Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Who were the members of the Volkssturm? I

They were an army made up of men ages 16-60 who were not already serving in the German military. The organization of the Volkssturm in 1944 was meant to aid the dwindling military might of the Reich, but historians speculate it also kept civilian men watching the destruction of their cities from entertaining thoughts of uprisings.

There were those who resisted the fight, if not always for ideological reasons.  The Volkssturm, due to limits in military weapons, were divided into two groups, those who had arms and those who would serve as replacements, picking up the arms of a fallen comrade.  One Volkssturm leader, ordered to take his men into combat without uniforms, with limited weapons, and with no ammunition recalled, “I told the party leader I could not accept the responsibility of leading men into battle without uniforms…Although my men were quite ready to help their country, they refused to go into battle without uniforms and without training. What could a Volkssturm man do with a rifle without ammunition? The men went home. That was the only thing we could do.”

In Penalty Strike, the memoir of Soviet soldier Alexander V. Pyl'cyn, he remembered being invited to see the Reichstag after it had fallen into Soviet hands. Upon entering Berlin, he saw white surrender flags waving in blown out windows, women, children, and the elderly hiding in their houses (which, he remarked, was “like in all countries”), and men and boys separated from their defeated Volkssturm and Hitler Youth units wandering without purpose.  “They had been hoping”, he said, “to defend their Reich to the edge of destruction. Many of them sacrificed their lives, just for the sake of the crazy ideas of their insane Fuhrer, while some tried to hide in basements, change their uniforms for civilian clothes, and hide in the mass of civilians.”

The Werewolf organization could best be described as a group of German vigilantes dedicated to guerilla actions in the final months of Nazi Germany. They sometime worked in conjunction with the Volkssturm, but some authors discount the group’s effectiveness, seeing the Werewolf more as wishful thinking and rebellion than as a serious threat to foreign occupiers within Germany.  The words of at least one intelligence report seem to indicate that the allies took the Werewolf threat seriously: “The Werewolf organization is not a myth…In every important city, the Werewolf organization is directed by an officer of the SD…Membership…is made up of persons of all ages and of both sexes, with a high proportion of fewer than twenty years of age…The present cadres of the Werewolves are estimated to number more than 2,000.”

The last time Hitler was ever seen in public was on his 56th birthday, April 20th 1945. That morning, he met with some members of the Hitler Youth who had gathered in the gardens of the Reich Chancellery to wish the Fuhrer a happy birthday.  Hitler seemed to go through the motions of greeting these young boys, aged 14 or 15, patting a few on the head or cheek before heading back to his bunker for more listless “celebrations” by loyal staff and advisors. Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel, a 29 year old woman in Berlin at the time, recalled, "Friday, April 20, was Hitler's fifty-sixth birthday, and the Soviets sent him a birthday present in the form of an artillery barrage right into the heart of the city, while the Western Allies joined in with a massive air raid. The radio announced that Hitler had come out of his safe bomb-proof bunker to talk with the fourteen to sixteen year old boys who had 'volunteered' for the 'honor' to be accepted into the SS and to die for their Fuhrer in the defense of Berlin. What a cruel lie! These boys did not volunteer, but had no choice, because boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, 'he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.' When trees were not available, people were strung up on lamp posts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics. It appeared that the Nazis did not want the people to survive because a lost war, by their rationale, was obviously the fault of all of us. We had not sacrificed enough and therefore, we had forfeited our right to live, as only the government was without guilt. The Volkssturm was called up again, and this time, all boys age thirteen and up, had to report as our army was reduced now to little more than children filling the ranks as soldiers."

As her account suggests, in the last days of the war in Europe, the Hitler Youth organization was more than just a publicity front, because these young boys would actually be called upon to protect a city whose able-bodied men had long since been called to give their lives for the Reich.  With the other males still in the city being under the age of 8 or over the age of 80, the Hitler Youth were not simply living in the city but were essentially charged with its defense.

Gerard Rempel calls the plan to charge these young men with their country’s defense “a children's crusade to shore up crumbling defenses and offer thousands of teenagers as a final sacrifice to the god of war”.  Though their purpose was initially to become indoctrinated with Nazi rhetoric and be the face of Germany’s next generational leaders, Nazi leadership showed almost no inhibition about sending these boys into battle when times became desperate. During the last months of the war, many Hitler Youth boys were put into 10-15 member tank-destroying units, armed only with three machine guns and a bazooka. Artur Axmann, a 32 year old youth leader, led the Hitler Youth military efforts in Berlin, and in a Hitler Youth meeting in March 1945, Axmann had rallied young boys with this call: “There is only victory or annihilation. Know no bounds in your love of your people; equally know no bounds in your hatred of the enemy. It is your duty to watch when others tire, to stand when others weaken. Your greatest honour is your unshakeable fidelity to Adolf Hitler.” Axmann received a harsh response from General Karl Weidling when he announced his intentions to use the boys to defend the rear of Weidling’s Panzer Corps: “You cannot sacrifice these children for a cause that is already lost. . . . I will not use them and I demand that the order . . . be rescinded”

However, it was too late for the boys that Axmann led. They were already being killed and crushed by Russian tanks, fleeing if possible and waking up in a bunker to find that most of their friends were dead.  During the last few months of the war, the number of available Hitler Youth meant that boys as young as 12 were actually being led into military situations and were expected to defend their city against the vengeful Soviet troops. 

As if that wasn’t enough, young girls under the auspices of the BDM ( the League of German Girls or the Band of German maidens) were expected to play their part to save Germany.  They were asked to set up hospitals, care for the wounded and refugees, and keep order in public transportation stations, among other tasks.   Melita Maschmann carried out Axmann’s orders with the girls in her care, and she had this to say about the experience: “I shall never forget my encounters with the youngest of them, still half children, who did what they believed to be their duty until they were literally ready to drop. They had been fed on legends of heroism for as long as they could remember. For them the call to the ‘ultimate sacrifice' was no empty phrase. It went straight to their hearts and they felt that now their hour had come, the moment when they really counted and were no longer dismissed because they were still too young…If there is anything that forces us to examine the principles on which we operated as leaders in the Hitler Youth and in the Labor Service, it is this senseless sacrifice of young people.”

Who were the members of the Volkssturm? II

The top leader of Hitler Youth was Baldur Benedikt von Schirach.  He claimed that he had no desire for the boys to fight, and that he used his power to prevent it, but he was demoted for criticizing the plans to keep the boys out of harm’s way. In addition to challenges to this claim, there remains the fact that Von Shirach’s purpose was to indoctrinate the youngest of Germans to remain loyal to Hitler and his cause. He later admitted that while he had opposed the idea of the youth taking part in the fight, his educational programs had caused the youth to desire to do exactly that.

Of the 5,000 Hitler Youth defending Berlin, only 500 survived, but Axmann abandoned his boys and hid in the mountains with another Hitler Youth group until after the war.   The fervor of the boys and girls was a result of a hard-line education that included lessons, songs, and poems, as well as a system of rewards and recognitions.  The official song of the Hitler Youth can be loosely translated “The Rotten Bones are Trembling” and shows the type of indoctrination that the youth heard in the organization:

“The rotten bones are trembling,
Of the World before the Great War
We have smashed this terror,
For us a great victory.

And if there lies in ruins from battle
The whole world,
therefore the devil may care;
We build it up again

And the elders may chide,
So just let them scream and cry,
And if the World decides to fight us,
We will still be the victors.

They don't want to understand this song,
They think of slavery and war.
Meanwhile our acres ripen,
Flag of freedom, fly!

We will continue to march,
Even if everything shatters;
Because today Germany hears us,
And tomorrow the whole World.”

Of course, for all the indoctrination and the pomp and circumstance, calling upon mere children to stand as a line of defense was beyond desperate. One Berlin resident described seeing one of the youngsters instructed to defend Berlin: “In honor of Hitler's birthday, we received an eight-day ration allowance, plus one tiny can of vegetables, a few ounces of sugar and a half-ounce of real coffee. No one could afford to miss rations of this type and we stood in long lines at the grocery store patiently waiting to receive them. While standing there, we noticed a sad looking young boy across the street standing behind some bushes in a self-dug shallow trench. I went over to him and found a mere child in a uniform many sizes too large for him, with an anti-tank grenade lying beside him. Tears were running down his face, and he was obviously very frightened of everyone. I very softly asked him what he was doing there. He lost his distrust and told me that he had been ordered to lie in wait here, and when a Soviet tank approached he was to run under it and explode the grenade. I asked how that would work, but he didn't know. In fact, this frail child didn't even look capable of carrying such a grenade. It looked to me like a useless suicide assignment because the Soviets would shoot him on sight before he ever reached the tank. By now, he was sobbing and muttering something, probably calling for his mother in despair, and there was nothing that I could do to help him. He was a picture of distress, created by our inhuman government. If I encouraged him to run away, he would be caught and hung by the SS, and if I gave him refuge in my home, everyone in the house would be shot by the SS. So, all we could do was to give him something to eat and drink from our rations. When I looked for him early next morning he was gone and so was the grenade. Hopefully, his mother found him and would keep him in hiding during these last days of a lost war."”