Germany’s Foreign Infantry in France

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2095-2110, 4630-42:

France had been turned into a vast training-center, where divisions destroyed on other sectors could come for rest, refitting and reorganization. Thus, many of these divisions were more real on paper than they were on the ground. “Often I would be informed that a new division was to arrive in France,” said von Rundstedt, “direct from Russia or Norway or Central Germany. When it finally made its appearance in the West it would consist, in all, of a divisional commander, a medical officer and five bakers.”

To reform these shattered divisions which had left the bulk of their German personnel in Russian graves or Russian prisoner-of-war camps, the Supreme Command drafted so-called volunteers from amongst the peoples of the countries they occupied. There not being enough able-bodied Germans still capable of keeping a war machine and an industrial machine going at the same time, the infantry divisions in France were largely rebuilt by utilizing the huge reserve of non-Germanic manpower in Europe. Using this foreign element chiefly for supply and administrative duties, the infantry divisions in the West were liberally sprinkled with Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, Roumanians, Czechs, Dutchmen, Alsatians, to mention but a few. These non-Germans usually made up at least ten per cent of a division’s strength and in some divisions comprised about twenty-five per cent of the formation’s personnel.

But the largest group of foreigners found in the Wehrmacht in the West were Russians. So many prisoners had been taken in the early victories in Russia, that it was decided in 1942 to make use of these troops rather than continue to feed them or exterminate them. Realizing that it might be dangerous to inject so large a foreign element into normal German divisions, the Supreme Command decided to form these Russian troops into separate units of their own which would be officered by Germans. With the aid of a Russian general, Vlassov, this huge recruiting drive was begun.

The causes that will lead a man to desert are many. But at the basis of them all is loss of faith in what one has been fighting for. It sometimes takes more courage to desert than it does to remain in the line. For a deserter voluntarily accepts the risk of death if he should fail, and the hatred and opprobrium of his countrymen if he should succeed. And when he has succeeded his only reward is the soul-destroying existence of a prisoner-of-war camp. Yet in World War II Germans frequently walked through unfamiliar minefields, swam wide rivers, traveled hundreds of miles on forged passes, and even killed their own sentries to enable them to desert.

The non-German element in the Wehrmacht provided the largest category of deserters. These Poles, Czechs, Russians, Alsatians and others were constantly on the look-out for an opportunity to cross over to Allied lines. But since they had little, or no, faith in the German cause their actions were understandable. With the Germans themselves, however, the circumstances leading to desertion were far more complex. They varied with the individual and his experiences. Inability to put up with conditions in the field, recognition of the fact that Germany had lost the war, dissatisfaction with their officers, ‘horror’ at finding their unit under S.S. command, long periods of unbroken fighting without rest, inadequate equipment, lack of news from home, personal resentment at some unfair treatment, were some of the long list of explanations advanced for the defection of Germans in the fall of 1944. Few deserters claimed that an ideological disagreement with Nazism had brought about their state of mind, and hardly any blamed Hitler personally, although, the S.S., the party and the Wehrmacht came in for their share of condemnation.

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Filed under Eastern Europe, Europe, France, Germany, labor, military, nationalism, USSR, war

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