The Volkssturm (German pronunciation: [ˈfɔlks.ʃtʊɐ̯m], roughly “people’s militia”) was a German national militia of the last months of World War II. It was set up, not by the traditional German Army, but by the Nazi Party on the orders of Adolf Hitler on October 18, 1944. It conscripted males between the ages of 16 to 60 years who were not already serving in some military unit as part of a German Home Guard.
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Origins and Organization
The new Volkssturm drew inspiration from the old Prussian Landsturm of 1813–1815 that fought in the liberation wars against Napoleon, mainly as guerrilla forces. Plans to form a Landsturm national militia in Eastern Germany as a last resort to boost fighting strength were first proposed in 1944 by General Heinz Guderian, chief of the General Staff. The Army did not have enough men to resist the Soviet onslaught. So additional categories of men were called into service, including those in non-essential jobs, those previously deemed unfit, over-age, or under-age, and those recovering from wounds. The Volkssturm had existed, on paper, since around 1925, but it was only after Hitler ordered Martin Bormann to recruit six million men for this militia that the group became a physical reality. The intended strength of six million was never attained.
Joseph Goebbels and other propagandists depicted the Volkssturm as an outburst of enthusiasm and will to resist. While it had some marginal effect on morale, it was undermined by the recruits’ visible lack of uniforms and weaponry. Nazi themes of death, transcendence, and commemoration were given full play to encourage the fight. Many German civilians realized that this was a desperate attempt to turn the course of the war. Sardonic old men would remark, “We old monkeys are the Führer’s newest weapon” (in German this rhymes – “Wir alten Affen sind des Führers neue Waffen” – adding to the humour). A popular joke about the Volkssturm went “Why is the Volkssturm Germany’s most precious resource? Because its members have silver in their hair, gold in their mouths, and lead in their bones.”
For these militia units to be effective, they needed not only strength in numbers, but also fanaticism. During the early stages of Volkssturm planning, it became apparent that units lacking morale would lack combat effectiveness. To generate fanaticism, Volkssturm units were placed under direct command of the local Nazi party officials, the Gauleiters and Kreisleiters. The new Volkssturm was also to become a nationwide organization, with Heinrich Himmler, as Replacement Army Commander, responsible for armament and training. Though normally under party control, Volkssturm units were placed under Wehrmacht command when engaged in action. Aware that a “people’s army” would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the modern army wielded by the Allies, Hitler issued the following order towards the end of 1944:
Experience in the East has shown that Volkssturm, emergency and reserve units have little fighting value when left to themselves, and can be quickly destroyed. The fighting value of these units, which are for the most part strong in numbers, but weak in the armaments required for modern battle, is immeasurably higher when they go into action with troops of the regular army in the field.
I, therefore, order: where Volkssturm, emergency, and reserve units are available, together with regular units, in any battle sector, mixed battle-groups (brigades) will be formed under unified command, so as to give the Volkssturm, emergency, and reserve units stiffening and support.
With the Nazi Party in charge of organizing the Volkssturm, each Gauleiter, or Nazi Party District Leader, was charged with the leadership, enrollment, and organization of the Volkssturm in their district. The largest Volkssturm unit seems to have corresponded to the next smaller territorial subdivision of the Nazi Party organization—the Kreis. The basic unit was a battalion of 642 men. Units were mostly composed of members of the Hitler Youth, invalids, the elderly, or men who had previously been considered unfit for military service. Further desperation showed when on 12 February 1945, the Nazis conscripted German women and girls into the auxiliaries of the Volkssturm. Correspondingly, girls as young as 14 years were trained in the use of small arms, panzerfausts, machine guns, and hand grenades from December 1944 through May 1945. Like many aspects of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community), the organization of Germany for war was all-inclusive, reaching almost all levels of society as the establishment and expansion of the Volkssturm reveals.
- A Bataillon (battalion) in every Kreis (roughly equivalent to a U.S. county; there were 920 Kreise in Greater Germany).
- A Kompanie (company) in every Ortsgruppe (literally the “local chapter” of the Nazi Party).
- A Zug (platoon) in every Zelle (literally a “cell” of Party members; roughly equivalent to a U.S. precinct).
- A Gruppe (squad) in every Block (city block).
Each Gauleiter and Kreisleiter had a Volkssturm Chief of Staff to assist in handling militia problems.
From its inception until the very end of the Nazi regime, Himmler and Bormann engaged in a power-struggle over the jurisdictional control over the Volkssturm regarding security and police powers in Germany and the occupied territories; a contest which Himmler and his SS more or less won on one level (police and security) but lost to Bormann on another (mobilizing reserve forces). Historian David Yelton described the situation as two ranking officers at the helm of a sinking ship fighting over command.
Uniforms and Insignia
The Volkssturm “uniform” was only a black armband with words Deutscher Volkssturm Wehrmacht with a series of silver collar pips pinned to the wearer’s collar. These were characteristically derived from the rank insignia of the various paramilitary organizations of the Nazi Party, which had control over them, and not of the regular Wehrmacht.
The German government tried to issue as many of its members as possible with military uniforms of all sorts, ranging from field gray to camouflage. These could not be provided to all its members. Thus many members of the Volkssturm turned their civilian clothing into makeshift paramilitary uniforms or wore uniforms from their civilian jobs (such as train conductors of the Reichsbahn).
The simple paramilitary insignia of the Volkssturm were as follows:
Training and Impact
Typically, members of the Volkssturm received only very basic military training. It included a brief indoctrination and training on the use of basic weapons such as the Karabiner 98k rifle and Panzerfaust. Because of continuous fighting and weapon shortages, weapon training was often minimal. There was also a lack of instructors, meaning that weapons training was sometimes done by World War I veterans drafted into service themselves. Often Volkssturm members were only able to familiarize themselves with their weapons when in actual combat.
There was no standardization of any kind and units were issued only what equipment was available. This was true of every form of equipment—Volkssturm members were required to bring their own uniforms and culinary equipment, etc. This resulted in the units looking very ragged and, instead of boosting civilian morale, it often reminded people of Germany’s desperate state. Armament was equally haphazard: though some Karabiner 98ks were on hand, members were also issued older Gewehr 98s and 19th-century Gewehr 71s and Steyr-Mannlicher M1888s, as well as Dreyse M1907 pistols. In addition there was a plethora of Soviet, British, Belgian, French, Italian, and other weapons that had been captured by German forces during the war. The Germans had also developed cheap but reasonably effective Volkssturm weapons, like MP 3008 machine pistols, Volkssturmgewehr 1-5 rifles and VMG-27 light machine guns. These were completely stamped and machine-pressed constructions being in the 1940s, industrial processes were much cruder than today, so a firearm needed great amounts of semi-artisanal work to be actually reliable. The Volkssturm troops were nominally supplied when and where possible by both by the Wehrmacht and the SS, but often times they had little to spare. Being armed with leftovers, compounded the Volkssturm’s ineffectiveness; the large number of different ammunition types also put a strain on an already burdened logistics system (for example, the Gewehr 71s used a different type of ammunition than the two 98 rifles). In the last few months of the war, the shortages of modern firearms led to the use of weapons such as shotguns, and even muskets and crossbows taken from museums.
When units had completed their training and received armament, members took a customary oath to Hitler and were then dispatched into combat. Unlike most English-speaking countries, Germany had universal military service for all young men for several generations, so many of the older members would have had at least basic military training from when they served in the German Army and many would have been veterans of the First World War. Volkssturm units were supposed to be used only in their own districts, but many were sent directly to the front lines. Ultimately, it was their charge to confront the overwhelming power of the British, American, Canadian, Polish, and Soviet armies alongside Wehrmacht forces to either turn the tide of the war or set a shining example for future generations of Germans and expunge the defeat of 1918 by fighting to the last, dying before surrendering. It was an apocalyptic goal which some of those assigned to the Volkssturm took to heart. Unremittingly fanatical members of the Volkssturm refused to abandon the Nazi ethos unto the dying days of the Third Reich, and in a number of instances took brutal police “actions” against German civilians deemed defeatists or cowards.
On some occasions, members of the Volkssturm showed tremendous courage and a determined will to resist, more so even than soldiers in the Wehrmacht. The Volkssturm battalion 25/235 for instance, started out with 400 men but fought on until there were only 10 men remaining. Fighting at Küstrin between 30 January to 29 March 1945, militia units made up mostly of the Volkssturm resisted for nearly two months. Losses were upwards of 60 percent for the Volkssturm at Kolberg, roughly 1900 of them died at Breslau, and during the Battle of Königsberg, another 2400 members of the Volkssturm were killed. At other times along the western front particularly, Volkssturm troops would cast their arms aside and disappear into the chaos. Youthful ardor and fanaticism among Hitler Youth members fighting with the Volkssturm or an insatiable sense of duty from old men proved tragic sometimes. An example shared by historian Stephen Fritz is instructive in this case:
In one representative village just north of Bad Windsheim, the Herbolzheim Volkssturm unit, with its customary composition of elderly men and young boys under the influence of a few regular army soldiers, foolishly declared the town a fortress and laid mines in the streets. As American troops approached in midmorning on April 12, shots from the village rang out. Angered, the Americans commenced a two-hour artillery barrage complemented by aerial attacks that gutted the town with incendiary and high-explosive bombs. With their village engulfed in flames, the civilian inhabitants, mostly the elderly, women, and children, fled in search of shelter to the surrounding fields, all the while under American fire. Not every Volkssturm unit was suicidal or apocalyptic in outlook as the war drew closer to its end. Many of them lost their enthusiasm for the fight when it became clear that the Allies had won, prompting them to lay down their weapons and surrender – they also feared being captured by Allied forces and tortured or executed as partisans. Duty to their communities and sparing their fellow Germans from atrocities like that described near Bad Windsheim also played a part in their capitulation, as did self-preservation.
Their most extensive use was during the Battle of Berlin, where Volkssturm units fought in many parts of the city. This battle was particularly devastating to its formations, however; many members fought to the death out of fear of being captured by the Soviets, holding out to the very end, which was in keeping with their covenant. Nonetheless, a force of over 2.5 million Soviet troops, equipped with 6,250 tanks and over 40,000 artillery pieces were assigned to capture the city, and the diminished remnants of the Wehrmacht were no match for them. Meanwhile, Hitler denounced every perceived “betrayal” to the inhabitants of the Führerbunker. Not eager to die what was thought to be a pointless death, many older members of the Volkssturm looked for places to hide from the approaching Soviet Army. Juxtaposed against the tragic image of Berlin holding out against all odds was the frequent exodus and capitulation of Wehrmacht soldiers and members of the Volkssturm in southern and western Germany.
Battle for Berlin
In the Battle for Berlin, members of the Volkssturm, mainly young boys from the ages of 13-18 and old men, were used by the German high command as a last-ditch attempt to defend Berlin. The Volkssturm had a strength of about 60,000 in the Berlin area formed into 92 battalions, of which about 30 battalions of Volkssturm I, those with some weapons, were sent to forward positions, while those of Volkssturm II, those without weapons, remained in the inner city. One of the few substantive fighting units left to defend Berlin was the LVI Panzer Corps, which occupied the southeastern sector of the town, whereas the remaining parts of the city were being defended by what remained of the SS, the Volkssturm, and the Hitler Youth formations.
One notable and unusual Volkssturm unit in the Battle for Berlin was the 3/115 Siemensstadt Battalion. It comprised 770 men, mainly First World War veterans in their 50s who were reasonably fit factory workers, with experienced officers. Unlike most Volkssturm units, it was quite well equipped and trained. It was formed into three rifle companies, a support company with two infantry support guns, four infantry mortars and heavy machine guns, and a heavy weapons company with four Soviet M-20 howitzers and a French De Bange 220 mm mortar. The battalion first engaged Soviet troops at Friedrichsfelde on 21 April and saw the heaviest fighting over the following two days. It held out until 2 May, by which time it was down to just 50 rifles and two light machine guns. The survivors fell back to join other Volkssturm units. 26 men from the battalion were awarded the Iron Cross. Already in rubble from Allied bombing, the final stand in Berlin dwindled to street fighting between highly trained, battle-hardened Russian troops on the brink of final victory against the remnants of German police units, a handful of soldiers, the Volkssturm, and flak helpers. The chances of the Volkssturm making a major difference were never realistic in the face of the overwhelming Allied numbers and material superiority.
While Iron Crosses were being handed out in places like Berlin, other cities and towns like Parchim and Mecklenburg witnessed old elites, acting as military commandants over the Hitler Youth and Volkssturm, asserting themselves and demanding that the defensive fighting stop so as to spare lives and property. Despite their best efforts, the last four months of the war were an exercise in futility for the Volkssturm, and the Nazi leadership’s insistence to continue the fight to the bitter end contributed to an additional 1.23 million approximated deaths, half of them German military personnel and the other half from the Volkssturm.