In for a humpy ride

A German soldier has a snug seat between the humps of a Bactrian camel. The place is probably southern Russia, north of the Caucasus Mountains, and the time is 1942 or 1943. I can imagine that few soldiers pictured themselves riding camels one day when they crossed the Soviet border. The push in the southeast was a bid to capture the oil fields at Baku, and thus secure the supply of oil and gas for the fuel-starved Wehrmacht. The Battle for Stalingrad was part of the greater plan, and the failure to capture the city and secure the flank meant that the German positions in the Caucasus region became precarious. The Germans had to retreat.

The man on the hay wagon is probably a Hiwi, a Soviet volunteer who accepted to serve as an auxiliary instead of facing the much darker prospects in a prisoner of war camp. The camels didn’t have much of a say at all.


Tomorrow belongs to us

A troop of boys, members of the Hitler-Jugend (HJ), stand to attention as their leaders make the Nazi salute. The photo is probably from a soldier’s album, documenting his life before entering the Reichsarbeitsdienst and then Army service. The Hitler Youth had its roots in groups in the early 1920’s, but got its name in 1926. It organized boys aged 14-18; those aged 10-14 belonged to Deutsches Jungvolk. After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, membership was voluntary, but access to higher studies, sports sites, etc, was much easier if one was a member. From 1936 onwards, membership was compulsory for “Aryan” boys. The purpose of HJ was twofold: to indoctrinate the German youth into Nazi thinking, and to condition them for Army service. Classes in Nazi ideology were an important feature, and through camps like the one in the photo above, where the boys marched and took part in field competitions, they got used to solve tasks in groups. When it was time for Army service, most of them were already prime recruit material.

As the war progressed, many members left HJ to volunteer for service in the Waffen-SS. Indeed, in 1943, the 12. SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend” was created, the bulk of the division made up from HJ members born in 1926. The division gained a reputation for ruthlessness and fanaticism, which was in part a result of their indoctrination. In many other places across Germany, HJ members made up the crews of antiaircraft guns, and when enemy forces closed in on the German borders, young boys were handed old rifles and Panzerfaust antitank weapons to stem the enemy advance. I knew a German who was 15 years old when the war ended. He and his comrades received training in the use of the Panzerfaust, but somehow he managed to avoid combat when the Red Army reached his village. Some of his friends weren’t that fortunate…

The video clip below is from the 1972 movie “Cabaret”, which is set in 1930. It captures some of the Nazi thinking, where the youth was destined to lead the country into the future. “Give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll show you the man” is a quote attributed to Aristotle and also the Jesuits. By taking children and indoctrinating them, totalitarian movements have aimed to shape the future. This is a chilling reminder of that. Never trust a regime which does that.


All work and no play

The third man from the right in the photo, standing slightly higher than the others, is Generalarbeitsführer Hans Baumann. The rather cumbersome title translates as “general work leader”, the equivalent of an Army Generalmajor. He’s an officer of the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the National Labor Service. The other uniformed people in the photo are a gaggle of RAD officers, as well as a black-uniformed Allgemeine-SS lieutenant and a portly Nazi Party official. The photo is probably from around 1937 or 1938, as evidenced by the “Deutsche Wehrmacht” armband worn by the RAD Arbeitsführer (major) and the black SS uniform. The location is probably München (Munich).

Hans Baumann was born in 1875 and joined the Bavarian army in 1894 after the completion of his studies. He rose in the ranks, and served as a battalion commander in Bavarian reserve infantry regiments during World War 1. Baumann was a member of the paramilitary Freikorps Epp during the unrest after the war. In 1919 he joined a small party on the extreme right, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers’ Party). Another war veteran who joined the party was a certain A. Hitler, who quickly emerged as a prominent orator. The DAP soon became the NSDAP, and the march towards the pinnacles of power began. History had taken a dark turn.

Hans Baumann had been discharged from the army, which was to be severely reduced in accordance with the Versailles Treaty. He worked as a farmer, but he had a second career as a politician and regional leader in the Freiwilligen Arbeitsdienst, the forerunner to the RAD. He became a member of the Reichstag (parliament) in 1933, a position he held until 1945. Baumann was promoted to Obergeneralarbeitsführer in 1940, making him one of the 20 or so highest ranking officers of the RAD in the Third Reich. While being one of the old guard, it appears like he wasn’t prosecuted after the war, and seems to have faded into obscurity. He died in 1951, aged 76, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was an unrepentant Nazi to the very end. Today he is all but forgotten.

This is Hans

Hans serves in the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the National Labor Service, which was compulsory before getting conscripted into the army. Six months of living in barracks, digging ditches and building roads, and in some cases serving abroad as auxiliary troops. Hans looks like a proper Nazi with his swastika armband, but the armband was part of the RAD uniform, and not a sign of Party membership. For all we know, he couldn’t have cared less for the Nazis. In fact, no Army troops, nor Waffen-SS wore swastika armbands. That was a feature of Party-affiliated organizations like the Hitler-Jugend, RAD, SA, and Allgemeine SS. The sleeve patch over the swastika armband has the number “353”, which means that he belongs to the 353rd Arbeitsgruppe in Wien-Niederdonau district, Austria. An Arbeitsgruppe was made up from 1,200 to 1,800 men. This dates the photo as from 1938 or later.

He wears the earth-brown uniform of the RAD, an M35 helmet, the cow-hide backpack called “Affe” (“monkey”, due to the hairs being left on) with a rolled, dark brown greatcoat strapped to it. The round, metal gas mask case is just visible, while the long bayonet can be spotted by his left leg. Not visible are his bread bag, water bottle and mess kit. The spade usually seen together with the bayonet is probably replaced by the longer RAD equivalent. His rifle is a WW1-vintage Mauser Gewehr 98, which had been replaced in the Army by the Mauser Kar98k, but which apparently saw continued service in rear area units.

On the back of the photo, Hans has inked in neat handwriting “Zum Gedenken an Euren Neffen Hans.” (“In memory of your nephew Hans.”) This doesn’t mean that he had been killed; ” zum Gedenken” and “zu Erinnerung” are common wordings on photos intended for sweethearts, family and relatives. In the case of death, it was more common for the surviving family to give a way “death cards”, which were card-sized obituaries intended as mementos of the dead soldier. If Hans was lucky, he didn’t end up on one of those.

Monkey business

One of the lesser known projects in the Third Reich was the Affen-SS, or “Monkey SS”. The plan was to raise an army of trained monkeys and apes in order to deal with the Army’s human manpower shortages. A series of special firearms was developed, like the poo-flinging MP-42 “Scheisser” SMG. The appointed commander was the unusually intelligent gorilla SS-Silberrückenführer Bongo, a fanatic believer in Bananazism. The apes had to prove that they were racially pure for at least five generations back. The project collapsed when the supply of bananas and other tropical fruits was stopped by Allied attacks on German merchant ships returning from Africa.

OK, I’m just checking whether anyone actually reads my posts. The text above is complete bunk, of course. What we actually see are three Reichsarbeitsdienst youths and what appears to be a Vervet monkey. It is possible that the photo was taken in Italy, as RAD units were sent abroad, and that would explain the monkey, as Vervet monkeys can be found in (among other countries) Ethiopia, which was occupied by Italy until 1941.

All in the family

This German family portrait shows the men engaged in different aspects of the Nazi state. Judging by the uniforms, it was taken in 1934 or later. The father is a member of the SA – the Sturmabteilung, the infamous Stormtroopers – with the rank of SA-Scharführer (equivalent to an Army NCO), and wearing the brown service tunic introduced in 1932. The two sleeve rings (SA-Ehrenstreifen) identify him as an “old fighter” with a join date of 1931 (those who joined after the Nazi power-grab in 1933 were seen as opportunists by some). He wears two sports badges, the Deutsches Reiterabzeichen and the Deutsches Fahrerabzeichen (the German horse rider’s and the horse-and-wagon driver’s badges, respectively).

The younger son (on the left) is in the RAD (Reichsarbeitsdienst, National Labor Service), doing his compulsory six months of service with the rank of Arbeitsmann (worker). The older son is wearing the old-style Army service tunic used for parades and other formal occasions. While the mother and daughter are in civilian clothing, it’s a rather safe bet that the are engaged in a Nazi organization for women or two, as the Party permeated every aspect of the State. Some Germans embraced the new order with enthusiasm, while others paid lip service and did the minimum in order to not appear in opposition.

It is hard for those of us who live in democratic countries to imagine life back then. What would one do? Go for it all, just hang on, or be a rebel? The Nazi state never had a complete grip on the German people, but enough people went along with it for it to work, even though the much-touted “Thousand Year Reich” only lasted for twelve years…


Thanks to Axis History Forum members HPL2008 and Waleed Y. Majeed for the identification of the SA uniform.


I don’t know what’s going on in this photo, but I like it a lot. There’s no note on the back that gives any hint about date, location, or the people in it. The woman wears what appears to be the dark blue tracksuit used by both Army and Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM – German Young Womens’ Association), among other organizations, but with a non-regulation Brustadler (chest eagle). Her sidecap is set at a jaunty angle, a nice accent to her cheeky attitude. It’s possible that she’s one of the many hundred of thousands of women serving with the Wehrmacht, either as volunteers or performing obligatory service connected to the war effort (Kriegshilfsdienst). They could be telephone operators, typists, nurses, or anti-aircraft personnel, to name the most common tasks.

The man is wearing some sort of work shirt, not to be mistaken for the fatigue jacket (Drillichanzug). The chevrons on the sidecaps could be yellow, the color used by the signals troops. Anyway, this photo adds a bit of whimsy to an otherwise grim war.