In the predawn hours of April 24, 1945, SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg received orders from Army Group Vistula defending Berlin to immediately lead the remnants of the 57th Battalion of the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne from its staging area at the SS training camp at Neustrelitz to the German capital.
Krukenberg’s orders called for him to report to the Reich Chancellery for further orders upon arrival in the besieged city. He then awoke Hauptsturmführer Henri Fenet, commander of Sturmbataillon Charlemagne, as the 57th Battalion also was known. Krukenberg instructed Fenet to assemble his men so that Krukenberg could address them. Attired in a gray leather greatcoat, Krukenberg asked for volunteers to go with him to fight the Red Army in Berlin. This would be their last battle.
Although most of the troops wanted to go, just 90 were chosen because there were only a handful of vehicles available to transport them. They set out at 8:30 amin two half-tracks and three heavy trucks. Krukenberg led the convoy along back roads through pine forests where possible to avoid being strafed by marauding Soviet fighters.
Because Soviet forces were blocking the northern entrances into Berlin, the convoy had to take a circuitous route into the bombed-out city. Entering the city from the west, they passed columns of retreating German troops. Some of the retreating Germans taunted them by shouting that they were going the wrong way. Others tapped the sides of their heads to convey that they believed the Charlemagne soldiers were crazy to be heading into battle rather than away from it. The convoy had to navigate its way around barricades and through rubble-choked streets to reach its destination. At 10 pmthe convoy stopped for the night at the Olympiastadion on the east bank of the Havel River in the western section of the city.
While the Charlemagne troops rummaged for refreshments of any sort in a Luftwaffe supply depot, Krukenberg made his way to the Reich Chancellery. He received orders from General of Artillery Helmuth Weidling to take command of Defense Sector C in southeast Berlin. To defend the sector, Krukenberg would have the volunteers of Sturmbataillon Charlemagne, the remnants of two regiments of the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Nordland Division, and whatever other soldiers Weidling’s staff could scrape together.
The Waffen-SS soldiers of the Charlemagne and Nordland Divisions were willing to fight to the death with other troops of the so-called Berlin Garrison, not because they were ardent Nazis, but rather because they were vehemently anti-Bolshevist. Their last stand in the streets of Berlin was made in the face of insurmountable odds against which any sort of victory was utterly impossible.
The foreign Waffen-SS units of Nazi Germany were an outgrowth of the native German Waffen-SS. The Waffen-SS organization has attained near-mythic status in the annals of World War II history. The organization began as part of the Nazi Party’s private security apparatus known as the Schutzstaffel. The soldiers in the unit furnished security at Nazi Party functions.
The SS expanded in the wake of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Shortly afterward, the organization comprised three distinct branches. The first branch was the Allgemeine, or General SS, which oversaw administrative and policing functions. The second branch was SS-Totenkopfverbande, the Death’s Head Units, which operated concentration and extermination camps.
The third branch was the Waffen-SS, meaning Armed SS. This part began as a small armed force loyal only to Hitler. The Waffen-SS later expanded into a major military organization. Although the lines were not always clear between the three branches, it was the Waffen-SS that was equipped for war and eventually deployed for battle.
A dichotomy exists in the popular conception of the Waffen-SS. On one side, they are viewed as criminals who killed prisoners, massacred civilians, and showed little mercy. Indeed, SS troops were guilty of all these behaviors. On the other side, they are seen as modern knights and regarded as patriots who fought for their country against the scourge of Bolshevism. In this sympathetic portrait, they are painted as superbly trained and equipped soldiers who inflicted heavy casualties on their battlefield opponents.
The latter view of the Waffen-SS is flawed for two reasons. First, it endorses Nazi propaganda, which presented SS troops as elite for political and recruiting purposes. Second, most existing first-hand accounts of the Waffen-SS in action were written by SS soldiers. Like many accounts penned by soldiers, there is always the temptation to embellish their achievements. As defeated soldiers serving a criminal regime, their memoirs often seek to justify their service on patriotic grounds or to deny that any atrocious conduct occurred. Many SS veterans worked tirelessly after the war to repair the Waffen-SS’s tarnished reputation. Whatever the individual member’s actions or conduct, the Waffen-SS served a government guilty of extensive and pervasive criminal behavior and, therefore, is forever tainted by that association.
Yet SS lore also omits the fact that many of the men who served in the Waffen-SS were not German citizens. By war’s end, there were numerically more non-Germans serving in the Waffen-SS than natural-born Germans. The Waffen-SS leadership recruited and fielded entire divisions along ethnic lines. In the latter part of World War II, all regular SS divisions had some foreign soldiers assigned to them. Of the 38 Waffen-SS divisions, 21 were raised with non-Germans as their primary personnel.
The entry of foreign citizens into the Waffen-SS began early in the war. The recruitment of volunteers for the Waffen-SS outside the borders of Nazi Germany was part of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler’s dream of a pan-European army for the Third Reich. He conceived as early as 1938 the concept of recruiting men of sufficiently Germanic heritage and blood for the Waffen-SS.
The success of the Wehrmacht in the first years of the war placed this dream within reach. As the Nazis conquered and occupied Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France in 1940, millions of Western Europeans came under their dominion. These were exactly the captive populations Himmler wanted for recruiting his European Waffen-SS.
Himmler assigned SS Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger to assist in this effort. Berger, a decorated World War I veteran, joined the brown-shirted Nazi Party paramilitary organization known as the Sturmabteilung (SA) in 1930. An arrogant and belligerent individual, Berger was roundly disliked by the majority of the SA membership. He transferred to the SS in 1936 and subsequently became its chief of recruitment. An advocate for the addition of foreign volunteers, he played an instrumental role in the expansion of the SS.
After the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939, non-German membership in the Waffen-SS grew in importance. The Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht competed for recruits. The Wehrmacht had an edge in the recruitment race because it could restrict the number of volunteers who could enter the SS.
Berger realized it was going to be difficult to bring in enough replacements to keep the existing SS units at sufficient strength, much less create new formations. At that time, the SS did not have a reserve system like the Wehrmacht’s that funneled new recruits into combat divisions.
The Wehrmacht, though, did not control two groups of potential recruits. One group was the Volksdeutsche. These were individuals of German descent who had settled throughout Europe in the preceding centuries. The Nazis regarded the Volksdeutsche as ethnically German. Their language and culture had German origins, but they were not German citizens.
The other group was composed of individuals who looked Germanic. This group included those of Nordic descent who were Teutonic enough to serve in the military forces of Nazi Germany. This group included Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Dutch, Belgian Flemings, and Swiss from the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland.
Once the Nazis had occupied these countries, it became easier to recruit within their borders. This put Himmler’s dream of an Aryan European army within reach. Although Hitler considered the Third Reich as an entirely German and Austrian endeavor, Himmler thought in terms of ethnicities rather than strict national borders.
Berger moved quickly. The first Waffen-SS recruiting offices in the occupied countries were established in June 1940. Berger had made contact before the war with various right-wing groups throughout Western Europe; this sped the recruiting process. The Waffen-SS soon had offices in Oslo, Copenhagen, Antwerp, and The Hague. Since Sweden and Switzerland were officially neutral, German embassies in those nations worked quietly with right-wing groups to gather recruits.
Berger’s optimism for the rapid creation of a multinational Waffen-SS was soon dashed. Few men appeared at the recruiting stations. Those who did show up were often treated as collaborators by their countrymen. They had different motivations for volunteering. Some were dedicated Nazi sympathizers or simply Germanophiles. They wanted to join the seemingly unstoppable Nazi juggernaut. Others enlisted for more mundane reasons, such as to escape poverty. For the impoverished, the Waffen-SS offered the promise of warm barracks and hot meals.
It was a myth that all SS men were volunteers. Recruiters deliberately misled some enlistees regarding what they would be doing. For example, a group of Danish men were told that they were going to Germany to participate in political and athletic training. Similarly, 500 Flemish factory workers employed by the Germans in northern France volunteered for work in Poland under the pretense of higher pay. These men discovered upon arrival that they had been whisked into the Waffen-SS.