The conscription of non-German men and women into the Wehrmacht and Reichsarbeitsdienst (1938-1945)

The impact of war experiences in Europe – The conscription of non-German men and women into the Wehrmacht and Reichsarbeitsdienst (1938-1945)

Project WARLUX, Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH), University of Luxembourg
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
26.10.2022 - 28.10.2022
Sarah Maya Vercruysse, Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH), University of Luxembourg

This conference invited scholars to offer substantive new insights into the recruitment of non-Germans into the German armed forces and labour organisations during the Second World War, as well as the use of biographical sources to study the soldiers’ war experiences.1 The conscription of non-German nationals, considered by the Nazis as “deutsche Volkszugehörige” or “Deutschstämmige”, violated international law. In politics, society and research, various terms have come into use for the men and women affected by conscription: for example, “Zwangsrekrutierte”/“Ons Jongen” in Luxembourg, “incorporés de force”/“malgré-nous” in France and “Zwangssoldaten” in Belgium. However, these terms describe the mass of people involved. Initial studies and transnational comparisons have focused mainly on the top-down perspective.2 This conference shed light on the affected individuals and their biographies, exploring the tense situations in which they found themselves.

The conference opened with a keynote by JÖRG ECHTERNKAMP (Potsdam) on the historization of war experiences. In his presentation he addressed the complexity of researching individual war experiences and the pitfalls and focal points for historians working on these narrative recountings of the past.

The next day started with a panel on the mechanisms of recruitment and military service. DENIS SCUTO (Luxembourg) opened this section with a presentation on the connection between naturalisation and military service in the case of German-occupied Luxembourg. He outlined the complexity of the citizenship question in the Western occupied territories and explained how it was instrumentalised for recruitment purposes as well as for the “(re-)Germanisation” of the population.

NINA JANZ (Luxembourg) continued with a presentation on the individual and soldierly experiences of Luxembourgish recruits in WWII. In her conceptual and methodological study, she focused on soldiers’ individual experiences, separating the military and individual levels by comparing institutional records from the Wehrmacht with war letters.

For the final presentation of this panel, KLEMEN KOCJANCIC (Ljubljana) gave insights into the voluntary and forced recruitment of Slovenians to the Waffen-SS and the post-war treatment of these individuals.

The second panel focused on the shifting allegiances of soldiers. ZDENKO MARŠÁLEK (Prague) introduced the subject with his research on forcibly mobilised Wehrmacht soldiers from Silesia and their application for the Allied armies-in-exile while under Allied captivity. He demonstrated how these soldiers used shifts in loyalty – and identity – as part of a survival strategy and an expression of their own regional identity.

FÉLIX STREICHER (Maastricht) and NINA JANZ took a closer look at the double recruitment of young Luxembourgish men, first into the German army (1942-1944) and, after 1945, into the Luxembourgish military. By drawing on Reinhart Koselleck’s concepts of “space of experience” and “horizon of expectation”, they analysed how the first (forced) conscription shaped the expectations and experiences of post-war national military service.

MACHTELD VENKEN (Luxembourg) presented her extensive research on the conflicting loyalties of Polish soldiers who fought in both the German army and the Allied forces during the war. Based on oral history interviews, she analysed the experiences of these soldiers who fought on both sides of the Western Front and pointed out the ambiguities and commonalities.

Panel three shifted the perspective to “War experiences from below”. Departing from his own family history, PHILIPPE BECK (Eupen) elaborated on the biographical turning points and adaptive stances of Eastern Belgians conscripted into the Wehrmacht and the Reichsarbeitsdienst.

MONIKA KOKALJ KOČEVAR (Ljubljana) followed by presenting her analysis of rare war diaries written by Slovenes forcibly mobilised into the Wehrmacht, which are kept by the National Museum of Contemporary History in Ljubljana.

INNA GANSCHOW (Luxembourg) presented on the artistic processing of camp experiences by Luxembourgish POWs through the analysis of secretly written and smuggled out notes, diaries and letters. Using the thesis of the Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, that giving meaning to life in the camp – logotherapy – can have a self-healing effect and increase the chances of survival, she showed how the authors used writing to give meaning to their life in captivity and find moral support.

The final presenter, DAVID W. WILDERMUTH (Shippensburg), concluded the panel with a close-up look at the individual war experiences of “malgré-nous” Marc(z)ell Wolfersberger based on his detailed memoirs.

After a guided tour of the Belval blast furnaces, ELISABETH VLOSSAK (St. Catharines) ended the day with a keynote on “Forced conscripts” in history and memory. During her presentation she offered insights into the processes of remembrance and memorialisation of forced conscriptions and how the post-war memory unavoidably affects historians’ attempts to write these histories.

The last day of the conference opened with a fourth and last panel, which explored the topics of draft evasion, desertion, imprisonment and their consequences. As part of her doctoral thesis SARAH MAYA VERCRUYSSE (Luxembourg) examined the resettlements (“Umsiedlung”) of families of Luxembourgish deserters and draft evaders and juxtaposed this with the National Socialist principle of family liability (“Sippenhaft”).

PHILIPPE GENY (Pessac) spoke about the captivity of “malgré-nous” from Alsace and Moselle in POW camps of the Western Allies.

KONRAD GRACZYK (Katowice) focused on aiding and abetting desertion in the jurisdiction of the German Special Courts in the occupied territories of Poland. Based on an examination of judgments handed down by the Special Courts, he elaborated on the notion of complicity in desertion and the legal grounds for prosecution.

TOBIAS KOSSYTORZ (Fiesole/Florence) closed the panel with a lecture on draft evaders from Alsace who resisted their forced incorporation into the German armed forces by fleeing to neighbouring Switzerland. His focus lay on their everyday experience in Switzerland, which he categorised as “privileged precarity”: precarious because of an unrealistically tight legal framework, harsh labour conditions and tensions with local populations, but privileged when compared to the situation of their conscripted peers.

The conference was concluded by DENIS SCUTO, who summarised the main discussion points of the conference and the main insights that were obtained. He noted the importance of first-hand documents and official records in obtaining information on personal experiences, but stressed the necessary caution that researchers must take when dealing with these sources. They must also be careful not to be drawn into master narratives, and instead show the diversity of experiences and bring this knowledge to the wider public. Despite the great progress made in recent decades, the conference also revealed significant research gaps, as well as opportunities for future research, such as the experiences of conscripted women in the Reichsarbeitsdienst.

Conference overview:



Jörg Echternkamp (Potsdam): Historicizing Experiences of War: Profits and Pitfalls of Narratological Approaches

Panel 1 - Mechanisms of Recruitment and Military Service
Moderator: Peter M. Quadflieg (Wiesbaden)

Denis Scuto (Luxembourg): Naturalisation and Military Service during the Second World War

Nina Janz (Luxembourg): Being a Soldier – Between Individual and Soldierly Experientality of Luxembourgish Recruits in WWII

Klemen Kocjancic (Ljubljana): Fighting for the Enemy: Recruitment of Slovenians for the Waffen-SS during the Second World War

Panel 2 - Shifting Allegiances
Moderator: Christoph Brüll (Luxembourg)

Zdenko Maršálek (Prague): Identity Change as a Survival Strategy: Forcibly Mobilized Wehrmacht Soldiers Applying for the Allied Armies-In-Exile

Felix Streicher (Maastricht) and Nina Janz (Luxembourg): From ‘Forced Conscription’ to Compulsory Military Service: Luxembourg’s ‘Forced Conscripts’ and the Question of Post-War Military Service

Machteld Venken (Luxembourg): Friends and/or Enemies? Conflicting Loyalties among Soldiers Fighting Both in the German Army and the Allied Forces

Panel 3 - War Experiences from Below
Moderator: Sonja Kmec (Luxembourg)

Philippe Beck (Eupen): Adaptive Stances of East Belgians in the Wehrmacht and Reichsarbeitsdienst (1940-1945) – Insights Through Ego-Documents

Monika Kokalj Kočevar (Ljubljana): Forcibly Mobilised Slovene Soldiers in Wehrmacht – Diaries' Analysis of their War Experiences

Inna Ganschow (Luxembourg): Paper and Ink in the Soviet Camp 188 in Tambov: Capturing the Camp Life of Luxembourger Conscripts

David W. Wildermuth (Shippensburg): Navigating War and Identity: Malgré-Nous Marc(z)ell Wolfersberger in the German Army, 1942-1944


Elizabeth Vlossak (St. Catharines): 'Forced Conscripts' in History and Memory

Panel 4 - Draft Evasion, Desertion, Imprisonment and their Consequences
Moderator: Jean-Noel Grandhomme (Nancy)

Sarah Maya Vercruysse (Luxembourg): Family Liability and Umsiedlung – Consequences of Desertion on Families of Luxembourgish Recruits (1942-1945)

Philippe Gény (Pessac/Bordeaux): La Captivité des Malgré-Nous Alsaciens & Mosellans chez les Alliés Anglo-Saxons

Konrad Graczyk (Katowice): Beihilfe zur Fahnenflucht in der Rechtsprechung der Deutschen Sondergerichten auf den Besetzten Gebieten Polens (1939-1945)

Tobias Kossytor (Fiesole/Florence): Alsatian Draft Evaders in Switzerland (1942-1945)

Closing discussion

1 The conference was hosted in connection with the FNR CORE research project “WARLUX – Soldiers and their communities in WWII: The impact and legacy of war experiences in Luxembourg”, launched at the C²DH in 2020.
2 Peter M. Quadflieg, “Zwangssoldaten” und “Ons Jongen”: Eupen-Malmedy und Luxemburg als Rekrutierungsgebiet der deutschen Wehrmacht im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Aachen 2008; Frédéric Stroh / Peter M. Quadflieg, L’incorporation de force dans les territoires annexés par le IIIe Reich = Die Zwangsrekrutierung in den vom Dritten Reich annektierten Gebieten: 1939-1945, Strasbourg, 2017; Zdenko Maršálek et al., Zwangsrekrutierte in die Wehrmacht: Mobilisation – Widerspruch – Widerstand – Gedächtnis in der schlesischen, tschechischen und slowenischen Perspektive, Prague 2021.

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