** war and social upheaval : World War II German military organization

World War II: German Military Organizations

Figure 1.--These youthful Luftwaffe recruits are swearing a personal oath of loyalty to Führer Adolf Hitler. This was an arangement the military reached with Hitler after the Night of the Long Knives (1934). The photograph is not dated. We would guess it was taken about 1939. I'm not sure what the flag is. It may be a unit standard.

The Army (Heer) or Wehremacht was Germany's dominant military force, as was the case throughtout German history. The Army high command made a pact with Adolf Hitler (1934). Hitler agreed to eliminate the SA as a threat to the Wehrmact and ordered the execultion of Roehm and other close associates. The Wehrmact swore a loyalty oath to Hitler--not to the German nation but to Hitler. In return for their loyalyty they were the beneficiaries of a huge rearmament ptogram in contravention of the Versailles Treaty. The Army had managed to evade many Versailles restrictions and when Hitler came to power the Versailles restrictions became moot and Germany began ro rearm. The dimensions of the rearmament program far outweiged any level of armament needed for defense. It was patently clear to the Wehrmact general staff that Hitler meant to wage aggressive war. The Wehrmact developed the battle doctrine of Blitzkrieg which in essence is the basic concept of modern warfare. The Versailles Treaty prohibited Germany from having an airforce. Hiter ordered Göring to formally establish the Luftwaffe (1935). In the years right before the War and the early phase of the War, the Luftwaffe played a major role. The new Luftwaffe was staffed by Wehrmacht officers and througout the War was primrily a ground support force. Hitler gave relatively little attention to the Navy and even less to the U-boat fleet. The NAZIs signed a naval treaty with Britain that removed many of the Versailles limitations (1935). Ironically, it was the Navy after defeats in Russia and North Africa and in the skies over Europe that by early 1943 offered the NAZIs the last chance for victory.

The Wehrmacht

The German armed forces during World War II was the Wehrmacht, literally 'make war'. The heart and soul of the Wehrmacht was the Heer, the German army. The Heer was the senior service and so dominated the Wehrmact that the two terms are often used interchangaeably. The Heer from the birth of Prussia was strongly associated with the state. The erly German successes were ground campaigns fought and won primarily by the Heer. The other two services were the Luftwaffee (air force) and Kriegsmarine (navy). The Luftwaffe was a creature of the Heer. As it was only formed in 1935, its leadership was drawn from the Heer and it was created as a tactical air force to provide close ground support. The only independent campaign conducted by the Luftwaffe was the Battle of Britain in which it failed. The Kreigsmarine fought a largely independent war. Only in Norway did the Kreigsmarine fight a campaign in close association with the Heer and Luftwaffe. The Kriegsmarine primary effort was the Battle of the Atlantic to cut Britain off from America and the Dominions. The German war effort was conducted by the Wehrmacht High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht--OKW) with which as the war progressed, Hitler increasingly interfered. OKW controled qll German military forces with the exception of the Waffen-SS. OKW had tactical control, but not actual command of the Waffen-SS which Hitler and Himmler personally commanded. At the very end of the War, Hitler's feekling of betrayal by the Heer was reflected in his choice of Admiral Dönitz to replace him.

The Heer

The high command of the Army (Heer) made a pact with Adolf Hitler (1934). Hitler agreed to eliminate the SA as a threat to the Heer and ordered the execultion of R�hm and other close associates. The Wehrmact swore a loyalty oath to Hitler--not to the German nation but to Hitler. In return for their loyalyty they were the beneficiaries of a huge rearmament ptogram in contravention of the Versailles Treaty. The dimensions of the rearmament program far outweiged any level of armament needed for defense. It was patently clear to the Heer general staff that Hitler mean to wage aggressive war. This essentially made the Wehrmacht a criminal enterprise committed to waging aggressive war. In addition, there is a tendency in Germany today to draw a destinct line between the Wehrmacht and the SD-SS which carried out the most horrendous attrocities. In the field, especially in the East, this line was much less well defined. Heer units were involved in major attrocities and carried out orders from the high command concerning the execution of Jews and Communist Party members. The Heer was also involved in many reprisal actions against civilians. The ordinary German soldiers were not all or even mostly war criminals. The Wehrmact was a conscript army. And with any conscript army had the same level and range of behavior as the population in general. That said, many of the conscript soldiers had been members of the Hitler Youth and NAZI education system which prepared the ground work for jusifying horendous acts against whole classes of people,

The Luftwaffe

The Germans during World War I created an air arm during World War I (1914-18). The airplane was first used in any significant way in World war I. It played a useful, but marginal role. The Allies were able to outproduce the Germans, but both side made important technological strides. The German air ace the Red Baron (von Rictoff) was the most famous pilot of the War. When he was killed, Herman Goering took over command of the the Flying Circus. The German air forces were dissolved after the War, as required by the Treaty of Versailles. Even so the German military continued to develop technology through secret arrangements with foreign countries. German companies built planes in other countries, especially the Netherlands. Glider clubs throughout Germany provided training for future pilots. The operations were expanded when the NAZIs seized control (1933). Soviets and Japanese. Adolt Hiter ordered Göring to formally establish the Luftwaffe (February 26, 1935). The Versailles Treatu was still in force.

The Kriegsmarine

Military forces are designed to project a country's power. Ironically, some powerful military forces can ultimately prove to actually reduce a country's security. The best example here is Kaiser Wilhelm's highseas fleet. Germany in the mid-19th century was seen by Briton's as an ally and France as a security threat. Rhe British royal family was of German origins. Prince Albert himself was German. This view was altered by Kaiser Wilhelm II's aggressive foreign policy and boisterous, eratic behavior. This revised view was confirmed by the Kaiser's decession to build a highseas fleet. The major impact of the fleet was to seek alliances with Russia and France, Germany's historic enenies. The Kaiser's surface fleet played a very minor role in the War. The u-boat became Germany's primary naval weapon, yet the primary achievement of the uboat fleet was to draw Americ into the War, thus ensuring Germany's defeat. The Kregsmarine again played a minor role in World War II. The German surface fleet was a major disappointment to Hitler. The U-boat proved again to be Germany's primary naval threat.

Organization Todt

The Todt Organization was a German construction firm founded by Dr. Fritz Todt. Fritz Todt (1891-1942) was an engineer who an early supporter of Hitler and the NAZIS. The company was organized on aquasi-miltary basis. Todt was rewarded for supporting Hitler with the contract to build the Autobahn, the first modern highway system. The firm also won many military contracts. After the War and early NAZI victories, the Todt Organization dis extensive work in the occupied countries. The largest such project was the Atlantic Wall. The Organization Todt worked on cinstruction projecs in the occupied territories from the northern tip of Norway to France as well as the reconstruction of miles and miles of Russian railways. The men in Organization Todt wore light colored uniforms. We note many young men involved. Todt was killed in am unexplained plane crash (1942). Control of Organization Tidt passed to Minister of Armament Albert Speer. His crews (always dressed in white uniforms) also helped out in emergencies like bomb attacks in the cities and other disasters. A Dutch reader tells us, "I have seen Todt crews in action in occupied Holland, but I am sure that not all of them were Germans because Todt used slave laborers as well." Yes much of the work on the Atlantic Wall was done with slave labor. I don't think the slave labor wore the white uniforms.


Freikorps units were organized in Germany after World War I, mostly from disilusioned right-wing veterans as well as some youths who had been too young to participate in the War. The veterans had made huge sactifices during the war and did not understand how Germany with its martial heritage could have lost the War. They were outraged with the Versaillers Peace Treaty which transferred former German/Austrian territory to neigboring coutries, including the newly crrated countries of Poland and Czechoslovakia. The new German Republic faced many problems after World war I. It was set up at Weimar because the Socilists who dominated the Republic did not think it could be defended in Berlin. One of the problems was the luke warm support from the Germany Army. The Republic faced attacks from Communists wjo tried to seise control. Another problem were areas of Germany whose future were to be decided by plebesite. This was a special problem in the Eat where the new Polish Republic wanted to expand its territory. Polish military units attempted to seize territory. The Allies did not permit the German Army to intervene. The Freikorps were used to both defeat Comminist uprisings and to fight the Poles. Many Freikorps members were hostile to the Weimar Republic, but willing to fight Communists and Poles. The most prominant Freikorps unit was Brigade Ehrhardt. It was the Freikorps that suppressed the Bavarian Communists. Many Freikorps members gravitated to right-wing parties like the NAZIs. Quite a few NAZI luninaries served in the Freikorps, including Seep Dietrich, Hans Frank, Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and many others. Many lesser known Freikorps members gravitated to the the SA. Thus the Freikorps is seen by many as the origin of the Sturmabteilungen (SA)--The NAZI stormtroopers. They certainly played an important role, but the more direct origin was in the right-wing political parties that formed in Germany following the War. \


The Stahlhelm was the popular name was the Bund der Frontsoldaten. Stahlhelm meant 'Steel Helmet'. Bund der Frontsoldaten meant League of Frontline Soldiers. It was one of the most important paramilitary organizations that organized after Germany's defeat in World War I. It was essentially a well organized Freikorps. It was the armed branch of the Deutschnationalen Volkspartei (DNVP). While the Stahlhelm proved popular in right wing cirles, the DNVP was unable to generate much electoral support. The DNVP used it in part as the NAZIs use the SA, to provide security at party rallies. The Germans referred to this function as aarmed Protector of the Hall (Saalschutz). The most important individuals werw Theodor Duesterberg and Franz Seldte. Franz Seldte founded the Stahlhelmat in Magdeburg right fter the War (late-1918). Thec organizations journal was edited by Count Hans-Jürgen von Blumenthal. (Blumenthal was hanged by the NAZIs for his role in the July 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler.) The organization became in the 1920s before the rise of the NAZis, the most mportant nationalistic and anti-Socialist/Weimar groups. The Stahlhelm members were largely monarchists,supporters of the Imperial regime replace by the Weimar Republic. For that reason, the ties with the Reichswehr with its monarchist orientation were stronger than the NAZIs were able to build. Like other right-wing groups, they were anti-Semetic, although not as virulently as the NAZIs. The Reichweher used the Stahlhelm to evade the Versailles Peace Trearty limits of a 100,000 man army. The Stahlhelm has 500,000 members in 1930, larger than both the Reichwehr and the NAZI SA. It was the largest paramilitary organization in Germany. As such it was not ohnly a threat to the Weimar Republic, but to Hitler and the NAZIs. The organization received funding from groups concerned about the Communists and Socialisrts like the Deutsche Herrenklub, the Ostlbien landed gentry, and right-wing entrepreneurs. The Stalhelm essentially outgrew the DNVP. It positioned itself as a nationalist group above party politics. The Stahlhelm , after 1929 assumed an increasingly anti-Weimar and anti-democratic character. The goal was to establish an authoritarian German Government to pursue a Revanchist program aimed at regaining the territory lost in World War I. The Stahlhelm lacked a dynamic leader like Hitler and was less calculating about disguising their willingness to use military action to regain the lost territory, and thus were not sucessful politically. The Stahlhelm joined the Peoples Initiative Against the Young-Plan to oppose the Ameeican-financed Young Plan (1929). The Stahlhelm joined an alliance with the DNVP, NAZIs, and the Alldeutscher Verband to form the Harzburger Front--a right-wing alliance against the Weimar Republic. Theodor Duesterberg was the Stahlhelm presidential elections of 1932. The election was, however, dominated by President Hindenberg and Hitler. Adter the NAZIs seized power (1933), the moved to integrate the Stahlhelm within the NAZI structure. SA units raided the Stahlhelm headquarters in Braunschweig to oput pressure on Seldte. Hitler attempted to buy Seldte off by making him his first Reichsminister for Labor. in Hitlers cabinet. Seldte joined the SA (April 1933). Union with the NAZIS known as Gleichschaltung was finally achieved (1934). The NAZIS renamed the Stahlhelm the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Frontkämpferbund (Federation of the National Socialist Frontline-Fighters). It ws reorganized into the Sturmabteilung (SA) structure. After dealing with the SA in the Night of the Long Knives (1934) and gettingthebacking of the Reichswhr, Hitle was free to deal with the Stahlhelm which he distructed because of the membership's monarchist symathies. He ordered the orgamization disbanded (1935).

The Sturm Abteilung (SA)

The Sturm Abteilung (Storm Section) (SA). was the NAZI Party para-military militia. It grew in size to a force larger than the Reich Wehr, but lacked weapons. SA leader Ernst Roehm was one of Hitler's earliest and closest colleagues. He wanted to create aeople's arm as a vanguard of the National Sociaslist Revolution. The Reichwhr quite right saw it as a dangerous threat. That threat was ennded on the Night of the Long Knives (1934). The SS ubnder Hitler's orders and with the cooperation of the Reichwehr had Roehm and the Sa leadership eliminated. As aesult, the SA did not play an important part in World War II. It was not, however, compkletely absent.

Schutzstaffeln (SS)

The SS was initially organized as a small personal bodyguard forHitler. Under Heinrich Himler it was developed as an elite group strongly enfused with German concepts of Volk and blood (race) and personal loyalty to Hitler. The SS was Hitler's principal tool for carrying out the "Final Sollution". SS ReichFührer-SS in October 1939, following the invasion of Poland, set up a new SS section to deal with deportations and emigration. Himmler was obsessed with Arayanizing occupied Polish terrtories. Himmler had no quams about using force to accomplish this process. Himmler and the SS had considerable experience at killing and brutalized Germans that opposed the NAZIs. Toward Jews and other peoples judged "subhuman," Himmler and the SS felt no compunction to act within the normal rules of civilized behavior. Ironically the SS which crushed the SA with the Reichwehr's assistance came in the final phase of World War the kind of Party army that they had so feared.

The Waffen-SS

The Waffen-SS was the military formations of the Schutzstaffel (SS). Waffen in German means armed. The SS began as a small force and the units which served as the foundation of the Wafen SS were only a small part of the SS. It grew into a powerful force of 38 divisions, comprising the most powerful formations in the German military. Ironically it was SS units which Hitler used to suppress the SA which the army saw as a potential rival--the Night of the Long Knives. The Army in returned pledged their loyalty to Hitler. Ironically, the SS through theWaffen SS wuld itself grow into a potential threat to the Army. The Waffen-SS participated in World War II from the beginning in the invasion of Poland. At that time, the Waffen-SS consisted of only 3 not particularly proficient regiments. While small, it demostrated the savagery for which it became known throughout the War. The attrocities in Poland shicked theWhermacht, including Abwehr Chief Admiral Canaris. The Whermacht arrested some SS officers, but they were pardined by Hitler. After this, SS barbarity was no longer questioned. The growing Wffen-SS served alongside the Wehrmacht Heer units, but was never formally integrated into it. Hitler who dismanteled the SA at the request ofvtghevmilitaru commandrs refused to allow the Waffen-SS to be integrated into theHeer. Hitler himsel had reason to distrust the SA. Under Himmler's leadership, however, the SS and Wafffen-SS became a force that Hitler could completely trust. The Waffen-SS was designed as the armed wing of the party and was to serve as an elite para-military police force after the War. Before the War, the Waffen-SS was administered by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler through the SS Führungshauptamt (SS operational command office). Upon mobilization for War, the SS turned over tactical (but not organizational) control to the Wehrmacht High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht--OKW). The Waffen-SS rapidly increased its military proficency. And along with apauling attricities, its fighting spirit was legendary. Membership in the first Waffen-SS units were subject to the same strict Aryans racial policies of the SS itself. This changed after the outbreak of World War II. Hitler authorized the formation of units composed largely or solely of non-German volunteers and conscripts. At first this was volunteers from Nordic countries (Denmark, Flanders, the Netherlands, and Norway). German reverses forced the SS to significantly widen its recruitment efforts and not only to conscript members, but to to drop the Aryan racial requirement. The SS even formed with the assistance of the Grand Mufti, a Muslim Waffen-SS division in Kosovo-Bosnia. Eventually the Waffen-SS was much less ethnically German than the Wehrmacht. About 60 percent of the Waffen-SS strength was non-German. As Hitler's confidence in the Wehrmacht wained, he focused more on the SS, in part to maintain control over the Wehrmacht. Waffen-SS units were given priority in equipment, eapecially armor, over Wehrmacht units at a time when Germany was having trouble replaving battlefield losses. The Waffen-SS's attrocitiies were mostly committed in the East, but after the D-Day landings, the SS also was involved in shooting Allied POWs in France and Belgium. After the War, the Allies at the International Military Tribunals (Nuremberg Trials) classified the Waffen-SS along with the SSitself as a criminal organization.

The Reichsarbietsdienst (RAD)

Upon graduation at age 18, students joined the German National Labour Service or Reichsarbietsdienst (RAD) where they worked for the government for 6 months. During the Weimar Republic, the Bruning Government in 1931 established work camps to house mostly young men who volunteered for labor service. The program was comparable to the Civilian Construction Corps (CCC) that was later created by the Roosevelt Administration (New Deal) in the United States. The purpose in both instances was to create jobs for unemployed youth as a result of the world-wide Depression. The NAZIs seized power in 1933 and in July 1934 established the RAD. It was expanded and made compulory in 1935. The RAD was the offical state and party labor service providing jobs for unemployeed men. Many boys then joined the military or found jobs until drafted. Others entered university. The RAD undertook the construction of Germany's innovative Autobahn system as well as other roads, land reclamation, drainage projects and soil conservation. The RAD was also helped to construct military fortifications and installations.

Non-German Forces

Hitler and the NAZI leadership as well as OKW after the fall of France thought that the War was won. For Hitler this meant that he could now proceeed with one of his most cherished objectives--thecseizure of Lebenraum in the East. This meant the invasion of the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa was planed as a massive stroke which would destroy the Red Army with one massive stroke, just as Poland, France, and the other occupied countries had been crushed. The Soviet Union proved a much more difficult undertaking. For the first time, massive German casualties were experienced. The Germans after the huge losses before Moscow (December 1941) found themsleves needing to look for additional manpower. Hitler and OKW wanted to in the War with German and Axis allied troops. With the failure of Barbarossa and the huge losses in belame clear to German commanders that they would need help if they were to defeat the Soviet Union. Thus they began to search around for formations to assist them, including popultions they had alienated by barbarou attrocities. These wre not Axis allied forces, but foreigners to serve in the Whermnacht and SS. The Whermcht began receuiting Russian Hiwis (helpers) for non-combat roles, but some were used in combat. The Whemacht also began forming the Russian Liberation Army, Much of this was kept from Hitler who ws furious when he learned the details, especially that Russianswere eing armed. One of the places they looked was amomg Muslims. Here they found willing recruits both in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Both the Wehrmacht and SS formed military units with Muslim recruits. The SS also began forming other non-Germn units, something tht woud have been unthinkable before the War. While Axis Allied troops mostly fought in separated formatind if they weresubstantial enough, like the Italians, Hungarians, and Romanians. The Finns who were not art of the Axis and cobeligerants also fought separatly. The Spanish Blue Division was incorporated into the Whermacht structure. Slvakian units were also ncororated in the Whermacht structure.


Hitler Youth boys, along with old men, were hastily trained, ill-equipped and not terribly well led were the major recruits for the Volkssturm in the closing months of the year. The HJ boys, however, went into battle with a fervor even beyond that of the Waffen SS. Many accounts exist of battle hardeneded Wehrmacht and and SS troops who met these boy soldiers on the way to battle. Their advise was almost often "Its over. Go home!" The boys, however, armed with a few anti-tank weapons like Panzerfauts and perhaps a machinegun if one could be found, these Hitler Youth schoolboys went into battle. Often they performed amazingly well, even when given hopeless assignments. A book and movie addressing this is The Bridge. Many HJ boys, of course, did not survive. For many, their commiment to Hitler was absolute, even in the boys involved in the hopeless defense of Berlin (April-May 1945).


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Created: 9:37 PM 8/4/2008
Last updated: 9:16 AM 8/27/2021