Families of Luxembourgish Wehrmacht recruits during the Nazi occupation and the impact of local authorities and National Socialist organisations on their everyday lives
Author: Sarah Maya Vercruysse
Am 16. und 17. Mai 2022 fand das zweite Doktorandenforum, organisiert vom Doktorandenkolleg des Hannah-Arendt-Instituts (HAIT), statt. Unter dem Titel “Individuum und Organisation in autoritären und demokratischen Gesellschaftsordnungen” kamen zahlreiche Nachwuchswissenschaftler/-innen in der Gedenkstätte Bautzener Straße in Dresden zusammen. Dabei standen vor allem Fragen nach den individuellen Handlungsspielräumen von Akteuren im Spannungsfeld von Organisationen in Diktaturen, sowie biographische Kontinuitäten und Diskontinuitäten über die historischen Brüche und Transformationen politischer Ordnungen hinweg im Vordergrund. Einige der Teilnehmer/-innen haben ihre Beiträge für diesen Blog verschriftlicht, die in den folgenden Monaten hier veröffentlicht werden. Der erste Beitrag von Sarah Maya Vercruysse befasst sich mit luxemburgischen Wehrmachtsrekruten während der nationalsozialistischen Besatzung und der Einfluss der lokalen Behörden und der nationalsozialistischen Organisationen auf ihren Alltag.
In 2020 the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH) at the University of Luxembourg launched the WARLUX project, which focuses on the biographies of the young men and women who were enrolled into German services, as well as on the experiences of their family members. As part of her PhD project, Sarah Maya Vercruysse is examining how and to what extent the conscription of recruits in the German forces influenced the lives of their families who stayed at home. How did their relatives and communities cope with this new situation? What socio-economic and psychological hardships did they have to endure following the enrolments? Did membership of a National Socialist organisation influence their experiences, and if so, how? In order to answer these questions, the project adopts a bottom-up perspective based on a biographical approach. It uses both official documents from the Nazi administration and personal records from families (letters, memoirs, etc.) to reveal some key experiences on a micro level. As a case study, individuals from Schifflange, a town in the industrial south of the country, are explored in more detail.
During the Second World War, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was de facto annexed and incorporated into the German Reich. More than 10,000 young men and women born between 1920 and 1927 were drafted into the Wehrmacht, the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service – RAD) and the Kriegshilfsdienst (KHD). It was not only the recruits themselves who were affected; families and communities also had to cope with and respond to the conscription of their sons, husbands and fathers. In some cases, families approached national organisations or local administrations to receive financial and material aid following the loss of income. In other cases, they were resettled and saw their properties confiscated.
This article takes a closer look at the influence of local authorities and National Socialist organisations such as the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt (National Socialist People’s Welfare – NSV) on the war experiences of families of conscripts. In Luxembourg, academic research on the impact of these forced recruitments on communities or on welfare in general is largely lacking. It is not intended to give a complete and detailed view on the topic here, but rather to reflect the researchers’ initial findings.
After the invasion of Luxembourg on 10 May 1940, the country was run by a civil administration (Zivilverwaltung) under the leadership of Gauleiter Gustav Simon from 21 July 1940 onwards. One of the main concerns of the Gauleiter was the protection and promotion of the Volksgemeinschaft in the border region. In the eyes of the Germans, Luxembourgers were Volksdeutscher, people of German blood and descent who had to be reminded of their origins and reintegrated into the German Reich. As Hitler had already stated in Mein Kampf, “Gleiches Blut gehört in ein gemeinsames Reich”.1 In order to integrate and re-Germanise Luxembourgish society, areas of public life were brought under German control, the influence of the Catholic church was reduced and connections to French culture – as reflected for example in language, street names, surnames and other aspects of life – were removed. In January 1941 all Luxembourgish associations were dissolved and their assets were transferred to various National Socialist organisations such as the NSV, the Hitlerjugend (HJ), the NS-Frauenschaft (NSF) and the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (DAF).2 State officials and employees across all sectors were obliged to join the Volksdeutsche Bewegung, a Luxembourgish National Socialist organisation, and threatened with dismissal if they refused. State officials also had to join other party organisations, while employees and workers were strongly advised to do so. According to Luxembourgish historian Paul Dostert it became almost impossible to function in public life without a membership card from a National Socialist organisation by mid-1942.3 Many Luxembourgers thus joined these organisations under pressure in order to avoid unemployment and not to suffer any material disadvantage.
While the Zivilverwaltung was initially convinced that the people of Luxembourg would be easily reminded of their “natural place” in the German Reich, it became increasingly clear that they were not willing simply to accept this integration. On 30 August 1942 the Zivilverwaltung introduced compulsory military service for young men born between 1920 and 1924 – later extended to 1927 –, which led to a wave of protest throughout the country.4 Despite this opposition, more than 10,000 young men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht between 1942 and 1944. Around 3,500 of them deserted or evaded conscription. Another 3,000 died at the front or never came home.
The role of National Socialist organisations and local authorities
The conscription of these young men into the Wehrmacht had a major impact on the families and communities that stayed at home. The Nazi administration offered relief measures for those who experienced financial problems and were considered politically reliable. Families deemed “politically and for the borderland Luxembourg unacceptable”, such as relatives of deserters or draft evaders, were on the other hand subjected to severe repressive measures.
As in Germany, families of Wehrmacht soldiers could apply to the district administrator (Landrat) for family maintenance (Familienunterhalt) if the soldier had made a significant contribution to the household before being conscripted. If the soldier died at the front, the NS-Kriegsopfervereinigung (National Socialist War Victims Association – NSKOV) would pay them compensation, known as “Elterngabe”. Also, the local Ortsgruppen, the NSV or the Winterhilfswerk (WHW) announced that they would give these families moral, material and financial help. When analysing the official sources and propaganda from Nazi authorities and organisations, it thus looks like various different measures were adopted to support the families of those who were fighting at the front. The reality was much more complex, however, as the needs of individuals were subordinate to the benefits that could accrue to the state or the National Socialist Party.5
When we take a closer look at the NSV, for example, this organisation was generally considered as a charitable, non-profit, humanitarian organisation that helped people in need with clothing, nutrition, medical care, mother-and-child care and more. Relatives of Wehrmacht soldiers were promised assistance on various levels, such as legal advice and help with administrative paperwork, with the upbringing and medical care of children or with housing and nutrition. According to a circular from December 1943, the organisation could exceptionally grant special allowances of 100-150 RM to relatives of deceased soldiers “[…] wenn die finanzielle Lage der Familie dies bedingt, d.h. wenn Hilfsbedürftigkeit bzw. ein gewisser Notstand besteht”.6 They however didn’t give any further clarifications with regard to the requirements. As well as this care function, the NSV also had an important propagandistic and social differentiation role. Nurses had the “educational” task of indoctrinating citizens and bringing National Socialist ideals to families. Before receiving any help, families were also politically and financially assessed, since only “politically reliable” and “valuable” citizens were eligible for this support. In addition, the organisation favoured treatment for families with several children and relatives of volunteers. The extent to which the promised support was actually provided is however difficult to determine because of a lack of source material.7
In 1942, the industrial town of Schifflange had a population of around 5,242 individuals, 245 of whom were members of the NSV.8 In the community archive, 120 supporting records from the Hilfswerk Mutter und Kind were recently able to be retrieved. They show that between 1941 and 1944 about 20 families of Wehrmacht or RAD members received help to obtain food, clothing, domestic assistance as well as baby and child care products.9 These figures may indicate that the organisation was relatively unpopular, which would correspond to the general attitude of Luxembourgers towards National Socialist organisations, as stated above. But because of the lack of detailed source material (such as individual files, rejected applications with justifications or membership numbers for 1943-1944), no clear statements can be made regarding this aspect.
Between support and repression
The stance of a family that belonged to the Volksgemeinschaft, toward National Socialism could have an important influence on its social position. If a family was related to a volunteer in service or considered politically reliable, the door was theoretically open for them to receive help from the local authorities or National Socialist organisations. If not, and if they were deemed “unreliable”, they could be subjected to severe repressive measures such as the confiscation of property, forced labour and resettlement.
The entities responsible for relief measures and repression were sometimes closely interlinked. Confiscated clothes were for example given to the NSV, which in turn redistributed them to soldiers on the Eastern Front and people in need. Ortsgruppenleiter played a role in the selection of families who were “to be looked after”, but they also had a significant influence on the local committees that decided who was to be resettled since they knew the families in their towns.10
As the war continued, families that initially received support could subsequently also be subject to repression. This was the case for the wife and child of P.W., born in 1920, who was conscripted into the Wehrmacht in May 1943. In 1941, W. requested support from the NSV and received a one-off payment to purchase milk worth 15.60 RM after being assessed as a “healthy, politically impeccable family”.11 But when he deserted in October 1943, his wife and child were sent to the Boberstein “resettlement camp” in August 1944 with the following declaration: “Seine Ehefrau […] ist nicht Mitglied der VDB. Sie hat kein Interesse am Zeitgeschehen und ist politisch unzuverlässig. Es ist anzunehmen, dass sie von der Fahnenflucht Ihres Ehemannes Bescheid wusste. Sie kann nicht länger im Grenzland Luxemburg verbleiben.”12
Zitiervorschlag: Sarah Maya Vercruysse, “Families of Luxembourgish Wehrmacht recruits during the Nazi occupation and the impact of local authorities and National Socialist organisations on their everyday lives”. In: Denken ohne Geländer. Der Blog des Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung e.V. vom 28.09.2022: https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/3525
Bild 1: Werbetafel der NS-Volkswohlfahrt, Bibliothèque nationale du Luxembourg – 2417 / A.L. 2-1.
Bild 2: Karteikarte Haushaltungsvorstand Hilfswerk “Mutter und Kind”, 12.05.1941, Musée National de la Résistance et des Droits Humains
- “Common blood belongs in a common empire” cit. from Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, München, 1927, p.1.
- Cf. Paul Dostert, “Luxemburg unter deutscher Besatzung 1940-45: Ein Volk zwischen Kollaboration und Widerstand”, in Das Großherzogtum Luxemburg unter deutscher Besatzung: Fachtagung, 10. Mai 2012, by Dieter Schiffmann, Mainz, 2013, p. 89.
- Cf. Ibid., p. 233.
- From 23 May 1941 onwards, the Arbeitsdienstpflicht (compulsory labour service) was also introduced for young men and women between the ages of 17 and 24.
- Cf. Robert Krantz, “Auslese” für ein tausendjähriges Reich?, vol. 3, Luxemburgs Kinder unter dem Nazi-Regime: 1940-1944: ein Dokumentarbericht, Luxembourg, 2002, p. 19.
- “[…] if the family’s financial situation so requires, i.e. if there is a need for assistance or a certain state of emergency” cit. from Krantz, “Auslese” für ein tausendjähriges Reich?, p. 195.
- Cf. Ibid., p. 193-194; Daniel Hadwiger, Nationale Solidarität und ihre Grenzen – Die deutsche “Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt” und der französische “Secours national” im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Stuttgart, 2021, p. 18.
- ANLUX, FD-235-08.
- People did not necessarily have to be a member of the organisation in order to receive support.
- This selection process left the door open to arbitrariness, abuse and personal vindictiveness or gain, especially since the resettlements and associated dispossessions were far from being systematically applied.
- Musée National de la Résistance et des Droits Humains, Karteikarte Haushaltungsvorstand Hilfswerk “Mutter und Kind” vom P. W., 05.02.1941.
- “His wife […], is not a member of the VdB. She has no interest in current affairs and has a negative attitude towards being German and is politically unreliable. It can be assumed that she knew about her husband’s desertion. She can no longer remain in the borderland of Luxembourg.” cit. from Bundesarchiv Berlin, BARch_R-49_3750.