Berlin, Germany February 12, 1945

On this date in 1945 German women were called up for ser­vice in the Volks­sturm (Home Guard, or national mili­tia). Adolf Hitler was playing his final card in World War II by mobi­lizing prac­ti­cally every Ger­man civil­ian for an apoc­a­lyptic defense of the Third Reich, a 20th‑century Wag­nerian Goetter­daem­merung. Nazi themes of death, trans­cen­dence, and com­mem­o­ration were given full play in the state news media to encourage recruitment into a lost cause.

The previous year, 1944, German military for­tunes, reduced by advancing enemy armies on both East­ern and West­ern fronts, com­pelled the nation to con­script 16‑year-olds from the Hitler­jugend (Hitler Youth) to fill the ranks of its under­strength infan­try units. In late-Septem­ber of that year male con­scrip­tion was ex­tended to those up to the age of 60. Dozens of Volks­sturm bat­talions were formed from among citizens who were not already serving in a mili­tary unit. Into their hands were placed short-range (45 yards), single-shot, recoilless Panzer­faust anti­tank wea­pons for the last-ditch cam­paign against the advancing enemy. Lacking uni­forms, these former civil­ians were issued black arm­bands em­bossed with the words Deutscher Volks­sturm Wehr­macht to wear with their street clothes, sup­posedly to give them a sem­blance of belonging to the Wehr­macht (Ger­man armed forces). The arm­bands did not pre­vent Soviet sol­diers from treating these armed men, out of mili­tary uni­form, as bandits and therefore undeserving of a chance to surrender.

From the out­set the Volks­sturm was sub­ject to the author­ity of Nazi Party Gau– and Kreis­leiter (county and dis­trict leaders), not offi­cers of the Wehr­macht, except in battle. In this final call-up, the Nazi Party exerted even more pres­sure on civil­ians than before, and so-called “volun­teers” who would other­wise have been exempted by their age or sex were con­scripted under the threat of sum­mary exe­cu­tion of any citi­zen shirking his or her duty to defend the Vaterland. (At this late stage, con­scripts were required to provide, not only their own clothes for combat, but blanket, backpack, and cooking utensils.)

In the final major offen­sive of the war, the Battle of Berlin (April 16 to May 2, 1945), 40,000 mem­bers of the Volks­sturm (mainly vet­erans of World War I and young boys between the ages of 13 and 18 who had grown up seeped in Nazi pro­pa­ganda) were used by the German high command in their desperate, senseless, and futile defense of Hitler’s capital.

Volkssturm, Hitler’s Last Desperate Defense Force, 1944–1945

Volkssturm parade past Joseph Goebbels, Berlin, November 12, 1944Volkssturm recruit learning to shoot Panzerfaust

Left: Carrying weapons and ammunition, men of the Volks­sturm parade past Gauleiter of Berlin and Reich Minis­ter for Public En­lighten­ment and Pro­pa­ganda Joseph Goeb­bels, Berlin, Novem­ber 12, 1944. The parade was part of a solemn swearing-in cere­mony of Volkssturm volun­teers as much as a national morale booster to shore up sagging defenses. Just the month before, on Octo­ber 18, 1944, Hitler had ordered the Volks­sturm into exis­tence in a des­per­ate mea­sure to use all avail­able man­power in an unsuc­cess­ful effort to stave off Germany’s inevitable defeat.

Right: An elderly member of the Volkssturm being taught to use the Panzer­faust, Berlin, March 21, 1945, less than a month before the Soviet assault on “For­tress Berlin.” In many cases Volks­sturm mem­bers fought bravely in close com­bat against over­whelming odds, but the lives of tens of thou­sands of poorly equipped and half-trained elderly men and young boys were tragically wasted by throwing them into a last-ditch battle with combat-tested Allied soldiers when the war was already lost.

Volkssturm recruit preparing to fire weapon on the outskirts of Berlin, 1945Goebbels congratulates boy-soldier Willi Huebner, Eastern Front, mid-March 1945

Left: A Volkssturmmann ready to fire a Panzer­schreck, a bazooka-like two-man anti­tank weapon nick­named the Ofen­roehre, “stove­pipe.” Under­mined by a visi­ble lack of uni­forms (indi­vid­uals supplied their own cloth­ing), battle wea­ponry (it was a hodge­podge), training in its use, and low morale (there was no remu­ner­a­tion for Volks­sturm ser­vice except when a mem­ber took part in com­bat), the in­tended strength of six million Volks­sturm con­scripts never mate­ri­alized. A U.S. intel­li­gence esti­mate in early 1945 was that less than half of the ragtag organization was physically fit.

Right: In mid-March 1945 Goebbels visited the Eastern Front, where 16‑year-old Willi Hueb­ner, a mes­sen­ger with the Fuehrer Grena­dier Divi­sion, took part in a Ger­man counter­attack to retake the Sile­sian town of Lau­ban (today’s Lubań, Poland) earlier that month. Goebbels, photo­graphers in tow, con­gratu­lated the boy-soldier, all spiffed up in polished helmet and uni­form, for receiving the Iron Cross 2nd Class days ear­lier. Days later Hueb­ner was congrat­u­lated by none other than Hitler him­self in the ruined gardens of the Reich Chan­cel­lery. The teen­ager described for Hitler his respon­si­bil­ities during the retaking of Lauban. Hueb­ner sur­vived the war and appeared in sev­eral docu­mentaries about fighting on the Eastern Front.

Defending the Nazi Reich: Fragments of German Newsreels from 1944–1945 (in German)