Werwolf (German for "werewolf", sometimes spelled "Wehrwolf") was the name given to a last-ditch Nazi plan, developed during the closing months of the Second World War, to create a German commando force which would operate behind enemy lines as the Allies advanced through Germany itself. Werwolf remained entirely ineffectual as a combat force, however, and in practical terms, its value as propaganda far outweighed its actual achievements.
After it became clear, by March 1945, that the remaining German forces had no chance of stopping the Allied advance, Minister of Propaganda Josef Göbbels seized upon the idea of Werwolf, and began to foster the notion, primarily through Nazi radio broadcasts, that Werwolf was a clandestine guerrilla organization comprising irregular German partisans, similar to the many insurgency groups which the Germans had encountered in the nations they occupied during the war. Despite such propaganda, however, this was never the actual nature of Werwolf, which in reality was always intended to be a commando unit comprising uniformed troops. Another popular myth about Werwolf is that it was intended to continue fighting underground even after the surrender of the Nazi government and the German military. In fact, no effort was ever made by the Nazi leadership to develop an insurgency to continue fighting in the event of defeat, in large measure because Adolf Hitler, as well as other Nazi leaders, refused to believe that a German defeat was possible, and they regarded anyone who even discussed the possibility as defeatists and traitors. As a result, no contingency plans to deal with defeat were ever authorized. However, as a result of Göbbels' efforts, Werwolf had, and in many cases continues to have, a mythological reputation as having been an underground Nazi resistance movement, with some even claiming that Werwolf attacks continued for months, or even years, after the end of the war. Its perceived influence went far beyond its actual operations, especially after the dissolution of the Nazi regime.
Historian Perry Biddiscombe has also asserted that Werwolf represented a re-emergence of a genuinely radical, social-revolutionary current within National Socialism, something which had been present in the movement in its early days but which had been suppressed following the Nazi assumption of power in 1933.
The name was chosen after the title of Hermann Löns' novel, Der Wehrwolf (1910). Set in the Celle region, Lower Saxony, during the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), the novel concerns a peasant, Harm Wulf, who after his family is killed by marauding soldiers, organises his neighbours into a militia who pursue the soldiers mercilessly and execute any they capture, referring to themselves as Wehrwölfe. Löns said that the title was a dual reference to the fact that the peasants put up a fight (sich wehren) and to the protagonist's surname of Wulf, but it also had obvious connotations with the word Werwölfe in that Wulf's men came to enjoy killing. While not himself a Nazi (he died in 1914) Löns' work was popular with the German far right, and the Nazis celebrated his work. Indeed, Celle's local newspaper began serialising Der Wehrwolf in January 1945.
It may also be of relevance to the naming of the organisation that in 1942 OKW and OKH's field headquarters at Vinnitsa in the Ukraine were christened "Werwolf" by Adolf Hitler, and Hitler on a number of occasions had used "Wolf" as a pseudonym for himself.
In late summer/early autumn 1944, Heinrich Himmler initiated Unternehmen Werwolf (Operation Werwolf), ordering SS Obergruppenführer Hans-Adolf Prützmann to begin organising an elite troop of volunteer forces to operate secretly behind enemy lines. As originally conceived, these Werwolf units were intended to be legitimate uniformed military formations trained to engage in clandestine operations behind enemy lines in the same manner as Allied Special Forces such as Commandos. Prützmann was named Generalinspekteur für Spezialabwehr (General Inspector of Special Defence) and assigned the task of setting up the force's headquarters in Berlin and organising and instructing the force. Prützmann had studied the guerrilla tactics used by Russian partisans while stationed in the occupied territories of the Ukraine and the idea was to teach these tactics to the members of Operation Werwolf.
Gauleiters were to suggest suitable recruits, who would then be trained at secret locations in the Rhineland and Berlin. The chief training centre in the West was at Hülchrath Castle near Erkelenz, which by early 1945 was training around 200 recruits mostly drawn from the Hitler Youth.
The tactics available to the organisation included sniping attacks, arson, sabotage, and assassination. Training was to include such topics as the production of home-made explosives, manufacturing detonators from common articles such as pencils and "a can of soup", and every member was to be trained in how to jump into a guard tower and strangle the sentry in one swift movement, using only a metre of string. Werwolf agents were supposed to have at their disposal a vast assortment of weapons, from fire-proof coats to silenced Walther pistols but in reality this was merely on paper; the Werwolf never actually had the necessary equipment, organisation, morale or coordination. Given the dire supply situation German forces were facing in 1945, the commanding officers of existing Wehrmacht and SS units were unwilling to turn over what little equipment they still had for the sake of an organization whose actual strategic value was doubtful.
Werwolf originally had about five thousand members recruited from the "SS" (Schutzstaffel) and the Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend). These recruits were specially trained in guerrilla tactics. Operation Werwolf went so far as to establish front companies to ensure continued funding in those areas of Germany which were occupied (all of the "front companies" were discovered and shut down within eight months). However, as it became increasingly clear that the reputedly impregnable Alpine Redoubt, from which their operations were to be directed by the Nazi leadership in the event that the rest of Germany had been occupied, was yet another grandiose delusion, Werwolf was converted into a terrorist organisation and in the last few weeks of the war, Operation Werwolf was largely dismantled by Heinrich Himmler and Wilhelm Keitel.
Disorganised attempts were made to bury explosives, ammunition and weapons in different locations around the country (mainly in the pre-1939 German–Polish border region) to be used by the Werwolf in their terrorist acts after the defeat of Germany, but not only were the amounts of material to be "buried" prohibitively low, by that point the movement itself was so disorganised that few actual members or leaders knew where the materials were, how to use them, or what to do with them. A large portion of these "depots" were found by the Russians and virtually none of the materials were actually used by the Werwolf.
On March 23, 1945, Josef Göbbels gave a speech, known as the "Werwolf speech", in which he urged every German to fight to the death. The partial dismantling of the organised Werwolf, combined with the effects of the "Werwolf" speech, caused considerable confusion about which subsequent attacks were actually carried out by Werwolf members, as opposed to solo acts by fanatical Nazis or small groups of SS.
Antony Beevor and Earl F. Ziemke have argued that Werwolf never amounted to a serious threat, in fact they are regarded by them as barely having existed. This view is supported by the RAND Corporation, which surveyed the history of US occupations with an eye to advising on Iraq. According to a study by former Ambassador James Dobbins and a team of RAND researchers, the total number of post-conflict American combat casualties in Germany was zero.
German historian Golo Mann, in his The History of Germany Since 1789 (1984) also states:
The [Germans'] readiness to work with the victors, to carry out their orders, to accept their advice and their help was genuine; of the resistance which the Allies had expected in the way of 'werewolf' units and nocturnal guerrilla activities, there was no sign.
Perry Biddiscombe is the only historian to have presented a somewhat different view. In his books Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944–1946 (1998) and The Last Nazis: SS Werewolf Guerrilla Resistance in Europe, 1944-1947 (2000), Biddiscombe asserts that after retreating to the Black Forest and the Harz mountains, the Werwolf continued resisting the occupation until at least 1947, possibly until 1949–50. However, he characterises German post-surrender resistance as "minor", and calls the post-war Werwolfs "desperadoes" and "fanatics living in forest huts". He further cites U.S. Army intelligence reports that characterised partisans as "nomad bands" and judged them as less serious threats than attacks by foreign slave labourers and considered their sabotage and subversive activities to be insignificant. He also notes that:
The Americans and British concluded, even in the summer of 1945, that, as a nationwide network, the original Werwolf was irrevocably destroyed, and that it no longer posed a threat to the occupation."
Biddiscombe also says that Werwolf violence failed to mobilise a spirit of popular national resistance, that the group was poorly led, armed, and organised, and that it was doomed to failure given the war-weariness of the populace and the hesitancy of young Germans to sacrifice themselves on the funeral pyre of the former Nazi regime. He concludes that the only significant achievement of the Werewolves was to spark distrust of the German populace in the Allies as they occupied Germany, which caused them in some cases to act more repressively than they might have done otherwise, which in turn fostered resentments that helped to enable Far Right ideas to survive in Germany, at least in pockets, into the post-war era.
A number of instances of violence have been attributed to Werwolf activity, but none have been proven.
• It has been claimed that the destruction of the United States Military Government police headquarters in Bremen on June 5, 1945 by two explosions which resulted in 44 deaths was a Werwolf-related attack. There is, however, no proof that it was due to Werwolf actions rather than to unexploded bombs or delayed-action ordnance.
• Dr. Franz Oppenhoff, the newly appointed mayor of Aachen, was murdered outside his home in March 1945, allegedly by Werwolfs, but was in fact assassinated by an SS unit which was composed of Werwolf trainees from Hülchrath Castle. They were flown in at the order of Heinrich Himmler.
• Major John Poston, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery's liaison officer was ambushed and killed a few days before Germany's surrender by unidentified assailants; in reality Poston died in an ambush by regular troops.
• Colonel-General Nikolai Berzarin, Soviet commandant of Berlin is often claimed to have been assassinated by Werwolfs, and Soviet counter claims he actually died in a motorcycle accident on June 16, 1945 were marred by glaring inconsistenciesbut Russian sources claim.
• The Werwolf propaganda station "Radio Werwolf" (which actually broadcast from Nauen near Berlin during April 1945), also claimed responsibility for the assassination of Major General Maurice Rose, commander of the US 3rd Armored Division and the most senior Jewish U.S. officer on 30 March 1945. Actually he was killed by regular soldiers when his vehicle encountered a German tank.
• On 31 July 1945 an ammunition dump in Ústí nad Labem (Aussig an der Elbe), a largely ethnic German city in northern Bohemia ("Sudetenland"), exploded, killing 26 or 27 people and injuring dozens. The explosion resulted in the "Ústí massacre" of ethnic Germans and was blamed on the Werwolf organization. A book published following the 1989 Velvet Revolution states that the explosion and massacre was perpetrated by Communists within the Czechoslovak secret services, specifically Bedřich Pokorný, leader of the Ministry of Interior's Defensive Intelligence (Obranné zpravodajství) department, as a pretext for the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia.
Thanks to harsh repression such as that, the German resistance movement was successfully suppressed. However, collective punishment for acts of resistance, such as fines and curfews, was still being imposed as late as 1948. From 1946 onward Allied intelligence officials noted resistance activities by an organisation which had appropriated the name of the anti-Nazi resistance group, the Edelweißpiraten (Edelweiss Pirates). The group was reported to be composed mainly of former members and officers of Hitler Youth units, ex-soldiers and drifters, and was described by an intelligence report as "a sentimental, adventurous, and romantically anti-social [movement]". It was regarded as a more serious menace to order than the Werwolf by US officials. A raid in March 1946 captured 80 former German officers who were members, and who possessed a list of 400 persons to be liquidated, including Wilhelm Hoegner, the prime minister of Bavaria. Further members of the group were seized with caches of ammunition and even anti-tank rockets. In late 1946 reports of activities gradually died away. Although not connected with Werwolf in any way, there was some sporadic armed resistance and sabotage in the years immediately after the war carried out by ethnic Germans in the Soviet-controlled territories of western Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania. These activities were virtually unknown to the Western Allies, primarily because they were kept out of the official news channels by Soviet censors. These actions, however, are more correctly to be understood as resistance to the brutality of Soviet occupation and reprisals (for example, many ethnic Germans in eastern Europe were forcibly deported to Siberia as slave laborers, from where few would ever return alive), rather than as an effort to resurrect the aims of the Nazi regime. Also similar to Werwolf were the Forest Brothers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who continued to wage armed guerrilla resistance against the Soviet occupation of their nations from the end of the Second World War until as late as 1957. Although few Forest Brothers were of German ethnicity, many of them had originally served in military units which had been allied with the Third Reich. As with the resistance movement among ethnic Germans in eastern Europe, however, the Forest Brothers were only interested in the liberation of their lands from Soviet rule, rather than an attempted resurrection of Nazi war aims.
According to Biddiscombe's research, in April 1945 General Eisenhower ordered that all partisans were to be shot. As a consequence, some war crimes (summary executions without trial and the like) followed. Contrary to Section IV of the Hague Convention of 1907, "The Laws and Customs of War on Land", the SHAEF "counter insurgency manual" included provisions for forced labour and hostage taking.
Biddiscombe estimates the total death toll as a direct result of Werewolf actions and the resulting reprisals as 3,000–5,000.
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, however, 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 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.
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….
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...
Yet, though these statements 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, hence the old adage "no news is good news."
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.
Reconstruction was slow. 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.
Thanks to harsh repression such as that, the German resistance movement was successfully suppressed. However, collective punishment for acts of resistance, such as fines and curfews, was still being imposed as late as 1948.
From 1946 onward Allied intelligence officials noted resistance activities by an organisation which had appropriated the name of the anti-Nazi resistance group, the Edelweißpiraten (Edelweiss Pirates). The group was reported to be composed mainly of former members and officers of Hitler Youth units, ex-soldiers and drifters, and was described by an intelligence report as "a sentimental, adventurous, and romantically anti-social [movement]". It was regarded as a more serious menace to order than the Werwolf by US officials.
A raid in March 1946 captured 80 former German officers who were members, and who possessed a list of 400 persons to be liquidated, including Wilhelm Hoegner, the prime minister of Bavaria. Further members of the group were seized with caches of ammunition and even anti-tank rockets. In late 1946 reports of activities gradually died away.
Although not connected with Werwolf in any way, there was some sporadic armed resistance and sabotage in the years immediately after the war carried out by ethnic Germans in the Soviet-controlled territories of western Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania. These activities were virtually unknown to the Western Allies, primarily because they were kept out of the official news channels by Soviet censors. These actions, however, are more correctly to be understood as resistance to the brutality of Soviet occupation and reprisals (for example, many ethnic Germans in eastern Europe were forcibly deported to Siberia as slave laborers, from where few would ever return alive), rather than as an effort to resurrect the aims of the Nazi regime.
Also similar to Werwolf were the Forest Brothers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who continued to wage armed guerrilla resistance against the Soviet occupation of their nations from the end of the Second World War until as late as 1957. Although few Forest Brothers were of German ethnicity, many of them had originally served in military units which had been allied with the Third Reich. As with the resistance movement among ethnic Germans in eastern Europe, however, the Forest Brothers were only interested in the liberation of their lands from Soviet rule, rather than an attempted resurrection of Nazi war aims.