The 12th SS Panzer Division „Hitlerjugend”

Introduction

„They were having a fine time dropping pieces of ice from the champagne coolers down the decolletages of their ladies and retrieving the pieces of ice from the horrible depths amidst general jubilation. They derided a doddering old man with a long white beard who had wandered into this den for some unfathomable reason, and generally communicated with each other in loud voices that must certainly have been understandable on Mars, their speech the pimps’ jargon of the First World War and the Free Corps period – the jargon which is what the language has become during the last twenty years.

From my table, I examined their faces. They were the bearers of old, blood-spattered names, they were the sons of beer-happy fathers who were once, to the astonishment of their contemporaries, embassy councillors and attaches, bestowing upon the world the Teutonic belly and dash of soccer stars – looking ludicrous and almost touching in their stern inflexibility and rigid helplessness.

To observe these men meant looking at the unbridgeable abyss that separates all of us from the life of yesterday. True, the beer-bellies and the bags under the eyes are gone, the faces are lean and narrow now. At first sight they look like a group of dragon-killers or like archangels who have left their wings in the cloakroom….

Until a second, harder look … until the sound of this whorehouse jargon and the coarseness of their expressions bring quite a different analogy to mind.

The first thing is the frightening emptiness of their faces. Then one observes, in the eyes, a kind of flicker from time to time, a sudden lighting up. This has nothing to do with youth. It is the typical look of this generation, the immediate reflection of a basic and completely hysterical savagery.”

Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, Diary of a Man in Despair, London: Duckbacks, 2001, p. 84-85.

When the German conservative Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (born in 1884) wrote these impressions the war had not yet begun and the Wehrmacht had only marched into tiny Austria and defenseless Czechoslovakia. The triumphant marches into Poland, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece and Soviet Union could not yet be envisioned even by the most devoted Nazi true believer. Likewise, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact would seem unthinkable and the likelihood of either a Soviet-Western or a Western-German agreement to prevent the renewal of war could be regarded as reasonable. And yet people like journalist and theater critic Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen sensed that something profound had changed, that social authority of the established German leading elites had been substituted by what he called the mob.[1]

Another astute observer Christian Jew Victor Klemperer, Professor of Romance Languages (born 1881), much less attached to the old Prussian style order and conservative values, was also struck by the gap between generations in Germany. He confided to his diary soon after the Barbarossa Campaign was launched while he was held in custody in a Nazi prison about

„The tremendous break in the education of the generations, contemporary youth are completely alien to me (certainly so completely because I have no children). Certainly classical and scientific-technical education were already diverging in my day, but something of the classics was required of everyone who considered himself educated, and the scientific-technical was still usually considered professional knowledge. And now, one has to know about the engine of a car and of an airplane, one has to know something about the radio, otherwise one is truly uneducated, truly unable to orientate oneself. I feel it every day, it’s no flirtatious Rousseau confession with a “Please, contradict me!” behind it, it is the naked truth. And a classical education is regarded with a shrug of the shoulders, at best with sentimental astonishment. […]”[2].

But were these diagnoses of the generational gap in Germany indeed accurate and if so how big was the rift, what caused it, with what consequences and how it affected the German society and German war machine during the Second World War? Was it something like a malaise or was it the result of certain social, economic and political developments which seriously impacted upon the German youth and contributed to raising it in the spirit of National-Socialism devotion and radical nationalism? And even if we agree with Reck-Malleczewen and Klemperer and admit a decaying of humanistic culture, morale, gentleness and empathy, was it the ultimate explanation of the combat behavior of the soldiers belonging to this generation, especially of 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, the military icon of this generation? Was it all that motivated them in their combat performances? And their battle abilities can be asserted as deriving from military toughness (which may entice us as analysts to avoid certain moral biases) or from irrationally cruel or fanatical fighting conduct?

These are some of the questions stirred by the two quotes above, but also by some of the contemporary meditations which the thesis engages from a solid conceptual, methodological and documentary basis. In fact, the structuring of the research question, scope, aims, theories, approach and methods as well as the decision on the focus of the investigation emerged following a long and elaborated process. The goal of the doctoral student and his advisor was to find the right angle of addressing this theme in quest of scientific relevance, accurateness, documentary and interpretative novelty. This report will critical assess the thesis from the balanced perspective of the professor of contemporary history but at the same time reveal its highlights, strong points and track the research curriculum from the vantage point of the Ph.D. advisor. I hope that by doing so the experts reading this assessment will acquaint themselves with my view of the Ph.D. work and at the same time glimpse into the laboratory preparing this impressive Ph. D manuscript.

The fabric of the thesis

When this thesis started to be crafted four years ago (in 2015) the doctoral student had already authored a few books addressed to the Romanian public among which was a history of Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler Division which had been initially prepared as a MA thesis at Valahia University of Târgoviște. I served in the project both as a MA advisor and prefacer[3]. Naturally, this earlier cooperation served both as a motivation to continue to delve into the history of SS military units and as a fruitful accumulation of collaboration confidence, fluency and know-how. While the thesis started from very auguring premises, it also encountered a few challenges which the final manuscript submitted as a Ph.D. thesis proves to have been thoroughly transcended. The first challenge was to shift from a corpus of literature addressed largely to the Romanian public (and written in Romanian language) to a scientific work targeting the global market. That implied not solely writing the thesis in the lingua franca of our age, but more especially redesigning the research scope, aims, methodology and assessing the novelty from an entirely new perspective. Reorganizing structurally the research and designing it as an ambitious challenge to the international state of art in the field required meticulous and time-consuming efforts from the Ph.D. student and a constant dialogue with the advisor resulting in continuous revisiting and revising of the scheme and content of the work. In this endeavor, we enlisted also the valuable support of Prof. Dr. Wolfram Pyta, director of the Institute of History of University of Stuttgart who for a few years had served as a co-chair of this dissertation.

Significant debate was also generated by concepts such as fanaticism, heroism and elite with their multifarious interpretations according to who defines them, with what purpose, in what context and with what meaning. I would argue that Klemperer, quoted at the start of this assessment, touches a cord when pointing to scientific-technical education as gradually replacing classical education as a mark of excellence in the Nazi society. Obviously, humanity, kindness, tolerance, generosity and charity lost much of their social appeal in a society dominated by social Darwinism. On the other hand, the concept of elites in the sense of assuming heavier responsibilities on behalf of the larger community of citizens and paying a bigger share of the price, including shedding one’s blood for the country, had to be dealt with and the challenges of extreme views that tended to either heroicize or demonize the soldiers of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend had to engaged with. In such a complex ideological and political context the critical reading of documents and discourse analysis helped the research fare solidly conceptually and methodologically.

What resulted in the end is a coherent manuscript systematized according to a sound research question (which was polished during long meditations and discussions), rigorous research aims and well-organized chapters and subchapters. During the process the doctoral student showed himself to be a genuine researcher with considerable analytical qualities and skills, boundless capacity of effort, impressive writing abilities, resilient to suggestions when he disagreed my viewpoint (arguments were always offered to doctoral feedbacks) but pliable and accommodating when he found them useful to the research (I would say that most of the time). Although the first manuscript was almost ready for almost a year the doctoral student agreed to take the pains of redrafting, correcting and amending his thesis innumerable times until it took the shape that is now submitted for approval by the committee of reputed experts summoned at Valahia University and at the history branch of Consiliul Naţional de Atestare a Titlurilor, Diplomelor și Certificatelor Universitare [National Council for the Certification of University Titles, Diplomas and Certificates] of the Ministry of Education.

Overview of the research question, scope, aims, concepts, quality and credibility of the dissertation

As already suggested in the introduction of this report the youth (Jugend) question during the Third Reich was a matter of concern to the contemporaries. Therefore, investigating the Nazi youth and especially their military conduct cannot constitute a marginal historiographical preoccupation but an essential research topic. To be fair not solely in Nazi Germany, but also in Italy, Hungary, Romania (The Legion of Archangel Michael), Portugal, Spain and to some extent in the Soviet Union the youth came to play a tremendously important role in society incomparable greater than in the case of earlier generations and unmatched ever since. Therefore, the research approaches a key element in the renewal of the German elites which were to be educated, trained, matured and hardened in fighting under the flag of Nazism and the portrait of Adolf Hitler. One of the greatest spirits of our age, regretted scientist, semiotician and writer Umberto Eco (born in 1932), who had spent in his childhood two years among the SS, Fascists, republicans and members of the resistance movement as he divulged in an article published in 1995, reveals that the overthrow of Mussolini in July 1943, broadcasted by radio, opened to him an entirely new political scenery. For the first time he came to realize that a country can have more than a single political party at the same time, while words such as freedom, rights and dictatorship reached to his ears for the first time.[4] While most of the members of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend were six years Eco’s seniors they too were subjected to the new speech which reframed their relationship to the collective and the ideology and explains how they regarded politics and civic attitudes.

The Problem of the Study contextualizes the research object, introduces and details the research question, scope, aims and key concepts. The author approaches the military unit as a peculiar formation of the Third Reich consisting of youngest generation of warriors with distinctive life trajectories when seen in the light of their political, social, economic, ideological, educational and emotional environments. Instead of epistemologically approaching the topic univocally it favors polyperspectivity. This allows for a more complex approach and a better hierarchy of contexts, causes and consequences. The peculiarities of being raised in a specific

early childhood and home environments, subsequent political National-Socialist education, conscription to ideologically designed Hitler Youth camps and military training institutions, social environment contorted by savage bombardments of his homeland and eventually the impact of his own experience in dealing/fighting against the Allied enemies

are all but one tackled in the thesis with solid documentation and sound arguments. The only exception, in my opinion, is the emotional effects of bombardments on the fighting motivation of the Hitlerjugend soldiers. Though I fully agree with the doctoral student that they profoundly affected the ordinary Hitlerjugend military who regarded them as war atrocities that had to be answered and revenged, I still feel that supplementary arguments shall be expounded in order to convincingly prove that the German youngest generation of soldiers were more strongly influenced by the bombardments than other soldiers of the Wehrmacht or SS were. On the other hand, I agree with the conceptual scheme presented at page 7 (interplay of ideological instruction with the military training) which I find useful to the subsequent approach of the topic.

The main research question whether or not the National-Socialist governance succeeded in creating of the best trained technically and doctrinally warrior is aptly branched into the scope, hypotheses and aims of the investigation. The Hitlerjugend ethos, fanaticism vs. heroism, comradeship are well substantiated in the dissertation (pages 6-7). For instance, the discussion of fanaticism and heroism, prefaced in the introduction, is attributed an entire subchapter 5.4 (pages 439-460) where the author suggests that the two terms are not as dichotomous as one may assume at first glance and that it may well happen that applying ethical judgements to historical processes would hinder the quality of the analysis. Mr. Defta rightly emphasizes that a more nuanced approach is needed in order to properly explain the combat motivation of the Hitlerjugend division and a greater role than previously attributed to comradeship is to be considered, invoking

“a dualistic approach to the value of life within the Hitlerjugend ethos: to begin with, we deal with full, categorical encouragement of self-sacrifice and preaching the unimportance of individual life when it comes to Nazi ideals, nationalistic goals or military combat; besides, when it comes to comradeship and its afferent specific values, such as common share of hardships, self-denial in order to help or rescue comrades, no effort and sacrifice would have to be spared.” (p. 444).

This is but an example of the introspection, meditation and carefully elaborated conceptual apparatus of this research. Whether one agrees or not with some of his opinions one cannot eschew the fact that the author takes the pain to explaining in detail the rationality of his perspectives and viewpoints.

All the aforementioned reasons are arguments in favor of the credibility and quality of this scientific investigation which will be further detailed in my assessment.

State of the art

No less than 12 pages are devoted to the state of art in the field which both quantitatively and qualitatively answer to the desideratum of offering the reader a proper understanding and interpretation of the achievements and limits of previous researches. Aware of the sensitive topic under investigation and the tricky relation between history and politics as well as the polarization of opinions on the topic under scrutiny, the author classifies and critically ponders on the various interpretations and opinions expressed by both professional historians and military historians, diarists and memorialists, former officers and commanders of the division as well as the perspectives put forward by amatory writers and obviously biased authors. Some of the authors reviewed into this section such as Bernd Wegner, René Rohrkamp and Jean-Luc Leleu have partly walked the same path into the analysis of the Waffen SS albeit their conclusions may vary from Defta’s appraisals. The author adheres to some of the considerations expressed in the historiography and rejects others, corrects factual mistakes or obvious erroneous interpretation that permeated in historiography, weights the previous arguments according to his findings and pertinently explains the need of supplementary research that he actually undertakes in his dissertation.

Novelty and documentation

On the basis of the careful approach of the state of art and the need to further historicize the history of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend the author resorts primarily to multiarchival research in order to explore new facts, acquire additional knowledge of, check the previous viewpoints as expressed in historiography and produce a monograph devoted entirely to the latest born combatants of the Hitler SS army. In order to find out solid documentary evidence to construct his arguments the author turned to the military archives of USA, Canada, Great Britain, Germany and Czech Republic which offered this research crucial insights into the formation, development, fighting missions and dissolution of this army great unit. War diaries, battle orders, personnel and administrative documents, medical transcripts, transport, logistic and supply papers, intelligence documents, military operations, inspection assessments have been thoroughly investigated and integrated into the arguments, statements and case-studies approached in this work.

Methodology

Multiarchival investigation, prosopography, ego-history method, flashbulb memory survey, discourse analysis and methods derived from social psychology stand as the main research engines of this doctoral dissertation. The author undertakes the ambitious goal of corroborating the historical, social, psychological, institutional, educational and military context of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend and the necessity to carefully and thoroughly reconstitute the growth of a generation closest bound to Nazism and its leader Adolf Hitler. First, the work had to cope with the spread of documentary evidence into several archives and countries as detailed in the thesis. To take but an example, to reenact the military history of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend the National Archives and Records Service Administration in Washington, Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg im Breisgau and Vojenský Historický Archiv in Praha had to be consulted. Second, as one of the aims of the research was to explore the members of the division from the perspective of belonging to a certain generation, prosopography had to be employed with certain peculiarities which are aptly reviewed in the manuscript. Third, as some of the relevant sources used in this thesis were constituted by autobiographies, ego-history mattered insofar as it allowed the deconstruction of the ideological, social and political contexts of these texts and the selectively use the pertinent information to be collected from them. This also invites the historian to critical engage with his subject and ponder on his position vis-à-vis of his sources. Fourth, flashbulb memory survey basically allows to decorticate the subjective inserts and the external interferences which may obscure or distort documentary sources, such as the war diaries to which the author of this thesis repeatedly resorts. Discourse analysis also permeates into the use of language in the documentary evidence discovered during research and allows a nuanced understanding and handling of discoveries. Finally, social psychology, which is also responsible for the interdisciplinary texture of this work, allows the author to immerse his study into “agency” and “‘moral disengagement” theories of professors Stanley Milgram and Philip George Zimbardo, which offer an innovative fertile ground for the interpretation of war conduct of soldiers of 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.

Structure of the thesis

The structuring of the thesis consists of introduction, three parts (The “Jugend” Division, The Division at war, The Hitlerjugend soldier), conclusions, appendix and bibliography. The introduction is very consistent and appropriately integrates the problem of study, research concepts, theories and methods, previous researchers, critical examination of documentary sources while also detailing the composition of the manuscript.

Each of the three parts consists of a few well devised and hierarchically integrated chapters. I had earlier suggested to my doctoral student that each chapter should be named in order to offer a clear meaning to its content and I’m still clinging to this opinion. The first part reenacts the history of the division from its formation, organization, training, ideology and spirituality, military preparation. a subchapter being devoted to Hitlerjugend elitism. The second part investigates on the basis of German unpublished accounts (Kriegstagebücher, Tätigkeitsberichte, Befehle) from American, Canadian, Czech and German archives the military conduct of the division during the Battle of Normandy, the battles for Caen, the Ardennenoffensive until the lesser military impact it eventually had when it was redeployed on the Eastern Front. How the division behaved in war combat, what were the peculiar circumstances of their battles and how it adapted to them, how the combat conduct was regarded by superiors, comrades of other military units and enemies and how their heavy losses affected it until the war ended and the division was disbanded. If chapters 1 to 4 were devoted to the military unit, to the collectivity of Hitlerjugend integrated into the last SS division of the Third Reich, chapters 5 and 6 look at the military of this unit from prosopographical and whenever necessary individual angles. The two chapters seek explanations for Hitlerjugend ethos, combat motivation and performances, ethos and motivation to commit war crimes not solely into Nazi ideology, racial superiority and propaganda but into a complexity of causes consisting inter alia of traumatic childhood, emotional breakdown of military discipline, combat strain and tension, obedience to the authority of veterans from 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler – the mother unit of the 12th Hitlerjugend, incapacity to manage prisoners of war, fear that the Allies would not take POWs and retribution, behavior transformation, negative memories, etcetera.

The conclusions are consistent with the previous analyses. Recalling the hypotheses of his work he pinpoints to the main findings of the doctoral research, especially to issues such as elitism, peculiarity, ideology, fanaticism and how the heritage of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was gradually transferred to the public agenda especially by the Mutual Aid Association of Former Waffen-SS Members after the termination of the Second World War. The final considerations of this thesis are valuable and serve to once again stress the main findings of the thesis while also opening new research lines especially on the impact of Nazi ideology on the SS fighting spirit.

Elements of content, style, quality of argumentation

The work is well equipped to withstand the test of critical assessment and makes a significant contribution to the body of scientific literature in the field. The work is designed as a monograph but at the same time it follows the stream of a research question and investigation aims which flow through a number of reasonable hypothesis which are tested in the three parts and six chapters of the Ph.D. work and end with well balanced conclusions. The content of each chapter and subchapter is fully consistent with the theme it tackles and is properly designed to contribute to the argumentation of the manuscript. Habitually, the constitutive parts of the work start with a research premise which is then closely investigated in the light of existing literature, suitable theories and concepts, archival evidence, and preliminary conclusions are suggested. The writing delves into a vast array of possible interpretations in order to explore every likely red lights of veracity. Thus, it invites the reader into the odyssey of discovery, the fabric of ideas and concepts and explains the choices it makes and the paths it departs from. The style is fully adequate to the requirements of a high quality scientific work, especially in what regards rigor, analytical skills, precision, accuracy, investigation of facts and readability. The text carefully operates with concepts which are adequately explained either in the introduction or throughout the thesis. The constitutive parts of the academic text such as chapters, subchapters, paragraphs, sentences are customarily well delineated and accurately elaborated.

The quality of graphics, tables and appendices

The graphics, charts and tables of the work are well integrated into the flow of argumentation and make a useful input into the manuscript. They serve to complement the immensity of information with synthetic and illustrative diagrammatic or pictorial arguments or to introduce new concepts which are further discussed and evaluated throughout the thesis. The appendixes serve to give the readers access to primary sources, to the language of the documents as they have been unveiled from the archives. At the same time, they are not only listed at the end of each chapter but reference is made to their content in the text of the thesis time and again. Therefore, they are part of the argumentation, constitute platforms of further reading and allow the researcher’s arguments to be further checked in view of naked documentary evidences. Seven key addendums are also integrated at the latter part of the thesis as they are considered essential for the whole doctoral work.

The quality of findings and conclusions

Recalling the scope and aims of this investigation, the Ph.D. thesis devotes generous space to findings and conclusions both at the end of each chapter and subchapter and in the dedicated chapter in the latter part of the manuscript. The conclusions are both engaging and original. The author rightly claims that the realities of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend are very different from the way they are portrayed in either acclamatory or exceedingly critical literature. The image of ferocious, violent, hard-hearted blonde Aryan killing machines has to be relinquished, while the representation of flawless devoted warriors guided solely by their national credo is also contradicted among others by their involvement in committing war crimes. Instead, the work entices the reader to look into the deeds of a generation heavily influenced by social, economic, cultural, political, ideological and military environments and traumas into which it was born, educated, trained, integrated and finally conscripted and sent to war. Few of the soldiers enlisted in the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend consciously chose the SS, the myth of Wehrmacht captivating their minds. Yet they were drawn into the SS and fashioned into one of the most successful fighting squads.  This is not to eschew individual responsibility (I had constant debate with the doctoral student on the constraints of environment versus individual accountability) and to promote some sort of moral evasiveness or disengagement. In fact, character, moral principles and personal values have been reassessed i.a. by Hans Bernhard Schmid of University of Vienna in his Moralische Integrität : Kritik eines Konstrukts[5] and by Hans Bernhard Schmid, Katinka Schulte-Ostermann, and Nikos Psarros in their work devoted to Concepts of Sharedness: Essays on Collective Intentionality.[6] Having said that, it must be pointed out that the thesis privileges the environment in which the Hitler youth was raised and ingrained and seeks therein explanations of the individual and group choices during the latter part of World War II while also appealing to social psychology and some intriguing laboratory experiments to partly transfer the liability to exterior (agentic) milieus, a perspective which of course will always be subject to controversies. On one hand I agree with the highlights of this thesis on the role of ideology, formation and education environments, idiosyncrasies of Nazi ideology and use and misuse of religion, cognitive and emotional anguish, combat stress, etc. as partly explaining the combat conduct of the soldiers of 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, on other hand I would suggest the author to further explore, as an extension of this thesis, the balance between external factors and internal responsibility of SS soldiers in the context of World War II. The author also successful describes the ethos of the SS Hitlerjugend division as far from predicating total submission to superior order, but rather volition, individual and collective skills and personality were coached in order to increase the efficiency of the division according to new military educational premises and theories.

Conclusions

When all is said and done, I conclude that the work under scrutiny represents an outstanding historiographical success and raises its author among the experts of German World War II military history scholarship.  The author will definitely have to publish his thesis with an international publisher in English language and with a Romanian publisher in the vernacular in order to profile his hardly won and fully deserved claim in the elite of military experts. Therefore, I affirm with conviction that the work “12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend” fully satisfies the scientific requirements of a doctoral dissertation and consequently I propose its admission as doctoral thesis and the granting, on this basis, of the scientific title of “doctor in history” to Mr. Dragoș Defta.


[1] Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen’s perceptions of the transformation occurring in the German society have been well integrated into the brilliant volume signed by the British historian Richard Evans, see Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power, New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

[2] Victor Klemperer, I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-1941, London: Folio Soc, 2006.

[3] Adrian Dragoș Defta, Gardă pentru Führer: divizia “Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, Bucuresti: Editura Eikon, 2017.

[4] Umberto Eco, “Model de diagnostic”, Lettre Internationale, ediția română, nr. 16, iarna 1995-1996, p. 3-7.

[5] Hans Bernhard Schmid, Moralische Integrität: Kritik eines Konstrukts, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2011.

[6] Hans Bernhard Schmid, Katinka Schulte-Ostermann, and Nikolaos Psarros, Concepts of Sharedness: Essays on Collective Intentionality, Munchen: De Gruyter, 2013.


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