Saturday, April 05, 2008

BOOK: Perry Biddiscombe, "Werwolf!"

Perry Biddiscombe: Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialis Guerrilla Movement 1944–1946. University of Toronto Press, 1998. 0802008623. xi + 455 pp.

Werwolf was the Nazi effort, in the last years of the WW2 (and immediately afterwards), to conduct guerrilla warfare activities in the areas no longer under Nazi control. It wasn't particularly successful, which is probably why one doesn't hear about it all that much nowadays. Anyway, I was curious to learn more about Werwolf, and when I saw that a whole book has been written about it, I eventually ordered it from amazon and read it.

It's a good and thorough book, and I have no real complaints about it. I did, however, find that I'm not really that interested in Werwolf — the book is fairly detailed, and most of the time I didn't really find it all that interesting to read. But if I disregard the things that I wasn't interested in, such as about details of its bureaucratic organization or specific Werwolf operations in this or that part of Germany, there still remain a lot of interesting things that I did learn from this book.

The Werwolf wasn't a particularly strong movement, nor all that well organized. This is due to several reasons. First of all, suggesting that a movement such as this should be organized means that you consider it likely that at least some German territory will become occupied by the enemy at some future point, at least temporarily. Few people in Nazi Germany dared to suggest this as it might get them prosecuted for defeatism. In 1944, when the German situation in the war finally got bad enough that they started setting it up, it was already getting a bit late. The new organization didn't have any sufficiently influential backers to compete for resources and recruits with other institutions such as the army, the SS, or the Volkssturm.

Another reason is in the way that German leaders tended to think of guerrilla movements. They mostly saw them as something that exists in addition to a regular army and helps it (p. 277), and as a result the Werwolf wasn't set up in a way that would focus on its survival after the complete collapse of Nazi Germany.

Additionally, for a guerrilla movement to function, it needs some support from the local civillian population, and in many parts of Germany this support was rather lacking (p. 71). After Germany had been occupied by the allies, any guerrilla activity would just make the allied occupation harsher, cause reprisals etc. Many Germans just wanted to get along somehow with the occupiers and weren't happy to see the ‘werewolves’ destabilizing the situation. Nor were matters helped by the fact that the Werwolf's targets were often not just allied occupiers but also Germans who hanged out white flags or accepted administrative positions under the allied administration. In some parts of Austria the locals took active steps to neutralize the Nazi guerrillas and make sure that the area would come under allied occupation with a minimum of fuss (pp. 183–4).

But perhaps most importantly, a guerrilla movement needs hope in its eventual success, and after the end of the war it soon became clear to more or less everyone that there weren't any chances of resurrecting the Nazi regime, so there wasn't much point in prolonging any guerrilla activity (p. 280).

“Hitler and his cohorts had confidently assumed they were building a state to last a millennium; no preparations were made for defeat [. . .] the party was woefully unprepared for defeat, either organizationally or psychologically” (pp. 133–4).


It's interesting how things repeat themselves. The Germans, when setting up their Werwolf organization, studied various anti-German partisan movements that had been active during the war (pp. 12–13). The allies, when trying to suppress Werwolf after they had occupied Germany, studied how Germans had suppressed those movements during the war (p. 257).

Many members of Werwolf were teenagers, people who had been too young to be drafted into the army but had spent their entire lives under the pressure of Nazi propaganda, so they were perhaps one of the few remaining groups in which the dying regime could find a few fanatical defenders (pp. 68–9). For many, “Werwolf warware was a kind of extended rebellion” against their parents (p. 72). Thus many a youngster in a Werwolf uniform may have been just a somewhat psychologically scarred child or adolescent, which sometimes led to funny situations: “in Halle, an elderly woman disarmed two sixteen-year-old Werewolves, stripped them of their uniforms and clad them in bathrobes, and then buried their bazookas in her backyard” (pp. 71–72). “At Minden [. . .] young HJ-Werewolves emerged on the rooftops at night, whence they disturbed the sleep of British soldiers by howling.” (P. 75.)

In the spring of 1945, the “drowning regime also arranged the ruination of the nation's cultural treasures” to match “the destruction of the material basis of the Reich” (p. 43); in compliance with this, “teenage fanatics” blew up a large cache of artwork from the Berlin Museum (p. 44).

In some instances, Werwolf leaders used the government's money to set themselves up as businessmen in order to have a basis for their organization's postwar activities (pp. 80–81). But this sometimes assumed a rather hilarious aspect: “Lohel and company wasted their time with amateurish plans to support subversive activity through bee-keeping, selling hand-made crafts, and running a travelling puppet show” (p. 82).

Hypocrisy is always amusing. When the war started going really badly for them, the Nazis started organizing their civilians into the Volkssturm militia organization, and soon became worried that the allies would regard the Volkssturm as irregular partisans to whom various humane requirements of the Hague conventions need not apply — this, of course, is the same position that the Nazis had taken regarding the anti-German partisan movements in the areas they had occupied during the war. Anyway, as the Volkssturm was being set up, Nazi propaganda promptly started to emphasize that it would be a disciplined formation, not a partisan movement; and “the Germans were also careful to apply the Hague Convention to members of the Polish Home Army captured in the Warsaw Uprising, and they became increasingly lenient with prisoners taken from Yugoslav Partisan formations [. . .] German units in action against guerrillas were told to stop describing the enemy with pejorative expressions” (p. 120).

Werwolf also had a radio broadcasting station, which was more or less entirely under Goebbels' control. “[T]he Propaganda Ministry admitted in mid-April [1945] that ‘we know little or nothing of what is happening in these [occupied] areas,’ [. . .] Goebbels himself was the first to admit, at least privately, that Werwolf Radio's output was not actually the news, but ‘the news as it should be.’ In fact, the propaganda minister personally dictated many of the station's fictional reports” (p. 140). “Goebbels himself wrote much wild-eyed copy for the station”, which “far surpassed the regular propaganda in which Goebbels's authorship was openly acknowledged. This was a great psychological release for the propaganda minister who, after being muzzled since 1934, was finally able to vent his own brand of leftist extremis.” (P. 141.) “In line with Goebbels's opinions, Werwolf radio found the war almost immaterial compared with the fact that a pan-European, anti-bourgeois revolution was under way.” (P. 142.) “Only Werwolf Radio had sufficient gall to refer to the situation in April 1945 as a ‘victory.’ ” (P. 143.)

In early 1945, the Nazis made some not very effectual efforts to establish ‘redoubts’ in the Alps. “[T]he Alps were overrun by an influx of military and civilian bureaucrats — which the Bavarians and Austrians called contemptuously ‘the northern invasion’ [. . .] ‘I never knew there were so many staffs and so few fighting troops,’ noted a bewildered gas-station attendant” (p. 180). This reminds me of a rumour I've heard about Chiang Kai-shek, namely that when his army finally retreated to Taiwan after losing the mainland to the communists, it had more generals than ordinary soldiers :)

After the war was over, the few Werwolf guerrillas and similar characters who hadn't yet been mopped up by the allied forces quickly tended to lose interest in active guerrilla fighting, and were mostly content to just try to avoid getting caught. “The Carinthian hills were also a temporary home to a polyglot assortment of Axis collaborators and allies, most of them seeking to escape vengeful pursuers back in their homelands [. . .] Many such bands were mounted, and the damage done to pasture meadows by their horses was a considerable factor hindering recovery of the economy in rural areas of southern Austria.” The allied “anti-partisan patrols rarely found themselves involved in gunplay. ‘In the summer weather,’ remembered one British officer, ‘[such forays were] more of a pleasure than a business,’ and they provided endless opportunities for sightseeing and hunting.” (Pp. 189–90.)

In some areas, the Werwolf also dabbled in poisoning, e.g. leaving poisoned drink in locations where Soviet soldiers would find it; they carefully selected a poison with a delayed effect, to make sure that a number of enemy soldiers would drink it before anybody became suspicious about it (p. 211).

The author lists many instances where the allies treated Germans, either civilians or Volkssturm and Werwolf members, rather more harshly than I can really approve of. See e.g. p. 161 and the whole of chapter 7. The British seem to have been the most gentlemanly of the four major allied powers (p. 257); the Americans and the French were significantly harsher, and the Soviets were absolutely infamous (“when the Red Army slashed its way across the frontiers of eastern Germany, its personnel were overtaken by a frenzy of bloodlust and a savage craving for destruction”, p. 269). Also fairly disagreeable were the policies of the Czech authorities in the Sudetenland after they resumed control of the area in 1945, and which eventually led to the wholesale expulsion of the German minority from the country (pp. 226–244). But, of course, I cannot really blame the Czechs for that; if little else, although this sort of expulsion would of course be unacceptable nowadays, I'm glad that they (the Czechs, Poles, etc.) took this opportunity to do it back then when it was still possible, otherwise there'd still be all these German minorities all over central and eastern Europe, and it would hardly be reasonable to expect them to ever assimilate.

On p. 231 there's a very interesting paragraph about “the experience of an SS counter-insurgency company, which was stranded at Reichenberg, some 200 miles behind Soviet lines. [. . .] the SS and some German Army dissidents decided to launch a desperate trek to the west. After a final battle with a nearby Soviet unit, the SS group destroyed their tanks and artillery, and resolved to break through by using only their light weapons. Seven weeks of fighting and walking followed. In the course of this odyssey, the SS company plundered a Czech village, liberated more than twenty German POWs from a forced-labour detail, wiped out four Soviet and Czech patrols who had the misfortune to cross their path, and overran numerous enemy checkpoints and blockades. At the height of the summer, they finally reached the Bavarian Forest, where they quickly captured several members of an American patrol, and then just as quickly released them. After a final bivouac near Cham, the group broke up, with each member resolved to reach home on his own. There were only 42 survivors from a band that originally numbered 360.” This is quite an amazing story, enough so that I decided to look at the endnotes to see where he'd picked it up from (this book is very thoroughly documented, but most of the endnotes are quite boring and I didn't try to read all of them). Well, he cites “George Elford, Devil's Guard (New York 1988), 15–48” (p. 389, n. 88). This seems to be quite a fascinating book; see its wikipedia page; but there seem to be very serious concerns about how much of it is fact and not just fiction; see also this article. I'm surprised that an otherwise carefully documented work of history such as this one casually cites a suspect book such as the Devil's Guard without any comments as to its reliability. But anyway, I'm not complaining — I'm glad that this fascinating title has been brought to my notice.


  • Hermann Löns: Der Wehrwolf (1910), “a romantic saga about seventeenth-century guerrillas on the Lüneburg Heath” [. . .] “the basic book of the folkish movement, and its sales were rivalled only by Hitler's Mein Kampf” (p. 13). It seems to have been translated into English as Harm Wulf (Minton, Balch & Company, New York, 1931).

  • G. R. Elford: Devil's Guard. Mentioned here on p. 231 (see above). This book was first published in 1971 in hardcover (NY: Delacorte), and reprinted by Dell several times in paperback, one printing as late as 1988. Anyway, since then there has apparently been so much interest in the book that these twenty-year old mass-market paperbacks cost absolutely ghastly sums on ABE — well over $100. I'm surprised that the book doesn't get reprinted again and again if there's so much interest in it. In 2002 there was another printing by Hailer Publishing, but this also seems to be out of print and secondhand copies no cheaper than those of Dell's earlier editions.

    Anyway, I was very lucky to find on eBay a lot of 17 military paperbacks with a buy-it-now price of $14, and it included the Devil's Guard — I guess the seller wasn't aware of how rare and valuable it is, nor has any of the people who are bidding $50–$100 on other Devil's Guard auctions noticed it. I guess they just search through the auction titles, not the descriptions. So, I bought the whole 17-book lot for $14 and asked the seller to just send me the Devil's Guard and keep the other books, to save on shipping costs. It arrived yesterday. I'm so happy — one of the best deals I've ever gotten on eBay.

  • Nikolai Tolstoy: Victims of Yalta (London, 1979). Sounds interesting. Mentioned here on p. 379.

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Anonymous jin said...

'the Germans were also careful to apply the Hague Convention to members of the Polish Home Army captured in the Warsaw Uprising, and they became increasingly lenient with prisoners taken from Yugoslav Partisan formations'

I didn't hear that before. Are there any more quotes or sources for that?

I am interested if there was an insurgency in Sudetenland or not, as Germans were being cleansed. It was after all about their survival.

It suprises me, how some Eastern Europeans fought the Soviet Union for almost a decade after world war, but Germans couldn't mount an effective insurgency.

Friday, April 11, 2008 3:57:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

I didn't hear that before. Are there any more quotes or sources for that?

After "Warsaw uprising", there's an endnote that cites the following sources: Watt, "Wehrwolf or Werwolf", 889; Kissel, "Der detusche Volkssturm", 45, 124-5; Seidler, "Deutscher Volkssturm", 246, 271-2; The Times, 19 Oct. 1944; "Review of the Foreign Press, 1939-1945", Memorandum no. 262, 12 Dec 1944, Series A, IX; The New York Times, 14 Mar. 1945; and a couple of primary sources.

There's also an endnote at the end of the paragraph (a sentence after the end of my quotation), citing Geoffrey Best, "Humanity in Warfare" (London 1980) 239-40.

It isn't obvious to me that any of these citations is specifically related to the treatment of Yugoslavian partisans.

I am interested if there was an insurgency in Sudetenland or not, as Germans were being cleansed.

From Biddiscombe's book, I'm under the impression that there was a moderate amount of sabotage and guerrilla activity, but not at the level where one would consider it a real insurgency. And the Czech army seems to have suppressed any such opposition pretty harshly. Biddiscombe quotes a report from August 1945 on p. 242: "The feeling [in the Sudetenland] resembles a cemetery. The Germans wear white armlets and walk about silently, and even at home they do not dare to speak. It is difficult to imagine that they would still have spirit to offer forcible resistance."

The deportations of the Sudeten Germans seem to have mostly taken place in 1946; "Czech reports from 1946 claimed that overall there had been 314 cases of underground activity in Bohemia" (p. 243), so I guess that the Germans weren't resisting very vigorously.

My impression is that they were simply too overwhelmed to mount an effective resistance.

It suprises me, how some Eastern Europeans fought the Soviet Union for almost a decade after world war,

Well, that's something I haven't heard before :) Can you write some more about this?

but Germans couldn't mount an effective insurgency.

Maybe another reason is that the Sudeten Germans were a much smaller group, and they had just recently been on the losing side of a world war -- maybe that demoralized them.

Friday, April 11, 2008 10:33:00 PM  
Anonymous jin said...

There was resistance in western Ukraine and in the Baltic republics, I am quite sure about that.

This one in Estonia:

'The last recorded Estonian guerrilla committed suicide upon capture in 1978.'

Saturday, April 12, 2008 2:22:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Ah, OK, I'm not so surprised about those. I guess when you referred to "Eastern Europeans [who] fought the Soviet Union", I thought this must mean something that was happening outside the Soviet Union, e.g. in Poland or Czechoslovakia, and I wasn't aware of anything of that sort. But I'm not surprised if there was fighting among those who actually had to become part of the Soviet Union, e.g. in the Ukraine or the Baltic republics.

Saturday, April 12, 2008 2:36:00 PM  

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