Thus, especially after the failure of the July 20 assassination attempt—when, in their eyes, the traitors had been unmasked—the Nazis wanted to renew—not end—the fighting. 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.
To the Nazis, the VS was both a valid and rational response to the events of 1944-1945, just as the rise of the Party itself had been to the fall of Imperial Germany in 1918-1920. Indeed, if anyone’s morale would collapse, it would be that of the Allies, not the German people led by the Nazi Party under Hitler.
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.
The Volkssturm’s Ties to the Wehrmacht
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.
Recognizing the VS as a Legitimate Fighting Force
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.
The VS in Combat
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 Nazi 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.
True, the Volkssturm was a legal militia, not partisan guerrillas, but the Nazis were simply wrong about both their People’s Militia’s motivation and desire to fight to the bitter end, and also their enemies’ sense of moral outrage against Nazism and determination to totally defeat the Third Reich—no matter how long it took or at what cost.
This article by Blaine Taylor originally appeared on the Warfare History Network. This piece was first featured in July 2018 and is being republished due to reader's interest.
Image: Volkssturm soldiers with Panzerfausts in Berlin, 10 March 1945. German Federal Archives.