- The Waffen-SS: A European History ed. by Robert Gerwarth
The non-Germans who fought in the German armed forces during World War II, particularly in the Waffen-SS, had to wait a long time for their stories to be told. During the Cold War, a simplistic dichotomy held sway. Historians in both East and West demonized them as collaborators and war criminals. The veterans painted themselves as volunteers fighting to save Europe from "Bolshevism."
Both tacks simplify: to the victorious Allies, non-Germans fighting in the Waffen-SS undercut the myth of bad Germans on one side and just about everyone else on the other—a fable to which both the Soviet and Western blocs subscribed. Waffen-SS veterans, meanwhile, gathered together at reunions and spun tales of combat against the Red Army—leaving out the slaughter of defenseless civilians.
The end of the Cold War and the revival of European nationalisms in the years following 1989 changed all that. Once-taboo subjects and memories re-emerged, the world saw memorial marches by "freedom fighters" in the Baltic states and Ukraine. It turns out there really was a Fascist International, made up of men from all over Europe willing to lay down their lives for the cause of anticommunism; given the number of young people who attend memorial events today, the idea still resonates. [End Page 121]
The Waffen-SS: A European History is an attempt at a "transnational history," and indeed the volume's breadth is remarkable. From the Charlemagne Division in France to the Lithuanian and Latvian Schutzmannschaften (auxiliary police); from the 14th Waffen-SS "Galicia" Volunteer Division (made up of Ukrainians) to the "Blue Police" in the Polish General-Government; volunteers from Spain, Greece, and even Italy: the volume seems to leave no stone unturned, and much will be new even to specialists. Case studies on Muslim soldiers in the Waffen-SS (mainly the 13th Waffen-SS "Handz̆ar" Division of Croatia); recruitment among the ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsch) in the occupied territories, postwar prosecutions and repressions, and "sites of memory" all deal with more familiar matters, but even here there is plenty of new documentation and novel insight.
In general, the authors unpack a complex and multivarious set of motives for joining the Waffen-SS. Some fighters were legitimate ideological "Nazis," that is to say anticommunist fanatics and murderous antisemites; some fought for less rabidly ideological nationalist agendas (either for a place in a German-dominated "New Order," or for authoritarian, conservative government); and some simply sought adventure. Many weren't volunteers at all, but were drafted, especially as Germany's strategic situation deteriorated and defensive fronts collapsed. The result is a much more complete yet nuanced view of the Waffen-SS than has been typical. The volume editors deserve commendation for this important addition to the literature.
Certainly, the work has its problems. The individual chapters started as papers for a 2014 conference at the University of Toruń in Poland, but weaving all thirty-four contributions into a cohesive unity perhaps would tax any editor. Chapters may consist of a very short introduction, relatively concise expository passages by several authors (ten pages or so), and then a short summary by the author of the introduction. The product is rarely elegant, more like briefings than sustained scholarly argumentation. Chapter 6, dealing with Eastern Europe, is typical: a four-page introduction (presumably by the volume editors), Jaczek Andrzej Młynarczyk's fine contribution on the Polish Blue Police (ten pages), Leonid Rein on the Belarusian auxiliary police (twelve pages), another section by Rein and Oleg Romanko on the Home Guard in Belorussia (seven pages), Andrii Bolianovskyi on the Galicia Division (eight pages), and a three-page conclusion (again, presumably by the editors). Chapter components are enlightening, based on research in numerous archives and sources in numerous languages, but the ingredients don't always blend smoothly.
If we can identify a key lesson in such a disparate collection of essays, it might be this: whatever motivations led men...