Poles in the Wehrmacht

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Aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet attack; divisions of Poland into spheres of interest

Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, many former citizens of the Second Polish Republic from across the Polish territories annexed by Nazi Germany were forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht army in Upper Silesia and in Pomerania. They were declared citizens of the Third Reich by law and therefore subject to drumhead court-martial in case of draft evasion. Professor Ryszard Kaczmarek of the University of Silesia in Katowice, author of a monograph titled Polacy w Wehrmachcie ("Poles in the Wehrmacht") noted that the scale of this phenomenon was much larger than previously assumed, because 90% of the inhabitants of these two westernmost regions of prewar Poland were ordered to register on the Nazi Deutsche Volksliste by the invader regardless of will. The number of the conscripts is not known. The data does not exist beyond 1943.[1]

In June 1946 the British Secretary of State for War reported to parliament that among the citizens of interwar Poland who served in the Wehrmacht as foreign conscripts, a total of 68,693 men were captured by the Allies in north-west Europe. The overwhelming majority of them, 53,630, enlisted into the Polish Army under the British Command,[2] and served in the Polish Armed Forces in the West against the Germans until the end of World War II.[1]

A matter of conscience[edit]

The Republic of Poland was a multicultural country before World War II, with almost a third of its population originating from the minority groups: 13.9% Ukrainians; 10% Jews; 3.1% Belarusians; 2.3% Germans and 3.4% percent Czechs, Lithuanians and Russians. Members of the German minority resided predominantly, but not exclusively, in the lands of the former German Empire. Some of the German soldiers had Polish origin. [3][4][5]

The conscripts belonged to often vastly different categories.[1] Some of them considered themselves and felt German all along. Others seemed aware that their service meant collaboration with the enemy. The overwhelming majority nevertheless served with the idea of keeping their families safe. The only reliable number can be drawn from the statistics of the Polish Armed Forces in the West listing 90,000 volunteers who arrived in war-torn France in order to fight for Poland against Germany. Only they might be considered Polish by their own individual conscience, whilst those who fought against Poland of their own free will – and later settled in West Germany or elsewhere – might be rightfully categorized as German-blooded rather than Polish.[1] The majority of conscripts, coming from the former Polish Second Republic, were deployed in occupied Western Europe as not trustworthy enough to serve in the East even with their already Germanized names.[1] After the war ended, many of them were afraid to return to Poland although at least 10,000 did return. Service in the Wehrmacht was a personal tragedy for many.[1]

There was also a German storm brigade known as Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz formed by the German minority in Poland. Many of its members were trained in the Third Reich. As soon as the war started, Selbstschutz engaged in widespread massacres of Poles and Jews in West Prussia, Upper Silesia and Reichsgau Wartheland, together with the Einsatzgruppen.[6]

German stance[edit]

At the end of the Polish September Campaign some German ideologues had proposed the creation of a polnische Reststaat ("Polish Rump State") including Hans-Adolf von Moltke in his memorandum of September 23, 1939, and Hitler, in his speech to the Reichstag in Berlin of October 6, 1939 ("der entstehende polnische Reststaat").[7] The Generalgouvernement für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete ("General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories") was established by the Führer's decree of October 12, 1939, which came into force on October 26, 1939. The Germans contacted Wincenty Witos, offering him the post of Prime Minister, but he declined the offer. Joseph Stalin, at that time an ally of Nazi Germany, opposed such an idea, stating that Poland had ceased to exist and there was no point in re-creating it;[8] during that time the name "Poland" was forbidden in the Soviet Union.[9]

Although the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front contained a sizable number of non-Germans, no Polish unit was ever formed. Other minorities from in prewar Poland including Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians both served in the Wehrmacht and formed their own Waffen-SS brigades. Such units existed mostly in the later stages of the war.

Władysław Studnicki, a pro-German Polish activist and publicist during the interwar period as early as November 20, 1939 presented to the Germans "An appeal to re-establish the Polish Army". Studnicki wrote that the army would help the Germans in their struggle with the Soviets, and promised he would help find proper volunteers. According to him, the biggest misfortune for the Polish Nation would be the Soviet occupation of the whole country and - as he stated - an army consisting of infantry and cavalry would not be a significant threat to the Germans. Berlin, however, expressed no interest in re-establishing the Polish Army. In early 1940 Joseph Goebbels met with Studnicki, telling him that such units were not considered necessary. Studnicki, during the same meeting, vehemently protested against Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland, for which he was later imprisoned in the infamous Pawiak jail in Warsaw.

The Volksliste[edit]

Most men from prewar Poland who served in German forces signed the so-called Volksliste ("German People's List"). In several areas, mainly in Upper Silesia, Zaolzie, Pomerania, and Masuria, all citizens were forced to sign these documents. Rejection of Volksliste often led to deportation to a concentration camp. Many people were compelled by force and many took Volksliste fearing the consequences. Some of those who took Volksliste were later drafted into the German forces. It was significant that the Polish government-in-exile knew about it, and Prime Minister general Władysław Sikorski approved.[10] One-fourth of Silesian and Kashubian men of that time served in Wehrmacht.[11]

Former Waffen-SS general Felix Steiner wrote in his 1958 book The Volunteers of Waffen-SS: Idea and sacrifice (German: Die Freiwilligen der Waffen-SS: Idee und Opfergang) that he based his organization on the Legionnaires of Józef Piłsudski. According to him, the young Polish patriots and their leader were the ideal form of "Kameradschaft" (camaraderie) – a specific union between soldiers and their officers, based on mutual understanding.

It is not known what Hitler thought about Poles as soldiers, but one fact is certain - he distrusted them. His opinion of Polish soldiers was based on the notions of Erich Ludendorff who reminded Hitler that during World War I the majority of Poles did not want to fight for Germany. On March 30, 1943, the SS Headquarters refused to create Polish units, citing among the reasons that thousands of Poles fled both the German and Austrian armies in 1917–1918; that the creation of Polish units would mean that Poles and Germans should be officially treated as equal; and the fact that the Poles themselves were not willing to fight for Germany.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Kaczmarek, Ryszard (2010), Polacy w Wehrmachcie [Poles in the Wehrmacht] (in Polish), Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, first paragraph, ISBN 978-83-08-04494-0, retrieved June 28, 2014, Paweł Dybicz for Tygodnik "Przegląd" 38/2012. 
  2. ^ German Army Service (Volume 423 ed.). Hansard. 4 June 1946. p. cc307-8W. Retrieved 28 July 2011. 
  3. ^ Wojciech Roszkowski (November 4, 2008). "Historia: Godzina zero". Tygodnik.Onet.pl weekly. Archived from the original on May 12, 2012. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  4. ^ Popularna Encyklopedia Powszechna Wydawnictwa Fogra. "Piąta kolumna w Polsce (The 5th column in Poland)". Militaria (in Polish). Encyklopedia WIEM. Retrieved August 13, 2012. 
  5. ^ Roshwald, Aviel (2000). Ethnic Nationalism and the Fall of Empires: Central Europe, the Middle East and Russia, 1914–23. ISBN 1134682549. 
  6. ^ Browning, Christopher R. (1998) [1992]. "Arrival in Poland" (PDF file, direct download 7.91 MB complete). Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Penguin Books. pp. 51, 98, 109, 124. Retrieved May 1, 2013. Also: PDF cache archived by WebCite. 
  7. ^ Jerzy Krasuski, Polska-Niemcy. Stosunki polityczne od zarania po czasy najnowsze, Wydawnictwo KURPISZ, Poznań 2003, s. 288. ISBN 83-88841-51-3
  8. ^ Tomasz Głowiński, O nowy porządek europejski. Ewolucja hitlerowskiej propagandy politycznej wobec Polaków w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie 1939-1945. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 2000
  9. ^ Richard C. Raack, Stalin's drive to the West, 1938-1945: the origins of the Cold War Stanford University Press 1995, p. 63.
  10. ^ Jerzy Kochanowski (12 February 2000), Mniejszość niemiecka. Wyłączanie wrogich elementów (German minority. Excluding of the enemy element) Gazeta Wyborcza (Polish) from the Internet Archive. Retrieved June 11, 2015.
  11. ^ a b B. T. Wieliński. "Co czwarty Kaszub i Ślązak" (Every fourth man from Cassubia and Silesia). Gazeta Wyborcza, 17 November 2010.