Subscribe to Canada Free Press for FREE

Guest Column

The Specter of the Werewolf:
Lessons from Post-War Germany

By alexander Rubin
Saturday, august 20, 2005

Insurgents bombed a police station, claiming the lives of five americans and thirty-nine civilians. Loosely organized terrorist cells plant mines, snipe at american occupation forces and assassinate mayors and officials collaborating with the occupying forces struggling to rebuild the country.

a quagmire? It might sound like it, but no.

This is post-war Germany, not present-day Iraq.

For up to two years after the Nazis surrendered on May 7, 1945, the threat of a Nazi insurgency loomed large over Germany. Towards the end of 1944, about 5,000 members of the elite Nazi SS and the Hitler Youth were recruited into a force called Werwolf and trained in terrorist tactics and guerilla warfare.

In theory, they would have aided the German Regular army by harrying allied troops and supply lines through guerilla attacks in allied-occupied areas, thus either allowing the Nazis to maintain a stronghold, inspire a popular uprising or forcing the allies into a peace more agreeable to the Nazi leadership. Werwolf units were organized in cell structures, and hid caches of weapons and supplies.

In practice, they became a largely imaginary threat that galvanized the allies into action.

Once it became clear that the initial goals of Werwolf were unrealistic, Werewolf was converted first into a terrorist unit, before a semi-successful attempt by Heinrich Himmler and Wilhelm Keitel to dismantle the group during the last few weeks of the war. On March 23, 1945, Hitler urged the German people to fight to the death, in what would come to be known as the Werwolf speech.

The final result was a loose network of terrorist cells, made up of terrified, starving teenagers and fanatical Nazis either delusional enough to believe in a myth of a waiting Nazi counter-revolution or malicious enough to carry out a scorched earth campaign to hinder the spread of democracy.

Werwolf and other sleeper cells of fanatical Nazis carried out attacks intended to cripple economic infrastructure, slow the post-war reconstruction of Germany and discourage collaboration with allied occupation forces trying to create a democracy. They began even before the Nazi official surrender, infiltrating towns occupied by the allies and trying to wreak havoc behind the front lines.

Tactics were varied, and typically terrorist. Stories of assassinations, sniping attacks and sabotage rocked american troops and German civilians.

In reality, there were four major attacks by Werwolf troops in the Western zones of occupation. The new anti-Nazi Lord Mayor of aachen was assassinated...several weeks before the Nazi surrender, on Himmler’s direct orders. Field Marshal Montgomery’s liaison officer and the Soviet commandant of Berlin were both killed in ambushes; the first was hushed up and the latter was only discovered to be an attack because the Soviet counterclaims were marred by glaring inconsistencies. a bombing of a police station claimed 44 victims.

In the east, Nazi insurgents carried out a few massacres of civilians and sniped at occupying forces, provoking brutal and indiscriminate reprisals from the Russians that quickly quelled future attacks.

True tactics were varied, and typically…petty. The truth was that Werwolf attacks were largely ineffectual. Typical operations included pouring sand into the gas tanks of allied vehicles, poisoning food and water, petty vandalism and stringing decapitation wires across the roads. The latter was terrifying, but not incredibly effective.

While individual operations were reported as late as 1947, by several months after the Nazi surrender on May 7 1945, Werwolf was rendered largely impotent.

The possibility of a successful Nazi insurgency haunted the allied Occupation force, encouraging them to commit heavy economic and military support to the reconstruction of Germany.

a combination of highly committed popular reconstruction efforts contrasted with attacks on civilians deprived Werwolf of popular support, while miscommunication and demoralization worked to rapidly reduce the effectiveness of existing cells. a Pentagon report listed 42 american soldiers "killed as a result of enemy action" between June and December 1945. In 1946, there were three.

The only real successes of the Nazi insurgency was the climate of fear it temporarily engendered, the myth it created of itself, and the birth of the neo-Nazi political movements which survive to this day, albeit in small numbers on the fringes of society.

The Nazi insurgency was much smaller and less effective than the current Iraqi insurgency, which is estimated as having between 12, 000 and 20, 000 hardcore supporters along with substantial passive support from a large minority of the Sunni Muslim population of Iraq.

Nonetheless, there are four critically important and practical lessons to be gleaned from the defeat of the Nazi insurgency in post-war Germany.

First, the appearance of failure in the media is not necessarily accurate. The Nazi insurgency generated a fear and panic completely out of proportion to their actual effectiveness. Radio and leaflet propaganda claimed every setback in reconstruction as one of their operations, and deaths of prominent occupation personalities as assassinations. The media gobbled it up, while the citizens of american and Germany worried.

Just as they seem to be constantly describe a ‘quagmire’ in Iraq today and report on the unpopularity of american troops, many articles in the New York Times predicted doom and gloom for Germany in 1945.

The "attitude toward the american occupation forces has swung from apathy and surface friendliness to active dislike. according to a military government official, this is finding expression in the organization of numerous local anti-american organizations throughout the zone and in a rapid increase in the number of attacks on american soldiers. There were more such attacks in the first week of October than in the preceding five months of the occupation, this source declared."

"Grave concern was expressed today by informed officials that the United States might soon lose the fruits of victory in Germany through the failure to prepare adequately for carrying out its long-term commitments…"

"an exhaustive compilation of opinions of Germans in all walks of life on their reaction to the United States occupation of their country was released…Bitter resentment and deep disappointment was voiced over the americans' first six months of occupation..."

Substituting Iraq for Germany, would these statements seem out of place in the New York Times today? No. Yet, though they predicted imminent disaster, the reconstruction went fairly smoothly, for the most part. Media thrives on disaster and pain; it survives by creating a climate of fear that glues people to their television sets, radios and newspapers. Hence the old adage "no news is good news."

Secondly, government, and preferably popular, commitment are crucial for victory. This includes both the willingness to absorb losses and the acceptance of a financial burden for rebuilding. Casualties and setbacks are inevitable in an enterprise the scale of a war or national reconstruction. Without a willingness to absorb the casualties that will occur, nothing could ever be attempted, no matter how needed. and without adequate financial and military support, any attempts will meet with failure, making whatever losses are incurred in vain.

There is no room for half-hearted endeavors. and, regardless of the right or wrong of entering Iraq in the first place, since america has already committed itself to reconstruction, it must follow through, unless it wishes to betray the memory of those who have fallen. Without the Marshall Plan and the american military occupation safeguarding its implementation, Germany would have degenerated into a chaotic anarchy. and from that devil’s stewpot, ultimately, a totalitarian force would have emerged in either the form of a Nazi resurgence, or more likely, a Soviet encouraged communist revolution.

Thirdly, the hearts and minds of the civilian population are critical to victory. They can be won by publicly and widely contrasting positive, visible improvements offered by america with the immoral and harmful actions of the insurgency. Werwolf attacks on civilians and civilian improvements contrasted poorly with american construction of civil infrastructure, and cost the insurgency any chance of widespread popular support.

By spending money in schools, hospitals, waterworks and libraries, america can simultaneously improve the lives of Iraqis, winning hearts and future minds. They could then contrast this with indiscriminate suicide bomb attacks on civilians committed by the terrorist insurgency. Furthermore, this offers a unique opportunity for america to build an international coalition; this morally positive and conflict neutral work offers a chance for countries which objected to the invasion to offer help and support without dirtying their hands.

Finally, reconstruction is slow. Lest we forget, even with very little actual hindrance from insurgent and terrorist activities, it took four years to rebuild Germany to even a shadow of what it is today and ten years for it to be declared fully sovereign. Iraq will not become a democracy in a day, or a month, or even a year. But it is on the path to becoming one, and will become one, so long as we remain committed and focused.

Canada Free Press, CFP Editor Judi McLeod