Saturday, March 28, 2015

Volkssturm 1944-45

If new weapons could not rescue Germany, then perhaps new soldiers could. Already at the end of 1943 the call-up of increasingly older age-cohorts of men to the armed forces was prompting a variety of popular jokes. ‘Vengeance will come,’ so one went, ‘when you see notices on the old people’s homes: “Closed because of the call-up”. On 26 September 1944, in a desperate attempt to deal with the shortage of military personnel, Hitler ordered the creation of the ‘People’s Storm’ (Volkssturm), in which all men from the ages of sixteen to sixty were required to take up arms, and to undergo training for a final stand. They were to be organized by the Party, with the aim, Hitler said, of defending the German people against the attempt of its ‘Jewish-international enemies’ to annihilate them. All of them had to swear a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler, allegiance unto death. The official date for the launch of the People’s Storm was chosen by Himmler as 18 October, the anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon’s army in the ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in 1813. This was to be a national uprising just like the one that - in popular legend - had ended French rule over Germany just over 130 years before. But the reality fell far short of the rhetoric. The men of the People’s Storm were never going to be a very effective fighting force. They had no uniforms - there was no way of providing them by this stage - and had to come in their own clothes, bringing with them a rucksack, a blanket and cooking equipment. The arms and ammunition they needed were never fully forthcoming, and by the final stage of the war they were little more than a poor imitation of an army. Wandering out from his woodland hiding-place one day, the Social Democratic schoolboy Ullrich S. noted 400 men of the People’s Storm come into the nearby village. ‘Tired and exhausted, most of them were wearing uniforms borrowed from the air force, or plundered. A few only had their mufti. I only saw 5 soldiers in all who were bearing arms, the rest were not even carrying a bayonet.’ With the characteristic disdain of the adolescent for the middle-aged, he added: ‘Most of them were between 45 and 60 years of age. The whole crowd made a very pitiable impression on us. They almost looked like an old people’s home on an outing.’ This view was widespread. ‘Two men with shovels are walking across the graveyard,’ went one popular joke of the day. ‘An old man shouts after them: “So you want to dig out reinforcements for the People’s Storm?” ’ For the men of the People’s Storm, however, enlistment was more than a joke. No fewer than 175,000 were eventually killed fighting against the professional armies of the Russians and the Western Allies.

The draft for the People’s Storm was deeply unpopular. People were well aware of its futility in military terms, and the sacrifices they were being asked to make were bitterly resented. In Stuttgart, the red posters put up around the city on 20 October 1944 advertising the creation of the People’s Storm reminded citizens of the red placards used to announce executions. ‘It’s announcing an execution too,’ people were reported saying, ‘namely the execution of the German people.’ Recruitment was completely indiscriminate. The draft for the People’s Storm thus caught many unsuspecting and reluctant men in its net. One of its victims was the theatre critic, writer and pseudo-aristocratic fantasist Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen. When the People’s Storm was set up he was living peacefully on his little estate in the Bavarian hills with his second wife, Irmgard, whom he had married in March 1935, and their three daughters, born in 1939, 1941 and 1943. At this point, his own history of lies and deceptions came back to haunt him. Reck had boasted widely of having enjoyed a heroic military career during the First World War as a Prussian officer, so it was scarcely surprising that the leadership of the People’s Storm in the nearby town of Seebruck asked him to enlist.

Reck, who had in fact never been on active service and never fired a shot at anybody in his life, ignored the request. Four days later, on 13 October 1944, he was arrested on the orders of the military recruitment office in Traunstein for undermining the German military effort and imprisoned for a week. The Gestapo now had their eye on Reck. They knew him apart from anything else as the author of books whose thrust was unmistakeably anti-Nazi, such as his study of the Anabaptists’ reign of terror in sixteenth-century M̈nster (subtitled ‘History of a Mass Delusion’) and his account of Charlotte Corday’s assassination of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, both published in 1937.
Unable to get at him on the basis of such subversive books because they had after all been published perfectly legitimately in Germany, with the approval of Goebbels’s censorship apparatus, the Gestapo acted instead upon a denunciation passed to them by the director of the publishers Knorr and Hirth, in Munich, Alfred Salat, who had seen a letter sent to his colleague Fritz Hasinger by Reck on 10 July 1944 about his royalties. An aside in the letter that referred to the ‘Mark of today’ as being worth ‘only half of what you get elsewhere for a more powerful coinage’, coupled with general if rather vague complaints about the way publishers had treated their authors since 1933, was enough to have Reck arrested on 29 December 1944 on the charge of ‘insulting the German currency’ and ‘statements denigrating the state’. When the jail where he was being held in Munich was destroyed by bombing, on 7-8 January 1945, Reck was transferred with the other prisoners to the concentration camp at Dachau, where the Gestapo ordered him to be kept for further interrogation. Conditions in the camp worsened rapidly in the last months of the war, and Reck soon fell ill. He was transferred to the block reserved for the sick, and, though he recovered sufficiently at one time to be released back into normal custody in the camp, he became sick again, and died at 8.30 a.m. on 16 February 1945. The death certificate gave the cause of death as enterocolitis, but a number of witnesses, including Reck’s neighbour in the hospital block, the camp doctor who attended him in the final days and saw him die and the medical clerk in the camp, subsequently testified that he had died of typhus, a disease the presence of which in the camp officials even at this late stage were eager to deny.

Not only older civilians like Reck, but also young boys and, increasingly, girls, were drafted in to man anti-aircraft guns and searchlights during bombing raids and take part in the war effort in other ways. Even Party officials were complaining in October 1944 of the ‘recruitment of age-cohorts that are scarcely able to carry out any practical tasks’, as adolescents from the Hitler Youth were called up for work on building defences ‘on almost all borders of the Reich’. On 17 March 1945, for example, all fourteen-to-sixteen-year-old pupils of the elite Napola secondary school at Oranienstein were enlisted to man the western defences. Five days later an SS instructor arrived to teach the other pupils how to use hand-held anti-tank guns.85 Women too were drafted into the armed forces as auxiliaries and subjected to military discipline. One young East Prussian woman told how her unit of raw recruits had been together for three weeks, learning how to use a pistol, when enemy fighter-planes strafed their training camp. One girl who was on guard outside the camp ran for cover. For this she was condemned to death:

We were all forced to stand by the fence and watch our comrade being shot . . . A whole series of girls fainted. Then we were driven back to the camp . . . The impression that this execution had made on us was indescribable. All of us did nothing but stay in bed and cry for the whole day. None of us went to work. For this we were all locked into cells . . . We had to stay there for 4 days on nothing but bread and water. We were allowed to take a copy of My Struggle or the Bible with us, but I declined the offer.

The futility of this final draft of young women into the armed forces was nowhere clearer than in the case of the twenty-three-year-old Rita H., a seamstress, whose duties consisted of little more than helping the evacuation of army administrative offices, including the burning of incriminating documents. As the women tried to light a fire in the pouring rain, ‘the singed papers and files were lying around the whole area, for the wind was repeatedly rummaging through our little heaps of paper. It was strange,’ she added, writing as a pious Catholic, ‘and yet wonderful to stand there like that and in a way to experience the downfall of a Godless government.’

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