One of the toughest questions a historian of World War II has to answer is, “How did the Germans stay in the field so long?” Their plan to conquer the Soviet Union in a single quick campaign in 1941 came to grief in front of Moscow. Their attempt to reboot the campaign in 1942—version 2.0, we might say—was even worse, with an entire field army surrounded and destroyed at Stalingrad. Their last great offensive in the East, at Kursk in 1943, ran into a brick wall, went nowhere, and gave the Soviet army an opening to launch a series of powerful counterblows at Orel and Belgorod that never really stopped until the end of the war in 1945.
As far as the Wehrmacht was concerned, the war was irrevocably lost during those last two years. But apparently the German phrase for “we’ve lost the war” is very different from “we surrender.” So how did the Reich manage to hang tough those last two years, when it was an inferior power fighting a pure war of attrition against vastly superior enemies?
Thanks to Rolf-Dieter Müller, director of Germany’s Military History Research Institute (Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt) in Potsdam, we have at least a partial answer to these questions. In his book The Unknown Eastern Front, Müller rejects most of the commonly accepted views. It wasn’t merely loyalty to Adolf Hitler, he says, or the ideological conditioning of the National Socialist era, or the Wehrmacht’s incredible ability to improvise (the explanation that most military historians put forth).
Rather, he says, it was something much simpler. It was bodies—human beings willing to fight to the death for the cause. But where did those bodies come from? After all, Germany had been outnumbered from the beginning in this war, and there were a finite number of replacements coming from the home country.
Müller has an answer. He argues that it was non-German foreigners who kept the German war going when the Reich’s own human resources no longer sufficed to keep a viable army in the field. These non-German forces ran the gamut. They included entire field armies, like the ones supplied by the Romanians, Hungarians, Italians, and Finns. But they also included smaller volunteer “legions” recruited from occupied countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Baltic states, or formations recruited from enemy prisoners of war, such as the bewildering multinational horde of prisoners taken during the campaign in the Soviet Union: Balts and Georgians, Azeris and Turkmen, and many more. Finally, there were the Hilfswilligen or Hiwis, 100,000s of Soviet “auxiliary volunteers,” who manned much of the Wehrmacht’s logistical network during the vast campaigns in the Soviet Union.
Consider a few numbers. In June 1941, 3,000,000 German soldiers took part in Operation Barbarossa. Alongside them were no fewer than 1,000,000 non-Germans. For the rest of the war, German strength in the East sank to about 2,500,000 (a result of casualties and catastrophic defeats). During that time, the number of foreigners doubled to 2,000,000. The vast majority of this influx consisted of former Soviet soldiers or citizens who were ready (if not eager) to fight alongside the Wehrmacht or to assist it in some way as auxiliaries.
More numbers. The German-Soviet front on June 22nd, 1941 was 2,000 kilometers long; Finnish armies were covering 600 kilometers of that total and the Hungarians and Romanians between them another 600. Together, they allowed the Wehrmacht to treat the greatest military campaign of all time as an “economy of force” operation. As Müller puts it, they allowed the German high command “to concentrate the bulk of its Eastern Army in the central thrust towards Moscow.”
The situation was even more pronounced in 1942. Operation Blue, the offensive towards Stalingrad and into the Caucasus, would have been unthinkable without foreign soldiers. As German spearheads drove towards the Volga and the oil cities of the Caucasus, immensely long flanks developed along the Don river and out on the Kalmyk Steppe. And who was holding those flanks? Hungarian, Italian, and Romanian armies.
They came to grief, of course. As brave as these foreign soldiers were, none of their armies approached the Germans in terms of professionalism, training, or technology. The Germans promised to equip them, but that was a fantasy. The Wehrmacht could barely supply itself, and the foreign allies had to fight without sufficient armor, antitank guns, or air power. Their failure in often impossible situation—the collapse of the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies on the flanks of Stalingrad, for example—led Hitler to blame them for the defeat, and many of his rambling monologues later in the war took the cowardice and racial degeneracy of his allies as a major theme.
But this is a historical injustice, and things would only get worse after the war ended. The postwar world, including both sides in the burgeoning Cold War, would paint these forgotten soldiers with a very broad brush, labeling them all as “collaborators.” It was an ugly word, and anyone unfortunate enough to have fought alongside the Germans knew that a grisly fate awaited him if he were handed back to the Soviets at the end of the war. The NKVD shot them wholesale–just as it shot hundreds of thousands in all the lands it re-occupied.
“Hell yes,” you might say! “Fortunes of war!” They fought for Hitler and they paid the piper. But calling them all collaborators is too simple, since it implies that they were all criminals. While we may identify various motives, most of these soldiers were fighting for some sort of freedom for their homeland. Müller asks a fundamental question. What loyalty did a young man in Estonia, to give one example, owe to the Soviet regime then occupying his country, murdering and deporting thousands of unfortunates for “anti-Soviet” activities? Why would any intelligent person expect him to fight for Stalin?
In the postwar era, the Wehrmacht’s foreign helpers would vanish down the Sta-linist memory hole. They were an embarrassment to a Soviet regime that was selling the notion of the “Great Patriotic War,” in which all Soviet citizens had come together in defense of the homeland, and as a result they simply disappeared in the histories. In point of fact, however, as Müller shows, many millions of Soviet citizens “voted with their feet” during World War II, and they had marched against Stalin.
Whether they deserve respect for that decision is an open question, subject to various interpretations. They may have been silly, trying to win independence by fighting alongside Hitler’s Germany. But let us leave these questions in abeyance for a moment. Don’t these millions of men deserve more attention from students of World War II than they have usually gotten? Müller says yes, and I have to agree.