motivated by a desire for adventure. For example, the documents state that retired Lieutenant General Hermann Hölter “didn’t feel happy just working in an office.”

Most of the members of the secret reserve lived in southern Germany. An overview in the documents shows that Rudolf von Bünau, a retired infantry general, led a “group staff” out of Stuttgart. There were further sub-units in Ulm (led by retired Lieutenant General Hans Wagner), Heilbronn (retired Lieutenant General Alfred Reinhardt), Karlsruhe (retired Major General Werner Kampfhenkel), Freiburg (retired Major General Wilhelm Nagel) and many other cities as well.

Schnez’s list wasn’t passed on, but the documents state he claimed it included 10,000 names, enough to constitute the core staff of three divisions. For reasons of secrecy, he inducted only 2,000 officers. Still, Schnez had no doubts that the rest would join them. There didn’t seem to be any dearth of candidates for the units: After all, there was no lack of German men with war experience.

It remained to be determined where they could relocate to in case of emergency. Schnez negotiated with Swiss locations, but their reactions were “very restrained,” the documents state he later planned a possible move to Spain to use as a base from which to fight on the side of the Americans.

Neu Das Heer II

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Reinhard Gehlen

Contemporaries described Schnez as an energetic organizer, but also self-confident and aloof. He maintained contacts with the League of German Youth and its specialized organization, the Technischer Dienst (Technical Service), which were preparing themselves for a partisan war against the Soviets. The two groups, secretly funded by the United States, included former Nazi officers as members, and were both banned by the West German federal government in 1953 as extreme-right organizations. Schnez, it seems, had no qualms whatsoever associating himself with former Nazis.

Schnez also maintained a self-described intelligence apparatus that evaluated candidates for the “Insurance Company,” as he referred to the project, and determined if they had suspicious qualities. A criminal named K. was described as “intelligent, young and half-Jewish.”

US documents viewed by SPIEGEL indicate that Schnez negotiated with former SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. The SS officer became a Nazi hero during World War II after he carried out a successful mission to free deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been arrested by the Italian king. The former SS man had pursued plans similar to those of Schnez. In February 1951, the two agreed to “cooperate immediately in the Swabia region.” It is still unknown today what precisely became of that deal.

In his search for financing for a full-time operation, Schnez requested help from the West German secret service during the summer of 1951. During a July 24, 1951 meeting, Schnez offered the services of his shadow army to Gehlen, the head of the intelligence service, for “military use” or “simply as a potential force,” be it for a German exile government or the Western allies.

A notation in papers from the Gehlen Organization states that there had “long been relations of a friendly nature” between Schnez and Reinhard Gehlen. The documents also indicate that the secret service first became aware of the clandestine force during the spring of 1951. The Gehlen Organization classified Schnez as a “special connection” with the unattractive code name “Schnepfe,” German for “snipe”.

Did Adenauer Shy Away?

It’s likely that Gehlens’ enthusiasm for Schnez’s offer would have been greater if had it come one year earlier, when the Korean War was breaking out. At the time, the West German capital city of Bonn and Washington had considered the idea of “gathering members of former German elite divisions in the event of a catastrophe, arming and then assigning them to Allied defense troops.”

Within a year, the situation had defused somewhat, and Adenauer had retreated from this idea. Instead, he pushed for West Germany to integrate more deeply with the West and for the establishment of the Bundeswehr. Schnez’s illegal group had the potential to threaten that policy — if its existence had become public knowledge, it could have spiraled into an international scandal.

Still, Adenauer decided not to take action against Schnez’s organization — which raises several questions: Was he shying away from a conflict with veterans of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS?

There were misgivings within the Gehlen Organization, particularly surrounding Skorzeny. According to another BND document seen by SPIEGEL, a division head raised the question of whether it was possible for the organization to take an aggressive stance against Skorzeny. The Gehlen Organization man suggested consulting “the SS”, adding, the SS “is a factor and we should sound out opinions in detail there before making a decision.” Apparently networks of old and former Nazis still exercised considerable influence during the 1950s.

It also became clear in 1951 that years would pass before the Bundeswehr could be established. From Adenauer’s perspective, this meant that, for the time being, the loyalty of Schnez and his comrades should be secured for the event of a worst-case scenario. That’s probably why Gehlen was assigned by the Chancellery “to look after and to monitor the group.”

It appears Konrad Adenauer informed both his American allies as well as the political opposition of the plan at the time. The papers seem to indicate that Carlo Schmid, at the time a member of the SPD’s national executive committee, was “in the loop.”

Little Known about Disbanding of Army

From that point on, Gehlen’s staff had frequent contact with Schnez. Gehlen and Schnez also reached an agreement to share intelligence derived from spying efforts. Schnez boasted of having a “particularly well-organized” intelligence apparatus.

From that point on, the Gehlen Organization became the recipient of alert lists including the names of former German soldiers who had allegedly behaved in an “undignified” manner as Soviet prisoners of war, the insinuation being that the men had defected to support the Soviet Union. In other instances, they reported “people suspected of being communists in the Stuttgart area.”

But Schnez never got showered with the money he had hoped for. Gehlen only allowed him to receive small sums, which dried up during the autumn of 1953. Two years later, the Bundeswehr swore in its first 101 volunteers. With the rearmament of West Germany, Schnez’s force became redundant.

It is currently unknown exactly when the secret army disbanded, as no fuss was made at the time. Schnez died in 2007 without ever stating anything publicly about these events. His records on the “Insurance Company” have disappeared. What is known stems largely from documents relating to the Gehlen Organization that made their way into the classified archive of its successor, the BND.

It appears they were deliberately filed there under the misleading title “insurances” in the hope that no one would ever find any reason to take interest in them.

Waffen-SS: Spontaneous, suggested or enforced enlistment?

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Waffen-SS-Division – Wiking

In theory, the Waffen-SS was forced because of its status to recruit only volunteers. In reality, an increasing number of men were pressured into joining the Waffen-SS during the conflict. The question is, therefore, when and by what means the SS overrode its own principles and broke both German and, in the case of foreigners, international laws by enlisting non-volunteers. Contrary to preconceived ideas, the pressure on “volunteers” did not evolve in a linear fashion during the conflict. The application of coercion fluctuated, depending both on SS needs and on available manpower. As early as spring 1940, when the SS wanted to complete its “Death’s Head” regiments, civil SS members, teenagers of the Patrol Service and the Hitler Youth, and even members of the SA were pressured to enlist in the Waffen-SS. A rise in enforced enlistments occurred again one year later, just before the invasion of Russia, when the SS had to fill up its active and reserve units, in the form of a “20,000 men campaign” within a period of seven weeks.

The transformation of the Waffen-SS into a mass army in the years 1942-3 certainly marked a clear breach of earlier practices. From this point onwards, coercion was no longer applied only to men who were more or less closely connected with a SS or Nazi organization, but also to common conscripts. The recruiting methods did not change, but the population affected by them did.

The increasing scarcity of manpower in the Reich also contributed to this evolution. The growing need for soldiers, particularly due to the Wehrmacht’s losses in Russia, obliged the army to enlist ever younger age groups. From the end of 1942, the number of age groups available for enlistment was reduced to only one (year class 1925), while there had been three at the beginning of the year. Consequently, constraint took on a cyclic form: each time a new age group was available to be enlisted, the SS and Wehrmacht had no difficulty in finding a certain number of enthusiastic young volunteers. But these volunteers did not suffice. For the Wehrmacht, the problem was easily solved by conscription. The SS, however, had to increase the pressure on the passive members of each age group to fill its ranks.

With regard to enlistment, the SS was not as powerful within the Reich as is believed in current secondary literature. A number of cases prove that it was possible to avoid enlistment in the SS, at least by enlisting in the Wehrmacht. The existence of complaints proves, also, that it was possible to oppose an arbitrary decision. In February 1943, for example, 2,500 teenagers who had been coerced to enlist in the Waffen-SS were released and handed over to the police.

Enforcement sometimes took radical forms, including the death penalty at times. Still, this was only possible by consent of both Hitler and the Wehrmacht high command. On the other hand, the SS found in the army an increasingly dangerous competitor for recruits, since in summer 1943 the army started to use the same methods as the SS, only on a larger scale. The figures speak for themselves: enforcement did not lead to an increase in SS enlistments. In fact, the number of new recruits in the Waffen-SS diminished in 1944 in favour of recruitment into the army. Nonetheless, since both air and sea were controlled by Allied forces, the course of the war necessitated the dispatch of Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine soldiers to ground-battle units. If the Army (Heer) received the greatest part of them, the Waffen-SS received, for its part, about 40,000 men, because Himmler had meanwhile been designated Chief of Army reserve, after the assassination attempt on Hitler of 20 July 1944, and so could give some advantages to “his” Waffen-SS. As these men had no choice, it is hard to say whether or not they accepted their transfer willingly. Some of them were satisfied; others protested in vain – not always for political reasons, but also due to being “loathe to become common infantry.” Hence, as has recently been shown by the case of the German Nobel prize winner Günter Grass, who confessed to having belonged to the Waffen-SS after having volunteered for the submarines, towards the end of the war it became increasingly difficult to make a distinction between real volunteers and others.

This is also true for the Volksdeutsche. While the SS took much care to stress the voluntary character of the enlistment of “ethnic” Germans at the beginning of the war, it began to use more forceful tactics when it failed to achieve its recruiting objectives in 1942, at the time of the formation of the “Prinz Eugen” division with men of the former Yugoslavia. Himmler even decreed the conscription of the Balkans’ Volksdeutsche from 17 to 50 years old, “if necessary to 55 years old”. They had, according to him, the duty to serve “not by formal law, but by the brazen law of their Volkstum”.

This unilateral decision complicated the matter rather than resolving it. It was, in fact, very hard to enforce, for many reasons. Himmler’s main chiefs of staff were opposed: for the chief of SS recruitment, the results would be counterproductive, because enlistment into the SS would be seen as a punishment; for the military chief of staff, the results on the battlefield would be poor with such conscripts; finally, it would be impossible to publish this decision, for propaganda and diplomatic reasons. Consequently, the issue of general conscription for the Volksdeutsche remained unresolved until the end of the war. In itself, it had no more importance. As the SS judge in Himmler’s office wrote in February 1945, “the SS and police courts had always taken care of the Reichsführer’s point of view, even without such legal basis, and […] used it as fundament of their decisions with all consequences which proceeded from it.”

During the war, the SS paid much more attention to the voluntary character of enlistments of “Germanic” foreigners in the occupied countries than of Germans in the Reich. More than the will to adhere to the international laws of war, the racial conceptions of the SS can explain this choice. The SS, for example, respected its engagements and liberated its “Germanic” volunteers who had enlisted for a short six-month service. Even men who wanted to go home before the end of this period were released in March 1941. In October 1942, more than 20 per cent of the “Germanic” SS volunteers had been released from armed service since the beginning of the war, while 2,404 out of 10,821,509 had been killed (4.7 per cent). Of course, there were cases of constraint, especially from 1943 onwards. But these remained at a very low level. And, although Himmler considered introducing conscription in the “Germanic” countries, he did not do so. By contrast, the SS dealt otherwise with “non-Germanic” volunteers. In fact, it rounded up the young male inhabitants of some countries when it needed men, for example in Zagreb when the Bosnian Division was set up in summer 1943. Men were also rounded up to fill the ranks of the Second SS Armoured Corps in Ukraine, in spring 1944. Such operations were not, however, a “Waffen-SS exclusivity”. Finally, conscription was introduced in 1944 in Bosnia, Estonia, and Latvia.

To sum up, it has become clear that the profiles of the Waffen-SS volunteers are much more complex than is usually believed. Even more important, independently of their profiles or their motivations, these volunteers came to serve as an example after which the Reichsführung SS and the government intended to model the Wehrmacht. In the competition created by the Nazi leaders between the “conservative” German army and the “revolutionary” Waffen-SS, the latter gradually became the model of reference regarding efficiency on the battlefields – or so, at least, it was successfully represented by propaganda. The ideological conviction of these “new types of political combatants” was declared as more important than their professional value. Furthermore, through the successful enlistment of foreigners, the Waffen-SS gave the illusion that patriotism was henceforth transcended by ideological education. Given this example, the German Army was intended by the government to evolve in the same direction. The army’s Volksgrenadier-Divisionen, which were set up under the aegis of the SS even before the attempt on Hitler in July 1944, and later the Volkssturm were means of copying this ideological “success”. They were a direct extension of the social model of the Waffen-SS to the regular army, and by the end to a whole society at war.

The SS-Wiking in Hungary

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Waffen SS “Wiking” Kampfgruppe “Darges” with the commander of the Hungarian forces at the entrance of the Mountain Castle 8th of January 1945.

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Fritz Vogt and Fritz Darges in Front of Hegykastely Castle, January 1945.

Officers from I.Abteilung/SS-Panzer-Regiment 5 “Wiking” and I.Bataillon/SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 23 “Norge” posed together for the camera in front of the doorway of Hegykastely Castle, Hungary. Front row, from left to right: SS-Untersturmführer Werner Liebald (Chef Maschinengewehr-Kompanie/I.Bataillon/SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 23 “Norge”); and SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Vogt (Kommandeur I.Bataillon/SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 23 “Norge”/11.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland). Back row, from left to right: SS-Obersturmführer Ernst Kiefer (Chef 4.Kompanie/SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 23 “Norge”); SS-Obersturmführer Helmut Bauer (Chef 3.Kompanie/SS-Panzer-regiment 5); SS-Obersturmführer der Reserve Willi Hein (Kommandeur I.Abteilung/SS-Panzer-Regiment 5); SS-Obersturmbannführer Fritz Darges (the “giant” standing in the middle, Kommandeur SS-Panzer-Regiment 5/5.SS-Panzer-Division “Wiking”); unidentified Panzerkommandant from II.Abteilung/SS-Panzer-Regiment 5; SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl-Heinz Lichte (wearing leather jacket with cigarette in the lips, Chef 5.Kompanie/SS-Panzer-Regiment 5); and SS-Obersturmführer Hans Weerts (Chef 4.Kompanie/SS-Panzer-Regiment 5). This picture was taken between 7-12 January 1945 where the I./SS-Pz.Rgt 5 and I./SS-Pz.Gren.Rgt 23 “Norge” was trapped together near the castle Hegykastely on the road between Many and Biscke in Hungary. I.Bataillon/SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 23 “Norge” was the Spitzenbataillon in IV. SS-Panzer-Korps push against Budapest during operation Konrad I and became the unit who came closest to the city. They tried a night attack to enter Biscke with elements of I.Abteilung/SS-Panzer-Regiment 5 “Wiking” who failed in 7 January 1945, then they fortified themselves within the castle Heggy on three sides fighting off the Russian onslaught.

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While the Resistance cut down the Far Right on the home front, the Red Army was completing the task against their Waffen-SS counterparts on the battlefront. November and December had seen Hungary invaded and Budapest surrounded. Some 95,000 German and Hungarian troops ended up trapped in the city, with the core of the defence based on the cavalrymen of the 8th SS-Cavalry Division Florian Geyer and the 22nd SS-Volunteer Cavalry Division Maria Theresia. Hitler was obsessed with holding the capital and the Hungarian oilfields, which were the Third Reich’s last major supplier of fuel. No matter that his entire ‘Fortress’ and ‘hold to the last man’ strategies had proved themselves to be utter failures and that the oilfields in question could not even provide Army Group South’s needs let alone anyone else’s. As ever, Hitler refused to accept reality and the Ostheer was ordered to expend its last strength in vain attempts to relieve Budapest and defeat the Soviets on the Magyar plains in a series of operations codenamed Konrad (there were to be three in the end). Involved from the start was the Wiking, which was dispatched south from Poland along with the Totenkopf, and sent straight into the attack from its transport trains on New Year’s Day.

Advancing from Komarno, the Germans main base in western Hungary, the two panzer divisions surprised the 4th Guards Army and threw it back some 20 miles. But the Russians swiftly got over their initial shock and poured fresh forces into the struggle. The offensive slowed and casualties mounted. Unwilling to concede defeat, Hitler pulled Gille’s Corps back and moved them near Szekesfehervar to try again. With Hans Dorr’s Germania in the lead, the Wiking attacked again. Scandinavian grenadiers fell to mines, artillery fire and even electrified wires as their ranks were further thinned. But somehow they carried on, the Wiking’s King Tigers (an armoured monster that weighed 68 tonnes and sported the superlative 88mm gun as its main armament), creating carnage among the Soviet tank ranks as the division advanced to within a mere 12 miles of the centre of Budapest. The garrison, desperately battling for their survival among the smoking ruins of the once-beautiful city, could hear the rumble of the guns as the Wiking edged forward – surely they would be saved. Then disaster struck.

Dorr called a briefing for his officers in a barn in the just-captured village of Sarosd. A lone Soviet anti-tank gun and its crew had been overlooked by the assaulting troops and had kept their heads down. Sensing an opportunity, the gun commander saw the SS officers gathering in the barn near the square and ordered his gunner to hit it. With the trademark retort that gave the Soviet 76mm gun its nickname among the Germans of the ratschbum, the high velocity shell shot across and slammed into the building’s roof showering the assembled commanders with red-hot shrapnel. At a stroke the Germania was beheaded. Dorr, a Knight’s Cross winner and Cherkassy survivor, was wounded for the sixteenth time in his brief career and would later die of his injuries. Several other men were killed instantly, and almost everyone else was wounded by the razor sharp steel fragments. The stuffing was knocked out of the Germania by the losses and the offensive ground to a shuddering halt as the Soviets threw ever-more reinforcements into a counter-attack. Within days, not only had the Germans been stopped but the Wiking itself had been surrounded.

The former Norge and Danmark 1st Battalions were heavily involved in the fighting, particularly around the town of Pettend. Fritz Vogt, now Erik Brörup’s battalion commander, personally destroyed six Soviet tanks with hand-held panzerfäuste during the fighting that claimed the lives of several Scandinavian volunteers, including the ex-DNL veteran Fritjof Røssnaes (his elder brother Knut was also in the division) and the surgeon Dr Tor Storm, allegedly burned alive with his wounded charges after trying to surrender. The two battalions did manage to break out from Pettend and rejoin the rest of the division, but the price was astronomically high. The Danmark was effectively annihilated and was never resurrected, while the Norge could muster just 36 officers and men by mid-February. The Westland’s commander, SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Hack spoke of the ferocity of the combat:

The Soviets attacked us frontally during the day, supported by artillery and Stalin’s Organs [German nickname for the multi-barrelled Katyusha rocket launchers]. The battle raged in and around the little town of Seregelyes, and somehow we captured a complete Stalin Organ with tractor and ammunition. Our artillerymen and infantry gunners, under SS-Hauptsturmführer Peter Wollseifer, turned the multiple launcher around and soon the Soviets were getting a taste of their own medicine.

Waffen-SS Alibi of the Heer

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Terrorizing the troops through the draconian application of military justice may well have helped keep them fighting long after they knew the war was lost. But what the regime increasingly required was a military force that fought out of fanatical National Socialist commitment. This was in fact available, in the shape of the Military SS (Waffen-SS ). Its history went back to the early days of the Third Reich, when Hitler had formed an armed personal bodyguard, which later became the so-called ‘Adolf Hitler Personal Flag’ (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler). Conceived mainly as a ceremonial unit, it was commanded by a rough Bavarian Nazi, Josef (‘Sepp’) Dietrich, whose previous jobs had included working as a petrol-pump attendant, a waiter, a farm labourer and a foreman in a tobacco factory. Born in 1892, he had served in a tank unit, but otherwise had no serious military experience, as army generals repeatedly but vainly pointed out. Soon, however, Dietrich’s boss Heinrich Himmler set up another, larger organization and began recruiting army men to provide the unit with proper military training, which from 1938 was provided to Dietrich’s men as well. By the end of 1939, these various military units of the SS had been joined by groups from the Death’s Head Units formed by Theodor Eicke to provide guards for the concentration camps. The SS forces grew in number from 18,000 on the eve of war to 140,000 in November 1941, including tank regiments and motorized infantry. They were intended from the outset to be an elite, ideologically committed, highly trained, and – unlike the army – unconditionally loyal to Hitler. Senior officers were notably younger than their army counterparts, mostly being born in the 1890s or early 1900s and so in their forties or early fifties at the time of the war. Military SS regiments were given names such as ‘The Reich’, ‘Germany’, ‘The Leader’ and so on. Again unlike the army, the Military SS was an institution not of the German people but of the Germanic race, and its leading figure, Gottlob Berger, a long-time Nazi and First World War veteran who was one of Himmler’s closest intimates, set up recruiting offices in ‘Germanic’ countries like Holland, Denmark, Norway and Flanders, forming the first non-German division (‘Viking’) in the spring of 1941. Further recruits from Eastern European countries followed, as numbers began to take priority over supposed racial affinities. By 1942 the Military SS numbered 236,000 men; in 1943 it exceeded half a million; and in 1944 it was approaching a strength of 600,000, of whom some 369,000 were active in the field.

Regular army commanders were disparaging of the Military SS, whose commanders they considered lacking in professionalism and over-inclined to sacrifice the lives of their men. Although the SS divisions were placed under their command, the army generals could do little to rein in their fanatical desire for self-sacrifice. When told by Eicke that his men’s lives had counted for nothing in an attack he had just carried out, the army general Erich Hopner, under whose command Eicke had been placed, roundly condemned this attitude: ‘That is the outlook of a butcher.’ However, the senior generals were not wholly averse to the Military SS spearheading attacks and taking the bulk of the casualties: it preserved the lives of their own men and reduced the strength of a serious rival force. Himmler complained in August 1944 that ‘people of ill-will’ in the army were conspiring to ‘butcher this unwelcome force and get rid of it for some future development’. Army commanders also alleged that members of the Military SS were more likely than their own troops to commit massacres of innocent civilians, especially Jews, and carry out other crimes, above all on the Eastern Front. An official army investigation in August 1943 noted that out of eighteen proven cases of rape reported to it, twelve had been committed by members of the Military SS. How accurate such reports were cannot be ascertained. The Military SS tended to provide something of an excuse for regular army commanders wishing to conceal, or pass over, the crimes committed by their own men. On the other hand, even officers from other branches of the SS were known to complain about its brutality. When the commander of the ‘Prinz Eugen’ division tried to excuse to a minister of the puppet government in Croatia some atrocities committed by his men as ‘errors’, another SS officer told him: ‘Since you arrived there has unfortunately been one “error” after another.’ Attempts after 1945 by former Military SS officers to portray their troops as nothing more than ordinary soldiers failed to carry conviction, since there could be no doubt about their elite status or their fanatical ideological commitment. On the other hand, the mass of evidence that has come to light since the early 1990s about the conduct of regular troops on and behind the Eastern Front undermines claims that the Military SS was wholly exceptional in its disregard for the laws and conventions of warfare.

The undoubted fanaticism of the Military SS, as well as the tendency of military commanders to put its units into the front line, led to heavy losses among its troops. A total of 900,000 Military SS men served in the war, of whom more than a third – 34 per cent – were killed. On 15 November 1941 the ‘Death’s Head’ division reported losses of 60 per cent amongst officers and NCOs. Its backbone was gone, a report complained. The general view of the Military SS among the German people was, as the Security Service of the SS reported in March 1942, that it was poorly trained and its men were often ‘recklessly sacrificed’. Its men were thrown into battle because it wanted to show itself better than the army. Moreover, parents were beginning to try to stop their sons from enlisting because of the anti-Christian indoctrination to which they would be subjected in the Military SS. ‘Influence of parents and Church negative,’ reported one recruitment centre in February 1943. ‘Parents generally anti-Military SS,’ reported another. In Vienna one man told the recruiting officer: ‘The priest told us that the SS was atheist and if we joined it we should go to hell.’ Volunteers from Flanders, Denmark, Norway and Holland began to apply to be discharged, complaining of the arrogant and overbearing treatment of foreign recruits by German SS officers. Recruiting officers began to go to Labour Service camps and force young men to ‘volunteer’. Relatives complained about such actions, while Military SS officers soon declared themselves dissatisfied with the results, as many of the new recruits were ‘intellectually sub-standard’ and ‘inclined to insubordination and malingering’. The Military SS was rapidly deteriorating in quality towards the end of the war. But in this, it was doing no more than following the course taken by the regular armed forces themselves.

Joachim Peiper, (1915–1976)

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German Waffen-Schutzstaffel (Waffen-SS) officer. Born in Berlin on 30 January 1915, Joachim Peiper came from a military family. He was well educated and was fluent in both English and French. Peiper joined first the Hitler Youth, then the SS. Commissioned in the SS in 1936, he served on Heinrich Himmler’s personal staff but sought a combat command. He was a company commander in the elite SS Liebestandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH) in the invasion of the France and the Low Countries in May 1940 and led an abortive effort to seize bridges over the Meuse. He served in the LAH in the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. There his unit was noted for its military efficiency and for its extreme brutality; it was involved in massacring the inhabitants of several villages. Transferred to Italy, in September 1943 Peiper’s troops destroyed the town of Boves and murdered its inhabitants.

After the LAH transferred to France, Peiper studied techniques for night movements that were later used effectively in the Ardennes Offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) in December 1944. In that offensive, SS-Obersturmbannführer Peiper headed Kampfgruppe (battle group) Peiper, which was the lead element for the 1st SS Panzer Division, itself the weighted thrust (Schwerpunkt) for the entire Sixth Panzer Army. Peiper’s mission was to race ahead of the main body of the division, bypass all determined resistance, and capture the bridges across the Meuse River at the small Belgian village of Huy. This would allow following forces to cross this major water obstacle en route to their planned envelopment of the Allied armies to the north.

Despite its experience and the initial disordered nature of the U.S. defenses, Kampfgruppe Peiper never achieved its objective, being thwarted in Huy on 20 December by a determined defense by U.S. Army combat engineers. After several determined efforts to break through failed, on 23 December Peiper and his 800 remaining men abandoned their equipment and retreated on foot under cover of darkness. Before then, Peiper’s unit had already committed one of the most infamous massacres of the war, at Malmédy.

On 17 December, Peiper’s lead elements had overrun a U.S. unit, Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. The lead element (with Peiper present) rapidly disarmed the hapless Americans and passed them along to following forces. The soldiers of these trailing units within Peiper’s Kampfgruppe herded the roughly 150 prisoners into a field and then opened fire on them with machine guns and small arms, killing 83 and wounding others.

For this atrocity at Malmédy, Peiper and 69 others were tried before a U.S. military court at Dachau in the spring of 1946. On 16 July 1946, the tribunal condemned Peiper and 43 others to death, although the sentences were subsequently reduced to life in prison. Peiper was later released. On 14 July 1976, Peiper’s house in the small village of Traves, France, burned in mysterious circumstances, reputedly firebombed. Although Peiper’s body was never recovered, he was declared dead.

POWs – A Comparison of Treatment

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The Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS took 232,000 British, Commonwealth, and American prisoners during the war, most in the course of the last year of fighting in Italy and France. The short duration in captivity of most, along with the prospect of pending Allied victory in the west, meant they enjoyed relatively decent conditions in the Stalags in 1944–1945. That permitted most Western prisoners to survive captivity, though there were individual cases of brutality and murder of Westerners by German or other Axis guards. The Germans shackled over 1,000 Canadian POWs after the failed Dieppe raid, during which the Germans discovered British orders to bind the hands of prisoners to prevent destruction of documents. The British and Canadians retaliated immediately by chaining German prisoners, leading to a riot by several hundred Germans in Canadian POW camps. Mutual shackling lasted for a year before everyone backed down. More deadly abuse of British prisoners by the Germans followed a commando raid on the Channel Islands. That led to Hitler’s issuance of the commando order of October 18, 1942, to shoot all commandos taken prisoner. Still, only about 3.6 percent of Western prisoners died while in Axis captivity, a rate that was highly favorable compared to other classes of Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS prisoners and which included captured wounded.

It is noteworthy that Jews in the armies of the Western Allies, in particular captives from the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, were not singled out or killed, not even after the Schutzstaffel ( SS) took over the Stalags. That was not the case for Jews in the Red Army, who along with Communist political officers ( politruks and Commissars ) were pulled out and murdered from the first days of the war in the east. The main reason for the discrepancy was that the Germans were desperate to arrange a prisoner exchange with the Western powers for several thousand Wehrmacht medics and doctors held by the British and Americans, whom they needed to treat mounting numbers of German wounded. Four large prisoner exchanges occurred between the Western Allies and the Germans during the war. They were carried out using the Swedish passenger liner “Gripsholm,” with the physical exchanges made in Lisbon and Goteborg. Germany proposed a still larger exchange, looking to recover men for combat on the Eastern Front. The British were interested in helping long-term captives in German camps, but the Americans rejected the offer: they had few prisoners in German hands before June 1944. The worst experiences of these Western prisoners came in 1945, when they were force marched westward to prevent their liberation by the Red Army.

Yugoslavs, Greeks, and other minor Allies suffered harm commensurate with their ethnic ranking in the perverse Nazi racial view of Europe, and with the degree of resistance offered to Nazi occupation of their home countries. The worst treatment of enemy prisoners, by far, was reserved for enemies of Germany wearing the uniform of the Red Army. BARBAROSSA saw the capture of millions of Red Army prisoners, then their deliberate starvation, massive ill-treatment, and malign neglect by the Wehrmacht. Out of 5.7 million Red Army men taken prisoner during the war about 3.3 million died in German captivity, most in the first eight months of the war in the east: 2.8 million of the first 3.5 million captured died, or 10,000 per day over the first seven months of the German–Soviet war. Some 250,000 were shot outright. Many of the executed were Jews and Communists pulled out of primitive enclosures for immediate murder. Ukrainian and Belorussian peasant conscripts were encouraged by German guards to point out politruks and identify Jews. The selection process led to several hundred thousand executions by the end of 1941. The rest were left to huddle together against killing-cold temperatures in barbed-wire enclosures left open to winter elements, to sleep on frozen ground without shelter beyond hard-packed snow, and to perish en masse from hunger and virulent camp epidemics. Starvation was so extensive in the eastern Dulags and Stalags —POW transit and holding camps, respectively—that there were outbreaks of cannibalism in some. Non-Slavic prisoners fared somewhat better than Slavs, mainly because of spurious Nazi race theories that saw non-Slavs as a higher class of humans. In addition, the Germans pursued a policy of deliberate extermination through starvation of most of the Slavic population of occupied territories. The mass deaths of Soviet military prisoners in its care was the single greatest war crime of the Wehrmacht, and perhaps the gravest war crime in all military history: total deaths of helpless soldiers in German hands was exceeded only by the mass murder of unarmed Jews.

The Germans generally respected the Geneva Conventions with regard to Western prisoners, but refused to honor its provisions concerning Soviet POWs. Among the first experiments using poison gases to “exterminate” large populations were those carried out on Red Army prisoners of war. Some German officers worried that such gross mistreatment of prisoners in the east would have negative military consequences. And so it did: Red Army men fought increasingly desperately, often to the death, once they learned what surrender and German captivity really meant. By mid-1942 the Germans also realized that Soviet prisoners represented a huge pool of potential forced laborers. Therefore, even after the worst excesses of malign neglect over the winter of 1941–1942 stopped, more prisoners were worked to death as slaves. Altogether, about 55 percent of all krasnoarmeets taken prisoner from 1941 to 1945 died in German hands. As German casualties mounted in the east through 1943 the Wehrmacht looked to recruit low-grade military replacements and frontline workers among anti-Soviet prisoners. Men agreed to serve as “ Hiwi ” (Hilfswilliger) in return for food and shelter, or to join so-called “legions” of Baltic, Cossack, Georgian, or Turkmen fighters as Osttruppen, or to serve with the Waffen-SS. Until the great military reverses of 1943, Red Army prisoners were kept near the German front lines. By the end of the war, over half were no longer crammed into Stalags but worked on German farms, in mines or factories, or served as Hiwis with Wehrmacht units. During 1944–1945 German treatment of POWs improved as larger numbers of Landser were captured by the Red Army, and fear of reprisal mounted within the Wehrmacht as defeat clearly loomed in the east.

After the Soviet Union invaded Poland on Sept 17, 1939, the NKVD murdered many thousands of captured Polish Army officers at Katyn, Kharkov, and Tver. From the start of the German–Soviet war in mid-1941 the Red Army and NKVD also murdered or badly mistreated many German POWs, usually spontaneously and quickly in hot blood, before they got to rear area camps. Official Russian figures thus record that only 17,000 German prisoners were in Red Army hands in June 1942, a figure reflecting a low survival rate in captivity. Killing and mistreatment was more selective from the end of 1942 through 1945, a period in which the Red Army took ever larger numbers of German and other Axis prisoners. By mid- 1943 there were nearly 540,000 German and Axis prisoners in Soviet POW camps. By mid-1944 another 340,000 were added, with 950,000 more taken prisoner in the second half of 1944. German historians have calculated that of the 3,155,000 Germans taken prisoner by the Soviets, about 1,186,000 died in captivity. Most of those died of cold, disease, and hunger, for a death rate of about 38 percent. Prisoners from the lesser Axis states fared no better: of 49,000 Italians taken by the Red Army, 28,000 died in some NKVD camp. Unlike the Germans, who recruited prisoners for combat or combat-support units, the Soviets recruited among Axis prisoners primarily for propaganda purposes. An exception was the “Tudor Vladimirescu Division,” which was formed from Rumanian POWs and saw extensive fighting against Germans and Hungarians. The Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland (NKFD) served a mainly propaganda function, with some late-war air drops of small espionage and guerrilla units into East Prussia. The NKFD comprised hundreds of captured Wehrmacht officers, including many generals and Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.

Hundreds of thousands of German POWs, and some Allied prisoners and civilians liberated from the Germans, were detained in the Soviet Union for many years after the war; in some cases for the rest of their natural lives. German prisoners were kept as a form of unilateral reparations, put to forced labor beyond the Urals or in reconstruction work in the western Soviet Union. Winston Churchill predicted this would happen in a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in November 1944: “[Stalin] certainly contemplates demanding two or three million Nazi youth, Gestapo men, etc. doing prolonged reparation work.” He added: “and it is hard to say that he is wrong.” Many Germans died in postwar captivity in Soviet work camps. Most were not allowed to return to Germany for upwards of 10 years, until after Stalin died in 1953. Others married local women and settled down somewhere in the Soviet Union, lost to earlier lives and families. Stalin’s treatment of his own returned men was not much better. Having suffered severe torments in German captivity, liberated krasnoarmeets faced draconian punishment at the hands of the NKVD upon going home. Some Americans and Western civilians were kept by Moscow for narrower reasons pertaining to Soviet policy in Poland and the Baltic States, and refusal to recognize a legal right of expatriation and foreign naturalization. Those questions related to the start of the Cold War rather than to animosity from World War II. The Western Allies also retained Germans for forced labor. The Americans released most fairly quickly. The British and French retained German prisoners to clear up the vast disorder left by the war, to de-mine and perform other necessary, dirty postwar tasks.

The greatest travesty to befall World War II prisoners was suffered by Soviets returning home upon liberation in 1945. In the desperate days of massive losses and surrenders by Red Army men in August 1941, Stalin issued Order #270 decreeing that surrender was treason. As he later put it: “There are no Russian prisoners of war, there are only traitors.” Neither time nor looming victory tempered the brute in the Kremlin’s lust for vengeance on those who dared surrender during the vast Kesselschlacht (“cauldron battles”) of 1941–1942. The Soviet constitution was even rewritten during the war to make surrender a capital crime, although the men of the NKVD hardly required legal justification for their many summary executions. On May 11, 1945, two days after the German surrender to the Red Army, Stalin issued a decree establishing 74 clearing camps for former prisoners of war liberated in what became Soviet-occupied eastern Europe, with a further 69 camps ordered erected inside the Soviet Union. These camps and others were used to detain liberated Red Army POWs until Smersh and the NKVD could vet them (“filter” was the official term) for anti-Communist or anti-Russian nationalist views, and for other suspect categories of political or social “crimes” defined by the Soviet state. About 1.8 million returning POWs (“repatriant”) were being processed in Smersh “filtration camps” (“filtratsionnyy lager”). Out of five million surviving Soviet prisoners repatriated from Nazi captivity after the war, including hundreds of thousands liberated by the Western Allies and forcibly returned to Stalin’s grasp at gunpoint, some 1.1 million were either executed or sent directly to forced labor camps in Siberia. Others were sent back into the Army. Only 18 percent were allowed to go home. All suffered social and economic discrimination for decades, as did their families, until they were finally and officially “rehabilitated” in 1994, three years after the state they served and saved had itself expired.

Waffen-SS General Felix Martin Julius Steiner

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Felix Martin Julius Steiner was born on 23 May 1896 in East Prussia. His military service began shortly before the Great War with his enlistment in the German Army. He was quickly promoted to NCO, and was commissioned in January 1915, less than a year after entering the service. He was assigned to Stosstrupp (“strike troop”) formations that broke the deadlock on the Eastern Front during the 1917 Riga campaign. He then participated in similar actions on the Western Front during the spring of 1918. He came away from the war convinced that such highly-trained, flexible units could be successful on a much greater scale in future warfare.

After service in a Freikorps in Lithuania, Steiner found a place in the Reichswehr, but retired as a Hauptmann at the end of 1933. He was frustrated by what he considered a lack of innovation, and sought a venue for his concept of an elite soldier-athlete. He first sought this through joining the SA, but on in April 1935, he switched to the SS. Here, with carefully screened volunteers under his leadership, he at last was able to demonstrate the validity of his ideas. The continued success of his training methods earned the approval of Paul Hausser, who spread them throughout the early units of the burgeoning Waffen-SS. Steiner also popularized the use of the camouflage smock, developed by his subordinate, Dr. Wim Brandt. Camouflage clothing later spread to the rest of the Waffen-SS and eventually to armies around the world.

Steiner’s regiment, SS-Deutschland, fought effectively in the invasions of Poland and Western Europe, and Steiner was one of the first Waffen-SS members to earn the Knight’s Cross on 17 June 1940. He was promoted to SS-Brigadeführer on 9 November 1940, and on 1 December assumed command of the newly-formed SS-Wiking Division. Here he discovered a phenomenon that became a personal cause for the rest of his life.

SS-Wiking included the recently raised SS-Nordland and SS-Westland Regiments. The former included volunteers from Norway and Denmark, while the latter had men from Flanders and the Netherlands. While many more traditional German officers were skeptical of the value of foreign volunteers, Steiner embraced them enthusiastically.

The Finns, Swiss, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, and Flemings entrusted to him came to admire Steiner for his firm, but caring leadership. He became known for shaking hands with every man in formations drawn up for inspection, and for emphasizing military efficiency over politics. Steiner was reprimanded by Himmler on several occasions for downplaying SS and Nazi ideology, and also for never abandoning his Christian faith, but he retained his commands because of his military abilities. His influence extended to the officer corps of SS-Wiking, so that the foreign volunteers were always respected and well treated.

During the Caucasus campaign, Steiner assumed temporary command of the army’s III Panzer Corps (November 1942-January 1943). This was an unusual step, but he had earned the respect and cooperation of his Army colleagues, including General Staff officer Joachim Ziegler. Steiner earned the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross on 23 December 1942. He was marked for a permanent corps command, and this became official during May 1943, when he became the first commander of the III (Germanic) SS-Panzer Corps, which collected most of the available Western European volunteers.

The III (Germanic) SS-Panzer Corps fought very effectively during 1944 against heavy odds in the retreat from the Oranienbaum front to the Narva bridgehead, and finally on the Tannenberg defense line. Steiner received the Swords to his Knight’s Cross in recognition of this on 10 August 1944. Steiner continued to lead his corps until late January 1945, when he preceded it to Pomerania to organize an offensive. The scattered units available were given the grandiose title “11th SS-Panzer Army,” though they were below conventional army strength.

Steiner resumed command of the III (Germanic) SS-Panzer Corps west of the Oder River during April 1945, and soon after defied Hitler’s order to launch a hopeless relief attack on Berlin. The decision spared the lives of many of his men. Steiner intended to surrender all of the remaining Western European volunteers to the Western Allies, under the faintest of hopes that they might be used against the Communists in a post-war struggle.

In captivity, Steiner refused to testify against British volunteers who had joined the Waffen-SS. He later helped organize the Hilfsgemeinschaft auf Gegenseitigkeit der Soldaten der ehemaligen Waffen-SS (the HIAG, or Mutual Aid Society for Former Members of the Waffen-SS), and then devoted his time to writing studies of military history.

Steiner died in Munich on 17 May 1966.