Decree of the Führer (Führererlaß)
|25 September 1944
|National Socialist Germany
|8 May 1945
The Deutscher Volkssturm (lit. "German folk assault" or "storm", but more figuratively "German people's army" or "German national militia") was formally established on 25 September 1944 (announced to the public on 16 October 1944, launched on 18 October 1944) as a German homeguard or militia designed to promote “a violent burst of fanatic rage against the invaders” and thus salvage victory utilizing males between the ages of 16 and 60 who were not otherwise serving in the Wehrmacht or other military units. They were under the control of the NSDAP and its officials (each Gauleiter and Kreisleiter had a Volkssturm Chief of Staff) with Joseph Goebbels as ceremonial chief, Heinrich Himmler responsible for armament and training (often described by historians as de facto commander) and Martin Bormann responsible for mobilizing reserve forces. Chief of Staff since 25 September 1944 was SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Gottlob Berger. Inspekteur für die Schieβausbildung (Inspector for Marksmanship Training) was Stabschef der SA Wilhelm Schepmann and Inspekteur für die motortechnische Ausbildung (Inspector for Motor Technical Training) was NSKK-Korpsführer Erwin Kraus (1894–1966).
It was placed under Wehrmacht command when engaged in action. The Volkssturm was used on the Western Front, the Eastern Front (especially Oderfront) and extensively during the defense of Berlin alongside the RAD-Divisionen of the Reichsarbeitsdienst against an overwhelming Red Army, but also in Bavaria and Austria in defense of the Alpenfestung.
- On October 18, 1944—the 131st anniversary of the Battle of the Nations’ victory (de) over Napoleon in 1813—Reichsführer-SS (National Leader) Heinrich Himmler stepped up to a microphone to make a national radio address announcing the formation of the Party-controlled Volkssturm, or People’s Militia. Standing with him was the new Chief of the General Staff, General Heinz Guderian; Dr. Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin; and Gauleiter (Regional Leader) Erich Koch. The site of the address was at Bartenstein, East Prussia, on Koch’s turf, and he was already organizing his own local forces to fight the Red Army coming from the East. Indeed, conjuring up images of the 1813 War of Liberation against the defeated French, the new VS had already won its first victory over the Soviets on October 7 at Memel, Lithuania [...]
- Heinz Guderian had come into office the day after the [July 20 plot|failed bomb explosion to kill Adolf Hitler], and the latter had virtually lost most of his faith in the regular German armed forces to win the war. [...] Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Dr. Robert Ley, Himmler, and most of all Reich Leader and Secretary to the Führer Martin Bormann, were urging Hitler to turn to the very force that had brought him to power in the first place: the NSDAP and its various organizations. What all of them feared most was a second 1918-style collapse of the German state from within, an internal-type revolt that had toppled Kaiser Wilhelm II when the German Army was still fighting in the field on the Western Front. It was their belief that the Party had rebuilt the state from that catastrophe starting anew in 1933, and now—11 years later—a similar program of rejuvenation was to be the order of the day. [...] Hitler hoped the Volkssturm, or “People’s Militia,” would fight to the death to save the homeland. This time, there would be no home front failure, and thus on September 25, 1944, Hitler, through the use of his familiar “Führer Decree,” announced the creation of the Volkssturm and Himmler’s control of the organization; Bormann would be in charge of the administrative issues.
- Thus, right from the start, there was the divided leadership that would plague the VS until the very end of its days in the defense of smoldering Berlin—in which it played at least half a part. Hitler, like his rival, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had the leadership style of giving several different men the same functions, believing that competition would make them perform better and get the overall job done faster. This was also the overall leadership principle of the Party as a whole. The key individual, from inception to ultimate VS demise, was Bormann. In his unique position of being at the Führer’s elbow night and day, he had Hitler’s ear on virtually everything and thus was able to convince Hitler to create the VS along the lines of the 1813 Home Guard, and also to place it under Lammers’s Reich Chancellery. Bormann believed that only the Party could run the VS properly and ensured that service in it was mandatory for all civilian German males between the ages of 16 and 60. This included the all-important Class of 1928—those who would turn 17 in 1945—the 550,000 boys of Artur Axmann’s Hitler Youth, literally the final remaining military manpower pool of Germany. The older men—ridiculed as “Grandpas” by the younger generation—were veterans of World War I or those who had already fought in World War II and been wounded. The VS would be organized on the model of the 42 Gaue, or Regions, of the Third Reich, all controlled by Bormann as virtual domestic dictator while Hitler ran the war. This had been the setup ever since Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and thus Bormann understood his task thoroughly, governing the Reich via teleprinter, telegraph, radio, and telephone from wherever Hitler’s “Führer Headquarters” (de) happened to be. He would rule the VS through the Gau, Kreis (county), and Ortsgruppenleiters (town leaders).
- In Bormann’s mind, the VS would fight like the sturdy Japanese in the Pacific: to the last man, bullet, and breath. The nature of Bormann’s vision for the VS was unity overall, Party control, and formations based on the members’ place of residence. The last factor was all important in his view, as he believed that it was critical to the fighting success of the VS as a combat unit that would be called into action when the enemy arrived at the edges of their towns and cities, most of which had been officially declared “fortresses” (de) by the Führer anyway. The Führer Decree of September 25 gave the Gauleiters the power to organize the VS in their domains, which included more than 800 counties in the Reich proper. The average age of those who served (the national oath-taking was conducted on November 12, 1944) was between 45 and 52, and Bormann refused to call up German women, unlike the Soviets. Of those men who were called up, most were white-collar workers, unaccustomed to the harsh life of a soldier in the field. On November 27, 1944, Himmler took command of Army Group Upper Rhine, thus making him Bormann’s first serious rival for power, as both wanted to succeed Hitler as Führer. Each reasoned that if they were able to win the war for Germany, they would accede to the mantle, and there was, indeed, some logic in their positions. As it turned out, Himmler’s tenure as commander was brief, as he proved to be completely incompetent in the position.
- Even though Bormann irritated Himmler by referring to the units as “my VS”, it was a top SS man—General Gottlob Berger—who was chief of staff of the Volkssturm and who reported directly to Himmler, not Bormann. Indeed, it was Berger who announced that the VS would be trained and ready for combat against the Russians and Western Allies no later than March 31, 1945. In training, Berger wanted individual rifle marksmanship stressed for the civilian warriors, while Bormann opted instead for small antitank weapons with which to defeat the masses of Russian T-34s and American M-4 Sherman tanks. In the end, Bormann prevailed, and in this instance his view was militarily sound as events were to prove, especially in the defense of Berlin and other German cities. The citizen-soldiers trained on weeknights and for six hours on Sundays, and what rifle training was provided was given by SA Chief of Staff Wilhelm Schepmann’s brownshirted Stormtroopers. Schepmann had wanted a real wartime role for the SA ever since 1939, and he saw the VS as a way of achieving it at the expense of the (its hated rival since 1934), the Party, and the German Army (which it had wanted to replace as early as 1930). Hitler and Bormann, too, saw this danger, and they were not about to let Schepmann achieve an ambition that had eluded the murdered SA leader Captain Ernst Röhm in the Blood Purge of June 30-July 2, 1934. Thus, Schepmann would be allowed to arm and train the VS but not lead it. Nor would Dr. Josef Goebbels in his capacity as Hitler’s appointed Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War. Despite the famous wartime newsreels of the leather-coated propaganda minister reviewing VS troops passing on parade, his role with the Volkssturm was really quite minimal, except for exhorting them to fight for Berlin, of which he was Gauleiter.
- Then there was the National Socialist Motor Corps led by Erwin Kraus that provided courier motorcyclists and truck drivers to transport the VS men to their sites, as well as units of the NSFK. It seemed that every Party organization wanted its finger in the VS pie, and for a very simple reason, then and now still incomprehensible to those in the West: the Nazis believed that the war could still be won! [...] The citizen-soldiers of the Third Reich—indoctrinated as true believers—would also be fighting for their own homes and families on German soil, and the threat from the East also induced in the Germans of East Prussia the very real fear of Red Army retaliation [...] As one historian put it, “Wars were winner-take-all affairs.” [...] negotiations equaled weakness and surrender. In this respect, Hitler, Bormann, and Goebbels were far more “Nazi” than either or both Himmler and Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, who in the end in 1945 wanted to treat with the enemy. Thus, especially after the failure of the July 20 assassination attempt—when, in their eyes, the traitors had been unmasked [...]. It is significant to note that more people in Europe died after July 20, 1944, than in all of the five years of war before it. [...] Ironically, too, as the German armies retreated—and this included the battered Waffen SS as well—so, too, did the power of the Party increase within the borders of the pre-1939 Greater German Reich; thus, as Himmler lost power, Bormann gained it. By the spring of 1945, Himmler ceased to be a real factor in VS power struggles and was replaced in these battles by Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, who was working hand in glove with the German armed forces—mainly the Regular Army—to prevent the Führer’s decreed “scorched earth” policies designed to make the Third Reich an industrial wasteland of no use to any conquering army.
- Speer—unlike hardliners Himmler and Göring—was not a true Nazi in the Hitler-Goebbels-Bormann mold and saw for himself a role as the rebuilder of the Fourth Reich under the auspices of the Western Allies at least. In the end, however, Bormann’s concept of the Volkssturm was undone by the very people he wanted to protect it from the most, and from whom he expected the least danger—the officers and men of the German Army in whose sphere of operations the individual VS units fell. The primary reason for this was that the Party simply could not and did not supply the VS with the weapons, uniforms, and supplies that it needed, while the regular military most often did. Wherever the VS and the military worked well together, the morale was good, absenteeism down, discipline maintained, and training heightened. Thus, much to his chagrin, Bormann was faced with a situation in which the Army delivered where the Party had failed. The reason for this, too, was that—unlike the higher ranks of the officer corps, which was, by and large, monarchist in belief and background—the lower ranking officers and most enlisted men were Nazis to the core. To them, the attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944, was a disgrace to the good name of Germany. Indeed, the Army was intimately involved with the Volkssturm from its very beginning. It was the Army that provided both the Panzerfaust (a shoulder-fired rocket similar to the U.S. “bazooka”) and Panzerschreck (“Terror of the Tanks”) antitank weapons that stopped many an enemy tank in its tracks. In the end, the Panzerfausts were the only weapons that were available to the VS in abundant supply for combat.
- One fear that all VS men shared was that, without uniforms, they would simply be shot out of hand by the enemy for being partisans or terrorists behind the lines, particularly if they were confused with Dr. Ley’s proposed postwar Werewolf organization. They also disliked the Party’s brown uniforms, as they feared that Red Army troops would be more likely to kill them and refuse to take them prisoner. Some even served in civilian clothes, overcoats, and hats, with but a Volkssturm armband and a pay book to identify them officially as Volkssturm men. Negotiations were conducted with the Western Allies to recognize the VS as true combatants, and these were successful, but not, significantly, with the Soviets. In combat in the East, the VS formations were at the disposal of Guderian (again, ironically), and here they gave a good account of themselves, even halting the Red Army advance at Gumbinnen in East Prussia late in 1944 and elsewhere, but in the West they gave up at places like Remagen when they saw the German Army retreat as well. Here, they served under Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt, Walther Model, and Albert Kesselring. VS casualty rates were sometimes as high as 70 to 80 percent, while other units panicked and fled. In the East, some 650,000 VS men saw action, but when Party officials fled at the approach of the Red Army, so did the VS. When the Army left the VS as rearguard units, not too surprisingly, they returned to their homes rather than die in this manner. In the West, some 150,000 VS men served and had helped to man the West Wall fortifications, as well as hold the Upper Rhine, but in the end, the VS had not achieved Himmler’s or Bormann’s goal. It is estimated that a million VS “troops” were taken prisoner by war’s end, and thousands more were killed and wounded.
Structure and command
- 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 (the "local chapter" of the NSDAP)
- 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)
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.
- 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. – Order issued by Adolf Hitler towards the end of 1944
In April 1945 the Panzerjagdeinheiten of Army Group Center were all put under the command of Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Groß-Zauche und Camminetz, this included Panzerjagdverbände A, B and C, the Heeres-Panzerjagdbrigaden 1 and 3, two Volkssturm-Panzerjagdbrigaden and the Panzerjagdbrigaden Niederschlesien (Lower Silesia) and Free Ukrainians. Strachwitz deployed his men in small combat groups, sometimes operating behind enemy lines, which lured enemy tanks into traps and attacked them with Panzerfaust's.
In April 1945, August Heißmeyer was given command of Battle Group (Kampfgruppe) Heißmeyer, a collection of Volkssturm (de) and Hitlerjugend tasked with protecting the Spandau airfield during the Battle of Berlin.
The Volkssturm was a a legal militia, not a partisan army; an armband with the inscription “Deutscher Volkssturm – Wehrmacht” identified its members as combatants, even if they fought in Hitler Youth uniforms or in civilian clothes. In the confusion at the end of the war it can be assumed that the armband could not always be distributed.
- Bataillonsführer: Battalion leader (Major)
- Bataillonsarzt: Battalion Physician (Captain; German: Stabsarzt; collar tabs as Kompanieführer with Rod of Asclepius)
- Kompanieführer: Company leader (Captain)
- Zugführer: Platoon leader (Lieutenant)
- Sanitätsdienstgrad: [Platoon] Medical Orderly (Corporal)
- Gruppenführer: Squad leader (Corporal)
- Volkssturmmann: People's Storm/Assault Man (Private)
Recipients of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Five members of the Volkssturm were awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross:
- Jakob Hoffend (1901–1946): Führer (Hauptmann/Major) eines Volkssturm-Bataillons und Feuerwerker sowie Bombenräumer im Luftgau VI Köln, 7.2.1945
- Wilhelm Sitt (1899–1945): Führer (Hauptmann/Major) eines Volkssturm-Bataillons in Köln und Sprengmeister der Polizei, 7.2.1945
- Ernst Tiburzy (1911–2004): Führer (Hauptmann/Major) des Volkssturm-Bataillons 25/82 in der Festung Königsberg, 10.2.1945
- for his gallantry fighting alone and the destruction of five Soviet T-34 tanks with Panzerfausts
- Otto Herzog (1900–1945): Führer der Volkssturm-Einheiten in der Festung Breslau und SA-Obergruppenführer, 15.4.1945
- Karl Pakebusch (1888–1967): Führer (Hauptmann/Major) eines Volkssturm-Bataillons in Berlin-Wedding, 27.4.1945
- The German Volkssturm, in "Intelligence Bulletin", February 1945
- David K. Yelton: Hitler's Volkssturm – The Nazi Militia and the Fall of Germany 1944–1945, 2002
- Hans Kissel: Hitler's Last Levy – The Volkssturm 1944-45, Helion & Company, 2005
- Veit Scherzer: Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives (in German), Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag, Jena 2007, ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2
- The Volkssturm: Last-Ditch Militia of the Third Reich, warfarehistorynetwork.com, Spring 2013