French men and women in the German Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS during the Second World War
by Arthur Koehl
Bernard Huffschmitt and his family's story provide a compelling and not uncommon example of the unique experience of Alsace and Lorraine through the 19th and 20th century. Bernard Huffschmitt was born in Strasbourg in 1926, and in 1944, along with the other young men from Alsace and Moselle was illegally conscripted by force into the German Army. The conscription of Alsatians and Mosellans by the Nazi regime was illegal because they were born in France, and the acquisition of Alsace and Moselle by Germany was not recognized as legitimate by the international community. This separates his experience from that of his father, who, like Bernard was forced to fight for the German Empire, against his will. However, by 1914, Alsatians and Mosellans were legally German citizens, and it was within the German government's rights to conscript them during the First World War. Based on Bernard Huffschmitt's memoir, "Le grand tournant: un jeune Alsacien dans la tourmente de la guerre, 1939-1945"1, we have created a timeline of his experiences as a Malgré Nous and present it below in the format of maps, so that we can follow his path. We note that Bernard Huffschmitt was never sent to the Eastern Front, in contract to most of the other Malgré Nous. On the maps below, places that Bernard Huffschmitt went to are marked as blue dot, while his stays in hospitals are marked as red dots.
Like most Alsatians, Bernard Huffschmitt and his family experienced the anxiety of early months of the war (September 1939 to May 1940), the so called "Phoney War", from a significantly more tense perspective. His family joins the thousands of Alsatians that are evacuated from Strasbourg following the declaration of War on Germany by France on September 3rd. Most of the families that did leave Alsace were assimilated poorly into the rest of France, called the "boches de l'Est" . By June of 1940, they had effectively moved on three separate occasions, first to Goxwiller, then the Belfort and finally to Chalon sur Saône. They could not evade the Nazis forever. Ultimately on October 15th they returned to Strasbourg. Once again in Strasbourg, Bernard continued his education and, under pressure, was forced to join the Hitler Youth and later the Reichsarbeitsdienst (RAD, Reich Labor Service).
The process of preparing Alsace and Moselle to join in Nazi war efforts culminated with the declaration on the 25th of August 1943 in Alsace of the drafting of Alsatians born between 1909-1911. Bernard had been sent to military training in Wissembourg in June 43, and then in Dusseldorf in December 43. Like most young Alsatians born in 1926, he was incorporated into the army on February 17th of 1944. He was sent with its unit from the Wehrmacht to Kassel in March 44. He was sick with Scarlet fever and spent time in a Military Hospital in Witzenhausen, Germany. He rejoigned his unit in Dresden mid April 1944 and then dispatched to Bayreuth. He attended a swearing of oath ceremony on June 6th 1944 in Nuremberg but kept his mouth closed throughout, a fact that made him proud well beyond the duration of the war. Only later did he learn of the significance of the day while at his post. Following the attempt on Hitler's life on July 20, 1944, Bernard was sent to join an SS unit part of the RHSA (Reich Main Security Office) in Prague.
From Prague, Bernard was first sent to Ludwigsburg. He was then sent to reinforce an infrantry unit in Poland but had to stop his trip in Dresden due to complications from Scarlet Fever. He was transferred to an hospital in Eichstatt. Once he had recovered, he stayed at the headquarter of the RHSA in Berlin for the majority of the year. Eventually he was sent West in preparation for a planned counteroffensive near the Ardennes forest to stall the Allied advance.
From December to beginning of January, Bernard and his companions worked to maintain lines of communication during the hard fighting around Bastogne in winter of 1945. On the third of January, he was wounded during an Allied air strike and sent to a military hospital in Eisleben Germany. Where he could recuperate mentally and physically from the war with the help of Sister Elizabeth and support from the director of the hospital and of the director of the concentration camp (labor) near Hettstedt. By march he had recovered and his father had been liberated and sent back to Strasbourg. On march 20th he rejoined the RSHA headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in Berlin.
By April 26, the Russians had encircled Berlin and had started the process of fighting towards the center. Understandably so, Bernard was terrified and after several day of intense street fighting, in which he witnessed the death of two members of his units he lamented: "Qui pouvait encore raisonnablement esperer sortir vivant de ce Berlin qui n'etait plus que ruines, feu et sang? Ou la mort etait omnipresente, decidee a refuser a quiconque la moindre possibilite de lui echappe." [Who could still reasonably hope to come out alive of this Berlin that was only ruins, fire, and blood? Where death was everywhere, focused on refusing to anyone the possibility to escape her].
By April 29, he and two other Alsatians were captured by the Russian Army. Bernard was first interned in a Russian camp in Bernau, then sent to an American prisoner of war camp. He finally started his journey back to France on July 1st, 1944, going through Belgium (Liege, Namur, Charleroi) and stopping in France in Jeumont. He returned to Strasbourg on July 8th, 1945.
Continue to the next section: Conclusions