It had taken a long time before the Germans had to face the impact of modern warfare. The Nazis had sought to pretend that they could fight the war without the privations that ordinary citizens had suffered in the First World War. It was only after the direction of the war turned, following Stalingrad, and as the Allied bombing campaign gathered pace, in 1943, that the whole economy was organised on a war footing. Then Josef Goebbels had asked “Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?”.
The fortunes of Germany had steadily declined since that point, despite the ever greater demands made on her citizens. The war was now portrayed as a battle for the very existence of Germany, and the Nazis were grasping at every last chance to throw more people into the conflict.
On the 4th March Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels diary recorded his latest meeting with Hitler:
This evening I had a long interview with the Fuhrer. In contrast to last time I found him somewhat depressed — understandable in the light of military developments. Physically too he is somewhat hampered: I noticed with dismay that the nervous twitch on his left hand had greatly increased.
His visit to the front last Saturday went off very well. The general officers put on a good show and the soldiers cheered the Fuhrer. Unfortunately, however, the Fuhrer refuses to issue a press statement about his visit to the front. Today it is as essential as our daily bread…
I tell the Fuhrer in detail about my talk with General Vlasov [leader of the Russian fascist collaborators], especially about the methods used on Stalin’s orders to save Moscow in late autumn 1941. The Soviet Union was then in exactly the same situation we are in today. At that time she took decisive measures which various important people on our side have neither the nerve nor the energy to take today.
I submit to the Fuhrer my plan to intercept soldiers on the move and form them into new regiments. The Fuhrer approves this plan.
He also agrees that we should form women’s battalions in Berlin. Innumerable women are volunteering to serve at the front and the Fuhrer is of the opinion that, provided they volunteer, they will undoubtedly fight fanatically. They should be placed in the second line, then the men in the front line will lose all desire to withdraw.
In early March Guy Sajer, a Wehrmacht veteran who had survived the horrors of the Eastern front, saw the reality that the leading Nazis could not bring themselves to acknowledge:
While we waited, we watched a crowd of men, part of a new Volkssturm battalion, swarm into a factory courtyard. When we looked more closely at these men recently called up by the Fuhrer our eyes opened wide with surprise. They all belonged to the last class of reserves and seemed to be an even more extreme case than the Marie-Louise conscripts at the end of the Napoleonic era.
Some of these troops with Mausers on their shoulders must have been at least sixty or seventy-five, to judge by their curved spines, bowed legs, and abundant wrinkles. But the young boys were even more astonishing. For us, who had saved our eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year-old lives through a thousand perils, the idea of youth meant childhood and not adolescence, which was still our phase of life, despite our disillusion.
But now we were looking literally at children, marching beside these feeble old men. The oldest boys were about sixteen, but there were others who could not have been more than thirteen. They had been hastily dressed in worn uniforms cut for men, and were carrying guns which were often as big as they were.
They looked both comic and horrifying, and their eyes were filled with unease, like the eyes of children at the reopening of school. Not one of them could have imagined the impossible ordeal which lay ahead. Some of them were laughing and roughhousing, forgetting the military discipline which was inassimilable at their age, and to which they had been exposed for barely three weeks.
We noticed some heart-wringing details about these children, who were beginning the first act of their tragedy. Several of them were carrying school satchels their mothers had packed with extra food and clothes, instead of schoolbooks. A few of the boys were trading the saccharine candies which the ration allotted to children under thirteen. The old men marching beside these young sprouts stared at them with incomprehension.
What would be done with these troops? Where were they expected to perform? There was no answer to these questions. Were the authorities going to try to stop the Red Army with them? The comparison seemed tragic and ludicrous.
Would Total War devour these children? Was Germany heroic, or insane? Who would ever be able to judge this absolute sacrifice? We stood in profound silence, watching and listening to the final moments of this first adolescence. There was nothing else we could do.