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Hitler's Foreign Legions: Volunteer Units on the Eastern Front


Within the borders of the Third Reich, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, led by Joseph Goebbels, painted the country’s war against the Soviet Union as one of annihilation. The overarching goal of Operation Barbarossa was the complete destruction of “Jewish-Bolshevism” and “Asiatic-Barbarism” as well as the conquest of Slavic lands for use as German living space [1]. The racial and ideological basis for the war was best captured in the Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order, signed by Chief of the Wehrmacht High Command Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel on 13 May 1941, just over a month before the invasion was to begin. It specified that the goal of the war was the destruction of the Soviet Union and to reach this goal, it exempted soldiers from punishment if they committed acts of violence against the civilian population or Soviet prisoners of war [2].

On the international stage, however, Nazi rhetoric regarding the war was much different. In an attempt to gain allies for their war against the Soviets, the Germans played on the anti-communist sentiments of Western and Eastern Europe rather than continuing their use of racially charged propaganda. According to historian Jurgen Forster, after 22 June 1941, the day of their invasion, Nazi propagandists began to present Operation Barbarossa as a “European Crusade against Bolshevism” as well as a “pan European War of Liberation”[3]. This propaganda, in turn, attracted to the German armed forces anti-communist volunteers from numerous European countries including Spain, Belgium, France, and Croatia.

While Francisco Franco’s Spain was unwilling to join the war as an official German ally, the largest volunteer unit did come from the country. Due to an overwhelming anti-communist sentiment in the fascist country, the number of volunteers vastly exceeded the Spanish government’s expectations. Over 18,000 men volunteered and were grouped into what became known as the “Blue Division”(pictured below). Nearly two-thirds of the formation was made up of volunteers from the regular Spanish army while the remainder were mainly members of Franco’s fascist paramilitary, the Falange [4]. When incorporated into the Wehrmacht, they became the 250th German Infantry Division, originally assigned to Army Group Centre. However, once it arrived at the Eastern Front, many German generals in command demanded it be transferred out of their areas of operations, assessing the division as incapable of offensive operations. In August 1942, the Blue Division was transferred to Army Group North just as it was closing in on the Soviet city of Leningrad. As the German attack turned into a siege of the city, the division was tasked with defending the southeastern flank of the siege. It was here, that it would have its defining moment of the war. In February 1943, the division held off repeated counter attacks to relieve the city by the Soviet 55th Army, a formation seven times its size and supported by armor. For this and earlier defensive efforts, the division and its commander were awarded the Iron Cross, First Class by Adolf Hitler [5].

By contrast, occupied Belgium produced for the Wehrmacht only 850 volunteers, enough for a battalion strength formation, known as the Walloon Legion. Leon Degralle, one of the legionaries, remarked, illustrating the influence of Nazi propaganda, that he and his comrades formed the legion to defend “the West and the common European fatherland against Bolshevism” [6]. The Walloon Legion was assigned to the German 97th Infantry Division and fought on the Southeastern flank of the Eastern front. For the Belgians, however, fighting in the frigid Soviet winter was not the adventure nor the glorious defense against communism many hoped. Morale fell and ill-discipline prevailed. In December 1941, the Soviets broke through the 97th Division’s sector numerous times and the Walloon Legion was pulled off the line. Reorganized as the Walloon 373rd Infantry Battalion, the legion underwent intense disciplinary and tactical training. But the Walloons were far more interested in politics than fighting, with their leaders making speeches in January 1942 advocating the creation of a National Socialist Belgium and emphasizing the Germanic heritage of the Belgians [7]. Many of the legionaries ended up transferring to the Waffen SS, the military wing of the Nazi Party’s ideological vanguard.

Under the guidance of the Vichy government, France offered the Germans more volunteers than the Belgians, but they were less militarily useful. French collaborationists formed the Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism (LVF) and stated their aims as “participation in the crusade against Bolshevism, French representation on the Eastern Front, and the defense of European civilization” [8]. Like, the Belgians, the LVF’s objectives illustrated the effect of Nazi propaganda on fascist sympathizers in other European countries. They bought into the German attempt to make the war on the Eastern Front into an ideological struggle against communism. Eventually, the LVF gathered enough volunteers to become a regiment sized formation and was incorporated into the Wehrmacht as the (French) 638th Infantry Regiment, part of Army Group South’s Order of Battle [9]. It was, however, considered by the Germans to be full of adventurers and “not yet ready to be deployed” by December 1941. Furthermore, the Germans were disappointed that the division was missing what they called “pure idealists” who supported the Nazi cause [10]. As a result, the High Command ordered the regiment to be retrained and molded into a militarily viable formation. Even with its training, the regiment did little more than guard rear areas and occasionally took part in anti-partisan activities.

Along with Western Europe, volunteer units were also furnished by countries in the South East of Europe, namely Croatia. Ante Pavelić, fascist dictator and head of the country, promised Hitler in 1941 that the Croats were ready to send volunteer formations “to fight shoulder to shoulder with their German comrades against the Bolshevik enemy” [11]. While officially called the Reinforced 369th Croatian Infantry Regiment, the unit was given the nickname the Croatian Legion. Initially deemed by the Germans to have undergone inadequate training, the Legion was not deployed to the front until December 1941, where according to German reports it acquitted itself quite well, though the German commanders felt the Croat infantry officers lacked initiative and leadership ability [12]. The regiment saw its fiercest fighting during the Battle of Stalingrad. In December 1942, the Legion was locked in heavy fighting with the Red Army for the city’s Krasny Oktyabr Steel Factory, known to the attackers as the “Red Factory.” Located on a hill, it was a strong position for the Soviet defenders and the Legion’s attacks resulted in the loss of nearly a third of its men. Once the Red Army counterattacked and surrounded Stalingrad in 1943, whatever remained of the Legion was airlifted by the Luftwaffe or taken prisoner by the Soviets. The POWs were marched to labor camps in Siberia from which few would return.

Overall, the foreign volunteers to the Wehrmacht were not overwhelmingly successful from a military point of view. While some, like the Spanish Blue Division and the Croatian Legion, showed themselves to be fierce fighters, most were relegated to defensive actions or security detail. The number of volunteers did, however, show the effectiveness of German propaganda. The Nazi Regime’s own war aims were the annihilation of Bolshevism, Judaism, and the Slavic races but by painting the war as a European crusade against communism, they were able to attract anti-communists as well as fascist sympathizers to their cause.

References

[1] See Jurgen Forster, “Operation Barbarossa as a War of Conquest and Annihilation,” in Germany and the Second World War, IV, ed. Research Institute for Military History Potsdam, Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 481.

[2] Ibid., 496

[3] Jurgen Forster, “Volunteers for the ‘European Crusade against Bolshevism,’” in Germany and the Second World War, IV, ed. Research Institute for Military History Potsdam, Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1049.

[4] Ibid., 1054

[5] Ibid., 1056

[6] Ibid., 1064

[7] Ibid., 1067

[8] Ibid., 1059

[9] Ibid., 1062

[10] Ibid., 1063

[11 Ibid., 1067

[12] Ibid., 1069

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