Berlin, Germany · February 12, 1945

On this date in 1945 German women were called up for ser­vice in the Volks­sturm (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 Goertter­daem­merung. Nazi themes of death, trans­cen­dence, and com­mem­o­ration were given full play 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 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, 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. 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 sur­rounded by Nazi pro­pa­ganda) were used by the German high command in their desperate, senseless, and futile defense of Hitler’s capital.

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

Volkssturm parade past Goebbels, mid-November 1944Volkssturm recruit learning to shoot Panzerfaust

Left: Carrying weapons and ammunition, men of the Volks­sturm parade past the 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 to delay 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

Left: A Volkssturmmann ready to fire a Panzer­schreck, a two-man anti­tank weapon. Under­mined by a visi­ble lack of uni­forms (indi­vid­uals supplied their own cloth­ing), battle wea­ponry (it was a hodge-podge), 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 rag-tag 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 helmet and uni­form, for receiving the Iron Cross 2nd Class days ear­lier. Hueb­ner can be seen a third of the way into the video below, in which he is congrat­u­lated by none other than Hitler himself in the ruined gardens of the Reich Chancellery, describing his respon­si­bil­ities during the retaking of Lauban. Hueb­ner sur­vived the war and appeared in sev­eral docu­mentaries about fighting on the Eastern Front.

Defending the Reich to the Last Man: Last German Newsreel from 1945 (in German)