Germanic volunteers often experienced isolation from their countrymen, thanks to lingering ambivalence among the populations of the occupied lands toward Germany. Traditional international rivalries, a saturation of anti-German publicity in the pre-war democratic press, suspicion of Hitler’s motives and the German invasion of 1940 all retarded appeals for European unity. Another obstacle to cooperation and good will, ironically, sprung from the Reich itself. Powerful and numerous, it was unavoidable that the Germans would exercise great influence over European affairs. Prominent nationalists in the country believed that this entitled them to subordinate the interests of neighboring states to those of Germany.
In June 1940, the German government introduced proposals to restructure European commerce. Addressing members of the planning committee, Funk offered this guideline: “Germany now possesses the power in Europe to implement a reorganization of the economy according to her requirements. The political will to use this power is on hand. It therefore follows that the countries must fall in line behind us. The economy of other European lands must suit our needs.” Foreign observers heard Funk state in a speech in July, “Future peacetime commerce must guarantee the Greater German Reich a maximum of economic security, and the German people a maximum of consumer goods to elevate the national economy. European trade is to be aligned with this goal."68
Based on a 1939 study by the Prussian jurist Carl Schmitt, National Socialist officials proposed granting sovereignty only to countries populated by “ethnically worthwhile peoples.” The German commissioner for occupied Holland, Seyss-Inquart, championed similar views. Party zealots considered him a better choice for foreign minister than the pragmatic, more constructive Ribbentrop. In his essay, “The European Order,” Seyss-Inquart wrote of “a natural ranking, in which every nation has a place in the community according to its economic capabilities, its biological vitality, its martial strength, and cultural value.” He called upon Europeans to “acknowledge the Reich as the principle power, through which their own strength can best be realized.” He added that Germany, “through superior achievement is accorded higher responsibility for all” who comprise European civilization, “which was formed by the industriousness of the Nordic race."69
Such one-sided proposals regarding post-war Europe dismayed Ribbentrop. He warned in a memo that Germany’s allies fear that after the war, Berlin will place a German governor in every country. Neutrals, he wrote, are concerned that Germany plans to annex them.70 The notion of ranking European peoples according to their value, racial or ethnic heritage among the criteria, threatened to create the divisions Hitler had previously sought to avoid in Germany proper when combating the party’s race theorists.
In the occupied countries, attitudes of German superiority were often apparent at lower administrative levels. Lvov for example, was a Polish-Ukrainian city the German army wrested from the Soviets in June 1941. It subsequently came under the Reich’s civil jurisdiction. An ethnic German resident there recalled, “The passenger compartments of the street cars were divided in the middle by wide leather tubing. A sign in the front section read, 'Only for Germans and their allies – Italians, Hungarians, Slovaks, and Rumanians.' It was shameful to see how people were crowded together in the rear section, while up front sat perhaps two people, and one or two policemen stood on the platform or beside the engineer."71
Though Hitler had decided to gradually release all Polish prisoners of war, German authorities discouraged fraternization. In a 1939 assessment, the SD faulted members of the armed forces for their “great broad mindedness and sympathy” toward the Poles, especially former Austrian officers for their “respectful attitude.” The German military command then ordered that Poles clear the sidewalk for German soldiers and remove their hats when passing officers; however, few occupational troops enforced this tactless regulation.72 In the west, Hitler detained 65,000 Walloon prisoners of war, while sending all Flemish captives home. Germany continued to hold one-and-a-half-million French soldiers prisoner.
The war demanded that the Germans abandon such counterproductive policies. The Reich’s disorganized armaments industry experienced a decline in weapons manufacture during 1941. Production of howitzers, artillery rounds and small arms ammunition substantially dropped between February and December. The factories could not keep pace with the quantity of ordnance being lost in the Russian campaign. As the Red Army retreated in the east, the Soviets dismantled and evacuated 1,360 industrial plants. Their demolition squads destroyed remaining facilities, including 95 percent of the Ukraine’s power works, plus granaries, warehouses, refineries, bridges and machinery. The Germans were able to partially restore the economy at considerable cost, investing far more in reconstruction than they were able to reap in raw materials and surplus grain. These circumstances placed an enormous burden on German resources.73
There were seven-and-a-half million foreign workers in the Reich by September 1944. These included prisoners of war, the voluntarily recruited, and eventually those impressed into the work force. Northern and Western Europeans received the same pay, vacation time and health care benefits as German labor. Eastern Europeans suffered poor treatment. Fritz Sauckel, in charge of mobilizing labor, stated in December 1942 that “whipped, undernourished and cowed eastern workers will more burden the German economy than be of use to it.” A decree enacted by Himmler that month made abuse of foreign laborers by Germans a punishable offence. Only as the military situation worsened, did conditions for Russian and Ukrainian workers improve.74
Poles fared better, largely due to the value of Polish industry for the war economy. Decent treatment of foreign labor, plus the re-organization of the entire armaments industry by civilian officials, led to a dramatic improvement in output. Between December 1941 and June 1944, armaments manufacture increased 230 percent, though the work force was augmented by just 28 percent. In 1944 alone, German industry produced enough ordnance to fully equip 225 infantry and 45 panzer divisions. German factories accounted for 88 percent of arms production, foreign contracts for the balance.75 A unified Europe, based on good will and equal status for all countries, was now a necessity.
Hitler harbored reservations about restructuring Europe with all nations on equal footing. He mistrusted his allies. German intelligence reported that after German defeats in 1943, Rumania, Hungary, Finland and Bulgaria discreetly contacted London and Washington about concluding a separate peace. The Allies informed them that the USSR must be involved in the negotiations, leading Germany’s satellites to drop the initiative. The Führer was no less wary of Philippe Petain, president of unoccupied “Vichy” France, who proved unsympathetic to the German cause.
Hitler limited the roster of the Legion of French Volunteers to 15,000 men, even though there was available manpower to quadruple the number. The contemporary historian Franz Seidler pointed out, “Hitler feared losing his freedom to make decisions about regulating post-war Europe if he accepted foreign help."76 When the Walloon Legion officer Degrelle addressed Belgian workers in the Berlin Sportspalast in January 1943, he received acclaim from his audience . . . and a total press blackout in the German media. Recognizing German policy as an obstruction to the rapprochement supported by many of his countrymen, the French politician Laval told Hitler, “You want to win the war to create Europe. You must create Europe to win the war."77
At the time of Degrelle’s Berlin speech, the German armed forces and their allies were already losing ground in a war of attrition against Russia, Britain, and the United States. More Germans saw the need for foreign assistance. This required rethinking the Reich’s continental attitude. In February 1943, the foreign policy advisor Dr. Kolb introduced proposals for multilateral cooperation. He recommended that treaties be concluded upon the basis of absolute equality of the signatories. A nation should enjoy parity in the European community regardless of its form of government. Kolb’s plan required Germany to relinquish hegemony over the continent.78
In September 1943, Arnold Köster, head of the planning commission of the armaments ministry, bluntly stated in a memorandum that the Reich conducts an improvised exploitation of the occupied territories. The result was “resentment among society’s elements of good will, mounting hatred among hostile strata of the populations, passive resistance, and sabotage."79 The German diplomat Cecil von Renthe-Fink reported to Ribbentrop on September 9, “It is obvious that the mood in Europe has been worse for some time and that resistance movements are growing rapidly. This development can have dire consequences for the willingness of the European nations to commit their resources for our victory, and must be countered."79
Renthe-Fink considered one of the worst shortcomings to be the fact that “apart from what is occasionally stated about the economic field, we have so far avoided saying anything more concrete about our intentions. This gives the impression that we want to keep our hands free to implement our own political plans after the war."80 Attending a wartime lecture on the danger of Communism, Degrelle voiced pan-European concerns when he told the speaker that the volunteers understand what they are fighting against, but not what they are fighting for.
German occupational policy in former Soviet territory was counterproductive. Aware of the threat that eastern populations such as the Mongols had historically posed, Hitler preferred to keep them politically impotent. He stated during a military conference in June 1943, “I cannot set any future objective that would establish independent states here, autonomous states."81 He privately remarked in April 1942, “To master the peoples east of the Reich whom we have conquered, the guiding principle must be to accommodate the wishes for individual freedom as far as possible, avoid any organized state form, and in this way hold the members of these nationalities to as limited a standard of civilization as possible."82
The Völkischer Beobachter mirrored this contempt for the Russians, as in the following description of a group of Soviet prisoners, published in a July 1942 edition: “We all know him from the newsreels; this earth-colored, leathery face with the apathetic, furtive animal gaze and the wearied, mechanical motions; this grey, monotonous, nameless mass, this herd in the truest sense of the word."83
Thousands of Russians deserted to the invaders, often giving the reason that Stalin had executed someone in their family.84 In July 1941, out of 12,000 members of the Soviet 229th Rifle Division, 8,000 jumped ship. In September, 11,000 men belonging to the 255th, 270th, and 275th Rifle Divisions went over the hill as well.85 Desertions continued to plague the Red Army. In May 1942 alone, 10,962 Soviet soldiers crossed over to the Germans. Another 9,136 followed in June, then 5,453 in July. The Germans counted 15,011 Red Army deserters in August.86
In May 1943, 90 Russian battalions, 140 independent rifle companies, 90 battalions consisting of non-Russian troops such as Georgians and Tartars, plus over 400,000 unarmed auxiliaries served in the German armed forces.87 A Cossack division and several regiments supplemented this military force. At least 500,000 former Soviets fought on the German side that year88, and Cossacks were especially effective in combating Communist partisans. Hitler was initially shocked by the number of Russian units in German army service, and in February 1942, forbade more to be established. He soon gave up his resistance to the practice, thanks to the achievements of these formations.
Since the beginning of the Soviet-German war, captured Russian officers repeatedly advised the invaders that the establishment and formal recognition of a Russian national state with its own army of liberation was essential to overthrow the Stalin regime. Officers testifying included former commanders of the 3rd Guards Army, the 5th, 12th, 19th and 22nd Armies and more than a dozen other generals. The German diplomat Hilger interviewed three prominent Russian prisoners in August 1942: General Andrei Vlassov, Colonel Vladimir Soyersky, and Regimental Commissar Joseph Kerness. Vlassov himself told Hilger, “Soviet government propaganda has managed to persuade every Russian that Germany wants to destroy Russia’s existence as an independent state. . . . The Russian people’s resistance can only be broken if they are shown that Germany pursues no such objective, but is moreover willing to guarantee Russia and the Ukraine . . . an independent existence."89
Hilger recorded Colonel Soyersky as stating that “Stalin, because of continuous defeats he is considered responsible for, has lost all his popularity in the army. The Soviet regime has always been hated by the broad mass of the population.” Soyersky also opined that publicly defining German war aims favorable to Russia would lead to the “immediate collapse” of Red Army and national resistance.
At this stage, Hitler, his influential chancery director Martin Bormann, and Reich’s Commissioner for the Ukraine Erich Koch opposed post-war Russian autonomy. Italian Marshal Giovanni Messe observed, “Germany has not understood how to awaken the sympathy and willingness to cooperate among the populations of the occupied territories."90 Hitler’s mistrust of Germany’s treaty partners and of the eastern peoples obstructed a rational European policy.
Throughout most of the war, German propaganda vilified the governments of enemy countries while describing their civilian populations and military personnel as decent but duped by unscrupulous leaders. The Reich’s media revised this prudential practice with respect to the war in the East. When the Germans invaded, the Soviet secret police, the GPU, liquidated political prisoners in eastern Poland and in the Baltic States. The Germans discovered over 4,000 victims in Lvov, in Luck 1,500, in Dubno 500. Summarizing the German official inquiry, Dr. Philipp Schneider wrote, “Without any doubt, those murdered were tortured before their death in a sadistic way. Torture chambers built especially for the purpose were used."91
Along retreat routes, the GPU and the Red Army strew mutilated bodies of German prisoners shot or tortured to death. The purpose was to provoke reprisals against surrendering Russians by the invaders, thereby deterring desertion. In the Tarnopol jail, German troops found one of their missing bomber crews with eyes gouged out, tongues, ears and noses cut off, and the skin on the hands and feet peeled away. This was a favorite GPU torment accomplished by first immersing the appendages in boiling water.
During January 1942, the Soviet Black Sea fleet landed Russian marines along the German-occupied section of the Crimean coast near Odessa. An engineer with a German infantry division there recalled this: “Many houses along the beach had served as hospitals or as collection areas for the wounded. The Russians entered, killed the orderlies and the physicians, and raped the nurses and female assistants. Then they threw the women into the ice-cold waters of the harbor basin. They shot the wounded and sick soldiers, or dragged them into the street and poured cold water over them, so that they would freeze to death in the outdoors."92
The German press described GPU agents and Soviet soldiers committing atrocities as Untermenschen. The expression literally translates as “lowly persons,” but historians sometimes interpret it as meaning subhuman or racially inferior. It in fact refers to the depravity of the individual mind and spirit, the triumph of corruption over the refined qualities of civilized man. Beyond the Soviet troops, Stalin’s enforcers, and rank-and-file Russian Communists, the word more or less became associated with the eastern peoples in general.
Melitta Wiedemann, editor of the diplomatic journal Die Aktion, expressed the frustration over German propaganda and foreign policy felt among many prominent citizens. In 1943, she wrote to several SS leaders, advocating the pan-European idea and a revision of German practices in the East. She directed a letter to Himmler via his advisor on October 5, in which she maintained, “Our silence over the future form of the new Europe is considered in the occupied territories and among those who are officially our friends to be absolute proof of our wicked intentions.” Wiedemann added, “First the Jews were declared Untermenschen and deprived of their rights. Then the Poles joined them, then the Russians, and very nearly the Norwegians as well. Who’s protecting any nationality from being relegated to the realm of Untermenschen by Germany and then destroyed?”
She continued, “Our Untermensch slogan has helped Stalin proclaim a national war. . . . The entire Russian farming community, most of the intelligentsia, and the senior leadership of the Red Army are enemies of Bolshevism and especially of Stalin. Our policy confronts these people with a tragic dilemma; either fight for Stalin, or abandon their people, surely among the most talented of the white race . . . to the fate of a destitute, looted colonial territory."93
The German army suffered a catastrophic defeat at the six-month battle of Stalingrad, which ended in February 1943. This forced many Germans to the conclusion that without active foreign help, the war would be lost, which required a fundamentally new approach to the Reich’s administration in Europe. To implement such a revision, resisted by the highest state leadership, advocates needed a vehicle, an organized bloc. They found it in the Waffen SS.