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.

Having a ball (for the New Year?)

Two Unteroffiziere (sergeants) together with a local woman, possibly in Ukraine, 1941-42. She’s making a snowball. Will she throw it at the guy behind the camera? Like so many other photos, this one has no other context than what I could figure out from the uniforms, the houses, and the embroidery pattern on her blouse, which I think indicates a Ukrainian setting.

As the Germans occupied large parts of Europe, local women had to find ways to manage under the new circumstances. Many men were gone – dead or missing in battle, as prisoners of war, or as forced labor. There were children to feed, so some women found employ as cooks, cleaners, washerwomen, and so on. Some entered relationships with German Soldiers, out of opportunism or real love. A minority became real collaborators, actively supporting the occupying forces and ratting on people they didn’t like. As the Wehrmacht had to retreat, many of the mistresses, girlfriends and wives joined their German men, but those who were left behind had to deal with the consequences of their choices. It could get really ugly…

So, the story of woman with the snowball is one of the millions of untold and unknown stories from World War 2.

Red Cross, Black Swastika

A busy winter scene at a railway station somewhere in the sprawling Third Reich. Troops from a cavalry unit stand around while women from the Deutches Rotes Kreuz (DRK; German Red Cross) are preparing to serve something hot, perhaps coffee or soup. In the background, railway employees walk with snow shovels over their shoulders. The soldiers are probably on their way to the Eastern Front, a journey that usually took several days, sometimes waiting on railway sidings for other trains to pass, and then the dangerous travel through partisan-infested areas. The DRK, as one of the auxiliary organizations helping the Wehrmacht, was there to offer relief.

Instituted in 1864 , the DRK was a voluntary civil assistance organization that was officially acknowledged by the Geneva Convention in 1929. One of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles prevented the DRK from having any involvement in military matters, but with the Nazi rise to power in 1933, the DRK, like most other organizations in the Third Reich, was nazified (those that weren’t were prohibited). Leftist and Jewish members and staff were kicked out, and those who remained were expected to conform to Nazi ideology. After the defeat of Germany, the DRK was outlawed like all other Nazi organizations, and had to start afresh. The German Red Cross of today has nothing to do with the doings of the DRK of 1933-45.

Working girl

A Jungführerin of the Reichsarbeitsdienst der weiblichen Jugend (RAD/wJ, Female Youth National Labor Service) with her floppy hat and swastika-adorned brooch. At the same time that the RAD was officially established in July, 1934, it was also divided into separate sections for males and for females. The Reichsarbeitdienst Männer, or RAD/M, was set up for men, and the Reichsarbeitdienst der weiblichen Jugend, or RAD/wJ, for females. All young women between 18 and 21 years of age were expected to serve. For women the period of service had been six months since 1939, but this was often extended by an emergency service obligation. In July 1941, the service was extended by a further six months to twelve months, extended to 18 months in April 1944, and finally made indefinite in November 1944. The extra (wo)manpower gained by the extended service term of 1944 was mainly used for anti-aircraft defense.

The female RAD replaced male agricultural workers as they entered Wehrmacht service, but they also joined the workforce in offices, in the armaments industry, and in public transport. Their main tasks were to assist peasant families with childcare and as teachers or nurses, or to work in the household, in the field, or taking care of farm animals, milking cows, and so on.

The daily routine, with its detailed schedules, left the members of the RAD/wJ with little time at their own disposal and resembled that of the soldiers: not counting the lunch break, the work hours amounted to about 76 hours per week. Also, the evenings were usually planned, and with no time for activities outside of the camp; this required special permission, as in the case of the military. The RAD completely replaced the existing social environment. Thus, a collective identity was to be developed in the new “community”, indoctrinating the RAD/wJ members into the Nazi state.

Women were also able to serve as Wehrmachthelferinnen (Army female auxiliaries), like telephone operators (“Blitzmädel“). To this end, the period of service was extended by six months. From 1944 the RAD/wJ was also used for the operation of anti-aircraft searchlights in support of anti-aircraft guns and Luftwaffe nightfighter units.

The manpower shortages required that women served, just like in many other countries affected by the war. For the Nazis, women were mainly to be mothers and to take care of the household. The war production relied on slave and forced labor, which often resulted in sabotaged munitions and other war materiél. Had German women been employed earlier, the war industry might’ve run smoother.

Picnic in wartime

Thursday 8th June 1944, outside Turin, Italy. An SS-Untersturmführer (Lieutenant, standing) and a Fallschirmjäger (sitting in front of him) enjoy a day out together with a couple of Wehrmachthelferinnen (female Army auxiliaries), two civilian women and a little girl. The woman in the floral pattern dress (probably the mother of the girl) has donned the SS officer’s peaked cap, the silver death’s head glinting in the sun. It looks idyllic, but the people in the photo don’t know that there’s just eleven months left of the war. On 4 June, Allied troops captured Rome, and two days later Allied forces landed in Normandy. The Third Reich is crumbling around them, but perhaps they think that the vengance weapons or some other miracle the propaganda talks about will turn the tide of the war.

The female auxiliaries wear the lightning emblem of the signals troops on the sleeves of their white dresses, identifying them as telephone or radio operators. Over half a million German women served as auxiliaries for shorter or longer periods during the war, more than half of them as volunteers, the rest as conscripts. Those in signals capacity were known as “Blitzmädel“, “lightning-girls”, because of the signals troops patch. Other served as Flakhelferinnen (female anti-aircraft auxiliaries), manning searchlights, rangefinders, listening equipment, and even AA guns. It isn’t known how many women were killed while in service of the Wehrmacht.

North by Northeast

Gebirgsjäger (mountain ranger) posing together with a couple of young Sami women (in traditional clothing), Finnish Lapland, probably the winter of 1941-42. The truck to the left and the trailer carry the Edelweiss flower emblem of the 6. Gebirgs-Division. The other truck has the tactical sign of a mountain ranger motorized signals company vehicle. The firewood on the trailer and in the sack will be welcome in the sub-Arctic cold.

It might appear strange that at least four mountain ranger divisions were sent to the Finnish Lapland front, as the tallest mountain in that part of Finland is Korvatunturi (486 meters/1594 feet over the sea), which to people raised in the Alps is nothing more than a speed bump. The reason was that they were considered experts in winter warfare, but as their Finnish brothers-in-arms were under diplomatic pressure to not launch any major offensive on the port city of Murmansk or the railroad carrying supplies to the south, the front was relatively quiet for long periods of time.

A little-known fact is that Sweden allowed the Germans to use a couple of large warehouses outside the port of Luleå for storing supplies (mostly foodstuff) for the troops in Norway and Finland. They were destroyed in a fire in 2016.