Swiss, Swedish and Danish men who volunteered for the Nazi Waffen-SS combat formation during the Second World War were not, as was previously believed, lower-class naive outsiders, but highly intelligent and ambitious individuals who fought willingly for the regime, a new study suggests.
In an article published in the journal Contemporary European History, Dr Martin Gutmann argues that men from the neutral countries of Scandinavia and Switzerland who offered their services “left for Germany with an active interest in contributing both physically and intellectually to the Nazi project”.
Gutmann challenges ‘the myth of the volunteers’ – namely, that they were uneducated social ‘losers’ and deviants, drawn by naivety or greed. Instead, he argues, most were well-travelled, well-educated, and of a middle or upper-class upbringing.
By examining documents detailing the lives of a number of volunteers, such as journals and school records, Gutmann concludes volunteers “were not weak followers, but confident leaders”.
Gutmann also found that volunteers were, with very few exceptions, convinced nationalists, who had a “sense of impending demographic and racial degradation”, and were fearful of both Bolshevism and liberal capitalism.
They were “at best ambivalent towards the German National Socialist party”, but had “an ideological inclination towards fascism”, and were keen to “reclaim the ‘purity’ of [their] nation[s]”, he found.
And from reading volunteers’ military evaluations, Gutmann surmised that many of the men had an inclination towards “viewing violence as having personal and socially redemptive qualities”.
While acknowledging that each volunteer had personal reasons for joining the Nazi regime, Gutmann concludes it was “a profound decision taken only by confident and ambitious individuals who were well aware of its potential consequences but willing to gamble for the sake of an ideal”.
Gutmann told historyextra: “There are already some excellent national studies that look at the various motivations and experiences among SS volunteers from Denmark, Norway and Sweden separately.
“But the transnational approach of my study offers some unique insights. By placing the more intellectual and influential volunteers from various countries side-by-side, I uncovered surprising similarities in the types of men from the smaller European peripheral countries who were attracted to the National Socialist ideology and project.
“I was motivated to conduct this study because my maternal grandfather served in the Swedish military during the war and my paternal in the Swiss. Both of them had vivid and patriotic memories of this time, and they often told me about the few ‘mentally deranged traitors’, as they called them – Swedish and Swiss who helped the Germans.
“So I decided to look into this issue more closely.
“It’s easy and perhaps more convenient to lay the blame for this murderous ideology completely with Germans, and to some extent Italians, and to see other western Europeans as victims. Of course, the truth is rarely this straightforward.”
Dr Nir Arielli, a lecturer in international history at the University of Leeds, told historyextra: “Martin Gutmann makes an important contribution to the study of transnational volunteering by applying the dispassionate approach to foreigners who joined the Waffen-SS during the early stages of the Second World War.
“His very thorough analysis, which draws on material from 19 archives in seven countries, sheds new light on the motivations of these men.
“The German war effort offered individuals whose armies did not take part in the fighting a blend of adventure, a test to affirm their worthiness and the opportunity to fight for a cause – or parts of a cause – they believed in.
“Much like other transnational volunteers in the modern era, foreigners in the Waffen-SS wanted to add meaning to their lives, and chose to seek it in very dangerous and controversial settings.”