On Oct. 18, 1944—the anniversary of the victorious Battle of the Nations’ victory against Napoleon in 1813—Reichsfuhrer (National Administrator) SS Heinrich Himmler stepped up to a microphone to make a national radio address announcing the formation of the Nazi Party-controlled Volkssturm, or “People’s Militia.” Standing with him was the new Chief of the Great General Staff, Gen. Heinz Guderian, Head of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, Dr. Hans Heinrich Lammers, and Gauleiter (Regional Leader) Erich Koch. The site of the address was at Bartenstein, on his turf and he was already organizing his own local forces to fight the on-coming Red Army from the east.
Indeed, conjuring up images of the 1813 War of Liberation against the defeated French, the new VS had already won its first victory over the Soviets on Oct. 7th at Memel, which the Nazis had taken in 1939.
Guderian had come into office the day after the failed bomb explosion to kill the Fuhrer (Leader) Adolf Hitler, and the latter had virtually thus lost most of his faith in the regular German armed forces to win the war. The radical Nazis—Dr. Josef Gobbels, Dr. Robert Ley, Himmler, and—most of all---Reich Leader and Secretary to the Fuhrer Martin Bormann—were urging Hitler to turn to the very force that had brought him to power in the first place, the Nazi Party and its various organizations.
What all of them feared most was a second 1918-style collapse of the German state from within, an internal-type revolt that had toppled Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm II
when the German Army was still fighting in the field on the Western Front. It was their belief that the Party had rebuilt the state from that catastrophe starting anew in 1933, and now—11 years later—a similar program of rejuvenation was to be the order of the day.
This time, there would be no home front failure, and thus, according to author David K. Yelton in Hitler’s Volkssturm: The Nazi Militia and the Fall of Germany, 1944-45 (University Press of Kansas, 2007), “On Sept. 25, 1944, Hitler formally announced the Volkssturm’s creation to high-ranking officials in a Fuhrer Decree granting Himmler control of military matters and Bormann administrative and organizational issues.”
Thus, right from the start, there was the divided leadership that would plague the VS until the very end of its days in the defense of smoldering Berlin—in which it played at least half a part. Hitler, like his rival US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had the leadership style of giving several different men the same functions, believing that competition would make them perform better and get the overall job done faster. This was also the overall leadership principle of the Nazi Party as a whole.
The key individual from inception to ultimate VS demise was Bormann. In his unique position of being at the Fuhrer’s elbow night and day, he had Hitler’s ear on virtually everything, and thus was able to convince the Fuhrer to create the VS along the lines of the 1813 Home Guard, and also to place it under Lammers’ Reich Chancellery. Bormann believed that only the Party could run the VS properly, and ensured that service in it was mandatory for all civilian German males between the ages of 16 and 60.
This included the all-important Class of 1928—those who would turn 17 in 1945—the 550,000 boys of Artur Axmann’s Hitler Youth (HJ), literally the final remaining
military manpower pool of Nazi Germany. The older men—ridiculed as “Grandpas” by the younger—were veterans of World War I, or those who had already fought in the Second World War and been wounded.
The VS would be organized on the model of the 42 Gaue or Regions of the Third Reich, all controlled by Bormann as virtual domestic dictator while Hitler ran the war. This had been the set-up since Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and thus Bormann understood his task thoroughly, governing the Reich via teleprinter, telegraph, radio, and telephone from wherever Hitler’s Fuhrer Headquarters happened to be. He would rule the VS through the Gau (Region), Kreis (County) and Ortsgruppenleiters (town leaders.)
The VS were to fight like the sturdy Japanese in the Pacific: to the last man, bullet, and breath. The nature of Bormann’s vision for the VS was unity overall, Party control and formations based on the members’ place of residence. The last factor was all-important in his view, as he believed that it was critical to the fighting success of the VS as a combat unit that would be called into action when the enemy arrived at the edges of their towns and cities, most of which had been officially declared as “fortresses” by the Fuhrer anyway.
The Fuhrer Decree of Sept. 25th gave the Gauleiters the power to organize the VS in their domains, which included more than 800 counties in the Reich proper. The average age of those who served (the national oath-taking was conducted on Nov. 12th) was between 45 and 52, and Bormann—aping Hitler, here-- refused to call up women unlike the Soviets. Of those who did serve, most men were white collar workers.
On Nov. 27, 1944, RFSS Himmler took command of Army Group Upper Rhine, thus making him Bormann’s first serious rival for power, as both wanted to succeed Hitler as Fuhrer. Each reasoned that if they were able to win the war for Germany, they would accede to the mantle, and there was, indeed, some logic in their positions.
Even though Bormann irritated the RFSS by referring to the units as “my VS,” it was a top SS man—Gen. Gottlob Berger—who was Chief of Staff of the Volkssturm and who reported directed to Himmler, not Bormann. Indeed, it was Berger who announced that the VS would be trained and ready for combat against the Russians and Western Allies no later than March 31, 1945.
In training, Gen. Berger wanted individual rifle marksmanship stressed for the civilian warriors, while Bormann opted instead for small anti-tank weapons with which to defeat the masses of Russian T-34s and American Sherman M-4 tanks. In the end, Bormann prevailed, and in this instance his view was militarily sound as events were to prove, especially in the defense of Berlin and other German cities.
The citizen-soldiers trained on weeknights and for six hours on Sundays, and what rifle training was provided was given by SA Chief of Staff Wilhelm Schepmann’s brownshirted Stormtroopers. Schepmann had wanted a real wartime role for the SA ever since 1939, and he saw the VS as a way of achieving it at the expense of the SS (its hated rival since 1934), the Party and the German Army (which it had wanted to replace as long ago as 1930).
Hitler and Bormann, too, saw this danger as well, and they were not about to let him achieve an ambition that had eluded the murdered SA Staff Chief Capt. Ernst Rohm in the Blood Purge of June 30-July 2, 1934. Thus, Schepmann would be allowed to arm and train the VS, but not to lead it.
Nor would Dr. Josef Gobbels in his capacity as Hitler’s appointed Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War. Despite the famous wartime newsreels of the leather-coated Propaganda Minister reviewing VS troops passing on parade, other than that, his role with the Volkssturm was really quite minimal, despite exhorting them to fight for Berlin as its Gauleiter.
Then there was the National Socialist Motor Corps led by Erwin Kraus that provided courier motorcyclists and truck drivers to transport the VS men to their sites, and even units of the Nazi Fliers Korps (NSFK) as well. It seemed that every Party organization wanted its finger in the VS pie, and for a very simple reason, then and now still incomprehensible to those in the West: the Nazis believed that the war could still be won!
First, from Hitler on down, the true Nazis took it as an article of faith that racially pure Germans of good stock would defeat the tainted Slavs from the steppes of Russia and the corrupt Americans, British and Canadians from the West. Dr. Gobbels’ propaganda screamed its slogans: “Never again, 1918! Our walls may break, but our hearts never!”
The citizen-soldiers of the Third Reich—indoctrinated as true believers—would also be fighting for their own homes, and the threat from the east also induced in the Germans of East Prussia the very real fear of Red Army retaliation for what had been done by the Germans in the USSR during 1941-44.
Notes Mr. Yelton of the Nazis’ social Darwinism, “Wars were winner-take-all affairs.” To the Nazis, negotiations meant surrender. In this respect, Hitler, Bormann, and Gobbels were far more “Nazi” than either or both the RFSS and Reich Marshal Hermann Goring, who in the end in 1945 wanted to treat with the enemy.
Thus, especially after the failure of July 20th—when, in their eyes, the traitors had been unmasked—the Nazis wanted “To renew—not end—the fighting.” It is significant to note that more people in Europe died after July 20th than in all of the five years of war before it.
Thus, to the Nazis, the VS was both a valid and rational response to the events of 1944-45, just as the Party itself had been to the fall of Imperial Germany in 1918-20. Indeed, if anyone’s morale would collapse, it would be that of the Allies, not the German people led by the Nazi Party under Hitler.
Ironically, too, as the German armies retreated—and this included the Waffen (Armed) SS of Himmler as well—so, too, did the power of the Party increase within the borders of the pre-1939 Greater German Reich; thus, as Himmler lost power, Bormann gained it.
Thus, by the spring of 1945, the RFSS ceased to be a real factor in VS power struggles and was replaced in these battles by Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, who was working hand-in-glove with the German armed forces—mainly the Regular Army—to prevent the Fuhrer’s decreed scorched earth policies designed to make the Third Reich an industrial wasteland.
Speer—like the RFSS and the Reich Marshal—was not a true Nazi in the Hitler-Gobbels-Bormann mold, and saw for himself a role as the rebuilder of the Fourth
Reich under the auspices of the Western Allies at least.
In the end, however, Bormann’s concept of the Volkssturm was undone by the very people he wanted to protect it from the most and from whom he expected the least danger—the officers and men of the German Army in whose sphere of operations the individual VS units fell.
The primary reason for this was that the Party simply could not and did not supply the VS with the weapons, uniforms, and supplies that it needed, while the regular military most often did. Wherever the VS and the military worked well together, there morale was good, absenteeism down, discipline maintained, and training heightened. Thus, much to his chagrin, Bormann was faced with a situation whereby the Army delivered where the Party had failed.
The reason for this, too, was that—unlike the higher ranks of the officer corps, which was, by and large, monarchist in belief and background—the lower ranking officers and most enlisted men were Nazis to the core. To them, the bomb plot of July 20, 1944 was a disgrace to the good name of Germany.
Indeed, as Yelton points out, “The Army was intimately involved with the Volkssturm from its inception.” It was the Army that provided both the Panzerfaust (anti-tank fist) and Panzerschreck (Terror of the Tanks) anti-tank weapons that stopped many an enemy tank in its tracks. (Shotguns and Speer’s three-pronged nails were frowned upon as weapons, while concrete hand grenades and a single-shot flamethrower were desired—when they could be had, however.) In the end, the Panzerfausts were the only weapons that were available to the VS in abundant supply for combat.
One fear that all VS men shared was that, without uniforms, they would simply be shot out of hand by the enemy as terrorists behind the lines, particularly if they were confused with Dr. Ley’s proposed postwar Werewolf organization. They also disliked Party brown uniforms, as they feared that Red Army men would more likely kill them and refuse to take them prisoner. Finally, some even served in civilian clothes, overcoats and hats, with but an armband and a pay book to identify them officially as Volkssturm men. Negotiations were conducted with the Western Allies to recognize the VS as true combatants, and these were successful, but not, significantly, with the Soviets.
In combat, in the east they were at the disposal of Guderian (again, ironically), and here they gave a good account of themselves, even halting the Red Army advance at Gumbinnen and elsewhere, but in the West they gave up places like Remagen when they saw the German Army retreat as well. Here, they served under Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt, Walther Model, and Albert Kesselring.
Their casualty rates were sometimes as high as 70-80 %, while other units panicked and fled. In the east, some 650,000 VS men saw action. “When the Party bosses fled, so did they,” notes Yelton. When the Army left the VS as rearguard units, not too surprisingly, they returned to their homes rather than die in this manner. In the West, some 150,000 VS men served, but in the end, overall, “The Allies took, however briefly, upwards of one million Volkssturm prisoner by war’s end,” explains Yelton.
In the West, the VS had helped man the West Wall as well as hold the Upper Rhine, but in the end, asserts Yelton, the VS had not achieved its goal. True, they were a legal militia, not partisan guerillas (as fought behind the lines in, say, the USSR), but
the Nazis were simply wrong about both their People’s Militia’s motivation and desire to fight and also their enemies’ sense of moral outrage against Nazism and determination to defeat the Third Reich—no matter how long it took and at what cost.
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